Country roads

As i trawled through the dismal number of recent posts on the blog, I realised that the move to Dornbirn had not just gone unblogged but there is next to no mention of the place where I live and my life in general. As dismal things go, my mental state can be well explained by the fact that I still cannot call Dornbirn ‘home’ in the true sense. However we are making peace with each other.

I moved to Dornbirn, the foothills of the Austrian Alps, a little over three years ago. On a rather warm day in May we set all our belongings into a house and began the painstaking process of turning it into a home. Dornbirn is a strange little place. It is the largest “city” in the federal state of Vorarlberg, the latter borders Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Although I use the word “City” loosely here. The Vorarlbergers are also an interesting lot. Most don’t consider themselves Austrian and would prefer to be Swiss instead (in fact there was a petition for Vorarlberg to become part of CH at the end of the first world war!) but Switzerland is having none of it! In summer the hike in the mountains and in winter they ski down it. They are fiercely protective and proud of the Ländle (small land) culture which mainly comprises of a German dialect that no one 100 km in either direction understands, cheese and käsespätzle (cheesy dumplings?) which is actually quite tasty! In my 3+years here I still don’t know if the Vorarlbergs are welcoming of immigrants or not. While the area is extremely technologically developed they still hold onto tradition vehemently (explaining the repeated suggestion that I get pregnant and take maternity leave!). They see nothing wrong with women only looking after the family and cooking lunch while the men head off to the fields to bring in the bacon.

That said, I was wondering the other day what I would miss about Dornbirn, should I ever leave it and miss it at all! and I realised, much to my own shock, that I would miss seemingly innocuous things; the smell of baking bread that fills the entire town two days a week, the stunning Alps and how they look different every season, how the gym people know my name and sign me in when I forget, how the local Italian restaurant knows our order, how I will always (always!) run into someone I know whenever I step out of the house. How every street has a hiking path leading up from it and the strange celebrations like ‘witch burning’ and ‘carnival’.

They say that home is not a place, it is a person. In my case Dornbirn has given me friends I never thought I would make this late in life. It has finally given me friends who I can call for a coffee on a cold day, ask to cook me food when I don’t want to or go out with when I’m feeling like a night out.

And suddenly, I realised that this has been home away from home. While I’ve chosen to actively be at odds with my life here, it has patiently put up with me all the while trying hard to show me it’s ways, while trying to learn mine.

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A movie review

It has been a very long time and it seems almost pointless to start cleaning out the cobwebs so one will just work through them and hope that they slowly vanish! So rather than dwell on the umpteen goings on lately and on my absence and complete lack of will to write, I will review Dunkirk.

I have to admit that I had to run to Google for a list of Christopher Nolan movies and when they came up, I thought “but of course!”. I also ‘studied’ up on the events at Dunkirk before going for the movie because the online reviews seemed to suggest it. Finally, it didn’t seem like a movie that would makes sense without some prior preparation.So armed with some basic knowledge, rather low expectations but good reviews we hit the 8.30 pm show in Friedrichshafen on a Saturday night.

Now, war movies are a dime a dozen. Every director probably has one to their name and each one has their ‘trademark take’ on it. We went through the ‘loud’ era when, possibly, the technology of dubbing gunshot and aircraft sounds were invented. Which was followed by the ‘scale’ era where one could show, either through funds or CGI, the vastness of the war field and the sheer number of soldiers and casualties. Then there was the blood and gore era where limbs were being shot off and the disturbingly realistic portrayal of the painful horror of war was literally and figuratively exposed to do that just – disturb. But to my recollection I have never seen a near silent war movie. Silence is usually reserved for either silent movies or the lack of dialogue is usually overrun with blaring sounds for effect.

Dunkirk has sound, used to absolutely stunning effect, and never in place of the absent dialogue. The dialogue is loud in its absence, because there is no need for verbal expression. You are dropped smack in the middle of hopelessness. What do we have when we are surrounded by hundreds, each of whom is all alone. We have the noises around us and the will to survive. How does one ‘show’ the will to survive. Like this.

No blood, no gore, not too much noise and hundreds of people milling around. Just us, with the few characters; stranded on a beach, hours away from home; sitting on a boat heading towards an uncertain war zone, sitting in a fighter jet with your heartbeat thumping in your ear and the vast expanse of sky above you while another plane crashes into the ocean below.

Dunkirk was a marvel is war movies precisely for it’s lack of typical ‘war’ cliches. It doesn’t matter if every historical fact was accurately represented. It doesn’t matter, in this particular instance, if the Indians or the French were not explicitly shown, it doesn’t matter if the horror of maimed and injured was not visible through blood and limbs. Because Dunkirk is not a feel good movie. It is an artistic cross-section of a specific instance in time and it duly exercises it’s artistic liberties.

It does not glorify how the ‘British with help from others overcame the trying circumstances’ and what have you, but shows war for the hopeless, abysmal waste of life that it is. It exposes the raw, seemingly mundane realities of war especially in an exceptionally desperate situation like the events at Dunkirk where it is over but not really over for these hundreds of thousands of soldiers – who are humans at the end of the day but dehumanised by the circumstances.

And this is the mark it left on me. A hopeless slice of history converted to an experience.

Mandatory new year post

I like how the ‘New Post’ button now just says ‘Write’. It is an order rather than a plea. So 2017 is here and it seems like the mandatory new year posts, at least, are one constant in my life. 2016 was a strange year. By world standard it was rather tumultuous, what with the political situations around the world escalating and it culminating in the election of quite possibly the lowest man to quite possibly the most powerful position.

However, if I take stock on the personal side I am hard pressed to find much to whinge about. Which is why current state of mind is rather inexplicable.

We went back to the southern hemisphere for the holidays. I want to say we went home but we didn’t. Try as I might, there will only be one ‘home’ and that is New Zealand. No other place can envelope me with that feeling of home. No other water is blue enough, no other beach is beach enough. But this year it was across the ditch to Australia. And for the first time in over a decade we were surrounded by friends.  And it reinforced the fact that we are incredibly lucky people. I am sure every friendship is special but I want to believe that ours is unique. And I can safely say that if I’m stranded on any continent on Earth (and most countries I am bound to end up in) I have a friend a phone call away who will come and bail me out, take me home and then give me an earful. We are much older now, greying, parents ourselves, but the bad jokes remain. And for that I’m grateful.

This year brings with it the promise of new things, but I also hope it brings more sun, more song, more dance, more food and more sea.

 

The one where we ponder life with hiking boots on….

When we moved to the back of beyond the word ‘sport’ was thrown around a lot.

“Do you do sport?”;

“Why yes I do, what did you have in mind? Netball, table-tennis, basketball? I even play the occasional badminton!”

This response invariably elicited a rather blank stare, much like that on the faces of Trump supporters when they hear the words ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’. Either they have no idea what it means or they don’t think it applies to the topic in question.

So what is this ‘sport’ they speak of. Well, its skiing and hiking and umpteen variations of the same. To me hiking is just walking, much like skiing is just falling. So as luck would have it we got invited to our first hike by well meaning colleagues who, in all their good intentions, completely neglected to tell us anything about it. Namely the fact that it is uphill without any respite. So on a balmy Thursday evening (I think it was), after a long day at work, I turned up at the base of our ‘house-mountain’, which is a measly 971 m above sea level. Suffice to say I made it up and down in one piece, shaking knees and bleeding toes notwithstanding.

Yesterday I voluntarily organised a hike. I’ve come a long way since that first evening.

  • One of the first life lessons that I learned from hiking is that it is a marathon, not a sprint. You absolutely cannot expect to just give it your all for a few mins and get it over and done with. Mainly because just when you think you’ve given it all you have, the mountain is still rising above you.
  • The uphill climb is a battle of will and wits. That first hike was all about keeping up and not looking bad in front of others. Which, in hindsight, was a huge mistake. The single most important thing for me going uphill is to tell myself, constantly and consistently that it is one step at a time and that I can do it. And this is not easy. Every time you resolve falters, so do your legs.
  • There is a point where you feel like you will die or alternatively kill yourself. Take a break at this point. It’s all fine after that.
  • There is no shame in nausea, pain or even tears. There is also no shame in going up on all fours at times or coming down on your butt every once in a while. Whatever gets you there.
  • The downhill hike is plain physical. It takes it toll on your knees, back, ankles, feet, toes and muscles that were lying dormant since birth.It’s the hike downhill that you feel for days to come. Much like life.

Much like the uphill climb in life, hiking is a solo activity. You can have people around you for advice when you need it, a hand for support or a shoulder to cry on but for the most part you are on your own. It teaches you to be in your head without getting inside your head. It clears your mind like little else can and most importantly it keeps you wanting more.

It means no worries…

Sometimes the most unforgettable experiences come from the most unexpected quarters. The annual family holiday in these parts is usually us heading home to summer in the southern hemisphere and lolling about the house being fed and generally fattened up. Throw in the beach trips and nights out and we’re sorted. Every other year the family journeys down to Europe to enjoy the churches and museums. After about 5 years of this one tends to stop really planning holidays and take it as it comes.

This year we decided to be different. Actually we decided and in doing so we were different. I cannot really pin down how and when the Africa plan happened. Africa as a holiday destination had always been bandied about as a passing thought. But this time it just seemed to spiral out of control and before we knew it, we were upping and going to Africa! An agent was found, tickets were booked and we set off into the unknown – into the dark continent.

Armed with a sense of uncertainty, vaccinations and enough repellent to put down an army we landed in Kenya to begin a 7 day safari.

Africa is not a place. It is a feeling. It is much more than the sum of its parts. And what parts they are! The glorious Serengeti plains stretching out as far as the eye can see and beyond what the mind can fathom. Animals in all their natural glory with glowing eyes, gleaming fur and chiselled bodies. The colours of the sky and the earth. Craters millions of years old that harbour an ecosystem that is beyond conceivable. People with the most beautiful smiles on their faces and the warmest of demeanours. Song and dance of tribals that tell stories passed down from generations. Mountains shrouded in cloud, snow and mystery. Food that bursts with flavour, colour and the faint fragrance of woodfire.

But Africa is more than the sum of these parts. There is a pulse about the place. A pulse within the place that needs to be experienced. That needs to be felt. It lies deep within the land and everything in it. It gives the faintest glimpse of the complex processes that govern life and the million of years that have gone into making it this way. It was like evolution through the looking glass and understanding the true meaning of fine balance in nature.

We learned a lot from the short visit, not the least of which was that our knowledge and judgement are very often clouded by western media. We learned the joy of being disconnected. The wonder of watching the sun rise over the rolling plains and bathe everything in its glow. The intricacies of the migration of herds across the Serengeti. As precise an exercise as any. We were blown away by the beauty of the giraffe batting its long eyelashes as it glided along its way. The prancing gazelles that looked like they were moving to silent music. The walk of a lioness, the roar of a lion. The symmetry of the zebra’s stripes and the elusiveness of the nimble leopard as it slept on a tree branch. You haven’t lived until you’ve been lifted over the plains in a hot air balloon and peered down into dense forests and ancient rivers that have weaved their path around the land. And you have really lived if you’ve felt the fear of elephants trying to knock the water tank off your tent while a leopard growled menacingly outside.

We learned a lot from the short visit. That womenfolk have a raw deal in all species. That the wildebeest is pretty much the base of the pyramid, much like Trump supporting Americans. But unlike Trump supporters, the reckless courage of the wildebeest spurs a positive outcome! That lions are the ‘king’ not because they do a lot but because they get to grab their cubs’ food and generally be asses once they’re the alpha male. That baboons are just asses in general. And that actual asses are quite useful. Zebras are much more intelligent than they lead us to believe and that elephants actually don’t have much to worry about at all. Hyenas as not as ugly as they’re made out to be and cheetahs and leopards look quite different. And that Tsetse flies are attracted to moving vehicles!

There’s a lot we will miss of the short visit. Sitting around a bonfire munching warm peanuts and talking about politics, the weather and life in general. The thrill of racing over to a point of sighting and wondering what we will see and if we’ll get there in time. The roads of which there are only two kinds – ‘dismantlers’ and ‘rattlers’. The Masai sunset song. The clouds clearing to give a glimpse of the Kilimanjaro. How we were spectators to something far before and far beyond us. And most of all how everything is ‘Hakuna Matata’. It means no worries – and that’s exactly what it was.

Letters to myself

My Grandfather used to say “If you can do Maths, you can do anything”. Of course he was referring to my school curriculum in Std. 5! But as I am older now and free to interpret advice at my will, I like to think that he didn’t really mean Math but meant the scientific way of thinking.
Many people have said to me ‘Life is not a mathematical equation’. True. But even Mathematics is not a mathematical equation. An equation is just a tool used to solve a problem. And this is where my grandfather’s words ring true.
If you can apply the scientific method then you can solve any problem. You see the scientific method is simple: it takes the facts as we know them today, it takes logic as we understand it today, and it can give you a reason for the problem and possibly a solution. Sometimes it can also predict what might happen based on the facts and extrapolated based on the logic. However, the single most beautiful thing about the scientific method is that it is happy to be wrong. It adapts. If new facts come along that disprove the chain of logic, it goes back to the point of breakdown and starts building up again.
So this got me thinking – I reckon the scientific method can be applied to literally everything. Even life. In fact, it should be applied to life as we know it. It should be used by us everyday to go through life.
Now I hear some of you – what about creativity, life would be so boring, what about the unpredictable. Well, these are completely unrelated to the scientific method. It doesn’t kill creativity. It doesn’t eliminate excitement. What it does is help problem solving. And it does so in a credible, constant way.
The scientific method is difficult. It relies on absolute, brutal facts. And in order to apply it correctly to life, one has to be brutally honest with oneself. As humans we are conditioned to pass blame and not take responsibility for our actions. Case in point: religion, deities, Godmen. Or better still, shirk the long hard road; diets, wonder drugs, quick fixes. Nothing comes easy, not in life.

I hereby….

What really gets my goat is when people ask ‘So you think science can answer everything and religion/faith cannot’. 

Science and religion are not equivalent.  They are NOT two sides of the same coin. Science is not a belief system – the scientific method is a systematic gathering of evidence that leads to a conclusion. This conclusion may change if contradictory evidence is found. Science needs to be contradicted/challenged for its progress. I do not ‘believe’ in science. I don’t need to. To me, science is a collection of facts. The facts, in themselves, just exist. They always have. Whether we know about them or not. The things that we don’t know, can’t know- science tells us to what degree it ‘predicts’ they are a certain way. The rest is up to me. 

The scientific method makes it possible for us to 1. Explain certain facts and/or 2. Make predictions about things that we cannot experience, within a certain degree of error.

Maybe what I believe in is progress. And only science can give that to me. Religion/faith cannot. I would go as far as to say that it is completely wrong to pit science against religion in a ‘race’ to answer the same questions (actually only science is in the race because it is attempting to answer the big questions!). Religion is make-believe. There is not a shred of evidence needed for anything in religion. It is like me writing a story and getting a million people to believe that the story is right. Actually I might do that. Just as an experiment.

At this moment in time, all the scientific evidence I know points to the ‘fact’ that there is no God. The minute I typed that I thought – Oh crap! What if there is and I go to hell for my blasphemy. Well if I do, then some things I know for a fact:

  • There are a bunch of scientists in hell right now, who, if ‘alive’, are working very hard to find out if there is something beyond hell.
  • If they can remember their life before hell, they are trying bloody hard to get a message back so that we have more evidence and more facts about hell
  • They will succeed sooner or later
  • I will join them