Thoughts about life

Prometheus' Rage
a visual poem

Personal Thoughts VII - Reflections on 1 year of working at an orphanage in the Guatemalan highlands

Personal Thoughts VI - A Picture Poem about 4 years in Vancouver

Personal Thoughts V - Thoughts on 9/11

What am I thinking about on this day of 9/11/11 the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11/01?

Well, I'm thinking of the fact that we (as in humanity but probably mostly Western societies) are heading towards self-destruction on a number of different levels and we're mostly occupied with pretending not to realise and ignoring these realities.

On a global-political level we are heading towards the next big superpower conflict or at least an increased level of bloody proxy wars because the global balance of power is rapidly changing and the main participants in the Great Game are behaving like England and Germany in the early 19th century.

Environmentally a small part of humankind is pulling away the rug of livelihood from under the feet of everybody and only realising at a snail's pace that it might be affected too at some point.

Economically we keep on finding new ingenious ways to exploit each other and ourselves for our money and our effort.

Socially we keep ever increasing the number of dividing lines between us, fighting endless shadow-wars with imagined enemies projected onto the wall by our own media.

The worst part of it is however that we are hardly recognising what is going on but instead occupy ourselves with distractions, projections and 'shadow' problems like the local conflicts, the "clash of civilisations" or "immigration".

Especially on this tragic day of 9/11, can we please stop wallowing in self-indulgence and defending the current state of Western societies as any kind of ideal but use the momentum of shock and grief to reflect on how we should seek to attain something better? Just think about this - how can it be that only after the horrific event of the 9/11 attacks did Americans witness a momentary "coming together", a growth of social trust, as Tina Brown claimed in a recent BBC interview? How 'good' is this society really?

I mean come on, it's a main-stay statement that capitalism isn't the best system there is but it's the least bad system we've been able to create. Despite all the wealth it creates for a few that manage to ride the dragon it also constantly generates major problems and costs. It constantly destroys its own social base by always seeking new ways to accumulate capital. We have just witnessed the collapse of the latest of these capital-accumulating schemes in the form of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and all the lasting damage this continues to cause to millions of lives. Until we can come up with a better system, capitalism needs to be checked, it needs to be balanced out, forced to invest a guaranteed share of its generated profits into healing the cultural and social wounds it constantly inflicts, just to keep it from destroying our societies. A healthy distrust of this machine is in order not an ever-closer embrace of the economy with every other aspect of our lives and that of the planet as is currently being promoted as the solution in the face of governments' fiscal impotence caused by bailing out system-critical banks.

The modern world we created for ourselves to live and work in is extremely taxing and not an ideal one for any of us to live in. As mentioned above - the fact that it took a massive terrorist attack as 9/11 to bring people in New York and America to trust and help each other more shows that we haven't arrived in any kind of 'good' society.

What is preventing us from admitting this to ourselves then and discussing it on this very day? Maybe we are already too invested in the status quo, too hopeful that we will be amongst the select few to make it to an acceptable level of comfort at the expense of all those who don't. Is that why we so anxiously cling to the wreckage of this society and won't even mention our own discomfort with the way things are even when they go so horribly wrong? But for how many is that hope actually going to come true?

And even if it was to come true what does that hoped for privilege of an "acceptable level of comfort" look like? Is it to work our asses off for living in our own house where we can then hate the neighbours, worry about the house-price declining, own two cars that sweeten the way to the hated workplace, have fancy kitchen appliances that beep and break at an accelerating rate, and get so estranged from our partner that we divorce them we're 45 and require counselling for the rest of our lifetime. Sounds like a bum deal to me.

Unless we use today to think about how we can honour the dead by promising to keep trying to make our world a better place for everybody I think we shame their memory.

Personal thoughts IV - You are here!

So it's been almost 5 months now - time for a re-assessment. Let's re-assess - I guess that's what those pigeons doing a threesome outside my window were thinking as well and see what's come of it.
By now London has lost most of its shock-value, but not its novelty. A daily routine has established itself, marked by hour-long unpleasant travel on the underground to and from work in the Northern outskirts of the city. Very interesting - these outskirts of London. This is where most of London's population lives, yet it is so unlike London - typically suburban, they could be anywhere at all and for the most part its inhabitants stay within those boundaries. Despite this personal indifference towards London professionally the small NGO I am working for benefits tremenduously from being "in" London. International guests want to visit our conference, we get business because there's so many beneficiaries around whom we can serve. But I guess on a personal level London is just too intense to continuously expose yourself to it in the long term.

On the other hand, I have become more and more suprised with London's "normality". Rarely do I encounter London to be some kind of crazy, ultra or post-modern urban laboratory. Areas of homeliness, cosiness and retreat are everywhere, be it in the form of pubs, quiet and green Victorian streets, old double-decker busses. Is that a contradiction? Of course there is always Canary Wharf, that ultra-modern anti-London, which has done away with all those niches of the old. But then again that's just a boring copy of North-American downtowns, nothing new, nothing special.

So the question stands - is London really at the forefront of contemporary urban development as some seem to suggest or is it just a big layered over mix of old and new that can't really motivate itself to go backward or forward. And if it were at the forefront, what proposed trajectory for urban development would London stand for?

Interesting point in addition: Londoners have been eagerly watching and commenting on yesterday's Olympic opening ceremony for Beijing 2008, of course thereby discussing and formulating expectations for the London 2012 Olympic games. Can London really put on such a magnificient, over-awing and perfectionistic show, requiring a superbly unified political will as well as absolute control and organisational power over a lot of people? Can London really strive for that? I have my doubts in all those respects - even if London had the money to put on such games, how could it politically justify such one-sided expenditure towards its voting population? I don't think it could nor should it do so. Instead the city should think about how it can make a big splash in its own way, in a London way. How about making it the most socially, environmentally and financially sustainable Olympics ever with the most public involvement, the most volunteer involvement - Olympics for the people. (I know that's not at all a new idea but it feels good to say it anyway).

Thoughts on the effects of a rural-urban transition by Tobias Stapf

After living for all of 2007 in the beautiful Guatemalan countryside teaching English at an orphanage, I went to London in 2008 to study for a Masters. I did reckon that moving to London would bring about big changes to my life. However, some effects of this rural to urban transition have been quite unexpected. 

Coming from rural Guatemala into hyper-urban London provided me with some interesting insights into this urbanity's social and psychological effects. Being confronted with Londoners' incredible cultural, social and ethnic diversity walking down the street I felt constantly quizzed and questioned: Who exactly are you? To what group do you belong? Identify yourself? 

Even though people on the street didn't ask me directly but most of them carried their own identity right on their sleeves - from office workers in suit and tie, to creatives sporting carefully manicured retro appearance to stay-at-home mums pushing their buggy through the park. I constantly felt like wondering through a forest of publicly broadcast identities, which seemed to urge me on: This is who I am - who are you?

In rural Guatemala I had experienced no such pressure. I was simply the German, European or Western traveller or volunteer worker. I could have been wearing the full Mayan traditional costume and I would still have been just that. 

Of course I didn't only move to London to savour baked beans and minced pies but came to work and live. I found that seeking a job in London added additional pressure on me, to pin down my identity as something easily recognisable and most importantly marketable. Every year, London attracts thousands of new people looking to work and live there - from highly educated professionals to craftsmen and refugees, all seeking to make a living there. Competition for every single job was so incredibly intense that I had to endlessly hone and prune how I presented myself and my skills and experiences until it fit exactly whatever the employers were looking for, just to get an interview. I felt the London labour market demanded from me to adopt a simplistic, marketable public image and identity in everything from CV, dress and self-presentation.

Having come to this 'game' from another context it made me wonder, what was so bad about my identity so far? When I made new acquaintances in Guatemala they always asked about my whole history, how I came to live in Guatemala, where I was from originally etc. It became an exchange of personal stories, presenting identities as diverse, flexible and wide. In London, of course, nobody had time to listen to my personal stories, especially not when processing job interviews. Did that mean all my past experiences were worthless? 

Adapting my public identity to what I thought would be the most successful one in the labour market I wondered to what extent it really represented me? It felt so constructed, deliberate - fake. It felt like I created a cartoon of myself – simplistic, easily recognisable and reduced to the lowest common denominator. And I was worried that with enough time I would forget about all those past experiences and identities that didn't fit the new requirements. It felt like something got lost in the process. 

Based on my experience, I would agree say that big cities are currently overhyped. Despite the manifold urban achievements, the predicted continuous growth of cities makes it all the more urgent that we find solutions to long-standing and long-known problems accompanying dense urban living like increasing social isolation, mental health problems and increasing economic and social inequality. Otherwise big cities will be seen again as a necessary evil and residents will continue to escape them to the economically and environmentally unsustainable suburbs. 

Personal Thoughts II - Guatemala behind, Europe ahead

So Guatemala, farewell and thanks for all the fish (yes, Guatemalan fish soup or ceviche is indeed quite excellent).
It's been an incredibly intense year full of adventure, exploration of terra incognita, life on the edge, and so much learning. What can I say in conclusion? Of course it's been an exciting year, great to learn Spanish, get to know the Guatemalan way of life. It's been very very inspiring and it has changed me. It has taught me a different way life, taught me to focus on the truly important things of life like hanging out with friends and take everything else not so serious. It taught me to think twice when I say that I have everything in my life under control because I really don't. Guatemalans are amazing in their capacity to cope with adverse life situations, in their trust and faith in that everything will turn out well. They are amazing in their capacity to forgive a person, to be generous and to be welcoming.

Of course here comes the BUT. Back from Guatemala, I was surprised how little of reverse culture shock I had. I have been really enjoying the more of comfort, security and ethnic and cultural diversity present in Europe. I guess that makes me a decadent yupee but never to late to recognize yourself, right!

Despite the lack of reverse culture shock there were some significant insights though about the particularities of contemporary European lifestyle and culture:

In the lives of people "cultural" events in the widest sense have an amazing importance - concerts, art, food, museum visits etc. Next to their work and family that seems to be the major motivating force over people's lifespan, at least for middle class people. Maybe even equal to family in importance (while in Guatemala family definitely comes first).
This kind of quest for beauty in all kinds of forms and shapes like music, fashion and art as content for life, is a luxury that few people in Guatemala can afford.
Visiting the German capital of Berlin delivers a prime example for this trend in increased importance of cultural industries, especially for urban economies. The city is full with galleries, museums, fashion stores, concert halls, museums, etc. Tourists are flocking here in search for the Berlin Feeling - an alternative, relaxed, beauty-and-pleasure seeking culture-centred lifestyle. Meanwhile other industries of the city have been almost dead for years and have little chance of reviving. That not enough, with big national parties like the love parade or the soccer world cup 2006, Berlin has branded itself successfully as Germany's national party stage where the new fun-loving and tolerant Germany goes crazy.

Another example is my own home town of Chemnitz. An old, depressed post-industrial town with high unemployment rate and little of the old industry left it has now two major modern art museums, one of which was newly opened. These museums are seen as a sign that the town is doing better and hopes are high that they will bring turn Chemnitz into a cultural tourist location.
Is the increasing importance of cultural industries a sign of European decadence? Are our cities becoming mere open-air museums of a past industrial age? Can culture and the quest for "beauty" the only major content of life that makes it worth living?

Seeking beauty in all kinds of forms and shapes like music, fashion and art as content for life is a luxury that few people in Guatemala can afford of course and you could say that with all the poverty and need in the world, focussing so excessively on the beautiful things in life is cynical, perverted and disgusting. I have to agree to the point that Europeans are amazingly self-centred. Just now I read that every year 7 Million people visit only the city of Berlin. That's not only about twice that city's population, it's also ca. 6 times the number of visitors Guatemala saw in 2006 (ca. 1,4 Mio). But Guatemala needs it so much more than Berlin!

All that European affluence, decadence and lack of the so fundamental problems that Guatemala faces every day make so many European issues seem irrelevant, childish to even think about. But then again - visiting Berlin I see that Europe can also be a laboratory where exciting new things are tried out and invented, technical and service inventions of course but also social and cultural inventions (that's what I'm interested in) for example like post-national citizenship and
new syntheses between cultures. That's were places like Europe are important and unique in the world, that's were they need and should to fulfill an important role in the world. In comparison to the United States, which of course claims to be just as much a social and cultural laboratory, Europe however, continues to offer the comfort of social market systems and the ensured openness for diverse debate which are key to ensure the fair encounter and equal exchange of diverse peoples, rather than their perpetual competition.

Only if Europe falls into the trap of indulging in its security and luxuries largely for their own sake will it become irrelevant and die. 

Personal Thoughts I - Vancouver - Antigua - one coast, different worlds

The last weeks have brought me long ways along America's Pacific coast which is such a rich assembly of cultures, landscapes and people hard to come by anywhere else. However, the same waves breaking all along this coast from Alaska to Chile obviously create hardly any feeling of community among the people experiencing them.

Four years of living at the northern end of America's pacific coast in Vancouver have left me very tired and disillusioned with the low levels of all-day civic culture in those parts. Maybe it was the big city, maybe it was the rainy "weather" - but riding a bus with 50 people of whom 40 are shielding themselves from most social conversation and interaction with their headphones, a feeling of alienation sets in. Language is not a problem so what is? When mentioning the "low levels of all-day civic culture" I obviously neglected especially Vancouver's high level of civic organization and interaction. Numerous NGOs, volunteer-centers and people's passionate involvement in public activities like parades and festivities is astonishing. Yet on the bus everyone still shields themselves from each other. Vancouver's social capital is more one of groups rather than a inter-group one. I guess that is called bonding social capital rather than bridging one. The common embrace of Web 2.0's social blessings exposes and enforces that trend. Individuals can prefigure in virtual ways the kind of people and the kind of group they might like to meet with before arranging an actual encounter. Of course, everybody remembers chance encounters which one whished to be over sooner rather than later. Pre-selecting whom one is going to meet reduces such mis-investments of social energy. MySpace and Facebook probably derive their popularity from such common frustrations and disappointments and thus this kind of social capital is thriving in Vancouver.

A few thousand miles further South I have spend the last 2 days in Antigua, Guatemala . My Spanish is limited at best but actually I would not even need any of it to experience an amazing forthcomingness of many people around me. Antigua is a very touristy city, its inhabitants would have all the opportunity to get jaded about yet another foreigner trying to barter with them in tortured Spanish. Yet they are not. A smiling face on the street always earns you many smiles back, and on the bus it's never quiet even with 10 people - well, no one owns an ipod either so I guess that limits the options. Judging from a very superficial, first encounter I am left with the suspicion that Antigua's social capital is more inclusive, more bridging rather than bonding. Does it have something to do with different levels of wealth; is it a "Catholic thing", maybe different levels of available social networking infrastructure in Vancouver and Antigua? Does Antigua lack Vancouver's cultural diversity, which could facilitate cross-communal social capital formation? Well, that one does seem rather doubtful already – Antigua in particular has a very diverse population consisting of foreigners, natives, and people of mixed origin, all of whose ethnic differences are probably enforced by drastic social and economic differences. So I would like to test the thesis that Guatemala has more bridging social capital and in this coming year I am hoping to dive much deeper into Guatemala's social universe to understand what is really going on.

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