Fun Factoids I Learned Today
- Toasting drinks by hitting each other's glass is a habit that originated in the Middle Ages. The idea behind it was that if you bang your mugs of mead together with force, some of your drink spills into the other person's mug. This is a good way to prevent the other guy from poisoning you. (This habit is similar to waving or shaking hands as ways to greet someone: both are intended to show you are carrying no weapons.)
- Hungarians only toast by raising the glass. This is because hitting the other person's glass was something Austrians did over Hungarian corpses.
It's oh so quiet...
Although I am nothing if not a city person, sometimes the city is a huge ball of dirt, noise, rubble, stress and confusion. Lately, I've been noticing more and more how much of my city is broken up, torn out, ripped apart and crushed to pieces.
But tonight, I walked through the fancy neighborhood, along still waters and stately homes, and for a short while, I found a silence and a grace that I'd missed for too long. I may be a stranger in these parts, someone whom the minor celebrity that I passed looks upon with weary apprehension. But this is still my city, and these paving stones are still stepped on by my feet. I own this quiet, I possess the lights reflecting in the canal.
And then, of course, I rounded a corner and the honking, the stench and the ugliness returned. Don't get me wrong, I see the chaotic beauty in all of this, too, but tonight, I was very glad to find peace in the bustling metropolis.
Don't Forget to Recycle, Kids!
me: "Dammit, this walkman isn't doing anything. I don't think the batteries are working anymore, I'm taking them out."
she: "OK… Where are you putting them now?"
me: "Just here, on the mantlepiece..."
she: "But you just said they don't work anymore. Why don't you throw them in the trash instead of having them lie around?"
me: "But I can't throw them in the trash, batteries are chemical waste!"
she: "If they're chemical waste, that's all the more reason to throw them away, wouldn't you say?"
she: "Wouldn't that be nice, batteries leaking all over the mantlepiece. Sheesh."
I caught an animal today
Coworkers noticed the mouse, frozen and clinging to the wall, just above a bright red alarm bell. I stood on a chair and poked in its general direction with an umbrella. The mouse, confused and in a panic, scurried down for a bit until performing (deliberately or not) its equivalent of skydiving without a parachute. As soon as it hit the ground, it started running. A colleague helped me corner it between a filing cabinet and a basketball, and using the plastic bag I had handy, I caught it by the tail and wrapped it in the bag.
It stopped fidgeting now, and became very still in its white prison. Unsure of what to do with it, I took the stairs down to the office building's front entrance. I crossed the street and went, shivering, to the narrow patch of grass separating the byway from the main thoroughfare. It was snowing a bit, the earth was patched with white. I turned the bag inside out to find the little rodent immobile. I couldn't tell if it was in a state of paralysis brought on by shock, or just plain dead –from the fall, the exhaustion or the panic. I laid it down at the root of a tree and headed back into the office, feeling wrong.
Writing these words in a cybercafé near the Place de la Bastille in the most beautiful city in Europe. I haven't been here for some years and the re-encounter has been great. The good thing about this city is that it allows you to rediscover it every time you return.
Case in point: the Rue St Paul, hitherto unknown to me, which hosts a whole line of shops with exclusive gooseliver patés, Zimbabwean coffees, wines, chocolate cakes and miscellaneous delicacies. This is the only city, incidentally, which could advertise a cheese as 'rebellious' (I'm not making this up).
If you haven't guessed which city I mean by now, you are beyond hope.
As I am writing this on a laptop, an international train is speeding me home. I’ve been completely isolated from any news, private or political, from the home front. Time for some scenarios.
- Radical leftists or rightists have staged a coup and taken over the country.
- I’ve won the New Year’s lottery and can afford to move to New York City.
- Internet has become permanently unavailable due to what will be known as the YuleHack, a successful DoS attack on the naming servers.
- A homeless guy has broken into my apartment and refuses to move out.
For a large part of the holidays, I have been experiencing life from the perspective of a three-year-old girl whose language I can barely speak. It is refreshing to break free from a hectic and pragmatic lifestyle and spend hours contemplating the relationship between two stuffed toys (more often than not, this is a curious love-hate relationship).
Having no children of my own but lots of experience with others’, I’m somewhat adept at following her erratic ramblings, and refrain from trying to hold her attention. The real wonder, however, is in seeing the learning experience slowly, slowly taking a hold.
Security Job - Job Security?
In the bus today: a teenage boy leafing through a brochure on job opportunities as a security guard. I noticed the thing had been ripped in two, then scotch-taped together again. What was the story behind this? Did he rip it up when his dad suggested this would make him a man? Or did his mom rip it up, exasperated that he was considering such a career? Was it just a stupid accident? Anyway, as the bus made a stop, I saw him sneaking a peek at a girl getting off the bus. There's hope for him yet, I guess.
Fly, you are free, free like the wind!
This weekend, I released a book for the first time: Zadie Smith's White Teeth, at a museum cafeteria. However, rather than a Japanese tourist or a Canadian backpacker, one of the diligent waiters noticed the novel and took it away. When I left, it was lying next to the cash register. Dammit. Never mind, someone will end up reading it anyway.
I chose to release this book specifically because I myself had found it in an international train. What's more, the book was bloody good, and funny for a change.
Next time, however, I'll choose my release site more wisely.
Not Without a Search Warrant
Today, my girlfriend went to the supermarket to buy chocolate. Inside, she saw that there was a line a mile long, and decided to leave without buying anything. Squeezing past the cash register, she saw a guy in a tie where she expected a checkout girl, who said:
'Could you show me what's in your bag.'
'To see if you've taken anything from the store.'
'Well, you can –on one condition: that I can punch you in the balls if you can't find anything.'
'But… that's very insulting!'
'And a groundless accusation of theft isn't', my girlfriend said, leaving.
Eccentrics still exist
In a bus on our way to a party, my girlfriend and I sat opposite an old Indonesian man. Despite the heat, he was wearing a hat and a nice suit with a flower on the lapel. He talked with us about all sorts of subjects, illustrating them with affected theatrical gestures. We enjoyed his company.
Later that week, we got on the same bus. When he spotted us, the old man showed no surprise at seeing us again. He was dressed as before, and was equally talkative. He left me wondering whether he doesn't ride this bus all day.
Standing in line at the supermarket, the elderly man before me turned around and said, 'Plarf gnuggle shruft.' 'Excuse me?' I ventured. 'Snorf packle ploon a lorf', he continued, pointing at tins of cat food sitting on a shelf.
If there's a noisy environment, a dialect or mumbling, I usually can't decipher what people say. In my experience, asking 'What?' is useless.
Here, I only replied 'yes', which did the trick but sounded unfriendly. To his elaboration that 'wreth in hoky smurge', I agreed in a similar way.
I sometimes wonder if I'm not the victim of a practical joke.
Looking out over the skyline of my city from an Egyptian's balcony, I smoked a waterpipe for the first time in my life this weekend. You put a sweetened tobacco in the top, cover it with tin foil, and put glowing embers on top. Then, you suck on the metal end of a tube, pulling smoke to the bottom of the apparatus and through cold water.
The result is that you hardly realize you're smoking until the smoke comes out of your mouth. The sweetness and softness make it very different from smoking a cigarette (which I never do anyway).
She misses her 3-year-old niece, who she lived with in the same house, but who now lives thousands of miles away. She's dying to see the little kid again, and afraid to lose touch. So, while planning to visit her, she makes long-distance calls to learn about the girl's day. At first, the niece was angry and wouldn't talk to her; now, fortunately, they are on speaking terms. And when she tells her that she misses her, the child describes the hurt better than any adult could: "I miss you too, but I can't pull you out of the phone."
I got a haircut today, and when I paid, the girl gave me a receipt. 'It's also a three-week warranty', she said with a smile.
What does a haircut warranty mean, exactly? Do I get my money back if the shampoo she used makes my hair fall out? Or maybe if my girlfriend bursts out laughing when I show her the new 'do, I get a full refund?
I have a good mind to go back tomorrow. 'Hi, I was here yesterday. I'm not satisfied with my haircut. I want my old haircut back. You know, with the long hair?'
100 words - A conversation I overheard
"No.. I'm going next week. <name> is in Ramallah now. Don't worry. I'll annoy the fuck out of some Palestinian boys right here at Museum Square. [...] Maybe I can convince Israeli security here at the airport to let me on the plane with a semiautomatic. Then I could empty it on those motherfuckers as soon as I arrive. [...] We should have wiped the country clean back in '48, then we wouldn't have had all this trouble right now. How many bomb factories and weapon stashes we've discovered, you don't wanna know."
–A streetcar conductor talking to a colleague
100 words - Changes
Viet vets described their war experiences as long periods of boredom interrupted by brief episodes of chaos and terror. A person’s life can also be described as such. I’m going through a short period of big changes right now, a tsunami of adjustment if you will. It’s remarkable to see how much I resist change, even though I consider myself generally hungry for it. It seems to me that sameness is what we are most comfortable with, while change is what we most need. So despite all my reservations, I’m silently hoping that the wave will be followed by another.
The Service Economy
My girlfriend met a friend in the city. At the train station, he took a cab home while she waited for a bus. Fifteen minutes later, she noticed a group of taxi drivers standing around a taxi. A guy came out of the cab saying, “Yes, I will call the police.” He went to a phone but didn’t make a call. At this hour, my girlfriend was getting nervous, hoping that this psycho wouldn’t approach her. Only when he did approach her did she see that it was her friend.
What had happened? Right after he’d got into his cab, a taxi driver had opened the door and said, “Get out, you’re coming with me.” Apparently, the drivers use some scheduling mechanism, and the friend’s current driver was breaking the unwritten law. Shocked and dismayed, the friend refused to get out; unimpressed, the taxi drivers refused to let him leave. This stalemate continued until he got out and called a cab to pick him up somewhere else.
Tonight, I had dinner in a Lebanese restaurant, a first. Even so, when we asked the waiter to choose for us, the table was filled with familiar dishes. Falafel (deep-fried chickpeas), baba ganush (an eggplant-based, thick substance), lamb kebabs, hummus (more chickpeas, now as a thick sauce), a mixed salad, a tzatziki-like sauce (yoghurt), and lots of thin pancakes doubling as bread to wrap around it all. The whole thing was really delicious.
International cuisine is a tribute to human diversity and inventiveness. Simple and often familiar ingredients are combined in unexpected ways. What exemplifies better that differences are beautiful?
My apartment is like a “permanently under construction” website. Furniture construction kits stand unopened in the middle of the room. Piles of ‘miscellaneous papers’ lie around. A small, foldup table doubles as Esc desk and dinner table. Bright lightbulbs hang naked from the ceiling. Mail lies unread behind the front door. In short, I’m building a monument to neglect and entropy.
Somehow, men seem more capable of living under these conditions than women. I am fixing the problem, but slowly. After every improvement, I feel happier. My computer now occupies half the space it did yesterday.
I guess it’s progress.
Imagine my surprise tonight when, standing in the kitchen of my apartment, overlooking the garden, I hear a scraping sound directly outside. Despite the dusk, I can see a figure coming down the rainpipe. For several seconds, I'm stunned by the feeling of incongruity. What is a stranger doing crawling down my wall, into my garden? It's impossible, and therefore hard to acknowledge as true. But there's no ignoring this, so I call out, "Excuse me?!" The guy, standing in my garden, responds,"I'm, I'm just busy for a moment", which isn't much of an explanation. He gets on top of my shed, over it and into the alley behind it. Even now, the notion of burglary hardly occurs to me. In fact, uncertain about what do to with what I just saw, I simply sit down and eat dinner.
It's not until about an hour and a half later that Lloyd, my neighbor from the first floor, rings my bell. He tells me he left his kitchen window open (directly above mine) and found his apartment broken into. Some money was stolen, including some change from a jar. I feel guilty, explain what I saw, and offer to accompany him to the police station immediately. We walk there, occasionally uttering baffled phrases. Once there, a cop tells us that we both need to come back on separate occasions, Lloyd to file a report, me to look at pictures or describe the burglar. Walking back, Lloyd explains that his balcony was raided two years ago --two cases of beer were stolen. We both wonder how someone would find beer worth stealing. At home, we exchange phone numbers to keep in touch.
I've learned before that people are very unwilling to react to unusual, even dangerous circumstances. During a fire in a department store, many people in the store's restaurant died while waiting for their check to arrive. The fire just didn't fit into their routine, so they ignored it. Also, the bigger the amount of people watching a fight, a drowning or someone having a seizure, the less likely any one person is to intervene (in fact, the chance of intervention drops to zero at around 8 people). All this shows that people are automatons to a high degree. It's not nice to be reminded that you are an automaton of sorts, especially when you're not supposed to be.