Category Archives: culture

The village culture reports: hoarding

A friend of mine was asked to bring an iPad to a friend in Italy. He obliged: he packed the device in his carry-on, with all the documentation but sans the bulky box. His friend’s reaction? Thank you, but could you also send me the box when you can, please?

My friend laughed away this quirkiness when he told me the story. His friend was raised in a village culture, he said, and so he felt the urge to keep everything he is entitled to own.  Continue reading

Ghosts, queens and the flow of everyday life

MonasteroCairate

Image by construction worker in the renovation of the Cairate monastery

The local Varese edition of Il Giorno, the newspaper of Milan, has reported about a ghost noticed in the old monastery of Cairate, a small town northwest of the City of Fashion. The monastery is currently under reconstruction and slated to open as one of the sites protected by UNESCO in the region, which was a historic Longobard outpost.

The ghost sighting has been captured by the cellphone of a construction worker and was of such importance that it was reported in several local news outlets. It has also merited the official intervention of the mayor of Cairate and several local authorities, who speculate whose ghost it actually is. Most of them conclude it must be the ghost of Queen Manigonda, the Longobard foundress who built the monastery back in 737. There are also different speculations of why she still inhabits the place as a ghost, and most of them have to do with Frederick Barbarossa who spent the night there before his battle of Legnano (also nearby).

This could happen only in Italy. Continue reading

The perfect gift for Christmas (and other holidays)

When I was growing up, gifts were few and far between. This probably contributed to their high appreciation index rating. We loved looking at them for a while before actually taking them out of the box and trying them out. We built stories and even myths about their future role in our lives. In sum, we absolutely cherished them.

But with the material deluge we as society have experienced in recent decades, the value of gifts has somehow depreciated. How can they ever be special if we can afford to buy the very same things during the whole year, by whim or necessity? We have more things, we obtain them according to no specific season, we get them ourselves. So in this context, how do you make a gift special at all?

Here are the choices for gift-givers to make their gift stands out as special, cherished and one that affirms the relationship between giver and recipient. And is also easy on the environment. Continue reading

Good causes, good will, good work. And volunteering

Volunteering may be the new black – ever since President Obama started the “Renew America Together” volunteering promotion program in 2009. But somehow the issue has faded away. I just learned that volunteer turnover is many, many times higher than regular paid worker turnover. You’d think that people who do something for free, just because they believe in it, would be more motivated to stick around than if they are paid to do it. But in reality the burnout is much more severe and the reason for that is conceptual.  In brief, many organizations misunderstand the role of their volunteers and treat them the wrong way.

Since I’ve been involved in many projects made possible only through the help of people who have generously donated their time and skill, in many capacities and different sides, here’s what I think most organizations misunderstand – and lose volunteers’ good will. Continue reading

Planning in a culture clash

I am convinced that one of the most frustrating culture-clash experiences are cross-cultural planning experiences. I bet most people have had the chance to plan something together with someone from another culture and have ascertained how the differing concepts of time and negotiation strategies make it impossible to take joint steps together. The divergent worldviews result in mismatched philosophies of prediction of future, deliberately arranged events. A nightmare.

Planning is a quintessential human behavior. True, animals also take purposeful actions and so maybe plan for things to happen. But planning is mental enmeshing – you expect certain things to happen based on your own actions as well as other people’s presumed cooperation. And that’s where it gets tricky. Continue reading

La Bella Lingua: the memoir vs. the manual

What’s the best way for you to learn another language? Live in a country where it is spoken? Get a well-explained grammar book? Some people learn better by doing, others by getting a detailed map of the knowledge they are about to acquire. Then there’s also a third way.

When I first glanced at Dianne Hales’s La Bella Lingua, in which she tells the story of how she fell in love with Italian and her adventures in the process of learning it, I saw another flower in the Garden of Italian Delight. There are so many other books that tell the personal stories of American women who fell in love with Italy and went there to actually make their declaration of love, starting with the esteemed Under the Tuscan Sun (about buying a house in Italy) to the current Eat, Pray, Love (about, among  other things, falling in love with Italian food). Italy is a country and a story that’s worth telling again and again -besides, that repetition fuels tourism, too.

However, this book is also part of a larger non-fiction trend – the self-help books that don’t instruct you how to do things, but rather tell you the stories of people who have learned to do them. Away from description and classification (the manual)  to personal narrative (the memoir). Written by non-professionals in areas of high emotional demand, like child rearing or diet, these books can’t make a claim for the scientific authority of their lay authors. But neither do they need to, since their goal is inspiration by example coming from successful ordinary trailblazers and the suggestion that anybody can do the same. An invitation to form a community of fellows.  Continue reading

Would you choose to live a war?

The most logical answer would be “no”, of course. But there are hundreds of occasions in which thousands of people decide to relive wars – and their potential PTSDs – on purpose. Reenactments, for example, so popular in the US.

On one hand, they are part of the trend of romanticizing and nostalgizing the past, just as the reenactments of other, not so traumatic events and activities, like Renaissance fairs and heritage villages, replicas of everyday life of years past. You get a hands-on, or rather eyes-on, play-on education of what the past actually was. What it meant to be witnessing it.

I can understand that. We’ve got some wars that are already far enough in the past for us to accept as part of our national mythology: Revolutionary war, Civil War, Spanish-American war reenactments and even more obscure cowboy gun battles that definitely qualify as non-traumatic reproduction of history snippets. But it’s different when the war in question is so close in time and emotional connection to us like WWII.  Even if we’ve settled into our collective interpretation of such a war, reliving it unsettles us. Continue reading

5 things that are common in Europe but (almost) inexistent in the USA

These are simple things that may seem insignificant and probably won’t make anyone change their place of residence just based on their existence. But they are indicative of bigger societal differences in how people live their lives .

Commuter bikes

Biking is a popular pastime in the USA. But it’s an activity similar to jogging, power walking, or weight lifting. It’s a great way to exercise that also lets you enjoy spectacular views along scenic roads. People don’t use it to run errands, get themselves from A to B or anything practical. The result is that those who bike regularly are committed and good at it. But they are also very few. Biking is a financial investment and significant time commitment. Continue reading

How to have style

howtohavestyleI love browsing through fashion advice books, but it’s always out of curiosity. I like to see a different interpretation of what women should look like – and how that changes through time . I never follow the advice contained in those books because I forget the specificities. And they are so different in every book.  I just enjoy the visual imagery and the interpretation  of the role of women in society expressed through that advice: do they have to make themselves attractive, do they have to learn to  be practical or conform to some rigit etiquette?

I never thought such a book would be liberating, feminist or useful for me, for what it is worth. After all, they all imply that women undeniably have to change something about themselves or to adhere to rules on how to conceal problems and boost merits. That’s hardly liberating. It is more a constriction than freedom, just as a sculptor friend of mine expressed it through her metal corset creations. Continue reading

Never on Sunday’s civilization clash

neveronsundayA friend of mine recommended the 1960 classic Never on Sunday (directed by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri) as the film that introduced foreign cinema to the larger American audience. In fact, it won several Academy Awards nominations and was a huge success. It also caused uproar in Hollywood with the fact that a foreign film, featuring a prostitute as the protagonist, would be so highly acclaimed. According to one source, it “kicked off the foreign film rage” in the US.

It is ironic though that this film would be such a high icon for foreignness. It is a subtle, but non-ambiguous commentary on the futility and the folly of the American civilizing project. With the United States emerging as not just the most powerful world leader in the West, but also the moral and cultural standard bearer after World War II, this film questions its claim as a new civilizing model. And it is funny that this is achieved through the old Pygmalion narrative, in which a cultured man (an American) tries to educate a lower class woman (in this case, a Greek prostitute) to give her new life with a new social status. Continue reading

Molas from San Blas Island – a traditional feminine art with a global reach

Molas, a traditional female shirt of the Kuna people of coastal Panama, are an interesting case of a traditional art with a special role in today’s globalized culture. Kuna people have an unique culture that has survived centuries and although their lands are a popular tourist destination, they have kept their traditions and customs, as well as their group identity and unity.

molacuna1

Photo: Rita Willaert

Molas are made of a back and front textile panel stitched together, each of them made of small pieces of colorful strips of fabric, forming an intricate pattern. The designs range from simple to very elaborate and the themes can be abstract, flowers and animals, mythological and political. Actually, even though now they are a from of art identified with Kuna culture, molas’ origin came with colonization and they are in fact a colonial tradition. They came into existence to replace the designs Kuna women used to paint on their own bodies. When Spanish missionaries came to the islands of today’s Panama some 150 years ago and introduced an European type of clothing, those designs were transferred to the shirts Kuna started wearing. Here are some examples of molas with abstract geometric, flower and animal and mythological patterns. Continue reading

Travel photography

churchI dislike the term. It can be unfair and even arrogant because it puts the emphasis on the personal experience of the photographer rather than the subject. And so it patronizes the subject to a large extent. I understand that all artistic expression is about the artist’s point of view. However, in this case almost all photography is travel, in a sense. Every kind of photography is exploration, maybe related to a literal, even if short travel,  and presents the point of view of the artist. But it is not necessarily called travel photography.

For example, nobody really lives on the Grand Canyon and you have to literally visit it to take a picture of it, yet those pictures are called landscape photography, not travel.  If I don’t know much about a subject, say, cowboys, but live in a cowboy area and decide to take pictures of cowboys on Sunday, is this travel photography? Why is the term only applied to people going on vacation, basically to places considered exotic? I don’t think all pictures of the Eiffel Tower were made by native Parisians, yet they are not labeled “travel”, unless it is a snapshot of a tourist in front of it. Continue reading

Textual food criticism

306564541_5249a67f89There was time when each kitchen had the same, single authoritative cook book, placed in its center on a little lectern and consulted with respect. Or, alternatively, some people owned the handwritten recipes coming from their grandmothers, copied word by word with care, kept in a wooden box and transmitted faithfully to the next generation. The cookbook publishing business was dull and predictable and maybe it wasn’t really a business. Continue reading

What’s so wrong with Starbucks?

starbucksI know many people around here who are not happy with Starbucks. They like to criticize it while still patronizing it. Well, I think Starbucks is the wrong target for the socially, culturally and aesthetically sensitive crowd. I don’t find much wrong with Starbucks, actually I like it.

Some people say it is expensive, but there are so many other overpriced indulgences in the world that cost much more. Plus, a simple solo espresso at Starbucks is actually dirt cheap.

Others say what’s wrong is that it is a chain. They criticize the concept of chainness itself. Yes, but wrong as it is, Starbucks’s chainness introduces it in more places in the US without actually forcing the local residents to buy it. Continue reading

Monster narratives

Speaking of monsters, as well as Frankenstein, I was thinking about how we define monsters in everyday life and popular narratives and how we give them meaning. I happened upon this story about a man with a peculiar deformity that makes his skin turn into tree bark and roots. The question is, is he perceived as monstrous? And what makes him appear monstrous?  There were some comments that make him out to be horrible, repulsive, there were even people who decided not to read the article out of disgust. I didn’t think he was monstrous, though. I think his deformity has an interesting symbolism. Continue reading