Small towns on both sides of the Atlantic

It seems that every summer I get new inspiration for a comparison between American and European lifestyles. It must be my vacation in Europe that inspires me to state the obvious. But how can you resist visually absorbing the beauty of European small towns? Falling in love with them? Here is an Italian town, population 50,000, that’s so vibrant and livable that makes me consider how an American small town would compare to it.

Let’s start with the basics: this town doesn’t seem to be affected by any kind of economic crisis, much less a housing one. People seem happy and connected, public spaces are lively and, this being Italy, everything is beautiful. But that’s a bonus that comes with decades if not centuries of historical building preservation 🙂 . Continue reading

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Nothing More and Travelers & Magicians between here and there

Speaking of feeling foreign and the unbearable tension between your wings and your roots, here are two films that deal with the conflicted desire to leave your native land. Their plots are almost a mirror reflection of each other yet they offer the same inspiration to follow your dreams.  But you know, dreams can be a twisted, unreal reality.

Nothing More (Juan Carlos Cremata, Cuba, 2001). Imagine Cuba, where bureaucracy is a tool for control and where vocal dissatisfaction with life is not allowed.  Clara, a young postal employee has languished for years, waiting for her green card so that she can join her parents in Miami.  But her mother’s letters bring her both hope and despair of the unknown. Continue reading

The importance – and difficulty – of feeling foreign

How many people would say that feeling different from all others, being out of their element is so beneficial that they would actively pursue it?

Many people would say that being foreign, feeling foreign while living in a different culture is a challenge. But actually it’s an advantage; the advantage of being turned upside down. It’s first of all a tool for self-discovery and self-development. No wonder study abroad programs are the most rapidly growing college programs these days. True, the first excuse for those is learning the local language, but more than that, the greatest benefit is learning about, considering the value of and negotiating how to deal with a different way of thinking. And first of all, it’s acquiring the ability to think about yourself from the sidelines. 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

Survey courses in literature vs. Bob Dylan

Stanley Fish’s column in the New York Times is probably the most prominent place where the world meets academia. After all, the world hardly reads The Chronicle of Higher Education and it’s sad these issues are otherwise largely ignored, beyond the annual college admission campaign. Getting into college seems to be extremely important, but the question of what college should actually be, now that is a conversation that that rarely happens. And it should.

Fish’s latest post is related to this existential topic, What Should College Teach? The answer to this lies in the inherent value we assign to higher education in general. It depends whether society expects it to produce independent minds  (liberal arts education) or provide practical skills (professional training).  With the trend going in the direction of practical skills and the growing popularity of majors such as accounting, it’s heartening to see that literature and foreign languages  are part of the obligatory mind-cultivation process that college is. Continue reading

Theory of the T-shirt

Speaking of fashion, I didn’t delve into the question whether style is really a personal expression of self identity or just a convention, a formula offered by society and used by an individual in one combination of elements or another. Is an individual ever free, after all, to use any piece of clothing in her or his own terms to express her or his own identity? If I think that a tea gown expresses my personality best of all, am I free to wear it for an evening out without any repercussions? 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

Vanity License Plates and Identity Issues

drskipceeyaAs I stopped by Leo’s workplace the other day, I noticed that almost 30% of the cars in the parking lot bore vanity license plates. That struck me as unusual – I think that among the general car population, vanity plates don’t exceed 5%. Are those car owners identity-challenged or, on the contrary, have especially loud identities? Who would want their license plate number to be so easy to remember while they are driving around committing traffic violations? And so badly that they would pay an annual fee for that? Fort Worth Renaissance Lady Sonja Cassella made me think about this issue. I started a little qualitative research. Continue reading

Stories without closure

The story of the Air France plane that disappeared over the Atlantic last month is horrible, but our collective anxiety over its fate made me thinking. And while everyone is puzzled by the disappearance, the plight of the relatives of those on board is especially difficult. They want, they need to know what happened to their loved ones, even though they know there is no hope for them to be still alive.

And in fact, this is a need shared by all. We need closure of the narrative of someone’s life. A father would grief even more if his soldier son’s body is not recovered from the battlefield. The family of a child who vanished without trace would suffer more because of the uncertainty than if they knew for sure their child is dead. Continue reading

Night at the Museum, real-history style

Speaking of museums, here is the new Night at the Museum story. I was curious to see it. First, a movie about history coming alive – or actually being alive – is a great idea. It’s stimulating for the young minds and it deserves support just for that. Second, I was also interested in it as a postmodern application of the concept that the past is constantly rethought and reworked in people’s minds. It’s also a fantastic example of what I said in my previous post: that museum artifacts are important in themselves as symbolic carriers of traditions, but what ultimately counts is what we make out of them and how they play out in our public consciousness.

However, if you want to find some special insight on history, or even something fun about it, this is definitely not the movie to see. Artifacts do come alive in this night at the Smithsonian, but they behave as their most stereotypical and one-dimension selves. Napoleon is only worried that others might think he is short. Tiny mass-produced Einsteins in the museum store are bouncing their heads in relativistic yes-no indecision. Worst of all – and most offensive – Amelia Earhart is a flirty red-head whose fixation is mainly to get the protagonist night guard to pay any sort of romantic attention to her. Continue reading

Globalization of cultural heritage and nationalism

Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in BerlinIf you pay attention to the info notes at an archeology museum, you’d notice most items were acquired before 1970s. After the UNESCO Convention on Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export of  Cultural Property of 1970, ancient treasures have rarely crossed borders to become part of the permanent collections of world museums.

It seems like a great thing. After all, isn’t it disturbing that the most important museums in the world are venerable institutions founded around the time their countries were significant colonial powers. Their roles, beyond geopolitical conquering, was to rescue ancient treasures of civilizations past from their ancestral lands, where they weren’t appreciated enough, to the metropolis of the current cultural dominant.

The concept of museums was invented in the Enlightenment and developed during the Romanticism. While previously just erudites collected ancient artifacts privately, now collections were public. There was a specific ideology behind museums. They played a role in colonialism’s conscious drive to take on the baton from ancient civilizations. Conquering a land included also the intellectual conquest of its discovery for humankind. Continue reading

Blogs for Spanish teachers

blogs

If you are a language teacher, you are most probably a passionate ambassador of the culture you represent to your students, in the classroom and outside. But even though Spanish is so ubiquitous in the USA and resources are abundant, Spanish and bilingual teachers often say they don’t have the time to stay connected with the language and culture they love. Just the research about news, keeping up with current events and cultural information can be time consuming.

If you are someone interested in Spanish, Latin American and US Latino culture, here are three other blogs I write that will help you stay in touch and learn more. And they save you time researching about literature, cinema and art of the Spanish-speaking world. Posts are monthly and discuss films, art and newly published and classic stories, poems and also children’s books by Spanish-speaking authors. Continue reading

Learning a new language is no baby talk

The best time to learn a new language is around teenagerhood and beyond. Yes, learning at a younger age is always an advantage and young children absorb a new language faster if they happen to be immersed in the respective culture. But they also forget it easier if they are removed from it. Their language abilities disappear just as their childhood memories fade and a curtain is drawn between the cultures of childhood and adulthood, through language. 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

Women’s Day Wishes

March 8, the International Women’s Day, is important in a great part of the world. I like it for what it is: a reminder that women still don’t have equal rights and opportunities in a large part of the world and are even second-class citizens by law in many places. A way to remember how far we have come from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, even with so many similar factories around the world today whose shirts we buy and wear. An occasion to decide to abandon stereotypes about what it means to be feminine and follow the paths we choose, bravely: motherhood and public influence, discovering the beauty and exploring the darkness of the universe, and the right to be tired sometimes 🙂 .

I also get cards and lots of wishes for this day. Sometimes they are related to the celebration of womanness. Other times they try to remind me of why this day is still necessary. And still other times, the person who writes or calls feels that the day is important, but then makes it to be a holiday just as any other, similar to Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or a birthday. And it is not. Continue reading