An Update, Long Overdue

Loyal readers—if any of you still exist!—it is I, long lost Cassandra. This is a new update, not an April fool’s joke.

I remember reading some of SOAS student blogs about this time a year ago and they all said how difficult term 2 is in comparison. I can now attest to their observations—Term 2 is (and continues to be?) a killer. Similar to the DePaul system, school is in session for 10 weeks at a time, with a week off in the middle, (“reading week”). After this Easter holiday, term 3 will commence, which is a 3 week revision period before final exams in May. I feel my blood pressure rising  just seeing those words in this little text box. How, I will loathe May.

But it’s not May yet, nor is it even the start of term 3, to be precise. And this week is cause for celebration. My first visit from an American Friend! Colin has traveled approximately 5,354 miles from sunny San Francisco to spend the week with me, here, in lovely (albeit gray) London.

Enjoying a beer at the Euston Tap!

Enjoying a beer at the Euston Tap!

After living here for several months, I’ve fallen into a routine—I eat at the same places, divide my time between the library, my friends and my room. I find I’m not wandering, and subsequently, not wondering, the way I did when I first arrived. This was likely inevitable as we become comfortable, busy, we stick to what’s around us, sure. But Colin and this God-send Easter break (terrible pun intended) will, I hope, facilitate a bit of a routine break. Time to put down the never-ending job applications, stop stressing about the looming exams and try to really see London again.

 

A Thoughtful Pause for Friends & “One Armed Scissor”

Today I met up with some of my fellow ambassador bloggers in Chinatown to ring in the Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, in typical London fashion, the weather was cold, gray and rainy. But, surrounded by my insightful colleagues, I tried to take a moment to reflect on my blog—what it’s detailed thus far and where it’s going.

Soup & Chinese Tea

When I had originally conceived this blog, I had intended to talk more about the curious characters I would encounter in London and less about myself. Perhaps in the very nature of blogging, which is somewhat like an extension of journal writing, I feature a rather prominent role in my posts. Some of the new people in my life have preferred to remain nameless, which I respect, no questions asked. Despite that, I’ve decided to be more outgoing with my “friend” requests. This post marks the first installment on the Londoners in my life.

A fellow SOASian and blogger, Sebastian and I met several months ago, rather haphazardly, outside of our student building. Even though we have different regional and academic focuses—he’s studying Musicology with an emphasis on Korea—our conversations always leave me feeling reflective and contemplative. It is likely due to our “differences” that Sebastian inspires new observations in me.

Back in November, whilst slaving over my final essays in Russell Square, we ran into each other.  After chatting mindlessly about this and that, Sebastian mentioned that he’d booked a room at school to practice piano. I knew that he was based in Musicology and thought this practice session had something to do with his course work. With a quiet smile, Sebastian explained one of his dearest hobbies; transcribing alternative rock songs into piano pieces.

Although I consider myself a fan of music, I’ve no technical knowledge. The process of taking a song originally composed for several instruments and transforming into a piece for the piano seems nearly beyond comprehension. It isn’t that Sebastian selects one instrument, like the guitar, and alters it for the piano. On the contrary, he studies the song and selects different parts to transcribe, so that the main feeling of the song remains intact.

On this particular day, back in November, I was moved by such a thoughtful and creative pastime. Although he’d yet to finish transcribing “One Armed Scissor” by At the Drive-In, Sebastian sheepishly invited me to listen to what he had completed. Upon hearing him play, I was instantly 16 again, driving too fast in California, with my music too loud. I was so transfixed in the visceral experience of the flashback that when he reached the end of his transcription, mid-song, I was snapped rather abruptly back into the room. I made him play it 2 more times.

I was, and remain, struck by the fact that Sebastian didn’t simply cover this song. In playing “One Armed Scissor” on the piano, he had created something entirely new. He had chosen which aspects of the song, from guitar riffs to the base line, were important to the overall feeling. In making that selection, Sebastian created something new, effectively transforming a rather chaotic song into something beautiful.

“One Armed Scissor” by At the Drive-In: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/One+Armed+Scissor/2VlTLk?src=5

Sebastian’s blog can be found here: http://protenor.blogspot.co.uk/

Snow & The Second Sex

With the change in term has come a change in weather. For the past few days the sky has taken on that familiar light gray colour (Just kidding, it’s still color.) and the snow has been more or less steady. Two things I’ve noticed as of late:

1. People with umbrellas in the snow-

How can it be, you ask. Surely the Brits understand that umbrellas are for rain and not just any old precipitation. Lest you call me a liar, I’ve included photographic evidence.

Umbrella. In the snow.

I wish I could comment more about it, but for fear of alienating the 3 British readers of this blog, I’ll hold my tongue. Besides, a picture is worth a 1,000 words.

2. People dressing like we live in Norway-

This one just makes me giggle. I’ve no evidence to prove my observation (which makes everything I’m about to say hearsay) but I won’t let that stop me. I’ve been very surprised by how mild the weather actually is in London. Rainy, yes, but not terribly windy—Which you know is a credible statement from someone whose lived in the City of Wind.

So, it was a funny sight indeed, when the first flurries started flying and people came out in their massive, clomping snow boots. Six layers, hats, gloves. I asked a British friend, “Why did you buy all this stuff? You use it for like a week a year.” He proceeded to grumble and adjust his layers.

I’m just taking the piss. I think the laugh is really at my expense here. My winter boots didn’t make the luggage cut back in September. Now we have about 5 inches on the ground and my toes are perpetually numb.

As I mentioned, we’re in week 3 of the new term and I’m enrolled in one of the most amazing classes. “Gendering Anthropology” with Caroline Osella.

You may or may not remember my “Gendering Migrations and Diasporas” course from last term. After my grueling final essay, I too am trying to put some distance between myself and that class. While I enjoyed the Migrations course a lot, I feel like this anthropology class will give me more exposure to gender as a field of study. At the moment I’m enthralled with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I ask myself over and over again, how have I never thought this? How has this not crossed my mind?

I am also enjoying the structure of the course a lot. We have an hour lecture and then the 10 MA students participate in a 2 hour discussion tutorial with our professor. With every new idea I encounter I am quite literally stunned. More than once someone will be discussing their thoughts in our tutorial and the words just fall out of my mouth—“Wow.” “Fascinating!”

After about the 3 time that happened, when people started turning toward me and giving me that why-don’t-you-shut-the-hell-up look, I’ve been trying to keep my exclamations under wraps. But, much like my “Nation State” revelation, it feels as if gender is changing every single thing about my thought process. It isn’t one of those radical coups, wherein my present ways of thinking have been overthrown. Rather, the whisper of an idea has spread, something like wildfire. Now, everywhere I look, I see that we’re gendered.

For example, on Saturday I went with the lovely Devina and her friends to see Gangster Squad. Set in post World War II Los Angeles, a band of noble police officers/war veterans (Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling) attempt to take down a mob boss (Sean Penn) while coming to terms with living in post-war America. And falling in love (Gosling’s sweetheart is Emma Stone). I anticipated good acting regardless of the movie’s plot.

I (happily) blame my Gendering Anthropology course but I could not stop seeing gender—our ideas of masculinities and femininities, what it means to be an ideal man, ideal woman, etc. Keeping in mind that this movie is a period piece, there are clearly elements that reflect our 21st century concepts of gender. Take Brolin’s character. A veteran skilled in guerilla warfare, you would be hard pressed to find a man more manly. Defender of the weak (women and children), noble and just (fighting corruption despite the risks) one might be quick to say Brolin is an ideal 1950’s American man. But I push you consider the following scene:

After losing a fellow officer, Brolin goes to comfort his friend’s wife. Upon leaving the house, Brolin witnesses the officer’s 8 year old son violently kicking his bicycle. The boy is distraught, frantic and overcome with grief over losing his father. This scene could have progressed in many directions. The mother could have come outside. Brolin could bowed his head and walked away, or even chastised the boy, could have said “be tough, be a man.” But that doesn’t happen.

Brolin walks over the boy, gets on his knees and pulls him into his chest. The little boy struggles against him initially, but eventually just lets Brolin hold him while he cries.

In this way, Brolin’s character’s image as the protector is reinforced, certainly. But think about if this movie had being made ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Would it have been Brolin comforting the boy? Or would the mother have run outside? What does this say about male/female spheres? Is our ideal man capable of nurturing as we would typically associate with a mother figure?

Despite the fact that I’m in unknown waters, as someone based in the humanities and having little exposure to gender theory, I’m quite taken with these different points of view. I’ve been unable (and am unwilling) to stop the flood of new observations that have resulted from this gendering anthropology class.  I’ve no answers to the questions posed above but perhaps it’s simply in raising these questions that I find the most enjoyment.

Connections

Post Gran Canaria I’ve remained on the move. I spent New Year’s in Dublin among new friends—enjoying Guinness and the Irish atmosphere. It felt like going home, being in Dublin. With over a million people within the city proper (and just shy of two million in the metropolitan area), Dublin felt, in many ways, like being back in Chicago. Last night over dinner I tried to interrogate why this little retreat affected me so deeply.

It must have been a mixture of the company, the “vibe,” and the pace of the city. Slower than London, it seemed to me more personable. Dublin is something like a palimpsest where different eras have left their architectural imprint, quite literally, building up around one another. The Victorian and Georgian architecture styles coexisted harmoniously, beautifully, especially after renovation. Moving outside of the city center, one could spy residences that hadn’t been restored, another indication as to how Dublin has developed. Perhaps most surprising was the move beyond your major attractions (Grafton Street, St. Stephen’s Green, etc.). A ten or fifteen minute car ride and you found yourself in the country, despite the fact that you were actually still within Dublin city limits.

Alas, I’ve bid my new friends farewell and am back in London. Classes resume on Monday morning (is that really tomorrow?!), bright and early. Cherishing these last evenings before then, I went to the Tate Museum of Modern Art with a friend yesterday. Despite our lack of formal training in art criticism, there were several pieces that stimulated discussion between us. I found one particularly memorable—Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I, 1961-1965 by Ibrahim El-Salahi.

Childhood Dreams

Nearing the end of our little visit to the Tate, we casually strolled into the “Poetry and Dream” exhibit, when I saw it. I was instantly drawn to this piece, I could hardly look away. It captivated me… it was like looking into a dream.

Dreams are vivid, bold; it’s a reality and feels tangible. Yet, upon closer inspection, we find that there is something not quite right about the dream, an off expression, a wrong tone. I had a similar reaction when reading this piece of artwork.

Because of its size, the painting was split into three horizontal panels. Moving through them, from top to bottom, you find that the rigidity of the figures within the painting become increasingly malleable. As if everything is absorbing into itself. The fantastical creatures loom large in the top panel only to be rendered indistinguishable at the bottom—colors, shapes and forms all blended together.

I felt (perhaps continue to feel) haunted by this piece. It seemed to work its way under my skin and won’t let go. We sat and searched the painting, trying to understand it (A better photo can be found here). There is something about the color scheme, a pale yellow backdrop to monstrous dark figures, that is entirely captivating. Once I’d read the title I felt my heart leap—That’s what it reminded me of, those childhood dreams where you’re both frightened and mesmerized.

But this experience, much like my time in Dublin, would have been null without the company. Walking home after dinner, my friend recounted a story he’d heard on the BBC about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sarte. While these two figures, and their relationship, is highly contested, the point of the story was their connection. Beauvoir and Sarte influenced one another, that is undeniable. But, to quote my friend, Beauvoir “pulled Sarte out of himself,” and in effect, molded him into the person we remember.

I drifted deep into thought over these past few weeks, of all the people I’ve met and shared time with. How many times I’ve been stunned by the most passing comment! It is remarkable, the effect we can have on one another.

It occurs to me now that through these connections with others we may begin to see our “selves” take shape. The notion of rugged individualism, the isolation of living in a post-modern world continues to reinforce this false idea that we can exist independent of each other. But we don’t live in a vacuum.  We live in shared space, in a common era. In connecting others, I firmly believe, we can only become better—either through reevaluating our own worldviews or appreciating the value of someone else’s.

Holiday Reflections from Pozo Izquierdo

Why do we travel? This is a question that plagues me—I think and write about it constantly. I am searching for an entry point into this complex question.

One reason, which most are quick to note, is travel enables you to meet other people. But I want to push this idea of meeting others. When you’re traveling with your family, with your friends, are you really that interested in meeting other people? I would venture to say you’re not. You’re there to relax, to “see” culture, etc.

Beginning with the wonderful guys in Las Palmas, to the eclectic bunch at the Volver Hostel in Puerto de Mogan, and finally the sweet Italians in Pozo Izquierdo, I’ve literally met people from all walks of life, from all over the world. I continue to be amazed at how many different ways there are to live. Growing up, I always envisioned my path being linear—or assumed that was just how things work. One goes to school, gets a job, lives in one place. But I continue to meet people who challenge this normative lifestyle.

I was given a piece of advice by a dear professor my sophomore (2nd) year in university. He told me, “Cassandra, take opportunities as they present themselves.” At the time I thought, well sure, easy for you to say, you’ve done so much, accomplished a lot. But these words continue echo in my mind.

I spent today in the company of Emanuele, a coffee salesman from Italy. We rode around Gran Canaria on his motorcycle, swearing it couldn’t be Christmas—the weather was too perfect at 25 degrees. We headed south from our hostel into the resort towns—Maspolmas, Puerto Rico, Puerto de Mogan. Banking in the curves, it felt like I was in a perpetual state of awe, both at being on such an awesome machine and the views. There is something about being on a motorcycle, being able to taste everything you see, the textures, knowing the pavement is just underfoot and one slip…

Cutting northwest we moved into Mogan, snaking along a small two-lane road. As we climbed in elevation, I remember looking back at the ocean, brilliant cerulean water in stark contrast to the lush, almost tropical, vegetation. Heaven on earth.

Beyond being a sensory experience, riding on a motorcycle facilitates reflection. I thought about my past ten days on this gorgeous island, all the wonderful people I’ve met, the beautiful sights I’ve seen… I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

 

 

Las Canteras Beach

Las Canteras Beach

Sunrise at Volver Hostel, Puerto de Mogan

Sunrise at Volver Hostel, Puerto de Mogan

Another perfect sunrise

Another perfect sunrise

Sunset from mirada in Puerto de Mogan

Sunset from mirada in Puerto de Mogan

View from my hostel in Pozo Izqueirdo

View from my hostel in Pozo Izqueirdo

Rocky beach at Pozo Izquierdo

Rocky beach at Pozo Izquierdo

Walking in Pozo Izquierdo

Walking in Pozo Izquierdo

Sunset at the wind farm

Sunset at the wind farm

Ridiculous Cassandra in a windsurfing helmet

Ridiculous Cassandra in a windsurfing helmet

Mountains of Mogan

Mountains of Mogan

Emanuele and his girlfriend

Emanuele and his girlfriend

Moving north back toward Las Palmas

Moving north back toward Las Palmas

Viewpoint of the mountains and the ocean.

Viewpoint of the mountains and the ocean.

Traveler’s Worst Nightmare: “Where is my purse?”

Ah yes, I remember it so fondly. Brown leather, lots of zippers, a metal snap. We had so many good times together, my purse and I. I feel our relationship has terminated far too early.

To be fair, I was at a bar. I should have been keeping a better eye on my stuff. Hindsight is 20/20. In the end, I lost all my debit cards (US/UK), my mobile phone, US drivers license and about 5 euro. It could have been worse—I still have my passport.

Despite that, I find myself smiling. I write from the bus headed to Puerto de Mogan. I’m anxious to see the southern region of the island, which I’ve been told is even more beautiful than Las Palmas. At 24 degrees and clear skies, I’m not sure how there could be a more perfect place.

This is certainly a trip of firsts. My first time on holiday alone. My first time being robbed. And my first time couch surfing. For those of you who don’t know about couch surfing, I will enlighten thee. Essentially, it’s a community wherein people register themselves and their travel plans. People who live in that area then see your post and offer you a couch. Good news is that it’s free. The great news is that you get to experience a new place from a more local perspective.

Efren, Alejandro and Mathieu graciously let me crash on their couch for three nights. I was at first apprehensive, this being my first time couch surfing and the fact that they were men (as if staying with three strange women would have been comfortable? Doubtful.) But that changed the moment I met them.

Alejandro (Left) and Efren (Right), showing me the historic district of Las Palmas.

Alejandro (Left) and Efren (Right), showing me the historic district of Las Palmas.

Efren is from Gran Canaria and has recently moved to Las Palmas from the south after finishing his degree in engineering. Alejandro is from southern Spain, and Matieu from France. Alejandro and Mathieu are still studying— engineering and medicine, respectively.

How do I begin to talk about these wonderful guys? I’m not sure they understand how meaningful this experience was for me. After my last post (Lonesome in London) one can gather that I’ve been feeling a bit down. Coming to Gran Canaria was the best decision I’ve made since I’ve been in London. I say this even though my stuff was stolen.

Two nights ago I was laying on the mattress in their living room reading a book when Alejandro walked in to eat dinner (it had to be past 11 o’clock—I love the Spanish timetable.). He sat down and turned to me. “You’re here. You weren’t here before but you are now.”

I’ve thought about this over and over, trying to figure out why it strikes me so deeply. I think because, for the first time in a long time, I feel wholly present.

Last night (pre-robbery), Mathieu and I were standing on the beach watching the waves. They weren’t crashing; rather they were sliding in, frothy and foaming. I was watching the water saturate the sand as I tried to explain myself to Mathieu. My mind and body have been disconnected for the past few weeks. I’ve been in London but my thoughts haven’t been.  I’m not sure where they’ve been, or how the schism occurred. I only know that we’ve reconnected. It’s a relief to feel whole again.

But this has larger implications. For me, it’s directly related to my contentedness project. I run the risk of breaking my fragile project if I say too much about it here, but it’s somewhere between “living in the moment” and trying to live a life of purpose. I’ve been thinking about it, writing about it, for almost a year.

Matieu (Left) and Efren (Right). Two of my favorite new people.

Mathieu (Left) and Efren (Right). Two of my favorite new people.

It seems to me that “being whole” is a necessary pre-condition for… enjoying the moment. When mind and body are separate, you could be physically anywhere but you’re unable to, como se dici, be there.

Relief fills me now. I feel glad to have met such extraordinary people, lucky to have had a glimpse into their lives and very happy to be spending Christmas in the sunshine.

Lonesome in London

Maybe it’s the never-ending gray, maybe it’s the time of year—it’s very possible that it’s this final essay that I can’t seem to write. It could be a combination of everything. I’m officially lonesome in London.

As the days grow increasingly shorter and everyone is anxious to return home for the holidays, I’ve decided to buck the trend and go somewhere new. On December 15th I’ll be setting off for Gran Canaria Las Palmas for 11 days of sunshine and sand.  I hope that upon my return my vigor for life in London comes with me.

On Thursday, December 6th, I attended a lecture entitled “Gaza’s ordeal in a historical perspective.” The speaker (/author/foreign service member/historian/jack-of-all-trades), was Jean-Pierre Filiu who was essentially discussing his latest book Historie de Gaza (2012). I’m told it will be coming out in English next year.

First, I have to say, I was extremely amused by Filiu, whose French-English accent was charming and engaging. He also slipped into Arabic when citing specific movements, or groups. I had attended the lecture with a friend, unfamiliar with Arabic, who felt a bit lost but I rather enjoyed these moments. There was something, again charming in the only word that comes to mind, about the way he spoke. It was more than that. A person of his accomplishments, I expected someone intimidating, loud even. Instead, he remained seated during his hour and a half presentation, and spoke with the ease of a person comfortable in front of a crowd.

All that being said, (Yes, yes, I know it sounds like I’ve developed a bit of a crush), I thought that Filiu’s argument was interesting, but I’m not sure I buy it entirely. I’m very much looking forward to reading his book when it comes out in English, as I’ve doubtlessly missed points in his overall argument. A common thread throughout the presentation was Gaza’s centrality—it’s significance when conquered by Alexander the Great, how it served as a hub for trading when under Mamluk control, up until its present-day significance in the Palestinian struggle for nationhood. I have some knowledge of the Middle East during these early eras and I’ve never heard the argument that Gaza was so central before. But this is clearly a revisionist history. I’ll reserve passing judgment until I’ve read the whole book.

My favorite part of the evening was during the question and answer. A couple of the questions were a bit uncomfortable, and we definitely saw a different side of Filiu (More than once he snapped back, “No, you’re wrong.”). One question came from a PhD student who was dying to know what archive Filiu used for his research.

He smiled, almost to himself, and said, “there are no archives. The research was very difficult.”

But the student couldn’t let it go. “But—can’t you tell me anything about what you used?”

I thought this exchange was nothing short of brilliant. When I was working on a research project during the summer 2011, I encountered similar questions—but not from fellow students, from professors!

“Cassandra, this sounds like a good project, but what archives will you be working in?”

The nature of project didn’t allow for me to work within one archive or even two. I ended up using a hodge-podge of sources that came from all over. It was the only way I could access the topic I wanted and even then, the end product was something very different than I had envisioned. (The paper can be found here, if you’re curious, page 52)

But “fetishizing the archives” is one of those things that I point to when I get on my soap-box for interdisciplinary education. If we, as scholars, writers, researchers, were more inclusive with our research methods, we wouldn’t be “scared” to leave the archive. We would welcome the chance to incorporate other disciplines’ techniques (in the context of my project this included ethnography, oral history and dealing with material culture).

Now we’ve come full circle back to my radical ideas about education.

On that note, I had the pleasure of having dinner with another radical education reformer last evening– James Block, one of my professors from DePaul University. He was in the UK for a lecture and had the evening free for dinner. It was so wonderful to see him, someone from my “undergraduate” life.

I walked away tearful but standing a bit taller. It was a grounding experience to see him… I was suddenly reminded of all the hard work it’s taken to get here, in this program, in London. It was just what I’ve been needing.