France: Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker…

Featured

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.

Couv_284597.jpg

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.

Unknown.jpeg

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.

18970-21095.main_l-670x479.jpg

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.’

3b194c5591e0d1ef681aea365912f204--josephine-baker-cabaret.jpg

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

Featured

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.

410aa67b9298910384da7ecbd56c.jpeg

// Credits // bfmtv

Costa Rica: A small town’s contribution to culture

Featured

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.

CoRi 3.png

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.

CoRi .png

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!

Featured

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.

carroz-1.jpg

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.

desfile.caballos.JPG

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)

Featured

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.

IMG_5043.JPG

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.

IMG_5039.JPG

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.

IMG_5102.JPG

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!

IMG_5070.JPG

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…

IMG_5008.JPG

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…

IMG_5107.JPG

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

Featured

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

Featured

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.

Siguanaba.jpg

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.

Cipitio.jpg

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.

Cadejos.jpg

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.

Carreta Chillona.jpg

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

Featured

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:

30120990_1715590448480248_1504497375_n.jpg

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:

30121067_1715590445146915_803109004_n.jpg

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.

30185348_1715590441813582_94661816_n.jpg

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.

30180127_1715592861813340_248533096_n.jpg

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.

30429311_1715590435146916_1352201321_n.jpg

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?

Featured

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

Featured

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

Featured

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

China: Going Through the ‘Coming-of-Age’ Door

On April 7th, we had our coming-of-age ceremony, which seems to be a long-time tradition of our school. Dressed in our formal school uniform, we gathered at the front door together with our parents. Teachers were already there, standing in two lines waiting for us. We were supposed to go through the lines in turn and receive the smiles and greetings from them. But teachers could be really hard to approach sometimes, eh? It was such a surprise to see their expression of kindness and love. At the end of the lines was a door called ‘coming-of-age door’. Ever since ancient times, people all around the world uses the ‘door’ as a symbol. France has its own Arc de Triomphe, while Chinese even believe that carps which jump over a ‘dragon door’ can finally become a true dragon. Now it was time for we 18-year-olds to pass a kind of ‘door’ and somehow, become an adult.

Then came the ceremony. At first, a singing performance didn’t attract our attention. But then, we found out that in the background were pictures of all everyday-life scenes of our campus. And the best part was, the lyrics have been rewritten by our students, as a revelation of our deep love towards our school.

Eventually, how could a ceremony go without gifts? Parents gave us their well-wrapped gifts. The present teachers brought to us was a poem-reciting performance. The poem they wrote was full of memories and expectations. Every sentence they recited was followed by cheers and tears. But those were not the best ones. The  organizers prepared a special gift for us——a video. A video recording all our school life during the past three years (high school length in China). It could be so silly but touching to see ourselves running and laughing on the screen. Our childhood pictures were provided by parents, from the old yellow albums at the bottom of drawers. Our teachers were laughing and touched as well; time is always powerful and, well, amazing! We could easily recognize marks on those faces where each little change can tell a glorious story.

In our traditional opinion, to become an adult firstly means responsibility and therefore, gratitude. We expressed sincere thanks to parents and teachers, then sworn to the flag. The whole ceremony ended in the waves of class slogan. It seems that Chinese people are often fond of slogans, using them as an effective way of inspiration. Our class chose the one ‘少年十八,青春芳华,文一砺剑,决战盛夏’, which merely means ‘We are now 18 years old and exactly in our best period of time during the whole life journey. We are determined to improve ourselves to be a better person and firstly get a good result in June’s college-entrance examination.’ ——the exactly thing our teachers and parents wanted.

Great importance attached to coming-of-age ceremony dates back to thousands of years ago. At that time it was divided by sex. Men growing to 20 years old and women in 15 years old were considered as adults. Then a grand coming-of-age ceremony was held for them, ‘冠礼Guan Li’ for men and ‘笄礼Ji Li’ for women. GUAN is a special kind of hat while JI is a decoradion of hair. The change of hat and hairstyle was at that time a symbol of adult. Take one verse, written in Tang Dynasty, as an example: ‘暗合双鬟逐君去’——before the young girl eloped with her lover(they fell in love at first sight!), she secretly braided her double buns worn at two sides into a bun at the back of head using JI, declaring she had transformed from a maid into an adult, or even a married woman. JI and GUAN mean the same in this regard. During the ceremony, with the grave music (grave is the main character of traditional Chinese music, which I will talk about afterwards), all of the elder members of the family would congratulate and exhort the young-age, because after the ceremony, the marriage would come, alongside family responsibilities. Coming-of-age is really an essential event in one’s life. Believe it or not, it could even be regarded as as significant as one’s birth and death.

GUAN

Nowadays there are still many schools or even other social organizations enthusiastic about holding these kind of coming-of-age ceremonies. However, they have been simplified a lot and are more contemporary. Some schools today are encouraging their students to wear traditional customs and follow the ancient manners of the ceremony, in order to inherit traditional Chinese culture perhaps. For instance, a high school in Guangxi Province chose to give their students traditional JI and GUAN as presents. (But I have to say, compared with some renaissance of the traditional custom organizations’ ceremony, this ‘modelled-after-an-antique’ one is a little bit awkward and formal. For example, what these girls wear in the attached picture is actually not hanfu——the traditional custom they want. So how to match the form and content better should be addressed.)

Guangxi students in their ‘modelled-after-an-antique’ ceremony.

A much more better one. She is wearing Ji to the girl.

Though they have their apparent advantages, most of them are more like ours this time, videos and lectures and the most important, gratitude. Parents and teachers won’t let the great chance to be thanked go that easily, will they? They surely want to make it an educational opportunity to teach us responsibility and then inspire us to work harder in college-entrance examination. Like what the slogan said, ‘决战盛夏(fight for the exam in summer)’. Whether we are already 18 or not -as I know, many of us are just 17 or 16-, being an adult is always more about psychological growth. We can jump into adulthood simply by sleeping over our birthday night, but the needed mental development is a long progress. And coming-of-age ceremony, whatever form it is, just puts emphasis on the true meaning of being 18.

Yihan Liu, Keeper of China, and Yuxin Shao

Image: chinadaily

Thailand: Land of Smile?

When people think of Thailand, some might have heard this beautiful slogan, “Thailand is the land of smile”. How come that this slogan exists? Is it because Thai people smile a lot at each other, or is it just a beautiful slogan aiming to attract foreign tourists? As a Thai myself, I’ve always believed that this slogan definitely reflects a true characteristic of Thai people, and of course, of the way we live in our country.

Essentially, Thai people have a joyful and peaceful nature. Our culture is based on sharing things together. Most importantly, Thai people always help each other, not only among family members or relatives but also with other people we don’t know. It is common, in Thailand, to call people we don’t know for help, such as brothers or sisters or even uncles or aunts. This shows that our people are living together like a big family.

This not only works towards our fellow Thai people; it also makes Thais very friendly to foreigners and especially tourists. This is at the origin of the “wai”, is a traditional Thai greeting that we generally carry out by holding both hands together between our chest, like a prayer. Thai people often give a smile to each other, including to foreigners, in order to greet and show friendship. You can easily notice this everywhere in Thailand. When you walk in the street, take a public transport, go shopping or even visit the temple, if you look to Thai people, I am certain that they will give a friendly smile back to you.

Thai people always smiling has certainly helped our country gain popularity among tourists. Although we are a small country in South East Asia, Thailand is one of the top tourist destinations in many polls and rankings. As mentioned earlier, Thai people always want to be friend with tourists. We want to give the best experience and impression to them while they are spending their holidays in our country. It can start from the very beginning, when one arrives at the airport. The officers always welcome you with a big smile. The taxi driver who takes you to the city asks for the name of the hotel and helps you put your luggage in the taxi with a smile. The reception at the hotel, the waiter at the restaurant, the seller at the souvenir shop, will provide you with the best service with enthusiasm. Of course, they will smile every time that you ask a question or talk to them.  This unique characteristic of Thai people also makes it easy for the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote our country. Consequently, the number of tourists who visit Thailand is keeping increase every year.

Nevertheless, the fact that Thai people always smile does not mean that we are in good mood or happy all the time. Sometimes our smile can carry different emotions in certain situations. The best example is that if you ask some questions to Thai people and they do not know what to answer, they will smile back at you. This is because we have a humble and shy nature. We do not want to say something funny or stupid in front of other people. Therefore, we avoid doing so by just smiling back and pretend we do not understand what you’re asking. This also often happens when foreigners ask Thai people a question in English or in any other language we are not familiar with. Many Thais  are not good as speaking other languages or even English. Although we start learning English in elementary school, there a few people that can use it effectively in daily life. Thus, you should realize that if you ask some random Thai people on the street in English, it is possible that they will smile back rather than give the answer to you…

Furthermore, Thai people also smile even when they face the critical situation or problem. Nowadays, our economy is not so good to say the least. The number of unemployed people is increasing. The prices of goods are increasing while the salary is still the same. But you can still see a smile on the face of Thai people. We always remain optimistic and see things in positive. The smile is a smile of hope. We smile to cheer up and support each other. This is the reason why will always be a smile in most of Thai people’s faces, not only when we are happy but also in sad time or when we really need some support. And since you can expect or see smiles everywhere in Thailand, I do not think it would be exaggerate to say that Thailand, indeed, is the land of smile.

In conclusion, it can be said that smile is a symbol of Thai people. We smile a lot in every day even when we’re face a good or bad situation. It certainly makes our day better. Once you visit Thailand to experience this for yourself, you will notice that our slogan is not exaggerated and be yourself welcomed this way. Welcome to, Thailand land of smile!