Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The countdown continues

Exactly two weeks from now, my brother will be on his honeymoon, my grandmother will be visiting from Las Vegas and likely mixing Bloody Marys or margaritas, and I will be nearing Reykjavik for a brief layover en route to Copenhagen (have to admit, I'm inexplicably pleased with the fact that I'll have a stop in Iceland). Two weeks. A few margaritas headed my direction might help me make it through the rest of the countdown, but at least it's closing in. (kidding about the margaritas... maybe...)

Living arrangements are set, I'm cleared to help with the summer program at the Danish Centre for Visual Impairment, Children and Youth in addition to work with Sensus, and tickets and reservations are booked for eight days in Germany before returning to the US. Prague, unfortunately, had to be cut from that mini-trip for the sake of time and expenses, but it will not be alone on the lengthy list of places I'd love to make it to the next time I find myself on "the Continent."

Unlike Prague, a new Nikon did make it into my budgeting with the trip in mind- a Coolpix S8100, so not horrendously top of the line, but compact enough to be travel-friendly and serious enough to provide ample assistance in documenting the upcoming two months. More than ready for these games to begin.

*Also, confession: in addition to the obvious intrigue of new people, new country, new experiences, etc, I'm looking forward to a new challenge, particularly in terms of developing my adaptability skills. It was pretty much impossible for me to blend in in Ghana, even with my Akan name (Yaa Agyare) and understanding of Pidgin with a bit of Twi thrown in... but hopefully I'll stand a better chance in Denmark. I've been told on various occasions that I "don't look American," though what an American is supposed to look like is somewhat beyond me- an "aura" factor, apparently. I have a feeling Europeans will be able to recognize their own kind and guess that I'm not one of them, but I'm up for the challenge. Love to travel; hate being perceived as a tourist.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day musings...

Red geraniums sitting atop red, white, and blue cloth napkins, star-spangled bunting wrapped around the railings, and a brass band sitting on folding chairs as current and former members of the American armed forces stand for the songs of their respective military branches. It's the start of Memorial Day services in small town Pennsylvania, where, tomorrow morning, come rain or shine, a crowd will gather in the park at the center of town for an address by local members of the armed forces, the presentation of a wreath by the Ladies Auxiliary at the town's war memorial, and a parade making its way down Main Street.

...Stereotypical, perhaps (as are many things in connection with this town), but never trite. My family will be among those standing in the park at 8am tomorrow morning, as every year my step-grandfather, donned in his Marine Corps beret, joins veterans in leading the annual service. A similar appreciation, made more powerful (and poignant) by recollection of family and friends who served or are serving and visits to Arlington, found me at tonight's community service in a church just across the street from the memorial that will be further adorned with the morning's gathering.

After performances from the church's brass band and the local choral club, singing of the national anthem and presentation of the flag, etc, the pastor began his sermon for the evening. ...Now, honestly, I tend to avoid breaking into debate either on this blog or while I'm in this small, conservative town (catch me elsewhere, though, and I'm up for a sound, reasoned discussion and/or debate. heh)... particularly when the occasion calls for a focusing of an attention and thoughts on the significant matter at hand: remembering and honoring those who serve(d). Not surprisingly, then, I was a bit frustrated by my own unavoidable distraction when the sermon declared that the US was so blessed (see Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA") because of a foundation in Christianity.

Without getting into personal religious beliefs or the nitty gritty of a universal and timeless debate and discussion such as that, I couldn't help but balk at his implication. Rather than suggest that Christianity is what makes America "great," I'd think many would argue that religious freedom is one of those greatness-causing factors. An anecdote of his ancestors serving in the Civil War and attributing their bravery largely to their church membership, for me, only seemed to highlight the slight hypocrisy of it. Their Christian beliefs is what gave them the courage to go into battle? Huh... have to say, a.not limited to Christianity, and b.religiously driven warfare is something we often decry rather than laud, is it not? And what if they'd been born to a Muslim family in Libya, or Kurds in Iran, or Hindus in India, or Buddhists in China, or Jews in Argentina, or animists in the depths of Africa? Many of us know all too well that we do not choose the family, place, or situation into which we are born - and along with that generally comes culture and tradition, perspective, religion. Sure, they can and do often alter over time... but the origins we can't change. And really, either way, let's stick with Aretha on this one and r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

Thankfully, as previously noted, I'd like to think that the vast majority would agree that freedom from religious persecution - regardless of one's beliefs or lack thereof - is the key, and one of those freedoms we today thank the US armed forces for fighting to protect. ...Ah, also, let's not forget the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Let freedom ring, eh?

Saturday, May 21, 2011


surreal: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; unbelievable, fantastic

Having rather successfully produced chicken tikka masala last night, I tackled kelewele earlier this evening with slightly less success, but satisfactory considering the first appearance of either plantains or fresh ginger root in this household (discounting a failed attempt at platanos fritos for a grade school report on Chile). Afterwards, flipping through a photo album from the past year, I landed on this, from a visit to a girls' school in Krobo, in Ghana's Eastern Region:

I don't know what it was about that picture; there were many others before and after it that could've done the same trick, inspired the same dumbfounded pause, the same question. Was I really there, observing that scene before me, less than a year ago? Me, who is now back in the small town of North East, PA, heavily dominated by the white conservative Christian middle class, a large majority of whom rarely leave the state, let alone the country...?

Similar thoughts had arisen last weekend following a visit to the Ghana Cafe in DC, where I made use of my limited knowledge of Twi to say "thank you" before we left - my other phrases being "please," "you're welcome," "I'm coming," "I'm going," "I'll be right back," and "I can do it myself" (the last learned with Sister Akua in mind, the Agyares' house help I'd have rather seen resting than cleaning up after someone notably less than half her age). Then, I'd told my dinner companion stories from Ghana as I explained the dishes in front of us, but my time there felt as far away as Africa itself. 

Back in North East, the same goes for the friends I last saw in DC: a Cuban/Salvadorian munching on unripened mango and hot sauce as we watched a French rom-com, or the two Kurds who habitually held a sugar cube between their teeth while drinking Persian tea rather than mixing it in beforehand, one in the midst of sharing stories from his recent trip to visit family in northern Iraq.

Such surrealism, interestingly, seems a possible factor in virtually any experience, be it past, present, or future. For instance, listening to the comments and conversations of family members occasionally seems more of a sociological field observation than my own reality, and that sense of the surreal kicks up a notch as I explain my plans for Denmark, followed by a week in Berlin, Prague, and Munich. The same goes for drafting a proposal for a Fulbright grant to do research in India.

Just 23 days left until I board a plane to Copenhagen (but who's counting), and still it seems more surreal than anything else. ...Not too surprising, I suppose, considering the realization that didn't really hit until I was somewhere over the Atlantic last May: I'm going to Africa... Africa? ...Africa. I'm going to Africa. Hard to believe for a girl from Mayberry, newly in possession of a passport (and the first in the family crazy enough to do so).

I wonder, is that surrealism something that's always there, or does it fade over time? Can one become a bit desensitized to the crossing of cultures and borders? ...honestly, I hope not. Seems to be one of those sensations that keeps you awake and on your toes, reminds you why you do what you do, what you love about it, the necessity of keeping your eyes open and active. An odd sort of feeling, but perhaps a necessary and worthwhile reminder...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hellos and goodbye-for-nows

It's an "Auld Lang Syne" kind of time in the world of higher education, but before I officially leave campus for the summer, I struck off for a weekend in DC (naturally) for a combination of hellos and goodbyes (or, better, talk-to-you-soons and see-you-laters). Necessarily prioritizing due to the limitations of a weekend visit, I was ultimately able to see only two of the people I'd have liked to check in on: Tony, a fellow former intern who'd disappeared to Nebraska for a year and was in town for a brief visit... and Jimmy, the much-beloved (by some) owner of Larry's Ice Cream

Staying with a mutual friend, Tony and I trekked from our former hangout and meeting point in Dupont Circle to a less-than-affluent area of the city as we hit the northeastern section of the green line metro- not nearly as notorious as southeastern DC, but enough that housemates greeted us with news of an apparent shootout down the street. Regardless, the atmosphere was soon relaxed as we adjourned to the deck, grabbing a guitar and drinks on the way. From there, it was a ladder up to the roof, where one couldn't help but admire the view of the distant Capitol and Washington Monument, with James Taylor playing in the mental background. Fresh mango, a lengthy but successful attempt at homemade samosas, and staying up into the wee hours to catch up, listen to, and play music made for a worthy couple of days.

In the midst of this, we parted ways for an evening, others to a local bar to meet up with friends and me to Dupont and Jimmy, the late/middle-aged Turk known to the Washington Post as the "Scoop Nazi." After visiting several times over the course of last spring, I've made a point of attempting a visit when I'm in the city for any length of time, and Jimmy never fails to make me smile, thanks equally to his sarcastic manner and side comments, his habit of claiming me his own, and some excellent ice cream (of which I'm always given extra, free of charge). This rainy Saturday evening, I found the place empty and, after awarded the typical (and heavily accented) dubbing of "beautiful" and "my love," took my overfilled cup of ice cream to a table to observe Jimmy's teasing barbs at the next customers, a pair of first time visitors. Not long afterwards, his attention was returned to me, at which point he easily made my day by remembering my favorite flavors, striking up a conversation, and watching me walk away as I glanced back through the window.

A high compliment had been paid - especially coming from the "Scoop Nazi." Even as I weathered a quickly worsening downpour, I couldn't help but smile remembering the friendly and approving look on Jimmy's face as I caught him watching me leave the store. There's something about spotting someone watch you walk away - something that assures you that you won't soon be forgotten - that has to rank high on the list of best possible compliments.

...Back to campus, speedy adieus, talk of summer plans, and packing. Less than 30 days left to Denmark, but I still have no doubt of going a bit stir-crazy in small town northwestern Pennsylvania. A return to vineyards, Lake Erie, and my beautiful but overly self-assured dog will be welcome, and North East truly is a quaint little town prime for visiting- especially if you aren't actually from the area (ahem). Soon enough, though, it'll be time for another adventure, more hellos and goodbye-for-nows. Always appreciating those who won't soon forget you and keeping them in mind, while looking forward to the new conversations and experiences to come.

[Temporary] return to North East means...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Part of the picture

There's just one factor of people watching I've always been wary of (beyond the danger of seeing something disturbing, like the overly exposed ass of an elderly man out for a jaunt): people watch you back. It's for the best, I suppose. After all, you watching unbeknownst to them rings a little too creepy, voyeuristic, or Big Brother, none of which are ideal. ...Thus, in order to enjoy people watching, we must be prepared to be watched as well (or photographed, as was often the case for me in Ghana, whether or not I was people watching at the time).

This evening, for instance, I joined three fellow Dickinsonians on a trip to nearby Harrisburg to see a newly released Bollywood movie, "Dum Maaro Dum." Naturally, it's being a.5pm, b.a weekday, and c.a Bollywood movie showing in central Pennsylvania, we were the only ones there. Mid-movie, however, a fellow walked in, strode to the front, crossed beneath the screen, fiddled with a wall panel, and left the way he came after a passing glance in our direction while two of my friends chuckled in wonderment over the random visitor. It struck me, however, that we cut a much more peculiar scene: elderly Caucasian man with cane (a professor), young Indian man, young Nepali woman, young American woman. As the only viewers, we had no compunction in putting up our feet, getting comfortable, and making side comments about the movie in front of us. Must've been quite the picture, and one that continued as we adjourned to a relatively deserted Indian restaurant for dinner.

The same happened last weekend as an Iranian friend visited from DC, the two of us seeming to make a relatively entertaining pair judging by the smiles and chuckles radiating from our waiter. This wasn't much, however, compared to the blatant stares I received from other (all Latino) customers when joining a Cuban friend for lunch at a Central American restaurant several weeks ago. What's more, if I'm too believe the observations of my Ghanaian friend Kofi, we also become the recipients of various looks with the vast majority of our outings - not disapproving, he clarifies, but more along the lines of simply noting (or, in one case, what he took to be a look of approval for our voluntary mixing of nationalities and ethnicities).

Interesting, isn't it, what most grabs our attention? Sometimes, like with Kofi, I don't notice being watched, perhaps because I became so accustomed to it while we were in Ghana, or because he's so loud and lively that it's nearly impossible to notice things like mere looks from passersby. Other times, I almost wish I could see the scene I've unconsciously become a part of, look down upon myself and friends as though another observer, see what they see. Of course, it's a fleeting thought - better to live it than merely watch from the sidelines.