Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reading List: Modern Greek Literature

In preparation for my upcoming and long awaited trip to Greece, I decided to study up on the culture in my usual way: by reading literature. Unfortunately a search for “Greek literature” yields only the classics: Socrates, Plato,  Homer. Even the search for “modern Greek literature” goes as far back as the Byzantine era. Finally, a search for “contemporary Greek literature” is really all I needed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are many books written about Greece, there are many books that take place in Greece, but there are very few translated books  written by Greek people, in the Greek language, about life in contemporary Greece. This is what I really wanted. Not an essay about politics, not a memoir written by a third-generation Greek American. I wanted to hear how Greek people described themselves to themselves, in their own context. That’s the great gift of fiction, we can enter into another life without the explanation usually given to outsiders. We have to figure things out on our own.

If you do a search for these type of books you will quickly stubble upon Karen Emmerich, who is quite possibly the most renowned Greek-to-English translator of contemporary literature. Once you know her name, the stories of contemporary Greeks open wide to you. Before I left for Greece, I had read about ten books.

The first book I read was The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou .This thriller was based off a true story of an American journalist who was murdered in the 1940s. From this book, I gathered an impression of a dirty, impoverished, frightening Greece.  The story also provides insight into life in a Greek high school, where one student anxiously tries to solve the mystery for a school project. Through this book, it was easy to appreciate the unique dynamic Greek students share with their professors. 

The next book I read was …And Dreams are Dreams by Vasiles Vasilikos. One of the finest examples of magical realism in Greek language, this book is a strange joy to read. The title comes from the opening short story, about a group of friends who  start a newspaper called “The Almanac of Dreams” where they publish the dreams of everyday people, power world leaders, and even celebrities. 

The almanac “expressed, finally, the deeper desire of people to be outis (no one) in outopo (no place)…Dreams don’t need land to bear fruit….” (Vasilikos, 17).

I attempted two books by Ersi Sotiropoulos, one of the most acclaimed Greek novelists of our time. Unfortunately I could not connect with either Landscape with Dog or her award-winning Zigzag Through the Bitter Orange Trees (though the real bitter orange trees of Athens are forever burned into my mind) so I did not finish her books. 

Amanda Michalopoulou, on the other hand, was someone I enjoyed so much I read two of her books. The first one, I’d Like, was a collection of short stories that I felt vividly captured the human existence. 

It occurred to me that we are living a life of substitutes,” Michalopoulou wrote, “That somewhere there's a core of original life, a place where things don't just resemble other things”(Michalopoulou, 14).

Her novel,  Why I Killed my Best Friend tells the story of two girls growing up together through loss, trauma, and tragedy. 

The narrator says of her aunt:
“Whenever anything bad happens, she digs a hole in her head and shoves it in there.
‘Aunt Amelia, if you dig a hole in your head, how many things will it fit?’
‘Oh, lots. Lots and lots…’”
(Michalopoulou, 16 ).

But of all the Greek authors I was introduced to along this journey, my favorite, my kindred spirit, the one I will take to my bedside and tuck under my pillow, was Margarita Karapanou

I met Margarita through her most famous novella, Kassandra and the Wolf. A story of disturbing vignettes told through the eyes of a six-year-old. 

“At night, forgotten words tried to reach me. I listened with my skin. Words tore my skin off, crept inside me, and nestled down. I was a mass of wounds. When I opened my mouth in front of the mirror, beasts lay asleep in my throat; they'd made it their home”  (Karapanou)

I loved Kassandra and the Wolf, but her next book, Rein Ne Va Plus, moved me even more. A desperate story of love, marriage, betrayal, and longing, the title of the novel describes it best:

“He lit a cigarette and started to read. Then he raised his head and looked at me, smiling.
Rein ne va plus, he said. 
- Isn't that what they say in roulette?
- Yes. It's not as ominous as it sounds. But it marks the most crucial moment of the game. That's what gives it that terseness, that sense of conclusion.
- What exactly does it mean?
- It's the moment when you can't affect the future anymore, for better or worse. When you hear the croupier’s famous rien ne va plus, you either win or lose whatever you've bet.  Usually you lose" (Karapanou, 18)

Greek novelists have changed my life an the way I read and enjoy literature. Their colorful words certainly shaped my experience in Greece and now I see my country through their eyes and my own. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mathaf: A pioneer journey to the corners of Doha’s most avant-garde art scene

Ari and myself in front of Mathaf #lifegoals

It was only when our cab driver took a right turn off the road and into the expansive sands of Doha, that I thought “this place really is off the grid.”

I had arrived in Doha, Qatar that morning, on a day jaunt with a friend from Dubai. Of course everyone had told us to the famous Museum of Islamic Art near the pier, but I was on a special mission.

I wanted to see Mathaf (pronounced Matt-hoff), the Arab Museum of Modern Art. . This place looked more avantgard than I expected for Qatar, and it was mostly run by young people – art students from the local community college. It seemed like a fascinating place to visit, and one that would be much more reflective of Doha art scene.

The museum’s website warned that it was hard to find (like everything in Doha), and that it was only accessible by taxi (like everything in Doha). I’m sure I even read something that said most taxi drivers won’t be familiar with it’s location or address. Thankfully, it is not so far off-the-grid that it doesn’t have a Google pin. When I had wifi in Dubai I pinned it on the map. As expected, our driver had no clue how to get there, so I sat in the back seat, staring at the moving blue dot on my iphone map, and telling the driver where and when to turn.

a typical view through the window of a taxi cab on the way to Mathaf

As we neared the museum we couldn’t find a road that would take us there. I asked t driver to pull over and showed him the map. The museum to the right of us, according to the map, though I couldn’t see it from the car window. There were no road visible on the map that lead there. And, looking out the window, there were no roads visible from the car either. Only a sandy pastier separates us from our destination, so the driver, no doubt annoyed and wanted to get us out of his car and to our destination as quickly as possible, turned the cab towards the pasture and drove through the sand until we spotted the driveway of the museum.

Once a curious white building came into view, I knew we had arrived at the right place. I timed our trip so that we would arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled special exhibition tour at noon.

We purchased our tickets first from two college-age women at the front counter. They wore the typical Qatar dress of a black abaya and black hijab. They spoke fluent English and were helpful.

There was plenty to do to keep us busy at that time. We browsed the gift shop, café, library, and student exhibition.

Even the bathroom signs are beautiful and uniquely Qatar, see the abaya

Note the dishdasha or shabaab and the keffiyeh

Cool lockers

Inside the library

Our guide, Ali, was a twenty-year-old student from the local community college. He had a gentle voice and spoke flawless English. Like the other young staff at the museum, he was not only interested in art, but also in different cultures. In particular, he wanted a chance to use English and meet people from all over the world. While casually conversing with him along the exhibit, I learned that he was soon planning to move to the United States to attend college. I asked him where he was going, and in a freakish coincidence, he said that he would be going to Portland, Oregon. I told him I was from Portland, and I asked him for the name of the college.As it turned out, he would be going to the same college where I worked!

Visitors now will not have to endure the hectic ordeal I had in getting to Mathaf. There is now a free shuttle bus that takes visitors from the easily accessible Museum of Islamic Art to Mathaf every hour of the day. However, at the time of writing this, it appears that construction is still obstructing the main road to the museum, so a detour is in use.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Openbar Library in Amsterdam

I’ve been to a lot of libraries in the world, but Amsterdam’s might be the only one with a bar on the top floor. What can I expect from a library called “Openbar.” The fact that it is centrally located in the heart of town is also another clue. Typically libraries are local affairs, and a city would waste valuable real estate on something that isn’t going to bring in tourist money. But Amsterdam is a different kind of city, and Openbar is a different kind of library.

Though the interior design of the library is nothing astonishing, in terms of size, it is probably one of the largest libraries I have ever been to, reaching seven floors. At the top, there is a restaurant and bar that overlooks the water canal. Does it get more amazing than that?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sunny in Seattle

My friend and I escaped the weekend snow storm in Portland to venture up to Seattle, but it was still cold enough to wear my fur hat around town. 

Coat: Zara
Dress: American Apparel
Bag: ippolito from Greece

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Golden Trifecta: 3 Places I go in every city

TRIAL Supermarket in Hamada, Japan

There are many ways to experience a new country and new culture. For some people that means visiting museums and going on tours. For others that means just walking around and seeing what happens. Some read about the history and geography of the place before they go. Some travel with the guidebook at their side.

But my method is uniquely my own.

It was not purposefully chosen, rather, it was cultivated from years of exploration and genuine interest.

If I really want to learn about a place, I visit three locations: a grocery store, a library, and a cemetery.

Rose petals to adorn graves in Islamabad, Pakistan

None of these are typical tourist spots, with the exceptions of world-famous libraries (like the Library of Congress in Washington DC, or world-famous cemeteries (like the Hollywood cemetery in Los Angeles). But for the most part these three place are typically untouched and uninflected by the pulse of tourism in any given country. They are designed for locals to experience, and at some point in their lives, they will all experience these places.

Let me break it down:

The grocery store
This is a place for people to get food, and we all have to eat. A grocery story is very revealing about the culture of a particular country and the lifestyle of its residents. For example, there are entire aisles dedicated to hot sauce in Vietnam, and utensils are sometimes taped to the side ofpackaged foods as incentive for people to buy them. In the Netherlands, thereare machines that squeeze fresh juice into recyclable bottles and the stores charge customers for not bringing their own reusable bags.

Now, in some places there are not grocery stores so much as there are markets, typically outdoors. For the purpose of this list, those count too and they tell us just as much about the people who shop there.

Jumbo supermarket in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The library
Libraries are where people get information. Of course, in the age of technology most people are using the internet now, but libraries continue to grow around the world. It turns out, these are not just places where people get information, these are places where they use recourses (computers, scanners, etc), and where they study, and where they meet, and where they learn.

Xinbeitou Library in Taipei, Taiwa

If no library is available in the city (or in some countries, there are no public libraries at all), then I go to a book store. This is almost a good substitute because then I can closely inspect the reading material of the place. In Yangon, Myanmar, books are prevalent and often sold on the streets, where they are lined up along the sidewalks for people to browse as they commute to work.

Books for sale on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

The cemetery
Sometimes difficult to get to, cemeteries are one of the most culturally loaded places you can experience. Not only are they facets of deep religious values, but they also often incorporate local superstition and aesthetic.  I became interested in cemeteries from a young age when I visited a Catholic cemetery in Galveston,Texas and was transfixed with the unique faces of each Virgin Mary. I became further intrigued when I visited a Catholic cemetery in Hong Kong, where the worship of the Virgin Mother is combined with the traditional Chinese shrine.

Cemtery in Reykjavik, Iceland

Now...just because I said I try to visit these three places in every country, doesn’t mean I succeed. As they are not designed to accommodate tourists, I sometimes have difficulty in getting to them. Libraries are often only open for limited hours. Cemeteries are typically far from the city center. Grocery stores can also be hard to find for a tourist. In only a few countries have I achieved the golden trifecta:

United States

Time to go back and keep trying for more! 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Best Burgers in SE Asia

It’s true. After so many noodle soups, no matter how delicious they are, the American in me wants a burger. For someone who rarely eats burgers in the states, I ate a burger in just about every country in SE Asia (except Singapore and Malaysia).

Burgers themselves are not hard to come by, but good ones certainly are. This list goes in order from best to worst, and by country. 

Weatherspoon's, Bagan, Myanmar

Beast Burger, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Naughty Nuri's pork burger, Ubud, Bali

Sputnik's Black Burger, Vientiane, Laos

Freshness burger, Yangon, Myanmar

Jay's House, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gotcha burger, Saigon, Vietnam

Coconut restaurant, Luang Prabang, Laos

New coat and red socks

 First time wearing this new Muji coat that I altered. Very excited I got to get in on the red sock trend before it disappears.  Coat: Muji ...