7 Things I’ve Learned About History Since Moving to the Land of the Future

April 25, 2014

“Why on earth did you study history?” I was asked last night, and on many days since I arrived in what is perhaps the world’s most future-oriented place. What answer can I give to an engineer or venture capitalist who can’t rotate his perspective enough to look backward, or see the importance of doing so? I usually say that I love to explore the rich context of our modern world, so much of which was influenced by the past. Or that history, like all the humanities, is a mirror that shows us a different version of ourselves.

But such answers will not satisfy many people here, and in wondering why, I realize I’ve learned a few things about history and its uses since learning the way (to San José):

1. America ≠ California and American History Californian History.

I write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared history. I feel very Canadian, and not very Ontarian at all because I don’t see Ontario’s history as disconnected from that of the Canadian historical narrative. So I assumed it would be very “American” here, like places I’ve been on the East Coast and Midwest.

I was wrong.

The United States, though a young country, seems to be very aware of (certain parts of) its history. After all, how many other countries refer so frequently to and preserve so faithfully the intentions of their founding documents? America has an acute sense of its founding myths, and the historical reenactment culture here is an ongoing source of fascination and delight. (Who wants to be that Union solider who gets shot the first moment of battle and lies on the field the rest of the day in period costume? Is there a hierarchy, and does one get promoted each successive year based on seniority until eventually he is General Lee, or is it merit-based and depends on how well you keel over in your fleeting moment of glory? Such pressing questions.)

California Republic

California is not, however, America. It is, as the t-shirts say, “California Republic,” with its “Governator” and strange direct democracy and fiercely independent, contrarian streak. Very few people here identify as “American” so much as “Californian,” and they don’t seem to share the same historical touch points. More common are nods to the Spanish and Mexican roots of the region, through the missions and street names, or a focus on the history of global trade and cosmopolitan capitalism.

2. People have a different definition of “history” in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a whole other animal altogether (a shark, perhaps?).

In a place where the next iOS release, must-have gadget or earnings report is breathlessly anticipated, “history” becomes something that matters mostly in your browser. “Legacies” and “artifacts” are usually bad things to Valley dwellers, being outmoded or standing in the way of progress. The tech industry does not look kindly on the past – or rather, doesn’t think much of it at all, an indifference which is, as we all know, much more the opposite of love than dislike.

San José then…

Silicon Valley isn’t kind to its physical history either. The historic orchards and cherry trees that once ringed San José have been paved to make way for sprawling, two-story rental accommodations and carefully landscaped corporate lawns. Giant redwoods are regularly felled to allow for a better view of the advertisements on the side of buildings (seen from the freeway, of course). Dome-shaped Space Age cinemas one frequented by Steven Spielberg are in danger of being torn down, likely so newer, bigger malls can rise up in their places.

Even churches, those bastions of beautiful architecture, look like something out of an IKEA catalogue, all light wood and glass – nary a flying buttress in sight. It’s a full-on assault of the past by the present, in the name of the future.

3. Transience produces ambivalence and a lack of investment in the past.

Many people are new here, as the region’s explosive growth in the last 30 years can attest. Others are “just passing through.” So a lot of people feel disconnected from anything greater than their jobs or family/friend networks here, and there is a pervasive sense of rootlessness.

So why bother to invest in their communities? Or care what they used to look like? So goes the logic and thus the “San José Historic District” encompasses a single square block, with fewer than ten historic monuments. These are mainly just buildings that have survived – earthquakes, vacancy and neglect. This website catalogs the “boneyard of unwanted San José monuments” that are slowly crumbling away near the freeway and very shiny corporate HQ of Adobe.

Santa Clara County Courthouse

The courthouse, crumbling in disrepair. San José is falling down, falling down, falling down…

It’s not all that surprising though when you consider that…

4. …it is personal history that fosters pride and connection.

Perhaps I and others feel disconnected from the history here because so much of historical connection depends on identifying with who made the history in the first place. Several recent studies from the British Commonwealth (Britain itself, Canada, and Australia) and the US indicate that museum attendance increases where a greater percentage of the population identifies with the ancestry of the area. That is, if you are of Scottish origin in Toronto, you are more likely to be interested in a museum about Canadian history, which was largely architected by Scots, than if you are a Native Canadian whose world was essentially trampled on by those same Scots. You’re likely still less interested if you are a recent immigrant to Toronto from Bangladesh. Feeling as though a part of you helped to make a place what it is makes it more real and more interesting. Rightly or wrongly, you feel as if you have more of a stake in the future because “your people” had more of a stake in the past.

Even people that grew up here can barely recognize it, so feel as though a part of their past has been taken from them. Wherefore the cherry blossoms and apple orchards that used to dot the landscape of the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”? One woman told me her family used to live bordering a fruit farm, and moved six times as the farms were paved over by housing divisions, until “we lived backing on to the mountain, and there were no farms left.”

…and San José now.

And yet, I can only feel that history is critical, from my experiences in Toronto where historical consciousness, like love and Christmas, is all around.

Thus:

5. History is often the most beautiful part.

I used to love walking through downtown Toronto because every so often a beautiful Art Deco or neo-Gothic gem would emerge amid the drab tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s. Variations in architectural style provide interest and colour in an otherwise monotonous world of glassy office towers and utilitarian apartment buildings. Grand plazas, churches and monuments make statements about what is important to a place, and what it values.

What do these people value? It is worth cherishing and celebrating the few beautiful examples of history that exist here.

Like this one!

 

6. Historical traditions provide comfort.

This surprised me. History, of course, is about customs passed down as much as it is about actual events or physical buildings. Traditions ground us and give us some consistency in a world that changes rapidly. This is part of the reason weddings, funerals, and general church-going still exist. We need traditions to mark the big events in life.

We also need traditions to mark out who we are and how we should behave. To take a small but non-trivial example I wrote about recently: our clothing sends out signals about who we are and what we expect from life. There are no standards of dress here, at work or at play. Twenty-five-year-old men dictate the business ambiance, so beards, flip flops and holey t-shirts abound, and you can’t find a restaurant in California fancy enough that you can’t wear jeans.

It is utterly unconventional, which is perhaps just a bit the point. Wearing jeans to a meeting with someone in a suit will instantly destabilize them. It’s the same idea with non-standard working hours, perfected by the tech industry, and turning work into play (both the work itself and the space in which it is done). Even the critical and traditional accent in “José” has all but disappeared, which leads me to wonder if people in future will think this city was pronounced as something that rhymes with “banjos.”

It is groundbreaking to blow up established norms, but also somewhat unsettling. And history is necessary, if only to have something to conscientiously reject.

7. Culture clusters around history.

Life without history would not only be ignorant and untethered, but very boring.

People often view San José and its surrounds as soulless, and it’s easy to see why. One need only look at the cultural draw San Francisco has on the region to appreciate why places with deep roots are attractive. Most of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions are historical landmarks. What would the City be without the bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building, or Pier 39? Just a bunch of expensive apartments and hills, really.

History infuses places with meaning, and communities gather to add more layers. So next time someone asks me why on earth I would bother to study history, I think I will tell him that it’s because I care about beauty and culture and connection to the people and places around me — and that if he wants to live in somewhere even half-decent, he should too.

History, paved over

History, paved over

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The Empire Strikes Back … with Hammers

March 4, 2014

This is a post about curling.

It is also a post about colonialism and the sadness and rhetoric that accompanies the sunset of an empire.

Toward the end of the 2014 Olympics came the men’s curling final, a dramatic showdown between Great Britain and Canada. Watching in Europe, as I was, meant coverage was courtesy of the BBC and commentary by two storied skips from the grand Team GB of yesteryear. (Let’s put aside the fact that, like most British curlers, the commentators and players were all Scottish, because they all displayed a sufficient amount of “national” pride to be considered British. I will get into the whole Scottish nationalism affair later.) The stage was set: the Canadian women had beaten the female British team in the semi-finals and gone on, undefeated, to win the gold medal the day before. There was an enormous amount of pressure from home on the Canadian men to repeat their gold-medal successes of the 2010 and 2006 games. The tension was palpable.

Canada ended up winning a lopsided 9-3 for the gold.

Now, the Canadians were the odds-on favourites in this match. Despite curling being a Scottish sport originally, Canada is its foremost powerhouse nation. Since curling was introduced to the Winter Olympics in Nagano 1998, Canada has won medals in both the women’s and men’s tournaments every time. Only Sweden comes close. This particular team GB was also very good – they have won several World and European Curling Championships – but I doubt many people would have bet on them for the gold.

Our Boys Aren’t Like That

And yet, to listen to the BBC commentary, the victory was Britain’s almost by rights. The callers were making a valiant effort at being neutral at first but later abandoned the impartiality to lament the way the game was going for “our boys.” But what was most fascinating to me, as a student of nationalism and empire, was the language they used. I’ve written before about how the Olympics brings out the very best/worst in our jingoistic selves and allows the media and advertising to fall back on hoary old national tropes (the whole #wearewinter Canadian twitter campaign being just one example – do they not have winter elsewhere?).  But I had never seen this rhetoric play out between former imperial power and its precocious colony before. According to the BBC, the Canadian team was (and please say this with a Scottish accent in your heads, because I assure you it’s better) “a wee bit too aggressive,” “quite loud with their calls” and “not as polite as some of the other teams.” At one point, jokes were made that the Canadians’ shirts were too tight — or perhaps their biceps were too big? It was all just too masculine for Britain! “Our boys aren’t like that.”

 

Canadian curling skip Brad Jacobs: too much muscle mass for Britain!

Canadian curling skip Brad Jacobs: too much muscle mass and yelling for Britain!

 

Uncouth colonies! How dare you go to the gym and yell at the rink and celebrate your victories! It was a distant echo of the accusations that have always been aimed at settlement colonies, like Australia and Canada – and internal colonies, like the untamed “Wild West” within the United States – as justifications for the continuation of central control. Australia, incidentally, has never shaken off its image as the raucous outpost of empire “Down Under.” (Google suggest says: “Why are Australians so…” “Racist? Obnoxious? Violent?” Notably masculine traits, and not in a good way.)

It is odd that the British should still be falling back on this language. Perhaps sport commentary, like holiday foods, preserves tradition longer than the everyday. After all, it is hardly news that the games that originated in the former imperial capitals have since spread around the world and been mastered by foreign nationals to a far greater degree than those in the home country. Golf, a typically Scottish exercise in hitting objects with sticks, has been perfected by Americans like Tiger Woods or Fijians like Vijay Singh. Cricket is now the almost exclusive realm of South Asians. And then of course there is (sigh) soccer, an originally English sport which is now dominated at the international level by South Americans and Southern Europeans, much to my biennial chagrin.

Rugger for the Empire

Perhaps the general British population is now past the point with these sports that they feel they should win, as the original players. But that is patently not the case with every sport. For comparison, I thought a look at another English game – rugby, a product of the Victorian English public school system – would be interesting. Rugby spread about as far as the former settlement colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (though really not much further, to look at the top teams), and my hypothesis is that British commentary would deem those foreign players rough and aggressive as well. Indeed, a short search of British news outlets finds the formidable NZ All Blacks masters of “thuggery” and the English team still fending off accusations of being hampered by its antiquated class system and uselessness on the pitch. One author, a former English international rugby player, talks about how the “relentless,” “ruthless” All Blacks laughed at him and assaulted his manliness when he twisted his knee, and how a recent match between the Aussies and the All Blacks was “a frightening gauntlet thrown down to all the players in the northern hemisphere.” You can’t make this stuff up.

 

The New Zealand All Blacks: "all things dark and Kiwi"

The New Zealand All Blacks: to the English, “all things dark and Kiwi”

 

It is competitive and familiar and has overtones of parent-child conflict. This same language was appropriated by the colonies themselves to justify their independence from Mother England: “You’re right: we are stronger and healthier and more willing to get our hands dirty, so we’ll have that control of our own government now, thank you.” Canada and Australia in particular used the physical superiority of their young men as indications that the centres of empire should shift to these places where willing hands were stronger at carrying its mission forth. As one former Canadian Governor General once said, “It is in climates and countries where the white man may multiply…that we must look for the strongest elements of Empire, and it is only at the Cape of Good Hope, in British North America, and in Australasia that we find these conditions realized.” And so it was that British men became stereotyped as effete weaklings more interested in their cravats than the serious business of governing a plurality of the world’s population.

And we’re still talking about it, a century later.

Hammer Time

In curling, the team that gets to throw the last stone (and has the opportunity to win points) in each end has the “hammer.” At the moment, the imperial hammer lies with the United States. And yet, Olympic jingoism was muted this year in the US, with various news outlets decrying the “step back” from previous triumphs, with fewer medals and some surprise podium shut-outs. Much national hand-wringing and poor sportsmanship ensued, perhaps signs of an empire uncertain of its own strength.

A sign of decline? Stay tuned for accusations of China’s uncouth aggression.

Oh wait…

US News Reports of Chinese Aggression

US News Reports of Chinese Aggression


Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):

Image

It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…

Russia.

Have fun at Sochi.


Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.


Uruguay: An Outpost of Excitement and Calm

January 29, 2011

There comes a point on holidays when one gets a little tired of picking up and packing up every few days to get on a bus or a boat or a plane. The lack of spices, particularly pepper, starts to take its toll, and one yearns, even just a little, for the comfort and predictability of home. The lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling” start to play themselves in one’s head (particularly the part about the pizza):

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
But it’s oh so nice to come home

No more customs
Burn the passport
No more packing and unpacking
Light the home fires
Get my slippers
Make a pizza

Fortunately for the weary traveller, the final leg of our month-long journey took us to Uruguay, a calm and stable retreat of a nation across the Río de la Plata. It was just what we needed. Tiny Uruguay, with its fierce but muted pride, moves at its own pace, is confident in its beauty, and feels a world apart from both of the other countries we had visited, despite being culturally and historically very much the same. It is off the typical path for those from outside of South America, which gives it the feeling of being a corner of the world, instead of a thoroughfare.

I still can’t believe this country holds more World Cup victories than England. But more on that later.

Sunset in Colonia

It seems to the casual tourist more a province of another country than one in and of itself – not that I would ever say that to a local. American dollars, Argentinean pesos, and Brazilian reals are accepted almost everywhere, in addition to the local currency. Nearly everybody we met spoke fluent English and Portuguese. Clearly, Uruguayans are aware of the immense value of tourism to their economy. We had seen massive billboards featuring a (surprisingly) smiling Diego Forlán, hero of the 2010 World Cup and recipient of its Golden Ball trophy, on highways across Argentina and Chile, advertising the best of Uruguay: Punta del Este, an Ibiza-like beach resort on the Atlantic coast, Piriápolis, a quieter town that was Uruguay’s first commercial beach resort, and Colonia del Sacramento, a historic trading post and UNESCO World Heritage Site an hour across the river by ferry from Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento, a calm and quiet retreat across the Rio de la Plata

Our first stop was Colonia, and so we joined the throngs of tourists departing Buenos Aires on the Buquebus rapid ferry that all-but monopolizes transport between the two nations. The old part of the town, known as the Barrio Historico, is about the size of a postage stamp, and is filled with  snap-happy Argentinians (it is a favourite getaway spot for porteños). Buffeted between Spain and Portugal, and later Brazil, for centuries, the town still contains the markers of an old port and defensive outpost: thick, high city walls, cannons, and the remains of the central colonial household that would have been at its heart, along with a neighbouring church. We loved the cobbled streets, old yellow lamps, and central square where we spent the day reading and napping without fear of being attacked. In the evening, as the ferry returned to Argentina, taking most of the day-trippers with it, we sat in a cafe overlooking the river plate, munching on grilled meats and watching the sun set  in a blaze of pink and orange as the lights of Buenos Aires appeared in the distance. Live music spilled out from cafés all around us, and twinkle lights were laced through the trees along the roads. It was a welcome shift from the noise and emotional weight of Buenos Aires, and we could have stayed longer in the peace and quiet.

Our schedule, however, took us on to Montevideo, the nation’s capital, the following morning. Here was a place that seemed content just to exist. Home to about half of the country’s population, most of whom seemed to be out enjoying the city’s many public parks and plazas, Montevideo is simultaneously charming and everyday. Beaux Arts buildings in good repair dot the main streets, interspersed with the typical concrete fare of most cities that grew up after the 1950s. With art galleries, beautiful theatres, and artisan fairs on every street, there is a thriving arts scene. And one can enjoy it all without fear of tripping, as the sidewalks are wonderful. After a week in Buenos Aires, Hubs stopped dead in his tracks and gaped upon seeing a bit of uneven sidewalk that had caution tape around it.

Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, and still one of the most interesting

Instead of venturing further along the coast to a resort proper, we decided to make Montevideo our base for the remainder of the trip, taking various field trips and enjoying the local wine (tannat), steaks, and excellent beer. A journey on a bus that eventually emptied out completely took us to the city limit, to a beach that was largely untouched with hardly a soul in sight. On the way back we travelled along la rambla (the boardwalk) that stretches for kilometers along the coast and back into the city centre.

And then, the highlight: futbol. Being the height of summer, it was unlikely that we would see a match, but with amazing luck, there was the annual superclásico on our last night there, the oldest major derby outside of Britain, between Uruguayan arch rivals Nacional and Peñarol. It took place at the site of the very first World Cup (and first Uruguayan victory), the 60 000-seat Estadio Centenario, which was packed. The match itself started at 10pm, but there was also a “warm up” match between two foreign club teams beforehand that nobody in the crowd paid any attention to whatsoever, so busy were they chanting, jumping, and banging their giant bass drums. Yes, giant bass drums were allowed in the stadium, as were fireworks, enormous banners that travelled the length of the stands, and smoke machines. Alcohol was not. (The fans didn’t need it, as most were toting the mate mugs ubiquitous in the country, little gourd-like thermoses that contained a liquid resembling strong green tea.)

Smoke and fireworks from the Penarol supporters

It was a very different experience from a Toronto game. On our way we had seen entire city buses taken over by devoted fans in their colours on their way to the match, cheering and hanging out the windows, bus driver and all. The fanfare that greeted the arrival of the two teams on the pitch involved so much confetti, smoke and general excitement that kick-off was delayed while the pitch cleared. And though the passion was tangible, and the volume almost overwhelming, the crowd was happy and I felt safe throughout. Husbands and wives and groups of friends came supporting opposite sides and clapped at all good plays. Most of the second half was 2-1 until (as some had started filing out to avoid the post-game crush) a brilliant goal at 90’+3′ that set the stadium alight with fireworks and raucous cheering. The match went to penalties and Nacional took the win, but most left satisfied with a good show.

And then home. As Frank says, it is very nice to go trav’ling, and find unexpected charm, a change of pace, and even places that don’t live up to the ideas you have of them. But, despite the 50° C drop in temperature, it is oh so nice to come home – home to friends and family, speaking English, and even ethnic food. Our “perfect European honeymoon” was neither perfect nor very European, but it did alternately surprise and delight us, and I would do it again – this time with my own pepper mill.


Buenos Aires: Grandeur and Decline

January 19, 2011

We arrived in Buenos Aires on a Sunday afternoon. As our hotel was located in the older part of the city in San Telmo, we were a stone’s throw from the famous Sunday market that takes place along one of the neighbourhood’s many cobbled streets. The fair featured stall after stall of traditional antiques, leather goods and artisan crafts, though it is on the verge of becoming a typically commercialized attraction in which the majority of what is on offer consists of t-shirts, wooden mugs for mate, smoking paraphernalia, custom wine bottle holders, and other cheap, tourist-oriented kitsch. The atmosphere was fun, crowded, and noisy, with street performers of all kinds competing with the noise of various versions of Depeche Mode and Sting songs rearranged as tangos (very weird) and the occasional shout of a tourist discovering that his wallet had walked off with a local. Roving bands of drummers paraded up and down the street, drowning out all other sounds and sweeping everyone up in their rhythm. I even saw the elderly couples who had been dancing tango in the market’s central square stop for a moment and unconsciously move their heads and hips to the drumbeats.

The beautiful old Confitería Del Molino: closed to the public

Later that night, we discovered that the crowds had masked sidewalks that were filthy and falling apart, littered in feces and crawling with cockroaches, and so uneven that taking one’s eyes off them would make tripping every three steps a certainty. Perhaps, again, this is what they mean by “bohemian,” or “full of character,” in which case Buenos Aires certainly qualifies. It is European in style and influence, but I found it lacking the sparkle and excitement of European cities. It felt run down, in disrepair, tired. More than anything else, I was saddened by what I found there.

Everywhere there is the feeling of former grandeur in gradual and unimpeded decline. Blocks of high rises with stunning turn-of-the-century beaux-arts architecture are shuttered with security fences and alarm systems, or crumbling and “undergoing refurbishment” (for decades). Almost every public monument – and there are many – is closed off to the public with a high, permanent fence, and visually marred by layers of graffiti. A tour guide explained that Buenos Aires had been a wealthy city in the late nineteenth century, and underwent a building boom at that time, but when the global market crash hit in the 1930s, many families lost everything and their homes have never been cared for since and have fallen into disrepair. The exceptions are the ones that were adopted by the government and turned into state buildings – but they certainly do not escape the graffiti treatment that is near-ubiquitous across the city.

A typical sidewalk

Buildings at ground level are often shuttered and covered with graffiti

As a whole, Buenos Aires looked as saggy and tired as an aging tango dancer, still wearing the revealing, sparkly dress and 4-inch heels of days gone by, but gradually slowing in her movements and with a little less of the famous kicking.

The locals seemed to echo my sense of disenchantment. Everywhere we went in Argentina, there were complaints about the interference, partisanship, and general ineptitude of the government led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Its latest schemes include firing chemicals into the clouds to break up hail in Mendoza (Cloudbusting, anyone?), switching the capital’s coin-driven bus system to one with cards (as they already have in Santiago – but here already a year overdue with no apparent progress), and making the banking system more stable. (Incidentally, while we were in Buenos Aires a bank robbery caused a run on banks that meant we had to go to four different bank ATMs before finding one that had money left to dispense.) Where in Chile there was hope and excitement about the future, in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires we found a general sense of pessimism and hopelessness that matched the state of the city’s once-great buildings. I recalled that in The Economist‘s “The World in 2011” publication, the South American leader chosen to expound on the hopes for the future of a continent that has not lived up to its potential in the past 200 years was Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera. Kirchner is up for re-election in October. I asked one of our tour guides who she thought would win and she shrugged hopelessly and said that even though nobody likes the president, she would likely be re-elected because the opposition is in even worse shape.

A beautiful mansion, now part of the Four Seasons Hotel, in Recoleta. Note the sidewalk.

And yet, like the aging dancer, the city still has its charms. The upscale neighbourhood of Recoleta features beautifully kept mansions and intact sidewalks (a novelty), as well as wide, tree-lined avenues. Puerto Madero, the old port area that has been completely revitalized in the last 10 years with hundreds of condos, restaurants, and pedestrian paths, has the feel of any world-class, modern city. The historic cafés and restaurants we found all served excellent food, and with their wooden tables, tango posters, and colourful clientele, it wasn’t hard to believe that they really hadn’t changed much in 100 years. The wine flowed freely, the people were interesting and friendly, and the weather was warm and breezy throughout our stay.

And, of course, there was the tango itself. It is a dance of anger and sadness, and it fits the city well (even though I must note here that Montevideo, across the river in Uruguay, claims to be the city in which it was born). One hears the tango everywhere, from street musicians to cafés to the radios of taxi drivers. And people really do dance in the streets. We saw a tango show that was about as touristy as we had predicted it would be, but that was nonetheless an impressive display of athleticism, beauty, and styling gel. We took a tango lesson from a local, which was more focused on our working together as a couple than the steps themselves, which indicated to me how much more the dance is about feeling and style than it is about technical mastery (those famous ankle-over-the-shoulder kicks notwithstanding).  And, on our last night, we went to a real-life tango club, nestled deep in the stylish neighbourhood of Palermo Soho. The crowd was mostly in their middle age, though we were by no means the only young people there. All the women, regardless of age, wore very high heels and very clingy dresses. The dancing was beautiful – not showy, or technically perfect, but full of emotion. Couples would regularly switch partners, and spend almost as much time talking and laughing as dancing.

Cafe Tortoni, famous for being the meeting place of the artistic elite of Buenos Aires for decades

I liked this side of Buenos Aires, the part that wasn’t posturing for tourists (and often failing to impress), but that showed off the still-vibrant core made up of the people who live there. I would return to the city for this feeling, one I still can’t put my finger on; Buenos Aires, despite my disappointment, still fascinates me because I felt as though history was alive and ever-present there, in the fairs and the foods and the tangos. There is still the porteño spirit in the air that was once behind all those buildings and monuments. I think the city is too proud and too fiesty to stay in decline for long.


Crossing the Andes Again: Hell – with Lovely Scenery

January 9, 2011

There is an Andean crossing through Patagonian splendor that several guide books have described as one of the classic border crossings in the world, and one not to be missed. In fact, Hubs and I planned our whole month in South America around taking this trip through mountain lakes, with volcanoes towering above the water, and beauty all around. For the relatively steep (for South America) price of $250 (USD) each, it promised to be a luxurious experience.

So it was that we found ourselves taking two flights, one from Mendoza to Santiago over the Andes, and one to the small city of Puerto Montt in the south, which many people have described as Germany in South America. The city, and its Argentinean mountain counterpart, Bariloche, were settled by German immigrants in the late nineteenth century, so the homes were in the German style of that period. In truth, I found this comparison a bit overstated, as the vegetation looked exactly like twice winter Olympic host Lake Placid, in upstate New York, and the people looked very similar to Santiagueños. My suitcase was the very first one on the belt, though, which has never happened to me before – German efficiency, perhaps?

The Catholic Church in Puerto Varas - okay, this looks a bit like Germany.

Our final stop in Chile this trip was Puerto Varas, an even smaller city about a half hour from Puerto Montt, on the edge of a mountain lake overshadowed by towering volcanoes. The owner of the B&B we were to stay at for 2 nights was originally from Indiana, and had a kind of cool arrogance that reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. He had originally come to the area to fish for several months in the early ’70s, and stayed after meeting his Chilean wife, who was lovely. He was quite the outdoorsy type, and I could tell that Puerto Varas was the perfect place for those who liked to hike, row, fish, camp, zip-line, and otherwise do things I’m not usually involved with in any way. We ignored all that, though, and spent the day exploring the town and drinking a bottle of wine from the finca of our cooking class on our hosts’ beautiful porch, surrounded by towering plants and flowers in full summer bloom. It was to be the calm before the storm. The next morning, we awoke early enough to catch the bus that would make up the first leg (of 7) on our third and most anticipated Andean crossing, this time through the lakes.

Oh my.

The “cruise,” as it called itself, consisted of 6 or so actual hours of moving, yet it took about 12 hours total to get from our starting point in Chile to the final destination across the Argentinean border. The remainder of the time was spent waiting: waiting to get on busses, waiting to get off busses, waiting for the busses to start moving, waiting at the border crossing, waiting for the boat to arrive…and waiting the whole time in an unexpected heat wave with no air conditioning anywhere and hordes of other travellers, mostly Brazilians jabbering in Portuguese, and most with screaming toddlers in tow. Sweat was pouring from us all after about 30 minutes. Glass rooves intensified the greenhouse effect of the sun. We wilted.

On the bright side, the scenery was beautiful.

One of the volcanos that loom over the town

For lunch, we stopped at about the halfway point, high in the mountains. There was exactly one place to eat, a hotel restaurant of mediocre quality and elevated prices, and about 500 travellers going in both directions who descended on the restaurant all at the same time. Finding a table was difficult, and getting everyone served and out in less than 2 hours proved impossible for the staff – we had to leave what we thought was adequate payment on the table, having waiting for our bill for about 15 minutes to no avail. I couldn’t understand. Don’t they do this every single day?

Little did I know that the meal would prove the high point of the day. The next leg of the journey – in a decaying bus up several hundred feet of loose gravel mountain road – was enough to make anyone feel queasy, even people like me who never suffer from any kind of motion sickness. The road was for exclusive use of the tour company, which meant it was the exact width of the bus – no more! – with nothing in the way of guard rails or anything else to prevent us tumbling down sheer mountain drops as we lurched backward and forward. The air conditioner was dripping in a steady stream from the seats’ light apparatuses onto several passengers, and the massive bumps we were driving over would cause it every so often to run almost horizontally and soak the windows. All the while, someone (our tour guide?) was whistling loudly, as if in defiance of the utter terror of the journey. The Andean bus crash scene from the beginning of the movie Dragonfly was playing over and over in my head and I tried to position myself where I thought it least likely a window would shatter on my head when we hit a piece of mountain.

And, in my own personal version of Hell, there were the flies. At every point, including while on the water, swarms of blackflies and horseflies intent on a piece of flesh would go for the passengers. The latter were about 3cm long and 1cm wide (i.e. REALLY BIG), and would buzz around angrily in droves – at one point, I was swatting away 20 or so simultaneously. It was the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. Several of the women were in hysterics (I don’t exaggerate here; full-on hysterics) and with full disclosure, I’ll admit that I was one of them.

When we arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, our final destination, at about 8:30pm on New Year’s Eve, I could confidently say that the day had been one of the worst travel experiences of my life. $250 each? You couldn’t pay me to do that again.

The sleepy Chilean town of Puerto Varas is nothing like its more commercialized Argentinian equivalent, Bariloche (pictures to follow later)

Luckily, Bariloche provided some much-needed respite and lived up to its reputation as the land of artisan chocolates and beers. We spent much of our 2 days there recovering, but found time to visit two craft breweries just outside of town, which supplied us with some good brews and tasty food. The town itself is odd, a kind of commercialized outpost at the end of the world, full of young people out to party and hippie beach bums and ski bums with dreadlocks looking to get lost for a while. The average age of the tourists – and it felt as though the town was all tourists – was about 23, and it was a much more cosmopolitan mix than we’d seen in Puerto Varas. (There were actually a few people my height, which I hadn’t seen since leaving Canada.) Bariloche is supposed to be the “Switzerland of the Andes,” which I suppose I can imagine, if Switzerland is full of kitschy shops in which to buy sweaters and baseball caps. And chocolate shops full of men in lederhosen uniforms. The little log cabins that dotted the shoreline were quite beautiful, and I’m sure it would be a fantastic place to go in the winter to see in its skiing glory. As it was, the unanticipated heat made the miles of beach more appealing, but we could not tarry, as a (typically, delayed) flight to Buenos Aires was waiting.

Would it turn out to be the magic land of Parisian architecture, fabulous steaks, and tango dancing in the streets that we’d heard of? Would there be tourists everywhere seeking Evita-related history? Would I have to opportunity to growl at Maradona in person? Stay tuned!