The European Union is home to 60 regional or minority languages which are threatened and risk to disappear. Language can constitute more than just a communication tool, as it can be regarded as a bearer of culture and traditions. In such a culturally diverse environment, where the EU can be seen as an engaging multicultural mosaic, is the diversity constituting a key point for our sense of communality? Or is the presence of multiculturalism representing an obstacle for a potential homogeneity?
One of the most varied and endangered linguistic minorities in Europe is the Sami. The Sami is an indigenous people living today in a territory which extends on four countries (Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway), in a region called Lapland. Sami livelihood and economy was mainly based on the reindeer husbandry, coastal fishing, and hunting. Thus, due to their need to follow reindeers, they have never lived in one and only big community, setting up several smaller communities instead. Consequently, their nomadic life led to the development of different Sami languages, at least ten, which cannot be classified simply as dialects of the same language. Nowadays, the Sami language which counts the larger number of speakers is the North Sami, followed by the Lule Sami and South Sami. It belongs to the finno-ugrian linguistic family and it is commonly divided into three branches, depending on the grade of mutual intelligibility they can reach.
Since the establishment of borders in the Scandinavian peninsula and Russia, the Sami population quickly became a minority and encountered all the correlated difficulties as, for instance, the prohibition to speak their own language and the obligation to learn the new majority (“national”) languages. This was a consequence of the development of the agricultural activities, which implied a progressive settlement in the most Northern-most areas where the reindeers used to graze, and the wish to reach a certain homogeneity amongst the territory after the drawing of new borders. Thus the Sami people was considered a threat to the in-borders safety and homogeneity of the now “national” population. Continue reading “The EU & Minority Languages Promotion”→
As the second semester approaches in the Euroculture master programme, there is another important decision to be made; namely, which track to choose for the third semester: professional or research?
Blessed with fairly good research skills, I would have been ready, willing and able to take a semester in Mexico City and improve my Spanish skills, or discover a whole new world in Pune, India while diving into one of the countless possible research topics the Euroculture programme offers. But for me the real challenge was to see how I would perform in a non-academic environment and solve problems not only in theory, but in practice as well. After all, this is what the Euroculture programme is about: stepping out of our comfort zones over and over again. Hence, I eventually had to let go of the more convenient research track. Half a year and a lot of paperwork later, I found myself working for a Hungarian NGO: Foundation for Africa. Continue reading “BLOG: One month on the job – what it’s like to intern for an NGO”→
Around 150 students are holding up sheets of paper in blue, white, and red. Rester avec nous, they shout, stay with us. In the moment the camera clicks to shoot the French flag formed out of sheets of paper, the sun breaks through the clouds again. A good sign for Europe? Maybe. What is sure, is that the pulse of Europe now also beats in Groningen.
On a Sunday afternoon, on the second of April, 2017, the first Pulse of Europe event was held in Groningen. Pulse of Europe is a pro-European movement that has emerged in Frankfurt, Germany, around the end of last year. Against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum, the election of President Trump, and the rise of nationalist sentiments all across Europe, the initiators aim at raising awareness about the many advantages European integration has brought to European citizens. They have been organizing weekly events on Sunday afternoons, first only in Frankfurt, then in an increasing number of cities in Germany, now all over Europe. (see http://pulseofeurope.eu)
The first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen took place on the square in between the University of Groningen’s main building, and the University library. Blue and yellow balloons distinguish the pro-European character of the event. An estimated 150 people gather around the stand that offers free lemonade, and on the stairs of the Academiegebouw, the main building of the University of Groningen. Most of them are students, and they seem to be mainly internationals. The German percentage remains unspecified, but might rise up to 70 percent according to the author’s educated guess. Possibly unsurprising: several generations of Euroculturers are seen amongst the supporters as well.
The event starts off with the European anthem, Freude schöner Götterfunken. As expected, nobody knows the lyrics. But this is no problem, because of Jeremy’s enthusiasm. Jeremy, who is the organizer of this first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen, is genuinely happy about the number of people that have showed up. After only eight days of organization, the turnout is a remarkable success. Jeremy invites us all to hold short, three-minute-long speeches about our opinions and attitudes towards the EU. Although the open microphone had been announced beforehand, students are reluctant to take stage. Nevertheless, many important topics are brought up by the students daring to speak to the crowd: Europe as a peace project, borderless Europe, the EU as a refuge in times of globalization, Europe as a space for diversity and exchange rather than close-minded nationalism. A lot of praise for the EU indeed, but students are, after all, those who benefit most from European integration.
After a couple of speeches, the organizers hand out the sheets of paper in white, red and blue. The reference is clear: the flag serves as an appeal to the French citizens to make a clear statement for Europe, diversity, and collaboration, and not for Marine Le Pen’s chauvinistic nationalism, in the upcoming Presidential elections. The next Pulse of Europe Groningen-event is scheduled, of course, for April 23rd: the day of the French election. That time the event will take place on the Grote Markt, the central square in the Groningen city center. Can more people be attracted than only the students who directly benefit from the EU and its Erasmus program, or who are regular international students? Let’s hope so. After all, rester avec nous should nowadays be pronounced in all European languages.
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
What do The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Queen all have in common?
Each one benefited from EU funds for artistic creation. Perhaps your first response would be, “Who cares?” After all, who really pays attention to the EU’s actions or even knows what the EU concretely does? Yet the three well-known movies I just mentioned are all British, and it’s possible none of them would have been produced without EU financing. In the light of Brexit, it seems worth considering whether the future of the British cinema industry is now at stake.
The EU’s subventions for British cinema could stop as soon as Brexit becomes effective. This is not an insignificant amount of money: in 2014 and 2015, the Europe Creative Media fund invested no less than 28.5 million Euros in the audio-visual sector of the UK. In 2016, the Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, directed by British filmmaker Ken Loach, received 100,000 Euros from that EU fund. With this money off the table, it is clear that British cinema won’t be the same.
The first affected would be independent British cinema, which benefits most from EU funds. But it would eventually impact the entire sector, as stressed in the letter signed before the Brexit referendum by 282 of the world’s biggest creative industry names– including Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Steve McQueen – written in support of Britain remaining in the EU. The letter states that “From the smallest gallery to the biggest blockbuster, many of us have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding or by collaborating across borders. Britain is not just stronger in Europe, it is more imaginative and more creative, and our global creative success would be severely weakened by walking away.” This is not just a question of access to funds – this is also a question of access to the European market. The EU is currently the largest export market for UK movies, and Brexit may well mean the reinstatement of customs duties for exportation to Europe, as well as the need for work permits and potentially additional taxes. Furthermore, various European quotas are in place in the Union that would be affected; since the 1989 “Television Without Frontiers” directive, half of the content on TV has to be of European origin in every member state. Until now, British movies have been considered European movies… but this may soon come to an end, meaning that the UK is going to have more difficulty in distributing and gaining exposure for its shows and movies across Europe.
The consequences of Brexit are not only a business concern; it is also a matter for British culture. With the EU closing access to its funds, Hollywood will become the main financier of British cinema. The result may be more of a focus on business, and less on creativity. Moreover, it will have a detrimental impact on the rest of Europe, not only in terms of fewer British movies in our cinemas, but also fewer EU-Britain co-productions.
After the Brexit vote, Amanda Nevill, CEO of the British Film Institute (BFI), tried to reassure British people, arguing that Britain is “one of the most creative nations on Earth” and thus is strong enough to manage leaving the EU. However, not everyone was so confident. Producer Mike Downey, CEO of Film & Music Entertainment (F&ME) and deputy chairman of the European Film Academy, maintains that “from the overall UK industry perspective, this move is a disastrous one and the repercussions will resonate far and wide.” Downey argues that the only way for British cinema creativity to survive Brexit is to stay in the Europe Creative Media programme, pointing out that Article 8 of the regulationestablishing Creative Europe stipulates that countries other than EU Member States may participate in the programme.
It is clear that the consequences of Brexit could be tragic, not only for the film industry and for British culture, but also for European culture as a whole. However, perhaps it can also make European people realise that the EU is actively engaged in the promotion of art and culture, and that this is something we shouldn’t disregard, given its role in our daily lives. Thus, it appears high time we become aware of the EU’s cultural policy, and gain a broader understanding of what being a member state actually means in terms of culture. By leaving the EU, British cinema will lose a significant part of its financing, its access to the single market – including the free movement of people – and will therefore have to pay additional taxes and work permits. Even if the main production companies can survive, the independent British cinema will suffer greatly, and may be left on the bench.
Emilie Oudet is in her first year of the Euroculture MA at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. Her main interests are cultural and intercultural exchanges, and the promotion of cultural rights as fundamental human rights.
As in previous years, the ACLA 2017 will host a seminar for BA and MA students. Looking at current changes in the political climate and in what is acceptable political discourse in Europe and America, this year’s (under)graduate seminar will examine the role of literature, media, and the narrative arts as agents in society, whether for change or stability. The role of the arts as a mobilizer in society is in no way an unexplored arena. Edward Bulwer-Lytton first coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than sword” in 1839, and Thomas Hardy reflected on the way reading fosters critical literacy for social life when he suggested that in reading fiction “our true object is a lesson in life, mental enlargement from elements essential to the narratives themselves and from the reflection they engender.” Unsurprisingly, art’s capacity to engender this critical reflection of society has intermittently resulted in book bans and burnings. In recent times this potential, its limits, and its actualization have come under close scrutiny. James Baldwin caused a stir in 1949 when he published his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” characterizing protest fiction as a “rejection of life” and dismissing its paragon Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as self-righteous and dishonest. Baldwin has continued to loom large in reflections on narrative arts’ activating potential, acting recently as an interlocutor to Robert McParland when he discussed Django Unchained, and as an avowed inspiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the most celebrated artists today to engage in both writing and activism. Sixty years after Baldwin’s famous essay, with the veil pulled from the capitalist machinery underlying cultural production and with renewed appreciation for the role stories can play in deciding communal values, what can be said about the narrative arts and the wider world?
We warmly invite (R)MA students and senior BA students of the humanities to send in their 300-word proposals and short bio to email@example.com before January 31st.
Some suggested themes:
– Literature, transmedia storytelling and pedagogy
– Cultural production and the nexus between individual and society
– Storytelling for personal and collective empowerment
– Capitalism, cultural production and criticism
– Literature, film, critical thinking and politics
– Authority and moral agency
– Rereading, revisiting and remediation stories nestled in the collective imagination
– Social novels and the stylistics of social commentary
– Changing media, new publics and changing storytelling
It is a cold and grey Saturday afternoon, just one week before Christmas and I am rushing over the empty Platz der Menschenrechte, Human Rights Square, in front of the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe. This huge building was constructed with German Pünktlichkeit during the First World War and managed to avoid demolition in the late 1970s after having been a reliable space for the preparation of violence and destruction. With sentiment echoing Adorno’s phrase, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the city of Karlsruhe in the post-war decades seemed paralyzed and helpless to interact with this huge memorial of violence production in its heart.
It wasn’t poetry that brought a spirit of hope into the massive walls in Lorenzstraße – at least not just that. In the 1980s, the artist group “99.9% leerer Raum” moved into the old factory, just before, in 1984, the first ever email was received just a few kilometres away at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT). At that time, enthusiasm for new and connective technology of communication had awoken to end the rather destructive technology of weapons, which had dominated the atmosphere of the massive building. In 1987 the association for arts and media technology was founded, and eight years after the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien), the Centre for Art and Media, opened in the old German weapons and munitions production factory. Since then, the building has hosted exhibitions with a focus on media and communication technology. It is, however, an unusual exhibition for the ZKM, which I am visiting today. Usually, visitors come to stroll down memory lane between the antiquities and rarities of computer and video games, or to discover new developments occurring in the digital arts. Although this exhibition does not focus on technology and media art, it fits perfectly in this historic building.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” is the title of the exhibition, curated by Eckhart Gillen and Peter Weibel and their Russian colleagues Daria Mille and Daniel Bulatov. It is a cooperation between the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO in Moscow. The exhibition contains more than 500 diverse works of about 200 European artists. In Karlsruhe it has the significant subtitle, “The Continent that the EU does not know.” The curators aim to give a second perspective on the dominant narrative of post-war Europe. They present works by artists, who have responded to the breakup of a divided continent after a decade of destruction.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” focuses on a central cultural space. One that was damaged and torn apart several times during the 20th century. The curators present artistic developments, stemming from the huge area that is geographical Europe. With artwork coming from anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the exhibition draws on many sources in its goal of opening up a new narrative with regards to a shared past. The curators claim that until today historiography looked at the arts of the 20th century as divided into two main streams. Firstly, there was abstract expressionism, which is seen as a symbol of freedom in the West. Then there is social realism which, according to these curators, has been seen as a conservative kind of art, an art bent to serve the communist political system in the East. This exhibition, however, is an effort to engage with the history of art in Europe in a less simplified manner. This exhibition explores these themes through comparison, by finding similarities, and understanding differences in a socio-political approach to interpretation.
While walking through this huge exhibition, taking up two floors with an immense amount of art work, I can sympathize with the curators and let myself get lost in the many pictures, sculptures, films and photographs. It is hopeless trying to discover everything: this exhibition is the product of more than twenty years, and 200 people, full of creativity and extreme emotions. It is by accident, that I find the small Picasso, “Pigeon, Blue Variation” from 1951, hidden on the back of one of the huge white walls. The difficulty of mapping this great quantity and variety of art in post-war Europe can also be seen through the different strategies of structuring the exhibition in the three hosting places in Brussels, Karlsruhe and Moscow. In Karlsruhe it is organized into the five chapters “Trauma and Remembrance,” “Cold War,” “New Realism,” “New Visions,” and “Utopia 1968”. While 1945 is interpreted as ‘hour zero’, 1968 is defined as the starting point for a new relationship between West and East. What might seem like a very linear and horizontal approach, is in fact an attempt to entangle spaces, to invite visitors to discover art works that have not shared the same space before. Curator Peter Weibel calls it an active plea for understanding Europe – a goal which is just as important today as it was in 1945.
The idea of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” was conceived already in 2012, and it was supposed to be shown in Russia first. However, after the crisis in Ukraine and the strained relationship between the EU and Russia, many important sponsors withdrew their financial support. It is in these grey and cold days, that it becomes more important than ever to take a break and discover new perspectives on what shapes Europe: memories and trauma, war, utopia, and new visions. Now, in times of a critical public discourse regarding Europe, and in times of planning the building of walls, it is maybe more appropriate than ever to consider the leading questions of “Art in Europe 1945-1968”: “what is Europe?”
What I take with me walking back from the ZKM, in the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe, over the Human Rights Square, is the idea to keep my eyes wide open and to search for hidden ideas. Ideas that are not omnipresent in the main discourse surrounding us today. There was a lot happening in the period between 1945 to 1968 in Europe. It seems like a period of conflict and inconsistency . There is also a lot going on in Europe today, and it is essential to reflect on the present patterns of perception and communication. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” shows that it is worth challenging established constructs and opening a discussion about a common past and a common future. Despite or precisely because of its confusing multitude of pieces, visitors of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can find a new way of looking at Europe in the past and in the present. I interpret this exhibition as a liquid reflection on arts and European society. It commutes between the East and West in Europe, and changes its setting in each location. It is not a fixed construct which needs to be consumed in a certain way, but one that underlines different perspectives. An exhibition is more than its images or sculptures. It represents a reflection on the everyday reality of artists and curators, and it grows in the space where it is shown, and with each visitor approaching it. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” communicates with its surrounding and with its audience and it is worth, I believe, taking your time to look, listen, reflect and respond.
The exhibition “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can be visited in the ZKM until 29th of January 2017 and afterwards in Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
The effects of globalization are felt all around the world. The increasingly interconnected global economic system is the most obvious manifestation of the worldwide compression of time and space. However, the consequences of globalization are not limited to the economy. Globalization has had an effect on political systems, religions, and societies in practically every corner of the world. What is globalization exactly? Often globalization and Westernization are used interchangeably, but this proves to be a rather one-sided perspective. Although all around us, globalization can be a tricky concept to pin down.
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy defines globalization as “a process that encompasses the causes, course, and consequences of transnational and transcultural integration of human and non-human activities”. The European Commission, on the other hand, sees globalization as “the combination of technological progress, lower transport costs and policy liberalization in the European Union and elsewhere” that “has led to increasing trade and financial flows between countries”.
My decision to move to South Korea and teach English was a knee-jerk reaction to something that I was not too acquainted with as a fresh-faced relatively successful 22 year old college grad: failure. I had just spent the last 4 years preparing for what I really wanted to do and then when I actually go to do it, I didn’t like it.
My student teaching experience went nothing like I expected and it left me reeling. In retrospect, I probably watched too many teacher movies. That’s the problem about these teacher movies, they make them about the very few that actually succeed in inspiring students, no one sees the failures who end up as overly educated baristas at Starbucks. What most people don’t realize is that even the ones that are idealized in these movies, their personal lives completely fell apart. Robin Williams gets canned in Dead Poets Society, Jesse Escalante, in a twist of irony, face plants on a flight of stairs in Stand and Deliver and Ryan Gosling turns to hard drugs in Half Nelson. That option certainly didn’t appeal to me, but I had to do something. I wanted to get away, maybe travel a bit, but I had just accumulated so much debt that it seemed impossible. I began researching teaching English abroad. I was desperate. I filled out a few applications, did some skype interviews, watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain No Reservations; and to everyone’s surprise, even my own, 2 months later I was in Ansan, South Korea.
I took a job at a small, private, after school English academy. Classes were small, I taught grades K-5, and besides one hellish kindergarten class, and that little devil “Jake-uhh,” it was an easy way to make a living. In the beginning I really wanted to forget about life and student teaching and anything else that reminded me of getting a “real” job, and all of those other things that come with being an adult. The only thing that I wanted to do was explore; not only places, but who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.
I will always look back on Korea with nostalgia because the places I visited and the people I met made me realize that the “go to school, get good grades, get a degree, get a good job” story was outdated and that life was not that scripted (thank goodness!). I could not have learned this lesson in a more enjoyable way.
My students soon began to call me “Dora the Explorer” because I was always going somewhere during the weekend. I drank more coffee in South Korea than I ever did. I often found myself coming back home from a trip early Monday morning, sleeping a bit and then starting the work week. At the time I had absolutely no idea that I would spend a total of close to 4 years in this country so I was not wasting any time, besides, at the time I felt like I had all the weekends in the world. At the same time I met one of the coolest people I will ever meet, Warren Kim (or as we liked to call him ‘Bubbles’ or ‘Warren G’).
Warren was a 30-something Korean who quit his job in the corporate world and started a hiking group for fun, this group became a kind of weekend family for me for the next year or so. Warren was a lively fellow with a round face, chubby cheeks and large glasses – always a smile on his face. A few months after starting his trips he was taking groups of about a 60-100 people on trips all over Korea. There were a lot of English teachers in Korea at the time and this was a great way for them to see the country. After my first trip to Jeju Island, I was convinced.
I remember sprinting to the number 4 line subway to make it in time for the 11pm departure from Seoul to Mokpo, a city on the southern tip of Korea where we would make our departure for the famed Jeju Island. I arrived just in time, meeting up with Duncan, a crazy Canadian I had met at a local language exchange cafe; besides him however, I didn’t know anyone.
Duncan was the kind of guy that would make his Korean language exchange partner teach him phrases in Korean that went something like this: “I looked out the window and saw a penguin water skiing in Canada socks across the Han River.” He was always the life of the party and that is why I liked him, and that is why I hated sitting by him on the way back to Seoul. He would always start drinking hard during our final dinner and then dancing during karaoke until he worked himself up into a sweaty, smelly mess.
We got on the bus, it was quiet, it always was in the beginning. We drove through the night and arrived at our destination 6 hours later.
In Mokpo we boarded a huge ferry. I noticed the Korean passengers, in groups of 15 to 20, were carrying what seemed like equipment worthy of an Everest summit. I felt unprepared for the hike we were to go on the next day.
The ferry was very basic. It had large rooms with commercial tile flooring. Before we could even sit down on the floor the Koreans had 6’x6’ mats sprawled out everywhere. These people were mostly in their 40s and on, many were older retirees. The rooms in the ferry were about 75 feet by 50 feet and there were many of them. We took a walk and as soon as we reached the hallways all of the rooms began to take up various smells of soups; kimchi-jjigae,sun du bu-jjigae or tofu in red pepper paste, or doenjang-jjigae, a soup made from fermented soybeans. To our surprise the Everest bags were filled not with climbing equipment but with food and cooking stoves, and of course lots of booze. The different smells of red pepper, seaweed, fish, fried zucchini filled the different rooms where the now red-faced Koreans sat drinking Jinro soju, a type of Korean rice vodka (which is actually the number one selling alcohol in the world!). For me, this was an entirely new way to travel.
Koreans are generally reserved people, but about an hour after departure, we heard some chanting – groups were playing Korean drinking games – the social lubricant at work. We were observing a rather rowdy group of retirees. All of them red in the face, all of them wearing hiking gear, and all of them grinning. One man looked over at Duncan and I and asked the standard 3 questions we would get from just about every Korean. “What is your name?” Duncan replied, “Duncan, like Dunkin Donuts.” That was his go to explanation as these donut shops are everywhere in Korea. The old man smiled and said “ahh, where you are from?” Chicago and Vancouver. The man yelled “OK! very good, America very good, Canada very good! Come.” He padded the place on the mat next to him where Duncan and I sat. Duncan and I tried to say something in Korean “한국 종아요, we like it here, we came just a months ago.” The woman to our left begins to pour shots to everyone and puts two in front of Duncan and I. The group starts chanting “Baskin-Robbins-thirtyyy-one, 1, 4, 6, 9” then came our turn, everyone stared at us. We got a quick lesson “add 1,2,or 3 to the last number.” The person that gets stuck with 31 drinks a shot. Somehow, Duncan and I became the targets and we quickly had to down 3 shots each. I couldn’t believe these people in their 70s and 80s were playing a college dorm drinking game and were ganging up on us so that the number 31 would land on us. There were smiles ear to ear from everyone in the group. For many of them this was their first interaction with foreigners and they were excited to share their booze with us – we were even more excited to drink it. I looked over at Duncan, we were thinking the same thing. We haven’t even stepped foot on Jeju Island and already we were having a blast!
We arrived at Jeju Island at around 1pm and jumped on a bus. Warren always managed to somehow attract what seemed like the coolest people in Korea for his trips. He eventually formed a sort of clan that would go on all of his trips. The trips were cheap (I don’t think he even made any money from them), well-organized, and Warren’s goofy lines in broken English always made the bus a fun place to be. My favorite was his line for letting the bus know we are stopping for a bathroom break. “Ok guys, so there is a bathroom, go do something there.”
The next day we visited Mt. Hallasan, the now dormant volcano responsible for the creation of the island 10,000 years ago. The volcano is 1950m tall, the highest peak in South Korea. It has a gentle slope for most of the journey up and the sights of the island from the top are beautiful. Hiking was always a treat as you could use the time to get lost in your thoughts. The views and beautiful nature surrounding you were positively inspiring. I started to think about my student teaching experience less and less, and became focused on enjoying my time here and growing as a person. I liked it so much, soon enough I also became a groupie.
The air got cooler and cooler as we reached the top. The closer we got, the wind picked-up. It stung the cheeks bringing out color. While taking in a deep cold breath, you still could get a hint of the fresh ocean surrounding the island. Snow began to appear near the peak. As the bright sun shone down on it at just the right angle, it radiated a prism of colors like tiny concentrated rainbows beaming at you.
We reached the top and found a crater. Our group of about 60 people began to reach the top in intervals. We high fived each other and Warren took out a bottle of maekolli, a Korean rice wine that is often known as a farmer’s drink, in order to celebrate. We got a special Jeju brand that was made of mandarins which grow all around the island at lower altitudes. In celebration we also took off our jackets and sweaters and posed bare chested by the peak’s signpost for pictures, this was definitely one of Duncan’s bright ideas. The Koreans at the top stared at us laughing, it was like we were a zoo attraction or something.
While sitting with my maekolli , the most even layer of clouds began to cover the north side of the island so that when you faced north, it looked like you were on a peak above a puffy row of cotton balls. We were literally above the clouds! Whatever problems I was going through before, I was now separated from them. It was like being in heaven.
The next day we visited a Mongolian horse show. Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan used the island as a logistics point as he loaded horses onto ships and tried to invade Japan, it was unsuccessful but the ancestors of those horses remain. We went mandarin picking. We even visited a penis park and a sex museum with thousand year old paintings of Indian orgies and the history of sex in Korea (the explanation for this being that this island is a popular honeymoon attraction).
The dinners are what I will remember most. When you ask any traveler what they remember most about Korea, they will always tell you it’s the food. Each night Warren picked out a special restaurant representative of the region. On Jeju it was wild boar, crab and abalone, a large sea snail. Koreans usually serve a main dish surrounded by a number of side dishes (the better the restaurant the more side dishes). Anything from caramelized anchovies, seaweed, pickled asian radishes and other vegetables and the obligatory kimchi, a fermented cabbage spiced with red pepper paste – and these you could get refilled free of charge!
We sat in long rows sitting on the floor along two long tables. The large pots with the main dishes cooking on portable stoves in the center of the table in front of us. I noticed the abalone still wiggling around in its shell but Warren assured me that it was normal. It was unsettling, but I’ve had lobster cooked live so I thought what’s the difference. We started with the side dishes, then ate the abalone and crab soup. It had a light broth but it was spicy and excellent with kimchi added to the broth. Everything was new; new food, new people, new places. I was enjoying myself and learning so much.
This was the way my life looked for the next year. I used the workweek to recover from whatever trip or excursion I was up to on the weekend. The lady at the Tous Le Jour cafe on the first floor would greet me not with a “good morning” but, “so where did you go this weekend?”
When I got my first contract extension, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Time flew by so fast I had no idea I had been in Korea for 11 months already. I had traveled 3 weekends out of the month. It was time to take a break. Instead of “tripping”, I did some solo hikes in the local mountains just to soak in everything that just happened in the past year.
In the meantime, before I could even make up my mind about re-signing at my first job, I got a job offer from a friend’s referral at a top 20 company in Korea, a company with over 100 schools and in the process of implementing a tablet based curriculum bypassing paper altogether. This was definitely a step up and in a few short months I would end up at the headquarters as part of a research and development team.
I was consumed by my new job. I eventually caught up with Warren after about 3 months later but it wasn’t the same. The extended family I was used to was nearly all gone. Many of them going back home after their year was up, and others moving to different cities in Korea. It was not the same. My priorities were not the same.
I was annoyed by all of the same questions that just a few months back seemed necessary and interesting: “Where are you from? Where do you teach? How is your school? Why Korea? What’s your plan after?” etc. etc. I had heard it all and seen it all before. Most of all, the feeling that I had all the time in the world to travel was now a relic I would leave behind with the old me. I was on to a new beginning imbued with a new confidence and excitement.
I appreciated Warren, Duncan and all of the other friends I had met that year but I knew it couldn’t last forever. I was now aware that life is more than a rat race and had met so many people that were 30 and still didn’t know what they were doing, they just lived in the moment. There were more ways to live life than just one. I didn’t feel like I needed to put life on hold anymore. I soon began to carve out a new path imbued with a new feeling of excitement and confidence.
I look back at the moment I had decided to come to Korea. I was filled with anxieties and uncertainties and had no idea what it would bring, but I am sure glad I did.
Elena Ferrante is an elusive figure. She is an enigma to the literary world, and a mystery that needs solving to some in the journalistic. To me, she is an artist. An artist in the real sense of the word. A person who embraces the artistic way of living to the extent of embodying it. The American writer Elbert Hubbard once wrote that, “Art is not a thing – it is a way of life”. Likewise, Elena Ferrante is not a thing. She is many things. She is a fever (#FerranteFever), leader of a modern tribe, a hero, among other things. Perhaps, most importantly, she is a way. A way to freedom. How do we discover this way? It’s quite simple. We travel along with her on the journey.
The Italian author was born in the literary world in 1992 with the publication of her first novel Troubling Love. She was a shy girl at first, who lacked confidence in her own abilities, and wasn’t quite sure of the impact she would have. In a letter to her publisher, Ferrante expressed her doubts by writing: “I will say to you clearly: if Troubling Love does not have, in itself, thread enough to weave, well, it means that you and I were mistaken; if, on the other hand, it does, the thread will be woven where it can be, and we will have only to thank the readers for their patience in taking it by the end and pulling”. Nonetheless, she did hold one firm belief – that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. It was her conviction in this belief that enabled her to accept herself for who she was – although a recluse in the eyes of others, a writer with stories to tell in her own. When asked about what she intended to do in order to publicize her novel, the author wrote to her publisher:“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it… I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”.
In the years that followed, Ferrante published her most famous works, which are commonly referred to as the ‘Neapolitan’ novels. These books are set in a poor, yet vibrant neighborhood in Naples, and explore the lives of its many inhabitants – especially the friendship that brews over several decades between two key characters: Elena and Lila. The series announced the author’s arrival in the literary world, but Elena Ferrante was still missing. Despite ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ (the last book of the series) getting nominated for the Man Booker International Prize (2016), the writer showed absolutely no interest in the award. She continues to embody what Lord Krishna describes as the ‘Spirit of Yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu ‘Book of Revelation’) – the one, who acts “with no desire for success, no anxiety about failure, indifferent to results, he burns up his actions in the fire of wisdom. Surrendering all thoughts of outcome, unperturbed, self-reliant, he does nothing at all, even when fully engaged in actions”.
Today, the author is an omnipotent figure in the literary world. With the dual publication of ‘Frantumaglia – A Writer’s Journey’ and her book for children ‘Beach at Night’ earlier this year, the author seems to be here, there, and everywhere. She’s at bookstores in the US, in films in Italy, and in newspapers and on the internet (obviously). Even then, she is nowhere really. Except, in our hearts and minds, as a writer pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an artist by leading a self-effacing life. A life that we can only imagine, and hope to plot.
And plot we should. For Ferrante has shown us time and again that she is not a dot, but a series of them. She is a line that traces an artist’s consciousness. If the first dot represents a moment of doubt in the writer’s journey, the second one represents faith in the nature of the divine. Miracles are most often attributed to God, because their makers are usually unknown. Having experienced the miracles of other anonymous writers herself, Ferrante’s single-minded intention to become this unknown produces the third dot. This dot is representative of the wisdom of action. Without need for fame or publicity, Ferrante’s works are built on honesty and integrity that speak to our souls. They become voices that one can hear in the deepest recesses of their own being. The media frenzy to unmask Ferrante’s real identity, to me, is only indicative of our desire to know this voice more truly. But alas, it cannot be heard in the clamour of the marketplace. Our restlessness only results in the marking of the fourth dot of Ferrante’s consciousness – a deadening silence in response to the chaos. The voice disappears only to make us acutely aware of the void within. It forces us into sincere self-reflection, and guides us along the path to freedom.
If you feel like giving up on the whole “plotting Ferrante” business at this point, it’s understandable. But I would urge you not to. Instead, embrace the mystery that she is. Become part of it. Live it. And pay attention. Every now and then, the real Ferrante re-surfaces to remind us who she is – a person who is obsessive and passionate about words and stories; a non-conformist, who thrives on anonymity and solitude, and to remind us who she is not – almost everything we want her to be. Follow these clues or ‘frantumaglia’ (fragments) in her own words. Because no matter who you are, and what you do, you can lay claim to your own freedom by invoking Ferrante’s spirit.