Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rue Haute, Brussels

Today is the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo from Belgium. A big day, though I haven't heard much in terms of commemorative events. Last weekend we were at multicultural festival Matongé en Couleurs, Matongé being a locus of those originally from the Congo.

Here, dust floats in the living room. A mixture concocted by an African urban fairy, of 6-month degraded cardboard and minute particles of Bamako dust. I'm putting the finishing touches on a repacked box sent from Mali to Brussels. I work on the roll of packing tape, eyes wide open but blindly trying to find the edge. Like the universe, it does not seem to have a beginning or an end. So I give it to J here, among whose talents includes being a massage therapist. Sensitive fingers find the invisible.

I left Berlin last Saturday, after a flurry of heartwarming visits from friends near and far. One from Stockholm and another from Düsseldorf, both old friends from Vancouver. A German who I met in Almaty some years back. And K, who embodies my entire stay in Damascus. We happened upon a Lebanese-operated Mediterranean restaurant on Kastanieallé, our Lebanese waiter so happy for conversation and helping us with some Arabic language questions. K and I reminisced over all the drama and the soap operas that swirled around us back in Damascus, and despite the current sense of distance, somehow continue to swirl. Syrians say that everyone has two homelands - our own and Syria. Perhaps that mindset is behind the Syrian who, rather unbidden, calls K five times a day now in Berlin. We are close in our hearts, but at the same time, he must have a good mobile phone plan.

I meet K's Damascus roomate here in Brussels. Luxembourgian to Italian-Spanish parentage, with still room for 4 years of Arabic in her head, she is a polyglot. We go through her Facebook friends - do I know this guy, she asks? I confirm his identity. I met him and other Swedes at the HIV blood test clinic on my second day in Damascus. Like the packing tape roll, things come full circle.

Still, it is often a feeling of transition for me here in Brussels. This is aided by their sofa, which is the exact same model as my own. A material foreshadowing of something to come, or in the case of last September, something I just left. Those that know my relationship with my sofa know that it is an especially fond one. I can close my eyes and simply put, relax and be home again. There is something about the density ratio of foam solids and air bubbles that provides my body the right amount of softness and support.

S+J are the ones I travelled to Mali with in December, so now this is the 3rd time I've seen them this trip. However, each time has been in a different setting as now they have moved. It seems that they are in a different apartment every time I see them, but we find no evident correlation. They are in the process of opening up their Ethiopian coffee house on Rue Haute. It will also be here that they sell the goods that they purchased in Africa.

I crash in Brussels like an ocean wave meets the beach, each time erasing any traces of memories I had of the city. For a not terribly large city, the shops change often. I suggest to S+J to imprint their logo on their café coffee cups, as a sign of some stability.

There is a small seed in my box from Mali. A gift from the fairy. Pale yellow, about the size of a large oatmeal flake. In the middle, something that looks like a seed within, the same size as a sunflower seed kernel. J thinks I should plant it and see what happens.

Back on Canada Day, tomorrow. A good day to remember when I am supposed to be back.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


With my new after-10 am month pass I am now roving around Berlin and squeezing as much as I can out of it. Today will be an escapade out to Pfauerinsel - Peacock Island - a former love nest of the elite on the ritzy south-west area of the city. Two or three trains (depending on the S-bahn gods of timing and chance), a bus, a ferry, and what looks like an hour's walk will land me to a temporary pavilion of Olafur Eliasson.

Spent some time yesterday as a legitimate card-carrying reading-room member of the Stadtsbibliotek Berlin, a library designed by Hans Scharoun. It is truly an immense interior landscape, like the Grand Canyon turned inside out somehow. Currently some 2 million books are inaccessible due to asbestos - 1/6 of their collections - and this perhaps in tandem with the sudden onslaught of Summer relieves the library of many of its potential users. I pick up a book requested last week, a response to a footnote in a book I read in Muscat. And in response to another footnote, in a book on Eliasson, I head to the inside-the-library cafeteria (heaven!) for some light summer reading by Bruno Latour, Making Things Public - Atmospheres of Democracy.

The climate of the interior is really very foreign to me. Either I pack gloves or sunscreen, always one or the other. Today is the latter, the sun is fully shining down and tomorrow they say 31 degrees.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Sitting at the relatively new library in Köpenick, an otherwise old town east of Berlin. It is a nice, brick box, with somewhat randomly arranged openings, although they must be somewhat calculated, right, because it is a Library. The front door here seems like the back door, and gives you both the feeling that you are entering a sort of forbidden door, into a place of forbidden fruit. Or that you are completely welcome and a full part of it, that you enter the same door as all the deliveries, all the staff. It is beautiful volume mostly consisting of air and light. Up on the third floor I ask, in English, for where the English books are. The librarian in response brings me over to the large space in the middle, the "vertically interconnected space", and points down to some shelves on the second floor.

Most of the books here in fact are somewhat forbidding, if not forbidden. But I am cruising along with Arabic again, so the German-ness here fades away in the background. You could say that I roam around on the periphery of Berlin, a city whose centre is perhaps known best for the vibes that emanate from it; or divided, for its east and its west.

Current thoughts are back to Vancouver, in the form of Jeff Wall. I have probably heard of this guy more outside of Vancity than within, and he will have an exhibition in Dresden soon. I am looking forward to seeing Vancouver again. But before that, the other omnipotent artist that has something seemingly everywhere is Olafur Oliasson, who has a current show at the Martin Gropius Bau.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mors dag

A grey Mother's Day Sunday. In front of me is a window sill with lots of plants of unknown destiny. They all look the same when they start, like the offspring of mothers, but who knows what the future brings for them.

I've been flipping through a Danish slang dictionary. "Curlingbarn" or curling-child was an interesting one. Curling is a fascinating game of Scottish origin (as wikipedia says) that somehow really took root in the icy plains of Canada. It's probably a mythical, and I guess metaphorical, sport here. A curling-child is one whose parents have swept away all the obstacles in advance, to give the child the best possibilities to get to "the target". Such children may experience difficulties later in life, when they are not as well equipped to handle obstacles on their own.

It's damn cold here. Beware bare noses. If it weren't for the telltale signs of lettuce green leaves anticipating something in the air, and the hopeful flowerpots on balconies, it feels like Christmas is just around the corner and that the first snow just might fall. It's been a tough winter and now a hopeless spring. When I was in Damascus, many of the Danes coming and going during the months I was there were full of fabulous stories of a truly snowed-in country. Much like descriptions of what Canada must surely be like, in the hinterland east of Vancouver. I hear that the current weather in Vancouver is very pleasant.

I was at a Danish-Yugoslavian event the other event. My friend's father participated in a "youth corps" in 1947 to build a railroad and other works, and this was an event to commemorate it. It was interesting for me to hear that the Ottoman Empire stretched west of Vienna, and so included Hungary and Yugoslavia. Somehow it all comes down to Muslim-Christian relations too, and how it has evolved over time in different ways and in different gradients of peace and war.

Denmark is not "particularly" Christian, but state and religion are close bedfellows, and there are lots of religious holidays throughout the year here that people appreciate. I watched an edition of Joel Osteen yesterday. The idea of ultra-church where 40,000 attend service 5 times a week is close to inconceivable here.

Off to Nørrebro, an inner city suburb. I'll hear a lot of Arabic on the bus but I won't see too many signs in Arabic. Everything has to be Danish here in Denmark.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Den 5. maj

On May 5th, 1945, Denmark was liberated from 5 years of German occupation. Tonight, behind many a Danish window, will a bright candle or two be lit in commemoration.

Currently just north of Copenhagen, in a place called Brede. I'll be in and out of Copenhagen for the next little bit visiting friends, until I start occupying German land in two weeks. The weather is cold compared to even Melbourne, but I am surviving.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Round Dumplings

I've just checked the weather for the various upcoming cities. April is a good transition month between Australia and Europe. In theory in any case - I'm off to London with my fingers crossed...

Today is Anzac Day. It commemorates the sacrifices of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders in a failed attempt to quickly defeat the Ottoman Empire (which at the time also consisted of today's Syria) at Gallipoli. Generally though, it's just a long weekend here. It's either quiet (my experience at a restaurant last night), or, as rumoured by a family member, there's drunken debauchery in the City so I should definitely avoid Chinatown in particular. Or, as my architect-cousins experience, it's just another working weekend as they work to get a tender package out, on a project with very expensive angles.

Have just come back from some time on the east coast now. Coming from the Middle East, one thing that stands out is the amount of skin and cleavage here. It's not as much as in Moscow, but about one stitch more. On the beaches lie beautiful people in beautiful nothings. There's certainly not one hairy man or woman in sight, and rare are the overweight, the over-70s, and women who only have a modest one-piece black swimsuit (me) - they are wiped / wipe themselves from public view. Be beautiful or be gone.

London-based photographer Zed Nelson has an incredible exhibition entitled Love Me at the Sydney Centre for Photography. He shows with true clarity the price paid to fulfill the never-ending and highly demanding expectations of a beautiful body. There is a image of a nip/tuck from a surgeon's point of view that I find particularly memorable.

So right now I am going back to my aunt's place and am going to stuff myself with some soulfood brought by my aunts, maybe some of this sour soup that has been in our family's belly memories forever. I just learned how to make "tong yeun" yesterday from 5th Aunt and can't wait to do it again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I'm not sure that the world is ready for China. And equally so, I'm not sure that the Chinese is ready for the world.

Apparently a miniscule drop of Mainland Chinese -- very affluent of course due to our collective consumption of Made-in-China goods -- have come to Australia and very recently have upped the real estate market by a very considerable amount. It's made the sellers very happy but of course not first-time home buyers. It's yet another "reason" to keep Australia, well "Australian".

Many countries have residency- or citizenship-ownership laws. In Oman, only Omanis can purchase land. And to be an Omani you have to be resident fo 30 years.

It's nothing new of course. I doubt that the Aborigines / Kooris have economic access to land here. And I remember the combination of Expo 86 in Vancouver / the Hong Kong handover hiking prices up. But everythings been legal. Everything is by auction, allowed by property law and banking law here.

Not so in the Middle East, and of course I am talking about Isreal and the Isreali settlements in the Palestinian Authority. I'm currently engrossed in a book by Stephen Glain, "Merchants, Mullahs, and Militants". Easy to read, I'm glad I'm reading it now after Syria, and I highly recommend it.

And as said, the Chinese are not ready for the world. I always knew that I had a physically hard time existing out of my "bubble" that is Vancouver. Actually, it must be some part of China. I have skin and lung sensitivities. I'm getting to know more and more Chinese living outside of China to have serious and severe skin and lung sensitivities, and major allergies, right from the time of birth. One young relative is even allergic to rice. (!) Even my father, who never in China had hay fever, developed it in Canada.

So we'll see how long this all lasts...

Currently in Sydney. Off to Parramatta in a little bit.