MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

Category: Life (page 2 of 2)

Why We Shouldn’t Always Get Along

I can’t stand the idea of all people getting along every minute, every hour, every second. I can’t stand the idea of living in a country, city, community, circle of friends or family in which we all are echo-chambers for each other’s ideas, feelings or beliefs. I don’t believe in the commercial-like partnerships: all smiling, holding hands and hugging all day long. I believe in conflict and opposite ideas, I believe in challenging ourselves and each other. I believe in the power of Why? when we are asked to do or to feel something.

1979_congresul-al-xii-lea-al-pcr-aspect-din-salaIn communism, we were taught to follow and never challenge or question. If the direction came from above it was to be followed, no questions asked. It did not come naturally to a very vibrant and intelligent people but after jail time and years of hard work  in salt mines for the more outspoken, resentfully, we all obeyed. I remember my father coming home from two or three days of meetings exhausted physically and mentally. They never had a voice. All they had to do was to sit for hours in huge halls, listen to the most idiotic speeches and from time to time, at the signal of the security services people strategically seated among the participants, jump on their feet, applaud vigorously and chant the name of the leader. The less you yelled and applauded, the  less chances you and your family would survive in the respective jobs for another month, and the more chances you’d  meet with the “friendly” security service personnel assigned to watch over you. And this is how an entire nation was apparently fascinated by the speeches filled with grammatical errors and demented ideas of a shoe maker with little school.

While every communist institution and mass media outlet was teaching us to follow and not to question, my father was doing quite the opposite within the walls of our house.  I have never been a follower. I always had my own way of doing things and dealing with things and a stubbornness that the educator in my father had to mould somehow. As we could not discuss the regime inside because of the listening devices planted here and there in the house, we were talking about anything else: life,dating, school, people and characters, relationships, you name it. To me, the best part was not  the subject discussed but the fact that my father, a very strict person whose word we all, including my mom, were supposed to obey, was allowing me to challenge his ideas. You can imagine that I embraced this opportunity with open arms! I would stay up as long as was necessary to wait for him coming back from work and while he was having his late dinners and the usual glass of wine, start the most animated debates on the most random issues. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty, sometimes I would end up in tears, unable to argue my point of view. In the end, I learnt so much about life, trust, people, characters, family, relations, and so much more. The most important things I learnt were :

  1. The way we handle the smallest conflict says a lot more about the person than a long time of happy times
  2. We all should have people in our lives to challenge us as only through challenges we evolve and progress

The story of Alice Stewart  should be told in schools. A scientist in the 50’s who made a connection between the S_-_portrait.Alice_Stewart_2higher number of cancers among children of affluent women as opposed to lower numbers for those of not so wealthy women. The culprit: the easier access to X-rays while pregnant for the women in the first category. To prove her point she enlisted an epidemiologist whose only job was to find ways to challenge and dismantle any of her findings. Although he miserably failed to proving her wrong, it would take 20 more years until X-rays were forbidden on pregnant women. The part that really impressed me was the possibility of making a successful team with somebody who never accepted her truth. It is also true that it would have probably taken humanity way longer to ban X-rays if Alice, would have broken down in tears, crying “you hurt my feelings” at the first sign of disagreement or challenge.

A poignant similarity between my two worlds, is basically the same way conflict is handled: by avoidance. Back while I was growing up, conflict was not permitted. Questions were out of question because they generated ideas. The communism did not like people with ideas. In the first world countries, conflict is avoided because it makes us uncomfortable and brings feelings of unhappiness.  For  a short period of time, it also creates an environment that cannot be controlled and in a world that has learnt to behave and do things only through guidelines and best practices, uncontrolled is not the way to go. But what to do when human nature takes its tall on us and we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict?

Leave it on TV to teach us how to deal with everything. Do you want conflict? Turn on any of the Real Housewives franchises and you’ll find conflict galore! There is no episode that goes by without at least one fight. Unfortunately, this is the worst example ever of handling conflict, and as it is the only one accessible to everybody, it is the only one that is learnt and propagated. But about them, in another post…

I like to believe that I taught my son to ask the question “Why?” as frequently as possible, as it is the only way we can create better ways of living and become better people. As dr. Linda Brodsky was saying in her article Conflict Creates Progress–Don’t Let the Unpleasant Get in the Way of “Better” : “We have been lured into believing that behavior that “goes along” is better than behaviour that challenges. I do not agree. If we don’t challenge ourselves and others to question what we do, why we do it and how we do it, then we are stuck in the mistakes of today without the hope of a better tomorrow.”

About Books

 

Growing up in a communist Eastern European country there was not much to do as a teenager: no drugs to get high and cry what a tough life I have, no crazy parties with dozens of kids and flowing alcohol, no Playstation or Computer games to play for days and thus avoid the reality of unhappy or uncomfortable feelings. Yet we all had to face the same problems as other teenagers around the world did: body issues, mood swings, peer pressure, bullying, and so on. The only things that we did were small stuff: going out on bicycle trips to the outskirts of the city to get a juice at a rundown bistro, play soccer or tennis or basketball (some of us but I was not too much of an athlete), skip a class or two just to listen to Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley or Beethoven and Chopin while enjoying a forbidden cigarette and sometimes a glass of home made wine, or just spend time in the park, talking, laughing, socializing. I mostly liked to spend my time reading. For all the issues I would encounter there was a character I could identify with and find solutions for my real life. Or this is what I thought. Sometimes it would work, most of the times it would fail and I had to move on to the next problem as life was not going to wait for me to solve everything!

My parents had quite a library at home and my grandmother who was watching over us during the day had this rule: never touch any books that are on the upper shelves. Those were the forbidden books, books that she used to say that were too difficult for us to understand at that age. Well, the tactic was super efficient: I read only the ones on the upper shelves but strangely enough I could never finish them as new ones kept on showing up. Being the smart woman she was, she never over encouraged me to read. There were no balloons, cakes or clapping, no “atta girl” and let’s throw her a party every time I would finish a book. She kept a very good balance between praising and nagging me about reading too much. Thus I always saw reading not as a chore nor as a bragging right: it was just a normal daily activity, more like washing your face or  sitting down at dinner table.

After I landed in Canada, I stopped reading. There was no time, no money or state of mind for books. Basically over night I went from being surrounded by family, friends, books and a highly stimulating intellectual environment in a culture I knew so well to being a single mother with one maybe two friends, no material possessions, a crappy job and my own drama unfolding in front of my eyes in a foreign culture and language. Life was getting complicated and I had to get rid of a few of my habits if I wanted to stay afloat; I had no more time to myself and even when I could steal a few minutes, I was too exhausted, mentally and physically to be able to concentrate on reading. My personal life was providing me with way too much excitement to allow my brain any time or strength to analyze and understand some or any fictional characters. The television seemed to be a better mind tranquilizer.

For the first few years I had the feeling my brain was wasting one cell at a time. Back home, reading, researching and debating ideas used to be a daily occurrence. Life used to happen at a faster pace and you had to stay relevant. Working with teenagers and also in the radio industry forced me to stay on top of trends not only in fashion and music but literature, lifestyle, and the economy as well. All these on top of the most debated subjects ever: soccer and politics. My personal struggles to fit and succeed in the new country were not the only cause of my habit change.

Choice back home was limited. After communism fell, the variety of any products or services had increased but not to the scale I was faced with here, in Canada. From food to clothes to bread and beverages, they all come in a one hundred thousand varieties. To choose the best product you need is a daunting time consuming exercise. I still have a tough time going to Subway for example to get a sandwich. The first hurdle and the most difficult step is to choose the bread!  I usually go for the Italian Herbs and Cheese for no other reason other than the fact that I like the way the name sounds. But I could select Italian bread, or Rosemary and Sea Salt, or Hearty Italian, Jalapeño Cheese, Monterey Cheddar, Parmesan Oregano, Roasted Garlic, 9-Grain Wheat, 9-Grain Honey Oat, Italian, Italian Herbs & Cheese or Flatbread. Wow! Did I get them all? And yet, they have no bread with olives or nuts, things that I really like! I think my feelings have just been hurt!  🙂

It was 2001 and I knew I had no budget for books at all but I really wanted to step into a Chapters or Indigo as they were the Cathedrals of my imagination. I missed touching the crisp pages of the new books, I wanted to inhale the scent of the newly printed novels, I just wanted to lose myself for one hour into my favourite playroom. I took advantage of a birthday party my son was invited to, dropped him there half an hour earlier just to be sure and drove to the nearest Chapters. The first five minutes or so I walked aimlessly around the store trying to understand the layout. Nothing made sense to me. So many faces and names that I had never heard of were smiling glamorously at me from glossy covers taking the best spots in the huge store. Big Best Seller, Oprah’s Book Club or Heather’s Pick stamps and signs were demanding your attention. Where should I go first? Who was this Heather and why I had never heard of her? Is it that long ago that I stopped following any news in the literary world? And why is Who Moved My Cheese a best seller?  The selection was overwhelming! I had no criteria to sort through the madness! I felt hopelessly lost.

I wanted to visit the book store not only for the books but hoping to find a safe place where I could shut off my brain and let my senses take control and  through smell and touch of books and sight of familiar faces and printed names connect the old life with the new life. After two stressful years I needed that common denominator to help me start growing roots and find a reason to pull through that period of my life that was not happy, stable or fulfilling on any level: professional or personal.  It seemed that it was not meant to be. I could not recognize any names, the titles were absolutely hilarious and most of the books were dealing with self help – a subject that I have never been a big fan of but it seemed to be a big hit here. It looked like my only hope of finding a familiar place inhabited by familiar characters was impossible to find.

Feeling down and still having some time before I needed to pick my son up, I moved towards the back of the library. It was quieter and I thought I could just grab a book, no matter which and read for a few minutes. I thought I also saw a sale sign and I had developed a real attraction for it  that I am still fighting to get over! I got closer and my eyes lit with happiness: all  Penguin Classics were on sale. Familiar names on small, unattractive covers ( from a commercial perspective) were waiting patiently for somebody, anybody to take them home. I did not have money to spare but, I had to find a way to take a few of these with me. Shoplifting crossed my mind for a second or two, but the thought I was the only “responsible” adult in my son’s life killed that thought. I took a quick executive decision and decided to splurge and not think about consequences! I picked up John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Aristotle’s The Politics and Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion . All for the huge amount for me at that time of CAD $16.90.

It was one of the first moments I felt good in my new country.  I was impressed and I admired a lot of things here but at the time I had little or no reason to feel good about me or my decision to emigrate. But now, holding tightly to the books I felt like I was getting back some of the old Michaela and I liked that one so much better.

In time I learnt how to filter through all the best sellers that pop up almost on a monthly basis; I learnt that best sellers are not necessarily  the best read, quite the opposite. I learnt that Heather is the CEO of Chapters and quite a good book critic on whose opinion I have based some of my purchases before the Internet and Amazon and Google took over. I learnt to deal with choice although at times I still feel overwhelmed. I feel better about my decisions and about myself but I still fight the occasional mood swings when I miss my old self and my old friends.

In the meantime, I managed to cover some of my walls with books and I feel the happiest when the house is quiet and warm, I am curled on a couch with a book in my hand and a hot tea at my side. That is when I finally feel at home.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  Jorge Luis Borges

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First World Problems…

A few years after the 1989 fall of the communist regime, I was contacted by an American College and asked if I would be interested in teaching Romanian culture and language to groups of college students. Groups of 10 to 15 late teens and young adults were to spend three months in the area. It was a unique opportunity for a young  teacher that had read a lot about the world outside of the communist walls but had never come into direct contact with anybody from the western world. To be fair, I had tasted a couple of the western beverages – Teacher’s whiskey and Bacardi rum were my favourites and managed to acquire a few clothing items that I was quite proud of but that was all. It was a new perspective that  I was so eager to explore. What I thought would be a short 3 months, turned out to be a collaboration that would extend over the years up to the very last week of my leaving the country for good. It was a fun time but also a tremendous learning experience for me.

Part of their assignment in Romania was to help with orphanages and the newly created Street Kids program. The orphanage experience was horrendous. In their attempt to maintain a facade of a healthy, happy nation, the directions from the party leaders were clear: all newborns with any kind of disability or HIV were taken from their parents at birth and locked into this orphanages where they were barely kept alive in sub human conditions. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically abused, they were never taught anything and never knew human touch or caress. To say that I was shocked by what I saw  is underestimated. Enough to mention that those images still visit me in the odd nightmares. There were small children in straight jackets or tied to beds and chairs, and toddlers sitting in their own feces, banging their heads on the steel gates of their cribs. Scared, starving and sick. My students were heartbroken. Crying and trying to give hugs to terrified kids that thought we were there for more punishment was hard to watch.

The Street Kids program, provided some heart break as well, but on a different level. Orphans that eluded the system and found refuge in the underground sewage system or kids that ran away from abusive poor families and were living on the streets were a different kind of challenge. Trust was never in their vocabulary and all they knew was how to steal and rob to survive. The mission of the program was to teach them basic skills, hygiene and how to read and write. It was titanic work with a very low rate of success. We were all amateurs in dealing with these high risk kids but tried our best. The excitement and satisfaction I felt when these kids were accomplishing the simplest tasks have yet to be matched. And when the first kid asked if he could help us teach others, we all teared up with joy for a change!

copilstrazi

Conditions have slightly improved since then or this is what I read. I am posting the link to a story that I have been following since 2000. It is the story of Izidor Ruckel, one of the orphans that was adopted by an American family when he was 8. His challenges growing up, his inability to understand love and also why he was abandoned and his continuous struggle to have more and more orphans adopted as early as possible.

Tears? Compassion? Sadness? Yes, for people like him and issues like these I have time, I have lots of tears and tons of compassion. The rest to me is first world problems and I rarely have time, compassion or tears for them.

Photo: Andrei Pandele

If you want to get involved, check out similar programs: Projects Abroad or Global  Volunteers .

Will It Pay Off?

Emigration comes with a long list of aches. Nobody leaves their family and country because of too much happiness and accomplishment. At least I haven’t met anybody that was living a blissful life and one morning, they woke up and said: we are moving to a different country, and new culture. This process is always associated with some level of unhappiness and disillusionment. When the unhappiness and the disillusionment become greater than the ache of leaving behind parents, friends and everything and everybody else that helped you become the person you are right at that moment, you dare to leave. There is one hope that keeps you pulling through the hard times and the low moments: one day, all this effort will pay off.

I have never thought that I would leave my country. I always wanted to move away from my family but to a different city, not country and definitely never fantasized about putting an ocean between us. And yet, here I am, approximately 14 hours of flying plus 4 to 5 hours of driving away from my family. Don’t get me wrong, my family is awesome and I love them with all my heart but I felt that there was no room for me to make any mistakes in my city without affecting my entire family or without my entire family taking full control over my life in an attempt to save me from the perils of modern society. Ok, it sounds almost like I grew up in a religious compound but I did not. It was just a typical patriarchal family, very much supported by the ruling class of the time mainly because it has been proven to produce the most submissive subjects. I just wasn’t the one to submit to my father’s wishes, to my family’s wishes or to any form of authority. I needed to make my own mistakes and to live my life the only way it was acceptable to me: My way. I chose a different city but I ended up on a different continent.

Right-vs-wrong-direction

Fast forward fifteen years and I have checked a long list of pains and aches and another one of gains and joys. To get the answer if my emigration paid off, theoretically I should put the two lists side by side and for every pain, cross out a gain and see which way the balance tips. If only it would work this way! If I could neutralize the “Your degree after years of hard work means nothing to Canada” with “I can pay my bills through Internet and don’t have to stand in line for hours” or ” You have no Canadian experience therefore you can not be employed at this time” with “I am confident the health system will take care of me” or “It costs me an arm, a leg and a kidney to buy a plane ticket to hug my parents once every three to five years” with ” I have a wonderful husband that loves me and my family”… As much as I try, I can not do the math… at least not yet…

This week I lost my aunt. She was 83 and you might say it was her time. And probably it was. I knew she was not well and we were somehow expecting it to happen. I thought the geographical distance between us will soften the pain and work as a tranquillizer, the same kind the dentist uses. I thought I would be the strength my dad will need to burry his sister. I thought that I am only remotely connected to people in my past after so many years of living abroad. I was wrong.

Mama Shela, as I used to call her, was always there for whoever needed help, a good word or just a good talk. She lived 10 minutes away and I don’t really remember any celebration, anniversary, wedding or funeral or any Sunday without her. She was always bringing treats and wooing over all the new babies in the family. Actually, she was notorious for spoiling us all. Last time I went home, I happened to mention one dessert she used to make and the next day she called for us to come and get it, as it was too heavy for her to carry it but it was not too much for her to make it. She probably knew more than half of the city and their family history and could talk to you forever about every member of our family for the last three or four generations. Her last twenty years were not a walk in the park… She lost her husband, she lost her house, then her only daughter, but lived to see, love and spoil her great grand daughter.

This week it’s been one of the times when I hated the physical distance I put between me and my family. I could not neutralize with anything the pain of not being able to attend her funeral, to say my good bye, to hug my dad and my mom and to help my brother organize everything. With a bit of luck and good connections I might have been able to get there in the morning of the funeral, tired and of no help for anybody else.  So, once again, I found myself wondering if emigration with all its pains and aches, will ever pay off? And then, I remembered my dad’s eyes tearing up and his face lightening with relief learning that we are helping him with the costs for the funeral. And I remembered my husband holding me tight and asking me not if but when I need to fly out.

And I finally realized that adding and subtracting, comparing and dividing is not important in life. Physical distance does not destroy emotional connections and does not numb feelings but it forces your mind to recreate old places and dear people. Over time nostalgia takes over and like a good mother, keeps us focused on the good and the beautiful, strengthening the old bonds.

 

The Minimalist Approach in How to Chose a Font for Your Resume

Since Steve Job’s love for simple design I have been reevaluating  the minimalist theories; a minimalist life, minimalist principles, minimalist aesthetics are just a few topics I am following in various articles and blogs.

I should first say that I am not a big fan of the minimalist art. I can stare as long as I physically can into Malevich’ Black Square and there is no emotion or artistic vision revealed to me. I might as well stare at a painted wall. The idea that there should be no needless lines or strokes on a drawing is taken to the extreme where all the lines have been deemed unnecessary. I am therefore left with nothing to dream about, to be moved by or simply to smile at.

And yet I enjoy minimalist writing. Hemingway was the first such novelist I fell in love with. Maybe because it happened to discover him right after finishing Dickens’ The Bleak House or just because I fell in love with his direct, naked style: no fluff, no unnecessary adornments and some cussing here and there. Reading him I understood that the flowery Victorian style is not the only one that can move and inspire. But I digress when all I wanted was to write about the boring but so powerful resumes.

A well written resume should be the best minimalist work: few intentionally used words painting a lifetime. Something similar to what Hemingway created when challenged to write a story in 6 words: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” With this in mind, I decided to apply the same concept: nothing should just land on a resume. From the fonts to the meanings should be thought about, and decided on only after thoughtful consideration.

How many times have you even considered what font to use? If you happened to give it a thought you probably chose it based on how appealing the font was to you. Surprise! The only opinion that matters is the one of the hiring manager. And out of experience, all they care about is how legible it is.

There are so many fonts available and it is quite easy to spend long minutes trying them all just to end up selecting one of the two most popular fonts: Arial and Times New Roman  because of their qualities:

  • Very easy to read
  • Don’t have any unnecessary swirls, windings and tails
  • The spacing between the letters in words and sentences is just right
  • When they are in bold or italics they preserve the same clean, easy to read characteristics even in a smaller font
  • They make the best use of the page space
  • They look best in both hard copy printing and on the Internet (with some preferring Arial over Times New Roman)

Their usability and friendliness have been proven over and over again but haven’t these two fonts lived their lives? Shouldn’t they retire and make room for newer, bolder fonts?  There is no simple answer but my choice in using them over and over again for resumes is that they remain the preferred font for the corporate world. Remember, their opinion matter when we are writing our resumes!

In choosing the right font for your resume,  keep in mind a few rules:
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The Paradox of the Times We Are Living In

This is one of my favourite poems, written by Octavian Paler.

Translation and adaptation: Michaela Fengstad

 

Historically, the paradox of the times we are living in,is that we have:
Larger buildings but smaller hearts;
Wider highways but narrower minds.
We spend more but we own less,
We buy more but we enjoy less.
We have bigger houses but smaller families,
We have more gadgets but less time.
We have more titles, but less intelligence
More knowledge, but less common sense.
More experts, yet more problems
More medicine, less health.
We drink too much, we smoke too much,
We spend too carelessly,
We laugh too little,
We drive too fast,
We get too angry,
We go to bed too late, we wake up too tired,
We read too little, we watch too much TV but
We seldom pray.
We multiplied our wealth, but we reduced our values.
We talk too much, we rarely love and we hate too often.
We learnt how to earn our existence, but not how to make a living,
We add years to our life but not life to our years.
We reached the moon and back, but we are challenged
when we have to cross the street to meet a neighbour.
We conquered the outer space but not the inner space.
We made bigger things but not better.
We cleaned the air, but polluted the soil.
We got past the atom, but not past our prejudices.
we write more, but we learn less.
We plan more, but we accomplish less.
We learned to hurry but not to wait.
we made more computers: to hold more information,
to produce more than ever copies, but we communicate less and less.
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The Newsroom

Last night I watched the first 3 episodes of the new HBO series The Newsroom written by Aaron Sorkin. I enjoyed it very much and found it to be so relevant to the times we are living, where pack journalism and celebrity culture seem to take over the news. I was also quite surprised to read reviews from journalists that tear this show apart. Some of their claims: it is not entirely authentic, lack of humour, too wordy therefore boring, etc… Most of them have missed the point entirely, which prompts me to question even more their credibility and competence.

For the “unauthentic” claims: it is a show meant to entertain not a documentary but, I would definitely love to see life imitating art in this case. The rush of adrenaline and excitement when news break and events unfold under your eyes is real. If you lack it in your newsrooms than you should definitely look for a new job. Sure time is compressed and what would otherwise happen over time, happens within 2 minutes but, again, it is an entertainment show not a documentary.

Lack of humour? Hmmm.. I laughed and I found it quite humorous at times. Sure, not the Jackass or Kathy Griffin type where vulgarities and foul language overtake any content – if any, but witty, subtle humour.

I liked the “too wordy therefore boring” complaint, coming from a few so called journalists. Of course it is boring, the dialogues are long and filled with facts, political and cultural references that if you don’t know, you missed the whole point. In other words, as somebody complained, “the show requires intelligence to comprehend”. And common knowledge I would add. Of course it is boring, no bombs exploding every 5 seconds, no car chases, no spiderman or cat woman or superman dropping by to say hello, no boobs showing or sex talk. You have to actually stay still and pay attention. What a new concept in our short attention/multitasking era when everything has to be idiot proof: directions, documents, lesson plans, thesis, dialogues, communication and so on…

Apparently the women (characters) are too emotional therefore the feminists have already voiced their dislike of the show. I totally relate to both of them. One is young, bright but still looking for her voice, while the other one is a renowned journalist that has just come back from war zone and all she wants is to do news. I can relate to both of them. No, I haven’t been into a war zone, but I do remember being young and shy but willing to prove myself and to try everything possible, idolizing my job and making mistake after mistakes. Still, nobody called me emotional but inexperienced. Coming to Canada, I lost my identity working in the corporate world, trying so hard to follow the rules and to behave in a certain way, but more often than not loosing my cool every time I was passionate about something, forgetting about protocol and chain of command. Therefore I don’t think it is a gender issue but a “being human” one. Plus, a small detail that might have escaped the critics is the power McKenzie has over Will McAvoy, their chemistry and the way she knows how to engage him emotionally before and during each segment. The idea is not new or degrading as some would think. Since the ancient times, behind a strong man, has been a woman but strong women stand alone!

Yes, the show is constantly ranting against Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and the republicans but they have become the standard of poor journalism and substandard knowledge and have provided writers with years of comedy. It is a fact.

I still have a lot to rant about the series and the way the guys and gals we are looking up to give us the real news could not grasp its message but stumbled on details but I will stop here. I might be biased, I don’t know but I will continue to watch the series and get my inspiration from the characters passion and wisdom and hope the show will grow a large fan base.
Talking about, it seems that although most of the critics and journalists savaged the series, there is a large fan base on Twitter that keeps on growing…

2012 – A New Beginning

It is January 1st, 2012 and I am sitting here, in my living room watching the most popular musical event in the world: Das Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmoniker or, The New Year Concert with the Vienna Philharmonics. Waltzes, Polkas and Marches! Strauss, father and son, Tchaikovsky, and the amazing Wienna Staatballet.

Growing up, this was one of the highlights surrounding New Year’s Celebrations. At 12:00 pm, every 1st of January, the whole family would gather in the living room where the only TV in the house was proudly displayed. My mom, would have had the table set, and for the first hour we all would enjoy her fabulous cooking: salad a la Boeuf, devil eggs, all kind of  home made cold cuts, meat balls soup with borscht, roasted duck on a cabbage bed (my dad’s favourite dish) and all sorts of delightful desserts. Then, at 1:00, with a hot Turkish coffee in front, we would listen to the concert.

Every year without fail, mom was fascinated by the number of flowers and the beauty of the arrangements. Dad and I would always waltz on Strauss’ Blue Danube. My brother was the only one going back and forth to the kitchen, running errands or just listening quietly. It was a time I was always looking forward to. Well, truth to be told, I have always loved winter brake with all its colours, smells, happiness and inevitable indigestion.

It is 90 minutes – well or 60 as we get in North America, of uplifting, joyful music and amazing ballet dancers. When did it start? In March 1938 Austria was taken over by the Germans with the quiet approval of England and France. The Austrians were gloom, questioning their future. “In the midst of barbarism, dictatorship and war, at a time of constant worry regarding the lives of members and their families, as well as concern for the autonomy of the orchestra itself, the Philharmonic made an Austrian patriotic statement by performing music comprised exclusively of compositions by the Strauss family. This gesture served as a sublime remembrance of Austria at a time when it had ceased to exist. The concert under the direction of Clemens Krauss took place on December 31, 1939, in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein and enriched Austria’s cultural history with a paradox: the New Year’s Day Concert actually began on New Year’s Eve!”

I hope that 2012 will be a good year, in which class and style will prevail in everything we do as well as in the way we do things!

 

 

Naked Manners

Back in my early 20’s I used to spend every summer at the Black Sea. I loved the sun, the fun and the somehow care-free way of living. As anywhere else, there was the family sun-bathing areas where the bikinis were mandatory, and then the less formal areas, where naked was the norm. These were the places where you could always find all the black market goods – an industry that during the communism was flourishing. This is where we would always buy the Marlborough, Kent or Viceroy cigarettes, the contraceptive pills, different brands of luxurious soaps and shampoos, and other import goods prohibited during the communist years. You can easily imagine that the naked beaches were quite crowded with people from all walks of life, looking for a bargain.

One summer, I was enjoying a beautiful vacation with my friend and her brother and sister in law. He was a doctor at one of the best hospitals in the area while his wife was a high school teacher. One day we decide to go shopping for some cigarettes. There was a particular naked beach where we could get Salem, a menthol light brand of cigarettes, meant for ladies. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I come from a very formal culture. We take pride in our manners, and make a point in showing them off. Smoking the white slim cigarettes as opposed to the stinky local brand was another way of showing our class.

You can only imagine the scene that followed shortly after getting to the place. First, as you can easily guess we were all naked, walking around the beach when my friend’s brother hears somebody calling out his name: Dr B! Surprise! And what a surprise this was! He ran into one of his former patients. Obviously, as the formal code of manners dictated, our (naked) Dr B introduced his (naked) wife to his former (naked) patient who had to respectfully bend and kiss her hand. Fortunately enough, my friend and I were a few steps behind so we watched from the distance the awkwardness of the meeting and had enough time to wipe our smiles from our faces before joining them again.

I guess, what I am trying to get out of this story is that what seems to be perfectly normal and appropriate in one instance, will be awkward and embarrassing in a different one. Learning and adapting constantly to the changes in our lives should always include our manners and the approach to a new culture, a new environment and new people.

But what do you do when you run into a client, or an acquaintance at Wreck Beach for example? Do you look the other way? Do you  nod and move on? Do you stop, shake hands and have a quick conversation? Do you introduce your naked partner?

Whatever you decide, this is what you will not do:

  • Check the other one out! Yes, I know, you are both naked, but this is not an invitation to check the other person; for men, the same rules as in the washroom apply when meeting another man.
  • Introduce your family or friends; why subject them  to some embarrassing moments? It is very easy to feel comfortable when you are among strangers, people that you do not know; as soon as we start knowing names and details about each other things change.
  • I would not recommend a hand shake either; but this is my personal preference. Not to mention hugging or kissing a lady’s hand (europeans!)

These days I am not spending any time in places like these but what would I do? I would simply wear my very dark sun glasses and pretend I haven’t seen you. Nothing personal but some things are better to be ignored than dealt with and this would make it in the top of my list!

 

 

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