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Archive for July, 2008

You usually hear him before you see him; his voice, like a fisherman’s net, is thrown well-wide of his immediate listening audience.  He casts out upon any and all in his vicinity and then, with a slight of hand, hauls the hapless multitude in towards his incessant monologue.  Unfortunately, the monologue is usually not immediately obvious as such.  Instead, he regales his captives with spectacular “life stories,” including, but not limited to, daring feats, money made, acts of justice, trials overcome, insignificant minutiae that extrapolate into a poignant moral– all this and more form the brickwork of his pathway. He is self-made, self-reliant and self-righteous.  If Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had procreated together, this man would be their offspring.

 

This man is a type.  He is, first and foremost, American.  And, of course, he is male.  He is always over fifty years old, hovers about 5’8’’ tall and is, invariably bearded.  He is also an expat– an American living overseas.  He is the American Renaissance Man.

 

I have met three so far.  Admittedly, I have a rather small pool of data, but the fact that I have met each American Renaissance Man in three different regions of the world, leads me to deduce their universality.

 

My first was, as the grade school ditty goes, the worst.  I met him in the Dominican Republic at an orphanage where I was volunteering.  He claimed to be an Old Testament scholar, having made his name by uncovering a hidden library of ancient texts in modern-day Syria.  He spoke 14 languages, was the only non-Greek to have ever been ordained a minister in the Greek Orthodox Church, and had been tortured by Islamist militants.  He had also served tea to the Dalai Lama and just happened to be in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house the night Mandela was released from prison.  He was also lying (at least in part), as I found out later.

 

Of course, the discovery of his falsity was somewhat humiliating for me, considering the degree to which I admired him.  Without context, the above list does seem preposterous, but he told his stories damn well; I’ll give him that much.  Naturally, I’m more wary of the type now.

 

My second was a millionaire (or so he loudly broadcasted) whom I met in a backpacker hostel in Central America.  Though he could have stayed anywhere else in town, he felt that by bunking down with the rabble he was having a far more “real” experience.  Since, of course, the rest of us were there because we couldn’t stay anywhere else in town, he deemed us to be in need of wisdom from the other end of life’s trajectory. And he dispensed liberally.  His monologue filled the lounge space and weaved in and out of his varied decades, of which the 60s was the most offensive.  As he talked of his peripheral role in the civil rights movement (did I mention he was white?), he began to passionately claim that he had always ridden at the back of the bus. His monologue, here, hit its crescendo when he roundly declared, “I WAS FUCKING ROSA PARKS!”  At first I thought he was alluding to an improbable sexual tryst with the famous black resister but no, as he repeated himself three more times, I grasped that he was drawing a ludicrous, associative equality between the roles he and Ms. Parks had played in the black liberation struggle.

 

At this point, Colleen and I decided to escape his mad clutches, whereupon the man handed us his business card.  I don’t remember the name, but the card did list “Life Coach” and “Judo Master” as his profession, along with the (unexplained) letters, “PhD”.

 

Finally, my third.  He greeted Colleen and I from the shadows of a bus stop in Daejeon, South Korea.  He showed us to our place and then took us out for dinner.  Over the course of our meal, we learned a great deal about him and he learned almost nothing about us.  He is an investor of sorts; he solves people’s problems; he owns a house on the Virgin Islands; he’s a free lance photographer, on the side, and a writer of books, on the side; oh, and he has stepped out of retirement to develop the ESL market in Korea.  My questions pertaining to his interest in photography and writing, which were attempts to generate conversation out from some of our mutual interests, served only to fuel his monologue.

 

The monologue continued ad nauseam this week when he took Colleen & I and our fellow Korean teachers out for lunch in order to call us on board to some significant changes taking place at our school.  He took the opportunity of a captive audience, like the previous two American Renaissance Men, to mete out story upon story.  Most infuriating, however, was the moral morsel he wrung from each minute aspect of every tale; they were pearls of wisdom and he offered them generously through the yellowed, smoky hairs of his white beard.  He talked of carrying invalids up staircases and hauling watermelons home for Korean housewives; he also told stories of splendid financial success (at which point he leaned in towards my Korean counterparts and defined it more narrowly– “that means I’m rich” — in case something had been lost in translation).  And throughout it all, he continually repeated the refrain, “if you have a problem, on the job or off, I will solve it for you.” Great. Much appreciated. Except that he forgot to even ask the very simple question, “do you have any problems?”  The whole purpose of our lunch meeting, which was to open a space for communication just as changes are to be implemented, was utterly lost in the American Renaissance Man’s complete inability to interrupt his monologue with one honest, open-ended question.

 

They’re a suffocating lot, these Men.  Their self-mythologizing, which is meant to inspire the more humdrum lives of others, serves only to insult or depress.  Also, drunk on their own wisdom, they forget to actually stop speaking and listen for a change; were they to do so, they might actually begin to relate rather than simply relay.  Maybe then they might begin to truly connect to people (their stated goal), and possibly transform their experiences into the stuff of wisdom.

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The New Meaning of Safe

Safety is a severely underrated blessing; I am only coming to really understand this now, but not, as you might expect, by suddenly encountering a hostile or crime-ridden society in South Korea.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  I am overwhelmed by the sense of safety here; theft is more rare than Korean vegetarian cuisine.  Colleen was even encouraged to deliberately leave her purse on the sidewalk with the challenge, “just see if you can get away from it!”

 

Previously, I had drawn a sharp distinction between the safety of home and the stress of travel– travel requiring constant vigilance and home requiring none of it.

 

Even when I’ve combined the two, by travelling within Canada, my sense of danger was nowhere near the palpability I’ve felt in foreign lands.  In fact, I continue to state emphatically that hitchhiking is the safest and best way to experience Canada (with an equally emphatic disclaimer should you happen to be either a woman or a Native).

 

In Central and South America, I was never entirely capable of divorcing the enjoyment of any given moment from the need to throw casual glances over my shoulder from time to time.  To be sure, there were moments of relief: Nicaragua was a godsend after the stress of living in San Jose, C.R.; rural Panama was other-worldly compared to some of the bombed-out barrios within Panama City.  But still, the sense of danger was tangible.

 

Such constant preparedness can be brutally tiring, especially upon first arrival; the specter of danger dwells permanently in the forefront of consciousness.  Eventually though, vigilance is absorbed into the routine of daily living– without thinking, I tuck $20 equivalent in the sole of my shoe on the way out the door.  As the months pass, I am no less carful, only less aware of the precautions I now take; but all this does not necessarily lessen the psychological stress, however subconscious my alertness may be.  It is all still very taxing.

 

Returning home to Ontario after six months in Costa Rica did not actually shock me by dint of contrast, as I thought it would.  Home is simply, well, home and, therefore, safe.  Without any deliberation, I slid back into what I have always known and expected; hence the distinction between “home” and “travel” I talked about above.

 

But I drive a few hundred kilometers south and vigilance greets me in the form of an American voice informing all travelers that the nation is currently operating under a level-orange terror alert.  Under the auspices of fear-mongering, I view all unattended luggage with nervous distrust and even imagine myself as, somehow, allied to terrorism, and therefore suspect in all my actions.  Essentially, I feel scrutinized– and the sensation taxes.  So, I don my traveler’s hat and become constantly aware.

 

Yet, South Korea has made a mockery of my well-established routines of safety.  I feel utterly foolish sporting a sweaty money belt beneath my t-shirt; I am mocked by other teachers for my questions pertaining to safety.  “You need not think of such things,” I am told amid knowing smiles passed about the room by more experienced foreigners.  Beyond the initial embarrassment of being a neophyte, I am a quick convert; the sense of safety, here, is incredibly liberating.  To be able to travel while feeling entirely safe is a comfort I am not accustomed to expect; to discover that the two can co-exist is a windfall beyond my greatest expectations.

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Mapmaking

The west view from our bedroom window.

The west view from our bedroom window.

I was seven or eight years old when my parents finally reset my bicycle boundaries so that I was confined only by town limits.  The first thing my friend and I tried to do was get lost.

 

The vulnerability and fear that come with ‘being lost’ can quickly undergo a transformation by simply welcoming the unknown as an opportunity for adventure; call this “getting lost,” I suppose.  Of course, the adventure can be somewhat short lived– via my bicycle, the strange, new world of Duke St. very rapidly gave way to boring, old Church St.– but, for however brief a moment, there is delight in finding your way out from the maze.

 

Sometimes though, the maze confounds.

 

It is Day Five in South Korea.  The air here is thick, oppressive even as dusk creeps through the cloud cover.  Despite an afternoon downpour, the humidity still clings.  On the flat roofs below my fourth floor window, scattered puddles of rainwater gather within the irregularities of poured cement.   East Daejeon is soaked and lanquid; its mold, magnified.

 

Over the past few days, I’ve found myself continually drawn to the window.  The view isn’t spectacular, but the height does allow for a sweeping gaze of the neighbourhood; a neighbourhood, thus far, without neighbours.  We moved in under the cover of darkness on Tuesday night and by Wednesday at 1:00pm we were full-time teachers.  Consequently, this city and this neighbourhood shuffle by beneath our window in patterns I can barely decipher.  I’m like an alien observer puzzled yet intrigued by the movement below.  I suppose, that’s exactly what I am– an alien observer.

 

When I travel, I prefer to orient myself immediately, positioning myself relative to Greenwich, to the North, to the region, to the capital, and to the city center.  I step into a new place and conceive of something like Google Earth in my head.  With a flick of the scroll wheel I zero in on my position and then track all subsequent movement thereby.  But our entrance into South Korea, especially after thirty hours of continuous travel, simply didn’t avail itself to such precision; this, coupled with a painfully useless city map courtesy of our Lonely Planet, has made for a humbling realization:

 

I cannot yet point north.

 

I cannot even find myself on a map.

 

And worse, I can only return home by showing a taxi driver a sticky note full of Korean script.

 

I am, thus, lost in the world.  Finally?

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In my opinion parking officers are the tax collectors of our modern time; they are inescapable, remorseless, and almost universally self-profiting. I feel that if Jesus were to walk the length and breadth of Spadina Ave., he would very quickly overturn the card-slot meters and send this brood of vipers slithering, venom-less, back to their hovels in Etobicoke or wherever such beasts dwell at night– so great would be his righteous indignation.

I say this because, yet again, I am leaving Canada indebted to the city of Toronto. It seems I cannot drive into that city and emerge unscathed, without a flapping, yellow ticket tucked beneath my windshield wiper. The frustrating thing is that I actually try to obey the signage and pay all necessary fees. I really do!
For instance, last week, Colleen and I were scheduled for a 3:00pm interview at the Korean Consulate. We parked around the corner on St. Clair Ave. and paid for 45 minutes– a generous amount considering we were expecting a 2-5 minute interview. Unbeknownst to us, the consulate scheduled all thirty visa applicant interviews for the top of the hour, so we were stuck watching Korean tourism propaganda while the minutes on our meter ticked away. At 3:35 I decided to risk missing my interview in order to drop more money on my parking space; however, after running up the street, I discovered I could only purchase another 15min. I paid anyway, stuck the stub on the dash, and dashed back to the consulate.

Within minutes, Colleen and I were ushered behind an immensely heavy curtain before an immensely heavy dignitarian. I answered “yes’ to his question, “so…you want to got to Korea with your wife?” and was promptly declared fit enough to teach Korean children. Do you think diplomats are aware of just how inconvenient and utterly useless such procedures are? Mostly, I suppose, they are too awash in the self-importance of their red license plates and diplomatic immunity to care much about our ‘inconvenience’.

But anyway, I’m scaping the wrong goat. We walked out of the consulate at 3:57pm and headed for our car. Ahead of us, a parking attendant pulled up to our car and withdrew his electronic gadget of (in)justice. We picked up our pace and, within a minute, I was calling out from the trolley tracks, “excuse me, sir; we’re leaving!”

He heard us but simply shook his head. With a break in traffic, we rushed across the street and again I repeated, “please sir, we’re here now and we’re leaving.”

“Too late,” was all he muttered, while continuing to enter information.

“No!” I shouted, throwing open my car door and waving both parking stubs at him. “We were interviewing at the consulate,” I exclaimed in desperation, “I risked it and ran out to put more money in. I’ve already paid for two (insert expletive) parking stubs.” My blood was, as they say, already boiling by this point and I didn’t really intend to swear. But I did, frustrated by such indifference on the part of the officer. My swear word, falling as it did upon virginal ears of the most pure kind, jarred him into responsiveness. He snapped his head up and looked genuinely shocked, as if surprised to realize that people actually don’t like receiving parking tickets.

“What?” he asked, brows furrowed in incomprehension.

I re-explained the context of our two minute tardiness, but he cut me off with a shrug and another, more definitive, “too late” comment tossed dismissively across the roof of my car.  Had he bothered to extend a single, “sorry,”– an olive branch of sympathy–I may have been sufficiently diffused; a brief explanation even: “listen, I’m sorry, but I started before you arrived and I can’t erase the ticket.” But no. Just “too late” and he turned back to the meter.

So, I screamed. I screamed at him and at the city while slamming my door so hard I am quite surprised nothing broke. I turned the key and called for Colleen to step into the car; I wanted to escape before giving him the pleasure of actually pinning the ticket to my windshield.

Colleen, for her part, was trying to marshal a more reasoned, less reactive argument than I had mustered. But, of course, when you’re upholding the by-law with such resolve and commitment, you have no time for explanations. As he snapped the wiper back in place, Colleen scrunched the ticket up and jumped into the car. I threw a few more curses at thieving Hogtown and peeled out of my parking spot.

And it’s a good thing too. Had I learned of the $60 nature of the yellow slip half a block earlier, I may very well have murdered the man. As it was, my steering wheel stood in for his head and I beat it mercilessly.

But there is, in all this, a small vindication.

A few minutes up the road, Colleen let out a little laugh and said, “well, if it makes you feel any better, the guy’s name is A. Ho!”  It did feel better, actually. Such a name is just as denotative of character as that of Abraham or Hitler. In fact, A. Ho was destined, from the day his mother expulsed him from her womb, for a profession in Parking “Services”. An A. Ho’s life trajectory can yield nothing better, no matter how hard he tries.

So, perhaps, I am just as much at fault for expecting a slice of sympathy from so great an A. Ho.

Clearly I have much to learn.

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In some ways, I’m a little surprised I’m doing this.  I’m far too conscious a writer to make this blogging process quick and easy.  But I need a forum in which to type words onto page, to freeze my thoughts, to chart a path.  Without a forum, any forum, it simply doesn’t happen.

I’m currently two years out of my undergrad and, since then, I’ve been voraciously, almost consumptively, accumulating experience.  I hit the starting gates of graduation in full tilt, propelled by all that I had read and thought, seeking adventure to balance out my over-inflated head knowledge.  So, I did what all good, Canadian boys should do: I hitch-hiked out west.

In hindsight, the hitch-hiking allure had all the cliches of ‘the restless wanderer’ type.  And I suppose I played it up to a certain extent.  But I was restless.  The intense faith of my youth was no longer in any way definable; I had read an array of texts that undermined so many of my political, social, and cultural assumptions; and, I was standing before an extremely open-ended future (read: “what the hell am I going to do now?“).

Happily, there has been a maturing, of sorts, over the last two years (marriage, however prepared or ill-prepared, tends to demand this).  I’m in a better headspace now.  It is time now to digest the lived experiences of my post-graduation years through reflection and retelling.  This is one of the purposes of this blog.

The other purpose is to enable a processing in real-time.  My wife, Colleen, and I are currently packing our bags for a 15 hour flight to South Korea.  We are leaving next week on a twelve month teaching contract.  I hope to post somewhat regularly the occurances, frustrations, and excitements of life and love in “the Land of the Morning Calm.”

A third purpose is to showcase some of my photography in a more specified way.  I usually upload a steady stream of photographs throughout my travels; but rarely do I discuss a picture or explain its implications and context.  I’ll be picky with which ones I post here. 

So with all this laid out before me, I will now post the very first blog on my very first blog!

Thanks for reading,

Geoff Martin

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