Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Buffalo and the Sabres

Besides the careless summers of the college student, and home for every Christmas besides one hellish season spent in the throes of holiday hell, I’ve spent the last 8 years of my life outside of Western New York. Still I read the Buffalo News almost everyday, at least when the internet is cooperating. For national news I’m addicted to the Times so mainly I just scam the local sections, editorials, and sports page of our dear local paper. The News’ blogs on their website are also interesting from time to time, which brings me to my point; what’s the deal with these Sabres medallions? I couldn’t believe some of the comments I read about the supply shortage of these medallions- which are being offered in local stores for $2.99 as part of a promotional effort between The News and the Sabres. Buffalonians are some of the most unpretentious, flexible, and humble people anywhere but give us a hockey team with half a decent chance of winning a championship and we lose our senses.

Here are some examples of the editorial outrage behind the medallion shortage, followed, of course, by my comments:

“I feel so sorry for the poor person behind the counter. The news should make amends to all. The only paper in town should know the size of their community. What a shame. I just keep shaking my head with everything that goes on in my home town.”

I’m ashamed of a lot of things about Buffalo too: the new peace bridge hasn't been built yet, they want the taxpayers to pay to put a giant fish store in the old Aud, there’s that stupid skyway that hugs the water front, etc. I am not so sure, however, that I agree with you that a shortage of $2.99 plastic medallions with pictures of hockey players on them makes me ashamed of my hometown. Consequently, It’s a good thing you don’t live Moldova. Can you imagine that stores here routinely run out of flour, milk and eggs? You’d probably kill someone.

“Running this promotion during the upcoming Easter break was a mistake. I had hoped to collect all the medallions, but will be away for 2 weeks on a previously scheduled Easter trip. I guess this is a moot point now that there are none available!”

Why don’t you just cancel your vacation so you can buy all of them then? Oh wait, you’ve already thought of that and then realized it’s a “previously scheduled trip.” Damn, no going back on that one huh? You know, I’m not so sure that I believe that you believe that it’s a “moot point” you can’t buy the medallions.

“First of all, this program should have started in the beginning of the season and sold 1 medallion per week...not 1 per day. A family with 2-3 boys who want to collect these could not afford it. Not to mention the fact that you have to go to the store daily to buy them.”

Wait a second, you have to go to the store to buy these medallions? I smell a rat.

“Of the several different locations I visited, each store has given a different number available. Can a store manager or clerk decide to sell only a fraction of the alloted number to the general public and keep the rest for themselves or preferred people who are not waited in line at 6am. There should be some rule in regards to this, and someone that makes sure the rules are being followed.”

You mean the Buffalo News hasn’t already assigned a “medallion czar” to prevent the trafficking in medallions? I can’t believe that. Nobody is that stupid to put the fate of $2.99 plastic medallions with pictures of hockey players on them in the hands of grocery store clerks.

Wow. Call me a casual fan that the extent of my Sabres mania is signing onto dial-up every morning over my cup of instant coffee to check last night’s scores (I’m currently waiting for the damn page to load so I can see who won the devils game last night) but what the hell are you people complaining about? They’re not running out of Tim Horton’s Coffee over there are they?

Picasso and Moldova

If you’re a fan of Piccaso perhaps you’re familiar with the allusions to African folk art that pervade many of his cubist works. Some background for those of you who actually have real jobs and don’t have time to read “Cubism;” Cubism originated during the fermenting years of the early 20th century as artists, to express their anxiety with an increasing impalpable world (Einstein was brooding on relativity, Freud was probing the unconscious), began to utilize the subjective and geometrically exaggerated forms of art works from what were considered primitive cultures. The point Picasso and the modernists wanted to make was that a mask painted by tribesman 4,000 years ago was just as expressive (and more genuine) of the human condition than the academic styles being taught in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

A pivotal attraction to Moldova for volunteers like me seems to be analogous to Picasso’s fascination with African art. I recently had a conversation with a Moldovan friend during which I heard myself telling her, after complaining about the way I was treated at the bank, how I find refuge in being able to readily identify the sources of my moods here. Remember Philadelphia when we first met and the answers we gave each other about why we were going to Moldova? “I just want to meet different people and laugh with them,” “I think it’d be a great experience to live in a village without running water,” and “I heard that Eastern European woman rock the casbah!” Last weekend I walked 30 minutes out of my way for one of the few vending machines in this country that dispenses coffee. Two years ago buying coffee from a vending machine wouldn’t exactly have been one of the notable events of my day.

Picasso’s attraction to primitive art, likewise, was based on its power to convey, in the framework of western art, how voluptuous and haughty western culture had become. In today’s politically correct culture, however, and its obsession with cultural relativism, Picasso can be accused of oversimplifying and romanticizing the “primitive” cultures he sought to invoke in his art.

I’ve certainly let my bias’ taint my experience here. For example, my penchant for downsizing all problems into their economics has allowed me to regulate the vexing problems of Moldova to a case of unfortunate geography because, after all, that’s the most culturally appropriate answer economics gives for why some countries are rich and some are poor. Why geography? Read, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” The problem is I’ve let this bias swell to a general perfidy in international development-if this mess is indebted to Moldova’s geography spending thousands of tax payer dollars on, oh I don’t know, some 96 hour assiduously detailed business course for 17 year old girls who come just because the instructor is foreign, and has blue eyes, isn't really going to help the cause is it? I suppose, however, that it’s helping something.

This occurred to me after reading “Cubism:” What happens when you put this highly institutionalized and somewhat whacky cultural exchange, which occasionally refers to itself as international development, in the hands of the sloppy, barely out of college, and rather unpaticular American middle class? It’s as if Uncle Sam is giving us this whole poor country as our open canvass and, for the low price of two years, we can drip and splat everywhere our bureaucratic and results obsessed culture.

Can we avoid painting Moldova into a sloppy and farcical caricature of itself?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A free trip to China?

I was minding my own business at work yesterday when someone appeared out of nowhere, quickly sat down in the chair in front of my desk, and began to explain to me the intricacies of a business he has in a nearby village. After failing to slow him down on several occasions in order that I could figure out what the hell he was saying, I finally succeeded in asking him what exactly I could do for him. “I want you to go to China for me for 10 days, as a translator,” he answered matter of factly. “They speak English there.” I recalled that a few weeks ago my counterpart had me whisk off some e-mails to a wholesale supplier of construction materials in China. I wondered if there was a connection.

“Well what do you think?” the stranger asked. “I’ll pay for you. We’ll leave from Moscow.” For some reason I didn’t want to say no. I just looked around pensively. “Think about it,” he said, getting up to leave. "You have my contact information."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sir mix-a-lot

“Baby ain’t got no back:” Sir Mix a-lot Shuns Moldova

Hip Hop star Sir Mix a-lot, most famous for his 1991 smash hit “Baby got Back,” declined an invitation from the Ministry of Culture to perform in Moldova over what his manager called “weighty cultural differences.”
While his representative didn't elaborate further, one can speculate that Sir Mix A-lot's well known bias for large bottomed woman, as well as his harsh critiques of Eastern European diets, factored into the declination. “When a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a flat butt in your face you don't get sprung,” Sir Mix lamented in an interview for this magazine last year during which he also characterized Moldovan culture as “rearcist.”
Sir Mix's condemnations of Moldovan eating habits have been no less severe. When asked about the vegetable rich diet preferred by Moldovans at a charity event last fall the rapper replied that, “I wouldn't feed my ladies borsh for the same reason I wouldn't pour it into the gas tank of my Hummer.”
Sir Mix's manager, well not exactly specifying what it would take to entice Sir Mix-a-lot to come to Moldova, did say that a nationwide ban on exercise, as well as the construction of more Mexican fast food restaurants, could help ease tensions between Moldova and the famous rapper.

I didn't light it but I tried to fight it

My Odyssey of the Mind team, pictured below during our skit, was a heavy favorite to win the competition in Chisinau and then enter the European finals in Berlin this spring. I hand selected the smartest kids I could find for the competition during an assiduous 4 week tryout but as it turns out it was all in vain. The chosen few spent a lot of time on the play, as you can see from their costumes, but a fire during our performance sparked, amongst other things, a debate between the judges over rather or not it violated competition rules. Before our presentation one judge told us that the contained fire, an important part of our plot, fell within the guidelines. Other judges, however, didn’t agree. As it turns out we came in second place, or second last, depending on which judge you ask. As I told me kids after the scores were in; they’re damn lucky I was just in Berlin.

Odyseey of the Mind

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February

My host Mom, a good cook and eager to please, has been pestering me for recipe suggestions lately. One morning I told her about corn flake chicken before rushing off to work. She didn’t seem to understand and, consequently, I didn’t expect her to try it.

Upon my return from work that day host Mom brought a frying pan into my room with the dreaded “see what I did” look on her face. Peeking sheepishly inside the simmering pan, for something didn’t quite smell right, I saw fried chicken patties next to a overflowing pile of oily corn flakes. “Usually we fry the corn flakes on the chicken but lets give it a try.”

After diner I went outside to find the cat because it was cold and I still felt bad about the corn flakes, and was welcomed by curds of snow pelting the muddy ground. I’m don’t think I’ve ever had to wait until February to see my first snow.

That night I started reading, “The Emperor’s Children.” I had heard something about this book being a post-September 11th “end of irony” type of novel. I’ve also made an effort to read notable contemporary writers. It turns out that the book reminds me of this reoccurring nightmare I have.

The thing is that being constantly surrounded by other Peace Corps volunteers has me kind of freaked out about my generation. I think that having our coming of age party during the information revolution must have really screwed us up. It’s as if being turned loose at the same time the world really was shrinking knocked everything out of whack for us: expectations disproportionate to opportunities, trophies disproportionate to accomplishments. We’re like a band of maverick explorers oblivious to the million other ships flanking our search.

The two main characters in “The Emperor’s Children” are confined with the same egotistical brand of wanderlust that’s identifiable in almost everyone I know. At first the characters seem like a modern incarnation of the dangerous nihilist, you know the dudes Turgenov and Dostoyevski wrote about, but in “Emperor’s” they’re rendered harmless by the fact that everyone else in the book is just as faithless as they are. September 11th happens, suddenly, but seems to only slightly magnify their atrophying.

As my flight flew over the Atlantic and approached JFK airport outside of New York last month on my way back here I was shocked to hear the lady in front of me mistakenly tell her daughter that the foam from the waves was debris left over from September 11th. Does that girl realize how dumb her mother is?

It seems that September 11th could have been the moment my wandering cohort came to grips with reality. After growing up during a winning streak, maybe the longest in our history (cold war, world wide web, gulf war, record economic expansion, dot-com), that was the day when we should have felt that invisible tide of human muck pulling us down.

My reoccurring nightmare starts with me waiting for a job interview. While staring blankly at some toothless Rockwell girl on wall I overhear snippits: “Well, I helped facilitate victory in cold war by participating in air-raid drills” and “As you can see from my travels I have a lot of experience teaching people how to smile.” My competitors in the waiting room are busy shining their faces with some kind of polish. “So what if that guy helped win the cold war?” I snide to no one in particular, “I fell in love once.” Now that I've gotten their attention I keep going...“she looked good in green. She loved Martinis if you added enough Sprite. I mean it’s all I could afford that she would drink. So what are you in for?”

Finally they call me in. The perturbed interviewer is already gazing at my blank resume, “are you sure you’ve never done anything?” he starts to probe as I sit down. An awkward clock ticks five or ten times. “Nothing?” he tries again.

“Nope. Not a god damn thing.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pub Quiz Win in Berlin Highlights Month Long Vacation

“Camaraderie,” a team consisting of Bryan and 3 other Americans, won the pub quiz competition at an expat bar in Berlin last Thursday, a victory an alcohol induced Bryan characterized as “the crowning moment” of his month long vacation. Besides a night of bar trivia Bryan’s trip also included a visit home to New York where he met with relatives and friends, many of whom he hadn’t seen in years, a weekend in Istanbul, and day trips throughout Germany.

After being stumped on the first question of the night(what is the fastest insect in the world anyway) Camaraderie, and its vast knowledge pool, correctly answered such erudite questions as what species of bird Dick Cheney was trying to kill when he accidentally sprayed his friend with bullets.

The easy path to victory was briefly threatened in round 4 when a question popped up regarding what color smoke denotes that a new Pope has been chosen. Just when it appeared that “black” would be the outcome of a tense deliberation Stephan suggested changing the answer to “white” at the last second. “It’s a high risk high reward on that one,” Stephan explained, ““but fortunately Verity did a great job of writing it down before the buzzard. Once we got that answer it was like we pressed a gun to the fat lady’s head and said, “you know any songs bitch?””

Besides a round of Schnapps, the team shared a prize of 26 euros and free drinks.

The victory did not come without its costs. Josh spent most of the post game celebration in the men’s room nursing a gastronomic condition apparently brought on by a Bleu Cheese Burger he ordered in the first round. Josh, giving his teammates an emotional thumbs up from underneath the stall, wasn’t able to finish the quiz, though he managed to contribute a critical answer regarding the Yiddish language before carting himself off to the bathroom.

Bryan’s victory euphoria was almost tarnished by grim death during on the subway home after Steph wagered him that 10 seconds wasn’t enough time to dodge an approaching train if unexpectedly shoved onto the tracks. Fortunately Stephan decided not to push his inebriated friend after noticing that one of Bryan’s shoes was untied.

The Baroque splender of Zwinger castle in Dresden

Steph and I wait for fish sandwiches on the Baltic