18 February 2008

Culture SHOCK -- Phase II

Katie, Tory, and I have all decided we are in phase two of culture shock. As Katie, pointed out this means we have been here (the Balkans) long enough to be in phase two. She said it was something to be celebrated. This is the phase where the rose-colored glasses come off and you see all the negative things in a culture and your own culture becomes idealized (or at least that is my slant on the definition I got from Wikipedia). It is nice to know that these emotions are common enough to have made it to Wikipedia and I am not alone in my struggles to adjust to a new culture. It's weird to be in this phase. I realized that this is about the time you head home if you are doing a study abroad program in a different culture.

My feelings toward the culture here are so ambivalent. I don't hate it here. In fact, most days I think I like it. I can even admit that on days like today when there have been massive demonstrations in the streets and I have to take precautions to avoid being noticed as a foreigner (or even worse as an American). Even with all of that there are things here that I already appreciate. Today after my language class I went out for a drink with my classmates. Most of them sat and moaned about how much they hate it here. It was frustrating. I’m wondering if they are all in phase two. Some of them have been here for the same amount of time as me and others for longer periods of time. It made me think – is it possible to get stuck in phase two? I feel like it could be, especially for people such as me who are prone to a healthy dose of realism (which some of my friends choose to label as cynicism). This made me a little nervous. I don’t want to be one of those people who can is sits and thinks about the superiority of my own culture while sitting in another country. Although I think it would be difficult for me to bask in the superiority of US culture since I personally dislike so many things about that culture (lifestyle and governmental policies), I do see where it would be possible for me to find a sense of superiority within my own personal culture and beliefs. I think it would be very easy for me to just uproot myself from my little bubble in the US only to recreate that bubble within Serbia and never have to truly open myself up to the new ideas and new culture here. In my panic of being the person who gets stuck in phase two, I was wondering if there was some way I could skip over it – if there was some way I was guaranteed to do it right so I don’t get stuck here (here being phase two, not Serbia). I realize that is probably a lame idea since phase two of culture shock is an important step to making it to the next stage(s) of culture shock. I am waiting for that stage where I feel at home in the new culture and have a sense of belonging. I’m not sure if that is the third phase, the fourth phase, or a non-existent phase. Everyone’s definition of culture shock seems to vary after the first two stages. I take that to mean that stage one and two are classifiable and inevitable, but anything after that is what you make of it (my conclusion here could be completely wrong, but it seems to work for now).

So, here I am grappling with letting myself be really open to this new culture and let the good things sink in without letting the bad things overwhelm me. I’m not sure what that means and how that looks, but I am determined not to get stuck in phase two.

-- Katie M (Belgrade, Serbia)
I thought maybe I should actually add something to this blog before I'm officially a sad ex-BVS lurker. Which gives me 48 hours.

(By the way, I saw the headlines about Kosovo declaring independence and hope someone in that region can give us a local perspective. I.e. what does that really mean anyway?)

I have been realizing this past week now that I'm leaving Belfast just how much of a life one can establish in a year. And I am going to miss mine in Belfast. The city itself takes a bit of getting used to, but its odd idiosyncrasies and its uniqueness grew on me. It's a sort-of confused wannabe European metropolis. And I really like that about it.

I thought maybe a few photos would be a fitting way of showing my life in Belfast. Or some of it.

Murals are a very common in Belfast and L'Derry on both sides of the political divide. It may sound odd to an outsider, but many of us have "favourite" ones. Creepy, I know.

The two collusion murals (from Republican/Catholic communities) are in neighbourhoods I work in, and the Freedom Fighters one from Sandy Row (obviously Loyalist) is from downtown.

Everytime I drive by them (especially the ones with scary dead people and guns) I think "What must it be like to grow up with that outside your window? Or one your house?"
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(Apparently there is a limit on the number of photos in a post, so I had to split mine into two. Sorry!)

These other pictures give you a small sense of what security is like here in Belfast.

The other day I saw a big billboard that read "There are now more 'peace walls' in Belfast than ever before." The view from my house into west Belfast is a perfect illustration. See that long wall? That's what the locals call the "Million Brick Wall" and it separates Protestant and Catholic communities. The big white building is the local police barracks. Like most peace walls in Belfast, they have had to add height to it to keep mischief-makers from throwing things over.

This is a picture of a roundabout I drive in almost everyday. It is very near Allison’s house! CCTV cameras are EVERYWHERE here, and they obviously don’t care how much of an eyesore they are.

As for personal security, people are serious about guarding theirs homes (for good reason). This is what is referred to as "anti-climbing paint" here in Belfast. There are actually walls that are signposted "This wall is treated with anti-climbing paint." What they mean is: “watch out, thief, there is glass here.”

Serrated wire gets the jobs done, too. By the way, I took these pictures in the south of Belfast, i.e. the "nice" side of town. :-)

I think that's all for now. You'll have to excuse me, but now I must go try to make my life fit into two suitcases and a carry-on. It's so sad that I'm finding it difficult, as I arrived with only one suitcase and a carry-on.

All the best, or as they say here in Belfast:

Cheerio, yousens! Yer doin' ma head in, ya bunch of nutters.
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09 February 2008

The past meets the present (or I finally see the 'real world')

Yesterday I (finally) finished reading Hope Against History: The Course of Conflict in Northern Ireland by Jack Holland. It covered the conflict from the 70s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It would have been a good read prior to moving to NI, but I needed to understand the geography, the people, the culture, to really start to grasp the facts.

So I finish it and I'm thinking that I need to find something that covers the last 10 years, because in my eyes, things are way different than they were when Holland ends his book. Our young people are very open to cross community work; they themselves start conversations with youth from the other side of the wall about how they are different and how they are the same. Folks all over the city in community relations groups are working to make sure "peace" really sinks in. Our women's group is dreaming of bringing down the wall. Sectarian violence seems to be taking a back seat to the sad reality of "normal" violence that we see in every city around the world.

But I guess, in a way, I am living in a "bubble." It's ironic that a community centre on the peace line, which once saw so much violence, vandalism, riots, fire...has probably given me a better-than-it-is view of the local situation. A taxi ride home last night has made me realize the work that this centre really has done, as well as how much work needs to be done off the peace line, in the communities and neighborhoods that are so homogenous, they don't bother with dropping the prejudices of the past.

Our driver asked where we from, which (as always), led to a conversation about where he and his wife holiday in the states. And with that, he was off...telling us stories of how he has a right as a Protestant to holiday in peace (I didn't realize that was a right afforded to one community...) and when he was in Spain, those Catholics were singing songs and he will never go back to Spain again. This is why they spend a month in Florida every year instead. He made sure to warn us not to walk around our neighborhood alone at night. The roundabout, he said, is a dangerous place that even he wouldn't walk through-he would run. (Thanks, Mr., for assuming my absolute ignorance). He was a man from the depths of the Shankill, not interested in the work we are doing at our centre on the peace line (as many taxi drivers are), but instead, interested in letting us know how things "really" are, and concerned for our safety in this contentious society.

It was good to see a little of the Northern Ireland that people write about and talk about, and to be reminded that there is still tons of tough work to be done in NI. But, mostly, I feel hope for this place in that it's taken me seven months to experience the stereotypes, the history and the mindset of the past. There's definitely a long way to go, but from my vantage point as a volunteer semi-tuned into the peace keeping process, Belfast has an exciting future.

08 February 2008

Clocks and water déjà vu

Alkmaar was the first city in the Netherlands to be freed from the Spanish occupation. It was a turning point in the Eighty Years War and gave rise to the expression "Bij Alkmaar begint de victorie" (Victory begins in Alkmaar). This all happened on Oct. 8, 1573. Today, besides hundreds of trendy shops and cozy restaurants, there are many historic, old churches in Alkmaar's Town Centre and many kilometers of canals called "grachten," they're everywhere!

A couple of things I think are really cool in Holland are “vrije uitloop eieren” (free-range eggs) sold at Albert Heijn and “Echinacea toothpaste.” All large supermarkets in the Netherlands now sell eggs only from poultry farms raising birds in open barns or in free-range systems. The toothpaste is just something I have been using since I arrived, really like the stuff and thought my sisters at home would find it interesting (they're into herbs).

Another thing I have found fascinating is the view from my flat. My flat and my other living quarters during the last year have all been up high enough to see out over the roof tops. This occasional contemplation spurred me recently to write this poem...

Clocks and water déjà vu

I can see the hands of a large clock
in a tower
from my living room in Alkmaar.

I could see the hands of a large clock
in a tower
from my living room in Minden.

I could see the hands of a large clock
in a tower
from my living room in Rochester.

A canal passes silently nearby,
below my living room in Alkmaar.

A river passed silently nearby,
below my living room in Minden.

A river passed silently nearby,
below my living room in Rochester.

What this all means to me,
I know not... again.

It’s a beautiful, bright and sunny day here, and the air is still. I’m going over to the central library in the "winkelstad" (main shopping district), 1/2 block away from my flat, to study my Dutch taal. This is “poetry week” at the library, so there are also events going on there.

Looking forward to meeting all of you in August!