21 December, 2011

Security Angst

Nothing makes me want to sing the National Anthem at the top of my lungs more than being treated like a terrorist when I try to come into my own country. It may be over a decade since 9/11, but procedures for coming into the Police States of America (i.e. any place where the TSA is given authority to suspend any of our civil liberties it sees fit to ignore) have only gotten worse since I was in Rome in 2009. Back then, getting into Europe involved pretty much what it does now: you present your passport, present your visa, and they wave you on through. Getting into the United States, however, even for citizens, is even more of a headache than it was then.

Let's be honest here for a moment though; we Americans are lucky. If you're not Born in the USA, not only do you have to go through all the meticulous baggage controls, paperwork checks, etc; you have to be fingerprinted and get a mugshot. But that's okay, because you're not from the US, so you must be an Enemy (see movies like Taken for a great illustration of this attitude: if you're not American, you must be evil; not just evil, but an Evil Thing with a virulent hatred for all things American). Since, of course, there's no conceivably better way of securing our borders than taking fingerprints (last time I checked, all criminal acts were definitely committed by people with criminal histories...which makes me suspect that the criminal world must actually be an Underworld of Immortals, whose various rap sheets reach back to the beginning of time).

If you're American, other nifty things happen to you as you're attempting to return to your country. You go through security in Europe (which has the same requirements as the TSA, by the way), then you wait at the gate. But before you can board the plane, though you've had to show your passport about three times before even getting to this point, you need to show it again. Okay, so that's not so inconvenient, I admit. But what if the gate agents decide that you need another security check? While boarding my first Brussels-Atlanta flight, approximately every other person in line was pulled aside for a rifling-through of the baggage and an semi-assaulting of the personage (yeah, that thing that goes like this: . Fortunately I was not among them. But that didn't make me any calmer about seeing men with graying hair and women with white hair and high school students being treated like criminals and having to put up with it calmly for fear that the least complaint would be interpreted as aggression and suppressed. (Tell me again what's not police state about this?)

Of course, since the best way to protect our country from terrorism, illness, agricultural blights and a whole laundry list of other Curses of Adam is to make sure that we hermetically seal our borders, the ten hour flight following the first (two?) security checks is promptly followed by...I bet you can't guess...another security check. That is correct. With absolutely no window of opportunity available between the time you get off the plane (without exiting security), pick up your international baggage (without exiting security), bring a “imports affidavit” and your checked baggage pointlessly through another checkpoint where they actually check nothing before having you put it right back on a conveyor belt (without exiting security), there's still apparently sufficient danger that one of the frazzled passengers might have somehow picked up, I don't know, a bomb? a knife? something like that? under the watchful eyes of about five policemen per line. So guess what? You have to go through security again.

All of this makes so much sense to me. As I've said a million times before (fairly recently too, so I won't repeat in detail), possibly the most frustrating thing about it all is that it's so invasive while being so obviously ineffective. It might stop the most stupid of would-be terrorists. But a.) when you list all of the things you are going to check and all of the places you're going to search, it's kind of obvious that serious terrorists will seek other methods of attack. And b.) the checks as they are performed are so perfunctory, so shoddily done, that I really wonder what they accomplish at all. Take the huge “importation” check. They want to make sure that you don't have anything that could remotely pose a risk to public health or anything that could be “smuggled.” I suppose that's reasonable. So what's the most logical way to check for that? Obviously, have them give you a slip of paper saying “I don't have any X”, and then wave them through. Wow, look guys, I've saved the world! Why didn't I think of this before? We can ask people if they're doing anything bad and since lying is impossible, we'll definitely get an accurate answer.

The whole thing is such a mess, at least to the eye of common sense, that I end the hour-long process of getting off the plane “legally” hoping beyond all else that there's some behind-the-scenes justification for all this. That running gloved hands under the lip of an elderly man's jeans is somehow protecting us all from more 9/11's. And while I wish this so that at least the outrage of my common sense may be soothed, I can't ignore the fact that even if such tactics are achieving victories every now and then, victories that we somehow never hear about, we've kind of let the Bin Laden crowd win. Because if their goal was to “terrify” Americans (which is what terrorists do, no?), they've done that pretty well. Well enough that we're perfectly fine now with giving up more and more of our liberties just so that we can stay “safe”.

Last time I checked, America wasn't the Land of the Safe and Cowardly, at least not in theory. It was supposed to be “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” One has to wonder how many people still care to make the distinction.

18 December, 2011

A few nights in Belgium: Requiems and Royalty

I can hardly say that this semester has been uneventful. As I think back, plenty of interesting events come to mind: that first hectic week in Hotel Astrid spent scrounging free wifi at cafes across the city and going to the fortuitously-scheduled film festival at night; the challenge of meeting with my adviser, professors, and library staff and explaining my unusual academic situation to them...in French; a twenty-five mile bike ride from Bruges to Zeebrugge, just for the sake of seeing the North Sea; a few brushes with the police (not my fault!); meeting crazy pro-OWS Yugoslavians in Paris and being dragged along with them to a med-students' bar where the drinks come in...baby bottles; getting violently ill in Paris a few days later thanks to too much sun? too little water? and dragging myself back to my hostel on the metro; oh right, that "briefing" at the American embassy and reception at the ambassador's house; getting quite, quite lost in Bois de la Cambre with a friend at night; hiking seventeen miles to get to the site of the Battle of Waterloo; refusing invitations to "have a coffee" with various guys ranging from a junior staff member of the European Parliament to a Parisian bookseller; visiting way too many Christmas markets; nearly getting stranded in Germany after one particularly eventful Christmas market visit and having to push a motor scooter back to Flagey with a friend (who actually did by far the most of the pushing) through throngs of partying Brits at nearly 2:00 a.m.; getting lost around Gare du Midi for a few hours (not such a great idea); getting a super-new haircut in Lille, France and discovering that leather jackets are actually quite classy; trying roasted chestnuts, glühwein, Belgian fries, Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and waterzooi for the first time; seeing how the Belgian staff of the Sheraton interprets the American Thanksgiving menu; running into a serious riot (as in, Molotov cocktails, smashed windshields and 200 arrests sort of riot) near Porte de Namur; and lots, lots more.

Yeah, that's a lot. And that's just what comes to mind immediately. I could have written a nice, juicy blog post about any single one of them, I suppose. But I didn't, because I'm a terrible blogger...at least when it comes to posting about things that people are actually interested in. Be that as it may, I'm going to pretend that talking about my last two nights in the city will make up for any previous delinquency. Because they've been sufficiently awesome that that might be rather close to the truth.

Last night, Saturday the seventeenth of December, I attended a concert at the Bozar (get it, "beaux-arts"?) in the center of Brussels. The performance featured the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe. It took place in the Salle Henri LeBoeuf, directly across the road from the Royal Palace, on the slope of the "Mont des Arts". The Salle, and the Palais des Beaux Arts as a whole, was designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta (very famous fellow if you happen to know anything about the Art Deco movement). Actually, I could go into a whole side lecture about the Palais and how nifty Art Deco is and such, since that's been a lot of what I've been studying this semester. But such speeches are best appreciated when the buildings in question are before the audiences' eyes. I'll just comment for now that the shape of the building is rather unusual because the city didn't want it to block the view from the royal palace overlooking the city. And Salle Henri LeBoeuf is excellently designed; even the cheapest seats (which I had, rather predictably) have excellent views of the stage and the acoustic range is great.

As for the performance...note that as yet I haven't even specified the program. That's because they were playing Verdi's Requiem.

Which announcement I feel deserves a paragraph of it's own. Not for any objective reasons, but very simply because that is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music (along, rather interestingly, with Mozart's and Duruflé's requiems...yes, I know that may sound morbid, but they're fantastic).

Anyway, the performance was admittedly not Abbado's breathtaking and legendary rendition, but it had the virtue of being a live one, which always adds a great deal to one's appreciation of the piece. And unlike many of the alternatives to Abbado that I've heard over the years, this was hardly a rendition to be sneered at. The soloists worried me at first. I'm not sure if it was them or if it was the orchestra that was at fault, but in the Kyrie part they seemed a little too overwhelmed by the orchestra. Understandable enough, I suppose, since with the dynamic range the orchestra is expected to utilize in that piece, it would be difficult not to overwhelm four unaided human voices...then of course, there's the enormous choir comes in and blows everyone away and the soloists are more or less seamlessly absorbed into the larger body. That was accomplished fairly well, but not as effectively as it could have been had the orchestra not so nearly drowned them out before that.

If overly-powerful dynamics were a bit of a problem in the Kyrie, as you can probably imagine (assuming you've heard the piece), that only made the Dies Irae all the more exhilarating. The choir and orchestra completely nailed the Tuba Mirum, probably the single most dramatic and recognizable passage in the requiem. I'd very willingly compare their performance here to the Abbado one. In fact, watching it, and the conductor's style here, one couldn't help but think that the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe, and their conductor were deliberately calling on the Abbado rendition for inspiration. Not that that's a bad thing. Praise originality to the heavens, but there are some times when something is just done so well that a good imitation is the most satisfying possibility for years to come.

After the Tuba Mirum the soloists came in again and this time I was reassured. The baritone was the standout by a long shot, as he had been before, but the orchestral parts recede considerably during the solos for the rest of the piece, and you could see that paying off in terms of dynamics here. I'll admit that I still wasn't impressed per se with either the soprano or mezzo soprano yet; that could however, be because each of their parts here was more a duet than a solo, and the very young mezzo soprano was having just a bit of a difficult time keeping up with the much older and more experienced soprano. A subtle difference, but I think one might notice it after listening obsessively to the Abbado version (though one wonders how much of my "criticism" may result simply from being more accustomed to the Abbado version than from any actual fault here). To renege a bit on what I was just saying, however: the Lacrymosa, which started off with the soprano and mezzo together, was phenomenal.

Once the Dies Irae was complete (I hadn't realized very consciously before how long it is!), the soloists really started to shine. The Sanctus starts out completely a capella, for the choir, and was beautifully done. One interesting thing about this piece is that the soprano never gets a solo per se until the very last part, the Libera Me. That gorgeous high C which she hits about midway through this final segment marks a turning point in the piece. Suddenly the choir is singing more quickly, more lightly; one get's a sense of a resolution having been achieved and that joy is the natural product of that achievement. That was all perfectly done last night, and for me that clinched the performance.

I fear my criticism thus far might give an inaccurate idea of the performance's quality. I was on the whole very impressed. I wouldn't be surprised if my occasional difficulty in hearing the soloists was partly due to being up in the balcony on the side--not a bad vantage point at all, but if the way one is supposed to project one's voice in a play for maximum audibility is anything to go by, not being out in the front during such a concert might theoretically make a bit of a difference in the way one hears things. Even if that has nothing whatsoever to do with it, every part of the piece that it was really important to get they nailed. The choir and orchestra were fantastic throughout, and the soloists only got better as the evening went on. After the last note sounded, the musicians were called back on stage no less than four times by audience applause.

On a related note, I learned upon getting there (by overhearing some excited Dutch-speakers) that the Princess was going to be in attendance. Sure enough, Princess Claire of Belgium came in to the royal box moments before the concert began, and the news crew made a bit of noise in the box beside mine getting a shot for the broadcast. Because the view from where I was was just that good. Ha.

I later learned that she's a leading patron of the Brussels Choral Society, which sang at her wedding, and that she was the patron of this event.

Well, seeing as it's around 2:00 a.m. here in Belgium, the wise thing to do would be to sleep and to hope that tomorrow I'll be as enthusiastic about recounting tonight's events as I was today.

16 December, 2011

The shift from childhood to adulthood, Or: does growing up mean you've "changed"?

Ever since I came to the unsettling realization that I'm "grown up", I've been fascinated by the subtlety of this process, particularly as it affects one's ways of thinking. How do kids think compared to how adults think?

One thing I've noticed is how easy it becomes once one hits, say about twenty, to start underestimating kids. "Oh, he's only ten, he doesn't understand," one thinks...and then one realizes, with a bit of a start, that one understood X or Y quite well at ten oneself. At some point, the move into the adult world at least mostly complete, one begins to separate the experience of being a child from that of being an adult. Yet this is constantly gainsaid by one's own memories, in which the experiences aren't distinctly divided at any point. More simply, you are still "yourself" in your memories of being ten. Not "a ten year old".

Certainly, thought becomes increasingly capable of nuance and tolerant of incompleteness; one loses a certain amount of one's previous faith in reason to carry through to the bitter end of all inquiry, and then realizes that's not such a bad thing. One becomes increasingly capable of making distinctions (between people and their ideas, between the "good" aspects of certain beliefs and the ones that are less than supportable, etc). But what I can't help finding fascinating is how constant one's basic principles, both intellectual and moral, and even one's interests, remain from about the age of four on. In other words, the aspects of one's identity susceptible to alteration seem to be given their penultimate form fairly early on in life.

Not that one can't change these later; the process of change in adulthood is, however, slow and difficult, working against one's "character".

It might be helpful if I allowed myself a moment to expand on my current ideas about character. "Character" is something that I understand to be a product of free will interacting with surrounding material circumstances which it cannot control. Therefore it is fully "chosen" in the moral/determinative sense, the sense that insofar as one is inclined to certain interests, one chooses freely to pursue them, and, more importantly, insofar as one understands right and wrong one's actions are free and may be judged according to the extent to which, within the constraints of that understanding of right and wrong, one chooses the "good". However, character is also "determined" to an extent by material circumstances (a notion perfectly compatible with Catholic theology if you note that God would have put different individuals in different material circumstances expecting people to react to them accordingly; you can find plenty of support for the notion in St. Paul). One's interests, one's intellectual preoccupations, and even (in a fallen world where natural law may be imperfectly perceived) one's understanding of right and wrong can be largely determined according to material circumstances. This is not to say that "material circumstances determine action"; acts are always to at least some extent the product of free will, unless you're talking about something like sleepwalking.* However, I do see the range of action to be determined by circumstance, which, when you're looking at moral issues, will have certain ramifications when it comes to culpability. What sort of ramifications and to what extent? Ha, well, that's why we've got that little reminder to "judge not lest ye be judged".

In short, I'm basically advocating a view that merges elements of the traditionally contradictory Greek moira and persona understandings of character, and that does so invoking the Christian distinction between absolute morality and individual culpability. That is, action considered purely vs. the state of the soul.

La di da.

To get back to what I was saying about the development of character, however: character can, in my view, develop, but the culmination of material constraints over the years, compounded by the force of habit (another material aspect--repetition--though one driven, at least initially, by choice), ensures that "character" is something quite deeply ingrained in an individual.  It's not simply a "mask" that one can put on and take off as the Greek notion of persona describes it. When you choose, you're choosing in the context of an ever-lengthening series of past actions, accumulated habits, and the material circumstances both totally out of your control and those which you had once chosen but which are now out of your control. Obviously, that's not to say character equates to one's moira either; one isn't "fated" to act a certain way. But unless you have a fairly strong will to change (and a fairly strong reason to do so), who you were and how you thought as a child is likely to stay constant in many important respects as time passes.

Now what got me thinking on this train of thought may serve to demonstrate how constant certain aspects of one's character (in this case mostly interests, which, yes, I do think belong in a consideration of character, and I could and probably will someday go into a long exposition of Elizabeth Bennet's apparently shallow "And of all this I might have been the mistress" reason for warming to Darcy...). Specifically, I was remembering the mass of childhood writing I found while cleaning out my room in early September. I found it rather amusing to see how little some things change. Oh, I really have been interested in X for all that long? Oh, wait, I've been thinking about that since then? For example:

  •  The fact that I've been writing so long at all is the most obvious example. Tucked away in the corner of some box I found a tiny notebook in which I had been writing a story around the age of five...the estimate comes from the fact that I was writing it about "baby Jo-jo," who would be my now-seventeen-year-old brother. Who would be mortified, of course, to have such a name recalled now. Good thing he doesn't read blogs. It was basically about the difficulties of taking a baby to the hairdresser for my mom's appointment; I remember starting the story in the salon because the hairdresser had just given me the notebook. This story also had the fantastically idiosyncratic name of "Mer-mee-mook book". I do not remember why, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that I always found rhyming extraordinarily funny. I do remember tucking it in the box soon after coming home with the intention of writing another chapter that never would be written; starting and leaving writing unfinished is another habit I've kept unfortunately intact over the years.
  • I also kept a diary from the ages of six to eight, according to the dates. That's not to say that I kept it with any discipline. There's a total of about fifteen entries in there. What one can gather from them, however, is telling. For one, my rather inordinate pride in my family has been around for at least sixteen years! And here I thought it had developed in college. Nope. There's plenty of boasting about how "My sister is learning to read. I am very proud of her." "Jo-Jo is learning X". "William is the best baby." And many more extravagant claims for which I cannot remember the priceless wording. Much of the rest is devoted to talking about how great our animals are and my feelings when they died. Okay, not everything has remained so constant.
  • An early entry records what I believe was probably my first "poem" (or so I dubbed it):
    • Papa is walking and walking,/While Mama is talking and talking.
    • Not altogether unobservant, I suppose. Apparently my interest in writing poetry, despite the stubborn hatred of reading it that lasted until I was in my senior year of high school, goes back a bit. I do remember being highly critical of all attempts, however. They usually ended up in the fire, which is rather a bad thing now, considering how amusing it is to look back on such things.
  • I also discovered a "eulogy" I had written for our first cat, who perished in the most traumatic way possible by being hit by a car on my seventh birthday. It didn't make it any better that I was the one to find the body. Ah well. The eulogy was touching. Bearing excellent testimony to the obsession with cats that is still strong in our family, even taken to extremes by my brothers, the younger of whom seem to turn every conversation to the topic of: "Penelope just learned how to jump on our shoulders," etc.
  • A list of "life plans" dated August 1997 includes these directives: 
    • Write
    • Find out how everything works
    • Visit Russia (and yes, I am still fascinated by that country, having since hosted [or had my parents host] several Russian exchange students, read tons of Russian history and novels, compiled three full play lists of Russian music [classical, folk, and Orthodox chant], and commenced study of the Russian language)
    • Read War and Peace (at that age I only knew that it was a big book and people would be impressed if I read it), the whole Bible, and any other important books I could find
    • Learn Irish (this one sadly died off; my interests did grow a bit more practical with time)
    • Go to Europe
    • Practice the piano every day (if only) 
    • Go to Colby College (I did actually apply, but then turned down admission in favor of UD in one of those nearly inexplicable changes of opinion that proves providential in the long run)
    • Learn how to cook really well
    • Get good at archery (I had gotten a real bow as a birthday present that year; again, not all interests are permanent--partly because of lack of time and opportunity) 
  • There were plenty of other "to-do" lists, mostly compiled in cooperation with my siblings. The various lists included directions for how to:
    • Stop fighting (haha, that one never worked)
    • Train for the Olympics
    • Send money to Africa
    • Only that last was ever remotely successful. However, the interests in doing all these things have remained to one extent or another. No Olympics, nor any interest in getting to them, but I do at least want to be as good as possible at running.
  • Some very elementary musings about what it means to be "good" that I wrote after a long conversation with my mom about Scarlett O'Hara, Bill Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh, in which she essentially introduced me to the idea that one must always distinguish between a person's value as a person, their "potential," as she put it, and their actions. Also that you need to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions; as I understand it in retrospect, it was basically a simplified version of the culpability vs. morality distinction. Scarlett's infamous "Even if I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" speech had disturbed me greatly, I recall, and was the catalyst for the conversation. Which we had in the cellar while Mum was doing the laundry. Since then, it's been one of my core ideas (homeschooling works out pretty darn well when your mom is clever enough to put basic philosophical concepts into simple language and make them seem natural to little kids).
  • One of my personal favorites out of everything I found, however, was a short essay on how "Knowledge is Power". You can't say that conviction has changed much over the years. It basically defended reading as a form of knowledge (was this an assignment or an argument that my reading time shouldn't be limited? I don't remember) and went on at length to elaborate on the various ways that knowing things will give you an edge in life, both materially and spiritually. As I may have mentioned before, the unbridled optimism of this conviction has been tempered. But the gist remains the same. So very amusing.

*Which I wouldn't actually consider to be an 'action' per se.

15 December, 2011

Grocery Shopping in Europe

I've found grocery shopping here in Belgium to be a largely satisfying experience. The stores are well-stocked, many of the innovations of companies like Wegmans are already in place (Weigh and price your own vegetables! Saves so much time at check-out!), and the general quality of non-brand-name foods is much higher. The average price of food is, well, reasonable. Very much comparable with the United States in most staples, although perhaps a little expensive by Maine standards (milk's a lot cheaper than at home though).

Despite the similar prices of staples, however, for someone with rather haute-bourgeois tastes like myself, many things are a steal. Brie for only ten euros a kilo? A large block of Swiss for only two euro? You simply can't find good cheese for that price in the US. Unless it's cheddar. Which I will admit, I miss a little. But one eats cheddar all the time back home, and the chance to feast on baguettes and fine Trappist cheese is not to be missed. And then the wine and beer! Fine French wines for only seven to nine euro? Really, you can find a quite adequate one for four, and good cooking wine for as low as two. Beer is even better. One bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 10, widely acclaimed as the world's best beer, and absolutely phenomenal however it may rank, will usually cost around fourteen dollars for a glass at one of the select American beer houses that actually sells it. Here one can buy it for under two euro. Amazing!

Yes, I know...now I'm just taunting you. It's not really fair.

More seriously, what I've noticed on the whole is how dramatically the costs of importation affect the prices of food on the shelves. All of these gastronomic luxuries are near-untouchable in the States, having been brought in all the way from Europe. By contrast, American items that are imported are much more expensive than at home: cranberries, tortillas, and California wines being notable culprits.

Vaguely related to this phenomenon of expensive importation is the fact that eating locally here is the cheap way to go. Now, this I find rather fascinating, since that's not something that holds constant between America and Europe. In the US, it's usually the food snobs and the farmers who eat locally. "Local" food is très chic right now in America. It's supposed to be healthier, better for the local economy, etc. Which is probably (usually) true. But it sure costs a lot to do so. It means nothing to buy apples shipped in from California, but to buy Maine apples, you'll probably be paying a bit extra.

In Belgium, by contrast, the really dirt-cheap food is that grown or made in Wallonia or Flanders. That has its limitations, of course, because you can't grow nearly as much in a country whose climate is only slightly more temperate than that of my home state. But local milk, cheese, beer, leeks, etc, aren't very expensive comparatively. It's pretty easy to see some of the possible reasons for this. "Local" in a country the size of Maryland, means "grown somewhere in Belgium". That is, non-imported items are--no surprise--cheaper, but to not be imported in such a small country also means that the products in question are local.

In the US, not only can "non-imported" still mean 3300 miles away (distance from Sidney, ME to Los Angeles, if anyone wants a fun-fact); those non-imported items are often coming in from states which receive gigantic federal subsidies. Of course, this is just one more problem with those nasty subsidies that I complain about so often. Besides being bad for a government that can't even balance it's budget, farm subsidies do nothing whatsoever to encourage strong local economies, and they certainly don't help the "locavores", who are often, ironically enough, some of the bigger federal aid supporters out there.

Take an example: say that Idaho actually can produce potatoes more cheaply and in greater quantities than Maine (which one assumes is why in a state whose primary agricultural resource is potatoes, you generally find Idaho potatoes stocking the shelves). To transport the potatoes those nearly 3000 miles across the country, potato production doesn't just need to be a little cheaper; it needs to be a whole heck of a lot cheaper. How does this happen? Well, it can happen naturally of course, in which case I no longer have any complaints that are not rooted in my rather extreme local pride (haha). But when governments start giving money to the biggest farms in the country (i.e. the ones in Idaho, Texas, and California), it's dealing a crushing blow to small farms and really local food all across the country: how are you supposed to compete when farms from bigger states have not only their natural advantages to help them, but also the federal government giving them gigantic ($40 billion dollars worth since 1995) hand-outs? 

That's the end of that rant; I have to say, I find the whole "locavore" phenomenon to be ridiculously pretentious ("Oh yes, let us go out among the Quaint Farmers and eat Quaint food"), but the basic idea (eating local is good for the local economy and in some cases better for you) is one I agree with wholeheartedly.

 Back to the subject of grocery shopping in Europe. Here's a list of things that are hard to find here:
  • turkey
  • canned broth (it's either bouillon cubes or home-made broth, it seems)
  • "international" food (Asian especially)
  • peanuts
  • pumpkin
  • cranberries (not so much at my usual store, but in general, yes)
  • baking ingrediants--or at least the bulk sizes; I don't know why one would buy baking powder in tablespoon-sized packets; and vanilla extract comes in bottles the size of my thumbnail (no exaggeration)
Some interesting things about shopping here:
  •   There are "Carrefours" and "Delhaizes" open until evening, but then there are "express" versions of the same, much smaller and closer together and offering an opportunity to get in and out speedily. You don't usually have to walk as far to get to one of these, but the number of discount items will be much lower.
  • Not only do stores have "store-brand" items; for many things they also have "discount store-brand" items, which differ dramatically in price. A "Carrefour" pastry crust will cost a bit over a euro, but a Carrefour discount pastry crust will cost about 65 cents. Not bad. 
  • The largest size for milk containers is the liter. There are about 3.8 liters in a gallon, so you're buying not much more than a quart at a time. And it goes fast. On the bright side, whole milk here is deliciously creamy. And the cream! It puts whipping cream in the US to shame. US dairies generally skim off lots of the best cream and call the result "whole milk" and mix in the weakest cream with the top and call it "whipping cream". What a shame. 
  • The butter is Amazing.
  • Practically everything comes in cartons instead of plastic or tin. That includes milk (often), cream, pre-prepared soup, tomato sauce. The really odd thing about some of these cartons is that you have to cut them open with a scissors at one corner and then there's no way to re-seal them.
I'm not really sure why I think that this would interest anyone except the avid cooks among the readers (I am sure of only two of these). But there is a general wish that I would post more about Belgium, and this is what I have to say.

14 December, 2011

In Defense of Suffering

This is one of the best short articles I've read in months. The wealth of references (Dante, Eliot, Dostoevsky...yes please!) appeals to the classically-educated nerd within me, and the point he makes is one I agree with wholeheartedly. Are some of the claims sweeping and not to be fully supported (surely not all depression is merely psychological)? Of course. It's a short article. Should we do as much as we can to alleviate human suffering? Sure. Should we do so in particular as independent actors exercising our own freedom to choose our own and others' good? Yes. Should we manipulate governmental structures so as to minimize the extent to which free human choice (within normal limits) results in suffering, to the extent that we essentially abolish freedom? I think that would show that we have our priorities very, very wrong.

10 December, 2011

Contraception, Vatican II, and a few comments on Classic Capitalism

I spent a while the other day grousing to my boyfriend about this rather awful article by a self-proclaimed "Catholic." He referred me to an excellent rebuttal of Townsend's position (it predates her article, obviously) in the First Things magazine; I liked it so much I had to repost it. It's fantastic to see the empirical social evidence that supports the Church's position on birth control supported so well, since Catholics like Townsend will not respond to the theological argument. Why would you if you were firmly convinced that the role of religion is social, not spiritual? (Then again, why not just head over to the local Universalist church if you believe that?)

For the record, Malthus and Margaret Sanger, the "parents" of the birth/population control movement, were not particularly Nice People. The idea that humans would "breed" and "spawn" was fairly repulsive to their Victorian sensibilities ("Victorian" used here only as a descriptive adjective; Sanger came at the tail end of the Edwardian Era). People are "...human weeds,' 'reckless breeders,' 'spawning... human beings who never should have been born"--or so Sanger claims in Pivot of Civilization. Note that the "human weeds" she refers to are not the members of her own white upper middle class; they are. very specifically, poor people, immigrants, and blacks. (Here's an obviously biased website listing some of her choice quotations. Biased or not, the quotations are real, and one can easily find the works to which it refers.)

On a more positive note, here's a link to an amusing article I came across that (jestingly) reads Star Wars as an allegory for Vatican II. It's way over the top, and becomes more so as it goes along, but it does give a pretty good sketch of the situation post-VII. Hard to take oneself seriously quibbling with a blatantly joking article, but I do find the Tusken Raiders=Muslims thing to be kind of offensive and uneducated.

And the capitalism thing! Gah, allow me to get distracted for a moment by my long-standing frustration with the misunderstanding of capitalism that So Many People take for the Gospel Truth. As I have previously argued, both on this blog and countless times in person, Capitalism is not an "evil system." It's very simply a description of how markets work. Really, I begin to think that no one has even read Adam Smith. Or rather, they've read excerpts, which as I've argued plenty of times before regarding such classics as The Education of Henry Adams, is disastrous to one's understanding of the text. How many people realize that Smith's enormous tome The Wealth of Nations actually contains plenty of cautionary advice to governments acknowledging that if the market is left absolutely unrestrained, it'll kind of make for a Horrible Society?

Précisons: sure, self-interest drives the market, according to capitalism, and that's not entirely a bad thing from its perspective. As Smith observes,
 "By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."
 Of course, this is only saying that sometimes self-interested pursuit of economic profit results in the best public good, and that direct pursuit of the same end is often disappointing. I admit that this possibility is not in itself sufficient reassurance to those who care about developing a just society. However, this is simply one observation extracted from the entirety of the book. What you're not getting in this paragraph is the fact that Smith is restricting his observations to purely economic interactions. "Self-interest" does not mean Being Greedy and Stomping on the Little Guy, and anyone who does those things claiming to be justified by capitalist principles would most likely be roundly censured by Smith (who, among other things, was also the author of the mostly-forgotten Theory of Moral Sentiments). "Self-interest" as understood here is as simple as Person A. selling a bushel of beans that he's grown spending about $2 on seeds and about $30 worth of labor to Person B. for a profit of $40. Of course, Person B. only enters into the transaction if it serves his interests as well. So he's willing to pay $40 for beans because the cost (opportunity cost, in econ terms) of producing the beans himself would have been higher than the cost of buying them. 

Again, this is only economic interactions we're talking about ("economic interactions" strictly understood, because one can understand everything in economic terms, assuming that a notion of values is agreed upon). It in no way limits a person's ability to step outside of the limitations of economic self-interest and act generously, and as I've observed above, Smith actually finds generosity fairly important if the system isn't going to crumble. And he even encourages the government to put some elementary limitations on the system so that it doesn't become dehumanizing. (Great quote from Noam Chomsky: "People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."--from Class Warfare)

Of course, it's obvious that greedy people looking to maximize their own gains can find ways to manipulate the system, but it's a bit of a mystery to me why greedy people thus manipulating things discredits the very basic economic principles of capitalism. That's kind of like saying that corrupt politicians discredit American democratic republicanism or that corrupt "charitable" organizations discredit charity. Greed is not defined as "working to promote your own advantage." I'm pretty sure that last time I checked, the Church was fine with people earning money and bettering their social position. The problem is when people obsess about it to the expense of more serious matters (relationship with God and others), or, worse (and this almost always goes hand-in-hand with such obsession; it's a logical progression), do so unjustly. In other words, greed is manipulating a system or structure to promote one's own advantage at the expense of others. The "problem" Catholic writers are seeing with capitalism isn't a systemic problem, it's a moral problem. One that I'd attribute partly to fallen human nature, partly to materialism. Now that latter, that's something one can complain about. But I'm not about to get into a discussion of the effects of materialism on society at this point.

08 December, 2011

Belgium: Advice to a Tourist

Someday I'm going to write a coherent travel post instead of going the default "post interesting links and comment on them" or even the "write 3000 words on the economic crisis and then realize you still missed one of the big points so you never publish it" route. For now, having come home in a jolly mood from the Marché de Noël à Place Ste. Catherine, I will make a list.

There are already plenty of lists out there informing the novice traveler of "dead-giveaways" to their American nationality. Some of these are good points, but generally speaking, the list will be composed of a series of vile behaviors that characterize only the worst stereotype of "the American" (unfortunately all-too-common a breed in Paris, Rome, and other major tourist destinations, however; the stereotypes have to come from somewhere!). I am not going to make such a list. Rather, I'll note a few things that one learns here. Things that one learns to avoid, and things that one might simply find interesting.

However, allow me to get sidetracked for a moment by a brief observation about one item that invariably appears on the novice-traveler-do-not list. It's the infamous "portion size complaint"; i.e., Americans think European portions are too small and will often betray their nationality by complaining about it. This complaint consistently mystifies me; portion sizes, at least here in Belgium, tend to be substantial. In France too. And certainly in Germany, where you're usually served a sausage bigger than your plate with a mountain of one variety or another of cabbage and another of potato. In fact, I can safely say that I've yet to eat in a European restaurant (remember, this is including France too) without regretting the continent-wide incomprehension of take-home boxes. Since I like my money, I'm not about to just leave the food on the plate. Most certainly not. I'll doggedly finish it, thinking "ah, well, this'll take care of breakfast tomorrow too"; but it takes herculean force of body and will to do so. European portion sizes (restaurant edition, in any case) are not, in general, small. So why the complaints? Because you do hear them.

Hang on a sec; I feel a brilliant theory coming on...maybe...I know what I'm saying is revolutionary and all, but just maybe...if you don't eat on Montmartre or right by the water on the left bank of the Seine or right beside the Trevi fountain...maybe you'll get better food and better portions. I know it's tough to believe that the restaurants abutting the world's most popular tourist destinations would be bad. But. They. Are. Some restaurant owners in Europe have this idiosyncratic weakness for making as much money as possible with as little effort as possible. Owning a restaurant in the right Location can be the financial equivalent of striking oil on a Texas ranch. You, as the owner have very little to do beyond procuring very cheap ingredients and making sure that whatever comes out of the kitchen does not kill the stray dogs begging at the back door. If these tests are passed, you go outside, put chairs near the Seine, write a menu in something that looks like French, and you're set. The money will come pouring in, because you are where the tourists are and tourists eat whatever is There. These are, after all, people who've been traveling, who are looking to "relax", which apparently in some peoples' minds means "not have to walk", and who are Hungry. It's the perfect formula! Once they're lured in by the Location and those enticing menus, all you have to do is take the order and send out a platter of just-unfrozen synthetic material, portioned as though it was being served at the orphanage in Oliver Twist.

The advice, then that my Wellspring of Wisdom offers to the unseasoned tourist is simple: walk a few blocks. Better yet, get some recommendations online (though that can be tricky if you aren't practiced at distinguishing between the "undiscriminating tourist review" and the "seasoned traveler review"). Most websites cheerfully tell you to "ask a local", but, coming from a tourist-region myself, I can assure you that the last thing a "local" wants to spend his day doing is tour-guiding (unless you're an Honored Guest, in which all that changes). Supposing a local even knows what the top restaurants in his area are (often he won't; locals use supermarkets), if he wanted to work in the tourism industry, he'd probably be doing so. 

However, I wasn't planning on writing for the unseasoned tourist. After that lengthy segway, here's my partial list of Items of Useful Knowledge for the visitor to Brussels.

  1. Don't go into a superstore just to "look for something". All-purpose chain stores here put Walmart to shame with the inexpensiveness of merchandise and the poor quality of the same, yet they are major shoplifting targets all the same. To minimize the number of people just walking out with things, these stores have one-way gates at the entrances: you can get in, but you can't just walk back out. To leave, you need to go through the checkout line. All well and good if like everyone else you're buying something. But it looks quite awkward if you decide that the adaptor plug you seek is not there. Then you're stuck either shoving past people to get out, or queuing up quietly yet purposely until the person in front of you has finished checking out. 
  2. Don't be taken aback if one of the first things a person inquires about upon making your acquaintance is the nature of your political opinions. It's not taboo in Europe, and neither is debating about said politics (or debating in general, for that matter). If you're an American, you get the added bonus of a captive audience, fascinated to know whether the "media America" is anything like the real one, and to what extent. Do emergency rooms really turn people away because of a lack of free healthcare? Are radical, fundamentalist preachers from the South really in control of the country? Is everyone in America really rich? Etc. It's amazing to see the effect our news sources and their habit of focusing on the most sensational stories have on European perceptions of America. 
  3. Also on a political note, don't assume everyone is 100% on board with the E.U. Most are fine with it in some form, but not insofar as it threatens to erode their national identities.German national identity, fine, (unless you're talking to a German, I assume), but theirs, no.
  4. You can get anywhere without a car. But don't assume that that will be easy, especially if your destinations of choice are off the beaten track. Missing the last bus out of a tiny town can be a bit of a bother.
  5. When you go into a restaurant or cafe, seat yourself (though it's a good idea to make sure the waiter knows you're there, and maybe to wait around just in case he has a preference regarding where you choose to sit). Even the most basic cafes have waiters, so there's usually no going up to the counter to order. They'll come to you. 
  6. There are exceptions to the above, but they're easy to identify; usually pretty obviously modeled after the American "Starbucks-type-cafe", and prominently advertising their free wifi. This type is usually overrun with students, so you can just do what everyone else is doing.
  7. Also on the subject of cafés, know that a "café" is black, a "lait russe" is coffee with warm milk, a "cappuccino" is a small, strong drink topped with a mountain of whipped cream, and a latte usually comes in a tall, narrow glass that makes the foam look very thick indeed. All such beverages come with a cookie or chocolate.
  8. Different beers have different glasses. If a place serves you a beer in the "wrong type of glass", you've been lured into a tourist trap. Run.
  9. Don't get too excited about Christmas Markets. They're "just" Christmas Markets. Yes, they serve warm spiced wine at almost every stall. Yes, they serve foods like quiche and oysters and tartiflette and sauerkraut, et al. Yes, there's a skating rink and ferris wheel. What's so unusual about all of that?
  10. Thanksgiving is best explained with reference to the romance of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.
  11. Don't be afraid of your accent. As long as they can understand you, most Europeans apparently find the American accent "adorable". Or at least francophones claim that this is the case. 
  12. Do wear a nice jacket in the winter. Scarves are essential. Hats and gloves recommended. Incidentally, Brussels is filled with hat shops, which make me long for the days when everyone wore them. They really do look nice, and a wool hat on a guy is a sure sign of Excellent Taste.
One of the nice things about living in a place like Brussels is that if you know basically how to dress and how to get around the city, you won't stand out as an outsider at all. It's a very international city, many of whose residents are here only temporarily (E.U., NATO, one of the three American ambassadorial commissions in the city, etc). So you'll almost certainly look like a pro compared to the rest. Way back in September, on my second day here I was already being asked for directions by hapless visitors. Six times that day, if I remember correctly. And when you speak to a francophone Belgian, chances are that if you speak with sufficient confidence he or she will take you for a Belgian from Flanders, since the Dutch and American accents are apparently quite similar. Quelle chance!

06 December, 2011

This is just to say...

In fact, I have no confessions to make about raiding the icebox, whatever William Carlos Williams may expect; and "this" is not really "just to say" because this article on introverts says everything on it's own. The "science" he mentions may or may not be valid, but either way the symptoms described are right on.

Or perhaps, since I can never really resist saying something, no matter how stringently I insist upon my right to remain silent... I have to admit that despite my enjoyment of the article, I laugh when the writer concludes:
 It can be terribly destructive for an Introvert to deny themselves in order to get along in an Extrovert-Dominant World. Like other minorities, Introverts can end up hating themselves and others because of the differences. If you think you are an Introvert, I recommend you research the topic and seek out other Introverts to compare notes. The burden is not entirely on Introverts to try and become "normal." Extroverts need to recognize and respect us, and we also need to respect ourselves.
Oh the pain and tragedy! Another misunderstood minority group! Let me ally myself with them since I, like all white people with sufficient resources to even think about this sort of thing really feel bad about what happened to the Native Americans and also blame myself for all racism. So if now I get to be part of a minority group, yay! Oh the joy! Oh happy fault that can bring so much joy and peace...

Um, yes. Either way, much as it would be nice to have not spent my teenage years being known as "the smart one who's too good to talk to the rest of us", it's also been nice to be inadvertently compelled by people who don't understand introverts (as in, most people) to just do what's uncomfortable at times and spend a little more social time. Fatigue is not actually a lethal affliction; at least not more than water is a Dangerous Substance to Ingest.

Incidentally, as much as this article and another recent one I saw on the BBC news website were written in good humor, one reads things like "minorities", "difficulty", and "chemical in brain/body" and one is struck by dark premonitions of a time when introversion too might be treated as a medicable affliction. Which would be yet another step down the insidious road of making everyone truly "equal" by making them identical (thank you Madeleine L'Engle for having dramatized that distinction so many years ago): "Your condition is unusual from our perspective and difficult from yours. Here. Take a pill." I jest, of course, but if you take the contemporary logic of medication to its conclusion, it makes sense.