Jo Goes

Life, travel, productivity, learning & inspiration

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We’re all human underneath (The culture of human beings)

One of the key things you learn from travelling is that humans are humans. The basics are all the same. There’s no need to be afraid of a culture you don’t know or understand , because if you break through the cultural barrier (if you see it as an obstruction in the first place), then we’re all just humans eating different things, wearing our clothes differently, believing different things and talking about things differently, and even peeing differently. 

Having the patience to remember that culture is just a layer of humanity when you’re interacting with and discovering different cultures, is fundamental to getting on in that culture. 

When you’re struggling to break bread with your right hand in an Indian village, and starving because you were already hungry and it’s taking you even longer to get your lunch into your stomach as you don’t want to offend anyone by using your other ‘toilet’ hand, it pays to remember that a huge number of human beings on this planet do indeed manage to survive by eating with one hand, so with patience, you’re not going to die.

When you’re struggling to hide your disgust at the guy who just phlegmmed a huge ball of spit onto the pavement infront of you when you’re walking along peacefully with your Chinese street food, remember that time when you had a cold and had to swallow that massive glob of phlegm that ended up in your throat because it’s not the done thing in your culture to get rid of it externally.

When you’re cursing the Brit in the meeting because they’ve used 100 words and you still have no idea what they want you to do, and you can’t decipher the instructions because all you hear is ‘sorry’, ‘would you mind if’ or ‘I don’t want you to go out of your way’… Remember that unless you communicate similarly when you need something from a Brit, you won’t ever get any help from them in return.  

Some layers of a culture may be thicker to penetrate, some you may not be able to penetrate at all. This is also something entirely individual and dependent on attitude and openess, rather than language skills, experience, wealth or any other factor (although these can certainly help).

To see culture as a layer to humanity is to embrace it as a natural and interesting curiosity of life in this world. To see it as a barrier runs the risk of not ever reaching the human layer. There can be no real hierarchy of culture, none is greater than another (despite concepts some have of ‘l’exception culturelle’ or even cultural capitals), just as there can be no real hierarchy of humanity (despite what many like to believe).



In the bag (Packing for another world)

There is an art to packing a bag for a trip. Some love it, some hate it. Personally, I hate unpacking, but packing is part of the anticipation of the next journey, the next adventure. It involves digging to the back of your wardrobe, retrieving items you’ve not worn for months, it means planning what you might like to read over the coming weeks.

I have the things I always take with me

  • an adapter; for all the chargers that come with all the funky devices
  •  a good book/kindle, or both.
  • a fleece travel pillow with cover
  • a spare wallet, for the foreign currency, and a zip up wallet for the receipts. On a business trip, I’ll always have a few post its and paper clips to organise the receipts/itinerary on the road
  • basic drugs, like painkillers & Imodium.
  • oh, and some Twining’s Ginger Lemon Tea bags. Ultimate comforting drink for when you’re sick of hotel rooms, small talk and you’ve drunk far too much poor quality coffee.

I have the things I often think I should have left at home

  • the book. It tends to get read on the plane only, as it’s so easy to be totally satisfied just people watching instead of reading when abroad and outside the hotel room, and that is one of the biggest joys of being on the road.
  • the tea bags. I mean, there are cocktail bars in these places, don’t be silly.

I have the things I always wish I’d brought with me

  • the foreign currency I still have from the last trip instead of ending up with loads of useless small change
  • my best friends. There are some places you end up in that you know your friends would adore, and sending a poor quality photo on What’s App doesn’t quite do the trick

And then, the next challenge… packing in minus celsius for 30 degrees heat. I like this because it requires visualisation; you can almost feel the heat on your skin as you fold your sleeveless shirt that hasn’t seen the light of day since August.  Sunglasses invariably take up less space that an umbrella, and out come the colours!

What is great about packing, is that it makes you realise how little you actually need in your life to survive. Granted, hotels have fairly luxurious facilities, but it’s just you, the bag on your back and the world at your feet. And that’s pretty damn cool.

IMG_1186In the bag…

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Tourist vista (Seeing home through foreign eyes)

Signs. There are so many unnecessary signs. And announcements. Do we really need to be told to mind the gap? Do people read the colourful stickers plastered over every train door warning against instant death from electrocution, instant death should you stick your head out of the window of the moving train, and reminding you that you ought not be smoking but that you ought to be giving up for your seat for a less able bodied elder? 

Clouds. The clouds are awesome. There are always clouds. They’re often wispy. Sometimes they’re giant and fiercely black, towering above the brick houses. Sometimes it’s tricky to distinguish where one cloud ends and the next starts. 

Green. Shades of green from moody muddy green to a tidy clean-cut British racing green. Green hedgerows obscuring long-stretching views of rolling hills, ancient mighty green oaks whose roots are doing their best at breaking out of the pavement and tripping up a passing wobbly pensioner, green fields, scattered with black-faced wandering sheep. 

Uptalk. A whiney slightly nasal woman announcing in words whose definitions she does does not understand, or the platform attendant at Victoria droning into his hand-held microphone using clumsily unnatural vocabulary for someone whose education was not paid for by rich parents.

Returning to the country where I spent my first 19 years, and where I have not lived for almost 9, things appear to have changed. Except that I don’t think they have really. I’m just seeing them differently. On the southbound train out of London I felt compelled to take a photo of the London rooftops. The same rooftops I have seen every time I’ve taken the same train before. But somehow I never noticed how beautiful they are. Or I never appreciated it.

I never noticed the horribly ugly voice that most people have been trained to use when using tannoy systems in shops, or airports, or reminding people to step back from the yellow line so to avoid being swept up by a passing train. To be honest I wish I could go back to not noticing that one… Now that I’ve noticed the misuse and overuse of multi-syllabic words being broadcast loudly across the country, I cannot stop noticing them. This one could actually something that has changed…a linguistic development (or regression?) whereby there is a convention to lengthen your vowels, use the word inclement rather than poor to describe the weather that is causing a delays train and generally speak a language that isn’t naturally yours when doing so over a megaphone. 

I also never really noticed that the English are generally totally unprepared for the weather, despite the country’s reputation for daintily whirling around all four seasons in the same day. Compared to the Norweigians for example who will happily match their business suit with a pair of wellies to get to work with dry feet, the Brits would prefer to look dapper and battle against the downpour in their ballerinas. 

The capital, like so many capital cities, is known for being snobby and unfriendly. On one of those really long and fairly steep escalators, it struck me as I smiled to a stranger who was smiling at me, that people in England are actually really friendly. I’d never really noticed. You can, contrary to popular belief, strike up a conversation with a stranger on the underground. You can, again, contrary to hearsay, maintain a little flirtatious eye contact with one of those stubborn, cold and unfriendly Londoners. Maybe I’ve just extended my scale of what counts as friendly and open, from my experience on frosty Zürich public transportation. 

I find it almost disappointing that to realize all this I had to leave and then return. It’s natural, it’s the ‘travel broadens the mind’ thing. But it’s also a luxury and a joy to be able to look at something that is so familiar and so ‘native’ with the eyes of an outsider, a foreigner or a tourist. To spot things that for 19 years were hidden from me, to extend the spectrum of vision and to reposition opinions that you never questioned. That’s a luxury.

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The Web goes offline (Paperwork and the Internet)

In the fast paced technologically progressive and relatively innovative developed world, it would be easy to expect paper and pen to be heading down the road to yesteryear. However, as much as wifi is a high street commonality across much of the world (English breakfast and wifi, or free wifi with your wine are fairly common signs when you’re on the road)…  It seems to be almost as common to be swimming in paper in order to get online in public.
Image 10-27-13 at 2.26 PM
A sea of wifi log ins in Spain
In a hotel in Madrid, upon checking in, I was asked if I needed the internet. Yes. How many devices? So, work laptop, kindle, iPhone, blackberry. So that’s 4. How many days are you staying? 3 nights. I was then handed twelve sheets of printed paper. Twelve different usernames and passwords, one for each device for 24 hours. It’s hardly worth the effort. Oh, and the default log in window didn’t work automatically when you selected the hotels connection, so you had to type that in too. (For more on wifi or lack of it in hotels, see this post here).
In an Asian airport, handwritten whiteboard signs direct you to ‘wifi password free this way’ and lead you to the information desk where you must show your passport and boarding pass, and then you receive your personalized log in credentials on a printed piece of paper.
The Internet is built in a way that (with a few exceptions, mainly due to paranoid leadership), geographical borders bear little significance. However, PayPal cannot cope with a person changing country. It became impossible to buy something on eBay recently based on the fact that I had not used the service in Switzerland and my account was registered in the UK.There areparts of the world wide web that are just wide, and not at all global. Which, as the name suggests, kind of defeats the point.
Internet security sometimes surpasses the internet… There is one shopping platform in Switzerland who have dreamt up the following registration procedure… choose a username and let us know where to send your password, we’ll snail mail it right on over! I like to imagine this business process was thought up by some suited traditionalists in a board room in Bern, and the old dudes thought they’d hit jackpot. Imagine if you forget your password, even after you managed to register the first time… then you need to wait another week for the new one to arrive in your postbox.
The internet is in its essence global and paper free, except when it’s not…. it’s quite astonishing how much paperwork is still involved in the internet!

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Linguistic Beauty Pageants (What makes a language beautiful?)

Could it be that there is a mathematical formula that calculates the beauty of a language (in the same way there exist theories of ratios for facial beauty related to the roundness, distance of the eyes and so on…the Swiss/British Philosopher Alain de Botton has written quite a bit about such ratios)? Perhaps the ratio of vowels to consonants affects how beautiful we perceive a language to be? Or could it be the pitch? The European languages generally perceived to be beautiful do have quite high usual of vowels, compared to those European languages often tarnished with the ugly label. What makes a language beautiful?

There are few people in this world who think Swiss German is a beautiful language (it’s perhaps relevant to note that I am one of the few). It’s quite heavy on the phlegmy glottal sounds that you probably wouldn’t want your lover to whisper in your ear late at night. Compared to the precision of high German, or the musical tones of Italian, Swiss German is a big mess. Depending on which patch of the complex and detailed dialect patchwork you land on, you might pronounce your ‘ch’ like you have a large frog at the back of your throat, or you might just leave it off the end of the word all together in apparent oral apathy. But doesn’t that just add to its beauty? Swiss German is for me a beautiful language for its poetic flexibility, it’s enormous variety and its ability to just get on with things. It is beautiful because it has a mind of its own, and because the language itself is so often a point of discussion among its speakers because its so off the wall even the natives haven’t worked it out yet (which is good, because as soon as you work out a language it’s most likely evolved into a new form…).
Familiarity of a language probably accounts for whether you perceive the language to be beautiful or not. Before I took a beginners course in Arabic I thought it sounded hideous. As soon as you can distinguish sounds as words, or as meaningful components, you unlock a beauty in a language. You don’t even have to understand it, but to recognise that a particular sound is intended to communicate something you can vaguely appreciate, is to begin to see its beauty. 
I wonder too if your perception of a language is intrinsically linked to your experiences in that language?   Do I think French is beautiful because I had good times in France? Or because there’s often a glass of red wine around when French is being spoken…do I find Swiss German beautiful because I fell in love with the country? I for example don’t really find Spanish that beautiful, but I haven’t spent much time in Spain and am also not over familiar with the Spanish culture (but maybe that’s because I don’t speak the language).
Maybe it’s just the sounds themselves, completely removed from the meaning and the eloquence of expression in a language. Yesterday I was listening to a conversation that for about two sentences I thought was Italian until I realised I didn’t understand most of it, concluding it must be Romanian or perhaps some strange Tyrolean dialect. It was beautiful. It actually sounded quite aggressive, but somehow the sounds softened the occasional glottal phonemes and the blunt grunting sounds. It jumped up and down, and went from soft rounded sounds to harder tougher ‘proper’ consonant fricatives. 
This week, talking to a colleague in India, I was trying to establish why almost every word-final consonant was being stressed. Working with Swedes, who can be quite susceptible to a touch of gemination (when you double the consonant sound, like in ‘getting’ to make it sound more like ‘getTing’), but this is extreme. But it is somehow quite a beautiful sound, even though it sounds incredibly strange to have every consonanT totally stresseD aT the enD of each worD (it does something funny to the nasal sounds that precede the final consonant too). So maybe it’s the novelty that makes a language beautiful? 
Since it’s so tricky, so subjective to determine what it is that makes a particular language beautiful, perhaps it’s just easier to say that it is language itself that is beautiful. The complexity, the possibilities, the dialects, the effects that language offers every individual using whichever language they choose, is enormous, and that’s pretty beautiful in itself.

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In at the deep end (Open Water Swimming)

What is open water swimming?

Australians treat it as an essential survival skill, learning to swim is as important as learning to walk.  In Switzerland it’s a pastime, best enjoyed on a sunny day in a clear lake, or a river, or in one of the purpose built ‘badis’. In the UK, open water swimming still has a status close to that of an extreme sport, or something better left to the London loonies who jump into the Serpentine on frosty winter mornings before they head to their desk job in the square mile… 

On average there are between 450-600 drowning fatalities in the UK every year and inland waters account for 63% of these deaths  (source here)

There were 284 drowning deaths in Australian waterways between 1 July 2011 and 30 June
2012, most of which (26%) were in rivers/creeks/streams (source here).

The only figure I can find for Switzerland cites 53 deaths in the most recent count (source here); although its UK & Australia figures are lower than those mentioned above…

The point is that how you see water and a country’s attitude towards it, will, I believe, affect what happens in on or around the water. I’ve read a couple of news reports in the UK press this summer where the risks of swimming in open water are repeated and repeated to the point that you’re likely to want to avoid even dipping your toes into a stream…treating swimming like a life skill makes sense for an island nation, but it makes sense also for those in landlocked countries. It seems a shame that the variety of waterways and swimming opportunities might be wasted because of a cultural attitude towards the water. What doesn’t seem to help is pushing open water swimming into some kind of indie corner where it’s only accessible to those who bother to buy the books about it (such as Kate Rew’s ‘Wild Swim’ which was a bestseller) and give it a go.  Everyone should of course be aware of the risks and dangers, but water should not be off limits (unless perhaps it’s a Bangalorian city-centre stream).

This week, crossing the Danube on a rather majestic bridge in rather majestic Vienna – a city which prides itself on just pipping Zurich to the post on top of Quality of Life surveys each year – I looked down into the water (which is murky and brown as it passes through the city), and thought, no, I couldn’t live there…if there’s water it should be swimmable. Although faith was restored when I spotted two wet-suited men carrying wake-boards walking along the Kärntner Straße. So maybe there is somewhere. Or maybe I’m spoilt.


Badi Unterer Letten, Zurich

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Guerilla Lobbying on your lunchbreak (Or profitability of water)

Switzerland. The land of clear blue lakes, white water rivers and trickling streams. The water is so pure and heavenly that you could probably feed it directly to your newborn child to no ill effect. It’s so pure and heavenly that this guy in a boiler suit made a little video all about it (in German) … 70% of Zurich’s drink water comes from the lake of Zurich (perhaps less this week while they clean up after the street parade…).

There’s a little thing that some well-wisher has tried to do in Zurich, and that is to invent some concept of ‘Züriwasser.’ They’ve even gone as far as giving it a trendy little brand ZH20. The idea, is actually not too bad, in that they are donating 1CHF per carafe of tap water (even if it’s in a fancy branded bottle), to water charities worldwide. No problem there, and it’s great to make those lucky enough to be living in a land with clean water everywhere a little conscious that others are not so lucky. Note however that the remainder of the 3CHF per carafe charge goes to the restaurant, for ‘Seating, service and infrastructure.’  Which means essentially that the restaurant makes money from ‘selling’ tap water. I know often in Belgium they do the same (without the donation though). Surely if the customer is paying for other drinks and a full meal, the choice of whether you donate should be left to the consumer? It verges on guerrilla charity lobbying. 

What is worse is that some restaurants who are not jumping on the ZH20 bandwagon, are starting to sell tap water… I had a long discussion with a waiter when my bill came back with ‘Mineral – 1CHF’ on it (having ordered tap water). The waitress had not told us we’d be charged for tap water, and there’d be no donation to charity for selling the water. 

There’s another rant about this on Christine’s blog here. In the many discussions about this that I’ve had with various people, it often results in no tip. I think they’d do better to give good service, get a tip, and leave a donation box in the restaurant in case people might want to donate to a water charity. Image