Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Philae

"The stars, like all man's other ventures, were an obvious impracticality, as rash and improbable an ambition as the first venture of man onto Earth's own great oceans, or into the air, or into space...
Missions from the station explored the system, a program far from public understanding, but it met no strong opposition.

So quietly, very matter of factly, that first probe went out to the two nearest stars, unmanned, to gather data and return, a task in itself of considerable complexity.  The launch from station drew some public interest, but years was a long time to wait for a result, and it passed out of media interest as quickly as it did out of the solar system... It was a scientific success, bringing back data enough to keep the analysts busy for years...but there was no glib, slick way to explain the full meaning of its observations in layman's terms...

The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly.  If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.

The scientific establishment on Sol station breathed a sign of relief..."

Downbelow Station:  The Company Wars (1982 Hugo Award)
C.J. Cherryh

As much as we laugh today about the foolishness of our ancestors who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, our attitudes about space and space exploration have not really progressed much:  we believe we are still the center of all that matters in the universe.  Our egos probably couldn't take the truth which is that we are pretty darn insignificant.  Long after the nation-states, the politics, our gods, the monuments to human hubris and all our petty feuds and feelings are dust, the sun, the star around which we orbit,  will still be shining in the sky until it too burns itself out.  This is the real longue durée.

The exploration of space is something that captures the public's imagination for short periods before it sinks back into obscurity.  This is probably a good thing because in a world of national budget problems, the reaction that comes after the awe that we walked on the moon or that a shuttle returned to Earth  is something along the lines of "Well, shouldn't we have used that money for balancing the budget/better schools/saving our retirement programs?"

To which I would retort that NASA's and ESA's budgets combined  are such a low percentage of the overall budgets that cutting them (which they do often) would barely make a dent in the deficits. Personally, I would rather my tax money went to probes as opposed to drones.

This very week, Philae, the European Space Agency probe, landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  And I find that unbelievably cool.  They shot the Rosetta mission out into space in 2004 and it's been quietly hurtling toward its destination ever since while we here on Earth have watched parties and politicans rise and fall, fought wars, winced over a near meltdown of the world financial system, and agonized over the trials and tribulations of globalization.

Rash, improbable, and impractical?  Well, as Cherryh points out, past human endeavours have certainly been all that and more.   But the day we, the human race, stop being curious and no longer dream of space, we will have lost something precious - it would mean that we were in such deep despair that we could no longer conceive of a future for ourselves or for our descendants.

Here is a wonderful video from ESA with the first reactions to the landing.  I confess that I watched it and I was cheering, too.



I also recommend to you this a lovely animated sketch called Landing

More to come - landing on the comet was a beginning, not an end, right?

A suivre and let's brace ourselves to be surprised, open ourselves to wonder, let our curiosity run riot and our imagination take us to ever more stimulating flights of fancy.  For as Haldane once said:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.



Friday, November 7, 2014

Seeing the Sights in Osaka

I have two methods for scouting out a strange city.  The first method is to walk out of the hotel, pick a street and walk it until get tired and then go up or down a block and circle back to the hotel.  This has the virtue of discovery - I have no idea what I'll find.  I try to pay attention but I still find new things on each little promenade.

For example, I'd been going nuts trying to find street names in a script that I can read.  Well, I wasn't looking in the right place - I was looking up when I should have been looking down.  Yes, mes amis, the street names in Western characters were on the sidewalk.  Took me two days to figure this out which just goes to show you that I am not the brightest crayon in the box.

The other method is to pick a target and try to get there via the public transportation.  Yesterday I decided to visit the Osaka Castle park and I went via the metro.  Took me a few minutes to figure out how to find my line and how to pay, but I was on a train and on my way late morning and I arrived at the park around noon.

Wow.  I mean WOW!  The park is huge and the castle is on several levels with moats, gates, turrets and the most amazing stone walls.  I have never seen anything quite like it.



Today I went for broke and picked several destinations all in the same area.  I walked up Chuo-dori street to the ruins of the Naniwanomiya palace (6-700 AD).  Then I walked up a little farther, took a right and went looking for St. Mary's Cathedral (aka Tamatsukuri Catholic Church) and to my utter delight I actually found it.  I visited the chapel and walked around the building which is under renovation so not much to see.  There are two gorgeous statues, however, on either side of the main doors.  I am assuming these are saints but I couldn't figure out which ones (signs were all in kanji).



And the last stop was the Osaka Museum of History.  Three floors of exhibits about the history of the city and a very good presentation of the Naniwanomiya palace excavations which made me want to go down and walk them again.  As I ambled over to the  escalators to go down to the next floor, before my eyes was the most amazing panoramic view of the Osaka Castle Park.



Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Digs for the Flophouse in Osaka

Before I show you  the new digs for the Flophouse, I want to clarify something in yesterday's post.

That shopping street I mentioned?  The one that is covered and had so many small lovely shops (not to mention a McDonald's AND a Burger King)? I learned last night that this is a very well known street called Shinsaibashi-suji. Who knew?

The two most important features we were looking for in apartment were proximity to spouse's place work and an environment conducive to creativity.  Or, to put it differently,  this is a space where I will be spending a lot of time writing and working alone and so I need a home that won't exacerbate the feelings of depression and isolation that often come with crossing cultures and  living in a completely new place.

After two days of looking at different buildings and apartments, we decided that this one would do.  It's on the 14th floor of a tower in the heart of Osaka so it has a lot of light and (be still my heart) a view of the city and the mountains around the city.  It's not big by American standards, it's perfectly OK by French standards, it's positively spacious by Japanese standards.  It's located in the Chuo Ward and it is within walking distance of the Osaka Castle.  There is a lively district just one block away with places to shop for food or just to have a cup of coffee and it's about 2 minutes away from a metro station.  Honestly, I don't think we could have done better.

Here are a few photos (yes, I am a terrible photographer but bear with me).  The apartment is unfurnished and we will need to purchase a refrigerator, an oven, and a washer/dryer.  I see a trip to Ikea in our future...



This is one of the two bedrooms.  The other is a little bit bigger.


This is the living room.  The balcony is L-shaped and there is a lot of light.  I'm thinking two chairs here for reading and a small round table for writing.


This is a "Japanese room" which is right off the living room.  Note the mats on the floor and the sliding doors.  Just lovely.



And here is the view on one side.  During the day you can see mountains (and for my stepfather who is interested in such things there is also a clear view of several transmitter sites).  At night the city is all lit up and very beautiful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

First Impressions of Osaka

Hit the ground running after I arrived on Monday.  The flight from Paris was about 13 hours and when I landed I was a complete jet-lagged mess.  It's got better quick, in part because it is sunny during the day and partly because I have an important task:  finding an apartment which keeps me out and about.

I narrowed it down to two apartments that I like and we'll be visiting them this afternoon and making a final choice.  After that I have nothing on my agenda until the end of the week and I plan to spend those few days seeing the city.

Just for fun, here are a few photos I snapped as I was walking around:


The Japanese are gifted gardeners.  This is a house/shop on a side street smack in the middle of the city and here someone has put out an elegant collection of potted plants.  Very nice.



This is the main street near my hotel called MidoSuji Avenue.  Lots and lots of trees (wasn't expecting that but it was a pleasure to see).


 A very cool shopping area.  It's a street that been covered and there are little shops on either side.  I went this morning to pick up some warmer clothes.  Osaka is sunny during the day and downright cold right now at night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Flophouse Gets FATCAed

It's just a few short hours before I get on a plane for Japan to go apartment-hunting but I simply had to share this with because it is too damn funny and I think we all need a good laugh right now.

The Flophouse has been FATCAed.

Last week we received a snail mail from the French bank where our little Franco-American family has been banking for years - the one where we deposit our paychecks, pay our rent and utilities and all that jazz.  The envelope was packed full with a fancy glossy note in French explaining what it was all about and two nearly incomprehensible forms in American English.  (I tried to do my duty as a translator because there was much about them that my French spouse found puzzling but there were sections that even I, the only native speaker in the household, couldn't figure out.)

Now this part wasn't particularly funny.  On the contrary my spouse and I were definitely unamused by the note that said that if the forms weren't returned then the bank could send the information to the US IRS anyway (which made me wonder why we were doing this dance at all).  I also noted that there was no privacy waiver to be found in this pile of paperasses and I'd be very interested in knowing if that is in fact consistent with EU law.

My French spouse was appalled to read some of the search criteria they used for putting an account under suspicion:  US address attached to the account, US person attached to the account, and wire transfers from France to the US.  (Good thing we didn't send our daughters to university in the US, right?  And I guess if my relatives in the US ever need money from us, it's not going to happen.)

But, hey, none if it was a huge surprise either.  We've been expecting some sort of paperwork ever since the French parliament passed the law implementing FATCA.  In fact, I felt a sort of vindication because I've been talking about FATCA and what it meant for our family for years now and had the sense that I wasn't being taken seriously. "It will never happen" and "France wouldn't do such a thing to French citizens and residents living in France" and so on and so forth.  Well, sweetheart, you may be a Frenchman living in France but your American wife called it and she was right. A feeling that I savored for about two seconds and then let go because, yes, I'm an old women a trying to get into heaven now and being that petty and small sure won't get me there.

No, the funny part was not what happened but to whom.  Who in our little Franco-American household gets first prize in the Smack the Gopher FATCA Sweepstakes?

My 19 year old daughter - the younger Frenchling.

Yep, you heard me.  A kid who is in college, does not work, and has almost no money.  In fact, she has, to the best of my knowledge, a little local checking and savings account here in France which, if they exceed 500 Euros combined, I would be amazed.

And I'm sorry, folks, but this is pretty damn funny.  Congratulations, America, on the outing of my daughter, a French citizen with accounts in France who, even if you did find some way to tax her and you asked for say 10% of her "ill-gotten hidden assets" abroad,  might net you a grand total of  50 USD.

And if you think that you will somehow manage to balance the US budget on that kind of take? Well, I guess magical thinking abounds these days.

Allow me to propose a new motto for the US government:

"Winning the War on Tax Evasion, One College Student at a Time."

Bon weekend, everyone.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cross-Cultural Relationships, Literature and Love

A core belief of modern men and women at least in the West is that marriages/partnerships are based on romantic love.  When two people wish to get together is is assumed - nay, it is required - that they have some sort of emotional attachment.  Any hint that there are more practical considerations behind that decision is met with revulsion.  To marry for money, for example, or to unite fortunes and families or for political purposes - all things that in the past would have been perfectly legitimate reasons for two (or more) people to get together - are now anathema.  This extends so far as to pose an interesting problem in the realm of immigration/emigration.

To marry in order to get legal residency for a partner is a very common occurrence and yet this provokes very ambivalent reactions on the part of the native citizenry who mutter about les mariages blancs and insist that their government do something about it toute de suite.  The "something" (I can assure you) is generally quite a comedy with government agents asking questions like whether or not the marriage is consummated, and filming the couple with an eye toward examining them closely for hints of that Western ideal of pure love untainted by the crassness of economic interest.  It's an impossible task because there is no sure way to determine a man or woman's internal emotional state and whether or not he (or she) is truly in love with him (or her).  But they try and the voting citizenry of the democratic nation-state everywhere should give them a break.

With so many people on the move today there are many more opportunities for them to find their love interest outside of their own culture/country.  Even within one culture/country people cross internal boundaries of religion, class, and culture in ways that would have been unheard of in our grandparent's day.  This, I believe, causes an enormous amount of angst because people are torn between two conflicting ideas:  1.   That people in love should be together and that every man and woman has the right to choose his or partner (it's not any one's business, right?) and 2. an older idea that says that a society, a family, a culture cannot be entirely neutral about love, marriage and the raising of children because those individual choices impact everyone in some way.  I think that the latter idea was first proposed to me in my youth in an Orson Scott Card novel and I found it shocking at the time.   And yet, I believe he was correct;  There has never been and never will be a human world where a community is completely disinterested in how people partner.

And for the people who practice a kind of extreme exogamy there is a searching for a framework within which to understand and a guide to such relationships from courtship to some sort of legal partnership to the common project of raising offspring.  To say that the fundamental basis of any such relationship (for it to be considered legitimate in North America and Europe) is love is simply not helpful. I'm not even sure that it works anymore for relationships within a class or culture because those rules have changed and are still changing and God knows people struggle mightily to cope with that alone without the added stresses that come from crossing borders, cultures, language groups, religions and so on.

Where does someone in a cross-cultural marriage go to find this framework or even perspective?  I suggest starting with Dr. Lucy William's book Global Marriage: Cross-Border Marriage Migration in Global Context. This is the big picture and I for one wish the book had been written many years ago because it would have saved me from starting my thinking about this with the autobiographies of men and women in cross-cultural relationships, an exercise that I found to be very frustrating.  These are not necessarily bad books but they are limited because each case presents itself as something rather exotic and different and special and never stretches to connect to other cross-cultural relationships and marriages.

Also, however revealing these books are about the interior life of an individual, they are seldom very honest for reasons that are entirely understandable.  Talking about one's marriage at all is something few of us wish to do in public.  There is even more reticence, I think, when the author is someone who is still married and living in the spouse's country.  To create a portrait of that marriage, its ups and downs, successes and failures, the great love and promises versus the cruelty and pain inflicted over the years is more than any of us have the right to ask of an individual and certainly we cannot reasonably demand it from an "expat" writer,

And the cult of love as the basis of all relationships?  Well, that's another impediment to writing this sort of book.  What "marriage migrant" would wish to admit in print and in defiance of the cult of love mentioned above, that they did get married to get that residency permit.  What woman living what her compatriots in her home country consider to be the apex of romance, who has thrown up everything to join a spouse in a foreign land, would care to open up to the larger world and tell the complicated story of that marriage of which love and romance are simply two elements and not even the most important ones.

So there are studies and the big picture and there are autobiographies, but recently I discovered another source that I've found very helpful in thinking about my cross-cultural marriage and about all such marriages.  It's a realm where people can ask questions, explore the contradictions, work out the issues, and tell the truth as they see it.  This is the world of fiction - literature that allows an author to speak to these things and a reader to learn and think about them but where both have distance.  This is not my life or your life - these are "simply" characters in a story.  And yet we work toward our own truths and conclusions, find frameworks and guides, and arrive at our own understanding though these stories.

Some of the fiction written by expatriates/migrates speaks of these things in an explicit way.  I recently picked up Passion Fruit by Sandra Cruza on the advice of a Flophouse reader and I both enjoyed it and was disturbed by it.  This is the slow disintegration of a marriage in a foreign land and anyone I think who has lived in expat communities outside of his/her home country will recognize the fault lines that appear in the marriage when it is exported to a distant shore, the problems and issues, the temptations and so.  I have never lived in Brazil where this story is set,  and yet I recognized so much from my experiences in Asia.  And you can see the cult of love in the latter part of the story and how it is used to justify, not the beginning of the relationship, but as the means for ending one.

That is an example of fiction that talks about cross-border/cross-cultural relationships in a fairly direct fashion - I have heard this referred to as "expat fiction."  But very recently I realized that there is a genre (perhaps two) that I have read for years that tackle cross-cultural relationships in an indirect but very powerful way (I just never had the insight to recognize it):  science fiction/fantasy.  In them there is even more distance as we are asked to contemplate relationships with the extreme Other - something so foreign and strange that we can easily (if we wish) dismiss the entire business as "bon bons for the mind", "fun reads" or "trash" - certainly not serious literature.  (And here I know that the sci-fi fans are raising their hackles but let's just all admit that the genre has struggled for respectability and is still not always taken terribly seriously.)

In the sci-fi/fantasy world best example I can think of is C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series.  She is a gifted writer and these books can be read on many levels:  politics, a treatise on technological progress, a commentary on colonialism, an extraordinary example of world-building and so on.  But in it is a thread which we all recognize as the love story/interest and it is between the main character Bren Cameron, a diplomat to a non-human civilization called the Atevi, and one of his security guards, Jago.  He is human, she is not.  As competent as he may be as a translator  and even as he integrates more and more into Atevi civilization, he is unsure about the relationship and how it could work between two individuals who don't even the same biological wiring.  The Atevi, he says, don't even have a word for "love" - the closest term he can find in his own language is "association" and yet the two do build a relationship over the course of the many many books in this series.  So here is Mr. Cameron starting from something that we (the North American/European reader) recognize and identify with - the cult of love - in a relationship with a partner who not only does not share it but never ever will.  Her feelings do not and can not map to his.

And is there not in this love story something that all of us in cross-cultural relationships will recognize?  That every once in awhile (or perhaps often) we feel the chasm that exists between us and our partner - that we are not coming from the same place, that our feelings and theirs do not necessarily map directly, that we must build a common project out of two worldviews that are not always compatible and that something must give if the association is to continue.  Even between a North American and a European who broadly share this ideal of a relationship based on romantic love, they might find that their respective cultural interpretations of that might be different enough to cause great dissatisfaction, if not moments of actual fear and loathing. And all of this, mind you, on top of the fact that we are all individuals with different personalities and characters and we are frequently at odds with the close Other within the same culture, with the same cultural references, prejudices, upbringing and education.

Bren and Jago's relationship in this work of science fiction, I have belatedly realized, has been one way that I have worked through some of the questions and feelings about my own cross-cultural relationship. I'm not saying there are concrete answers here or anywhere but like all good fiction, it seduces us by approaching such intimate, delicate, emotional and controversial subjects indirectly, and works its magic in such a way that we are changed by it.

"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." (Albert Camus)

Next post will be from Osaka, Japan.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Montréal

Off again to Canada to visit my daughter.  I'll be on an Air France flight early afternoon and staying
most of next week.

Montréal is one of my favorite cities and I'm looking forward to revisiting the planetarium and many other places that we've come to know and love.  The younger Frenchling has promised a thorough tour of the Université de Montréal campus.  Temperatures are a bit above freezing and the forecast says no snow next week (thank goodness).

If I have time I will post a few pictures.