Monthly Archives: May 2011

No Country For Old Informational Resources

All over the world, reference books are quietly marching to retirement as lampstands and table-levelers.

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Cunning Linguist

As opposed to Denmark, not speaking the language here is a real handicap. You can get by (order a coffee, get pointing-level directions) without German, but to make a special request or ask a detailed question, hand-symbols are pretty hopeless.

On Tuesday I bought something called ‘Learn German in 30 Days’, and I’ve been studying one hour per day since. So far German feels like someone smashed together the vocabulary of Danish and English, then said ‘these grammar rules are too easy! Another gender, please!’

Yesterday I successfully gave directions in German for the first time. I dress quite poorly, and look pretty sour-faced when I’m in public, so I get mistaken for a German a lot. Usually I wave people along when they ask for directions, but yesterday a woman asked me in German for Victoria-Louise Platz, which is right by where I live. ‘I can do this!’ I thought.

I gave her directions in caveman-speak: ‘Here … to the left … you are walking 200 meters … Welsherstrasse … right … you are arriving!’

She looked pleased with the information, but utterly bemused by my presentation. ‘… Danke?’ she replied and biked Platz-ward.

The purpose of language is to convey meaning, right? Well I conveyed some damn meaning. Thank God there’s only 26 days left til I’m fully fluent.

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Lost in Transportation

No matter how long I live in Europe, my internal map still tells me that all streets go either north-south or east-west. Even in cities I’ve lived in for years, I can only navigate by 90-degree intersections and straight lines. My thinking self knows that this is ridiculous, but my going-places self can’t shake its rigid American griddyness. It’s a genuine wonder that I ever arrive anywhere.

For a person with a weathervane for an internal compass, every journey to a new location is an adventure, then an ordeal, then a triumph. I’ve spent at least 80 percent of my biking-time here in a state of oblivion, the remaining 20 percent taken up by epiphanies (‘I’m going south?!’) and recalibrations.

One of the most satisfying things about traveling is besting an unfamiliar transit system and street grid. The first time you make it to your destination without checking the map or consulting the subway chart feels like a genuine achievement. Applying acquired expertise feels good, no matter how microscopic or arbitrary it is.

I expect to feel this achievement sometime next February.


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Uganda Leftovers: Down with OPP (Other People’s Pictures)

Remember how I said I managed to thoroughly not-capture the essence and character of Uganda in my photos?

My colleague did a much better job than I did. Here's a dude returning home from fishing all day.

You see a lot people carrying big loads in inefficient ways like this. Apparently they tried to install a proper bus system, with departure times and everything, in Kampala but the minibus drivers protested and it was scrapped.

All the travel guides said not to swim in Lake Victoria due to urethra-bugs, but the Ugandans were doing it.

Either my colleague photoshopped this, or Uganda had the sepia-filter on that day.

There's a lot of dilapidated, abandoned equipment hanging out in Uganda. It's like a more keepin-it-real version of Hustle and Flow

My colleague took lots of pictures like these. 'Their bodies!' she moaned whenever we were within zoom distance of a beach

This is the market where they yelled 'White people!' as soon as we entered. It's like a Wal-Mart greeter, only facing the other way.

We didn't know what most of this stuff was, so we mostly bought bananas.

This was at the zoo. I love how the hyena and the lawnmower-man are both utterly indifferent to each other.

This is the president. I understand why he had more election posters up than anyone else, but I don't understand why he's wearing a sombrero in all of them.

Here's another market in another city. Bananas, please.

Don't worry, they signed a release form.

This was like the CostCo of Uganda. People were selling grains and other basics in bulk.

Shopping looks like it takes all day there. Nothing is labeled, the stores are constantly understocked, etc.

It makes you realize how much more productive our economies are simply for their reliability.

Reacting to the capriciousness of the Ugandan retail sector, my colleague said, 'But how do people plan their day?!'

Uganda has like the fourth-lowest median age on Earth. I cannot express how fucking *everywhere* the kids are.

No seriously, between the breakfast buffet and the dinner buffet, all we ate was bananas.

Qaddafi supported a bunch of programs and infrastructure in Kampala, so hella stuff is named after him.

This is how entire families get around Kampala. Female passengers sit to the side, men to the front or back.

They also serve as taxis. I've been told you'll be openly laughed at on the street if you sit with the wrong orientation on the back.

The retail sector in Kampala is a bit more developed than in the countryside, but not much more. The only foreign companies are gas stations and mobile providers.

See? Facing sideways. If she was facing front, we would have pointed and laughed out the car window. Integration!

I think my colleague was going for something artsy and metaphorical here. She probably stood there for like 45 minutes waiting for a dove to land, achieving maximum poignancy.

Even her photos from our hotel look better than mine! Ugh, I need a banana.

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Supply Lines

Living in a country the size of a semicolon for the last five years got me used to having a limited selection of consumer goods. Denmark isn’t a market that manufacturers fight over or pursue aggressively, and it’s normal to find just two or three kinds of toothpaste, shampoo or shaving cream, no matter how many stores you go to.

This never really bugged me, actually. My default setting when confronted with consumer-aimed competitive features (‘The new Mach 7 shaving razor, now with BlueTooth!’) is to roll my eyes and look for the Acme version, which is basically all Denmark offers anyway.

I mean, how much does your toothpaste really matter? Even if you make a disastrous choice (what the fuck is ‘spearmint’ exactly?), it’s not going to significantly affect your well-being, even in the short-term.

That’s what I was thinking this as I walked into Berlin’s biggest bike store yesterday morning. After spending two hours there, I concluded that I’m utterly full of shit.

Stadler Berlin has 30,000 bikes, but the real attraction is the accessories. There are miles of bike locks, acres of bike clothes and a symphony of pedestrian-parting dingers and honkers. Before I even got past the foyer, I wanted to shout ‘give me one of everything!’

After intense consultations with the staff, I left with a bike that actually fits my Keebler Elf-sized frame, a basket that will actually hold a bag of groceries and a lock that may actually prevent a theft, rather than just serving as mobile jewelry.

Despite my remaining skepticism, I think I could get used to living in a consumer paradise. As I was getting ready for bed, I noticed that my toothpaste tastes like shit, and I’m almost out of shaving cream.

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Ticking Away the Moments That Make Up a Dull Day

Over the last few days I’ve been snacking on this New Yorker article about the different ways the brain perceives time. Einstein said, ‘An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour’, and it turns out there’s a whole field of academic research built around testing this out.

Moving around a lot has demonstrated to me that this principle works for periods of time as well as for individual experiences. The first three weeks you live in a new country feels like a year.

After landing yesterday and unpacking, basically the only thing I did was get groceries, which was a bloodbath. Everything’s in a new language (how do you say ‘chicken stock’ in German?!), all the locations are switched around and, compared to Denmark, a proper supermarket feels like an orgy of choice.

Not recognizing the brands and not being able to read the labels means having no information upon which to choose a product. I picked out a brand of coffee by recognizing the word ‘Ethiopia’ on the label. I picked out a yogurt by comparing the smiles of stock-photo families on the packaging.

I think novelty makes your brain perceive time differently. Places seem farther away the first time you visit them. Even a weekend-length vacation makes home feel remarkably foreign. The hour and a half I spent getting three meals’ worth of groceries felt like a daytrip.

I have to admit to sort of liking this period of slow motion. Moving to a new country turns routine experiences into minor triumphs. Yes, I got the right kind of detergent! I figured out how to do my taxes! I asked for directions in a foreign language!

I’m spending most of this week attempting further logistical victories. A friend of mine from Copenhagen is visiting next month, and I’m sure the first thing I’ll say to him when he arrives is ‘I haven’t seen you in ages.’

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