Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Prague.

I'll begin with two things about Prague, or Praha as they call it here. First, hockey appears to be the national sport here. This makes for one very happy tourist. Apparently, a bunch of their players end up in the NHL. I wonder if any of them are Sharks. Also cool is the fact that the Czech president is friends with Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. This president is bad ass - friends with rock stars, spent time in jail for standing up to communism for his political beliefs, and hung out at Kaverna Slavia - the intellectual's hangout. He's definitely a Gryffindor.

Here's what I love about Prague: the buildings are reminiscent of Disney movies. They have these quaint outdoor marketplaces where they sell authentic gingerbread (more bread than cookie), hand-carved wooden ornaments and marionettes. It may quite possibly be the loveliest place to spend Christmas. There is a Marks & Spencer here, bringing back only the fondest of memories of Stratford. Many of the cathedrals and palace grounds do not charge entrance fees. The architecture with the turquoise blue spires. The opera, symphonies and overall appreciation for music, and good music at that. Sketchcrawling on the Charles Bridge. And last but not least, the beer - Pilsner Urquell to be exact.

Here's what I hate about Prague: taxi drivers that rip you off.

There's something about spending money in a currency that numerically has no semblance to the US Dollar. The Euro and even the Pound are somewhat gaugeable, but the Czech Krown? Forget it. I'm having trouble distinguishing these coins. And so happily am I investing in the Czech economy.. at least until I get my credit card statement.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

On Berlin.

The city is.. very modern with a sad history. Devastated by the likes of Hitler and both World Wars, Berlin has been bombed out and reconstructed within the past century. I knew the Holocaust was bad, but we're talking over 3000 Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people of color massacred daily.

The weather is.. offputting. It's cold here, and I'm not normally one to experience this sensation they call 'cold.' Freezing, actually. Just the other day, I walked out in just a track jacket and flip-flops in what I can only imagine to be 40 degree weather. I have never been so cold in my life.

The hostel is.. the best. My roommates are: a twenty-two year old Italian would-be rocker, an Australian structural engineer headed to London, an introspective Brazilian artist, two Australian girls currently living in London, and an Australia film editor also working in London. Gosh. Maybe I should move to London too. But I digress.. the Circus Hostel, highly recommend.

The food is.. flipping fantastic. A snacker's paradise. I officially have a new answer to the question "If you were on a desert island and could eat only one food for an entire year.." Goodbye Potbellys, hello chicken kebabs from the place off the Rosenthalerplatz U-bahn!

The keyboard is.. confusing. Simple things such as typing: the y's are where the z's should be, and vice versa. It's throwing me off. And forget about trying to type the @ sign. This severely limits my facebooking capabilities, seeing as how I can't even log in.

The architecture is.. modernist in part due to Bauhaus influence, but in a greater part because of the fact that most of the buildings were desecrated by the bombings of WWII.

The nightlife is.. happening. Or so I hear. Have been jetlagged and exhausted from two full days of walking. But my dormmates tell me it's the best, as they stagger back in at daybreak. Meanwhile, I happily cozy into my covers in the top bunk of a seven-person co-ed dorm, while curling up with a book.

The style is.. dark and well-tailored. Blacks and greys layering edgy coats, leggings, and ruched leather boots with razor sharp hair styles to boot. That seems to be the Eastern European aesthetic. That being said, I arrive in Berlin wearing a pouchy bohemian shirt with - heaven forbid - white sneakers. I'm wishing I were having a sartorialist moment right about now.

The neighborhood is.. lively. I walked down the store-lined street toward a cathedral in the distance, and what's the first thing I see upon arriving at said Catholic church? A cupcakerie across the way. So a vanilla buttercream cupcake is my first food purchase in Europe.

I think this trip was meant to be.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Simple Kind of Life.

I sat on a porch and ate a green apple today. I can't speak to what kind of apple it was - I wish I was better versed in my apple varieties - but let's just go with Granny Smith, as I imagine that to be green. And as I sat gazing at the apple in my hand, I found that I was satisfied. In that moment, I had no material need. I wasn't obsessing over the hazy cloud surrounding my 5 or 10 year plan.

Sometimes, it's that simple. Just yesterday, I sharpened a pencil using only a razor. Hacking away until the wood segued way into lead, I was satisfied. Our world is oversaturated with an abundance of material wealth and desire for significance and success. And those are all amazing privileges, but sometimes, it can also be distracting in the hunger for more. And more. And more and more.

Life out here in Louisiana is so simple. Simple, yet complex. Family members grow up in homes right down the block from one other. People don't leave New Orleans, at least they didn't used to. So when Katrina hit, many victims didn't have other family members in other states to turn to or stay with. Louisiana is all they know.

Our days as volunteers working with the St. Bernard Project consist of installing insulation and drywalling. I always thought that if I were in charge of physically building civilizations, we would still be stuck in the Neanderthal stage. Now, with my adeptness with the power tools (and apparently, a razor), we just might make it to Cro-Magnon societies after all.

The communities are not what I expected. Rows of brick homes line the blocks of the St. Bernard Parish. You see ramshackle houses surrounded by piles of rubble right alongside remodeled homes with Halloween decorations on the lawn. Halloween seems to have come early this year. Initially, I was confused by the income levels of the homeowners. These homes are relatively large by California standards - I had imagined poverty and desolation to resemble more East LA or Compton, and these brick homes, although demolished, looked like they had once been rather nice. But I suppose anything would've looked nicer than what I had pictured. I soon learned that these brick foundations once housed the working class.

It's a bit unsettling - the thought that while a week's worth of work may amount to insulating and drywalling the insides of one house, the house remains unfinished. And that this is just one house in one block, where maybe 85% of the houses require rebuilding or demolition. One block in one neighborhood. One neighborhood in one town - one still very devastated town, two years after a natural disaster. It's not just unsettling; it's absurd.

It's not, however, as discouraging as I thought it would be. And here's why. I often used to think that with disasters or injustices of this magnitude, how could one individual possibly help in any significant way? I would be daunted at first sight and shy away from any real aid or responsibility, figuring there was not much I could do. And so I wouldn't and would eventually be distracted and forget. But here's where I was wrong: significance doesn't matter. Numbers, statistics, heroic tendencies - none of that really matters. I hope I'm making sense. It doesn't matter the number of people you help but that you helped. That you come down and have conversations and just listen and remember. And that counts for something.

And so today, after a full day of drywalling, I was simply content biting into the crisp fruit within my grasp on a hot Louisiana autumn day.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Eat at Joe's.

I heard the an account of a Hurricane Katrina survivor named Joe today. Our volunteer group comprised of 16 or so Googlers are helping to rebuild his home, and he graciously shared his personal account with us over lunch - of how quickly the water rose, of the smart decisions vs. the mistakes, of his determination to save his two dogs, and of the moment he realized he was homeless. What I found remarkable about his story was his positivity. And what struck me about him and his family was their generosity, considering they have so little left to give.

At one point, Joe recounted of how he had suffered a massive blow to the head via tree trunk. As he was up on his roof, half of his teeth knocked out by the blow, he began to weep. For the first time since the water started rising, he just cried and cried. And his pet beagle, upon seeing this, sprang into action. She would doggy paddle away and then return with animals in her mouth. She had been a hunting dog in a past life, pre-flooding, bursting levees, and oil spills, and so her hunting skills just kind of kicked in. First came a pigeon. Followed by a mouse. And then a rat.

At this, I grimaced. I didn't mean to react, at least not visibly, but I suppose it was instinctual. I had just flown in from New York, where as legend has it, rats can crawl up shower pipes, becoming lodged there. Or at least according to Augusten Burroughs. And I couldn't imagine anything more horrifying.

It was then that Joe looked directly at me, as he continued his story. He explained that the dog had been trying to save his life by bringing him food, and I was instantly humbled. Whereas I had been dreading rats, others were fighting for survival. There were no luxuries. It's funny what our mentality chooses to dwell upon, but how quickly our perspectives change. Survival had always been a given for me.

And upon closer glance, I noticed that Joe was toothless; I had simply relegated his manner of speech to his Southern drawl. Here before me, sat a toothless, humble man, sitting in a washed out home with his FEMA trailer out front, expressing gratitude. Genuine gratefulness for a group of volunteers that had come down to help rebuild his father's house for a week, when really, we were the ones walking away with lessons worth our weight in gold.