Thoughts: Why Black Panther Mattered Against Under-representation

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« Some people wondered why Black Panther was such a fuss among Black people, and that all movies should be celebrated equally. I want to respond that I actually wish for them to never understand that whole fuss, because understanding it could mean that they have actually suffered from underrepresentation. »

You nailed it, I wore a Beninese traditional outfit to watch the Black Panther movie, even though the movie came out during the Canadian winter and that, since I couldn’t wear a warm coat, I had to freeze most of the way to the movie theater. The idea came from my brother and sister, and I wasn’t thrilled at first – it seemed very complicated. But, on the due date, the second I saw my sister in her outfit, I was so ready. I mixed up something and here I was, heading to the theater with my family and friends.

It was the most thrilling experience in my life. And I can’t even begin to describe it properly. The all Black cast, the story, the fun, the decors… Don’t get me wrong, the movie wasn’t the best Marvel I’ve watched, but it was the one that would mark a change in my life, and hopefully in my children’s life.

Why ? Because I was on the screen. Because I could be a hero. And because I would finally be able to find a cosplay that actually looked like me (meaning without looking completely ridiculous).

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In a traditional Beninese outfit. Credits: Iman Eyitayo

And why does it matter ? Well, most people, who do not have representation issue, can’t grasp the whole meaning of that question. Imagine being raised in a world where every movie star, every book, every manga and every TV shows only features people who didn’t look like you. It’s probably hard, right ? It is the life of most black people. Personally I grew up with books, films, series and cartoons that only features white characters. It’s not bad, really, but it never occurred to me, as I was growing up, that I could do all these things that my heroes were doing. It wasn’t even in my realm of the possible, in my reality. And even after I left my country, Benin, to come to France at the age of fifteen, it took me eight years just to realize that I could be a « successful » writer. And I only really realized that when I learned that Alexandre Dumas, one of my favorite authors and one of France’s big name of literature, was part Black.

Ps. For those who don’t know Alexandre Dumas, he is author of the three Musqueteers. He is also known for his interactions with his fellow authors at the time, who believed he had a ghost writer since he was writing way too fast. Nobody knows exactly if he had one or not, but according to my research (and Wikipedia), the term « nègre littéraire » which translate roughly to « literary negro » and actually means « ghost writer » was created for him, because of his origins and color. Recently the expression has been changed to « prête-plume », which is less racist and actually closer to the meaning of « ghost writer ».

So, Learning that Alexandre Dumas was part Black was such a shock to me that it actually took two tries for my brain to accept that. The first time I heard it, I denied it : it simply wasn’t possible (and if you think I have a problem, trust me, I told the news to all my Black friends and none of them believed me). It’s only the second time that I actually registered it. And it clicked. If he could be a writer, I could be, too. And you know what ? I’m a writer, today. But let’s imagine I never had that reality check ? I would have lived my whole life to the expectation of society : invisible, silent. And that’s why representation matters. Because it allows children to picture themselves as heroes, whether in real life or not. It makes them feel like they actually matter. It allows them to dream.

So, next time someone tells you that representation doesn’t matter, tell them the story of a black girl who, despite being very educated (I got my baccalaureate at fifteen and got three master degree), didn’t know she could be an internationally renowned writer until she realized someone had done that way before her.

And To those who will say that they know of many black successful writers and start naming them, I have to say this : if you are able to name them all, that means there aren’t that much actually. I couldn’t name all the white successful writers in history if I could, because it’s not something that « happens » from time to time for the world, it’s a reality. And that’s what we need : a new reality. In books, on TV, everywhere. We need to represent all sorts of people so that they can feel, from an early age, « real », capable, accepted in society : well, normal.

 

Credits for the photo at the top: https://teaser-trailer.com/movie/black-panther/

Australia: Why Spring is One of the Best Times of Year in Australia

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The weather is generally pretty messy and confusing in Australia. Either the whole of the country is melting… or half is getting drenched in rain (while it’s still ridiculously hot) and the other is freezing.

Now as we approach the end of October, I’m very happy to say that Spring in Australia is beginning to take full swing, and the weather is becoming a little more even across the country. The freezing weather and frequent downpours are no more and, while I enjoy a good thunderstorm, I’m happy I won’t be hiding in layers and layers of clothes anymore. The sun is out, the skies are blue, birds are chirping and, I swear, the world has never looked so good.

Now, usually, when people think of the best time of year to visit Australia, they immediately assume that it’s Summer. And while I believe everyone should, at some stage in their life, experience an Australian Summer and appreciate the road-melting heat we experience (no I’m not kidding, seriously some roads have been known to melt in the extreme temperatures), spring  is possibly the best time to experience all the amazing weather and events Australia has to offer. It’s not too hot, not too cold, and with plants blossoming and wildlife beginning to re-emerge, it’s hard not to want to spend every minute possible outside among the sunshine. Spring is easily one of the busiest times of year for Australians. For us, Spring falls in the months of September to November, and with many of the year’s long-running events, such as sporting seasons, begin to wrap up, this time of year is buzzing with life and activity.

Personally, Spring is one of my absolute favorite times of the year (and it’s not just because my birthday falls within this time either). AFL, the Australian Football League finals, are definitely part of the reason why this season is so special to me, with my family being massive football-loving fanatics. Both AFL and the NRL, National Rubgy League, finals fall in the month of September, with the grand final events for both sports falling on the last days of the month. These final games are energy filled and are always great for entertainment, regardless of whether or not your team makes it to the final stages of the year. As I am not a fan of the NRL, I can’t really comment on the excitement of these games (but if other people’s reactions are anything to go by I’d say they’re pretty intense), but, being a person who follows AFL, I can definitely say that the AFL finals will not disappoint. If you were to visit Australia during this time, a trip to an AFL final (or even the grand final if you’re able to get hold of a couple of tickets) is an absolute must. These events are quintessential to Australian culture, with large festivities held across Australia in celebration of the big finals games. 

Not only is Spring a great time for team sports, but the races also take the centre stage as Spring becomes brighter and more vibrant. Horse racing becomes not only a massive sporting event but one of the most formal and highly anticipated social events of the year. Races like the infamous Melbourne Cup are held in Spring, and the whole country goes nuts with the latest and greatest news from the racing world. From the horses to jockeys and trainers, and, possibly the most discussed aspect of the races, all the jaw-dropping fashion statements. Greyhound racing also becomes extremely popular during this time, with several races occurring through September, October, and November. The lightning-fast dogs often race at the same big name events, like the Melbourne Cup, and are also a fantastic way to get outside, enjoy the sunshine, and have some fun socializing with friends.

Not only that, but festivals like the Royal Adelaide and Melbourne Shows also fall either at the beginning or the middle of the Springtime. These are basically just massive festivals, or fairs, that celebrates the best that city has to offer, with amazing fresh produce, the tastiest food, live entertainment, and non-stop fun with a multitude of rides to choose from. Attending the Royal Adelaide Show has got to be one of my favorite things to do with friends, and it’s a fantastic way to de-stress and just have some fun.

Needless to say, Spring is also a favorite time of year due to the gradual wrapping up of school all throughout the country. Unlike some of the systems throughout the rest of the world, the Australian schooling year begins in February and finishes, depending on the grade, either in November or December. While most children do finish in December (and this is technically Summer), the final term of the year is generally more ‘relaxed’ than the terms previous, and so Spring is a great time for everyone still stuck at school. November is also the time where final university exams are conducted, so having beautiful weather and sunshine once all the stresses of the schooling year are over is a great reward for all the hardships faced throughout the year.

Visiting festivals and well-respected ‘foodie’ areas (such as the Barossa in South Australia) are also popular throughout the Spring months. With live entertainment (both music, theatre, and comedy), stunning blossoming buds, and incredible gourmet food, who could say no?

Honestly, with weather like we’ve been having recently, and all the amazing things that come to the forefront of attention in Australian media, Spring is definitely one of the best times, if not the best time, to visit Australia. Spring is easily one of the best, most enjoyable times to be out and about, spending quality time with friends and family. As the great late Robin Williams said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying let’s party,” and I honestly couldn’t agree more!

OverSeas Swap #2: A culinary journey in Chile & Honduras

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What an OverSeas Swap? Nothing less than a way to put one’s culture in a box, and to make another Keeper discover it through its taste, colors and specific items. For this second OverSeas Swap, we chose to make it a journey in Latin America, from the longest thinnest country in the world, Chile, represented by Antony, to the central american Honduras, embodied by Ana Catalina! 

 

¡Qué dulce!” — How sweet! – what Ana Catalina got me from Honduras

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‘Dulces de leche’, ‘dulces de tamarindo’, and ‘quesadillas’. These are the treats that Cata gave me alongside a small Honduran Flag. These all are typical Honduran sweets, and since I told her that I have a big sweet tooth, she got me her favorite ones. ‘Dulce de leche’ is really easy to make. In fact, there are various types around Latin America, even inside Honduras. Cata told me that each region adds a different ingredient or two. In Honduras, it’s generally made with milk, cinnamon, and sugar. She very quickly told me the recipe since it’s really easy to make. You put the milk in a pan to boil and add sugar and cinnamon. Depending on the consistency you want it to have you put more or less sugar, and to eat it, you simply wait for it to cool down. As I took a bite of it, (lasted about 5 minutes before being devoured), I immediately loved it. They only were somewhat akin to caramel or butterscotch sweets. The best part is the most common ingredients combined, can become such a great treat.

The next sweet in the list was ‘dulces de tamarindo’, which in english are tamarind sweets. I had no clue what this fruit was before I discovered it thanks to Cata. This is a very peculiar fruit; it has some sort of seeds inside and it’s all cover under this somewhat hard shell. It is rather hard to describe the taste, but they were tangy and delicious, although one has to be careful given the nuts inside. Yet the taste was incredible! She told me this one fruit was used for so many things as many others of course, but it was very common to have tamarind drinks, tamarind jelly, and tamarind sweets. She said she particularly loves tamarind drinks because it’s a mix of sweet and sour.

Finally I got to try the ‘quesadillas’ which usually are tortillas with cheese in them, folded in half. These were empanadas (a type of dough pastry) filled with a sweet paste made out of sugar cane. In Chile our empanadas are salty, so tasting a sweet empanada was definitely an experience I enjoyed!

 

“Hora del té”– Tea Time! – what Antony got me from Chile

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Antony’s parcel consisted of a box of Chilean mint tea. While simple, it became clear to me that Tea is something of great value for Chileans. My other Chilean friend has recently posted a story in his Instagram portraying 5 different boxes of tea. It seems the British are not the only ones to have tea time! Chile’s inhabitants have “once”, the nation’s tea time. Once is later in Chile than it is in the UK, usually around 6 pm, as opposed to 3-5pm in the UK. To them, tea has a high social value. The moment when people are drinking tecito is the moment of the day when they share stories and really talk about stuff that matters. In Honduras, this happens often, as we never really go through winter. Some place in the mountains might have hot drinks but in the coast we lay low on hot beverages.

Additionally, as is evident by the Mint Tea that Antony gave me: Herbal tea is quite prominent in Chile. It is my understanding that when one asks for herbal tea in restaurants, many have stocked fresh herbs of different varieties for their customers. Anthony told me the most popular and common are menta (mint), cédron (Lemon verbena), and Limón Gengibre (ginger lemon).

Tea in Chile is usually accompanied by other snacks such as the Marraqueta (Popular-type of bread in Chile), as well as cold cuts, as Antony explained to me. This is why the Once really is a meal of sorts, and not a mere drinking of delicious tea (cause it really could just be that). Once’s can be sweet and salty, in that ham is usually served, but pastries possibly as well. Sugar is usually added to normal tea, but herbal tea is had with none added.

Football, being akin to a religion in Chile, is one of the popular topics to discuss while sipping tea, when people talk about ‘stuff that matters!’ The second most popular topic to discuss is national politics. Despite its relative stability with regards to other nations in the region, Chile is a politically divided nation. Divided between the welfare promoting left, and the free-market right. This being said,  these are only a few of the many topics that arise in what are often heated debates during once. While he told me this, I really understood why he was fond of tea; it’s somewhat symbolizes a combination of some of his passions: politics and talking with friends.

Chileans enjoy their tea as it is a part of their culture, and one I am happy that Antony has shared with me!

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Our handsome Keeper of Chile starring with a Honduran sweet

Globe Trotter: US#1: Los Angeles and Las Vegas’ giant fantasies

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‘Living in America, at the end of the millenium… you’re what you own’

And what I was owning, fully conscious of my luck of being one of the too-few people on Earth able to move because they longed to, was a cabin-sized suitcase, a small backpack and my passport opened to a border officer. My Mum and brother were on my side. We had left Lyon, France, two days ago, to take a plane to Germany. After our second plane was cancelled, we’ve had to go to Warsaw, Poland, to take the third one, and after hours of flights and hours of queuing up, here we were, eventually.

In Los Angeles, California, United States of America, for the first time in my life.

 

My family had decide months before to go on this trip, the first one we would do during Summer holidays. It was a dream of my brother’s to go to the US and after I studied it for a year already, I thought it was high time for me to see it with my own eyes. After years of watching American movies, having American food and hearing about the ‘American dream’, I finally had the opportunity to go at the source. We would spend two weeks on the West Coast; cross California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada; go to the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco or Monument Valley. All those, with a group of fifty other people and a guide, as for the first time ever, we’ve decided to go on an organized trip.

 

We arrived exhausted but delighted to finally be there and eager to learn. From the first few minutes I spent on the American soil, I couldn’t have a more bursting and loud memories. I remember lights, lights everywhere as if life in this town was a constant feast, the highest buildings I’ve ever seen and the largest road. As soon as we’ve gone out of the airport and met the driver who would take us to our hotel, an incident had happen that had make me realize I clearly was not in France anymore. The driver was looking for his car on an endless carpark; at some point, he pushed a button on a remote control, noticed a car whose highlights had light up, and hopefully opened the car’s door before snapping it stressfully and telling us, ‘That is not my car’. He had just make another driver, in a car exactly similar to his, freak out.

 

On the way to our hotel, this adorable former immigrant let my brother play with all possible gadgets in the car – and there were so many – while telling us his story, after I asked him where he was from since he sounded exactly like a friend of mine coming for Romania. He told he himself, Sebi, was Romanian and had come to Los Angeles to become an actor – ‘but I didn’t try hard enough, I only tried six months’. He added, joyfully, that in Los Angeles everything was about money, was fake and was a fantasy, and continued with the stories of the celebs he had seen in bars thanks to his work. It was fantastic to meet such an open-minded and extraverted person at our arrival; this trip has started the right way, and everything I discovered for the two weeks that followed made me realize how impressive a country this multi-faced land is.

 

LOS ANGELES, California

However, we only visited Los Angeles two weeks after our arrival, and after touring four different American states in an exhausting but amazingly rewarding trip. Coming back to Los Angeles was a bit sad, as it meant the end of this beautiful journey; but getting to see this town was like being thrown within a postcard, and seeing with one’s own eyes something one has known for years from photos and reputation. The first glance we took at the letters ‘Hollywood’ on the hill really felt like something; it was as if we’ve entered a story that went well beyond us. It might sound crazy; but getting to see the very place we’ve get glimpses of in movies and books, made me feel extraordinarily grateful.

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We also walked through the moving Walk of Fame, its pink and Bordeaux stars and its multiples shops selling awards ranging from ‘Best musician’ to ‘Best roommate’. We put our hands and feet on to the foot- and fingerprints of so many celebrities, Meryl Streep, Clark Gable, Tim Burton! We were laughing at ourselves, admitting this ambiguity of feeling like we were living something extraordinary, while doing the same thing as million of tourists before us who probably thought, too, ‘My foot is only half of Will Smith’s’, ‘Marilyn Monroe really had long fingers, way longer than mine’

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Eventually, we went to Venice Beach, a beautiful and crazy area that gathers both the worst  and most greasy fast-foods, the most dedicated body-builders of Los Angeles, more souvenirs shops for us to count them all, topless guys playing basketball and whose skills made my outraged brother complain that ‘Players clearly aren’t that good in France!’, and people trying all possible existing sports including swinging in a hoop or dancing with rollerblades.

 

LAS VEGAS, Nevada

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A few days ago, we’ve been to Las Vegas that, as my Mother kept repeating for weeks before, actually is ‘the town of excessiveness’. It’s not even about the gigantic sign ‘Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada’ at the entrance. It’s not, either, about the dozens of wedding chapels all over the streets; or about the Stratosphere tower, the highest tower in Las Vegas, on which people can do rides that consist into plunging into the void; or about the people literally flying above one’s head on Fremont Street yodel; or about the fact that they rebuilt an Eiffel Tower, Venice, the Coliseum, an Egyptian Pyramid… and many more, within the town.

IMG_6324.JPGGoing to Las Vegas is like entering a new world, one that never sleeps, a fantasy based on lights and colors and money. We stayed open-mouthed in front of the endless casinos’ flashing machines, occupied by players whom we could see but who could apparently see nothing but the game they were losing their souls or gaining their life with. As we were lucky enough to tour the town by night, we could go in all the town’s most extraordinary hotels. From outside already, they looked fascinating and it was about the one that would be the most incredible sub-real. In two hours of touring the town, we went through many countries and atmospheres without even living Nevada. We saw the Excalibur, my favorite-looking by far, built to look like a Middle-Age castle; the Luxor, with its full-size sphinge and its pyramid whose beam caresses the evening’s Vegas; the  Caesar Palace with its marble stairs, Coliseum and Roman statues; the Bellagio, with its hundreds of flowers building patterns within the hall; the Venetian, that reproduced Venise’s canals and where it is possible to do gondola rides. Gondola rides, in a hotel! And what impressed with the most, is that not only did they dig canals in their hotel, they also did it on the second floor.

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But I think that the one hotel I liked the most was the Paris Las Vegas, that features an Eiffel Tower and a Montgolfière, but also a beautiful casino with the names of the Parisian metro stations. This place was wonderfully poetic, as a midsummer night’s dream, and I loved the fact that this was the idea Americans had of my country.

Nevertheless, I think that the best memories I’ll keep from Las Vegas will be about food, and more specifically, about a very famous restaurant called Umami Burgers. I am not a huge fan of burgers usually, and not eating meat clearly does not help; but we were unanimous: those were the best burgers we’ve ever had. I personally tried the semi-cooked tuna, ginger and wasabi one, and it was amongst the purest and most delicate scents I’ve ever had. So, if you ever go to Las Vegas and have 15€ to spend, do not play them in a Casino, go have a burger at Umami!

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This is the first article of a probably very long series, for me to write about all the marvels I witnessed in the US. At least three other articles are to be expected, on respectively, the Natural wonders (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…); what I discovered of the American culture; and San Francisco! Keep reading 🙂

Finland’s Home Trotter: Power in Your Pocket

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I still clearly remember that moment. I was sitting next to my mother in a large hall, and a friendly lady on the service desk asked some questions with a calm voice and typed on her keyboard. Soon she asked for a proof of identity, and I proudly handed her my passport. After a while she reached out to me again with something in her hand and said smilingly: “Make sure to take good care of it.” It was a library card, an orange-and-white one with a picture in the middle. Something I had longed for a long time.

And I surely listened to the piece of advice of this nice librarian. After thirteen years, I still have that same library card in my wallet. A seven-year old me was excited to realize that he could choose anything from the comic book area, bring it home and own it for a little while. And until these days, I feel proud to have the privilege to educate myself with all the books that I can find as I pass along the endless corridors of tomes.

Finnish people tend to take pride in being called ‘a people of library enthusiasts’. According to The Guardian, Finland was named the world’s most literate nation in 2016. It comes as no surprise; considering the size of the Finnish population, Finns are among the most devoted users of their library cards – statistics show that the Nordic nation (we are about 5.5 million) borrowed approximately 67 million books last year [1].

But the concept of library is in change. The amount of entertainment provided for consumers has grown steadily as the decades have passed by, and libraries have found themselves in a position where they must compete against smartphones and other activities to catch children’s, and even adults’, attention.

The library concept has proven its chameleon-like nature. I witness this every Wednesday when my sister asks me whether I’d like to join her to the mobile library. Yes, you read correctly – a library that moves on wheels and that circles different neighborhoods so that as many customers as possible would have access to library services. Even if I live rather close to the services of the main library in the city, there is always this particularly warm and welcoming atmosphere when I ascend in the vehicle and greet the on-wheels library staff.

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The word ‘kirjasto’ means library in Finnish

The mobile libraries were initially a solution designed to cut the long distance between people and books in the country characterized by low population density; they have brought civilisation to the most remote parts of the countryside. These special vehicles are a nice tradition to uphold, yet today’s library services long for a different kind of boost. Libraries are not the only source of knowledge or entertainment anymore. The problem is no longer to get school-aged children and adults access to what library has to offer; the challenge is to make the library interesting at a time when electronic devices have hoarded our precious time more and more since the release of the first iPhone.

Of course, the obvious solution would seem to turn libraries purely virtual. Who need walls and dusty bookshelves when all the imaginable content could be uploaded on the internet? As a student I am thankful that libraries provide content that I can access on my home couch with just a few clicks. However, what this scenario takes no notice of is that library is more than just book shelves and online archives; it is an institution that has shaped the being of people and continues to do so. Whereas library used to be a first-priority meet up place just because it was one of the few public spaces open for everyone, today’s Finnish libraries have been able to lure young generations inside the libraries with other attractions. A good example of this is the free 3D printing event that was organized in my home library. I still regret not attending it, but fortunately there will be more to come.

And a modern citizen doesn’t have to come to a library only for events and books. The Finnish libraries have also been forerunners in promoting sharing economy, a term usually referring to peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services. A couple of libraries in the Finnish capital area have adopted a ‘utility library’ where one is able to use his or her library card to borrow a wide range of things from household tools to tennis rackets and even hand trucks. Why would you own a wide range of items when you could come pick them up when you need them?

Finns are so in love with their libraries that they even got one for their 100th anniversary. It is not a joke; it was announced in 2017 that a new Central Library will be built in the very centre of Helsinki. It has been told that the mission of Oodi (the name of the library, referring to ode in English) is to function as a living room for everyone in the city. The library will open in December, but I have seen the construction site. Standing opposite Finnish Parliament House, I believe that the building will be quite impressive.

Library is one of the most enlightening innovations the mankind has ever seen, even if most of us has the privilege to take it for granted. That might just be the reason for its greatness, though. Nothing sounds as desirable as guaranteeing everyone full access to a better understanding. And that is something we should bear in mind. The library card in your pocket is mightier than you think; make use of it.

Sources:

[1] visualisointi.kirjastot.fi

Picture credits:

Library: Kuopion kaupunginkirjasto / Kuopio City Library by Tuomo Lindfors is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Mobile Library: Kirjastoauto by Sami Nordlund is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

OverSeas Swap #1: France & El Salvador

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Originally, all the concepts and names of Babel Tower articles’ topics – except for Thoughts, I hadn’t think of Thoughts – come from a 5-pages-document that I, Camille, Keeper of France, drafted on a chill summer evening in August 2017. A year after, all categories are now filled up with nice and diverse articles that were written on all four corners of the world – except for one: the OverSeas Swap.

The concept is simple: two Keepers, from two very different countries, send each other a parcel containing their culture epitomized in items. They are free to fill it up with whatever they want; the one and only mandatory element is their country’s flag. And for this very first – and hopefully not last – Over-Atlantic-Ocean Swap of the website, I had the honor to send a parcel to, and receive a parcel from, the wonderful Maria, Keeper of El Salvador, with whom I wrote this four-hands article, explaining our choices and our reactions!

 

WHAT CAMILLE SENT AND WHY

th.jpegThis swap was the first of the website, however it wasn’t the first for me. As a former ‘booktuber’ (I used to post videos about books on YouTube, and though we cannot call it a success, I was lucky enough to meet longtime friends thanks to it), I had already make a few. But this one had something particular, as I had one tremendous responsibility: that of making someone discover my country and culture… differently.

Indeed, Maria, my swapper, had already studied in France for a year when the idea came up. I thus decided to make her travel through France, and discover aspects of it she didn’t already know.

Therefore, I put in my parcels items coming from Lyon – the town I come from -, Paris, the French Riviera, the Southwest of France… I wanted to make her get a taste of the first things one can think of when hearing the word France. That could be ‘gastronomy’ (so I attached French syrup, as I have been told recently that this is a very French custom, a candy called pralines, some chocolate), the Eiffel Tower, the landscapes, beauty products such as expensive perfumes (which is the reason why, being an undergraduate student, I replaced it by relatively cheap soaps – I am sorry, Maria!), the European Union… I had a lot of fun walking in French ‘marchés’ and exploring little street shops or big malls during my summer holidays, trying to find the perfect symbols. Finally, I wrapped it up in the French three-colored flag. I had a hard time finding this one – after the Football World Cup, there was none remaining in the first three shops I went to. In the fourth one, three young sellers went to search for one into their reserve; five minutes later, delighted, they came to tell me there was one, only one remaining, and offered it to me. I felt so relieved – and they looked even happier when I told them their gift would travel to Latin America!

 

WHAT MARIA SENT AND WHY

El_Salvador_Flag12.jpgUnlike Camille, this is the first proper swap I’ve ever done with anyone else, but it’s not the first time I try to make sure I can show the beauty and talent of my country while giving someone a gift. Having lived abroad with my family before, we’ve always made sure to bring small artisan objects that we can give away to people we meet, and illustrate how wonderful our small nation can be.

El Salvador is known for its particular style of artisan crafts, much like many Latin American countries, so I decided it would be fitting to make a package full of these for Camille, someone who has never visited El Salvador (or Central America) before. Although we’re also known for our excellent food, there wasn’t anything I could include that would survive the journey back to France, so I’ll just owe Camille some home-made food!

In my package, I included a small notebook that was encased in a traditionally woven cover, with bright colors and symmetrical patterns, since I’ve known Camille to be an avid pen and paper writer. To compliment this notebook, I included a decorated pen: a normal pen that has been encased in clay to give it a brighter, different look, and with a small, clay torogoz – the national bird of El Salvador – resting on the end. The pen also had a small bamboo piece where the artisans can inscribe any message or words. Instead of opting for the traditional “El Salvador” inscription, I thought it would be nice to personalize it and have Camille’s name on it instead.

I also included a small magnet of a doll dressed in a traditional Salvadoran outfit, and a small purse that had been dyed in añil (indigo), which is a large part of national artisanry. Finally, I included a few objects (A key-holder box that can be hung, three small decorative boxes, and a bookmark) that had been decorated in the most recognizable art style of the country, inspired by our national artist Fernando Llort. The drawings are bright and colorful, and seem almost child-like in their beauty, and are a staple of Salvadoran culture. And, of course, I wrapped it all in a Salvadoran flag.

 

WHAT CAMILLE GOT

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I did not have any particular expectations or clichés on a parcel coming from El Salvador when I received it, nicely closed with some green starred tape. I knew from my Central American friends that I’d better not call this country South American, and I had a pleasant memories from a Central American meal that Maria had cook for me and a handful of friends. That was all and I was ready to be surprised!

The first thing I got was a pen, full of bright colors with a bird on top and my first name on it – which I found wonderful, knowing that there most probably aren’t a lot of ‘Camille’ in El Salvador. I then discovered a little wooden box, decorated with patterns of nature and houses, and that contained a smaller box, that itself contained a smaller box, which means that I spent my childhood with Russian dolls on my bookshelf without even knowing the very same concept was applied to Salvadorean boxes!

The more I would unwrap my parcel, the more crazier I understood Maria had been. The box and the pen we followed by a bookmark, a notebook, a purse, a little cloth doll and a wooden thing that I will call a hanging box. Most of them had in common bright colors, pink, red and green, and patterns representing multicolor birds and white and red houses.

As a big fan of traveling, whose room is filled with photos and souvenirs from Belgium, Honduras, Romania, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, America or Ireland, places where I have been or where friends have been kind enough to think of me, I always get emotional when I think of how far those items come from. Now I can only thank Maria for her generosity, for finding gifts that coherent with my tastes and for making me want to visit El Salvador as soon as I can!

 

WHAT MARIA GOT

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Having already spent a year living in France, and having already visited a few cities, I thought I had already seen quite a lot and not much was left. I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I got Camille’s parcel, which has only left me longing to visit every city in the country!

The first thing I noticed once I unwrapped the red, white, and blue flag was a postcard that depicted the beautiful city of Lyon, somewhere I have yet to visit (and now have more reason to want to go!). Right next to it, I found one of France’s most iconic landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, but in the very handy form of a toothbrush! Considering what else I found in my package I knew I was going to need it, since Camille had also included eucalyptus syrup that I could add to my water to give it some flavor, as well as what looked like hard candy (which I later found out to be praline). Both of these things became quite addicting to me once I tried them, not to mention the delicious 1€ chocolate coin included.

On the more decorative side of the package, I found a lovely little tray that was also from Lyon that depicted more famous aspects of the city, as well as a colorful package of artisan soap with very strong aromas that came all the way from Cote D’Azur. Their scent was also combined with that of a small bag of lavender, brought from Provence. They say that smell is one of the senses most linked to memory, and now I know that I will never forget the places all these things come from thanks to it. All the more reason for me to head out and see everything else that France has to offer!

 

You liked this article? Another one, on the second OverSeas Swap, between Ana Catalina, Keeper of Honduras, and Antony, Keeper of Chile, will be published very soon!

Globe Trotter: ‘Les Vendanges’, a Costa Rican’s Experience Picking Grapes

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En la vida hay que ser piso’e tierra. I have a number of quotes my mom used to tell me memorized; this is one of the simplest and one of my favorites. In life you have to be “piso de tierra”, which translates to “dirt floor”; in essence, it stresses the importance of a humble life. It means understanding that when stripped of riches, or wealth or power, we are simply beings that come from nature and from dirt, and that we are not superior to any of our fellow humans. It was through this desire to find humility and to challenge myself that I decided to participate in les vendanges, the annual grape harvest in Burgundy, France.

I had heard various things about les vendanges, from both media and people. My initial idea of it was that of a trans-generational activity with people from all ages working in vineyards, singing songs, making jokes and, later, eating, drinking and enjoying their time together. Evidently, I also knew it was hard work; after all it was still an agricultural job. This became more and more clear after I had signed up for it. When I began discussing my plans to participate with friends and acquaintances, many reacted the same way: “It’s really hard work”. All of a sudden, the tone from “great cultural experience” changed to “exhausting labor”. A friend from work even said her 26-year-old husband tried it and gave up after a day of work. The comments made me more apprehensive about participating but encouraged me, given that this only reinforced my original motivation of doing hard work. Thus, the night before my first day, I packed myself some lunch and made sure to have a decent night’s sleep.

The alarm went off at 5:45 in the morning. After making toast and preparing my bag I put on pants on top of my shorts and three layers on my upper body. I left my apartment, heading for the train station through the chilly, empty Dijon streets. The train sped through large fields and little towns as the sun woke, slowly covering all of the green vegetation in my eye reach. At 7h20 we arrived at my destination: Meursault. A small group got down with me and we all found a small bus the managers had sent for us. I immediately noticed that I was the youngest. When we got to the chateau, I found a group of three my age in the corner. Except for them, the managers and myself, I soon realized everyone in the room was an African immigrant, many of them were from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, I learned later. The reason this fact stood out to me was because it implied to me that employers were specifically looking for cheap labor. I briefly spoke to one of the managers who made me sign a few documents and, after having some coffee and biscuits, we headed off to the vineyards in three different trucks. One of the young guys invited me to join their truck, even if we hadn’t yet spoken. Feeling slightly out of place, with everyone knowing where to go, I followed him.

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The Work

Indeed, it was hard work. This was not obvious until later, however. The first day, because I did not know anyone, I put my headphones on and followed the limited instructions I had been given. Crouching, removing leaves to see the bunches of grapes better, cutting them with the pruning shears they had provided and putting them in my bucket. I would continue doing this and empty my bucket periodically when the Porteurs (carriers) came close to me. They had large buckets strapped to their backs and their job was to collect the bunches of grapes from the coupeurs (cutters), like myself, then to go dump them into the trucks. I later calculated that these men- they were exclusively male- were carrying between 30 and 40 kilos back and forth throughout the day; as much as my body hurt later that week, I still cannot imagine taking their position.

In the first three minutes of the job, I cut my finger with the shears. It burnt but was not bleeding too bad, so I decided to ignore it and continue. Other than this, the first two hours rushed by fairly swiftly; they were repetitive but painless, and they had given me plenty of time to listen to a podcast and music. It was surprising to see people stop so soon, but I followed without complaining. The managers arrived, brought out sandwiches, water and wine. I decided not to have the latter on my first day. We soon went back to the vineyards for another two hours. These were slightly more tiring, but still easily bearable. After the 30-minutes lunch break is when my legs and arms began feeling a bit tired, but I persisted as I had in other physical activities during my lifetime. It was in the last 2 hours that the amount of work I had been doing really began weighing on me. My legs felt sore, my lower back had an intense pain and my shoulders felt perpetually uncomfortable. I was very relieved when I heard our bosses yelling from the other side of the field to go back. After going to the chateau and changing, they dropped us off at the train station and I dozed off for the 40-minutes trip.

The following day, I woke up with pain all over my body. It was what I had expected all along, but my mental preparation did not lessen the pain in any way. I repeated my morning routine and savored every minute of the train ride, enjoying the stunning change of color scheme in the French countryside. I forced myself to continue my job despite the aching, and an hour into our arrival at the vineyards I no longer felt pain in a certain spot, just fatigue. By the end of the day, after hours of crouching, squatting, kneeling and sweating, the fatigue was truly getting the best of me. I had heard people often passed out while doing the job, because it’s often the first physical job they do. I thought of how back in Costa Rica I had helped in reforestation projects and a few building tasks, but how nothing compared to this. One of my bosses, knowing my origins, asked if I had ever picked coffee. I thought of how picking coffee was thought of as a very “lower class” job in my country, mainly done by Nicaraguan immigrants. This was an instant reflection of what the culture of the vendanges is slowly changing into. It certainly gave me something to think about while cutting the grapes. I should have at least tried picking coffee once, I kept thinking.

After getting home the second day, I cleaned my room, cooked dinner and then intended to take an hour-long nap at 8pm. My 9pm alarm did not wake me, and I slept 10 hours until 6am, only to wake up feeling even more sore than the previous morning. People had told me, and I knew it, just like with sports the third day was the worst, when you must bear the soreness of both the first and second day. I looked at my hands, scratched from reaching into vines all day, looked at my shoulders, burnt from late August’s sun, and smiled in pain, knowing that this was exactly what I had signed up for. The third day was by far the hardest, my legs hurt every squat and my back stung whenever I bowed down. And then the fourth day, I was ok. It was a very strange feeling where I was exhausted, but it didn’t bother me to continue working. At the end of every day I was ready to stop, hungry thirsty and sleepy, but not sore, not necessarily in pain.

In terms of work, I found precisely what I was looking for. Unfortunately, I had to start the harvest late because of my internship dates and could only do 6 days, yet these were enough to challenge me and satisfy my desire for self-achievement. Beyond that, I was satisfied in a philosophical aspect, as I had been working with nature and, in a way, doing exactly what my body was made to do: gather fruit. As you might expect, though, I doubt I would have been happy continuing for much longer and the experience also helped me appreciate office work and life as a student. That in itself is what made the experience so powerful as well: knowing I didn’t have to do this for the rest of my life and doing it next to people who were not fortunate enough to say the same with certainty. This work showed me what I could do in many ways, but it mainly taught me about what many people have to do; and in doing so it gave me great respect for all that part of the human community that allows the rest of us to have food on our tables at night.

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// 2 tips on picking grapes //

  • Try not to cut any grape in half. The juice will cover your sheers and your hands will become sticky, making it much more uncomfortable to continue the work. The longer you can continue with clean shears the best.
  • When you see several bunches bundled together, you can put your bucket on the bottom, move the leaves with one of your hands, cut with the other and let the fruit fall on its own.

Earth is Also a Star: Saving the World by Pairs

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Every great joke starts with a conventional setting where you can find characters that wouldn’t usually be together. Like “there were two Argentinians and two Hondurans in a car heading to visit a small little village.” Yet this time this is no joke, it’s a story. And a really cool one.

 

During the summer, I had the amazing opportunity to work with a small NGO in my city, called LARECOTURH. This organization was formed by a group of people from different communities, that wanted to develop tourism and to help these other communities discover their own potential as well. Within each community, they had assign delegates that represented the organization. This way, the organization is much more closer to the community, as it basically trains their members and makes them form part of the organization through specific roles. The organization carries out different projects and many of them involve the environment, since the main type of tourism in the northern coast of Honduras is ecotourism.

 

One project that I got to follow was located in a small little village that had tremendous problems with waste disposal. In this little trip I met an Argentinian couple who had met in Australia (let the internationality sink in!). Martina and Ezequiel were sitting in the back of the car while we were heading to Nueva Armenia. Martina always called Ezequiel ‘Bono’, cause his last name is Bonomi, so I adopted the name for him as well.  They undertook a trip around Latin America to promote the initiative of a campaign for the reduction of single use plastics in general. Their goal is to help communities transition into a healthier lifestyle.

 

Martina and Ezequiel had a desire to make a change and difference in the world through an aspect that they both were passionate about, the environment. Martina has lived and studied in Australia, and noticed that people there were very involved in initiatives that took the environment into account. Ezequiel said that the main reason he decided to go on this journey was the fact that he was in a stable job but he did not feel any passion for what he was currently working on. So he decided to try out his love for nature and help out. Martina felt like if she spoke Spanish, she had to help spread out the message through Latin America. The plan of the project was to start from Tijuana, Mexico and to finish in Patagonia, Argentina. As they travel from village to village they give talks to as many people as they can. Until that point they had spoken to about 4,500 villagers.  

 

They explained to me that the idea is to raise awareness. Many people use plastics once and have no idea where they end up after that. So as they show them the harms and impacts of plastics, they also teach children and adults how to do their groceries without plastic bags or how to create their own toothpaste, in order for them not to buy plastic products. Martina and Bono are very down to earth. They approach people and genuinely want to help them out. Their philosophy is to plant a seed but not leave it to its own devices.

 

One of the things that the couple finds rewarding is the reactions and gratefulness they receive from community members. Martina said that at times she would show videos that would help her prove a point, and usually she would love seeing the little kids reactions, like their bright little eyes of fascination in front of the screen. Bono said that what he loves is when something good comes out of it, when they reach people and through these talks actual change is generated. When people are truly involved and a positive outcomes grows out, and as a consequence a community develops itself thanks to this little seed they implanted. Their passion goes beyond a self driven purpose.

Indeed, Bono and Martina are really discrete individuals, and this project that may not seem transcendental proves an important point. It is not necessary to be a gigantic organization to be able to help. At the contrary, sometimes, big enterprises pretend to be saviors of small little villages and install projects but immediately leave. Martina commented that the whole point for them is to establish a connection, plant the “knowledge seed” and then keep in contact so that these seeds are able to grow into a plant, or even a tree.

 

Although both have admitted the job has not been easy at all, they valued many experiences as rewarding. Martina narrated this one experience she had in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. She said that she gave a talk and afterwards she proposed a groupchat with the environment enthusiasts and NGOs. She also proposed to add a member of government so that this would create an interesting dialogue. Indeed, afterwards, many law initiatives were proposed and the ban of the plastic bag was one of them. Martina said that this was very fulfilling, to see that a little contribution could become something so concrete and impactful. As for Bono, he says he really loves this one experience in Laguna de San Ignacio, Mexico. This is a small village of about 500 households and he tells how about 5 to 6 people attended the talk. At first he was disappointed. After the talk started he noticed how engaged and interested people were. For him, it was great to see the sense of happiness emanate from them. One thing Bono believes is that the numbers matter but not that much as interest. For him, one person really interested and enthusiastic could create a great change in a community, and that is what counts the most.

 

It’s true that a couple travelling around talking to people doesn’t seem too promising and yet they have influenced so many community and even law initiatives! One never knows the impact one might cause. At the same time, Martina and Bono are very aware that it’s not going to work well every time with every community. “Sometimes you know that seeds will grow and some others will not,” Martina told me. There are cases in which the seed get to grow into a plant and other were it gets to grow into a tree. However, always have in mind that the seed might not even survive under certain conditions. Both Martina and Bono know this well but still have a very positive approach.

 

Finally, the Argentinian couple concluded with a crucial part of why they took this initiative. “It is to move to actions, we have many studies in the world already. We need to get to the people!” they proudly said. Indeed, what good is it to study people from a little cubicle in front of your laptop, and find the best solution to their problems if you can’t adapt the solution to them? As for their journey, I really admired their sense of community. To me, Latin American has been too divided and recently becoming more xenophobic towards each other. As this couple travelled around it, it made me think it was a great example of how even our environment connects us. There’s not need for us to look for differences to separate us. Instead let us take care of nature, let us save the forests that give us oxygen, let us appreciate the ocean and the sun, the freshness of the mountain. Let us embrace that connexion.

Globe Trotter: Advice From a Traveler Who Lost Her Luggage More Than Once

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‘Ma’am, the plane left five minutes ago. You must go to the counter to know what to do.’

That’s how I learnt I would be stuck in Frankfurt for at least a day, on my way to the United States.

 

Throwback.

 

Last Summer, I went to the United States for the very first time in my life. My family had decide to book an organized trip to make the most out of the ten days we would have there. First there was a flight from Paris to Frankfurt, then from there to Los Angeles – flying with a company which for its own reputation will remain anonymous ( was cheaper). So we got up at 4 am on that Tuesday morning, took a plane from Paris, and arrived in Frankfurt to know that the airport was fully blocked because of a security incident. We were parked for five hours in an airport hall, and our plane took off without even calling out for passengers, leaving many people behind

 

We safely arrived to Los Angeles a day later, after more than ten hours of queuing for tickets in two days. However, the situation was solved quickly enough for us to be able to laugh about it a month after. It also made me think over the hardships that a traveler can meet, even though they remain very light when considered through the realm of the luck we already have to travel, freely and without constraints. I however noticed that in the four long trips I have been lucky enough to experience, only one went perfectly well (with no lost suitcase or blocked airport). Indeed, our suitcase was lost for five days when we went to the Seychelles island, our plane was cancelled when we went to New Zealand, leaving us stuck in Australia, but at least we could do some tourism in Sydney whereas queuing up in Frankfurt’s airport doesn’t offer much of an entertainment. I thus came up with these advice, for people who love to travel as much as I do, and will still love to travel no matter the number of lost suitcases, blocked airports or cancelled planes…

 

  1. Always take the vital minimum in the cabin with you

The day after we were told we couldn’t take the right plane to Los Angeles, all people stuck in Frankfurt were divided between a handful of different planes to finally reach the US. Some of them went through Manchester, Paris, or even – as was our case – Warsaw. At all moments of the process, we were told our suitcases would leave in exactly the same plane as the passenger and that we would get them back as soon as we’d arrive in Los Angeles. That sounded too good to be true; to me, that was impossible; either the suitcases would have left in the plane we should have taken, or they would stay in Frankfurt. Turned out – to my disappointment – that I was right, and all families that had suitcases checked-in didn’t get them back for at least a week.

My family was the only one that had decide to keep everything with us in the cabin – which means we didn’t have much, as the weight and size are limited, but as least we had some. We were able to share some first-necessity goods with the others; toothpaste, tampons, medicines… From now on, we’ll always travel with at least some clothes and necessary items in the cabin with us!

  1. Find other travelers

As soon as we learnt our plane had taken off without us, my family and I started running to The Company’s counter to see what to do. After a long race through Frankfurt still partially blocked airport, we found the place – wasn’t that difficult, there already were 200 people queuing up. We would spend six hours in front of this counter; the company hadn’t brought enough people to help. Finally, it turned out the counter could not give new plane tickets but only an accommodation for the night.

Nevertheless, after asking all people we could see, we managed to find other travelers who should also have been in the plane to Los Angeles. We gathered altogether and spent those six hours talking, getting to know each other, the situation making us closer than we would have been without this. We called ourselves the Frankfurt’s Shipwrecked Squad and stayed together the whole time. The next day, one of the Squad figured out which line to choose, so that we could leave Frankfurt. When we eventually arrived to the United States, our trip was even better, as all Frankfurt’s Castaways felt like a large group of friends that had gone through an adventure together.

 

  1. Carefully divide your belongings in case you lose a suitcase

Four years ago, my parents decided to take my brother and I on a trip to an earthly paradise, the Seychelles Islands, where they’ve had their honeymoon. As soon as we arrived, after a long flight that left me delighted – I had just discover we were given food and could watch movies in a plane, which made my 13-years-old-self overjoyed -, I was caught by the Seychelles’ unique atmosphere. The air was so hot I could literally feel it, there were palm trees everywhere and the airport looked like kind of an exotic treehouse. However, nothing perfect is made to last; after two long hours of waiting for our suitcases under the warmth, we found out one of them hadn’t arrived. We were told it had most probably been put into another plane, which means that by the time it would take to find out where it was and to bring it back, we would have to wait at least three days. It finally arrived five days later.

It eventually turned out that we’d been lucky enough to lose the least useful suitcase, but half of our clothes, swimsuits, solar creams and those highly necessary items had been left out. If you have two suitcases,divide everything between them – clothes, pads, everything. We never know.

 

  1. Always keep a small backpack with you during the flight

When one decides to keep all their belonging in the cabin, one ends up with a ten kilos-luggage to carry by hand and to put on the shelf above their seat. Then, one quickly understands that there’s nothing as annoying, in a plane, as someone trying to get their luggage from this shelf during the flight. As a 1,60m dwarf that does not even weigh 50kg, I could picture what would happen if I tried. I’d have to climb on the next passenger’s seat, which would probably coincide with turbulence ensuring that my suitcase would fall on someone’s head, as would I.

That might have been a bit too dramatic. Nevertheless, I couldn’t have been happier I had chosen to bring a small backpack with me, to put under the seat in front of me. I first thought I couldn’t fit more than a book and a box of tissue, but this small backpack with black and white elephant patterns turned out being more useful than even I could have imagined. It made me think of my roommate – who happens to be the Honduran Keeper! – and never travels without her tiny little backpack, that already went to France, Italy, Spain, Guatemala and so many different countries. That became the ultimate goal for my backpack, too.

 

  1. Take every hardship as an opportunity

In 2015, my family and I went to New Zealand, to follow the steps of the movie The Lord of the Rings. I’ll remember this trip as one of the happiest moments in my life – now that I think about it, most of the ‘happiest moments in my life’ are related to traveling. However, after we arrived in Sydney, we were confronted to an unexpected hardship. There was wind that day; and the company that should have taken us from Australia to New Zealand had its reputation to maintain; it never had any accident, and was determined to not take any risk. Our flight was cancelled and we were stuck for a whole day in Sydney.

We were terribly sad. We had less than ten days to spend in Kiwiland and one of them was being withdrawn from us; moreover, a Lord of the Rings tour was planned for this day and that was what we’ve been the most looking forward to.

But finally, that was literally the best thing that happened to our trip. My Mother and I were able to visit Sydney during a few hours; we went to the Opera – which made me understand I still had to improve my English-speaking skills, as I spent ten minutes asking a stewart for a soup while he was laughing his heart out and probably wondering why this Frenchie was asking for a soap – and saw the Harbour Bridge. Even better; the tour guide accepted to work on Christmas day, two days later, for us to still be able to do this Lord of the Rings Tour, and we spent an unbelievably awesome couple of hours with him. Bob turned out to be the best guide we could have had and made us feel like we were involved in the movie. Without our flight being cancelled, and without the Kiwis being amongst the most pragmatic, helpful and generous people I’ve ever met, that would have never been possible.

 

Finally, all those advice can be summed up into one: always believe that things happen for a reason, and that we can make the best out of anything. If our flight to New Zealand hadn’t been cancelled, we wouldn’t have seen Sydney and meet Bob the Awesome Tour Guide. If Frankfurt’s airport and That Company’s jobs hadn’t been awfully done, such a solidarity would have never been triggered between Frankfurt’s Castaways, and so one. Keep smiling, and keep traveling!

 

 

Australia’s Home Trotter: 4 Man-Made Wonders of Australia

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Following one of my previous articles featuring some natural wonders found throughout South Australia, I began thinking on the well-known landmarks found all throughout Australia. The infamous Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Great Ocean Road, and the historically rich Port Arthur. Now I’ve written a fair few articles showcasing some of the finest things, I believe, Australia has to offer, so why stop there? I’ll just keep going and do my best to get as many people excited about my country as I am!
So here it is, my top 4 list of iconic Australian, man-made, landmarks. Enjoy!

1. Sydney Opera House, Sydney.
Sydney Opera House 1The Sydney Opera House, partnered with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is possibly Australia’s most recognizable landmarks. It is easily one of Sydney’s most popular tourist destinations as a multi-venue performing arts centre that is one of the most famous and distinctive buildings of the 20th century. Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, his now world-famous design was the winner of an international competition and was formally opened to the public on the 20th of October, 1973. Prior to the Sydney Opera House design, Utzon had won 18 competitions but never seen any of his designs constructed, making the Opera House his first. The design was praised throughout the world, with the Assessors Report of January 1957, stating:
‘The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.’
Its fusion of ancient and modernist influences resulted in its the worldwide appreciation, with having “changed the image of an entire country,” according to U.S. architect, Frank Gehry.
Following the beginning of its construction on the 2nd of March, 1959, the Opera House cost about $102 million to construct and was about 10 years late in terms of its completion. Today, the Opera House hosts 40 shows a week and is home to the Australian Chamberlain Orchestra, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bell Shakespeare, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company, and The Australian Ballet. If you’re ever in the Sydney area, the Opera House, as well as the many shows it puts on, is definitely worth a visit (or maybe even two!).

2. Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney.
Sydney Harbour Bridge 2 - Construction.jpgThe Sydney Harbour bridge is, as mentioned before, another one of Sydney’s most iconic landmarks. Construction of the bridge officially began on 28 July 1923, when an official ceremony was carried out to mark the “turning of the first sod”. However, the building of the bridge itself only commenced in 1924. The building of the monument took eight years by 1,400 men and cost about 6.25 million Australian pounds (which in modern terms is approximately $13.5 million AUD), with about six million hand driven rivets and 53,000 tonnes of steel being used in the structure. The construction of the bridge also claimed the lives of 16 men, with only 2 of the 16 having fallen to their deaths – for that time, that’s pretty amazing.
The formal opening ceremony was conducted on Saturday, 19 March 1932 and, fun fact, the ribbon signifying the bridge’s opening had to be cut twice. Just as the Premier of New South Wales (the state in which Sydney is the capital city) was about to cut the ribbon, a man in a military uniform, named Francis de Groot, rode up on a horse and cut the ribbon with a sword – the man was arrested straight after. The ribbon was re-tied and the Premier finally got to the cut the ribbon and officially open the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the public. The bridge is also known as the “Iron Lung” as it kept many workers employed during the Great Depression, greatly assisting with continued prosperity of the Australian people during trying times; the bridge is largely considered a triumph over the Depression era in Australia.
Nowadays, the bridge is the world’s fourth-longest spanning-arch bridge and which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007. The bridge also features the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, a walk up the southern side of the bridge, which is a popular tourist attraction that gives people an incredible view of the harbour and the city. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is also the centrepiece of the fantastical New Year’s Eve celebrations.

3. Port Arthur, Tasmania.
Port Arthur 1.jpgNamed after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania), Port Arthur is located approximately 97 kilometers south-east of Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, on the Tasman Peninsula. While the settlement began as a timber station in 1830, it is best known for being a renowned penal colony. From 1833 until 1853, it was the destination for some of the roughest and most violent of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. The most troublesome of convicts from other convict stations were also sent there in order to bring these individuals under control. Port Arthur operated as a prison up until 1877, when it was put up for auction. Much of the land was destroyed in fear that it would remind people of the darker times in which the area was one of the harshest of all the penal colonies in Australia.
Thankfully, in 1979, funding was received to preserve the site as a tourist destination, due to its historical significance the critical role it played throughout the development of early Australia. Now, Port Arthur is a World Heritage Listed Historic Site with more than 30 buildings, ruins and restored period homes set in 40 hectares of land. People are also able to take a cruise to the Isle of the Dead, join a guided tour of Port Arthur’s island cemetery, or even take a tour of Point Puer Boys Prison, which was the first reformatory in the British Empire that was built for housing young male convicts. People can also spend the night to fully experience all that Port Arthur and the surrounding environment has to offer. With it being such a rich piece of Australia’s history, as well as being a World Heritage listed site, why wouldn’t you go visit and experience a piece of history frozen in time?

4. Great Ocean Road, Victoria.
Great Ocean Road 2 - Memorial Arch.jpgThe Great Ocean Road is an Australian National Heritage listed 243-kilometre stretch of road along the south-eastern coast of Australia. It stretches between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Allansford and is the largest war memorial in the world, dedicated to the memory of those lost from the ranks of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF). It was planned at the end of World War I, as, by the time of World War I, the rugged south-west coast of Victoria was accessible only by sea or rough bush track. Construction on the road began on 19 September 1919 and was built by approximately 3,000 returned servicemen as a war memorial for their fellow servicemen who had perished in WWI. The construction was conducted by hand with explosives, pick and shovel, wheelbarrows, and some small machinery used to clear areas of land. This work was perilous at times, with several workers killed on the job. The road was completed in 1932, with it being claimed to be “one of the world’s great scenic roads” by the Tourist Development Authority in 1962. In 2011 the road was added to the Australian National Heritage List.
Today, the Great Ocean Road hosts the Great Ocean Road Marathon, a 45 km marathon which began in 2005, and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, 6.3 km cycling race that was first held in 2015. Another cycling event, the Amy’s Gran Fondo cycling event, is also held along the road and is held in September. With such an incredible journey through some of the most beautiful landscape in Australia (and indeed the world), featuring a variety of natural landmarks (like the 12 Apostles and Bay of Islands), as well as stunning beaches, great dining places, national parks, and hiking and walking trails, a road trip on the Great Ocean Road is an absolute must.

Clearly, I’m more than a little passionate about what my country has to offer tourism-wise. Visiting these places won’t only make you a grade-A tourist, but it will also allow you to experience little pieces of Australia’s history, from its beginning as a penal colony, all the way to its influential roles in the wars of modern times. If you ever have a chance to visit any one of these landmarks (or all of them!) do not hesitate. I doubt that you’ll be disappointed!

If you’re curious about any of the places I’ve mentioned here and would be interested in learning more, these links would be helpful places to start looking!
https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/our-story.html
https://www.sydney.com.au/bridge.htm
https://www.travellingking.com/fast-facts-sydney-harbour-bridge/
https://www.discovertasmania.com.au/attraction/portarthurhistoricsite
https://www.australia.com/en/places/melbourne-and-surrounds/guide-to-the-great-ocean-road.html
https://www.visitmelbourne.com/Regions/Great-Ocean-Road

Chile’s Home Trotter: Why Visit Chile?

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The longest, thinnest country on the planet boasts an enviable geographic diversity. From the driest desert on Earth up north to the rainforests and glaciers of the south, through the Polynesian traditions alive and thriving found on Easter Island, Chile has it all. The fault-line between the Nazca and Latin-American plates gifted us the Andean mountain range, oft-visited by international skiers, and not far from the snowy terrain lie our sandy beaches to the west.

40033414_1675514325909637_5503474817107492864_n.jpgThe North: San Pedro de Atacama

This region possesses the driest desert in the world: the Atacama. Surprisingly, this is an area full of life and community, where the indigenous heritage is culturally front and center. The town of San Pedro de Atacama’s old and plain adobe houses are firmly planted at a crossroads between modern travelers and ancient culture. The town square is a great place to experience tradition and shop for goods in the true sense of the word; crafts and textiles. For those who love expansive territory for long-haul biking, wish to sand-board down dunes, or feel a desperate need for a privileged view of the stars (the region is host to world-class astronomical observatories), San Pedro is just the ticket.

 

40037114_1801454669904211_2229035456224296960_n.jpgThe Center: Santiago and Valparaiso

Given that Chile’s financial and cultural hub is in its Capital, Santiago is undoubtedly Chile’s most metropolitan city: from chic restaurants to museums and nightlife. This is where the local traditions meet the international scene. Impossible to miss is the Andes Mountain range which towers over the city and is often an unexpected surprise for visitors.

Chile’s center is host to a range of ski lodges which rank amongst the best in Latin-America. More importantly, many of them are open all year long. This means you can go to the beach and up the mountain to ski, in one trip (this depends naturally on the amount of time of your visit). The Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range are separated by only 2 hours of travel by car.
Santiaguinos are valley-people. Cozily tucked away between two parallel mountain ranges, the uniquely hospitable weather provides an indulgently ideal environment for wine production. Wine is one of Chile’s biggest exports and no visit is complete without a wine-tasting trip to one of the numerous scenic viñas that a short ride away from the city.

39986186_521000221671825_944883832933318656_n.jpgFor a different quick getaway, Valparaiso is a welcome change of scene, only an hour and a half away from Santiago. This coastal city is known for its many hills, artsy-colorful houses, quaint shopping opportunities, plentiful art galleries and delightful views. Historically an artist and activists hub, the town is a favorite among most Chilean artists working today.

 

40044402_1094095150758576_2472958803721584640_n.jpgEaster Island: Rapa Nui

No place on Earth is as isolated, geographically, as Easter Island. Annexed in 1888, the island has since become a powerful attraction for tourists that are curious to see the Moais, stone statues that have been silent witnesses to the island’s history. Unfortunately, some Moais were stolen from the Island in the past, by the British, as well as the French. Luckily these are but a minority, given that most Moais are still located on the Island. The small town of Hanga Roa is the Island’s capital. The beaches are always 20 minutes away. Scattered around the island are the Ahus, the bases upon which Moais stand. There is also a large volcanic crater Rano Kau which is undoubtedly worth a visit. Word on the beaches is ripe, sweet figs grow inside that lusciously green crater, if you dare retrieve them.

 

40008397_317956495420413_5911218808663572480_n.jpgThe South: a land of green

The south is the heart and the magic of Chile. Comprised of rainforests and lakes that are well protected, this area is noteworthy for its volcanoes (such as Villarica), many of which are open to hikers. The dominant culture here is courtesy of the Mapuche, the biggest aboriginal ethnicity in the country. The south also has a noticeable German influence, given that the Chilean state encouraged the arrival of German immigrants to the south of the country. This is obvious in picturesque cities such as Valdivia, Puerto Varas, and Frutillar, and in small bodegas where the baked good of choice is “kuchen”. These same bodegas usually have cheap, delicious home-made white bread (along the whole length of the country). Order marraquetas if you like light and fluffy, or hallullas if you prefer dense and chewy. Leave behind any pretenses to whole-wheat preferences. These will await you in your country of origin. And don’t forget the salted butter on top.

The island of Chiloe belongs to this region. A legendary spot, you’ll here find colorful houses on stilts (palafitos), plus 16 wooden churches that were declared Unesco national heritage. The island is a great place for those who demand a stunning backdrop to go with their trekking or kayaking.

 

But wait. There is still more south to be found, well, further south. Keep heading down, and you’ll feel you’ve fallen onto another planet entirely; the land of Patagonia. The Carretera Austral will bring you here. This point in time-space is home to one of Chile’s most incredible national parks: Torres Del Paine, a sprawling place that requires at least a week to explore properly. Delightfully safe (only a small family of reclusive mountain lions pose a risk) choose between luxury sleeping quarters or old-fashioned eco-friendly camping and soak in the beautiful territory. You won’t miss the iconic towering stone peaks, nor the impeccably blue glacier-water lakes. Watch out for the adorable Guanacos- essentially miniature llamas.

40019648_675181776195116_1907873774812790784_n.jpgOnce you’ve made it this far south, you might as well keep going and visit the Glaciers of San Rafael. Climate change has unfortunately reduced its size, but it is still possible to hike around the glacier via the “Zodiac tour”. Or, if you’re truly ambitious, hop on a brief plane ride and check out our icy slice of the south pole!

World’s Next Door: A Week With Romanasul

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‘Buna Ziua’, ‘La revedere’, ‘Multumesc’, ‘Ce faci’; I was mentally rehearsing the few Romanian words I knew from a friend who was living there. My colleague guide and I, seated in an overheated car at the entrance of the town, were waiting for the bus and the 30 artists it would be bringing from Romania. It was a very sunny Monday evening and the international folklore festival of Montignac was about to start.

 

During a week, this 3000-inhabitant little town of the Périgord, in the southwest of France, would be filled by tourists and artists from all over the world. Every year, dancers, singers and musicians from ten different countries come to Montignac to share their traditions and delight the audience. Every time, this week would be full of great meetings, cultural exchanges, happiness and hope through seeing what this ‘youth of the world’, perpetuating customs and arts from before globalization even was a word, was capable of.

 

Ever since the age of eight, I have been coming to the festival every year: first, as a tourist; then, as a volunteer. I can still remember melodies I had heard years ago, and this little town, which I have also explored for an internship, had become as familiar to me as if I had always lived there. In 2015, the festival’s organizers had asked me to write the event’s newspaper, and I have been doing that, assisting a team, ever since. But this year, now that I was – officially at least – an adult, I wanted to have another challenge. I wanted to become a guide.

 

To make it simple, during the whole festival, the guide is the group’s Mommy or Daddy. They are in charge of establishing a link between the organizers and the artists, who often do not speak French. They have to make sure that their stay goes well and they also are, to me, an ambassador of the French legendary sense of hospitality – more or less supposed to prove that it’s not because we are often depicted as the least welcoming people in the world, that we actually are.

 

A few months before the festival, I was first given an orchestra from Brittany; and then, one from Spain; to finally end up with a Romanian band called Romanasul. My guiding buddy would be the most experienced guide of the festival; for nearly 30 years he had been there, taking care of a different group every year, most often from Eastern Europe; and here I was, the youngest one, over-enthusiastic and jumping all over the place at the idea of meeting new people and trying out my brand-new knowledge of Romanian – ‘I should have asked my friend how to pronounce this’.

 

From the first minutes with those who would become my closest friends for a week, I remember a firework of faces, colors, new sounds, new feelings, and too many names to memorize them all. Very kindly, my colleague had proposed that I would go in the bus with them for the end of their trip; and so did I, greeted by dozens of ‘Hi’s’ and smiles as soon as I came in. The week with Romanasul had started.

 

I had two fears before I met them. The first one was that we would not get along – I already knew we would manage to communicate, as they all spoke English and some of them a bit of French. The second one was that I wouldn’t like what they were doing – and besides being forced to see all their shows for a week, I would also have to lie and tell them I liked it. Before the festival, I had decided I did not want any kind of spoiler; I did not know what to expect, and did not do any research to know what kind of music and dances they would present. The pressure was even greater, knowing that it was the sixth time this group was coming to the Festival of Montignac.

 

They performed for the first time the day after, and I realized immediately how fortunate I was.

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The group consisted of two parts: an orchestra, and the dancers. The eleven musicians of the orchestra were accompanied by two singers. They played the violin, a typical Romanian clarinette called the taragot, the guitar, a range of saxophones and flutes, the double bass, drums, and a unique and wonderful instrument that looked like a piano without any keyboard: the cymbalum. They also used little ceramic birds filled with water that sounded like a cuckoo. I was enthralled by their dynamic and lively music the first time I heard it, and two weeks after, I still find myself whistling my favorite ones in the street.

 

During that week, I went from one surprise to another. Every evening, ‘my’ Romanians, as I had fondly start to call them, would gather in our dormitory’s courtyard, sing a type of Gypsy-Romanian music, manele, for hours and dance on it. Some of my happiest memories of this week lie in the way they would welcome me within their group, tell me about this custom and about the night-long parties they would spend like this in Romania, or dance with me as I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. At this occasion, I learnt that the main violin player was also playing accordion ‘and everything that has cords or a keyboard’, as one of my Romanian friends told me, and that the double bass player was also a singer – and what a singer! – and that the cymbalum player, besides also playing guitar, used to be a dancer.

 

And the dancers! I am glad I didn’t try to watch any videos of them before, so I could open my eyes widely when I saw them for the first time. Dancing and singing go together in Romania, which means that not only were they jumping everywhere; they were simultaneously talking and singing casually about men and women relationships or life in their country. One other thing men and women had in common was tap dancing, men in their boots and women in their heels, which I loved as the absolute fan of Irish dancing that I am. The boys would also throw their legs in the air on the rhythm of hand clapping and body percussions, while women would turn again and again in their flowery dresses. It looked like a colony of incredibly dynamic and gracious elves had suddenly invade Montignac.

 

While discovering them as artists, I was also meeting them as friends. They told me about their country and we talked about the stereotypes our people had of the other. One of them told me a joke that said ‘one shouldn’t bend down to tie their shoelaces in Paris, in case they might be thought to ask someone to marry them’. I told them the reason why French people are often confused between Romanians and Gypsies: in French, we call the latter ‘romanichels’, which means ‘nomades’, and often shorten it into ‘Roms’, which can make people think it’s the abbreviation of Romanians. A few days after, I would also learn that our two countries have been friends for centuries, and the French embassy in Romania is part of the sixteen first embassies my country opened before World War II.

 

I also quickly learnt to never accept a bottle of water given by a Romanian with an innocent look; it may well contain their terribly strong (56%) homemade alcohol, the ‘palinka’, that they made me try out on the very first day – and all the days that followed. The very first word they taught me was ‘cheers’: ‘noroc!’. After the numbers from one to ten and a few other expressions, two of them, laughing so hard they were crying, taught me their favorite swears- that I won’t repeat here. I also learnt about a custom of theirs to give a child a nickname that would follow him until the end of his life, making a Mihai become a Titi, a Vasile become a Tica…

 

In a week, we had loads of adventures together. A dancer’s heel broke in the middle of a dance on the stage, but she continued to dance up until the end. When we visited the internationally well-known cave of Lascaux, only a French-speaking guide was available and I had to translate to English everything she was saying. The very last day, my colleague guide and I organized a small aperitif with French wine, foie gras and pralines, to help them avoid the shame of going back home without having tried those finest samples of French food. Finally, the very last day, they gave us Romanian clothes and arranged my hair for the final parade – that also made me realize how courageous they had been to continue to perform in those under the heat wave.

 

Sunday evening had come too fast. They were staying in France up until the upcoming Tuesday, but I would be the one leaving to go on holidays with my parents. Right after the last show and the closing fireworks, as they were gathering just outside the stage, I went to say goodbye. Before I could understand what was happening to me, two guys had lifted me from the ground and they were throwing me in the air like the French coach after the World Cup victory. When I turned back, leaving to join my parents, I was half-laughing half-crying, and had Romanian music in my earphones.

 

A week later, I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to meet and befriend these kind and talented people. It was even more moving, considering that many of them had met their wife or husband in the group and no less than four couples were dancing together. Thanks to them, this week – that I mostly spent bringing water bottles to three dozens of dehydrated artists! – has been like traveling without leaving home. Discovering their culture and gaining an interest in their unique style and language had been fantastic. So if you ever have an opportunity to go and see Romanasul, or to become a guide in a folklore festival, seize it! I am very much looking forward to experiencing this again – but before, I want to go and visit some people in Romania…

To discover more: https://romanasul.utcluj.ro (not entirely up to date, notably on the names of the singers/choreographers/…, but still enjoyable!!)

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Thoughts: City Bubbles and the Bush: Why Should We Care?

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Television broadcasting companies can get very inventive when it comes to creating endless amounts of new primetime reality and quiz shows. That is what I discovered as I glanced through the lengthy list of television programmes after an ordinary weekday. One of them, however, caught my special attention; it was a quiz show called City vs. Countryside. The core idea was close to any other primetime show that has ever existed on commercial TV entertainment; let two teams compete against each other by answering questions related to general knowledge – and voilà, you have lured the viewer on the couch for an extra hour.

One of the teams represented the countryside, whereas members of the other team came from the Finnish capital district. Besides answering questions, the show was flavored with some gentle nagging between the two teams premised on a stereotypical dichotomy between country bumpkins and arrogant city dwellers.

The show would be like any other of its light counterparts on television if it wasn’t for its surprisingly current content. The United Nations has estimated that 2008 was the breaking point when already half of the world population lived in centralized urban areas. The number has risen ever since and a projection by the UN estimates that by 2050, no less than 68 percent of the world’s population will be urban.

Finland is one example of those countries getting hit by the alarming reality of urbanisation where people increasingly escape countryside to settle in bustling cities. And why wouldn’t they? Regardless of country in question, big urban centres tend to offer them all; social networks, career opportunities and a lifestyle where a new activity is waiting for you behind every stone-paved corner.

There comes the backside of the coin, however. About fifty percent of the Finnish population is packed in a relatively small area in the southern part of the country, while the rest of the land is left with increasingly desolating municipal communes and hectares of forested wilderness. Even globally, we can discover a clear division between urban people and those who live further away from the attractions of bigger cities. And there are no others to blame; I personally live right next to the services provided by the capital Helsinki.

The polarisation has become so strong that a person’s habitat can be a factor that defines his or her identity even more than nationality. Transport links between global cities have become so strong that it is usually easier to fly to another country than to try to get oneself to a place in the middle of nowhere within a country’s borders. That inevitably shapes the sense of belonging, which is not necessarily a bad thing understanding the potential of growing internationality and invaluable connections between different cultures. It still, however, raises questions about the grand might possessed by mushrooming global metropoles and the insecure future of the rural environment.

Babel Tower skyscraper

Are skyscrapers today’s ivory towers?

As much as I love the never-ending buzz of grand cities, I understand the urgent need to revive the spirit of the countryside, too. Fortunately, Finns understand how lucky they are to be able to escape the everyday treadmill of duties to the boondocks. I am writing this text by the lake next to our summer cottage which has always been a nearly sacred place for me to relax and enjoy myself. It is common that many Finnish families have a similar kind of summer house in the countryside, where they spend time near the forest especially during the summer months.

That could also be a partial answer to the challenge of inhabitation; even if flows of people mainly go to the opposite direction, rural areas can promote themselves as attractive tourist destinations. In the case of Finland, many companies have already productized the silence of Finnish nature; even if it might sound weird, many foreign tourists have been fascinated by the idea of escaping the constant noise of big cities, enjoying perfect peace and getting surrounded by a scenery of clear blue lake and evergreen.

And it is not just the nature, though. There are many promising examples where rural communities have been very creative in making the most of their hidden charm. A recent Babel Tower article has already given us insight into a tiny French village called Montignac, which has rooted an international music festival as part of its annual traditions (read this article here). Also, there is a Spanish town that has successfully transformed itself into a big outdoor gallery focused on street art. It is quite reassuring to notice that cash is not the only way to support regions that are economically less developed. Even artistic innovations can have a similar effect on regional development.

 

Babel Tower countryside.jpgHow to get the boost?

Naturally, these initiatives can be important steps that bring wealth and vitality to the rural area, but they won’t necessarily provide for livelihood nor prevent these communities from turning into ghost towns outside the tourist season. The magic trick that these areas long for is to attract people and make them stay year-round, which is even harder than creating attractive tourist lures. However, there are forerunners. I read about a Sicilian town that decided to show its goodwill, and benefit from it at the same time, too. Triggered by the miserable human destinies that the migration crisis has caused in Europe for several years, the town of Sutera decided to offer migrants free accommodation and Italian lessons to help them integrate and settle in the community. Despite some whining, the town has seen a new era of vitality through these extraordinary measures. More and more often human creativity proves to be stronger than challenges that face us.

Urbanisation is a global megatrend, and we should not fight it. Yet even if most of us finds it more convenient to live urban, it doesn’t diminish the importance of brave human initiatives of revitalising the countryside. And that is where the quiz show gets it wrong; instead of setting urban and rural areas against each other, we should understand the potential of creating a symbiotic relationship between them. So, next time you have a chance, don’t be afraid to burst your city bubble; you can be amazed by what you discover.

 

Sources:

[1] “How embracing graffiti stopped one Spanish village going to the wall,” The Guardian, accessed August 11th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/14/street-art-fanzara-spain-graffiti-artists

[2] “‘They are our salvation’: the Sicilian town revived by refugees”, The Guardian, accessed August 11th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/19/sutera-italy-the-sicilian-town-revived-by-refugees

[3] Sarah Warwick & Anastasia Miari, “How to save a town,” The n magazine, July 28th, 2018, 67-74.

Picture credits:

  1. City: city by barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  2. Skyscrapers: …of New York City Skyscrapers by nDroae is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  3. Countryside: Dans la campagne finlandaise.14 by Antoine 49 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thoughts: Borders and Progress: Seldom Straight Lines

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About 3 years ago, I departed on what is, to this day, the most thrilling trip I’ve experienced while living in Costa Rica. With a friend, a pair of back packs and our trusty 160cc motorcycle we set course towards Nicaragua. A 6-hour drive under the sun awaited us, but my excitement did not allow for fatigue or annoyance. On the contrary, the small roads of the west of Costa Rica had never seemed so liberating nor promising. The beauty of the tropical dry forest, the grandness of the two volcanoes we saw on the way, as well as the clandestine aesthetic of our surroundings, could only be undermined by one thing. Bureaucracy.

We made it to the Northwestern Border to Nicaragua in Peñas Blancas and, after 30- minutes or so, we finished our passport procedures. Then we went to the vehicle customs office, where we intended to pay the tax on exiting the country with a vehicle… except this wasn’t possible, because the taxes had to be paid in a bank in a city, rather than at the border. Defeated, we headed back to Liberia, the closest city: 2 hours away. Tired, after 8 hours of driving, we decided to stay the night at a cheap Airbnb and headed to the bank in the morning. After providing due documentation and paying, we returned to the border, still eager to continue our adventure. Following 45 minutes on the Costa Rican side of the border, we crossed the no-man’s land. The immediate change of scenery was astonishing to me. Whereas its counterpart had mainly buildings, much of this side of the border had tents with government officials tending to long lines of tourists. The whole process seemed ridiculous to me; we were given pieces of paper after showing various documents and were told to go to different tents and buildings in what seemed to be a random order, only to show the same documents again. Eventually, after getting our passports stamped, we arrived at customs to deal with our motorcycle.

This is when we found out we weren’t going to make it to inland Nicaragua in this trip. The official asked us for an insurance document that we had left home, one we didn’t need to give to Costa Rican officials and one that was represented by a sticker on the motorcycle. The official said they couldn’t give us legal permission to take the motorcycle. But here’s the thing: there is a law preventing people from crossing the border twice in the same 24 hours and we were already legally inside Nicaragua. We couldn’t get out and our motorcycle couldn’t go in. This was my first border experience.

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The second time I crossed a border by land was much less eventful. I was driving with a friend in the south of France and after passing by some bushes he said without much tone in his voice: “Cool, we’re in Spain.”

It is this casual approach to such an event that originally bewildered me. We had just crossed a line that had been determined by wars, by geography, by history itself. It took a second to penetrate and the only acknowledgment of it was a “cool”. Right after, there were gas stations with signs in Spanish, a majority of European plate numbers with an “E” rather than an “F”, and plenty of details signaling to us that we were no longer in the same territory. For a while, though, it was no more than that: a detail. This to me, like to many visitors to Europe, was otherworldly.

Borders like I had seen them before had never been a “detail”; they were a very significant political, physical, but most importantly social barrier. One with monetary and bureaucratic disincentives, intentionally implemented to separate “them” from “us”. A border facilitates the development of exaggerated or plainly false ideas on one’s nation and on those surrounding it by isolating the population. It can initiate a positive feedback loop that diverges cultures by allowing the main information on each other to be communicated by the media, stereotypes and rumors rather than by a real-life exchange.

This was the experience I had in Costa Rica, where xenophobic comments are not uncommon to hear while taking a bus, while having a conversation in a store or while hearing the preacher’s sermon in church. Recently I read an article on a Nicaraguan Uber driver that had lived for 20 years in Costa Rica, yet she lied about her nationality to avoid uncomfortable reactions from her clients. The story didn’t surprise me, but it did remind me of this ridiculous separation between the two countries. On the other side of the border, police officers are known for stopping cars with Costa Rican plates systematically. The bad relations between the countries were not started by borders (although the annexation of Guanacaste is surely a factor), but the fact of having a barrier complicating economic and social interchange unquestionably worsens the situation. I am not an advocate for immediate suppression of the borders, as I understand the complications that the cultural and economic differences of the two countries present. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for their suppression in a future where Central America’s relations have progressed into a more integrated system.

Central American integration is not a new idea, though. Since the 1800’s there were efforts to bring the geographical area closer, for instance, the Federal Republic of Central America which existed since 1823-1841 but was eventually dissolved for differences in ideology between the provinces. Most recently, the most successful effort has been SICA (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana) which addresses many economic, social and political issues, hoping to strengthen and unify Central America (along with The Dominican Republic which is also part of SICA). The entity, created in 1991, has had notable success in terms of trade agreements as well as environmental policies, but is not close to having the international power or credibility the European Union has. Another integration effort worth noting is the CA-4: established in 2006, this is an agreement between Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to implement free movement between the countries without the need of a passport. The agreement does not allow, however, free movement of goods and services, but it is a giant step in Central American integration- more than one has proposed the idea of expanding the treaty.

The experience of crossing borders across the European Union has shaped my outlook on physical and political divides. The dynamics of the area give me a desire to see something similar in all of Central America. It is hard to imagine something like this happening in the near future, particularly considering Nicaragua’s ongoing political instability issues, but in the grand scheme of things it seems we are heading into that direction. Populists, protectionists and separatists have risen and will continue to rise, but progress is not a straight line. Evidence shows that, if not in 5 years, if not in 50 years, most likely at least in 100 years, not only Central America, but our whole globe will be more united.

 

Australia’s Home Trotter: The World’s Happiest Marsupial (and Friends)

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Now when I mention ‘Australian animals’ you’re probably thinking of the most horrific, most deadly animals that we, in Australia, are so lucky to call our own. Spiders, snakes, crocodiles and sharks will probably come to your mind. If not, then you’re thinking about the Aussie icons, the koala, the kangaroo, maybe the emu. But I can wager a guess that most people outside of Australia haven’t heard of some of our cutest critters. So that’s what you’re to read about today: Australia’s cutest animals that you probably haven’t heard of, including the world’s happiest marsupial. After everything that’s happening in the world currently, I feel like we could all do with a moment filled with fluffy cuteness (well, I could, anyway). So, read away and discover more about some of Australia’s most adorable furry friends…

The Quokka

Ah, the quokka. The world’s happiest (and quite possibly cutest) marsupial. These little guys are the epitome of happiness. They’re some of the friendliest, non-threatening Australian animals, with many wild quokkas happy to munch on their lunch surrounded by humans. They’re so friendly, they’ll even take a selfie with you. Yep. You read that right. Wild animals who will take selfies with you. If you don’t believe me, feast your eyes on these adorable pictures (and no, these haven’t been photoshopped).

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Quokkas are a small type of wallaby (imagine a sort of small kangaroo), with greyish brown fur with lighter brown under surfaces. The quokka has a brown face, short rounded ears (which are adorable), black eyes and a black nose. Its feet, paws and short tail are brown. They’re generally found in Limestone heath, woodland, wetlands, and settlement, and in large numbers on Rottnest Island. The animal is the primary source of tourism to the island, with approximately 10,000 to 12,000 animals calling the island home. Quokkas hop along the ground and are, occasionally, known to climb trees as well. If the thought of these ridiculously cute marsupials hopping along the ground or scaling a tree (that’s probably more than ten times its size) with their adorable small paws and feet, doesn’t fill you with joy, I don’t know what will.

And, look, while I don’t suggest, recommend, or condone going out in the bush and looking for a quokka you can take a selfie with (as these animals are wild and shouldn’t really be interacting with humans in this way), they are very, very cute.

 

The Quoll

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While I’m speaking generally here, there are actually four types of quoll found in Australia, these being the northern, spotted-tailed, eastern and western quolls – but if I were to explain them all individually we’d be here all week. So, for now, we’ll just stick to the generic ‘quoll’.

Quolls are (mostly) carnivorous marsupials with a pointed snout, a long tail and brown to black fur spotted with white. Quolls are active creatures with bright eyes, an adorable pink nose (that begs to be ‘booped’) and many sharp teeth (that prevent you from ‘booping’ the nose). Depending on their species and size, quolls are known to eat reptiles and mammals, such as bandicoots, possums, echidnas and rabbits, insects, birds, frogs, lizards, snakes, and fruit.

Despite their dangerous(ly cute) appearance, three quoll species are an endangered species and one is vulnerable in Australia, with all four species having declined radically in numbers as a result of habitat loss or change across Australia, and introduced predators such as foxes and cats. Quolls also have a short lifespan, which may also contribute to their endangered and vulnerable listings. Small quolls live for only about two years, and the larger spotted-tailed quoll only lives for about four to five years. So, once you see a quoll, you probably won’t ever see it again. Sad, but the harsh truth, so enjoy its company while you can.

Similarly to the quokka, I wouldn’t recommend you go taking selfies with these cute little fluffs, mainly because they would most likely attack you and, with teeth like theirs, you’re more than likely going to be left with a nasty bite and some scrapes. So, just don’t do it and stick to taking pictures from afar.

 

The Bilby

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The bilby is possibly one of my favourite of all Australian animals and has been one of my favourites for as long as I can remember. There are two species of bilbies found in Australia, the greater bilby and the lesser bilby. However, due to the belief of the extinction of the lesser bilby in the early 1950s, the greater bilby is the only remaining bilby found in the world. Bilbies used to be found across 70% of Australia. However, now they can only be found in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory, the Gibson, Little and Great Sandy Deserts, the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia, and the Mitchell Grasslands of southwest Queensland; this accounts for only 15% of Australia’s landmass. This dramatic decline (and continued decline) in bilby numbers has resulted in the species to be labelled as vulnerable, with a population of less than 10,000.

This adorable marsupial has large, long, pinkish coloured ears that are almost hairless. These provide the bilby with great hearing and are believed to help keep the Bilby cool, which helps when you live in a desert. The bilby has incredibly soft, blue-grey fur, with a white belly, and a white-tipped black tail. Clearly, with a face like theirs, it’s easy to see why these soft, fluffy babies have become so beloved by the Australian people. So much so, in fact, Australia has adopted the bilby as the Easter Bilby, instead of the Easter Bunny (though we do talk about both). We love the Easter Bilby so much, we even Easter Bilby chocolate. I’m not kidding. Chocolate bilbies. They’re adorable.

So it’s safe to say that the bilby is easily one of Australia’s most loved, and most adorable animals, and I mean, with a face like that, it’s easy to believe. (They’re just so cute!)

 

The Tree Kangaroo

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Now you’ve heard of the kangaroo… You know, the red (or grey) thing with big feet and a cute little head that hops around like it owns the place (and most likely does). Well, they have cousins. And they might be even cuter than they are. Meet the Tree Kangaroo. Yes, folks, a kangaroo, but in a tree. Imagine the cross of a kangaroo and a lemur. That’s a tree kangaroo. Also, I should probably mention, these guys aren’t only found in Australia like their overhyped (but still very cute) cousins. They can be found, not only in Australia, but also West Papua, and Papua New Guinea, with six of ten species being found in Papua New Guinea. So, while some Australians claim that they’re ours, they’re really only partly ours (just like Russell Crowe!). The two species native to Australia are Bennett’s tree kangaroo and Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, with both species being found in the rainforests of Queensland.

 

These furry, squishable little creatures aren’t just a pretty cute, squishy face. They actually represent a group of macropods (animals that evolved into the kangaroos and wallabies of today) who, after coming down from tree to live on land, re-ascended into the safety of the trees to become the tree kangaroos that we know, and love, today. They’re a unique, one-of-a-kind animal and I think they’re positively one of the cutest things I’ve seen, over the internet that is. Due to the rarity of these incredible creatures, and their love of heights, they’re very difficult to spot, so difficult that you may not even see them with expert help. So, if you do happen to see one in person (and not just over the internet like me), count yourself lucky. You’re one of the few. Be sure to get photos of these huggable, little cuties (though it may be near impossible to get a selfie with one!)

While I know I’ve only introduced you to four of the many adorable cuties that Australia has to offer, I’ve already rambled enough about these lovable creatures. If you do happen to want to learn more about these animals (and perhaps raise awareness for those which are listed as vulnerable and endangered), you can visit the links below. I hope that these ridiculously cute fluffy babies brightened your day a little and brought some happier news than some of the other stories making headlines around the world at the moment. So remember, if you feel overwhelmed with all the negative, doom-and-gloom stories that are currently flooding the news, there is an adorably sweet and constantly-smiling fluff-ball somewhere in the world, or a fluffy, cuddly tree kangaroo just chilling in a tree. So be like that tree kangaroo and try to relax and focus on all the positive things in life!

 

Discover more about these animals or look at some other cuties in these links below:

https://www.experienceoz.com.au/en/australias-10-cutest-animals

https://www.buzzfeed.com/simoncrerar/cutest-australian-animals-ranked?utm_term=.jk3XKBRay#.be30B31yn

http://wildlife.rottnestisland.com/land/fauna/quokka

http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-quolls-australia

https://www.bushheritage.org.au/species/quolls

https://www.bushheritage.org.au/species/bilby

http://members.optusnet.com.au/bilbies/About_Bilbies.htm

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tree-kangaroo

http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2013/02/tree-kangaroos-best-photos-ever-taken

 

China’s Home Trotter: the Chinese Language and Glorious History

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The history of China, which some people say has been lasting for the past 4,000 years – but we Chinese usually think it has lasted for the past 5,000 years, depending on whether its beginning dates back to Shang or Xia Dynasty -, is long enough to be respected. A Chinese historian, Liang Qichao, advanced a statement last century that there were ‘four ancient civilizations’: Babylonia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient India and China. Whether this statement is acknowledged by others still remains a question, and the Chinese civilization would be the youngest of the four. However, the Chinese civilization would be the only one of the four that lasts until now. During thousands of years these civilizations have been invaded and conquered many times, making their once-advanced civilizations ruined. But China, to our glory, has never been completely conquered. The Mongol Empire, which almost invaded the whole Eurasian continent, also built its government on our homeland. However, their government chose to learn from or even copy our own culture. They chose to change themselves, but not to ruin us. While transfer of government happened all the way through – even a century ago we still didn’t have a sense of modern nation -, the development of the Chinese civilization was never interrupted. Of course, it has a lot of problems and will meet more difficulties in the future, but it is still alive until nowadays. To me, that is enough to be proud of!

Specific conditions can have quite a strong influence on the history and culture of a country or a region. According to A Global History (written by Stavrianos), it is, to a great extent, the specific geographical environment that made the Shang civilization, originating from 17 century BC, so different from any other civilizations in Eurasia. If anyone has interest in looking at a map, he may find out that China is located on the east side of Eurasia, surrounded by mountains, deserts and an ocean, which were all impossible to get through at ancient time. Compared with those located in the center of Eurasia, such as Mesopotamia, China apparently suffered mush less invaders because of those. But in the meantime, the constant war with nomadic people made Chinese people develop their fighting skills. Deserts in northwest China prevented foreign armies to invade us, but didn’t block normal trade between east and west. Compass, gunpowder and printing were introduced to west through a trade path going across the desert, called the silk road. Chinese civilization had kept an appropriate exchange with Ancient Roma, Arab, Persia during a long time. That means that Ancient China, at least sometimes, was not as unenlightened as one could think. Meanwhile, the topography and climate there are extremely suitable for agriculture development (most of the place is under a monsoon climate). Crops growing on this land were merely enough for its people at that time. Like specific conditions make Earth suitable for us to live, those made of the Chinese culture what it is today, guaranteeing its continuity and development over thousands of years.

Before we formally start with the history of China, I’d like to talk about Chinese, the language we use first. As we can figure, when talking about history, writing either names, people or places will be unavoidable. Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world. (Anyone who doesn’t believe it is welcomed to give it a try!) To those whose Mother tongue is English or French, or any other language where words are built as a combination of sounds, Chinese and Chinese characters seem amazingly different from what they have already known before. Chinese, marked as photography, comes instantly from symbols our ancestors carved. Actually, when a civilization first appeared, people tended to drew or carved some symbols to express themselves. These symbols were like drawings and hard to remember, so most of them gradually abandoned them and invented a totally different way to record things, known as alphabet. However, that was not the case for Chinese. Our Chinese ancestors didn’t give up on the drawing symbols. They chose to constantly simplify them until they became today’s Chinese characters. The very last simplification happened in 1950s-1970s. No matter how much they are simplified now, we can still find an obvious link between them and ancient drawings, which reflects even more apparently on some simple characters.

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As a kind of photography, Chinese doesn’t have any alphabet. Round 10 000 characters that make up for this lack of a Chinese alphabet. We don’t use a single ‘b’ because it is meaningless. Only in a word, ‘bee’ or ‘before’, does the letter ‘b’ have its meaning. But Chinese characters can be used alone, although we do also have words consisting of two or more characters. For instance, the word “马上”means ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’, but the single character “马”and“上”do have their own meaning. “马”means horse and “上”means up. It can be really free to express your thoughts. Knowing these, you can even create a new word yourself!

The problem is, it sometimes might be hard to translate Chinese into other languages such as English, and especially names. The British first name Mary is just Mary, you cannot spell something like, err… Maryiana. ‘Mary’ now is simply a name and the word itself doesn’t have real meanings. However, Chinese names (Japanese,Korean as well), consisting of one to three characters, most of the time two, can have their meanings, often the best wishes from parents. My name is Yihan. When it is written as Yihan, it is nothing but five letters. But Yihan, written as 艺涵 in Chinese, has a meaning. “艺”might mean ‘art’ or ‘talent’. “涵”can be explained as self-restraint. Names of places go the same. The capital of China, Beijing, also spelt as Peking, is written “北京”in Chinese. “北”is north and “京”is capital. Beijing means the ‘north capital’, because when it was first built it was in the north of the previous capital Yingtian, now known as Nanjing (南京,南means south, so it can be translated as the south capital. ) How could we know these through the seven letters that form the word Beijing? As you can see, if you are good enough at Chinese, you will find it interesting.

     Another difference is the tone. Chinese has a system of tones, which is a particular pitch pattern on a syllable that can be used to distinguish different meanings. We have four different tones in total. For example, characters 依yi 仪yi以yi义yi all spelt ‘yi’ in English, but they are read completely different in Chinese, known as first, second, third and forth tones. I notice that some foreigners find it hard to pronounce the second and third tones correctly… You may want to have a try!

Chinese doesn’t have any concept such as tenses or grammar. Especially in ancient times, people liked to use a lot of ellipsis and inversion, which needed readers to guess.

Language is a vehicle of culture. Translation can solve most of the problems, but not all. If you truly like Chinese culture, learning the language should always be a good choice for you!

 

Credits:: ciid.dk, blog.hutong-school.com

World’s Next Door: Welcome to the International Folklore Festival of Montignac!

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I am seated on a ping pong table in a small lost village in the Southwest of France, my laptop on top of my knees. A few meters away from me, a band of happy dudes from Romania are playing music, drinking beer and enjoying themselves. Later in the evening, I will join them, and  then we will most probably be joined by other people from Spain, Brazil or Palestine. I feel so grateful for all these meetings right now.

I am currently at the international folklore festival of Montignac.

 

It all started when I was six. My France-trotters of parents had decided they wanted my brother and I to travel around the country and visit a different region every year. For our second regional trip, we went to the French Périgord, a delightedly green area in the Southwest, full of medieval castles, prehistoric caves and welcoming locals. But at the end of our stay, while we were supposed to leave and not come back, I told my parents – actually, I cried them a river – that this was my paradise on Earth, and that I was coming back no matter what.

 

To their credit, we did come back the year after. And the year after that, and so on. It has been more than twelve years now. I grew up with this certainty that no matter how bored and unhappy I would get during a full year at school, there would always be this parachute, those two weeks in earthly heaven that would make me forget everything but the very definition of happiness.

 

I was ready to welcome anything related to that place, to say the least. That is why two years after, when we discovered the international folklore festival of Montignac, a little town nearby, the dice had already been loaded so that I welcomed it with open arms. Quickly, this festival became such a tradition that I could not imagine missing it.

 

First, one needs to imagine what Montignac is. This small village in only inhabited by 3000 people, most of whom stopped working, which doesn’t stop it from being a dynamic place whose cultural offerings are much wider than in many other largest towns. Besides its pittoresque cuteness and awesome inhabitants, Montignac, ‘Monti’, has two richnesses: the cave of Lascaux, the most well-known prehistoric cave in the world, and its festival. Every summer, during a week, this place no one has ever heard about before turns itself into a center of the world. Every year, folklore groups from ten different countries come to town to demonstrate their arts, in a week full of talent, music, dancing, and multiculturalism. Around every two years, two people who met there get married, and the awesome president of the festival never stops reminding people that this event is about peace, sharing, and welcoming the ‘youth of the world’.

 

For years now, I have seen the festival as a tourist, stuck in a public like one another. Then, in 2015, I called its director to ask for an interview for the newspaper I was working for at the time. Not only did he say yes, but he also proposed me a spot as a journalist for the festival’s gazette. I haven’t left it ever since. For the first time, I spent a week interviewing people, getting closer to artists, musicians and dancers from countries I didn’t even know existed, and it was wonderful. I remember a lot of work and tears for that period, but it paved the way for what was to follow. I am writing the festival’s newspaper for the fourth year in a row, and this year, I also became a guide for a Romanian group.

 

Being a volunteer, I discovered that instead of one festival, there really were two: the official one, where a show would take place every evening on a stage and the groups would make shorter performances during the day; and the ‘off’ one, even better: parties at night, mixing up people from all the countries invited, meetings backstage, deep conversations, Facebook friend requests and a team that works together. Behind the artistic performance, this festival has a whole spirit and is all about the people themselves. The leader of the Romanian group told me yesterday that coming to France cost them a lot of money; ‘But the President of this festival is a very good friend of mine. When he asks us to come, we come’, he said plainly.

 

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// The Romanian group parading in the streets; here, on the bridge //

 

I have many wonderful and cherished memories from the ten years that I have spent looking forward to the festival every summer. I have lived things as extraordinary as learning a few moves of salsa by the Colombian World Champions. In 2014, I witnessed a Mongol singer interpreting, in French, the universally-known ‘La vie en rose’ by French artist Edith Piaf. He probably could not understand anything he was saying, but hearing this was wonderfully moving. I also still have melodies from the United States and Japanese taikos stuck in my head. I will never forget the image of these two musicians, from Spain and Scotland, symbolically swapping their pipes, and I receive regularly news from my Georgian, Ecuadorian or Irish friends, met at this festival.

 

To me, it has been nothing less than life-changing. When I was younger, I thought about working in astronomy or history, before eventually applying for a degree in international relations and social sciences. I cannot imagine myself in any other kind of studies now, and I owe it partly to the festival of Montignac. Wouldn’t it have shown me how much I valued multiculturalism, meeting people from the whole world, culture itself and traveling, I wouldn’t have been that sure of my choice.

 

There is something wonderful in the way that every year, this youth of the world gathers in this little village of 3000 inhabitants. They then leave with an image of France shaped by Montignac, as much as we stay with the idea they gave us of their country. However, when I talk about the festival around me, I can be sure I’ll always have a few negative reactions, of people telling me that we should let these traditions from another age die for good. In France especially, when one says ‘folklore’, one often thinks about old men and ladies in dusty traditional costumes, boring steps and music and lack of modernity. I would be glad to welcome those people at this festival. Most of the other countries have a completely different approach of folklore than us; many of the groups come from universities and have modernized their traditions while remaining faithful to their core. This leads to an explosive mix of energy and tribute to their culture that unites generations and links those people’s past to their present. For many of them, music and dancing are also a way to express themselves politically: recently, in Honduras, to protest against the regime’s policy, people filmed themselves dancing in the very particular Honduran way, so as to show that nothing could steal their joy and identity away from them; and this year, the festival welcomed a Palestinian group, whose opportunity it was to exist as a people, away from the conflicts that torn Middle East apart.

 

At the heart of the festival is a delightful paradox: by keeping alive those traditions that come from an age without any globalization, these artists pave the way for even more positive sharing with people from all over the world. I call it an open-minded nationalism, and every year reinforces the happiness and confidence towards the future that I feel thanks to it.

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// 1300 people are waiting for the final performance at the Terrasse de l’Amitié //

Earth is Also a Star: Tin Marín Museo de los Niños

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I’ve always believed education to be the key when working towards the improvement of the world. Education provides the tools that we can use to build the better future we envision for ourselves and for our societies, creating paths and opening doors that help us achieve whatever we set our minds to.

I believe that investing in education for younger generations can be crucial in determining the future of a nation and its people, as we’re often told that children are the future. It is because of this that I decided to do my summer internship at Tin Marín Museo de los Niños (Tin Marin Children’s Museum) in El Salvador.

The museum was inaugurated on October 28, 1999, as a private non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the education, culture, and development of children through innovative and non-formal educational strategies. Since I was born in late 1998, I was able to grow up alongside the museum, which became an integral part of my life and one of the places I remember most fondly when thinking about my childhood in El Salvador. Casual visits, birthday parties, school trips – all of these I would look forward to knowing I would be headed to the magical place that was Tin Marin.

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This year, the museum will celebrate its 19th anniversary, having remained true to its mission from the start: contributing to the education of children and their companions to form integral and creative citizens through meaningful learning, cultural orientation, and fun experimentation with integrity, innovation, respect, and teamwork. The museum’s vision is also being met, as they strive to become the favorite, cultural, and fun space for children where they can learn and enjoy unique, exciting, and unforgettable experiences. Through this, the museum aims to be crucial protagonists in the development of the salvadoran youth’s personal, family, school, and social levels.

Today, the museum hosts 34 permanent exhibits that cover 5 different areas of learning: health, expression and communication, science and technology, environment, and culture. One of the permanent exhibits is El Mariposario (The Butterfly House), which hosts 16 different species of butterfly, where children can learn about the metamorphosis of a butterfly and how butterflies signify a healthy ecosystem. Another is La Cama de Clavos (The Bed of Nails), where children can lie on a bed composed of 1,500 iron nails and learn about different concepts of physics. El Mercado de Don Emprendedor (Mr Entrepreneur’s Market) is where children can shop for pupusas, milk, flowers, and more, and where they learn different mathematical concepts as well as enterprise skills. El Avión (The Airplane) teaches children about air travel at the museum’s small airport, and allows them to board the front half of a real Boeing 727-100 that was donated to the museum by the exhibit sponsors. Because the museum is a non-profit organization, all exhibits are sponsored by different private organizations that help fund and maintain them.

 

Along with the permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts different educational workshops as well as temporary international exhibits. The museum’s workshops include a Bubble Workshop, where children learn how to form different kinds of bubbles with special tools, a Recycling Workshop, where kids children learn how to make their own recycled paper, an Arts Workshop, where they can make art projects out of recycled materials, a Debate Workshop, where they learn the basic principles of debating for and against different topics, and a Science Workshop, where they can perform different simple experiments. The museum’s temporary exhibits are also quite varied, ranging from animatronic dinosaurs in their 2017 exhibit Mundosaurio, live farm animals in La Granja (The Farm), different reptiles in Reptilandia, and their current exhibit: Castillos y Dragones (Castles and Dragons), where visitors can see different animatronic dragons and learn about those mythological creatures.

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My first experience at the museum more recently, when I considered myself too old for the museum, was when I was sent work at the museum in 2014 as a part of my school’s work experience week. During this week, 9th grade students were sent out to different organizations related to different fields they were considering as career options for a 5-day internship. Myself and two other students were introduced to the Volunteer Guides program at the museum, where we worked as educational guides and helped give explanations and tours to visitors. While short, that experience was one that I really enjoyed and felt myself wanting to repeat. The program itself was quite small at the time, and I never could have imagined how much it would evolve in the following four years by the time I started my latest internship.

The Volunteer Guides Program as it is today is open mainly to highschool and university students, who serve as educational guides and help organize workshops and activities for visitors of the museum. The Guide’s role is to contribute actively to the education of Salvadoran children and youth, through an innovative method that allows the volunteer to acquire skills and abilities with a cultural orientation. It will allow you to create a real impact on Salvadoran children and youth, and at the same time obtain personal and professional growth.

The program itself is divided into different sections, that ultimately hold the same role at the museum but give different opportunities to those involved. The first branch is the Volunteer branch, where people can choose to help out at the museum out of their own accord for the experience. The next is the Social Service branch, where high school and university students can complete their national requirement of 150 hours of social service to obtain their high school graduation diploma, or up to 500 hours of social service for their university degree. This consists of a large part of the program, followed by the Scholarship branch. This branch provides those involved opportunities to obtain scholarships to help fund either their university studies, or language studies to help further their career. The final branch of the program is the Seminar branch, which started earlier this year and is about to finish its second round. This branch allows people to sign up for an educational seminar about leadership and entrepreneurship, and asks participants to contribute to the museum with a few shifts as guides.

In order to apply to any of these programs, the participants must first pass through the audition and training process. The first step is the audition, where volunteers must present themselves and participate in different dynamics that help situate them in the mindset of a volunteer guide. They must also present a game of their own and interact with the other people auditioning. Through this process, their dynamism and innovativeness is tested, as well as their interaction skills. Once they pass the audition process, they’re inducted into the training program where they are presented with 7 different exhibits from the museum. The participants then have one week to learn and memorize the information from these exhibits using the guide scripts, and they must present the 7 exhibits they were given themselves to the evaluators. If they pass this evaluation, they must then accompany official museum guides on 3 guided tours to get a feel of the job while having direct interaction with children from school groups or family visits. After this, they are officially integrated into the Volunteer Guides Program.

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Over the past month, I was able to contribute to the museum as a Volunteer guide but also help out with the Social Projection program at the museum, where they manage and control the logistical aspects of the Volunteer Guides Program, as well as help organize and record school group visits, attendance, seminar development, and more. They also help keep track of those involved in the Audition and Training programs, making sure that everyone is progressing at the right pace, as well as working on outreach to get more people involved in the program. The current project is that of their temporary exhibit – Castillos y Dragones – where the museum will include night shift options as opposed to only morning and afternoon.

I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity, as the museum turned out to be so much more than I remembered it being. I got to re-live my childhood through the children that I gave tours to. I gained a second family in the group of guides who welcomed me into the program with open arms. I was able to appreciate the effort and dedication that goes on behind the museum front with all the organization that goes on. I learned so much from the multiple exhibits that the museum holds. This experience is something that I’ll carry close to my heart for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to go back whenever I have the opportunity to do so.

If you’re ever in El Salvador, be sure to stop by Tin Marín for a visit, regardless of your age. The museum has something to offer for absolutely everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, teenagers to adults. We are all young at heart, and this museum is the perfect reminder of that.

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Honduras: A Norwegian in La Ceiba

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When people ask me what is the thing I like the most about my city, I always say that I love the combination of mountain, river and sea. Let me tell you the story of how these three get along…

 

They have a unique relationship. The river seems to seduce the mountain while she slides dearly through her jungles, giving life to the toucans and macaws. And the mountain, ah! She feels so fortunate to have a lover like the river, who’s so gentle and treats her like a queen.

 

But the river is so fretful and he can’t declare his eternal love to the mountain. That’s why he continues his path until he finds the sea. Unfortunately, the sea lives forever in love with the sky, so much that it imitates its color. The beach is full of rocks that the river gifted to the sea, but the sea orders his waves to march only so that the sky can see them. The foam of the armies that come and go, imitate the clouds of the sky. The sea longs to be the sky, to be one with the sky, to share a romance with the bluish lover from above. However, this love is impossible. Here’s the tragic romance that starts from the mountain and ends with the sea. Nature is a tragic beautiful romance, an eternal paradox that entangles itself in the branches of the jungle, in the cold water of the river that longs for the heat of the sea, in the sea that thinks it touches the sky at the horizon, without knowing the perpetuity of his deception.

 

When people ask me what it is that i like the most about Honduras, I say it’s precisely how out of simplicity there is beauty, art, and love. The small little towns with tall grass. The abundant mountains full of palm trees, monkeys, snakes, waterfalls, and happy people that will work all day to avoid staying in bed. In the coasts, we are blessed by Garifuna communities, full of people that go out to greet the sun when it comes in the morning. They take advantage of the visit to find out what the sea will gift them with. They light us up with their dances, and their percussion sweetens our ears with melodies that seem to enchant our waist so that we move it on the rhythm of the music. They make us happy with their laughs, their expressions and their desire to live.

 

In the west, the Mayan left their mark. Stunning cities, doors to the path, full of history that tells us how we were made out of corn, and how we obeyed the sun when it was time to start building. In the east, we have La Mosquitia, land that is alien to globalization and to the predominant vice of destroying nature. It has its own language as well.

 

I like when people fall in love with my city, as much I am deeply lost in its beauty. A great friend of mine came from Norway to visit me the other day. I decided to give him an exclusive tour, that rarely any kind could give you! And it’s not a way to underestimate guides – or to pump my own self-esteem -,  but if you ever have a friend in any city you want to visit, make sure it’s you friend who tours you around the city. You won’t be a tourist anymore: you will be part of his culture. I for example, knowing that my friend likes nature, fish, and the sea, I designed a quick trip for him to visit a little bit of all this.

 

First, I took him to my uncles and my dad’s farm in Jutiapa, my father’s town. This is my favorite place on earth at night. There is no power, no technology, nothing to distract you from the light that the bugs or the stars give you. To get there, one has to pass a scene of Jurassic Park, up until now, without dinosaurs along the way. Once you get to the heart of the jungle, you will encounter the hot water rivulet. It’s magical, like another world in our world.

 

Then we took him to Nueva Armenia, a Garifuna community under the municipality of Jutiapa. My friend played a world cup match, the most intense one I’ve seen. All the players played their heart out there, and I’m also pretty sure that it was the match with the youngest players in history! After that, I took him to the sea, where the atlantic ocean clears you mind. Where the wind seems to have curative powers because it feel like no problem is too big when it caresses your face. And then, I took him to parts of my city, telling him their history and parts of my story.

 

After the tour, I was really glad to hear that he loved it and that he had spent such a great day. Of course, we had to experience a little of the night life, so I took him to a bar whose popularity has raised a lot recently, called El Jaguar. Here, he gave a try to the most well known shot, a tequila with chilli, know as Semen del Diablo. We were both very tired but lucky; the day had been great, with excellent weather, and at the bar, we even found some of my highschool friends I hadn’t seen for so long.

 

To my surprise, my friend told me my city really reminded him of his hometown. The beauty of the world is that two completely different countries can have more in common than what you think. What would Norway have in common with Honduras? They have different climate, economy, politics, culture,… CLIMATE! And then, he told me that his town was also a coastal town, the food that they eat was similar because they eat fresh seafood whenever they want.

 

Even the most opposite poles have something in common, they attract each other. Let’s not forget that idealists live all around the world. Whether it’s the desert or the north pole, there are always people everywhere with cravings of saving the world. The beauty of our world is that people from opposite countries can become best friends. The beauty is within all that we have in common, and it’s good to remind ourselves there’s always something we share, no matter how different we are to the other.

 

Credits: hondurastravel.com

 

Globe Trotter: Naples: An Organized Chaos

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At 7:15 in the morning on the dot, on a warm June day, a train arriving from Rome stopped at the Stazione Napoli Centrale. I set foot out of it knowing only rumors I’d heard about Naples from Italian friends, and only having seen a couple pictures of the city on the Internet. The air was thick with humidity, and the rising sun announced a hot weather to come. My friends and I began walking towards the center. Soon enough we had left the crowded train station and were walking down littered, deserted streets, where we would only see small groups of locals in old clothes, glaring at our clearly foreign outfits. The streets smelled, and I began feeling a familiar sense of alarm that I had often felt in various Costa Rican cities, but only seldom in a European one. In retrospective, this was the calm before the storm.

Eventually, we reached busier streets, and as time passed more and more people, as well as vehicles, began swarming out. We arrived at a 4-lane main street with a crosswalk right in front of us; however, no car seemed interested in the slightest reduction of speed. We looked closer while we waited to, maybe, get a nice driver who’d stop for these three tourists. We then realized that close to us there was an uncontrolled intersection with 4 lanes perpendicular to the main street, with cars transiting just as fast. As a group of cars crossed the intersection, we began crossing as well. A few cars on the main street managed to cut through anyway and at our sight decided to swerve rather than slow down. After crossing, I began seeing several motorcyclists with no helmet, large construction zones that seemed abandoned and the huge residential buildings with drying laundry covering most of the windows. I began getting an idea of the kind of place I was in.

The trip to Naples had been spontaneous. We had been staying in Tuscany and had already seen both Rome and Florence. After having had nonstop Italian food for over a week, visiting the birthplace of Pizza seemed appropriate. Thus, we decided to stay a night in Rome and part on a daytrip early the morning after, with the main objective of seeking the best pizza we’d ever tasted. Train tickets were relatively cheap, and the ride was only slightly over an hour.

The pedestrian center had a whole different, yet equally muddled aesthetic. We paced down narrow streets between large housing structures, where, at the base, many homes had their doors open, with no one inside; presumably, because there was not much to steal. We reached a major plaza and, finally, we were surrounded by tourists as well as hundreds of street sellers and artists. The lack of care for public infrastructure, the utter disregard for basic laws and the steering-wheel locks in parked cars all pointed towards the poorness and, frankly, the dangers of the city. My feeling of discomfort, however, began to disappear and it slowly turned into an adventurous and curious sensation. Particularly because I was astonished by the city’s disorder that contrasted its ancient richness, seen through its astonishing architecture and monuments, as well as its natural beauty of coasts, mountains and surrounding islands. It felt like Naples fate had taken a wrong turn at some point in its history.

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Neapolis, the city’s original name meant new city. It was founded around 600 BC as a Greek settlement and taken over by the Roman empire a couple hundred years later. It changed hands various times during the middle ages, belonging to both France and Spain at separate times, becoming a duchy at one point and eventually joining Sicily to form a kingdom. Considered a powerful city, it was an area of dispute and power for centuries. During the Renaissance, Naples was the home of various celebrated artists, symbolized by monuments, architecture and literature. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the capital began to see trouble: at the time of its unification to Italy. Naples was no longer the capital. For the first 10 years of the Kingdom, it was extremely far from the centralized government, located in Turin first and then in Florence. Massive emigration, government negligence and a cholera epidemic were all factors of the city’s slow fall from grace. To top it off, during the Second World War, Naples was the city to receive most bombs in the country. The city’s postwar recovery was slow and is yet another cause of the city’s present state.

Even understanding the historical background, the city’s environment is something to admire. It gives off the impression that the city was abandoned, and the inhabitants now populate its ruins. The city’s ordered chaos was what I imagined Northern African cities such as Marrakech or Tripoli would look like, and as the day advanced, I wanted more of it. It reminded me of how various American friends had mentioned that visiting Costa Rica gave them a sense of adventure and danger that they didn’t get back home.

Given that I already came from such a place, it hadn’t crossed my mind that visiting other poor/undeveloped (for Western standards) area would give me the same feeling. It definitely did, and, ever since, I’ve been contemplating at the amount of ways of living humans have. The average Neapolitan lives a life of much more insecurity than I have (I haven’t even mentioned the Mafia yet), but what I have been accepting is: that is all that it is, a different way of living. And that was exactly the core of my amazement. The fact that these people’s way of living: dealing with danger, noise, heat and much more was so distant to the way I live my life currently. The trip was a reminder of how most of the world lives in that situation: uncertainty and struggle. Now, knowing that Naples is only the tip of the iceberg, I crave to see more of this, more places, more people, more dangers that show the diversity and the resilience of our species. I crave to see how my fellow human beings deal with the challenges of nature, of ourselves and of everything that we have created.

PS. We most definitely found the best Pizza we had ever tasted in Naples.

France: We Are the Champions, my Friends

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3:20 pm. We were wandering in the Old Harbour of Fréjus, a nice little town on the French Riviera. I had a French flag wrapped around my shoulders like a cloak and my brother was wearing a roaster-like hat. On our way to the one bar that finally let us in, we crossed the path of more French flags and supporters than I’ve ever seen, including a man whose hair was tied in blue-white-red. Most bars were closed by a big sign claiming they were fully booked; the World Cup final, for which the French team was considered a favorite, would start in a bit more than an hour.

 

That French people were hopeful is the least we could say. There were omens, you see. The one and only French victory in the Football World Cup had happened precisely 20 years ago; in 1998 and 2018 alike, Israel has won the Eurovision, we’ve been in the Group C, we were opposed to Croatia… We had to win. And added to this, our national team was  cute, enthusiasm-fostering, and formed by a balance of older experienced players and young wisps. So were the supporters: some of them had hardly ever known any other World Cup, some others had obviously lived the 1998 one, but all of them were screaming and waving flags all the same.

 

It’s 10 pm now, and I’m writing seated on my flat’s loggia. Right outside, a man has just plunged in the normally out-of-bounds-by-night residency’s swimming pool, crying that ‘On est les champions’, ‘We are the champions’. We can still hear the cars’ klaxons on the other side of the town, and memories of this afternoon keep flooding in.

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Not even the skin-burning sun of the South could have deterred the French fans to be there, gathered in the bars on that day. Of the two hours I spent seated in that bar, I’ll remember the Marseillaise that we sang altogether at the beginning of the game; the joy of the supporters, that would literally jump from their seats and yell at the screen every time a goal was scored or a foul committed to one of our players. Behind us, a painted man was howling in a megaphone, claiming that we were the French people and that we would win, enumerating the names of the players or singing parts of the national anthem.

 

1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 4-2. Every time we scored, we would see young men running to the bridge linking the two halves of the Old Harbour, climbing to its very top and jumping in the water, their fists raised and a French flag flying behind them like a superhero cloak. Five minutes before the Final whistle, someone in the bar stood up and cried, ‘In five minutes, we’re World Champions!’.

 

And indeed we were.

 

Next thing I knew, people were hugging people they didn’t know; my brother fell in my arms, yelling ‘We’re World Champions!’. Around us, everybody seemed exhausted as if they’d play the match themselves. Dozens of people were running to the bridge, clapping and singing the Marseillaise; the streets were now colored by blue, white and red smokes, and when people came back into the bar to watch the team being given awarded the FIFA World Cup, half of them were wet and happily wringing their clothes after jumping in the Mediterranean Sea fully dressed.

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When we came back in town, surrounded by the continuing sound of the klaxons, it was to see people half-seated out of their cars, giving high fives to every passer-by in the streets, waving French flags and still singing. Euphoria, that’s how we can call it, and the young boy that nearly ran into me yelling that we were World Champions could not deny that.

 

So now we won, the day after our National Day. On the eve of that victory, the French skies were illuminated by fireworks. But what is to be expected, now? This victory smells like a midsummer night’s dream. As the Captain Hugo Lloris, also gamekeeper, very beautifully stated, this team and their victory have united the French people in joy and happiness, and it’s like this that we love to see our country. Tonight, France was a nation like I hope it could always been: proud, with its head held high, and positive in the sense that our identity was not built on the rejection of others, but on something great that we have achieved. Not only them, the players on the ground, but us, the French nation, in the sense of a body of people that hold together and stay together.

 

Even though that evening also contained its share of evil (hundreds of cars caught fire and many women were sexually harassed in the crowds), I do expect positive effects of this victory on France. Economically at first; this day probably made many bars’ turnover skyrocket, and football clubs will probably welcome more newcomers than they’ve ever dreamed of. French football players will have a new reference and an enduring trust on this Golden generation. The feminine football World Cup, that is taking place in France in 2019, will also, as far as I can imagine, be much more followed than it could have been without this triumph.

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Deep inside myself, I hope that it will go beyond. I’m however afraid that in a week, these French flags that have flourished on the windows through the past weeks will disappear, even though there would be thousands of reasons to keep them, as there are thousands of reasons to be proud to be French. Here’s one: two weeks ago, I watched the France vs Argentina game surrounded by young people who’ve survived cancer. When time came to sing the Marseillaise, they stood up hand on the heart, and simply told me after that, by its universal social security that paid for everything to heal them, ‘France has saved their life’.

 

We could be even prouder if we now could see immigration as what brought us the player that scored our 4th goal in the final. Kylian Mbappé is the second player in history who ever scored a goal in a World Cup final before the age of 20; for weeks now people have been replacing the Fraternité in our motto by his name, to make it ‘Liberté Egalité Mbappé’ – and his Father is from Cameroon and his Mother from Algeria.
A few hours after this victory, that made France – and its President – smile broadly and yell of happiness, I can only hope that its effect will hold as long as possible. Now I can only thank – that’s gonna be terribly cheesy and non-original, I’m sorry – everyone who made this possible. Our wonderful team first, who two years after our country was deeply wounded by a terrorist attack on the National Day, embodied its beautiful values with a talent pushed to its unexpected. The Croatian team, too; we say, in France, that winning against no danger is triumphing with no glory; and even though I do not quite agree with the two goals you scored on that day, your game made us shiver and be proud of playing against such strong opponents. And eventually, in advance, I’ll say thanks to the French nation: our 23 players, their coaches and their staff have brought that Cup home, but the show must go one. It’s our role, now, to decide what we want to make of this victory.

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France: Vive la République, et Vive la France!

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It happened 229 years ago, at the early dawn of the first French revolution. On July 14th, 1789, the French people marched over to the Bastille, a prison that embodied the absolute authority of the King, overthrew its administration, and took hold of the weapons it contained. It was the very first time the people of Paris would get directly involved with the French revolution.

 

The 14th of July has since become our National Day. I usually spend it on holiday at the French Riviera, the Mediterranean coast in the Southeast of France. I have always associated that day to the sand cracking under my feet while I picnicking on the beach with my family. My brother and I would go swimming in the sea until we were freezing and then we would all go to the neighboring harbor to have ice cream. As the sun progressively disappeared, I would read under its declining light until my parents forbade me to go any further. We would make jealous remarks on how wonderful it would be to be on a boat instead of the crowded beach; and then, we would wait for the National Day fireworks, say that ‘They threw it later than last year’, that ‘It was one of the best ever, without doubt’, and then hurry up to the car to avoid getting stuck in the crowd.

It’s because of these kind of moments that I love my country.

 

I love France, because we have so many various landscapes. If each landscape corresponded to a planet as in Star Wars, a whole galaxy wouldn’t be enough to depict them all. From the heaven-like Riviera, in which the Sun has the scent of olive oil, lavender, and the sound of crickets; to the neighboring Camargue, with its deafening flamingos and its salt marshes. From the Northern Lille that looks like a colorful mash-up between Disneyland and St-Petersburg, to the greener-than-green Périgord in the Southwest, so full of forest that it looks black from above. We have a bit of England, Italy, Germany, Spain and so much more, as much as we have mountains and prairies, dynamic towns and deep countryside, rainforests and hot beaches.

 

I love France, because the country still wears the remains and the open wounds of its history. We still have the aqueducts and walls built by the Romans that invaded us, which stand firm and proud in the South, thousands of years after they they were erected. Castles from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance can still be spotted everywhere, each with its own glorious past, notorious characters and architectural originality. In France, men competed with nature to create the most beautiful wonders, and it sometimes did not even need to build to win the game. The beaches of Normandy, where Eisenhower’s troops landed to free the country in 1944; the maquis, where the French Resistance would hide during World War II; or the terribly sad Verdun in the East. All of them keep reminding us that our ancestors fought for the right reasons.

 

I love France, because I love the way it’s seen by foreigners. Travelling to the other side of the world, I have been told about this universal cliché of Marcel the mustached cyclist wearing his beret and carrying his baguette and croissant – which is both very French and ridiculously non-French at the same time, and a quite good depiction of my late Grandfather. I have been asked whether France was in Paris – ‘well, that’s not exactly true’ – and I have been mocked for my love relationship with cheese. Last, but certainly not least, I have almost fondly fainted in front of foreigners turning our Bonjour into a ‘Boonjouh’ – which is so inhumanely cute that I can hardly breathe thinking about it. I feel so honored whenever foreigners try and learn our beautiful headache of a language.

 

I love France, because of our gastronomy. French-gastronomically speaking, I am a living shame; I can’t help but declare my love for thai food and, even worse, I am a vegetarian and will make a face in front of a boeuf bourguignon or a blanquette de veau. However, I’m still the first one to very scientifically demonstrate that, since France is the world center of gastronomy, and Lyon is the French center of gastronomy, and the indoor supermarket Les Halles Paul Bocuse is the Lyonnese center of gastronomy, and having lived seventeen years right in front of the establishment, I am therefore the happy embodiment of French cooking. More seriously, and even aside of our typical and universally known dishes that boldly mix meat, vegetables and tasty sauce, our cheeses are a delight, our desserts are life-saviors, and a British journalist found exactly the right word saying that our croissants are nothing but ‘buttery pillows of perfection’.

 

I love France, because of the memories of our past and our art. There is a place in Paris that I love among all others, called the Panthéon. Great men and women are buried in this impressive building that always gives me strength, confidence and unlimited love for those who lived there before me. Recently, an incredible woman, whose name was Simone Veil, and her husband Antoine, joined the Panthéon as a show of gratitude for Simone for her involvement in the debut of the European Union, her contribution to the memories of the Shoah after she was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, and her fight in favor of women’s rights and abortion. This country is also that of Victor Hugo, whose torrential writing style makes him our land’s most well-known Writer; of Edmond Rostand, whose character Cyrano de Begererac is a perfect embodiment of France; of Pasteur, who invented the vaccine…

 

I love France, because of Paris. Paris is a town like no other. It’s a whole. It’s not only because of the comforting light of the Eiffel tower that caresses one’s windows at night. Neither is it only because it’s impossible to get lost because one always has a famous monument to guide them back on path, such Montmartre, the Invalides, the Louvre or the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It can be because whenever one is randomly walking in the metro or in the streets, one can simply happen to find the Panthéon or remains of the Bastille by chance. Paris is the town of the unexpected and of the sweetness of life, that endured even when it was hit by one of the most devastating terrorist attacks of our time.

 

I love France, because I recently spent a weekend with young people who were sick with cancer and whose treatment was paid entirely by the social security, no matter their age or their social situation. My Grandfather – not the one that looked like Marcel the cyclist, the other one – was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 65, and the State paid to ease his life and make it last in the best possible conditions, without even counting. These social benefits may cost a ‘crazy money’, Mr President; but last Saturday, as the sound of the Marseillaise played for a football match, all these people whose lives were saved thanks to it, got up and sang with their hands on the hearts, spontaneously declaring « J’aime mon pays » (I love my country), « Vive la France ». I sang with them.

 

I love France, because I was lucky enough to travel, and to see enough beauty and kindness in the countries I visited as to not compare them to mine. But every time I would go abroad, I would feel a peak of patriotism, far from any aggressive nationalism, and make myself my country’s ambassador, and hope I’d give enough of a positive snapshot of France to, one day, welcome home those people who welcomed me.

 

I love France, even though we did not welcome the 629 migrants saved by the Aquarius, even though we’re plagued by an enduring crisis and well-known for our strikes, even though we’re criticized for our ambiguity towards laicity and for the laws of our state of emergency; I love France, even though the memories of our past are far from being all glorious, and wars and colonization should not be forgotten.

 

I love France, because I have the right to point out what I think are its flaws without fearing anything. I love France, because those flaws do not make me want to leave but to try and change them a bit, at my level, because besides them, there’s everything else to love.


Vive la République, et vive la France!

 

Credits: An Adventurous World

Thoughts: The Mishandled Beauty

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After the past month, there shouldn’t be any uncertainty left about what is the lingua franca in the field of sports. For over thirty days, sports fans from all over the world have gathered together to celebrate and support their national football teams to win the FIFA World Cup that is getting closer to its end in Russia.

And what could be better than knowing that by watching a match, you’ve suddenly become part of a bigger community? The broadcasting rights for the 2018 World Cup were sold to well over than one hundred countries, and along with the Summer Olympic Games, it is the most internationally attractive live event on television. It has been almost impossible to avoid pictures where the supporters of different teams pose to the camera together in a friendly way, wearing anything they can find with their national flag colors or extra-large sombreros (I am pointing at you, Mexicans!) in order to express their support to their country. These photos taken on the spot and spread by international newsrooms have been ideal to strengthen the image of global sports events bringing people together.

There is naturally nothing wrong with this image, quite the opposite. It has been refreshing to see pictures of funnily dressed fans filled with true joy, while it tends to be the fact that the majority of media coverage is dedicated to less cheerful topics such as political scheming and international human rights violations. However, it would be wrong to close one’s eyes from the fact that these two worlds are tied together more closely than it would be pleasant to admit.

Russia was appointed to host the 2018 World Cup in 2010 by a decision made by the FIFA organizing committee. The years that followed the host nomination have, unfortunately, left room for doubts on whether the hosts are receiving some undeservedly positive power due to the tournament. We’ve heard the list several times; the annexation of Crimea as well as military intervention in Syria make it self-evident that Moscow is getting more positive attention during the tournament than it has received in many years. It is appropriate and necessary to ask whether it is acceptable that the time when the whole world is, for once, peacefully united under a single event, the spotlight is growingly focused on geopolitical interests that are urged forward by using hard power. Even if the sport itself is disconnected from daily politics – and that is the way it should be -, it would be desirable to leave more room to the event rather than to the host.

We can find even more sources of insecurity that threaten the ideal where nations are given opportunities to gather together peacefully without accidentally having to take a stand on political issues, let alone quietly support corruption. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and the most profitable leagues around the sport make revenues that correspond to billions of US dollars per year. It is therefore not a surprise that the international governing body of this worldwide sport,  the FIFA, holds significant powers. Strong authority should always be accompanied with a careful sense of responsibility, yet the organization has had some trouble with living up to these expectations in recent years due to serious corruption scandals. One of them, just to mention one example, is connected to the 2022 World Cup tournament that was given to Qatar. In addition to possible bribes involved, the organizing team of the country has been accused of mishandling migrant labour that works on the construction sites of the future World Cup venues. Something is not quite right when a regular football fan is forced to balance between buying a ticket to a sports game he or she has been waiting for a lifetime and pondering on whether seeing that match supports actions that should not be encouraged.

 

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The good thing is that FIFA has a role model when it comes to organizing a meaningful tournament that can be looked back with satisfaction afterwards. The International Olympic Committee definitely doesn’t have a clean track record for corruption either, yet the latest Winter Olympic Games is a good example of how to steer the publicity brought by the international event to a direction that benefits more people than just the elite of the hosting country. Pyeongchang 2018 was branded as ’the Peace Olympics’. Even if the games were accused of hypocrisy and giving a free propaganda platform to North Korea, the idea that such multinational events should serve the common international good is the right path to follow. And ultimately the world got a good piece of news when it was announced that the US president Donald Trump and the leader of North Korea, Mr Kim Jong-un, would meet each other peacefully in the speculated aftermath of the Olympic games. Even if it is too early to draw far-fetched conclusions from the discussions that took place between these two heads-of-state in mid-June, in the best-case scenario the future history tellers can link the 2018 Olympics as part of a bigger continuum of increasing dialog between former hostiles. We can hope that similar improvement of worldwide good will be achieved between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin during talks that are scheduled to take place in Helsinki a day after the World Cup final.

 

Football is an irreplaceable asset to mankind. It is one of the rare things that connect people with drastically different backgrounds; children in poor developing countries and wealthy professional players, as well as nearly everyone in between, know how to kick a ball. It is a universal language than can have a stronger unifying effect than any citizenship or common tradition. Above all, it is far more than just a token in the game of those in power.

As the tournament is steadily coming to an end, it is more than important to switch on the TV and enjoy the final match before waiting for another four years for the next World Cup. Still, it is necessary to avoid closing our eyes from the faults that lie behind the glamorous surface; football and millions of its fans worldwide deserve ethically sustainable conditions to their favorite event. This beautiful sport is worth it.

 

Credits: Pixabay, the Epoch Time

China: Is Our School Life Heaven or Hell?

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Like many other countries, China takes education seriously. In China, we normally have a six-year primary school, followed by a three-year middle school (Junior) and a three-year high school (Senior) before we finally enter college. Many differences between China and other countries may be found throughout these twelve years.

 

Why heaven? School life in China brings its teens a lot of good qualities!

Team spirit: We Chinese like to emphasize the conception of a team. While many foreign schools allow their students to choose their lessons themselves and therefore, be put in different classes with different classmates, it doesn’t apply to most of Chinese schools. We have certain schedules and are supposed to stay in a certain classroom, together with certain classmates. So the conception of a “team”, or in this situation, a “class”, seems to be much more important, for we spend a lot of time with our mates. Almost every teacher in Chinese schools considers ‘class-building’ as a hard but unavoidable task. So do we, the students. We study together, exercise together, eat in our school dining room chatting with others. The time spent together strengthens our relationships. Classmates are also our great friends. Even after many years pass, students may keep in touch with their previous classmates.

To improve students’ team spirit, many school activities are held in the name of the class, such as the annual celebration of New Year, which encourages students to make performances in their class and have fun together. There are also some activities for which classes compete against each other, such as our Art Festival, Technology Festival and sports meeting. Winners of such activities are often announced as “Class One” or “Class Two” instead of their names, even if the victory is due to only one student.

While fully respecting every individual, we have to acknowledge the great importance of team. All the wonderful achievements in China today rely on a team of people devoted to the group.

 

Discipline: Chinese schools especially emphasize students’ sense of discipline. It doesn’t mean we need to live as soldiers, but means that we have a much stricter code of conduct to obey, especially in those famous schools. This code of conduct aims to instruct students about what is good and what is bad, how to do things correctly when we are still young and easily misled by others. We are supposed to follow it exactly, in order to grow to be a better person.

Military training is a necessary part in almost every Chinese middle schools, high schools and colleges, often before new students start their new school life. It is held in a special base, not real army, but by real soldiers. During these days students are required to learn some basic skills like goose step. But the most important thing is that students can learn discipline and tenacity from a-week-or-more training. These qualities are thought to be significant in study and in daily life.

 

Depth of knowledge: Chinese students usually have nine main subjects (including Chinese, mathematics, English, physics, chemistry, biology, politics, history and geography) and several other subjects (such as music, art, physical education and computer). Before going to college and choosing a specific major, we have to study all these subjects. Because of that, we Chinese students can grasp comprehensive knowledge during middle school and high school.

Chinese courses are generally more difficult than in many other countries. For example, in Australia, when students learn conic curve, they merely know its definition. However, in China, the use of some relevant theorems is more important. Generally speaking, Chinese students learn much more difficult things than some others’.

 

Why hell? Breaking off teenagers’ wings

Utilitarianism: Chinese education is often called an ‘exam-oriented education’. This nickname is a typical expression of the utilitarianism in the education practice.

Here’s a typical situation as an example. Qian Liqun, one of the most famous professors in Peking university, once taught a session named “Selected readings of Lu Xun” in a famous high school. But then, he found that only twenty students came, for the reason that “We wouldn’t have disliked coming to your class, but it was not relevant for Gaokao (college  entrance examination), so we’d rather get infos on Peking university at first and then come to listen to your class”

To get a higher mark in the college entrance examination, students have to give up on their own interests and only focus on studying mandatory courses. In my school, most of the books are forbidden when we are in third grade, because the books are seen as a waste of time, no matter how fantastic they are are. Also,most of the students only have to worry about their school work, so they rarely get part-time job when they are young. Nor are they devoted to social or volunteer work, which makes them lack some basic and essential skills when they grow up and get to work.

Even more: Chinese children, especially children in primary school, also study many extra skills such as music, drawing, dancing. However most of them do not study for fun or to follow their hearts, but according to their parents expectation of upward mobility.

Most of the time, what the students study and know is not what they like; what has a tremendous importance is not what they need. The society never needs a worker who only knows how to work out a mathematic problem, but doesn’t know how to live and work with other people.

 

Simplification: In Chinese middle school, we hardly have any optional courses, and because of the existence of the settled class, all of us get the same knowledge. The single examination system also limits students’ horizons. In China, there is a vivid metaphor: our middle school education is just like an assembly line, producing the exactly same product, not taking care of the personality at all!

On the other hand, in a couple of top-range middle schools, there are abundant clubs and school activities prepared for students. But we also have to admit that the clubs are virtually imaginary in a certain sense, for students have few breaks and time to organize various activities, and the school activities are limited to a number of traditional ones (such as reciting, singing, sports meetings and so on). Most of these activities are still team work and lack demonstrations of any personal ability.

The homework we are given is also a reason why we can talk about simplification. Unlike some European and American countries, there is no essay to write in our middle school homework, but fixed subject. Even Chinese compositions, the one task that can best reflect one’s theoretical thinking, also have many fixed routines. Therefore, Chinese middle school students easily lack personal analytical and thinking skills.

So when everyone learns the same courses’ content, reads the same books, does the same exercises everyday, how can our education raise skilled people who love the field they’ll be working in and are good at it? 

 

Harm: The harm caused by education in China is divided into two aspects: physical and mental.

Long hours of study have seriously affected the health of Chinese students. In China, due to the serious pressure of competition, most of the students have to work more than 16 hours a day. For example, in our school, we have to go to school at 6:50, and go back home at 23:30. Many students still can’t finish their homework at that time, so after they get back home, they still have to work many more hours. “Sleep only five hours” is a typical thing people in grade three can be told, because it is an evidence of dedication and in some cases, it can lead to better grades. But apparently, chronic lack of sleep and physical exercise can do great harm to health. In a general way, high school graduates are always in poor health. (We have a joke that says: every student in grade 3 will gain more than ten pounds!)

Distorted competition regimes and excessive pressure can also be the cause of many psychological problems. “Every senior grade 3 student cries at least once a year “. More seriously, some students develop autism or anorexia. Some students only consider their grade and are never curious towards the outside world. They even think that chatting with others is a waste of time. It’s a vicious circle: they become more and more asocial, and without necessary communication, the pressure on their shoulders becomes heavier; so they see, even more, their grades as a reflection of their own value as an individual. And once they loose the competition, their mental state will sharply deteriorate.

 

Education is a thing that has its good and bad sides but can hardly be evaluated fairly. Many Chinese parents hate the education they have gone through, so they spare no effort to send their own kids abroad. But there also rumors that some schools in Britain and America want to introduce Chinese textbooks to their class. Actually, the evaluation of education can never be separated from the conditions of the country. What’s the special national conditions of China? It is huge and has a large population. There is an obvious gap in economy, society and population quality and therefore, education. The normal solution in some developed countries now seems unfair in China. Some provinces, that have a better environment and better opportunities, are much better in education without doubt, which is also unfair for those who live in mountainous areas. Also, there are a huge number of graduates every year. Only in Shaanxi, my province, the number of high school graduates goes up to 268,000. A universal examination may then appear to be a convenient way to deal with the problem. School life in China today is then merely decided by the way colleges choose their students.

Twelve years have passed. Now, when I look back to the life I have had these years, I can’t say whether they were good or bad. They are memories. How many twelve years will we have? Eight? Nine? No more than ten. These years were, at the utmost, 10% of my lifetime. And no matter whether they were heaven or hell, they are a precious period of time in our life, that make us the people we are today. School life in China is far away from perfect. We are still trying to improve it. But more important, it is neither heaven nor hell: it is memory, or rather, life.

 

Written by Yihan Liu, Keeper of China

Photo credits: http://shsworldstudies.blogspot.com

Australia: Five Natural Wonders of South Australia

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Living in the suburbs of the city of Adelaide in South Australia, I’ve always felt like there weren’t that many eye-catching natural phenomenon around my home state. We don’t have a beautiful harbour (or a harbour bridge), nor do we have magnificent gorges. For all I knew, South Australia was basically a random mix of ordinary climates and landscapes.

Guess what? I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

After a trip to Mount Gambier for a music event, I remembered, and re-discovered, the beautiful sink-holes that litter the Mount Gambier area. This prompted me to search for other incredible landscapes and landmarks around South Australia and, lo and behold, I found many more incredible places that either I had forgotten about or hadn’t even heard of before.

So, I present to you the Five Natural Wonders of South Australia (that I have discovered thus far).

  1. The Umpherston Sinkhole

IMG_5533The Umpherston Sinkhole is actually the sink-hole that inspired this article in the first place. It was the first sink-hole I ever visited (about 4 years ago) and it left a lasting impression on me. It remains one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever visited, and I’ve made some treasured memories while I have visited. This special place is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing attraction I’ve visited, with the hole itself hosting a stunning, unbelievably green, garden of a variety of plant life, making it the perfect place for some stunning photo opportunities.

The Sunken Garden, as it’s also known, was naturally formed when the limestone roof of the underground chamber collapsed, forming the gaping cavity that can be seen today. The garden that now occupies the cavity was only appeared in 1886, when James Umpherston, the name-sake of the sink-hole, created the oasis that can be seen today. The lush ferns and hydrangeas, as well as a serene fountain, are just some of the reasons why this garden is so popular, though its popularity may also be a result of the (adorable) possums that also call this masterpiece of nature home.

If you haven’t visited this gorgeous place, I highly, highly, recommend it. However, if my words haven’t convinced you, then maybe my pictures will instead.

  2. The Remarkable Rocks

IMG_5535.jpgThe Remarkable Rocks are a group of granite rocks that, after 500 million years of erosion by wind, rain, and sea-spray, form a unique set of shapes and shadows, depending on the position of the sun. These lichen-stained rocks can be found on Kangaroo Island (which is also a beautiful place and is one of the most highly recommended places to see in South Australia). The orange lichen decorating the surface of the rocks also changes colour, from rust to gold, depending on the lighting.

Not only are the rocks themselves great photo opportunities, but they sit on a cliff overlooking the ocean, providing a beautiful ocean setting that the island itself is so well-known for.

The best time for viewing the rocks is said to be in the early morning (around sunrise) and in the evening (during sunset). This golden lighting provides one of the best for the viewing of the rocks, and, partnered with a serene sea, makes for a beautiful scene.

I myself have not the opportunity to visit these magnificent rocks, but people who have visited have highly recommended their visiting and, generally, thoroughly enjoyed themselves. If you’re ever visiting Kangaroo Island, give this rocks a visit, you won’t regret it.

3. The Blue Lake

IMG_5534.jpgThe Blue Lake is another masterpiece of Mother Nature that can be found in Mount Gambier. The Blue Lake, which occupies an extinct volcano crater, is one of the most incredible sights of Mount Gambier, with the site being renowned for the cobalt blue waters which can be seen between December and March (summer and early autumn months). While the cobalt blue waters, unfortunately, don’t last throughout the entire year, the lake still retains a remarkably pewter blue (which can be seen in the first image of mine) from April to November.

The reason for the magnificent colour change of the lake remains unknown, though there are many legends and stories that attempt to provide an explanation, with one legend (my personal favourite) speaking of bunyips (an Australian mythical beast) that live on the bottom of the lake coming to the surface for summer. This migration of the bunyips, is said to cause the colour of the lake. Some people say that the lake reflects the blue of the sky, and others (jokingly) say that vibrant blue is merely food dye. It’s more likely that this colour change is due to chemical reactions occurring between the water and rocks.

While I can’t confirm the existence of bunyips in general, I can say that the Blue Lake is a must visit if you’re ever spending time in South Australia.

4. Wilpena Pound

IMG_5536.jpgWilpena Pound (wilpena an Aboriginal word meaning bent fingers, describing the rock formation), a  large rock basin located in the heart of picturesque Flinders Rangers, home to the highest peak of the Rangers, St. Mary Peak. I successfully climbed the 1170 meter mountain on my year nine camp four years ago (when I was much fitter) and attempted to climb (but only got halfway due to failing light) once again with French Keeper, Camille, and a few other friends.

Wilpena Pound is, while quite harsh and very much belonging to the bush, one of the most famous areas in South Australia. It is a popular camping spot due to the attraction of St. Mary Peak, the Hill family homestead, ancient Indigenous artwork found at Arkaroo Rock, and the beautiful, sweeping lines of the mountain ranges.

This incredible feat of nature is definitely more than worth a look, and there are many accommodation options if you are keen for a visit. If you are heading over to stay, I would recommend staying for at least a few days (although don’t be surprised if you end up wishing you didn’t have to leave).

5. Lake Bumbunga

Lake Bumbunga-2.jpgHave you ever seen those extremely aesthetic pictures of people on Instagram sitting by a pink lake? You probably just thought, ‘Oh they’ve edited the lake to look pink, that’s cool’. Well would you believe me if I told you it wasn’t edited? One of the most popular pink lakes found in South Australia is the fairy floss (or candyfloss) pink lake of Lake Bumbunga.

The word ‘bumbunga’ is, reportedly, the word for ‘rain water lake’, for the Parnpangka people (indigenous community) of the area. The use of this word for the naming of the lake is a nod to the Indigenous people who lived on the land, as well as their rich history and culture.

The lake is located in Lochiel and is made up of three salt pans that have been harvested for over 30 years for a variety of uses. The colour of the water, despite being best known for being pink, has also been known to change to white as well as blue, this change being attributed to the salinity of the water which is known to fluctuate throughout the year.

The lake is also a short drive away from the Clare Valley, a famous wine region in South Australia.  So, if you’re a fan of wine and uniquely striking views, Lake Bumbunga is the place for you!

After writing this article, I’m honestly shocked that I ever thought that South Australia was the least picturesque state in Australia (seriously, look at this picture from the sink-hole!). While I’ve only provided five here in this article, I’m more than certain that there are more natural gems that are just as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the ones you’ve seen here.

If you’re ever able to visit any one of these places that I’ve listed, don’t hesitate. You won’t be disappointed.

 

// EDIT BY CAMILLE, Keeper of France // Two years ago, I spent two months in Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, to study in Siobhan’s high school. My host sister Lucy and her wonderful family showed me around, and I was lucky enough to discover almost all the places Siobhan wrote about. This will probably remain one of the most astonishing road trips of my life… and a good proof that Australia is not only about koalas, kangaroos, Ayers Rock and dreadful animals 😛

 

Links:

https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/australia/articles/8-amazing-natural-wonders-to-see-in-south-australia/

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/11/01/3881917.htm

http://www.traveller.com.au/wilpena-pound-south-australia-travel-guide-and-things-to-do-12mah1

http://austhrutime.com/wilpena_pound.htm

https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g499708-d1813068-r70573658-Arkaroo_Rock-Flinders_Ranges_National_Park_Flinders_Ranges_South_Australia.html

https://southaustralia.com/travel-blog/south-australias-pink-lake-bucket-list

https://www.kidsinadelaide.com.au/lake-bumbunga-pink-lake/

Credits: Siobhan Reardon (Keeper of Australia), Camille Ibos (Keeper of France), southaustralia.com

 

Thoughts: Understanding the World through… the Football World Cup!

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If any faithful follower of the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia had to define the contest in one word, it would probably be ‘unexpected’. Ever since its start on Friday, June 15th, by an overwhelming victory of the host country against Saudi Arabia (5-0), favorites have had a hard time playing against teams they were supposed to crush. France only won 2 to 1 against Australia, that, to quote an Australian friend, ‘is bad enough at this to have invented its own football to be sure to win at least somewhere’; and Germany, reigning winner of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, was recently eliminated by South Korea.

I usually never watch football – I’m more into acrobatic gymnastics. The World Cup is the only exception, because I love everything that looks international from close or far. And as my parents just said, seated next to me to watch the current Russia vs Egypt game, ‘it’s such a symbol: the US are not even in the first 32 selected teams, Mexico defeats Germany; and now people who usually fight against each other are playing together’.

Beautiful.

But is that really true?

Because there actually are countries that refuse to play against each other, due to their conflicts outside of the stadium. Some countries cannot even be in the same qualification group. For instance, Spain and Gibraltar cannot play against each other – Gibraltar is not a country but a British enclave that has nevertheless been allowed to play. The same applies to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Kosovo and Serbia, to Kosovo and Bosnia… this is also the reason why Israel often plays in the European championship and not against some other Middle-Eastern countries. Indeed, how can one expect a team to play a team from another land, that its country does not even recognize – and spend most of its time trying to wreak havoc?

Football is very much more linked to geopolitics than it appears at first. And as I wanted to learn more about that, I went to attend a conference held at school Sciences Po Reims, a few days before the start of the World Cup. It was delivered by Olivier Corbobesse, a former student of social sciences university Sciences Po Toulouse, fond of football, amateur player and writer, who recently published a book on how to get a general culture through… football.

The room was full as I entered. I was pretty much the only person younger than 30 in the public, which meant that most of the people there have lived the incredible French victory of 1998, twenty years ago. Talking about it always brings a glimpse of nostalgia to French fans and not only. But despite this pride, the sport does not have such a great reputation in France. We have this big cliché of football players who cannot answer questions properly during interviews, and struggle into their studies. We can also hear saying that whereas sports such as tennis are more played by the nation’s ‘elite’ (whatever this may mean), football is more associated to low classes. Lecturer Corbobesse even confirmed that people would look upon him whenever he says he wrote a book about football – but what interests him, he added quickly, ‘is the idea of the sport, what lies behind’. And if his conference proved something to me, beyond the traditional ‘yes, but football is an instrument of soft power’, it is that as its title clearly stated, we can indeed understand the world through football.

Understanding history through football

062c5Who remembers today that part of Italy was once governed by the Maison de Savoy, a family from the nobility? Its last heir, Victor-Emmanuel, would still be legitimate to rise to power and become Italy’s new king, would the monarchy be re-established. But I bet this is most widely known amongst football supporters than other people; because the Italian soccer jersey is usually blue, whereas this color is not even on their flag. It was indeed the official color of the Maison the Savoy – this explains that!

Besides the color of the jersey, history can also be taught by the name of the football clubs. Those organizations were usually closely associated to professions; there was a club put in place by the rail-workers, another one by the police… The Dynamos, that currently exist in towns such as Kiev, Moscow or Tbilissi (Georgia), was for instance the club of the police.

Understanding art through football

joan-miro-d-apres-affiche-coupe-du-monde-de-football-espagne-1982-1_800x430.jpgYou’re a soccer fan? Well, you can probably expatiate on artists such as French writer Albert Camus – who used to be a goal keeper – or Spanish painter Salvador Dali, or Miro who painted the official display for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The Spanish Tourist Office’s display is even closely inspired from this one!

Understanding identity through football

Football can also help people feel happier with their own identity. The best proof of this could be the World Cup in Germany, that they hosted in 2006. For quite the first time since the two World Wars that left the country ashamed, Germans would sing their anthem and wave their flag with pride and unity.

news-conifa.jpgEven more interesting could be, in 2013, the creation of another international football organization, the CONIFA, for sovereign-states that are not recognized internationally and for ethnic minorities. On June the 9th, their final was held in England, opposing Northern Cyprus to the Hungarian minority of Ukraine. Other nations or communities, such as Tibet, Québec, or the European Occitan, that are not part of the 211 nations recognized by the FIFA, also play in that championship.

When football brings people closer…

«  Often, football precedes geopolitics », said Olivier Corbobesse. We know about the « diplomacy of pingpong » that got the United States and the People’s Republic of China together, but what about the… diplomacy of football?

turquie-armenie_279-2dc40.jpgIn 2008 and 2009, matches were to be expected between Armenia and Turkey in order to qualify for the World Cup. As a reminder, Turkey does not recognize the 1910s historically-proven genocide on the Armenian people. Everyone expected this match to be terrible and plagued by hooliganism. But on the contrary! It paved the way for the very first Turkish president’s visit in independent Armenia, after he was invited by the Armenian government. The diplomatic relationship then started again, plans were made for a treaty, and the game went extremely well.

… even a bit too close!

guerradelfutbol.jpgBut on the other hand, football could also be the one drop of water that would make the glass spill. That happened in 1969 in Central America, with the start of a conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, and that we usually call… the Football War! Here was the situation: to make things simple, El Salvador has a lot of people and no land,  Honduras has more land and much less people. So many Salvadorans would move illegally to Honduras; that in 1961, decided on agrarian reforms that would make it more difficult for them to settle in Honduras. Eight years after, a football match played the role of the only necessary little glimpse to make it catch on fire.

Understanding religion through football

A few more anecdotes before I let you go to read Mr. Corbobesse’s book. In 2012, the FIFA officially stated that players were allowed to play with religious clothes, including Sikh men with a turban or Muslim women with a veil. The one and only country that refused to apply this rule, referring to laicity, was… France. That recently, after a veiled girl who was at the head of a  left-wing students’ union was harshly insulted for the very fact of wearing a veil, was heavily criticized for its ‘problem with Islam’.

And we can also talk about Iran; in this country, matches are re-broadcasted with a 3 minutes delay, for censorship to be applied in order to erase pictures that wouldn’t be coherent with the country law… such as women with ‘provocative’ clothes being shown on the screen.

After this one-hour-long conference, and as this article clearly shows, I pretty much feel like a football geopolitics expert now. And what better way to learn more about football as a first step of Turkey towards the European Union, about the symbol of the Russian towns chosen to host the World Cup, or about the reason of relative unpopularity of football in India, than by going back to the source?

So I warmly advise you, if you can read French, to go read the recently published book by Mr Corbobesse, « Culture générale football club », Editions Chistera. What better opportunity to learn more about this than this year’s Football World Cup?

Enjoy your reading, and I wish the best to your home country’s team in this competition!

 

Credits: terresacree, oldschoolpanini, turquieeuropeenne, lequipe, conifa.fr

 

This article is based on Mr Olivier Corbobesse’s conference. 

World’s Next Door: Getting Swept Up in Football Fever

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I’m not going to lie; I am probably one of the least qualified people to speak on the topic of football (or soccer, as some would call it). I’ve never been an avid follower of the sport like my cousins. I’ve never had strong opinions on the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid debate like my die-hard Real Madrid supporter grandmother in a family of Barcelona supporters. I can barely name the different positions played on the field. That’s probably why I figured it would be an interesting challenge to write about a particular phenomenon for my next article: the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Ever since coming back to El Salvador for the summer, there’s not a place I can turn to without hearing or seeing things related to the World Cup. The radio pauses always give recaps of the matches played in the morning. There’s always a conversation going on about the latest games, upcoming matches, or predictions for end results. And some things just leave me confused at the correlation between the World Cup and whatever product is being advertised (what does yoghurt have to do with football?). Still, one thing remains clear to me: football has officially taken over.

That passion for the sport (or rather, the event) surrounds everything I see in El Salvador, which some might find odd considering the fact that the last time our nation made an appearance on the international FIFA stage was in Spain in 1982. Although we managed to score our first ever goal at the tournament during a match against Hungary, we still suffered one of the biggest defeats in FIFA history with a final score of 10-1. We didn’t win a single match in the qualifying group. We haven’t qualified since then.

But how can a tournament that we haven’t participated in since 1982 still have such a large significance to so many salvadorans in 2018? I think that there’s a lot of factors that contribute to this passion, some of which you might identify with if you’ve also found yourself getting carried away with the football madness as of late.

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For one, there’s the classic supporters of the tournament itself and of the sport. Much like the hype for any other world tournament like tennis Grand Slams or the Olympics, there are people who love watching the World Cup due to passion for the sport and for a large event such as this one. Fans that work for months to fill out their FIFA sticker albums with all the players from all teams, fans who could give you the entire history of a particular country in all their past World Cup appearances, fans who watch every single match in whatever ways they can. There’s those who are fans of the major teams in the tournament, having chosen their favorites and supporting them throughout in hopes of them taking home yet another trophy. These supporters will always be present, no matter what.

Then there’s also football team supporters in other major leagues and cups, who follow the World Cup avidly to see how some of the best players in the world fare off playing with teams they don’t usually play with. This can also encompass casual fans of the sport, who recognize big names at the tournament like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar, among others. Most people have heard of these players at least once in their lives before, and the World Cup brings the perfect opportunity to watch them adapt to the different teams they play with and how their strategies may vary (or remain the same).

A particular factor this year, for me at least, has been the unconventionality of the World Cup so far, by which I mean how unpredictable matches have become. Like I previously stated, I’m not the best person to speak on this topic given my limited knowledge of the tournament, but I’m still aware enough of teams that are considered the “major contendants” to know that a match such as Mexico v Germany on the 17th of July took everyone by surprise. When looking at results alone for other matches, it’s easy to see that many teams expected to win have indeed managed to do so, but watching the matches as they aired provided the full picture of the efforts from both teams, as many matches have ended with last-minute (and even last-second) scores after having held ties for the majority of the match. It might be a little too soon to say, but the thrill of nothing being certain is definitely something that drew my attention to the World Cup this year.

I think that one of the biggest factors that contributes to the football obsession is the sense of community that the tournament brings to different people in many ways. I might not always enjoy watching the matches on my own, but I have a great time whenever I sit down with my family and we watch together. Due to the time zone difference, a few matches have had us waking up at 6am – something I can barely bring myself to do in most cases! And my family is not the only one – there’s countless of people around the country that tune in to Canal 4 (our official FIFA Broadcaster) at 8am sharp, and make an effort to watch every single match they can.

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Then, of course, there’s the larger sense of community when it comes to the countries playing in the World Cup. My mom has always made a point of supporting all the Latino teams that play, claiming that they’re out there still representing us all. Colombia’s win over Poland, Uruguay’s win over Russia, and others have led to chanting in the streets, and cars driving around with flags of these teams flowing proudly behind them. It’s truly remarkable, if you ask me.

In other cases, such as with my other grandmother who has never been quite the football fan, it becomes a matter of conversation. My family in El Salvador can get quite caught up in the World Cup, with matches and standings, following every detail they can. Whenever we visit each other, it’s bound to come up at any point of our conversation. Knowing that is the case, my grandmother makes it a point to ask my aunt about the matches and the results for the day (even if she herself didn’t watch any), so that when we visit she’ll always have something to contribute to our discussion. Now that I’ve started working for the summer, I haven’t been able to continue watching the matches as I did when the tournament started, but I always make an effort to check up on match results by the time they’re all done, since I know all my co-workers will be talking about it during our lunch break and asking what the results for each match were. For people looking to become a part of this conversation, following the World Cup has become a part of their routine.

Of course, these aren’t all the factors that can help explain the phenomenon that is Football Fever in the times of the World Cup. Some of you might not relate to any of these at all and remain indifferent to the tournament as it unfolds, and that’s understandable as well. My sister still can’t understand how I caught the fever and why I’m suddenly interested in a sport that I’ve previously shown no interest for, and I’m not sure I can give her a solid explanation for it.

I think for me, it comes down to the experience I’ve had watching games with my parents and family. It’s the gleam in my mother’s eye as the underdog teams put up a fight against major ones. It’s the way my dad leaps up whenever a team gets close to scoring. It’s the way my grandma raises her arms in joy whenever any team scores, claiming that she “supports the team that wins”.

It can be fun to let yourself get swept up by football fever.

 

Credits: eurosport, programme-tv.net

Home Trotter: la Nueva Canción Chilena

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     The 60s were years of global change in politics, philosophy, and notably music. The student protests of May ’68 in France, the Woodstock Festival, and the anti-Vietnam protests are but a few examples of the spirit of the age. This spirit of change extended even as far Chile. Students became engaged in politics, motivated by a nascent hope in the possibility of social reforms. It was into this atmosphere that the musical movement of La Nueva Canción Chilena (the New Chilean Song) was born. La Nueva Canción movement, overtly left-wing, (it contributed to the election of socialist candidate Salvador Allende as President in 1970) was sparked by a yearning for music that was both Chilean, and Latin American. At the same time as Bob Dylan was composing The Times they are a Changing, and John Lennon Imagine, Chile was searching for a new type of sound.

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The birth of this movement can be credited in large part to the work of Violeta Parra, who by reviving previously scattered Chilean folk songs, and other national musical formulas such as the Parabienes, the Canto a lo divino (song to the divine) , and the canto a lo humano (song to the human ) was essential. This heritage, previously unknown or forgotten, was made accessible and reinvented by Violeta Parra, as well her son Ángel and daughter Isabel. Parra (Violeta), herself a prolific composer, greatly contributed to the musical development of the movement. A major breakthrough in the birth of the Nueva Canción was the founding of the Parra family peña (folkloric gathering place), which united several musicians who would go on to be leading figures attaining international recognition. Among these were, naturally, Isabel and Angel Parra, as well as Patricio Manns, Victor Jara, and Rolando Alarcon. 

36177124_1793662890673003_1717094007584063488_n.jpgThe principal group, that would serve as the model for those that came after, was formed by the Carrasco brothers in conjunction with Julio Numhauser; it would take the name Quilapayún. In the beginning they received musical guidance from none other than Ángel Parra, but the group would establish themselves more firmly on the national scene when they incorporated Victor Jara as musical director. Jara introduced a discipline to the group which made its composition sessions more fruitful and productive. Quilapayún would go on to win, in 1969, the first festival dedicated to La Nueva Canción Chilena. Though the group went through many metamorphoses throughout its existence, it maintained a firm commitment to Latin-American folklore.

35955111_1793663234006302_3149591683860004864_n.jpgAnother fundamental group was founded by a group of university students, who would come to be known as Inti Illimani. Noteworthy was their incorporation of instruments such as the charango, the quena, and the guitarrón, with the objective of attaining a ‘new’ sound (Paradoxically only new in the sense that it had been forgotten). Much like Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani’s music mixed the national with the Latin-American by incorporating musical expressions present in different Andean countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. In the present context of divisions and/or distance between Latin-American nations it may seem strange, but in the 60s unity and cultural solidarity was significantly more common-place. In doing so, Inti-Illimani made accessible to the world, tunes that were a representation not only of the Chilean folklore but also of that of all Latin-America. This was a very noble form of cultural appreciation that existed throughout the music scene in Chile of the 60s and early 70s.

Because of its political affiliations to the Socialist Unidad Popular government, La Nueva Canción was brought to an abrupt halt in 1973, when the Socialist Allende government was overthrown by the military junta. The new regime prohibited Andean music for some time by banning the use of certain instruments used by artists of La Nueva Canción. Various music groups, having supported Allende with their music, became enemies of the state overnight and were persecuted. Victor Jara was brutally assassinated, whilst Angel Parra was sent to a concentration camp. Inti-Illimani had been touring in Italy at the time of the coup, and was left with little choice other than exile for the following 17 years. Quilapayún was also caught off-guard by the coup, while touring abroad in France, and they too began their life in exile.

35988945_1793664300672862_7996273427683999744_n.jpgDespite the arrival of the coup, and the exile of several of the main groups, some musical affiliations carried on with their music. One of these was Illapu, a group founded in 1971 (2 years before the coup) by university students. Being of a later generation, Illapu inherited the musical style of greats such as the Parras, Quilapayún, and Inti-illimani. Their office in downtown Santiago, too, was destroyed with their instruments included as well during the coup. The members of this group were well aware that the music they were producing put their lives at risks, yet they persevered nonetheless. Given their newfound international popularity, Illapu embarked on a European tour that lasted some time. Upon their return to Chile in 1981, the DINA (Chilean secret police) attempted to arrest these musicians at the airport. Given the presence of cameras from international networks that had been following the trail of the young musicians, this became a scandal, and they were instead exiled abroad (on the same plane they arrived), first in France, and later in Mexico.

For many of those in exile, the idea of returning to Chile seemed out of the question. This changed in 1988 when the Dictatorship agreed to hold a plebiscite over whether to continue with the current state of affairs, or transition towards democracy. The results were 56% against the regime, and 44% in favor of it. Democracy was re-established, and in 1990, Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, became the first president of the post-dictatorship years. This period saw the return of several of the groups that had been living abroad, many of whom continue performing and composing to this day. La Nueva Canción Chilena was a musical movement that marked the nation, both politically and culturally. Folk music remains one of the main genres of the Chilean tradition as a third generation of musicians carries on the work and tradition of those that came before.

Below I have listed some of the exponents of this movement that have been mentioned in the article. Happy listening!

Playlist:

  • Violeta Parra: Gracias a la Vida / Volver a los 17 / Parabienes al revés
  • Victor Jara (photo): Plegaria a un labrador / Luchín
  • Quilapayun: Vamos mujer / Qué culpa tiene el tomate
  • Inti Illimani: Samba Lando / El Mercado de Testaccio / Vuelvo
  • Rolando Alarcon: Si somos Americanos
  • Patricio Manns: Cantiga a la memoria rota
  • Isabel Parra: Centro de la Injusticia
  • Illapu: El Negro José / Lejos del Amor / Vuelvo para Vivir
  • Santiago del Nuevo Extremo: A mi ciudad

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Earth is Also a Star: a Midnight Sun for the Children of the Moon

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Hey, here’s a secret about me.

I never cried watching a movie.

I felt sad in front of The Notebook, had tears in my eyes because of James Cameron’s Titanic and actually sniffed a bit with The Theory of Everything, but that was all.

 

I mean, up until last Wednesday evening. When I started to cry so hard that I didn’t get what was happening to me. Half-laughing, half crying a river onto a handful of tissues, I found myself wondering out loud « But why the hell am I even crying?! »

 

Last Wednesday evening, I watched Midnight Sun by Scott Speer.

 

Actually, there’s nothing very original in this movie’s pitch, inspired by a 2006 Japanese movie. Young teenage girl Katie Price  (Bella Thorne) lives alone with her dad (Rob Riggle) after her mother died in a car accident. But she is sick: suffering from a very rare disease called XP – for xeroderma pigmentosum -, she has a very high sensitivity to sunlight, that can be dangerous and even fatal to her. So, she sleeps all day, protected behind special windows, and lives during the night, seeing her best friend and playing music in town. One night, singing and playing guitar at the train station, she is addressed by Charlie Reed (Patrick Schwarzenegger) – her lifelong crush whom she’s been stalking for years behind her window. But carried away by this new and incredible feeling of falling in love and having someone, she postpones again and again the moment to tell him about her sickness.

 

These past years have been rich of movies like this one, starring two young people one of which is hopelessly sick. The two of them fall in love, live as passionate a relationship as it has to be short, and eventually the sick one either dies or is cured. Their story works as an initiation for both of them – to love for the sick one, to life for the other (future filmmakers, please note that the sentence ‘You’ve changed my life’ has been too often used to have any remaining emotional potential). The sickness thus plays the role of the disturbing element, that makes the relationship stop at its peak – when you’re still too in love to realize that he or she or whatever may not be The One -, and before anything like love triangles, cheating or simply feeling annoyed can happen.

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This makes me sound very critical of this kind of teenage-girl-appealing movies – and for the sake of the readers, let me precise that I read The Fault in our Stars at least three times. Written evidence also exists that I did want to watch Everything, everything. I kind of like these books and movies that are halfway between an Ancient Greece tragedy (with sickness replacing Gods and curses) and modern young adult literature. But what upsets me to the utmost is that, to me, they contribute to making diseases look sexy. It’s Hollywood, so the actor and actress have to look cute and healthy – but still, when one watches Midnight Sun trailer, one couldn’t guess that Bella Thorne is playing a girl that is ‘allergic to sunlight’ (or maybe the choice of a redhead actress was made for her whiter-than-white skin and supposed freckles).

 

Many other critics have been made to that movie. Saying that main actor Patrick Schwarzenegger has been chosen for his name and celebrity but was not able to do more than one face – well, I didn’t notice. Saying, also, that the story was absolutely simplistic – and I agree, it’s a rather short movie and fifteen more minutes would have helped to develop the end that is pretty straightforward, with many important details not being explained.

 

But the thing is, it made me cry. And a week after watching it, I’m still playing again and again the music that fitted the trailer more than perfectly (‘Spirits’ by the Strumbrellas, whose end is amazing), and I’m still obsessed with that movie. So why?

 

First, because of the actress, whose acting I found authentic, touching and screen-bursting. Second, because of her amazingly cute relationship with her dad and of a couple of moments in the movie, that literally made me look aside, breathe out deeply and whisper « Ok… wow. That was something… ». And eventually, because despite its quite non-scientific basis, it caught me enough for me to spend the rest of my evening doing researches on Xeroderma pigmentosum.

 

The rest of my evening, and a fair amount of time during the days that followed.

 

And the more I read about it, watched videos, the more moved I felt and the biggest my will to get involved would get.

 

Xeroderma pigmentosum, XP in short, is a genetic recessive illness. It means that if the two parents have a faulty gene, the child does not get sick if he is not transmitted any; he doesn’t get sick if he is transmitted only one; but he has a 25% risk of getting both, and of suffering from this very rare illness. A child out of 1 Million in France, and a child out of 100 000 in other countries, for example Morocco, has XP whose consequences are mortal and devastating.

 

It is very widely known that sunlight ‘contains’ a range of rays called the ‘ultra-violets’, the UVs. What is less known is that these rays hurt the human being’s skin and cells, and that the only reason why we aren’t living cancers is that our genes are able to repair themselves. But the DNA of XP-sick people doesn’t enable this; and being exposed to UVs is enough for them to develop burns, skin and eye cancers, particularly on the nose and lips; different kinds of eye problems and various other health issues, notably concerning their nervous system.

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Most of the time, children are quite young when diagnosed, as abnormal spots start appearing on their skin. And because these cancers can metastasize (infect other organs), they need to be removed as quickly as possible. Some children have developed more than forty cancers, all removed by chirurgical intervention, before the age of 2.

 

Besides this preventive solution, the proactive one implies nothing less than avoiding any exposure to UVs. Sick people can only live a ‘normal life’ by night, at the light of the moon – reason why they’ve been nicknamed, in French, the ‘children of the moon’. And it doesn’t take much time to figure out why we say ‘children’, and not ‘adults’…

 

By day, the Children of the Moon need to be protected: inside, by special windows and UV-free lamps; outside, by a NASA-designed overall, which includes glasses and a hood; or by a new kind of mask that has been very recently developed and enables the face to be seen, or by powerful sun blocking cream that needs to be renewed every hour or two.

 

I think that eventually, this is what moved me so much in Midnight Sun. I’m this kind of person who feels happy whenever the sun comes out and sad whenever it starts to rain. And to realize, at that point, that the symbol of life that light usually is, can be mortal just because it’s the light, was beyond words.

Many of the children that suffer from this illness cannot even go to school. The risks would be too high. In France, there is a school in a town called Poitiers that, to protect one student, put UV-filters on all its windows; there’s also this specialized Summer camp, organized in the South of the country, that allows the children to enjoy activities such as a swimming pool during the night. But it remains terribly painful for them and for their families, forced to adapt their lifestyles to the illness.

The situation is even worse in countries such as that of the Maghreb, where their prevalence, according to Dr. Mohamed Zghal, Tunis, is much higher due to consanguinity. However, the disease remains rare. In France, 91 people suffer from it; they are 400 to 1000 in Morocco. Rare, or too rare, at least, for research on genetic therapy to get easy funding; for appropriate equipment not to be mostly made by private actors; for measures to be taken so Children of the Moon can go to school, enjoy a ‘normal’ life, and like most people do, smile when the sun comes out.

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So here’s a challenge for you. Now that it’s available in all cinemas, go watch Midnight Sun – with a box of tissues. Spend a good time, smile, laugh, cry, get moved in front of this beautiful story and think about it. And when you go out of the cinema – or of your room if you’re a streaming person -, make a donation, at least equivalent to the price of the cinema ticket, to an association that fights against XP.

 

There’s this other book that I love and that is called « I’ll give you the sun ». That’s pretty much what this is about – enabling research so that one day, the sun and its UVs can become something else than a cancer-maker for these Children of the Moon.

 

Midnight Sun Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS-kCiCVEp0

 

A 1-hour long French-Moroccan documentary on The Children of the Moon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGqNd5cZk_w (in French)

 

More infos:

https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/7910/xeroderma-pigmentosum

https://www.verywellhealth.com/xeroderma-pigmentosum-2861056

 

Credits: IMBD, CNews, La dépêche, Variety

Thoughts: Flags that Turn Into Logos

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A few months backwards, I was returning back home from a ski holiday that I had spent in northern Finland. Knowing that I would have to sit several hours on our way back, I had grabbed the local newspaper in order to have something to read in the car. Mostly it was nothing very exciting; as one could guess, it was mainly about local events. However, as I continued glancing through the pages, my attention was caught by an article that made me write down some notes and, later, gave me inspiration to write this text.

It was about a tiny Finnish town called Ruka. One of the biggest ski resorts in Finland is located in this small town, and that is where I spent my holidays, too. It likes to brand itself as being part of Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland that tends to attract plenty of tourists in the wintertime. The only thing was that it wasn’t technically located in that particular region, but just in a neighbouring geographical district.

One could believe that this little detail would not really make a difference, but according to the writer, the business owners who actually reside in the district of Lapland weren’t pleased with the fact that someone was branding itself as a Lapland ski resort. The wish to use the word ‘Lapland’ when promoting tourist services is understandable, as this name is commonly used to describe the northern parts of Nordic countries. It is a strong brand when it comes to attracting tourists.

When I had returned home, I decided to learn more about this ‘brand value’ that is attained by geographical places. As we zoom out from the regional perspective, we can see that even entire countries want to be associated with good things – most often a country itself wants to be a strong brand beyond its borders. Tourist organizations are good examples of spreading a country’s recognition, yet a good reputation can be seen as an asset in almost every sector where a country promotes itself to other nations. As a consequence of this effect, we can assume that a French cook working abroad might want to highlight his nationality as his country of origin is traditionally associated with high-quality gastronomy.

I am definitely not the first and only one who has been reflecting on brand image on a national level. We can see it as a phenomenon, where branding strategies that are typical for companies are applied to individual nations. For example Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices is a book authored by Pauline Kerr and Geoffrey Wiseman. The authors help us see the bigger picture of nation branding; they state that the phenomenon of countries branding themselves is one of the plenty consequences of globalisation. The distances between nations are made shorter than they have ever been before. As countries are getting more and more connected to each other through international trade and tourism, it is expected that they increasingly share common characteristics. At the same time however, there is a counter-reaction. The nations still share, a little bit paradoxically, the need to be distinguished from each other in order to be successful in international competition. That is where the local specialties play a major role – they can be used as branding tools which help a nation to stand out from the crowd.

What we need to understand from today’s countries is that each of them needs publicity for the purpose of attracting tourists or gathering investments. A good origin of a brand may as well be helpful for companies that operate internationally. It should be no surprise that IKEA has the colours of the Swedish flag, or that iPhone’s virtual assistant Siri prefers telling you that it is designed in California whose reputation is closely linked to that of highly technological Silicon Valley, rather than mentioning the fact that it was originally made in China.

And it is not just that companies take an advantage of the positive image of their origin. The relationship is closest to a symbiosis where both parties benefit from each other’s existence. It is common that a country boosts its own prestige by organizations that aim at creating and maintaining a good country reputation, others being more successful than others. A good example of this is Sweden’s branding organization called Brand Sweden. On its website (1) it has gathered material that a Swedish enterprise can use in its work, that aims at making the Scandinavian country better known in the world. You can even find strict rules on how to use the stylised version of the Swedish flag, in order to make the country brand more recognizable. It is almost as if nations would have turned into companies that aim at keeping themselves alive in the global market, the only exception being that the players of this game are states rather than private units.

Whether this trend where nation states are put in a competitive position and that is further pushed forward by increasing globalisation is desirable, is difficult to answer. Realising that unique characteristics of a nation are harnessed to serve a marketing image, in order to let the country be successful in the global competition, has a somehow grim tone. It should be questioned if countries really have to adopt procedures that are typical for international companies rather than for sovereign nations.

However, we must bear in mind that nation branding can be regarded as a harmless, even desirable consequence when it is compared to other side effects of globalisation. The Guardian published an interesting article (2) where nation branding is compared with constantly growing right-wing populism. These two phenomena are similar in the sense that they both can be seen to some extent as results of globalisation. In addition to this, it is quite startling to notice that both of them are willing to emphasize the abilities and identity of one nation over others.

However, the major factor that clearly takes these two phenomena apart from each other, is that they follow completely different rules. Whereas right-wing populist movements have quite clearly underlined their anti-globalist nature in different Western countries in the 2000s by attacking institutions that promote international cooperation, nation branding actually follows the general principles of globalism. Nation-branding is actually part of a bigger continuum in the history of international trade; it has transformed from the status of 18th century where mercantilist ideology was the dominant way to define successful trade policy into a state of affairs where nations are part of one global marketplace. While national populism is quite introverted in the sense that outside world is regarded mostly as a threat, the motivation for branding nations and emphasizing their greatness is solely premised on making a country more attractive in the eyes of other nations and increasing collaboration between them.

Nation branding doesn’t necessarily mean that the cultural heritage which nations have fostered through centuries is completely productized for commercial purposes. On the contrary, branding can actually be seen as a useful way to spread information of different nations worldwide. This may play a major role in increasing global understanding between different cultures. Tourists probably wouldn’t very easily find their way to learn more about the way of life of the people living in the cold and remote Lapland if it wasn’t for its strong brand image of being a winter wonderland. Still, I believe that what must be done in the near future is to define what kind of nation-branding can be considered as harmless and when it is essential to separate the role of a nation from the work done by a marketing firm. As long as flags are not replaced by logos, we should be fine.

 

Photo: The writer enjoying the views regardless of whether Ruka is part of Lapland or not.

[1] Identitytool for Sweden: https://identity.sweden.se/   

[2] The Guardian: How to sell a country: the booming business of nation branding (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/07/nation-branding-industry-how-to-sell-a-country)

Earth is Also a Star: Anita back to school!

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On a rainy morning in May, I went to visit my Grandma’s cousin in my hometown. She is a short lady with light brown hair, always in a bun. I used to see her around my Grandma’s house; often with a friend or two, all of them equipped with a rosary and a bible. 

That day, she had prepared Arepas and coffee for us. A few days before, I had asked if I could come over to interview her, because I found her story heartwarming and worth sharing. Ana Leitón graduated 6th grade in 1971 and she is now determined to finish the 7th grade in 2018.

47 years after.

Anita, as most people call her, grew up in San Luis. This small town was firstly populated by traveling people from the Costa Rican metropolitan area of the central valley. During the 1920’s, these families were in search of new land for agricultural production. San Luis’s real development started in the 1960’s, when coffee production began. During this same period two schools were founded, one of which Anita attended. To this day, however, no high school has been constructed. Its neighboring town, Monteverde, although established about 30 years after, became larger both in terms of population and economic growth. Monteverde, the town I come from, is located about 40 minutes away by car and it does have a high school. In order for the inhabitants of San Luis to go to it, though, they have to take a bus that lasts an hour and a half each way. This results in many of the resident families deciding to pull their kids out of the education system past 6th grade, when primary school ends in Costa Rica. Only 7.4% of the current population of San Luis has finished secondary school and 25% of the population aged over 12 did not finish primary school.

Anita moved to Monteverde when she was 29 years old. During many years, and partially now, her way of generating income for her family was through the sale of snacks and small meals around town. At the time she moved to Monteverde, one of the biggest employers of the town was the Cheese Factory. She told me how she would visit it with a bag full of Costa Rican styled tamales one day; prestiños* another; and even slushies from time to time. She raised 6 kids this way, along with her husband who she mentioned had had alcoholism problems and wasn’t as present in the kids’ lives as she was. One of them is on his way to get his master’s degree in geographic sciences. On certain days, even currently, Anita wakes up as the sun rises, ready to prepare tasty foods and goes off to sell them- predominantly at the farmer’s market. Another of her main activities is to be part of a folkloric dance group that has gained popularity around communities in Costa Rica. They were even invited to Nicoya, which is a city 3-4 hours away by car, to perform at a civic event. Her group doesn’t charge to perform, but accepts donations, and it clearly is something she adores. Realizing that these activities, on top of her active participation in many of the catholic church’s events, must be greatly time consuming, I asked her why she had decided to add studying to her to-do list. I was not disappointed with her answer.

*Typical Costa Rican snack made of a thin, fried flour tortilla, often eaten with sugar cane syrup.

Ana told me she loved reading and writing. It may seem like an empty statement to many but, given the way this woman lived most of her adult life, these activities were not a daily necessity, as they are for many of us. As we spoke, I glanced at the various notebooks she had next to us, on the table; she had very neat handwriting. She always knew these were important skills, as well as much of what you learn in school. While her children grew up, she tried helping them as much as she could, knowing how education would change their lives. A couple of months ago, she hosted a someone in her house, as she has done many times. It was a teacher from the West Coast of the country, working temporarily in Monteverde. After a couple of days, the lady told her she was a smart woman who should go back to school, especially considering that the local high school offered a program for adults. Anita considered this for a few weeks, at first thinking it would not fit in with her busy schedule with church, dance activities, the farmer’s market and her long-loved hobby of quilting and sewing. Her children were very supportive of the idea and at one point she thought of one of her sons, Greivin, the one that had died 20 years before. One that was very close to finishing high school but couldn’t because of cancer. She decided to do it.

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Her class is made up of 28 adults ranging from 20 to 59-year-olds, Anita being the oldest. The program is aimed at people wishing to get their high school degree past their teenage years; it is a three-year course composing the 6 main high school subjects, namely Spanish, math, science, English, social studies and civics. In order to accommodate for the students’ jobs, classes go from 5:30pm until 10pm Mondays through Fridays. As she is the oldest, she told me, people look up to her, and she said they have told her having her there is a good inspiration. Every now and then, Anita brings tortillas or some snack for the class, which makes them really happy. Between the class, she says, there is a feeling of familiarity that motivates everyone. The first time she missed a lesson because she was sick, the group called her to make sure she was ok.

In 3 years, this woman will finally have her high school diploma. Ana is evidently determined to, not only finish her studies to feel accomplished with herself, but also to use this certificate and her new-found knowledge to get a job she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” I asked her. She answered that in a touristic town like Monteverde, English is the new ‘official’ language. I agreed, any job you look for will ask you how well you speak the language, and finally Ana will be able to say ‘decently’. When I asked her what one of the most interesting things she had learned was, she answered the fact that Egyptians were buried with belongings because they believed these would be useful in their afterlife. Then I asked her what the hardest thing she was learning was. She smiled and said, “Math back in the day was a lot simpler then now.” I chuckled.

Ana told me she was pleased to finally experiencing this part of life that she had helped her children go through, seeing both the effort one has to put in and the value of what she was studying. Her excitement over her studies reminded me of the privilege that schooling is, and I left her humble house that drizzling day feeling happier about my student status than I had for a long time. My only hope is that this text made you feel a similar way.

Before leaving, she showed me a quote she had written on the cover of her folder. Her daughter had found it for her. Later I realized it was a quote by Mark Twain:

“La edad es un tema de la mente sobre la materia. Si no te importa, no importa.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

World’s Next Door: This Is How Shrek and Harry Potter Taught Me English

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If I had to mention something I am certainly not talented at – aside from singing -, it would be languages. My country’s disastrous language education did not help. As my 11th grade German teacher explained quite concisely: « A French student is not taught German so that they learn to speak it ».

What is France’s problem with languages then? Is our broken English a product of our aversion to globalization? Is our German poor, because of an enduring ‘Germanophobia’ after two World Wars? Facts do not support either of these hypotheses. A Chinese friend recently told me, to my surprise, that she thought it was easier for her to learn English than it had been for me; because it was a completely new alphabet for her, there was no possibility of confusing English with her mother tongue. It is true that as French is a language that is both very close to and very far from English, it can indeed get confusing. English conjugations are a blessing compared to French ones (that certainly considerably enrich our language but could also be considered a crime against humanity). That being said, English words are stressed whereas French words aren’t. While it is true that English and French have many words in common, there are several “faux amis” such as ‘deception’ which in English means ‘dupery’ whereas the French ‘déception’ is to be understood as ‘disappointment’… that’s enough for anyone to get mad. And added to this, the natural French tendency to not dare to try, here is, Madam, Sir, the perfect cocktail for one not to improve.

Anyway. To me, the main reason for our love-hate relationship with languages, and particularly English, lies elsewhere. I hold school responsible for this. The French schooling system is known for its very academic, traditional, ‘you’re-gonna-learn-this-by-heart-and-not-think-about-it’ approach. Though it may be quite efficient for mathematics; it is an uphill battle when it comes to learning English. This explains why we end up with French Presidents who say « Sorry for the time » when apologizing for the weather, or « You can be, do what you want to do » in a supposedly inspirational speech.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to study in a bilingual primary school, with a native English teacher who had a very personal way of teaching. Stephen initiated us very early to the sarcastic British sense of humor, a mix of pitiless French bashing and jokes that he would utter in complete deadpan, his eyes sparkling with joy and mirth. He taught us vocabulary by use of hand-made drawings, making us play rugby, and by giving us dozens of British songs to learn. Secondary school happily destroyed my level in English by its merciless French teaching method, but I thankfully retained the ability to sing ‘Message in a bottle’ (The Police), ‘White winter hymnal’ (Fleet foxes) and ‘What a wonderful world’ (Louis Armstrong) (those give you a very good insight in Stephen’s taste in music).

 

A few years later, after high school studies in a so-called ‘international section’, a two month-long exchange in Australia, and a year of university with all my classes in English: a friend from Honduras and I stopped to randomly talk to a woman who has asked us a question in the street. After a fifteen minute conversation, she asked us where we were from, and looked startled when I answered I was from Lyon, France – ‘You’re French? But you speak French with an accent!’

My first reaction was to laugh, astonished. And then I remembered that French people would now often start to speak English to me, ask me with genuine curiosity how long I have lived in Great Britain, or even have this flattering but surprising question ‘But are you sure you are from France? You have a British accent!’

For someone who was used to having a Frenchy-arguably-Australian-ish accent, this was a revolution. But after thinking about it, I started to realize that indeed – completely unconsciously, I was now speaking French with a bit of an accent on some words. So now that my level in French is even decreasing, that my level in English is certainly not perfect, and that after eight years of studying German, I am still not able to ask where the toilets are, I am the last person who should give advice on ‘how to learn a language and improve’. But considering that the situation would have been worse without those, I’m still gonna do it.

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First, learn some songs. Pick up one that you particularly like, print the lyrics, translate them yourself, and learn it, while you’re queuing at the supermarket, sitting in the bus or walking to school. After I left primary school, my Father would walk me every morning to secondary school; and every morning, we would rehearse English and German songs that I loved and that I would translate with him. Years after, even though my German is still as poor as a college student, I can sing Nena’s 99 Luftballons by heart. What is great with songs is that they endure. I would strongly advise you not to try Adele’s – no one sets fire to the rain or rolls in the deep in one’s everyday life -, but Abba’s are quite easy and catchy.

fundo de tela sherek.jpgSecond, watch movies. And put subtitles in the language that you’re trying to learn; if not, it won’t help. I would particularly recommend animated cartoons; their stories are easy to understand, so you can more focus on the language – plus, if you’re 30 years old without kids and your friends catch you watching Cinderella in secret, you can argue that it’s because you want to improve your English/German/Spanish/Khmer and show them my article as an excuse (do not say thanks, my pleasure). After years of watching cartoons and animated movies to improve my English, I can say that the best choice, without any doubt, is ‘Shrek’. First because it’s brilliant; the characters speak a very clear English, with different levels (Donkey’s accent is quite hard to get, Shrek is very understandable but quite familiar, the Queen speaks more formally); and it’s a clever criticism of authoritarianism, discriminations and sexism. It’s brilliant.

ZR3l1ez.jpgEventually, read books, and books that have been written in the language that you’d like to learn. The best choice you can make is to read books that you’ve already read many times. This way, you’ll already know the story and will be free to focus on the words, sentences and idioms. A few years ago, I decided to reread ‘Harry Potter’ by Joanne Rowling, in English this time, and wow – I couldn’t have taken a better decision. It helped me a lot, because the puns and writing make the book a thousand times better in English than it is in any other language, because it is catchy, entertaining and captivating, and because Rowling’s style is both very good and very pedagogical.

 

Here are three simple, fun, not time-consuming, and almost magic means of improving in any language you’d like to learn. They are way less expensive than travelling or going on exchange, and way easier than finding a native speaker to talk to – even though I strongly advise you to do that -, and they’ll make you want to improve. Because even if you’re the laziest person on Earth, you’ll want to finish this funny movie, to finish this fascinating book, to learn this moving song! Wanting to improve is probably the best thing that can happen to you.

 

That being said, it is now to be done. My plans for the Summer include using the Harry Potter Method to improve my Spanish and German and re-watching the whole Shrek series because let’s be honest, my English still sucks – and I also really want to watch Shrek.

Feel free to add, on Facebook or in the comments, your most useful tips and life hacks to learn a language, and good luck with that!

 

Credits: super kuka, Nightflights, and Harry Potter wallpapers on wallpapercave.

El Salvador’s Globetrotter: A Day in Disneyland Paris, France

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Whenever the word Disney comes up, I always feel a rush of nostalgia and happiness as I recall many movies and shows from my childhood and sing-alongs with my family and friends. And when I think of Disneyland, I always think of the words many have used to describe it before me: The Happiest Place on Earth. After having spent my entire first year of university in France without having visited Disneyland Paris, I knew it would be the perfect way to close this chapter and celebrate the end of a great year.

On Sunday, May 20th, I had the opportunity to visit Disneyland with a few friends. We decided we wanted to spend the entire day at the resort, visiting both Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park, so our day started early as we made our way to the train station at 8 a.m. We arrived at the park at 9:30 a.m., and decided to head to Disney Studios first, trying to beat the crowds for larger rides.

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Nothing felt better than rushing through a 5-minute wait line for the first ride we hit – the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. And then there was the ride itself – I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed the thrill of being on a rollercoaster, especially one in the dark where you never knew what was coming.

It was only our first ride that allowed for a short waiting time, as the park had already begun to fill out by the time we headed to our next stop: the Tower of Terror. Waiting in line is not always a pleasant experience, but when you’re with friends the wait seems a lot shorter than it actually is. One of my favorite things about Disneyland is the way the waiting areas for rides are filled with thematic decoration that can be very detailed and makes the wait a whole lot more interesting. For the Tower of Terror, we noted how much work has to be put in to make a place look as old and abandoned as the hotel, while at the same time keeping it clean. The ride is probably one of my favorites, as I always enjoy the suspense of not knowing when you’re going to drop – the thrill it gives is indescribable.

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We then went on the Studio Tram Tour, where we got to see behind-the-scenes movie effects, and on the Ratatouille ride, before we decided to head over to Disneyland for the rest of the day.

As much as I enjoyed Disney Studios, there’s always something magical about walking into Disneyland and seeing Main Street lined with colorful buildings, all leading to the Sleeping Beauty Castle in the center of the park. I thought it was a nice variation in the castle, as opposed to having Cinderella’s castle, since it made Disneyland Paris stand out from its other sister parks.

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As soon as we arrived, we walked past the castle and headed straight to Hyperspace Mountain, a ride that we had been looking forward to during the entire day. As we had already reached 1 p.m., the park was significantly fuller and the line took longer, but with the constant changing of environments, time flew. The ride was breathtaking and made me feel as if my stomach was in my throat as it plummeted us into the darkness at high speeds. I enjoyed that thrill so much that I would love to go back just to go on it again.

Although I love Disneyland and the experience as a whole, next came what was possibly the most difficult adventure of the day: finding a place to get lunch. While Disneyland is definitely covered with places where one can find food at multiple stands scattered throughout the park, we decided we would cross the park to be closer to the next rides we wanted to hit. We also felt like we needed to find somewhere to sit for a while, considering how we had been going non-stop since our arrival. You always expect lines for rides to be quite long when you’re at Disneyland, but you can sometimes forget how long the lines for food indoors can get when it’s close to 2 p.m. and the sun is blazing with a great intensity. Despite the struggle that getting to the front of the line was, we managed to make our way and even found a table large enough for our group to sit at.

Once we renewed our energies we tried to get Fast Passes for any of the rides we still hadn’t been on and ended up at Indiana Jones and The Temple of Peril. After getting the passes we thought it would be a good idea to go for a slower ride since we had just eaten, so we made our way over to Pirates of the Caribbean for what was probably one of the longest lines we had been in so far. Still, I never cease to admire the dedication that Disney puts into decorating the waiting areas. This is something we discussed as we constantly walked into different areas and rooms, with the new environments making the wait seem shorter than it actually was.

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After the ride, we headed back to The Temple of Peril with our FastPass tickets and stopped for ice-cream before deciding to tackle what would be the longest wait of all: the line to ride Big Thunder Mountain. Ice-cream in hand, we made our way to the line and slowly edged along. Since we had been standing for the majority of the day, the line became a sort of game to try to find what spots we could sit on for a few seconds, since it wasn’t moving too quickly. Conversations among our group and taking pictures kept us entertained as we wove through the maze that was the line. Still, the wait felt worthwhile once we got on the rollercoaster and sped up and around the mountain.

By the time we were done, we realized we had to make our way back to the train station in order to make it back home on time. That didn’t stop us from grabbing dinner to-go at Five Guys, and eating that dinner on the RER as we headed back towards Gare de L’Est at 9:30 p.m.

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Overall, visiting Disneyland Paris was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my time in France and I would love to go back someday if only to visit some of the smaller and niche rides, since we did manage to hit most of the available major rides at both parks.

I’ll leave you off with some of my Disneyland Tips for anyone who plans on visiting anytime soon:

  • Check the weather and prepare accordingly: We were lucky to have a sunny day during our visit, but that also meant having to bring sunscreen in order to not end up red at the end of the day.
  • Bring lots of water and snacks: Waiting along in lines is more exhausting than it appears, and you can get pretty thirsty after a while, and despite how much food is available at the parks, it’s more wallet-friendly to pack a few snacks.
  • Arrive early to make the best of your day: It’s definitely possible to visit both parks in a single day if you’re on a time constraint, but you can only do so by getting there early so you can experience the full day.
  • Get a map: Though it might seem alright to wander around, our map was definitely helpful in finding the rides we wanted to go on from the start of the day and making our way through the park.
  • Enjoy yourselves!

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Honduras: Welcome to Jutiapa!

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Before we had to worry about walking alone in the streets or the high prices of gasoline, it was the rivers, the mountains, the dirts roads, the mango trees and all of nature’s allies which dictated the law. Along the northern region of the Atlantic coast, the rivers kissed the fields with fertilizing love; and the jungles, with an abundant biodiversity. The green was king along these areas and the economy was ruled by the small farmers who would stay reverent to their majesty. Nature’s story described the union of two rivers that formed the Jutiapa river; the guardian, life giver and taker of this humble but nevertheless vivid town in the eastern side of Atlantida.

Under the discipline of aunts, his mother, and a couple scrapes (courtesy of the dirt roads and tree branches), Marden Daniel Espinoza Sandoval grew up here learning by the law of the land. My father always told me his adventures whenever the power would go out at night in our house. Some things still don’t change in Honduras but for the most part, the 1960s and 70s’ world my father talks about, is another life. Jutiapa during the night was powered by a small diesel motor and power generator that would go off at 9:00 p.m. After that, darkness would hug the night and fireflies would take over the night show along with the stars.

There was only one telephone in the entire town and it was located in the police station. It was a life without tremendous amounts of technology but much more social connections and ties. People in town would entertain themselves by playing with marbles, bikes, spinning wooden tops, many other traditional games, and of course the so beloved soccer that blessed many boys into the big cities to play with the bigger leagues. Life in the small town was peaceful, there was no fear other than the myths and legends that came out of the night. My father was the son of a farmer, and he and his 4 other brothers would go and sell milk everyday. To dream in this town meant to imagine a life with big buildings and lights at night; and yet, today, for me to dream in my city would be to imagine darkness in the jungle, under the tutelage of the moon and stars.

iglesia jutiapa.jpgMy father and uncles have kept my grandfather’s heritage, a farm called “Hot Water” because it’s home to a body of hot water that takes refuge in the bowels of earth but that expresses itself to the world as a vaporous rivulet. Jutiapa is a town so simple-hearted, straightforward, and yet full of the most comic adventures one would only think of as magic realism. I believe my father regrets nothing of such a humble and somewhat poor childhood, because he enjoyed every mili-liter of that river and every millimeter of those fields. He danced, he told jokes, he laughed and cried and lived in a town that taught him to ride horses without saddles and to laugh the pains away.

Jutiapa stays dear to him and it stays dear to me, too. I myself have scars in my knees of the dirt roads and the bike rides. The farm witnessed my first horse rides, our soccer matches in the fields with my cousins, and the baths in the old cow’s drinking wells. Here I’ve seen the most star populated skies, spent the most peaceful nights, and breathed the purest air. Near the hot water rivulet, the mountain’s proximity has gifted us with one of the most talented monkey choruses ever; howlers monkeys love to see the weird humans sing back at them when the night starts to take over.

And as we all grow up, I think we value more the small things we usually take for granted. No everyone gets to have a duet with monkeys. Not everyone gets to ride horses in the fields. Not everyone gets to jump off huge rock into cold rivers in summer afternoons. It’s this proximity to nature that I crave, sometimes… ae seem to forget the beauty and richness that simplicity tends to carry with her.

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Australia: It’s Reconciliation Week!

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When I’m writing this, it is currently the 27th of May, a day which marks the beginning of Reconciliation Week (held from May 27 to June 3). In Australia, this week is dedicated to the growing of respectful relationships between our Indigenous peoples, being the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and Australians of other cultural heritage.

These two dates are very special and hold great meaning to Australians, marking the dates of significant events of Indigenous history in colonized Australia. The 1967 Referendum of May 27 gave the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognize them in the national census. On the 3rd of June, the Mabo Decision was legalized, which legally recognized that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land. It paved the way for Native Title, and overturned the title of Terra Nullius (“nobody’s land”) given to Australia upon the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation held the first Reconciliation Week in 1996, and this year marks its 22nd edition. Week follows National Sorry Day, held on the 26th of May and that remembers and commemorates the mistreatment of the country’s Indigenous Peoples. All Australians are encouraged to take part in this week of forging new and lasting relationships, and take the time to get to know the rich and diverse culture and people who have treasured this land we call home for thousands of years.

Before I dive into Reconciliation Week and all its components, I think I should make clear for all of you reading this, and who are not familiar with our Indigenous Australians, a brief overview of the peoples to whom I’ll be referring to. Aboriginal Australians are those people indigenous to mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania, while Torres Strait Islander people are those belonging to the Torres Strait Islands of Queensland; this group of people are distinct from those of the Aboriginal tribes and so are referred to under a different name. Of course, these are very broad names for the many tribes that inhabited Australia, with over 500 different clan groups with different cultures, beliefs, and languages. Some of these have died out as a result of white settlers and so, it is for this reason (among others) that Reconciliation Week is such an important part of modern Australia and us Australians.

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Historically, the relationship between Indigenous Australians and Australian settlers is not one that is celebrated, with many wrongs being committed against those we call the First Australians. This week, however, is the week in which we take the steps to reconciliation, where, as a nation, we come together to respect and apologise to those to which Australia owes so much.

Reconciliation Australia, an independent, national not-for-profit organisation which initiates the week, says:

“We believe in fairness for everyone, that our diversity makes us richer, and that together, we are stronger…”

Reconciliation Australia also proposes a country in which:

  1. Australians value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous cultures, rights and experiences.
  2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have access to basic rights such as health and education.
  3. Political, business and community structures uphold equal opportunity for all Australians.
  4. Australian society recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as a part of the nation’s identity.

Coming from the perspective of a non-Indigenous Australian, I cannot quite comprehend the full meaning this week may have on the lives of Indigenous Australians – I believe no one but these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can. However, as a person who has a great love for history and building new relationships, Reconciliation Week has always been a very important part of the way I view my country as well as my education and myself.

Growing up, children are taught in great depth about the history of Australia, both prior to white settlement and after, both the good and the bad. This education, the education I continue to expand upon, is one I am extremely grateful for as an individual who thoroughly enjoys history, and actively wants to play a part in forging new relationships across many diverse cultures; and in doing so, hopefully, help contribute to mending the rift between the First Australians and non-Indigenous Australians such as myself.

Reconciliation Week is celebrated in a wide array of ways, marches being quite popular for the people of many cities throughout Australia. My own year level organized a march for school at the beginning of the week to show our support of Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Social gatherings are a popular way of showing support, with breakfast and lunch gatherings a favorite of many. Sporting events hold games dedicated to respecting and supporting the various Indigenous cultures, many creating specific uniforms that pay homage to the art and culture of the First Australians. Services of remembrance and exhibitions are also relatively popular. Any way of demonstrating appreciation for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is valued and highly supported during this week (of course this is the same all year round, but a bit more so during this period of time).

Not only is Reconciliation Week our way of mending the bond between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians, but it is also a way in which we hope to greatly reduce the racism present in our society; not only racism targeted against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders but against all those who experience racism in its various forms. While it will most likely be impossible to completely eradicate racism (unfortunately), one can only hope that a week like this (with all its events) will support and advertise the acceptance and sharing of all cultures.

While we can never fix the wrongs that happened in the past, we can fix the wrongs that are happening today, and, I believe, Reconciliation Week, a week that unifies all Australians, is just one way that Australia is doing that. Imagine a world without racism and segregation. A world without judgement of a person’s cultural beliefs – what a wonderful world.

Additional Links:

https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/explainer/what-national-reconciliation-week

https://www.reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week/

https://www.reconciliation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Lets-talk…Reconciliation.pdf

https://www.reconciliation.org.au/

Credits: abc.net, NACCHO

 

France: Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker…

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Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker, and I couldn’t say she was American, I couldn’t say she was French, I couldn’t say she was Black, a patriot, an artist, a singer, a dancer, a meneuse de revue, a World War II hero, a Civil Rights Movement activist, an actress, an icon, a feminist, a castle owner, a mother – because she was all these and much more than that.

Her story is that of a princess, gone from the black suburbs of Saint-Louis, Missouri, to the stages of Paris. She inspired while living and continues to inspire by her talent, her dedication and the multiple causes she defended until her very last day.

 

But let’s get back to the beginning. Not to hers, but to mine.

 

Ever since the age of 6, I’ve been spending one week every summer in the Périgord, southwest of France. When I was 5, my parents had decided that every year, they would take my brother and I to a different region of France. The first year, we went to Alsace, of which I can remember the colorful vineyards, traditional folklore clothes and tasty bretzels. The second year, we discovered the Périgord.

I don’t exactly know what made my parents decide that, from now on, we would go there every year. However, I vaguely remember my 6 year-old sef crying them a river and threatening them to flee their house and walk back there alone. I officially became the saddest little girl on Earth for the two weeks after we went back to Lyon – and more or less made them understand that I had found my paradise on Earth and would never feel at home anywhere else. So we renounced to this Tour de France – I’ll never feel grateful enough. Then, I stuck to my wall, in Lyon, a little calendar on which I would draw a cross every week that passed, and that would bring me closer to our reunion. Try to think about what you love the most on this planet. For me, it was that. The Périgord.

 

So, I was, to say the least, particularly predisposed to enjoy anything I would see, or visit there. In eleven years, you have plenty of time to discover new locations, but also to judge which of them you prefer. Among all those we saw- the Périgord pretty much contains as many castles as I have hair on my head. The Château des Milandes, Castle of the Milandes, quickly became one of my favorites. I knew that a Great Lady used to live there, that her name was Joséphine Baker and that she was American. I also knew that she used to dance in Paris’ cabarets with nothing on her but a belt made of bananas and that she adopted twelve children from many countries in the world. But, unlike many American celebrities who decided to live in Paris or on the French Riviera, she had chosen the Périgord and that was enough for me to adore her and to want to learn more.

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For years, I forgot about her. And then I saw her name on the cover of a book in my school’s library. A week ago, I went back there to borrow it and put it on my table, before going back to my political science study sessions. I resisted two minutes before putting my notes down and taking the book instead. I read it in one sitting and it was like a postponed love at first sight.

 

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in 1906 in Saint-Louis, Missouri, from a Mother who was a dancer and a Father who was a musician, that would soon leave the family. Her first years were plagued by misery. In a highly segregated America, this young Afro-american had to perform menial jobs very early to help the numerous children her Mother had with another man. This free spirit even left school at the age 14 to get married, but her very first husband and her quickly got separated. She then joined a band of street musicians to perform her true passion: dancing.

Freda Josephine is 16 when she leaves her second husband (Willie Baker, she always kept his name) to go to New York, her head full of dreams of Broadway. There, after many failures and refusals, she joins a theater whose band is entirely black, but soon leaves it to join another one… until her path crosses that of Caroline Dudley Reagan, wife of the American ambassador in Paris. It’s Reagan who, impressed by the talent of this black dancer that squints and gambols on stage, asks her to come to Paris with her.

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1925, Paris. It’s the opening of the Revue Nègre. On the stage of a cabaret, for Reagan’s very first show, here dances an astonishing black girl that challenges all the clichés. Naked at the exception of a belt made of false bananas, she embodies an actual revolution. She dances in the foolish, unleashed and almost dismembered way black Africans could be thought to dance, and she makes fun of these prejudices with a sense of humor and a talent that lets no one indifferent. It’s first a scandal, but it soon turns into a success. Advised by Pépito, her boyfriend of the time, Freda, who switches her name to Josephine, is adopted by Paris. She becomes meneuse de revue at one of the most famous Parisian cabarets, Les Folies Bergères. She then shoots a movie, opens a club: At Josephine’s, sings a tremendous hit: J’ai deux amours, in 1931, and embodies a new dance: the charleston. Unfortunately, her success does not seem to reach America. However, in 1937, she officially becomes French by marriage and a few years after, gives back to France everything she thinks France gave her.

At the outbreak of World War II, Josephine is indeed recruited to serve in the Resistance. For years, due to her incredible success, she gathers informations and spies on high authorities. Her scores are used to transmit discreetly capital data between the resistant networks. She joins the female Air Force and sings for wounded soldiers to encourage the progression of the Army of the ‘France libre’ led by de Gaulle. At the end of the war, she receives many medals and distinctions to thank her for her fight.

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At this point, we’re in 1945. Josephine is an internationally-known actress, singer and dancer (at least in the Mediterranean area) and she is a war hero. It would already be enough to fill up two lives – but she won’t stop there.

A few years ago, in 1941, she had contracted a very serious illness that eventually led to sterility. So, in 1947, when she married her last husband, Jo Bouillon, she decided to make one of her dreams become a reality and to gather a ‘tribu arc-en-ciel’, a ‘rainbow tribe’ of children from all countries and all colors of skin. In 1954, she adopts her first son, Akio, from Japan; he will be joined by Jano, Luis, Jari, Jean-Claude, Moïse, Brahim, Marianne, Koffi, Mara, Noël and Stellina, from Colombia, Algeria or France, among other countries.

But to host such a grande âme and such an original and tolerance-fostering family, nothing less than a castle was needed. And indeed, in 1947, Joséphine bought a huge XV century castle in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Périgord. It used to be called the Château des Mirandes, but her rolling American accent made it the Château des Milandes. The name has never left it since. Despite this new tie to France, Joséphine continued to travel. In 1963, indeed, she attended the March to Washington. Along with Martin Luther King, she delivered a speech as both an afro-american and the Mother of the ‘rainbow tribe’. Her most famous lines will probably remain the following: ‘My friends, I am not lying when I tell you that I went in King and Queens’ palaces, in presidential houses. And even more. But I couldn’t get in a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee. And that made me mad.’

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After all this, and after making her mother and family leave America to settle in France, she would have deserved the best. But in 1964, everything seemed to begin to fall into pieces. Broke due to her expensive lifestyle and the money she invested in the Milandes and single after her divorce in 1961, she had to face the risk of selling the castle in which her children were still living. Only the reaction of another French icon, Brigitte Bardot, who she didn’t even know but who called for a surge of solidarity towards her, saved her property over the Milandes. However, that was nothing but a respite. In 1968, the castle was eventually sold for 1/10th of its value. Joséphine was violently expelled.

So she went back on stage to earn money again. Her tremendous success reborn from its ashes, and she gained the protection of an actual princess, Grace Kelly of Monaco. But in 1975, the day after her last show, she was hospitalized because of a cerebral hemorrhage. She eventually died in Paris on April 12, 1975.

Terribly sad is the story of this princess, full of infinite talent and generosity, that shaped an epoch but died broke and sick. The tale of Joséphine Baker still remains, first and foremost, that of a woman who started from nothing to gain everything. She federated around her a formidable network of hope and solidarity and she fought for the world to become a better place. She was a free spirit who always managed to bounce back, and used up to her last spark of energy to keep the dream alive.

And the dream still is. The day you go visit the French Périgord – congratulations, it’ll be the best decision of your life -, do not forget to go see the Château des Milandes, to get a closer insight in what Joséphine’s life was. You’ll be able to admire her stunning cabaret dresses, as well as an impressive show with raptors – she used to love animals, and would even go on stage with a leopard (yeah, you read that well). You can also go watch the links below and discover her unique and mesmerizing style, her humor and her elegance on stage. You’ll see this way she had to amplify an American accent on some words before it completely disappeared on others. You can also read the fantastic comic ‘Joséphine Baker’ by Catel & Brocquet, or you can even do all of those! The most important thing is, that we keep the memories of this embodiment of talent, tolerance, combativity and dedication alive.

 

Joséphine Baker was a proof that not all heroes wear capes. Some of them even wear nothing but a belt of bananas.

 

Additional links:

‘J’ai deux amours’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRfrUdsL4Pk

‘La petite Tonkinoise’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74

Joséphine’s Charleston: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74

The Castle of the Milandes: http://www.milandes.com

 

// Credits // milandes.com, pinterest, france-amerique

France: An Answer to Mr Trump – that He’ll Probably Never Read

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A few days ago, on May the 4th (Star Wars day!), President Donald Trump delivered a speech in front of the National Rifle Association. He reaffirmed his support to their lobby – something we are quite used to, coming from him. What was different this time, however, was the way he also advised other countries, including mine, to renounce to their tough legislations against civil gun ownership.

Being Donald Trump, he decided to carry his message the right way – ‘right’, as in ‘efficient’, as in ‘shocking’, as in ‘most likely to upset a whole country, with a terrifying lack of respect and sympathy’. To tell France that it should allow civil gun ownership, Mr. Trump decided to talk about the terrorist attacks of November 13th 2015, that killed 130 people, and harmed more than 400, in Paris.

These attacks left the French population open-wounded. I’ll never forget this day. When I got up on November 14th, after oversleeping a bit, happy and safe in my bed, my parents told me that ‘There has been an attack’. I was expecting the worst, I read even worse than that. And throughout the whole day, I could do nothing else than exchange messages with friends – ‘Did you see what happened?’ ‘Yeah’ ‘Did you know anyone?’ – and that was all because we had no words. I was re-actualizing my actualities every two minutes, blenching every time there would be news. The count of the deaths seemed to never stop – it rose to 130 killed by half-a-dozen terrorists. Those were the most deadly attacks that ever targeted France – and what I feel is even worse, it that they attacked my country in the locations that make French people the proudest to be French, concert rooms, restaurants, little Parisian Cafés that are the strongest evidence of France’s sweetness of life, in which they introduced death.

On the Monday that followed that terrible weekend, I went back to my high school. Teachers were remaining silent. When it came to the official minute of silence – after we did many others the morning before, because no one felt like talking – people started crying. No one in my class knew any direct victim of this, nor did they know anyone who would have known a victim, but victims we all were, breathless at the thought of such an act of ideological cruelty. On that day, my Father came to me to tell me that we were at war and that he wanted to join the Army reserve. I do not know what shook we the most – to actually be ‘at war’ for the first time of my life, me, born as one of the first generations that never knew any war, either a World one, the Algerian one, the Cold one! Or that even though we were, bakeries were still opening at dawn with their buttery croissants, we could still see couples French-kissing in the streets, students were still having French fries between two classes and life, was more alive than it ever was before, even though we were, all, radically different inside.

And on May the 4th 2018, two years and 172 days after that, I heard the President of the US mimicking the terrorists that entered the Bataclan on this deadly night – Boom! Come over here! Boom!. When I heard this, I felt tears starting to sting my eyes, much more from anger than from sadness. How? How could he dare? And how could he continue, under the thunder of applause, to say that ‘if one employee had a gun, if one person in this room had been there with a gun, the terrorists would have fled or been shot’?

 

.

 

I know. I stopped breathing, too.

 

 

Dear Mr. Trump,

 

Let’s first assume that we could go back in time. Let’s assume that before November 13th, 2015, guns’ civil ownership has been authorized in France. Let’s assume that during this concert at the Bataclan, a person of good will actually had a gun – or maybe more than one. Let’s assume that the attack actually happened the way you described it, as if you were there. I have one question.

Would this person, would this civil gun owner, unsheathe his or her gun, and shoot? And if ever he or she did, would this be of any help? Would this person shoot, with the omnipresent fear of hurting an innocent in the chaos? Would this person shoot, most probably terrorized by this situation we are not trained to react to, would his arm stop shivering, and would the terrorists, dehumanized enough to commit such a crime that goes beyond words, ‘either flee or be shot’?

A few days after the attacks, I attended my weekly class of kravmaga. This martial art, developed by the Israeli army, is believed to be one of the most efficient in the world. On that evening, we spent two hours learning what to do with my instructor that used to teach soldiers and secret services. We tumbled on the floor, we rolled away, we learned how to make a gun pointed on our head deviate enough for us to fight back. And eventually, our teacher shot in the air with a fake gun loaded blank. Luckily enough, that’s the only gun I ever heard in my life – but as everyone in the room, I stood petrified for a second, because this noise is loud and mind-blowing enough for people to be muffled in a safe kravmaga gym – so what about a concert room, invaded by terrorists?

So would this person react? Would she shoot and would she reach her target? Or would she remain petrified as well, which is the reaction that most of us would probably have, that I would probably have, that you would most probably have?

But let’s assume, again, that this happened for once. That this hero saved the situation.

For one person that did so, and maybe prevented deaths by this action, how many other people would have died due to civil gun ownership? In France, 35 people died as a result of guns in 2011 and the very same year, they were 9,145 in the US. According to the Brady Campaign, there are 100,000 victims of gun violence every year in your country and since the beginning of 2018, there has been more than 1 shooting in a school every week.

Talking about this Brady Campaign, one sentence on their website particularly caught my attention: ‘our movie theaters, places of worship, schools, streets, and homes are not safe’. That is how French people felt, after terrorists attacked our nation and our people in a concert room, in a supermarket, in a school, in a newspaper’s building. What generalizing civil guns’ ownership would lead to, would be nothing else than fear, this fear that we already felt towards ISIS and that we would, here, feel towards our own peers.

Fear is part of our daily lives already. I fear, as a girl, when I need to walk back home alone by night – and this, despite years of experience in diverse martial arts that already make me safer than many other girls my age. But I don’t think that guns would provide better protection for me, just because, assuming that I knew how to use it and would indeed use it, I don’t think shooting people up is the solution. And, assuming I had access to a gun, I would be more than willing to renounce it, so all these other people in France, who would use it to kill and to harm, would not be able to access one either.

A few months ago,  on March the 23rd 2018, a one person saved a life during a terrorist attack. Arnaud Beltrame was a gendarme who took the place of a hostage and died the day after from his injuries. And, you know what? He had a gun. All his colleagues did. They did not shoot at first, both because of the hostages – of the innocent civilians in the Bataclan this night – and because of the rules of self-defense, I reckon. It also made me think about this young Afghan teenager, Aitzaz Hassan, who on January 6th, 2014, made himself explode with a terrorist to prevent him from destroying a school and killing  those inside. A bullet from a gun is not necessary to save a life, and allowing civil gun ownership in France would contribute to wreck our country’s peace and sweetness almost as surely as the actions of terrorists could have.

Could have, because they did not. They did not, because our people continued to fight, but differently. We decided to fight by educating, by denouncing those who would make amalgams, we decided to fight by living and making it a political mobilization against those who wanted to tear us apart. And before anything else, we fought by respecting and remembering the memories of our victims – instead of mimicking their last moments at the tribune of a congress on the guns that costed them their lives.

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// Credits // bfmtv

Costa Rica: A small town’s contribution to culture

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5:30 pm. There is a slight breeze brushing on my hair, and my fingers itch with the touch of the blades of grass. I open my eyes and see mountains descending for kilometers and kilometers until they reach a golden coast, covered in the rays of the sleepy sun. I’m sitting in one of my favorite places in the world: Las Piedras (The Stones). This corner of my world, where hundred-year old volcanic rocks are used simultaneously as a teenager’s bench and a beetle’s shelter, was all I knew; my secluded home that seemed, like a bug’s refuge, a bit too small.

When I turned 17, I had just finished high school and I took the decision of moving my life to France for a few years. Some people have called my decision brave, others impulsive, I call it inevitable. Few small-town people that I’ve met have told me that they’d enjoy spending the rest of their lives in their hometown and I’m no exception. Almost two years after my departure, I came back to Monteverde for a second time and, naturally, I saw the town with different eyes. The food tasted better, the sunsets were slower, people’s smiles were sweeter. I was reminded of how particular this tiny place is and how distinct its culture is from much of the country. I admit many people will say that about their respective homes, but bear with me, that is precisely my point.

To get to Monteverde from San José, Costa Rica’s capital, you have to take a 4-hour bus, of which one hour is up a dirt road next to immense cliffs. Regardless of the intimidating journey, the town’s humble population of 6,750 is visited by about 250 thousand tourists yearly, meaning a monthly average of over 20,800. It’s not hard to imagine why this is after spending just two minutes googling pictures of the place, but Monteverde’s cosmopolitan side does not end here. To understand why, we have to take trip to the United States in the 1950’s.

 The Korean war had just sparked at the time, and the US government was drafting soldiers from all around the country. A group of Quakers and pacifists from Fairhope, Alabama who refused to take part in the conflict, decided to move to a more peaceful place. Costa Rica, which had abolished its army in 1949, seemed like an ideal new home. The group of Americans bought land in what is now Monteverde, where only a few Costa Rican families were living at the time. In order to sustain themselves, they created the nationally famous Cheese. The Quakers soon founded the Monteverde Friend’s School which is now one of two bilingual schools in town. As time passed Quaker and Costa Rican culture began to mix. As an established melting pot for Americans and Ticos (Costa Ricans’ informal demonym) more families joined the town. Subsequently, tourism boomed during the 1980’s in Costa Rica, Monteverde’s biodiversity and international nature only stimulating the growth and the global presence of the town.

Driving around, you can see a public soccer field, often crowded with loud, energetic youth; street-open, repair workshops where muscular, greasy, middle aged man are laughing as they fix motorcycles; the Catholic Church in the middle of town, in which elderly ladies close their eyes and hold a rosary. Scenes such as these are the representation of Costa Rican culture at its core, maybe even a good peak into Latin America itself. Look a little closer, however, and you will see less conventional scenes. Wake up early in the morning and it would not be uncommon to see a group of teenagers with binoculars heading into the woods to birdwatch; on a Saturday night you might hear folk music from the Friend’s School, where both young adults and seniors are square-dancing.

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A culture can be analyzed and differentiated through many factors. One recognizes cities as Paris or Rome for their art and architecture or makes the difference between Argentina and Chile based on language and accent, or even distinguishes between Chinese families and American families based on their traditions like when they celebrate the New Year. Monteverde, by this standard has, undoubtedly, its own culture. Concerning art, on top of square dancing, it has become a summer tradition for many to go watch the yearly musical organized by Far Corners Musical Theater. This is a non-profit that has produced plays for over 10 years in the community with kids from the ages of 12-18. Furthermore, language is an amusing topic in the town. Younger generations have excellent levels of English, and many young adults, including myself, have the habit of speaking Spanglish, swiftly changing languages half-sentence or using certain words that might be more precise in a second language. Beyond that, the formal way of saying “you” (Usted) is used much more than it is in the capital, which changes the whole conjugation of your sentences and, in turn, the way you sound.

Some instances of Costa Rican culture are also harder to find in Monteverde. For starters, there is a very specific structure of how towns were built hundreds of years ago in the country. The Church was most likely facing the East, with a park in front of it and the school next it. This arrangement is not found in the town which was built fairly recently in very irregular geography. The church is far from any school and, although nature is abundant, there is no real park in town. The massive amount of agriculture that can be found in many other parts of the country is also missing; rather, the town harnessed its potential for agriculture into tourism, which is the absolute core of the economy in the zone. Tours of coffee and sugarcane plantations, as well as many reforestation activities are easy to find around.

When visiting a country, it is easy to simply use stereotypes to understand the place. It makes us feel safer to know something about a place and we often get carried away by it. Many go to France expecting to see mimes and tons of smokers. What’s more, many of these images that we hear about come from cities, as they are often the most visited place in a country. Stereotypes and assumptions are necessary for people to feel safer while traveling; often it can be the only information one has of a place. But regardless of their importance, their dangers have to be considered as well.

This town is not exclusively a part of Costa Rican culture, as it is not the case for hundreds of thousands of towns world-wide that you and I have yet to discover. The outcome of what the town and its inhabitants are right now, as it is the case for a country, comes from specific occurrences to the place. Granted, it is heavily affected by both our Costa Rican and Latin heritage, but just like the country’s culture is not a hand-down from either Central or Iberian America, what Monteverde has become is an independent phenomenon that overlaps with what the larger culture around it is.

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After spending some time in Europe, I realized I was scared to say that I knew what Costa Rican culture accurately was, knowing that my town was not an absolute representation of my country. How could it ever be, though? I now understand that this is not an unreasonable feeling. Like cities, towns can deeply contribute to a country’s culture while remaining distinctive. Fortunately, this notion only widens the possibilities of learning, exploring and experiencing the vastness of the globe. And I urge you to, as you may have been told all your life, rid your mind of any prejudice and observe, truly observe, what each and every corner of the world has to offer.

 

To see many more beautiful photos of Costa Rica, you may want to go check out local photographer Félix Salazar’s website (https://www.felucointhewoods.com) and Instagram: felucointhewoods!

Honduras: Coast, Heat, and Carnival!

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It’s that time in the year for ‘Ceibeños’ (inhabitants of La Ceiba, one of the largest town in Honduras) to party all day and night to the rhythms of the coast!

For the coastal Hondurans, party is no longer an option; it’s already part of their weekly routine. Don’t get me wrong! Coastal Hondurans are hard working, but when it comes to dancing, singing, and enjoying the holidays, they know how to deliver with radiant energy.

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May is the month of the carnival in La Ceiba, which this year will be celebrated on May 19. The entire week is dedicated to “La Feria Isidra” (The Isidorian Fair); and along various neighborhoods of the city, there are numerous celebrations in honor of Saint Isidore the Laborer. Saint Isidore is the city’s patron saint, whose holiday is celebrated May 15. For the Catholic community of the city, this day starts with a joyful dawn. Then, at noon, they have a procession for Saint Isidore; and finally, the evening is concluded with the celebration of a mass. Nevertheless, the carnival, which always takes place on a Saturday, welcomes all those willing to celebrate friendship and community love, regardless of their religious ideologies.

 

Saint Isidore is a catholic saint, also known as Saint Isidore the laborer. He was a Spanish farmer from Madrid, from which, along with La Ceiba and some other villages, he is the city’s patron saint. Saint Isidore was well known for his reverence to the poor and to animals as well. Quite numerous amount of miracles are attributed to him. He was very serviceable, and would often brings guests back home to offer them some lunch. In one occasion, he brought more guests than usual and his wife, Saint Maria de la Cabeza, was not expecting this. When she had served all the plates with the stew she had prepared in the cauldron, she proceeded to telling Saint Isidore that there was no more food. However, he insisted and told her to check again in the cauldron for more stew, and she spooned enough for every single guest.

The laborer was so devout that every morning, before going to work, he would attend to mass, and his workmates would complain about his lack of punctuality. So his master, in an attempt to clarify his doubtts, went to check on him. Upon his surprise, he found Saint Isidore praying, while an angel was plowing for him. On another instance, he saw that while he was plowing, two other angels were plowing with him; so Saint Isidore’s work consequently equaled that of three of his workmates.

 

He is now considered to be the patron saint of farmers, and those who work the fields. Often, he was asked to help them out with some kind of climate change that would benefit the crops they were growing. From this, emerged a song that asked him to change the sunny days into rainy ones, or, in many cases, to do the opposite as well. In Spanish, its phrase is

“San Isidro Labrador quita el agua y pon el Sol.

San Isidro Labrador quita el sol y pon el agua”

which literally translates to ‘Saint Isidore take the sun away and bring the water. Saint Isidore take the water away and put the sun.’ When we were small, we were taught this song, and whenever it rained, we would sing with the hope the sun would come out soon, for us to go play outside. If a saint can turn a gloomy day to one full of sunshine, I would also dedicate a week to celebrate that!

 

Although the birth of the celebration is attributed to the appreciation of the saint, today the carnival is no longer so linked with it. The fairs and celebrations are still named after him, but the carnival itself has been named the “Friendship Carnival”, and many people from all over the country, and even from neighboring countries such as El Salvador or Guatemala, come to this celebration. It is a long day usually characterized by intense heat. For many, the way they spend this day is part of their family traditions. Some get seats in the roofed bleachers the municipality sets up, and others try to arrive very early with their pickup trucks, parking them at the side of the road to settle their place early in the day.

 

The route of the carnival is set along the entire Saint Isidore Avenue, which extends itself across 3.4 km. The whole setting up takes place during the entire morning. At Noon, the booths and stands are already ready and those who sell food, given it’s lunchtime, use this opportunity to attract their clients. The 12 o’clock sun is tremendously strong. This is probably the reason why the carnival doesn’t start at 12 – and because participants take lunchtime very seriously as well.

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The excitement and the energy start flowing from the morning, but the actual float parade starts at 2 p.m., just right after people have eaten and are ready to enjoy the show. You have numerous amounts of animators on the floats. Dancers, singers and models are decorated with extravagant dresses. Some local designers such as Eduardo Zablah, let their imaginations run through the colors and magic of the coastal city, to come up with extravagant costumes that are fit for such grandiose occasion. The parade lasts until the afternoon and early evening. Besides the floats, you also get to see horses parading, motorcyclists, and dancers such as garifuna groups, and some marching bands from renowned schools of the city. After the parading, the hours of fun are not over of course! There are numerous concerts of national and international bands and artists. The locals and guests enjoy the night to its fullest and those who can, stay to greet the sunrise.

 

The carnival is indeed one of the events ‘Ceibeños’ are really eager about. Many have already posted about their excitement and claimed they are ready to catch as many necklaces as possible. The people in the floats, horses, dancers in the street, and even some citizens who happen to live in this avenue, have well enrooted the tradition of giving away necklaces to the passersby, and those in the bleachers too. It’s incredible what people do for a necklace. But hey, that’s the tradition, if you don’t have at least one necklace by the end of the parade, it’s almost as if you weren’t there!

 

The happiness is in high amounts in this day; and for those 24 hours citizens get to clear their minds of  any problems they might be confronting. For those 24 hours, you can dance, sing, drink, jump, laugh and give away smiles to anyone you encounter… Essentially live live to its fullest. If I had to characterize people from La Ceiba with an event, it would definitely be the carnival. All the activities and affairs of this Saturday sum up life in one of Honduras’ coastal cities. This lifestyle might strike as a bit crazy, but after all, Celia Cruz was right: there’s no need to cry because life is just that, a carnival!

 

Antwerp’s Acrobatics: the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships (1/2)

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Spring 2016, a random evening. I was very busy doing nothing and watching videos of Irish dancing on YouTube, when I accidentally – and probably fatefully – happened to find the starting point of a now burning passion of mine: acrobatic gymnastics. From the first video that I watched, dozens followed. I fell literally in love with the sport; I began to support Great Britain’s team, which was the very first time in my life I ever actually supported a team. I started to train, on my own, got one of my splits, lost it. And eventually, I learnt that following that customary rule that makes the World Championships take place every two editions in Europe (2010 in Wroclaw, Poland; 2012 in Orlando, Florida; 2014 in Paris, France; 2016 in Putian, China), the 2018 ones would be in Antwerp, Belgium. And luckily enough, I had move closer to Belgium at the beginning of the year, from Lyon to Reims…

And there I found myself, on the 14th of April 2018, in a weekend with friends in Antwerp, witnessing the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships and thus, making one of my biggest dreams of the past two years come true.

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Acrobatics is a sub-discipline of gymnastics, quite less well-known than its colleague Artistic gymnastics (the one that involves beams, uneven bars, floor exercises and vaults: Simone Biles, geddit?) but, to me, much more impressive. It is practiced by teams of two, three or four gymnasts, composed of a ‘top’ and one or more ‘base’. It thus entirely relies on trust and cooperation: each gymnast is responsible for no less than the life of the others. The routines consist of an alliance between artistic elements and transitions, as well as ‘balance elements’ – human pyramides, static, and that need to be held for three seconds – and ‘dynamic elements’ – huge throws, somersaults, tumbling, stunts… you’ll be stunned. All gymnasts are divided in five categories: men’s pair, women’s pair, mixed pair, women’s group (three women) and men’s group (four men), all having different characteristics, balance and dynamic elements, which makes it a sport wonderfully diverse, rich and amazingly flabbergasting.

In every international competition, the teams first have to present three routines during the qualifiers: a ‘balance’ routine, a ‘dynamic’ routine, and a ‘combined’ routine. The sum of the scores of those three is computed, and the six to eight best teams go to the final, in which they present their combined routine again, from scratch. Every time, they are graded by judges on three main criteria: the difficulty of the routine, the artistic value of the performance, and the quality of the execution. Eventually, a 0,3 point penalty is withdrawn when a static element lasts less than three seconds.

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For the past two years I have been an acrobatic gymnastics junky. It even made one of my gymnast friends say that « Camille is the only non-gymnast that knows more about gymnastics than actual gymnasts » – which if it happens to be true, could also not be a compliment at all. But the truth is, I do watch acrobatics whenever I wash my dishes, eat alone, stretch after dancing…

So I arrived in Antwerp, Belgium, the day before the weekend started. Oddly enough, my carpooling driver let me right in front of the Lotto Arena, where the Championships had started a few days ago, with other age categories. Being left, without any access to Internet, in a country I didn’t speak the language of, I started the weekend very successfully by getting lost, for two long but deliciously funny hours, alone in Antwerp. Eventually, thanks to the help of locals, I arrived on time to the house I was couch-surfing in, and after a few other adventures but tons of meetings with nice people, I got in the Lotto Arena on Saturday morning, with the amazed eyes of a fangirl who sees her dreams come true.

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From the first minutes, I can remember having a perfect seat and thus a perfect view on the stage. I can remember the opening music and the: « Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships » that was finally real. Everything I have watched on a screen for years was in front of me, I was there – and even more than the rest, I can remember an explosion of colors and assisting to the first routine I’ve ever seen somewhere else than on my computer. It was the combined routine of the German female group and beyond any rationality, I suddenly thought, « Oh my God, they are shaking, they are actual humans! »

From this whole Championship, I’ll remember a little disappointment. Two years ago, after the last World Championship, the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique) had decided to double the value of the execution and to make difficulty count for at least ten points less than before (scores being most generally around 25 and 30 with a precision of 0.001). Most probably because of this, I found the elements much less difficult and thus impressive than the years before, as it gave less incentives to gymnasts to actually take risks, and more incentive to achieve easier stunts, but to achieve them better. Even worse, it was not always the objectively most impressive routine that would get the best score. On a little happy note, I had the feeling that there were numerous routines on actual songs with lyrics – we saw routines on « We will rock you », « Bella ciao! », « Raining men », « Hit the road jack » or even Lindsey Stirling!

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But before anything else, it was even better than everything I could have imagined. I did not have many surprises on the winners – Russia won in all categories but the Men’s Group, in which they were third. But for the rest, it was as if these Championships did their best to surprise and impress me, myself, personally. On Sunday, when I was queuing to buy my ticket, I saw, completely by chance, Ineke van Schoor, the 2015 women’s group European champion, a meter away from me… And as I was about to leave, my friends suddenly asked me « Is that not the gymnast you’ve been constantly telling us about? » and I saw, a few meters away, Adam Upcott and his base Charlie Tate, the British men’s pair I was supporting and could exchange a few words with, after they got a completely unexpected – it was their very first year as a men’s pair – but well-deserved bronze medal…

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It has been great, for a weekend, not to care about school but about Great Britain getting a medal. It has been great to go crazy when seeing Marina Chernova, a Russian living legend that I had seen so many times on my screen. She eventually got a third world champion’s title with her mixed pair. It has been crazy again, but for another reason, to understand that the reigning men’s group champions, China, who achieved two years ago the best routine I’ve ever seen, would not even get to the final. They were replaced by another Chinese group, that at the general surprise, finished second behind Israel! And I’m not even talking about the Ukrainian mixed pair that performed their combined routine on a French song – absolutely not well-known, but it was FRENCH, and it made this moment nothing less than perfect.

When it ended, there was nothing else remaining on the stage than glitter, that had fallen from the leotards like dust from the stars. I had dozens of notes and photos, a brand-new acrobatics sticker on my computer, life-lasting memories and a strange feeling of achievement. When I saw that we were back to France, I had a look backwards, and one last thought for the Myself that used to regret not to have started gymnastics when I was still young and flexible. I left that one in Antwerp; seeing gymnastics with one’s own eyes can also help one choose one’s fight. Indeed, there are other ways to fight for this incredible sport to be more recognized than by practicing it.

In latin, « arena », from the Lotto Arena, means « sand »; and if I can add my small grain of sand to the pyramid by writing about this sport’s beauty, I’ll consider the work as done – even if it implies being still that bad at doing handstands and cartwheels…

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Norway: the Unknown Artist both Made and Ripped Apart by Louis-Philippe

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It’s quite telling: all the way up in the corner of the Louvre – in the innermost corner of the Northern Europe-section – there hang 26 small paintings by a Norwegian artist: Peder Balke. Virtually unknown in his home country – but one of the only Norwegians honored with a spot in the Louvre –, here is the story of how France’s last king both ruined, and possibly also made, one of Norway’s most undermined and under-appreciated artists.

Balke was born in a rugged town in Norway while Bonaparte’s war was raging in France and Europe – then of course completely and blissfully unaware of the role the events of the tyrant would play in his personal life. Balke – growing up surrounded by mountains and farmland in the Norwegian countryside – miraculously managed to save up enough money, with the help from local farmers, to pursue higher education – where he would later serve as a pupil for some of Norway’s finest national romanticists. Balke finished his education at the same time as legends, like Gericault and Delacroix, were becoming notorious for the paintings we today all know – and embarked on a journey to pursue the love for nature that the Scandinavian national romanticism was trying to emphasize. In 1830, Balke completed several long hikes in the fantasy-like Norwegian paysage, later going on trips to Russia, England and France.

In 1832, Balke completed a journey alongside the Norwegian coast – the same one as Louis-Philippe had conducted right before the end of the last century – and the outset of the French revolution. There, he captured in his mind the vivid pictures of the sea hitting cliffs, of the sun breaking the cold and unforgiving Arctic air and of the feebleness of people, in contrast to the great nature surrounding them. The same things Louis-Philippe had seen.

Balke knew this – and in 1845-47 he managed to get an audience with the Orléans king in Paris. The king accepted the offer from Balke, and ordered more than 50 pictures in commemoration of his journey. Balke delivered. And shortly after he presented 54 oil paintings as examples for the king. The king, however, then told him that the time was not right, as the embers of a new revolution were glowing bright. Balke spent the following years trying to convince the king to pay him to finish the mission properly, which never happened. As Balke gave up, so ended what could’ve been the future career of an artist in the ranks of the Norwegian Edvard Munch and Peter Nicolai Arbo. Balke would never return to painting, other than for the sake of feeding his own artistic taste.

Only recently Balke has received renewed interest by international galleries, such as the London National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Balke is only now being recognized for the methods he was despised for at the time – his creativity and imagination, that amongst other things, included painting by imagination, more vividly demonstrating his own emotions and thoughts in accordance with the nature that he was actively displaying. In Paris, 26 of the small and iconic oil-paintings are now on display, as they have been since 2001 when they were put up after having been hidden away when Balke was turned down by Louis-Philippe – for more than 150 years. But the lack of conservation and care given to Balke’s painting can still be seen on some of them, where long cracks spread through the Norwegian landscape that he was so touched and moved by.

El Salvador: Into a World of Myths and Legends

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When trying to come up with a topic for my first article, I realized that I had to look no further than to the three small figures that have found a home sitting on my desk. Before leaving El Salvador to come to study in France, my mother gave me a set of figurines to decorate my room and to remind me of a land that has a rich culture and history, stories and traditions. They’ve been a topic of conversation whenever friends come to visit, and I’m glad to be able to share their stories (and others!) with more people.

20180418_094948.jpg The three figures sitting on my desk: (From left to right) El Cadejo Negro, La Carreta Chillona, La Siguanaba 

These three figures all represent different of the protagonists of myths and legends that have been passed down for generations among Salvadorans. Folklore is very prominent in Salvadoran culture, whether we are aware of it or not. From a young age, I remember having heard of La Siguanaba, El Cipitio, La Carreta Chillona, El Cadejo Blanco and El Cadejo Negro, taught in our Spanish classes or told over a blazing fire while on camping trips with classmates. There are too many myths to be able to count, but you consider this an introduction to some of the most famous folktales from El Salvador!

La Siguanaba

La Siguanaba (alternatively, Sihuanaba) is probably the most recognizable Salvadoran mythical figure and is also recognized in other Central American countries with variations in her story.

According to Salvadoran legend, La Siguanaba used to be known as Sihuehuet, which translates to “beautiful woman”. She caught the eye of a Nahua prince, who happened to be the son of the water god, Tlaloc, and had an affair with him that left her pregnant. Sihuehuet neglected her son after he was born, often abandoning him so she could meet with her lover. Once Tlaloc found out about her affair and her neglect, he cursed her to become la Siguanaba – hideous woman.

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When looked at from afar, she would appear beautiful as she always had been, but once men got closer to her, she would transform into a hideous creature, with long hair and hanging breasts, that would scare her victims into insanity and even death. She was then condemned to roam the countryside, hunting for men who travel alone. She comes out at night, usually near bodies of water where she appears as a beautiful woman bathing to men who happen to come across her.

You may be wondering what happened to her neglected son, which brings us to the next famous Salvadoran legend: El Cipitio.

El Cipitio

El Cipitio is also one of the most famous and important Salvadoran mythological figures and is widely referenced in Salvadoran culture.

Son of La Siguanaba, El Cipitio (from the Nahua word cipit – boy) was born out of his mother’s affair with a Nahua prince and grew up neglected by his mother. To feed himself, he would eat ashes from fireplaces, which gave him an inflated belly from malnourishment. When Tlaloc cursed La Siguanaba, it was not only to punish her for the neglect of her child, but also because of the affair she had with Tlaloc’s son. Because of this, he also cursed El Cipitio, condemning him to eternal youth and to forever remain ten years old. However, he is generally a very friendly figure if one happens to run into him.

He is often seen near rivers, where he looks for pretty women that he throws pebbles and flowers at to catch their attention. He always wears a large straw hat and often a white shirt that barely covers his large stomach, or he wears no clothes at all.  His feet are twisted backward so that villagers that try to follow him always get lost looking in the opposite direction. He is not a hateful spirit, but he can be mocking towards some people and play pranks on them because he finds it entertaining.

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El Cadejo Blanco and El Cadejo Negro

The Cadejo is a mythical creature from Latin American culture, with different variations throughout the various countries. In El Salvador, there are two versions of the Cadejo that act as counter-balances to each other: El Cadejo Blanco (The White Cadejo) and El Cadejo Negro (The Black Cadejo).

According to the legend, the Cadejo Blanco was created by God himself, wanting to send a protective spirit down to the people on Earth. The appearance of the Cadejo is of a large, white dog with blue eyes. When the Devil saw that God had created a peaceful spirit, he got envious and decided to create a spirit of his own: the Cadejo Negro, often appearing as a large black dog with red eyes.

It is possible to run into either Cadejo if you walk alone at night on the streets of El Salvador, but it is important to know which one is your companion as you make your way home. If you are accompanied by the Cadejo Blanco, you can be assured safe travels and protection on your journey. If you find yourself accompanied by the Cadejo Negro, you will not make it home, since he will push fear into your heart and steal your soul.

Should both Cadejos run into each other on your journey, there will be a large and intense fight between the two, with the Cadejo Blanco triumphing over the Cadejo Negro. This means that whomever the Cadejo Negro was accompanying will be able to go back home under the Cadejo Blanco’s protection. Still, it is often advised to not look back when walking on the streets of El Salvador at night, as you can never be sure if you have one of the spirits following you.

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The Cadejos are not the only spirits to roam the streets at night, which brings us to our final myth.

La Carreta Chillona

The Carreta Chillona (The Shrieking Cart) is another famous Salvadoran legend, also known as the Carreta Bruja (The Witch Cart), and it has been passed down from generation to generation.

The Carreta Chillona travels on its own through the streets of villages in El Salvador past midnight, with no horse or ox pulling it along. It earns its name from the shrieking of its metallic wheels, scaring anyone who happens to hear it in the night. Some can also hear chains being pulled along the street and the rattling of bones, claiming that the Carreta Chillona is often heard before it is seen.

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It is believed to have been blessed by the Devil, and that it carries the bones of all the deceased of the day, and that it seems to be guided by otherworldly spirits. While the origins of the Carreta Chillona are not certain, there is a strong belief that it was built by a Spaniard during the colonization era. He had learned the native people’s healing methods and used them to cure other Spaniards for high prices, and then refused to help the natives once they were infected with Spanish-brought diseases, leading to many of their deaths. The spirits of the deceased came back to haunt the Spaniard, forcing him to build a cart out of their bones and to carry them all back to the cemetery, where he disappeared, never to be seen again.

 

There are many other myths and stories that El Salvador has, but consider these an introduction and a small glimpse at the many mysteries that my small country holds!

Chile: A Country of Poets

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I was wondering, up until the last minute, what I should dedicate the first Chilean article on Babel Tower to, and I decided that where better to start than with its literary culture?

Chile is a country of poets. The nation’s literary traditions have deep roots that can be traced to the colony, and even before to its native heritage. Chile’s literary reputation, however, was earned in the 20th Century. Specifically thanks to what are now known as “the four greats of Chilean poetry”, that means, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro, Gabriela Mistral, and Pablo de Rokha. All of them were born near the turn of the 20th Century; and two of them, Mistral and Neruda, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of their contributions to poetry.

I’ll begin with Pablo de Rokha. Most of his poems reflected his life in the countryside, but he also explored some other themes throughout his life. He had a chronically tense relationship with Pablo Neruda, who he viewed as excessively bohemian. Both of them would become to take an active role in Chile’s communist party, as would Vicente Huidobro for that matters. Here is an extract of a poem he composed in 1916:

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I am like the absolute failure of the world, oh, Peoples!
The song, face to face with Satan itself
dialogues with the mighty science of the dead
and my pains spills the city with blood.

Yet my days are the reminders of huge, old furniture;
last night, “God” carried between worlds that go
like this, my lady, alone, and you say: “I love you”
when you talk with “your” Pablo, without ever listening to him.

Men and women smell like tombs;
My body falls over the raw land
Same as the red coffin of the unhappy.

Absolute enemy, I howl through the streets.
a dread more barbaric, more barbaric, more barbaric
than the hiccups of one hundred dogs left to die. 
Genius and Figure

The golden age of Chilean poetry would take place in the 30s when most of the aforementioned poets would publish their magnum Opus. I will mention Huidobro’s “Altazor”, a work that would fit in to his avant-gardist movement “Creacionismo”. The essence of the movement being that a poem is something new, and is created for its own sake rather than to please the audience or to describe something. Altazor is existential in nature and deals with the strangeness inherent to the human condition. The book’s illustrator was none other than Pablo Picasso, an acquaintance of Huidobro. Here is a small extract:

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The waterfall tresses over the night

While the night beds to rest

With its moon that pillows the sky

I iris the sleepy land

That roads towards the horizon

In the shade of a shipwrecking tree

Following on to Pablo Neruda: it is interesting to note that Neruda met Gabriela Mistral when he was young and sought her critique of his early compositions. At the time, she was directing a girls’ school. The following extract comes from Neruda’s “Residencia en la tierra”, a series of unified poems released in three volumes. In this work, Neruda would take it upon himself to explore the anxieties of the unconscious, while utilizing pessimistic surrealism. This opus earned Neruda the status of a world-class poet, which would be confirmed some decades later in 1971 when he received the Nobel Prize.

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If you should ask me where I’ve been all this time
I have to say “Things happen.”
I have to dwell on stones darkening the earth,
on the river ruined in its own duration:
I know nothing save things the birds have lost,
the sea I left behind, or my sister crying.
Why this abundance of places? Why does day lock
with day? Why the dark night swilling round
in our mouths? And why the dead?
Extract of Residence on Earth

One of the last outstanding works of the 30s was Gabriela Mistral’s “Tala”. The work is one where Mistral expresses her deeply felt emotions in a world marked by war (specifically the Spanish civil war). Mistral also uses this opportunity to reflect on the solitude inherent to those who are childless and spouseless, as was her case. One can really sense the impact that world events are having on her own perspectives and feelings. What money she earned with this publishing she sent to those orphaned by the Spanish civil war.

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She speaks in her way of her savage seas
With unknown algae and unknown sands;
She prays to a formless, weightless God,
Aged, as if dying.
In our garden now so strange,
She has planted cactus and alien grass.
The desert zephyr fills her with its breath
And she has loved with a fierce, white passion
She never speaks of, for if she were to tell
It would be like the face of unknown stars.
Among us she may live for eighty years,
Yet always as if newly come,
Speaking a tongue that plants and whines
Only by tiny creatures understood.
And she will die here in our midst
One night of utmost suffering,
With only her fate as a pillow,
                                        And death, silent and strange.              
The Stranger

I’d like to mention one last poet who, unlike the previous four, is still alive. Born in the 50s, Elicura Chihuailaf is a poet of Mapuche (native ethnicity which happens to be the largest minority in Chile) origin. His compositions therefore exist both in Spanish and in Mapudungun (language of the Mapuche). One of the main themes present in Chihuailaf’s poetry is a love/defense of Mother Nature in a context where capitalism and development are taking place in a form that is not particularly sustainable in the long run.

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I am withered grass
waving at the rain
but soon I feel the first drops
falling on the fields
Let this water soak me!
I hear myself say, dancing
amongst the flowers
When I wake up I will rise
touched
and held up by the scent
of lavender.

When the Waters of the East Sing in my Dreams

These are, of course, but a few extracts, given that this article is meant to be an introduction to the much larger world that is Chilean poetry. Chile was, and is, and will most likely always be, a country of poets…

Antony Rossi

Finland: The happiest country in the world?

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Photo: “Whereas surviving the dark winters may require some resilience in Finland, in summertime there is daylight even during the night.”

In a recent World Happiness Report published by the United Nations, Finland was nominated the happiest nation in the world. The Finnish people, Finns, received this title given by a UN-led committee with rolling eyes; claiming that the happiest citizens in the world live in a country where the sun barely exists during the long and cold winter sounded more like a joke.

What is this recognition based on, and what are actually the facts indicating that this conclusion has a reliable ground? The UN research is based on factors that measure life expectancy, social support received by people, as well as level of corruption and security, just to name a few. These topics were surveyed by asking simple questions from citizens of different countries. Along with Finland, all the Nordic countries made it to the top 10 list, accompanied by countries such as Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

What is noteworthy is that all these types of rankings always consist of factors that one is able to measure in a quantitative manner, and that is what the report is, in fact, about; levels of happiness in different countries are put in order based on scientific methods. There is no doubt that something essential is inevitably lost, when the pure and personal feeling of felicity is formulated so that it serves the idea of performances competing against each other. However, can we still consider that these rankings have at least some directional value when it comes to searching true happiness?

I have talked with several foreigners about Finland and what usually pop up in their mind, when asking about the country, are the words such as ’north’, ’coldness’ and ’dark winters’ – along with Santa Claus and reindeer, perhaps. Sometimes even the high rates of suicide are mentioned, and there is a grain of truth to that notice, too. Despite the shining placing at the top of the happiness ranking, Finland still has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, even if those rates have showed a steady decline during recent years. The darkness during the winter months can get depressing, and there is even a separate word in Finnish to describe depression caused by the lack of sunlight, ’kaamosmasennus’. As a matter of fact, the public health authority in Finland recommends people to supplement their everyday diet with some extra D vitamin, as the natural access to it is most often inadequate due to lack of sun during the winter. Conversely the sun hardly sets in northern parts of Finland in summertime.

Despite these factors, it is most often not an exaggeration to say that Finns are proud of their country. The national personality trait in Finland is usually characterized by self-deprecation and jokes about the darkness and the language no one understands, for example, but behind that shell you can find a person that is more than happy to both present his or her country, as well as learn more about other cultures, too. National pride usually stems from things such as the word ’sisu’, explaining Finnish national character that includes qualities such as grit, honesty, bravery and resilience. A Finn wouldn’t probably mind either telling you, with a modest smile on his or her face, that pronouns in Finnish grammar are gender neutral, or that Finnish women were the first in Europe to win the right to vote.

Along with the national character it is the network of working political institutions that plays a major role in Finnish society. What could be a better source of reassurance than being able to trust that the community you live in is safe, and that you will not be hung out to dry in case you need help? Yes, it is a known fact that Nordic citizens pay a relatively high amount of taxes to the state, but as a return they can be sure that this money is used to serve the common good. It is not only about income distribution but rather an investment to a society where most people can feel involved. In the long run, the resulting decline of social exclusion leads to a healthy and trustworthy society where the nominal costs have been paid back multiple times. It is not surprising that Finns are one of the happiest taxpayers in the world; instead of being altruistic they can expect to get something in return.

It can of course be argued if the idea of welfare state is a Nordic way to rationalize socialism, or rather a successful business model adapted to the government level. In either case, I believe that these political institutions, supported by a certain mix of modesty and national pride together, form a recipe that helps Finland perform well from the international point of view. Surprisingly enough, it may even outweigh the inconvenience of getting your dose of vitamin in pills instead of lying on the beach…

France: ‘The Angkor Massacre’, by Loup Durand

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Four years ago, I encountered one of those life-changing books that made me want to travel so much that it became viscerally painful not to.

It began as a love-hate relationship. I used to read a lot, at least three hours every day, and more than two-hundred books a year. When I turned fourteen, my father decided to introduce me to the novels that had changed his life. He brought me a pile of books, all of which smelt old, with their yellow pages and damaged spines after having been open too often. All of them were from different authors – except for two. These were written by former journalist Loup Durand, and my Father instructed me to read ‘Daddy’ first; and then, ‘Jaraï’ – which translates into ‘The Angkor Massacre’.

I loved the first one. It immediately reached a good ranking into my Top 10 Favorite Books Ever. The second one gave me such a headache by its endless explanations that I would have given up on it, were it not for my absolute rule to always finish a book. I don’t know why, but I read it again. And again. And again, and again, and again, until it became as essential to me as breathing, and my second favorite book ever.

There are as many summaries of the book as there are readers of it. The maelstroms of locations, characters and events, in a period of almost ten years covered by the story, make it almost impossible to objectively define who the main character is and what the book is really about.

The only thing I’ll say is that it takes place in Cambodia in 1969. Most of Indochina is still under the French colonial control while the Vietnamese war is tearing the world apart. Everything begins when Jon Kinkaird, a young American soldier, deserts and disappears. Financially supported by her grandfather, his sister Lisa flies from the US to Asia with the fierce will to find him and reason him. And there, she meets Lara – a plantation owner that her grandfather used to vaguely know, who he contacted from the other side of the world to help her.

 

‘Lara nodded, his heart aching with crazy love for the small country. Few men had loved or used to love Cambodia as he loved it; even fewer were able to survive all of its events. None was more determined to stay there no matter what happened.’

 

But as the French Denoël edition very clearly and relevantly states: “‘this is neither a story nor a war novel. It is first and foremost the story of Lara, the last White, and of his crazy love for a small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, Cambodia, which today is almost dead; it is the story of Lisa, Ieng Samboth and Roger Boues, O’Malley, Charles and Madeleine Korver, all of whom have existed under other names; it is even more, perhaps, the story of Kutchaï, the giant Jaraï, with strange and silent laughter. And it’s upsetting.’

It’s upsetting, because in the frame of a Cambodia at the dawn of one of the most horrible genocides that has ever been committed, we follow the story of two young men, soulmates and almost brothers, who embody the two sides of the broken country. On the one hand, Lara, White and eighth-generation heir of colonizers; on the other hand, Kutchaï, native khmer who will join the khmers rouges. In 1969, when the story begins, the Vietnamese war is about to spread to Cambodia like a mortal disease. In unstable Indochina, the balance of powers is upset between the French colonial administration, the American imperialism, the indigenous revolts, the declining authority of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, and the rising influence of the Khmers rouges who, from 1975 to 1979, will seize power in Cambodia and kill 1/3 of its population in a genocide that left the country ‘almost dead’.

But from this cruel and grotesque environment, emerges the sublime light of a story about solidarity, love, loyalty, and friendship. ‘The Angkor Massacre’ is about a fantastic network of absolute mutual aid, federated around the character of Lara. In this book, a person from one side of the world only has to speak a word for other people he has never met and doesn’t know, to mobilize all their resources to help beyond their means. ‘The Angkor Massacre’, is about friends from China, French Corsica, Cambodia, Thailand and many others, rising to help an American deserter, because his grandfather happened to have met Lara eleven years ago. All of these people are friends of Lara. All of them owe something to him, and he owes something to all of them. And what is beautiful about this network is its openness and the absolute confidence of all its members in each other, because all of them are incredibly far better off trusting than remaining on their own. While this network goes far beyond Lara, and works because every individual within it is ready both to give and to receive, this man remains its keystone whose name can trigger marvelous achievements.

 

‘Had it been announced to Roger Boues that Lara had just left with two or three men to conquer China while annexing the Tonkin on his way, he would have immediately packed his bags – ‘in fact, I only have one’ – to go and wait for him in Beijing’

 

To me, this network is the main character of the book. And what I love even more is that us, the readers, cannot help but believe in it because of the delicateness of Loup Durand’s unique writing. Every time I read it, I would forget that it was a book, because its characters are not realistic, but real. Not credible, but incredible. They shine even outside of the pages. I can only read ‘Jaraï’ (I do not like the English title – how can such an enlightened and positive story be called a ‘massacre’?) when I’m alone, ready to be touched and moved, to smile and to live along with these characters. I can only turn the yellow pages with deference and almost veneration, because ‘Jaraï’ is far more than a book printed on paper – the smell of its paper is enough for me to leave this world and join Lara, Kutchaï and all the others within a story that gives me a fantastic amount of hope and trust towards the world.

This whole book is a marvel and sometimes, its moments, sentences, and words are such a breathtaking slap that we cannot help but close the book for a while, close our eyes, turn our head back and breathe in deeply. Still, this is not enough for us to leave Cambodia.

Besides becoming one of my favorite stories ever, ‘Jaraï’ also made me fall in love with the ‘small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, which today is almost dead’. I would not call it an obsession, exactly. I only watch every TV show related to it from near or far, and I only buy books without looking at the content because there’s ‘khmer’ in the title, and I only instantly notice every word written anywhere on it, and I only crave to go there one day. I feel like going to Cambodia would be, somehow, like going back to my roots – because ‘Jaraï’ played such an important role in my Father’s life and in mine, that I need to see this country with my own eyes.

Cambodian inhabitants could feel insulted by me saying this – after all, I do not know anything about the reality of this land besides what I have read. I know nothing about Cambodia. But that is the inevitable irrationality that falling in love necessarily contains. I need to go there, would it be to discover that everything I thought I knew on this culture was wrong.

It is difficult to write about a masterpiece because we’re always afraid we won’t find the words to do so. Eventually, I’ll let you make your own opinion about it. I just want you to know that I read this book once a year now, during holidays in my paradise on Earth (the southwest of France); that last year, when I finished a series of months working on highly selective application contests, the first thing I did was read it again; that once I decided to write every quotation I particularly loved on a notebook and that I stopped after realizing that if I continued, I would have had 751 quotes; and that eventually, to me, it is both a story that always manages to make me smile and cry and be crushed under the power of its words, and an inspiration that is part of me now.

So please trust me. Please read it – it is not very easy to find, as all hidden treasures. Allow this book to change your vision of life and mutual aid as much as it made mine evolve. And next time a letter from the other side of the world will ask you to help the friend of a friend, don’t even think about it. Life becomes strangely easier when we let ourselves trust.

 

‘ “There’s nothing in the world like Angkor”, said Lara. “Angkor moves your skin and your blood. Angkor is to be breathed, as much as it is to be seen.” ‘

 

MY TOP 10 FAVORITE BOOKS EVER (Today – that may change tomorrow)

  1. ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, by Edmond Rostand
  2. ‘Jaraï’, by Loup Durand
  3. ‘Harry Potter’, by J.K. Rowling
  4. ‘Daddy’, by Loup Durand
  5. ‘Here, there are dragons’, by James A. Owen
  6. ‘I’ll give you the sun’, by Jandy Nelson
  7. ‘Airman’, by Eoin Colfer
  8. ‘Emma’, by Jane Austen
  9. ‘Hygiene and the assassin’, by Amelie Nothomb
  10. ‘The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (Tiger at the Gates)’, by Jean Giraudoux

Australia: Our Multicultural Identity

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Chances are if you’ve heard of Australia, you’ve heard about its people. You would have heard about our ‘ridiculous accents’, our possibly too laid-back attitudes, and how everyone apparently really wants some barbecued shrimps (even though we call them prawns). However, you never really hear about the people of Australia. Who are we as a nation, as a people?

Speaking from personal experience, Australians are some of the most culturally diverse people you’ll probably ever meet. Currently, Australia has a population of approximately 24 million and is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries of the world, having the lowest population density of any country. Most of Australia’s population is made up of immigrants or people whose families immigrated from various contents including Europe and Asia. Approximately one in four of Australia’s population were born overseas; 44 percent of the population was born overseas or have a parent who was (I myself being included in this, with my father being born in India and then moving to Australia when he was eight years old). Four million Australians speak a language other than English. Over 260 languages are spoken throughout Australia and we identify with more than 270 ancestries.

Australia’s multicultural identity is one that is held in high regard and is described by the Australian Government to be at the heart of “our national identity’ and is ‘intrinsic to our history and character.” This unique multicultural community gives a national identity different to any other in the world and, according to Australia’s Multicultural Policy*, “gives us a competitive edge in an increasingly globalised world”, something I will more than happily agree with.

Though we have a multitude of cultures and backgrounds that call Australia home, I think it’s only fair that I begin with those who first called Australia home: our Indigenous peoples. Now, I myself am not an Indigenous Australian, so I cannot properly begin to describe the origins of this incredibly beautiful culture, nor can I give a proper understanding of their sacred stories and beliefs, though I can provide you with facts. If you, yourself, are an Indigenous Australian, or have Indigenous Australian heritage, and would like to add your input regarding these matters, then feel more than free to contact me and leave a comment!

Before the arrival of foreigners, Australia was inhabited by the Indigenous peoples – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who are sometimes now referred to the First Australians. They are the longest surviving culture in the world, having existed for at least 60,000 years and are comprised of hundreds of different language, tribal, and nation groups (a map has been produced demonstrating these separate groups with additional information)*. These separate tribes engaged in frequent contact with one another, often trading various goods. These various tribal or language groups are still of great importance to the Indigenous peoples living today, and important events often begin with a ‘Welcome to Country’ speech or performance. I, myself, live on the traditional land of the Kaurna people, the people of the Adelaide Plains.

Though, historically, not recognised as an important culture by the British colonisers, the Indigenous culture is now given much more appreciation and exposure, more so after the official Apology Speech made by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008*, with Indigenous history and culture being taught in primary schooling across Australia. Indigenous culture focuses on the land, as well as the connection between people and the land to which they belong. Land and animals are not seen as property, and so are treated with the utmost respect, with all of the Dreamtime Stories (the sacred stories) of the Indigenous culture revolving around the earth and flora and fauna*.

Australia, through British colonisation in 1770 with the arrival of Captain Cook, is known to have large amounts of British cultural influence, with Anglo-Celtic heritage, evidenced by the predominant English language, the democratic system of government inclusive of traditions belonging to the Westminster Government, Parliamentarianism and constitutional monarchy, American constitutionalist and federalist traditions, and Christianity as the dominant religion. This, however, is just one small aspect to the exponentially large cultural aspect of modern Australia.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, Australia has been exposed to many more cultures, other than just those of the Indigenous peoples and British colonizers. Significant events throughout this century also highly contributed to this expansion of cultures and, in turn, the formation of Australia’s cultural identity. The Federation of Australia in 1901, as well as the many unfortunate wars seen throughout the century, were just some of the multitude of events heavily influencing the expansion of Australian culture. After the Second World War, more than 6.5 million people migrated to Australia, this fundamentally affecting and changing Australia’s culture for the better. The Vietnam War and the Korean War also contributed to this ever-growing population and, in turn, the ever-developing cultural identity. All these events have contributed to the large cultural diversity we Australians pride ourselves on having.

I, myself, have Italian, Portuguese, Indian, Irish, and possibly even French, heritage. My friends and classmates have many other culturally diverse backgrounds, these being English, Scottish, Greek, Middle Eastern, and Taiwanese, to name but a few.

The many cultures seen throughout Australia are represented in a variety of ways, with food being the primary method. Accompanying the many restaurants that encompass the flavors of many countries, there are specific areas dedicated to certain cultures and countries, areas such as China Towns, as well as many festivals, including the Glendi Greek Festival recently held in the Adelaide CBD. Exposure to these backgrounds is also viewed through our TV personalities, seen both at home and on the world stage. Many of our entertainers, politicians, and athletes are of a variety of backgrounds, only further demonstrating the wide variety that Australia considers a part of our national and cultural identity.

Regarding religion, Australia also has great diversity, with the religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as the tradition and spirituality of the Indigenous peoples, being only a few.

The multicultural diversity seen throughout Australia is one of the most important aspects to us as a nation. We thrive on the diversity we are lucky enough to have and, without this diversity, Australia would not be the wonderful country it is today. This multiculturalism is one of the aspects of Australia that I am most proud of, and I will forever love about my country.

It is difficult to fully encompass the many backgrounds and cultures of the Australian people in one small article. If after you’d like to know more about the people of Australia, perhaps in some more depth, I’ll include the websites I referenced while writing this article. Hopefully, there will be something in these sources that will satisfy your curiosity. Additionally, for those wishing for shorter reading (or possibly more engaging reading), there is a very well-known children’s in Australia book known as My Place, written by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated by Donna Rawlins. The book focuses on one specific piece of land in Sydney pictured in various decades moving backwards from 1988 to 1788, a different inhabitant being featured each time. This is one of the most powerful books regarding Australian history and culture I have read myself and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to get a glimpse into the diversity Australia has to offer. If you prefer watching to reading, the My Place book also inspired a TV show of the same name. Both are an excellent way to learn more about the variety of Australian culture.

Hopefully, I’ll see you again in the next article, and please remember to check out the other wonderful countries and Keepers we here at Babel Tower have to offer!

Enjoy the rest of your day or night and be safe!

Siobhan Reardon, Keeper of Australia

 

* WEBSITE LINKS

  • Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology Speech to the Indigenous peoples of Australia:

https://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people/apology-to-australias-indigenous-peoples

  • Australia’s Multicultural Policy

https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/12_2013/people-of-australia-multicultural-policy-booklet.pdf

  • Indigenous Culture and History

http://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-shared-history/

http://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

  • General Information

https://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people

https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/settlement-and-multicultural-affairs/publications/the-people-of-australia-australias-multicultural-policy

https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/12_2013/people-of-australia-multicultural-policy-booklet.pdf

http://www.english-online.at/geography/australia/people-of-australia.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Australia