Friday, July 31, 2009

Dinner and a Movie

All work and no play makes for a slow slide into insanity.

If there is one thing that I learned in my time living in remote and culturally isolating locations, it's that a regular doses of light pampering and over-the-top fantasy are doctor's orders. Often this comes in the form of good food and a movie. Envelopes of fake cheese from Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes and a laptop computer were my first saving grace: I hoarded those envelopes and my precious supplies of butter and milk and a priceless collection of DVDs for Friday or Saturday evenings when I just needed to get away from rice and local pop culture. Those few hours eating comfort junk food and watching You've Got Mail anchored me when otherwise I would have drifted into a cultural oblivion.

I'd been feeling a little "off" this week - a little too steeped in reality. So when I realized that Star Trek was playing at the local theater, I put out the call. Mom, Dad and the kid sister readily agreed - it was time for dinner and a movie.

They've just opened a brand new - no, check that - our newly restored hometown theater. In what is becoming all the rage of local towns "revitalizing" their downtowns, a group of intrepid promoters of the arts joined forces and rescued and restored the run-down, run over, 1950s era movie theater, lately a gaudy gift shop called the "Hodge Podge Lodge."

The result is a attractively decorated 100-seat theater with screen and stage for shows and art gallery featuring work of local artists. They sold out on their grand opening a few weeks back and are now have daily movies and regular stage acts and art activities.

The atmosphere immediately took me back to Hanoi, where I was a member of the active art movie house, the Hanoi Cinematheque. The location, the service, the film selections, the ambiance: everything about the place screamed "escape." It is located in the heart of Hanoi, right on the border between the Old and French Quarters. It was well-hidden down a long alleyway usually parked full of motorbikes. But if you kept going past the bikes, you emerged into a hidden courtyard shaded by an ancient tree and cushioned in a sudden silence away from the ragin current of traffic, street vendors and tourists. The courtyard area was serviced by a small bar and restaurant, so it was the perfect one-stop escape from the daily Vietnam grind. Above the courtyard was a terrace of hotel rooms which was my usual place of residence when in Hanoi before I found my more permanent accommodations.

So it was with great eagerness I greeted the opening of a new theater in town - but it wasn't until this evening that we could fully appreciate the benefits. We left from home and made the easy walk downtown to get dinner. We finished with time to spare, and then wandered over to browse the gallery while waiting for the film to start. A few tourists wandered about, but the locals were there in equal force, so we had some time to catch up with old friends before the lights dimmed. The theater is airy and the seats comfortable. The concession stand opens right into the back of the theater - so should you run out of popcorn, you could get a refill without missing a scene.

After our escape into a world of fantastical absurdities, the lights came back up and we were released into a newly darkened world of stars and streetlights. A few people were still filtering out of Friday night fish fry at the pub across the street. The crowd had migrated to ice cream shoppe just next door - and who could resist the call of a brightly lit candy shop on a cool summer's evening?

We stopped for ice cream and a sampling of fudge before beginning the slow walk back home under the streetlamps. Just as I would have left the Cinematheque in Hanoi, we enjoyed a quiet walk home in the calm after the day's traffic, and now before midnight, the whole world has settled in for the evening.

And yes, tomorrow's Saturday. Just what the doctor said would fix it all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cleanliness is next to impossible

This week I took a picnic lunch off to a park area where I chose to plant myself on a spot on the ground near a nice lookout point rather than at an otherwise convenient picnic table. I had a picnic mat with me, and the view was so welcoming I didn’t think twice of walking away from the picnic area.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had thought that the lookout was a nice place - the grass has been completely torn up at the best vantage point and all that was left was a fine, powdery dust.


Oh, my - dust.

As the little poofs and clouds engulfed my feet and coated the bottom of my mat, I was instantly taken back to a life in which dust was a daily enemy. After I’d arranged my food carefully so as to avoid contact with the ground or anything attached to the ground, I paused and said a small pray of thanks for cleanliness.

How easily we take for granted one of the major differences between here and there. Here is so very clean. Even as we struggle against the common foes of mud, dirt, wet, pet hair, dust on the bookshelves, blood, sweat and tears - we have a whole range of weapons at our fingertips. There’s the obvious ones of lots of soap and water. Hot water. Right out of a faucet right in our house, indeed, in several rooms of our house. Who couldn’t stay clean when all you need to do is turn around to wash your hands?

Then there is the greatest weapon of all: structures that minimize our contact with the outside world. Our houses, offices, schools, businesses, especially here where the climate requires several months of the year seclusion from the cold, are buffer zones to anything that threatens to smudge. We’ve created entire “clean zones” where any dust or dirt that does dare invade through the most subversive of means are tracked down, sucked, swept or sprayed and made to cower under the power of abrasive and anti-microbial cleansing agents.

The result of having mopped floors and sealed pavement wherever our feet might pass and climate controlled air in the buildings where I meet people is that I haven’t spent the last six months harboring a constant feeling of sweaty filthiness that had become such a constant part of my life. I’m CLEAN!

And then I dropped a big glob of sauce on my pants.

Alas, there are some things they never will be able to protect me from.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In Which I Talk About the Weather

It’s almost always a safe conversation piece, and it’s almost always there to be discussed. And even if it’s not (I’m thinking SoCal here where you run out of territory pretty quickly after “boy, it’s hot again”), you can always compare it to places where the weather is, well, different. Hotter, colder, wetter, more humid, dryer (ha, good luck), windier, calmer, sunnier, cloudier, more changeable, more predictable, or in some other way more or less preferable to the current location. I Googled it and didn’t get anything, but I’m sure somebody somewhere has calculated the number of hours of productive communication lost to discussing the weather.

I’m guilty of contributing my own tedious observations over the year - just today I barely resisted the urge to update my Facebook status with some snarky complaint about how I’m tired of wearing turtlenecks in July. Long underwear was made for February, not the height of summer. I’d like to say I talk about it because it’s worth commenting on. But I know better: I talk about it because it’s the easiest thing to say. In many languages.

In my time abroad I lived and worked in three or four distinct dialects of Malagasy, French, Vietnamese and English-as-a-Second-Language. Small talk might be painful in your native language, but it can be downright desperate when you have the vocabulary of a termite at your disposal. Suddenly you hear a phrase like, “Mafana be!” and you latch on to it with all your might. “It’s hot!” you return, “Yes, mafana be loatra!” And you swell with pride at adding that beautiful intensifier all by yourself, because its so very hot indeed!

I had somehow naively assumed that discussions of the weather in subsistence agriculture-based economies would be much more intense and analytical. A dry day would focus on the impact of a lack of rain on the yield of crops. Hot sun would turn into concern over the oxen’s ability to spend another hour plowing the field. A cold spring would result in debates over the right time to plant the fields.

I’m sure there was some of this, just as there is discussion among gardeners and farmers back home, but despite people’s live-or-die relationship with a good crop, the vast majority of the conversations were pretty familiar, and every day was extraordinary if only for the fact that the climate was so, well, normal.

So, how’s the weather been? I’m freezing, and it’s July 18. I’m moving back to Antananarivo if I’m going to have to suffer temperatures like this in July.

But it's amazing how much less likely I am to whine now that I've turned the thermostat up to 63. Because I have a thermostat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Independent Celebrations

Madagascar's independence day is on June 26th. Vietnam's is September 2nd. I never again experienced a Malagasy Independence Day the way I did on my first June 26th - the next one was in the coastal regional capital of Tamatave. My notes in my journal and letter home simply state that in a gap in the rain we managed to join the crowds on the beach for some fresh coconut juice. The year after I was already in Fianarantsoa, and I remember being warned to hide out lest I be roped into unwitting VIP work. I think we had an expat brunch to celebrate a day off from work, and I do remember going up to the market area to view the festivities.

I never witnessed a Vietnamese celebration in full swing - the one year I was in country I was on a motorcycle deep in the northern mountains somewhere. However, I did learn this much: there is a rule that ever residence MUST fly the Vietnamese flag. And there were lots of political speeches.

The Vietnamese political speeches I experienced firsthand when I did get unwittingly roped (pun intended) into another event. And my own house (when I got one) also displayed the red and gold star of Vietnam along with the others.

I had mixed feelings this year as I unfurled the American flag from it's winter spot above the porch windows to hang from it's post on the railing. For both Vietnam and Madagascar, the wounds of liberty are much fresher, 1945 and 1960 respectively. The have both suffered turbulent political times since those dates. Independence Day is only one of among celebrations and memorials in each country that mark their sacrifice to obtain their freedom, and the Independence day doesn't cary as much weight as ours. Our country is a country at war now, one that is calling upon its citizens to send those willing to sacrifice. Our country suffers from the divisions of an unpopular war. Madagascar, barely recovered from one crippling internal implosion now is battered by yet another. Vietnam celebrates a generation that has known mostly peace.

Still, so much of independence celebrations are more like stepping back in time to the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. People buying brand new suits of proper clothes and dressed in Sunday best, quizzes about history, stump speeches by politicians to crowds massed in dusty town squares. Americans wouldn't stand still in the hot sun or a stuff auditorium to wait for their elected to show up and yammer at them for a couple of hours - that's what CNN is for. And frankly, I'm with the Americans on this one. Turn off CNN for a day - and join the masses that can agree on one thing for a day - a parade and a flag are something to look to with joy and pride.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Our first look back...

Whew, it's been an amazingly busy week. I am only now getting around to what I intended all along: to dig through what I wrote before and maybe dredge up some memories that I don't want to have buried under increasing tangled neurons. Maybe I'll even have a random insight or two while I'm at it!

I'm particularly lucky to be able to celebrate a real small-town, old-fashioned, 4th of July on a regular basis - but many other countries celebrate their independence days or major festivals with as much, if not more, enthusiasm than we even work up around here.

For starters I'll posting a portion of a letter I wrote home to my family from Madagascar, after my very first celebration of Malagasy Independence Day on the 26th of June:


June 27, 2003

Happy Malagasy Independence Day! Better known (like ours) as Vignt-six Juin.

That was definitely the major shaper of the whole week. People have been preparing to celebrate for several weeks now and last week Thursday the market literally exploded in a riot of vendors selling food, baskets, parasols, shoes, and most especially, clothes. All the regular sellers got in extra big shipments of new things from Tana over the weekend, so Thursday’s “big market day” extended itself into the following week. Everybody wanted to be well decked out for the big day and the local merchants did nothing to discourage it. People from all over started coming to town and for several days there was endless food and ox-cart and bicycle traffic of people bringing whatever they had been farming/making to sell and then return home with cases and crates of soda and THB beer, and maybe some biscuits or candy if they’d had good luck selling.

Not all people who came headed home right away. A lot of people stayed in town for the festivities and the place began to remind me of home on the 4th of July without the cars. But I haven’t gotten so many “Bonjours” and curtsies or nasty yells of “vazaha!” and the Malagasy Ts-Tsing (when they want to get somebody’s attention here, they “ts-tsss” and young guys especially like to use it on me) for months. I’ve really begun to appreciate how many people here know my name, or at least that I’m not French or at least not so much of an anomaly.

In the afternoon the day before there was a “ballet” competition put on by the women’s organization (and my friends were judging) where groups of women from literally all over came to sing and dance the completely Malagasy way. I really like these events. The costumes are great and I’m getting to the point I can understand a lot of the singing (helps that there tends to be lots of repetition) and since my friends were judging I got to sit up on stage and watch and not clamber to see through the crowd. (Bleachers haven’t exactly made it here yet, perhaps due to the lack of trees). The Betsileo were the best, although the judging may have been affected by the fact that there were so many of my friend’s friends in the group, but the whole event was a lot of fun.

By that time it was getting dark, and the kids’ contests began. There was a quiz contest (okay, so I’m not so up on my Malagasy/ French history) and I learned that electricity only came here in 1997. I wonder how much the town has changed since then. I bet a lot. Then as it got dark the kids started lighting Chinese lanterns (yes, real candles, real fire, and real kids, folks. I can see all you US bred parents shivering right now) and it made a spectacular scene of light and color around the square. I really regretted not buying one myself, but it was definitely a kid event. Fortunately Vero let me adopt her family (or they adopted me?), so I got some quality kid time. The look was actually much more Halloween than 4th of July from the jack-o-lantern effect and the downright cold wind, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Then people started shooting fireworks (once again, real fireworks, real kids, no laws) and they even had those obnoxious boomers that make you think (especially so close to Africa) that you’re at war.

The next morning, the actual Independence Day, I was up and ready at 7, but feeling like I had a hangover despite not touching any alcohol. There were more festivities that morning. So I headed back to centre ville. The place was full of children in school uniform in military line-up, women from the Women's Group and many other spectators. I found another friend there and soon was being ushered to sit up on stage with the VIPs. I was just a little cowed by this, but I took a rickety seat in back and I really did want to see/hear. And soon I was glad I did because I got to sit down in the shade. Once again, we were on Malagasy time. Any elected politician in America (short of maybe the President) who makes his constituents wait in the hot sun for 2 hours or more would likely quickly lose his constituency. Not so here. We sat and I tried not to sleep waiting for His Highness, the Sous-prefet to get himself out of bed after a late night at the disco. There’s no way over 1000 small school children would stand for it either in the US.

Finally they appeared and the festivities commenced. I assumed with the groups there (the schools, the women who had danced still in full costume, scouts, church groups, the Gendarme and the military police) that there would be more singing and dancing. But short of the National Anthem, there wasn’t. So I kinda tuned out the speeches (although I perked up when I heard interesting things—I’m really happy that with my language skills I can do that now, even if I don’t understand everything) but I learned later my assumptions were pretty much true - political promises of things that had been promised a year ago and still haven’t happened. Then all the groups paraded themselves military style in front of the stage to a really awful recording of a really awful band playing some really awful marches. Sigh. 6th grade band Jingle Bells anyone?

Then we were let go. I was invited up to lunch followed by more drinking and dancing at the Sous-prefet’s house but I politely declined, explaining I had another invitation to fulfill. So I escaped to the relative calm of Vero’s house where she was playing hostess to her siblings, child and friends for an Independence Day feast. Simple, yet elegant. And, unfortunately since here mom was at the VIP reception and her dad is still in Tana with a sick child from his church, I was delegated “lehibe” and put at the head of the table. I think I remembered my Malagasy manners enough—or at least they didn’t say anything.

After cake the kids were sent off to play and Vero, her friend who’s studying law in Tanarive, and I went off “mitsangatsanga-ing” around the town under the pretense of going to watch the soccer game, but we just kinda kept on going. I really like Vero because she’s such a contrast to my other friends and in that way a lot like me. Plus she and Fanja could appreciate the humor of really drunk Malagasy people desperately trying to form French words to speak with me. The best was when she told one guy I spoke Spanish. The next time I told her to tell them to try Japanese.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

There ain't nothin' like a small-town Fourth of July

One of the highlights of being back home is the annual Fourth of July celebration. In typical small-town fashion, everything happens exactly the same way every year. Pancake breakfast at 7 am, parade follows at 9, Friends of the Library used book sale in the basement of the library after the parade, flea market/craft fair and brat/burger/corn on the cob/beer stands in the park with live music from noon until sundown in the park, capped off with fireworks in the park at dusk.

But, this year there was a change. *Gasp, gasp* Some fatal breakage in the ancient kitchen at the community building rendered the making of pancakes and sausage impossible, so the whole breakfast was moved to the cafeteria at the K-12 school just down the street. Thank goodness. The old place was tiny, congested and nearly impossible to navigate. The school cafeteria area is spacious and is designed for mass food service and crowd control. Everybody stood around looking at the scene and shaking their heads. "Why didn't we do this years ago?" everybody asked.

But, due to concerns that the announcement in the paper and on local media and at the information bureau wasn't enough, the organizers hauled in a large road construction sign like this one:

to place on the corner by the community building redirecting everybody to the school. And, according to my sources on the street, they only announced it in every pause between floats during the parade.

So, the pancake breakfast, was, as always, hugely busy. On to the parade.

We're a tiny town (600 in town, less than 2,000 in the whole area) that attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors for the Fourth of July weekend. The running joke is that the entire town is in the parade while the visitors line the streets to watch. And we still have to recruit outside marching bands to flush things out a little bit. On the night of July 3rd, we had to make a last minute run down mainstreet at 10 pm for a late-night errand. People were already setting out chairs to reserve their spaces along the route. It's that big a deal.

The weather this Fourth of July was picture perfect. Highs in the low 70s/20s, clear blue sky, no wind. The crowds came to ooh and aww at the variety of features and get all the candy they could snare.

Post-parade is sheer insanity as everybody rushes to the library to snag the best $0.25-$2.00 book deals in the basement of the library. Enter at your own risk. Photography highly discouraged for your own safety.

Once the book beast is tamed, people scatter, some to get the last of the pancakes, some to get their brats and burgers and fleas, some to the hardware store and nick-nac stories and ice cream parlor on mainstreet. Within a couple of hours, though, town has pretty much emptied out and everybody is off to hit the lakes.

Then in the evening, they come. And they come and they come and they come. Like the final scene in The Field of Dreams. Drawn to the promise of light and bangs, they gather at the park with blankets and snacks and hope.

Last night was, once again, the perfect night. Cool, not a cloud in the sky. A nearly full moon welcomed us, shining just brightly enough to keep us from tripping over our neighbors, but not too ostentatiously as to outshine the pyrotechnics.

And the show begins.

Out little town spares no expense, and the show seems endless. Several times the whole crowd starts clapping, certain that that is the end. And yet more come until a final earth-shaking finale, punctuated by one last exploding star.

And we all go home. Those on foot feel very intelligent, indeed.

Another perfect Fourth of July in the perfect place to celebrate it.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Girl of the Limbo-Lost

More than six months have past since I made my return to the United States, and it's nearly the Fourth of July. Summer's half over, and soon another fall and winter season will be upon us. And it's past due time that I publicly declare that the next phase of my life will most likely unfold right here in my hometown.

Notice I still have to throw the qualifier "likely" in there?

Just have to keep that door cracked.

But now that I've wedged it open - just in case, mind you, just keeping my options open - I feel free to say, I'm back home. So, rather than pretending to be waiting for the next big thing to happen, the next big country to add to my list, I'm going to sit right down and say, "Here I am, what can you teach me, Wisconsin?"

To those ends, I've taken on two independent consulting jobs. Already both of them have shown me that the things I learned living in places with strange food and even stranger languages is needed right here. It's disconcerting to realize that I've become a prodigal - I went out into the world searching for that worldly labor that would define my life. Now I've returned home to discover that work is waiting here. Yet, without having left, I would have never had the experience necessary to be able to do the work back home.

That doesn't mean the story ends. The story doesn't say the prodigal doesn't leave again, and it doesn't say that there isn't more to be learned. But for the time being I am going to take the time to understand where I come from in the light of where I have been.