Saturday, December 10, 2011

Impressions of China

Pickup games at Tsinghua, from October.

A couple of times a week I go to the Olympic-size pool on campus to swim. There are a dozen outdoor basketball courts adjacent, and on class days, the students have pickup games. Even when I go swimming at night, there will be some guys still out on the courts in the dark, playing by the weak light seeping in from the street. The ball rings off the cement, the shadowy figures move around, the ball planks off the backboard. The game goes on even when the temperatures are in the 40s. I have never seen a girl on the courts or in a game on the many soccer fields. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in Beijing

Cindy on the campus of neighboring Beijing University. 

Today I am thankful for having a spouse...

....who is comfortable living in a country where she can't speak the language as long as she can figure out how to take the subway wherever she wants.

...who gave up a nice house and all its contents so we could have a couple of years of adventure on the road.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Japanese office mate

Yoichi Nishimura is a newspaper editor on a one-year sabbatical here at Tsinghua University to study China-U.S.-Japan relations. We go to lunch together most days with Joe Weber, a visiting professor of business journalism from the University of Nebraska.

Yoichi has a nose for good restaurants and is always scouting for the next unique experience. He learned well during five years as a correspondent in Moscow for Asahi Shimbun, Japan's second-largest newspaper, and six years at the Washington bureau. "The secret of working in a foreign country is finding good restaurants," he says. 

Yoichi is managing editor of Asahi. Twenty years ago the paper sent him to Moscow State University for a year of intensive study of Russian. He lived with a family and developed his conversational skills. All of this helped him cover the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote a book about Russia's army and weapons systems in the post-Soviet era.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Deciphering China, ideograms to menus

You have to keep your head up and your eyes peeled while riding a bicycle around in Beijing, especially during the lunchtime rush on campus, as this 13-second video shows.

We have been in country for two weeks now. Yesterday I taught my first class at Tsinghua University, where I am co-director of the Global Business Journalism master's program. The kids are the cream of the crop.

My bio, posted in the Journalism building, says nice things, I believe.


The staff of the university has dedicated enormous time and energy to help us get settled. They assigned graduate students to to go with us on our first shopping trips and visits to the administration offices, cellphone stores and other places where English is useless.

I wonder if U.S. universities are as thoughtful, hospitable and gracious with visiting foreign professors? I hope so. It makes a great impression.

The cost of everything

Rent is high here, equivalent to New York City, they tell me. So our apartment, given to us rent free by the University, is a really nice benefit. It is modest by U.S. standards but enviable by standards for what a Chinese professor could hope to rent.

In fact, many of the professors live in this university-subsidized housing. A couple of the Chinese journalism faculty live in the nearby apartments.

My new Gallop brand bicycle -- hand brakes, one speed, basket, bell, lock all included -- cost me $50. But a simple toaster that would cost you $10 in a Wal-Mart in the U.S. cost nearly the same as the bicycle, $47.

Point and eat

Last night Cindy and I went to a "hot pot" restaurant. They bring you a little pot of broth with spices, heated by a flame, and you drop in raw meat, vegetables and other stuff. We weren't doing it right but the waitresses didn't speak English so we just did the best we could.

Even menus with pictures are something of a mystery. The food is very good but what is it? On the menu it looks like chunks of meat but it might turn out to be tofu. Are those peanuts or soybeans that are part of that vegetable dish? We have to wait and see.

Manicure or pedicure?

The Great Big Lie that you hear everywhere in America is that when you travel abroad, "everyone speaks English". Well, if you are in a tourist hotel in an area frequented by Americans or Brits, yes. But most of the world does not fit that description.

Beijing's subway system and many of its stores are actually pretty user friendly with signs in English or in Roman characters.

But the normal language barriers are raised to another degree of difficulty when you cannot even decipher a street sign or any sign, for that matter. Are you on Haidian Street? If the signs are only in Chinese, and they usually are, you cannot know.

Seven thousand characters

Chinese newspapers supposedly use a limited number of ideograms, or characters. But still the total is 7,000. Will I ever try to learn the written language? I am not sure that I am up to it. At the moment I am learning a few phrases. The Berlitz books Cindy and I have are great because they show the English phrase, the pronunciation and then the Chinese characters. We show the appropriate phrase to the waiter or salesperson.

Store clerks have been helpful. 

When I use Chinese words or numbers, people usually say them back to me in a helpful way, with the correct pronunciation. They know it is difficult to get the tones right.

Written Chinese was simplified a few decades ago, so you have different written versions. The old form is much more ornate. An analogy might be the Gothic script you see in medieval manuscripts.

50% more density than New York City

Beijing has a metro population of 19 million, almost exactly the same as metro New York, but the population density is 50% greater, 3,023 per sq km vs. 2,050 in NYC.

If it weren't for the fact that so many people ride bicycles, the density would be unimaginable. As it is, the massive expressway system built for the 2008 Olympics has trouble handling all the traffic.

In general, Beijing residents appear to be like residents of New York, Paris or Madrid in that they are in a hurry and you might be in their way.

We rode the subway across town last Sunday. It was standing room only all the way. Given the density, the city is amazingly clean and orderly.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Borscht and other Belarus delicacies

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) was also a butterfly expert. I thought of him when I saw this beautiful specimen along the road between Luninets and Brest, Belarus.

Cold borscht soup is a summer favorite.  It has beets as a base with a mix of greens, a bit of cheese, a bit of pork and some spices. Another local restaurant served Fantasia, a kind of potato casserole topped with a tender slice of roast pork, tomato sauce and cheese. Great, for about $3.

You can have a nice dinner here for about $4. A pint of good local beer is about 75 cents. Ten hours of high-speed internet access costs about $1.75. A three-room hotel suite goes for $84 a night.

The Belarus ruble has been falling against the dollar and the euro, which causes problems for businesses. Newsprint and printing services, for example, are priced in dollars but paid in rubles. So although the nominal price in dollars is the same, the newspaper has to come up with more rubles to pay suppliers.

Inside the local Orthodox Church, where I was told after snapping this that pictures were not permitted.  Older women with headscarves are referred to generally as "babushkas," which means grandmothers. As a kid I remember hearing the head scarf itself referred to as a babushka. 

Houses here all have fences around them. When I showed a picture of my old street in Lakewood to a Belarusian guy, he asked, Where are the fences?

Sunflowers are a favorite for the yard. In neighboring Ukraine, they are a huge agricultural crop. 
The countryside of Belarus is as flat as the Great Plains. It reminded me of Manitoba, with its forests interspersed with fields of wheat, corn and flax. Lovely.

Never lost, never out of control

I spent a total of seven hours on the road yesterday with Feodor, a charter member of the World Association of Over-Confident Cabdrivers (rearrange the initials to spell Wacco). Like all members of this club that I have met, he tailgates at 70 mph, passes on the unpaved shoulder, demonstrates his maneuvering skill by swerving in front of gasoline trucks and passes on curves in dense fog.

The Wacco card says on the front, "The bearer is one of the best drivers in the world"; on the back it says, "No, really I am the best" in 12 languages. Feodor assured me that his 15 years’ of driving experience guaranteed my safety, and to prove it, he showed me that he never wears a seatbelt.

Feodor inspects the insects that have plastered themselves on his grille. He does not smoke in his car and would not let us bring any food inside.
Feodor´s global positioning system led us down a dirt road to this path in Luninets. It was trying to lead us to the bridge overhead.
He had to ask directions from a woman on a bicycle. Such humiliation for a Wacco member!

A stroll in Brest

Women bow before entering the church precinct. 
An orthodox church in Brest.

A woman begs outside the church.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Spain’s museums celebrate the simpler life

We are not that far out of the village.

Some of the museums we visited on our trip through Spain got me thinking about the unrecorded history of ordinary people.

Up until a century ago, the vast majority of the world, even in the West, was living in villages. Even today, more than half of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas.

The history we learn does not focus on village life, where people were illiterate, but on on the civilizations that had developed writing. Writing recorded the doings of the rich and powerful.

The Museum of the Galician People in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain goes some way to correct the omission.  The displays capture the detail of the crafts, homes, culture and language of these people.

A traditional Galician fishing boat.
Visitors can see their bagpipes, their farm implements and crafts, the fishermen’s nets and how they were made. This type of history by definition is harder to record. It depends on some published records and on inferences drawn from archeology and remnants of practices that persist today.

This museum was a welcome relief after several weeks of visiting palaces and castles and seeing the wealth accumulated by the warlords and thugs we call royalty.

Basque whalers roamed the world

When we moved on to San Sebastian, in the Basque Country of northeastern Spain, I was delighted to discover the Maritime Museum’s exposition on the history of Basque whalers. (Moby Dick is one of my favorite books.)

The village fishermen in Basque country developed the industry 1,000 years ago and ventured all over the North Atlantic. As early as the 1500s, they had established outposts in Newfoundland and Labrador. I was surprised to learn British and American whalers learned the trade from the Basques.

Stone age cave paintings

In Altamira, Spain, we visited a museum with breathtaking re-creations of cave paintings from 14,000 years ago. The artists who made them were hunter-gatherers who had not domesticated plants and animals.

This is a modern interpretation of a bison depicted in one of the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain. The original dates from 14,000 years ago. Our ancestors’ transformation from hunter-gatherers to farmers and fishermen took place over just a few thousand years.

The original cave has been closed to protect the paintings from deterioration caused by the press of visitors. However, the replica cave captures every curve and niche of the original with the aid of 40,000 laser measurements. A team of artists used materials as close to the original as possible to duplicate the effects of the Stone Age artists.

The museum has videos showing how these hunter-gatherers made their tools of stone and bone and how they might have hunted. People in some parts of the world still use these techniques. We are not that far removed in time from them. 

From village to city and back

All of this got me to thinking about what recent visitors we are to most of the known world. Although the genus homo has been around for several million years, our species, homo sapiens, is a newcomer. We left Africa only 40,000 years ago.

Only recently has our species had to adapt to all of the stresses of living in cities. That may explain why so many of our pathologies manifest themselves there. Villagers began leaving the country two centuries ago as the Industrial Revolution created new jobs, but the migrants have always expressed a desire to go back.

The return to the country is a theme of country music and the blues. We really want to go back home to the village. 

Addendum from Belarus

As it happens, today I am working in Belarus and it is their Independence Day. There are parades and celebrations everywhere. On national television, folk dancers and singers form various regions are performing. It is a celebration of the rich variety of village culture. 

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Beijing revisited, 23 years later

I spent a week running around Beijing to meet journalists and people connected to the business journalism program at Tsinghua University where I will start teaching in the fall.

Little is recognizable from a visit I made in 1988. The city and society have packed a century of progress into two decades. Beijing is now like Manhattan with wider streets. Freeways of 10 and 12 lanes ring the city center.  Then it seemed there were 1,000 bicycles for every car; now it is the reverse. I have a few photos from then and now.

China, 1988

Bikes owned the road.
A hutong, courtyard home

The hutong homes once seen everywhere in Beijing are rapidly disappearing. In hutongs, several one-story brick homes surround a coutryard and families share toilet facilities. High-rises, highways and other new constructions are replacing them.
At the People’s Daily, printers were still hand-setting type 23 years ago. Today the media have world-class technology.  

Beijing today

High-rises surround the Tsinghua University campus

The National Center for the Performing Arts, also known as the Egg, is one of many avant-garde buildings in Beijing. The Egg houses several large concert halls. The massive scale of the place is not, unfortunately, captured in this photo.  

China’s economic success has made many people nostalgic for the simpler life of the old days. This night club is a kind of Cultural Revolution dinner theater, where songs from the era are performed. The Long March ballet was amazing. The restaurant’s tasty peasant style food was served by waiters in Red Army garb.

Monday, June 13, 2011

We didn’t run into a lot of Americans in Spain

The sun and beaches are a big attraction for residents of cooler, cloudier northern Europe. There are three ferries a week from Portsmouth and Plymouth in England to Santander, shown here, on the north coast.
In a tapas bar in San Sebastian I heard American voices coming from several different corners. That’s unusual here in Spain. Salamanca has a Spanish language center for foreigners, so we heard Americans there.

But the U.S. doesn’t even make it into Spain’s Top 10 countries for foreign visitors. Great Britain is No. 1 with more than 12 million visitors to Spain, followed at some distance by Germany, France, the Nordic countries and Italy. Even tiiny Ireland, with 1/50th of our population, beats us out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How to spend 9 weeks in Europe without losing your shirt

When I completed my contract in Mexico in December without having another one lined up, Cindy came up with the idea of taking two or three months to travel around Europe. We might never again have the free time to do it, she reasoned. 

We originally considered an involved itinerary that inlcuded several places we always wanted to see -- the Greek Islands, Sicily, the Cinque Terre in Italy -- but found the logistics were too complicated. We decided to focus on one country, Spain, with a visit to our daughter in Germany at the end. 

We bought plane tickets and rail passes and Cindy began the process of building a budget-minded itinerary. In the end, the all-in cost for nine weeks in Europe was a little more than twice what we spent for two weeks in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

Friday, June 03, 2011

A visit to Paris to meet our French cousin

Cindy, Laurent and me. 

Seven or eight years ago, I got an email from one Laurent Brener, who lives in Paris and said he was a distant cousin.

He sent me an elaborate spreadsheet -- he’s a financial controller for Nissan Europe, so he knows his way around spreadsheets -- that tracks our family roots back more than 10 generations. He found me online through an expert on the genealogy of southwestern Germany, where my great-grandfather came from.

We corresponded by email, and he even invited me to his wedding, so I figured we had to visit him when we passed through France on our way from Spain to Amsterdam.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Basque language has mysterious origins

During our seven weeks in Spain, I enjoyed noting the language differences by region, and Basque is in a class by itself. It predates the arrival of Indo-European languages that surround it and has no relation to Spanish or any other language in Europe. (Spain has four official languages: Basque and three with Romance roots: Galician, Catalán and Spanish.)

Linguists are unsure where Basque came from; there are many theories. How it managed to survive as a separate language for thousands of years is a mystery.

Video: Amsterdam moves on two wheels and water

Cindy and I spent two days in Amsterdam, a place she had always wanted to visit. Mainly we just walked around and gawked at the people.

Like Florence, Italy, Amsterdam is something like a cultural-historical theme park. Most of the old city seems to be dedicated to hotels, restaurants and tourist services.

Coming from a small country without a lot of natural resources, the Dutch invest in their people, and specifically in language training. The Dutch and the Scandinavians, also from small countries, are amazing in their ability to speak English with hardly a trace of an accent.

The music for this video is by Vartan Mamigonian.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday morning, in search of a cafe

The Spanish operate on a different clock, and by that I do not mean they are casual with appointments as they are in Latin America. I mean that the rhythm of their daily lives is quite different.

It is Sunday morning here in San Sebastian, and at 7 a.m. I went looking for a cafe where I could read and have a cafe con leche. There was nothing open but a news agency on the square near our pension so I walked out to the main street. Little knots of young people were on their way home after the long night of drinking and partying. They were drunk but in the Spanish way, which means they were singing and talking loud, not stumbling and puking, but swaying.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tapas or pinchos are our favorite food in Spain

Typical snacks at a bar include all kinds of concoctions like deviled ham on bread with a little slice of salmon, a few small shrimp with veggies in a sauce on a crust of bread, a mini-hamburger, some olives, some peanuts with lemon juice, curried chicken, a bit of paella, some Iberian ham and cheese, a slice of spanish tortilla (a potato-egg pie), a slice of pizza or almost anything you can imagine. Unlike traditional tapas, which were a very small snack offered free as a courtesy with every drink, these cost $1.50 to $2.50 apiece. Two people can make a meal out of four of them.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela

In the square in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, school kids listen to a rock band that was part of a rally to promote use of the Galician language.
We’re in Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage mecca for over 1,000 years and the center of the autonomous region of Galicia in northwestern Spain. It still attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, who pay homage to Santiago, or St. James, one of the 12 apostles, whose remains are supposed to be in the cathedral here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Andalusia has different flavor from rest of Spain

On our swing through cities that were the Moorish centers of Andalusia, we were dazzled by the palaces, forts and mosques. We are doing the whole trip by train.

When we arrived in Cordoba in southern Spain, the accent told us we were in a different part of the country. Local people drop their S’s -- gracias becomes gracia’, más o menos becomes ma’ o meno’, tres euros becomes tre’ euro’ and so on. Consonants are softer than in the north.

The accent sounds very much like what you would hear in Cuba, Puerto Rico or other Caribbean countries. I have read and heard that  this is because many of the conquistadors came from Andalusia in southwestern Spain and left their linguistic imprint.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

British are latest invaders of Spain, and not the worst

St. James Church, Lakewood, Ohio, shows Arabic influence in its pointed arches and decorative mosaics (Examiner photo)
On my first trip to Europe about 25 years ago, I was with a group that was given lessons in history and culture in all three cities we visited -- Genoa in Italy, and Seville and Barcelona in Spain.

When I returned I happened to be back in my hometown of Lakewood, Ohio, standing in front of St. James Catholic Church and was struck for the first time by all the Arabic influence in the facade, obvious to me now after seeing Moorish architecture in Seville. The pointed arches and the decorative mosaics were clearly influenced by designers steeped in Islam.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cordoba‘s main attraction: mix of Jewish, Muslim, Christian history

A couple headed to a wedding on Saturday in Cordoba.
A thousand years ago, Córdoba in Spain was ruled by Muslim caliphs and is cited by many sources (see the notes to the linked article) as one of Europe´s most important cultural, scientific and economic centers at the time.

The Muslim rulers tolerated Christians and Jews, and there is quite a debate among Jewish scholars about whether the Muslims were benevolent, indifferent or worse. In any case, the three cultures coexisted, and there are signs of all three cultures around the city.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spanish comes in many flavors; gasoline at $7.20 a gallon

A proud dad snaps shots of his daughter in a traditional dress.
Scientists who study the human brain have noted that memories created by smell have a special emotional power. It probably has something to do with our thousands of years as hunters and gatherers.

In any case, the scent of orange blossoms recalls a special experience for me. It takes me back to my first visit to Seville, Spain, 25 years ago. It was the first days of spring, and that city´s orange trees were in full flower. Their perfume helped freeze the images of moorish arches and mosaics, the fountains of the Alcázar and the stunning light of the Andalusian sun.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Friday, April 01, 2011

Business and pleasure in Spain

For two months, Cindy and I are traveling mainly in Spain. I am also giving some lectures on Journalism, but more on that in a minute. Yesterday we headed northwest from Madrid to Segovia, a lovely town with Roman and Islamic architecture in abundance. This wikipedia article about the city is obviously a clumsy translation from the Spanish original, but it gives you the idea.

Cindy in the city center with the aqueduct behind her. It was built 2,000 years ago.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

If your car has to break down, do it in Georgia

The purple pin marks Jesup, Ga., where they treat you like neighbors.

I discovered Southern hospitality somewhere south of Macon, Ga. The rumpled little cashier in a service station surprised me by looking at me in a friendly way and saying, "How y’all doin’ today." I hadn’t been greeted like that since attendants pumped gas for you. She said it like she meant it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Visit to Warm Springs and the Little White House

 Cindy´s Mom at the Little White House, where FDR stayed during his visits for physical therapy 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt began spending time in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1924 to receive therapy from the mineral springs. Much of the excellent 2005 television movie Warm Springs, with Kenneth Branagh as FDR and Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor, was shot here.

Roosevelt was 39 when he contracted an illness that crippled him from the waist down. For many years, polio was blamed, but today scientists think he might have been stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome.  

The movie tells how his experiences in Warm Springs strengthened and deepened his character, preparing him to campaign for governor of New York and president of the United States. The State of Georgia maintains the home and museum.
Warm Springs is about 90 miles south of us.

FDR liked to zip around town in this 1938 Ford Roadster equipped with hand controls
One of his wheelchairs and leg braces, which he had painted black to be inconspicuous

A family tree at the museum showed that First Lady Eleanor´s maiden name was Roosevelt as well.  She and Franklin were fifth cousins, once removed, and Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin's fifth cousin, was her uncle. Fifth cousins are six generations removed from their common ancestors. They have the same great-great-great-great-grandparents. Eleanor was one generation removed from being a fifth cousin.

Much of the house had a nautical theme. FDR loved sailing.
The bedrooms and furnishings in Roosevelt's home were very simple. The bathroom's spartan sink, tub and commode would not come close to the design standards of Better Homes and Gardens.

One of the best parts of the museum was the recordings of his speeches, including his 1932 Inauguration Address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Still good words to live by.

Roosevelt harnessed the power of the new medium of radio to galvanize the people with his "fireside chats." During his 12-year presidency, he mobilized the country to confront the two biggest crises of the century, the Great Depression and World War II.