Sunday, January 30, 2005

Comparisons

Expatriates in other places often ask me in what ways being here is different from being in England. This question is of significance, because I spent five out of six years in England in a market town the size of the Outpost capital, with even fewer things to do and with its main redeeming feature being that it is an hour's ride from London. Actually, this is a comparison that frequently comes up when I try to rationalise myself into adapting here or when I am trying to convince Jod to try to adapt here.

Yes, the English market town was dreary, yes there was just the one cinema and a single theatre, yes pubs and restaurants cannot sustain you for ever. Yes, the Royal Army bases made the town no better. Small places are more or less the same everywhere, it seems. So, yes, we were trying to get out of there, we were happy to and we never looked back -- but for the friends we have there. Yes, the English generalised anti-europeanism and the working classes' suspiciousness towards anything that is not 'working class' are irritating and disastrous in many respects.

But. There we had our bikes and we would walk. There were (scary and overpriced but, usually, functioning) trains to carry us further afield. Our views, ideas, frustrations and whining were seriously discussed, whether in agreement or not. Neighbours would engage into casual talk with us on cats and plants and trips and apples. Generally speaking, people were treating us as people, not (just) weird foreigners. We eventually won some of them to develop true and lasting friendships with. With the others we would exchange invitations to teas and parties and dinners. Here, three years on, we hang out with exactly two Outposters. Nobody (else) is ever available for coffee, parties or dinners, as they have to be with family whenever they have free time.

So much for the idiotic stereotypes about northern Europeans and their supposedly unwelcoming, suspicious and introverted disposition: once won, even if this takes long, northern Europeans are yours forever (I know Scandinavians, the Dutch and Germans are like that, too).

In memoriam William Willberforce

There are causes worth dedicating your life to. Also, while reading, observe the familiar workings of the Capital. Jod commented he was lucky to live to see his cause justified, unlike others.

I am Gaylord Focker

Here is something that happened to me last November. Jod told me before to post about it here, but I thought it would sound banal. I don't think so anymore.

There is a local publication with a function similar to Pariscope, Time Out, the New Yorker and the similar. This publication is monthly, as not much is going on here, but contains some good journalism. It is also the only publication in the Outpost containing a Gay column. In the said column there was a short comment about 'inferior dialects' of 'peasants and shepherds'. I wrote them an email, praising the publication and suggesting that a column fighting anti-gay prejudice should not propagate prejudice against 'peasants and shepherds' and their fictionally 'inferior dialects', as this is a kind of discrimination based on illusory premisses, exactly like discrimination against gay people. The email went through the editor-in-chief, who forwarded it to the columnist, who replied to me in a slightly aggressive manner. So far so good. I wrote to the editor-in-chief, apologising for the fuss and making my point about discrimination being a devious thing, blah blah.

The editor-in-chief wrote back the following day. They are looking for someone to write the Gay column, the guy currently doing it will go abroad. Do I want to do it? A nom de plume would be acceptable. Thank you, editor-in-chief.

What was his rationale? Loxias reads the Gay column, therefore gay. Loxias sounds articulate, therefore can write it.

I replied. Instead of writing 'oh, well, I am not gay, so I cannot write the column' (remember: discrimination is a devious thing), I wrote that I am not the appropriate person for the job, as "I know as much about gay lifestyle as I do about jet propulsion". I suggested to be offered a column of more general scope, instead. Shortly, I carefully tried a) not to make personal statements and b) not to convey an implication that the suggestion I am gay is miasmatic, successfully I hope.

The editor-in-chief never replied. Jod and my gay friends lament the lost chance to ghost-write the column.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Outpost Capital

Photo taken by the Hyperborean Hunter on the 4th of July 2004, from Landmark.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

School news in three parts

Educational news:

Future: In a couple of weeks, part of the school where Jod works will go on an educational outing, under teacher supervision. According to regulations, these are typically half-day events, starting at 9 am. This time the educational outing will be to a cinema. The pupils are going to watch 'Taxi', of Queen Latifah fame.

Present: Today, again at 9 am, the school's Leader gathered teachers and pupils and publicly blamed the former for not enforcing the school's uniform policy properly. In the presence of the pupils, he then referred to teachers as 'little robots' that perform the duties 'mechanically and without dedication'. Pupils have been having a ball.

Past: When the Evil Empire ruled the place, officially until 44 years ago (or, in some ways, until last time I checked, i.e. yesterday), they would not let the locals found new schools, in order to curb the growth of nationalism. Which sounds like a wet joke, really.

Narcoleptic

I slept too much today, and yesterday. It makes me feel like sex makes people of certain morals do: relieved, satisfied but very anxious and guilt-ridden. By the way, what is more banal than equating morality to forms of sexual abstentionism? Maybe talking about it.

Ah, that was it: I'm off to bed!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Couleur locale


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Cross-referencing

W Boson I had the pleasure to meet last September. He is a true inquiring mind, in the best tradition of Russell and Wittgenstein, a mind of grace and complexity, a gentle and cultivated human being. He also works in the Outpost. He cannot bear the ugliness here, although he thinks places like Athens or New York are beautiful and charming.

Yu is a Russian from Belarus, she has lived in the Outpost for the last five years. She is shocked by the fact that men here seem not to be interested in anything, except (as she put it tonight): hunting, football, cars, money. Not even politics. She went for dinner at an Outposter's, a doctor, who had never heard of the greenhouse effect. When he was told what it was, the doctor was intrigued as the whole thing did not ring a bell.

Finally, here are some (heavily edited) comments by the Passenger, who has allegedly been to more than 100 countries and territories, after he visited last July. I believe they are excessively harsh, but they convey the spirit of the place, even though in a distorted and overly negative manner:

Here is a word of advice: don't go. [...] My first two trips there were done in my teenage years and I remember little other than the beach and a few strolls. [...] [The Outpost is] a complete mish-mash without any character. [The capital city,] as close to the twilight zone as you can possibly get, is really quite horrifyingly ugly with almost nothing to see other than going up to [Landmark] and gazing over at the other side. [...] [I]t is difficult to feel for people who are so rude and unfriendly and also so unashamedly fake in their behaviour. [...] I do not mince my words as you can see. Going to the beach resorts, one is shocked as well. This could be [the Evil Empire] if there were not so much sunshine and eating 'beef and mushroom pie' just proves how sold out this place is. OK, the sea itself, not touched by human hands, is decent and inviting. The only other redeeming feature were the mountains [...]

I'm sure The Beautiful South have a song for the occasion. I don't know which.

Freezing

Look at this very interesting book review from the New Yorker. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is one good book: highly recommended.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Run away, turn away

While in the gym, and for the benefit of the aerobics class right next to the weights, one of the many covers of eighties songs was playing, this one being Bronksi Beat's Smalltown Boy. I thought of the overt melancholy of the original, the frustration and the sense of asphyxiation it emits. I remembered the dreary landscapes of England, emotional ones and external ones alike.

Then I once more listened closely to the lyrics: I am in Smalltown, as we speak. Which reminded me this: that I am still dreaming of that singular night, when I sneaked to the fourth floor balcony of Birkbeck College in London and saw the city all lit up in the distance and completely serene and then, just two streets away, a lit window -- someone living there -- and I realised it would not be me.

Project Prospero

How do we manage isolation and generalised Outpost inanity?

We are slowly implementing Project Prospero, an old idea actually: we will gradually enclose ourselves in a cell full of good books and better music and even better DVDs. We will conjure up spirits, friends and feelings; produce fun and ideas and inspirations.

BBC and ironing

Yesterday we ironed a small mountain of clothes, and we watched DVDs in the meantime, as is our habit. The films were Intermission and Les Invasions Barbares. The former was approachable only by people who live / have lived in the British Isles, with its naturalistic depiction of the very particular working class misery there (child delinquency, Colin Farrell, violence against women, housing estates, getting drunk in pubs, blah blah blah). Like most products of national cinemas in Europe, it was deeply introverted. As for the second, Quebecois offering, it was very off-the-mark, although it would make a good book -- if it is not adapted from a book already.

Anyway, in Les Invasions, the hero delivers a monologue about human history being 'a history rich in genocide', as the short-lived, underrated but so brilliant House of Love would put it. This reminded me of the following unexpectedly enlightening article from the BBC.

While you are there, look at this. And think about it: one of the arguments of the Reformation was to rid Christendom of irrational and 'pagan practices' like venerating saints and their relics. Well, it seems that human nature is stronger than some arguments. Not to say anything about the actual saint venerated here...

Friday, January 21, 2005

Some more political comments

Yes, US politics again, I'm afraid.

a. Now that Ms Rice used the expression Outposts of tyranny -- maybe plagiarised from me, maybe not -- I expect the NSA will be snooping around. Ah, well.

b. Mr Bush (and advisors): although Iran is spelled differently from Iraq only by a single letter, they are actually different countries. Very different from each other, too. Also, King Darius is dead. Please be careful with these things: remember what happened with the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

(Incidentally, the inhabitants of Iran are Iranians, not Iranis. But the CIA must have gone that far.)

Gross is the word

NL came to work yesterday, although she doesn't have to. She started talking to me, which was exceptional: it is usually me who starts a chat with her, over current affairs, everyday trivia, or other.

She told me she had not slept at all the previous night, although she sleeps little after her daughter's passing away. She went on to tell me that the reason was this: a close family friend had rung her the previous evening to give condolences. At some stage she told NL she had no idea the poor 19 year old had AIDS. "Where did you hear this?" "In the hairdresser's." "And you believed it?". NL was in tears of indignation and fury. "How was I supposed to react to this?", she asked me.

NL's daughter died in her sleep. Heart failure, said the coroner. It can happen to anyone. Usually some minor childhood incident having caused dormant defects with unexpected catastrophic effects. In fact a distant relative of mine died the same way, age 21, while walking in the park with his girlfriend. Let's face it: dying is easy.

Now, if you have children, this is terrifying: it means that you can lose your perfectly healthy child at any time, without driving or drugs being involved. The local society prizes chauvinism, children, big houses and food (I don't know if in that order). So, naturally, the possibility of someone healthy passing away like this freaked the whole Outpost out (it was in the papers). The Outpost had to protect itself from this: gossip went about that NL's daughter was a junkie, drank something, slit her wrists or her own throat from side to side (...) The glass-topped casket and the coroner's report convinced few. NL had heard those rumours, but a friend calling her to give condolences and presenting one of them (a new one) as a fact? What if NL's daughter had really died of AIDS and, in pure Outpost fashion, the family were indeed trying to cover 'the shame' up?

Let me just start enumerating here: insensitivity, disrespect, blandness, intrusiveness, callousness, utter idiocy...

You see, good manners have a purpose, after all. They protect people, even in the face of inconsideration.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Angels of Heaven

or The Sex Post (ok, 'the cabaret post')

So, long before my 3rd anniversary here, some time around my first one in fact, I went out to the bar where I had my recent vision with one of my primordial friends, Acting Cowboy.*

* Primordial friends: the locals who scrambled around me when I first came here, taking me out, feeding me in nice restaurants, showing me around, driving me around and making my life comfortable. When I was no longer a newcomer they all disappeared and no longer call.

Stubbornly a city person, I started that same blasted conversation about small places and how I feel uncomfortable with them, and especially in them. Acting Cowboy disagreed with me, he was finishing a relationship at the time exactly because he would not move to a big city, but it was an interesting discussion, all the same. Still, talk veered slowly towards the Outposters' sexual oppression, as inevitable. Acting Cowboy's face lit up and he said:
"Let's go to a cabaret!"

I explained to him that I am not into buying sex. He vividly exclaimed that this is definitely not what cabarets are about; technically, prostitution is illegal in the Outpost after all (this is correct, whenever sex workers and punters are arrested, it is news). I sneered that he was close to telling me cabarets are family entertainment. "Well, yes, of course they are."

He swiftly paid for the drinks (tequilas, vodkas and I don't remember what else) and we briskly jumped into his car (yes, he drove drunk -- it was terrifying) and landed at the biggest and best cabaret in town. Pink lights lit a corridor leading underground. The image of coyly risqué chorus lines, magicians and corny crooners quickly dissolved even before we opened the soundproofed door and saw around eleven Eastern Europeans simultaneously stripping, each at a different degree of nudity, to their thongs. I put on my contrived whimsical / detached smile, which is the equivalent of a normal person's gasp followed by a gaping mouth. A bunch of old men were watching the Eastern Europeans (yes, they were all women: here they call them 'artistes', with an e).

We sat at a small table at the back. A short funny-looking waiter immediately emerged, a stereotypically cinematic middle eastern night-club waiter; we ordered beers (from my 'butt bar' savvy friends, as we call such places in Compatridia, I knew that you never order drinks that do not come to you in a sealed bottle). The stripping procession was going on non-stop: when one of the artistes would finish, she would disappear behind the curtains and a new one would immediately take her place and begin stripping, so that the number of strippers releasing themselves of latex, tinsel, nylon, vinyl, and various light materials would remain constant at any given time. This is how the Sacred Band of Thebes operated, I think.

The beers arrived. Acting Cowboy told me that I don't have to buy anyone drinks, if I don't feel like it. Before I ask him what this was supposed to mean, two artistes sandwiched us (just in terms of seating arrangements). The one next to me asked me if I would buy her a drink, sorry, I don't think so, ok, let's talk. She pressed her thigh against mine and positioned her face in an accordingly myopic distance. The discussion was not very interesting and I felt bad about keeping the poor girl occupied in vain, she probably felt the same and eventually left without having discovered where I was from ('You are not from here. Are you English?' hahahaha), although she had already surrendered the information that she was from Kiev. Acting Cowboy would not buy his artiste a drink either, so she left, too.

"Is that what you call family entertainment here?", I whispered, as two more artistes were already heading our way. "Well, we come here in big groups when we are on leave from the army; couples come to cabarets, too". Couples go and come to all sorts of places, I protested but the comment was lost and a Moldovan student sat next to me and asked for a drink. In vain, too, so she left. Then came the Muscovite, angry that we were spoilsports, just for a light (we disappointed her in that, as well). Then I said, "I buy the drinks" and I paid two beers 4 times what they cost in a bar.

Then we spent two hours in Acting Cowboy's car going in circles round the capital and talking. Here is the story:

Acting Cowboy told me that Outpost women are ugly, bland, rude, sullen, antisocial, unforthcoming, unsexy, arrogant; I told him they are very oppressed into focusing on marrying and having kids as soon as possible, while starting and maintaining some sort of career. Acting Cowboy continued that, on the contrary, those cute, beautiful, ethereal, timid, talkative, girls from the East are indeed like Angels of Heaven, ever so sweet and always accommodating. Sure, I said, that's their job. "The Outpost has been a prettier place since they came in 1991." And no, I shouldn't think ill of them, they are not what I think.

Ok, so, do men go to cabarets just to stare at their cheekbones and whiteness? What about the "buy me a drink" thing? Oh, that's how the cabaret stays in business. Is that all? He would not be very specific. Nevertheless, after I deployed my interrogation techniques (here is how my job can help me in my everyday goings-on) this is what I was told:

Of course, there is a proper procedure: artiste comes over, if you like her you buy her drinks, after six or seven of them times two (one for her, one for you), the boss comes over and asks you if you would like to leave with her... "And then you do the deed", I interrupted. "No, no: these creatures (a term of endearment here) are no prostitutes!" So, the artiste changes into something plain and decent (and free of synthetic fabrics) and you take her for dinner (you pay); then for a drink and chat (you pay); then dancing (you pay). "At a cabaret?" "No, elsewhere, for real dancing."Then?" "Then, if you want, you can take her to a hotel" (which you pay).

By then it was 3:30 am and I decided to make a complete bastard of myself: "...and you chat?". Acting Cowboy exasperated said, "oh, well, no, you can do something with her." "What?" Well... For your information, the tariff is 10, 20 and 40-50.

I was later told that this combination of bonhommie, gentlemanliness and excess spending makes the whole thing look like a date and obviates the legal definition of what constitutes soliciting.

Questions anyone?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Pecca fortiter!

Said Belle de Jour, the blogging escort (well, upmarket prostitute, really: enough with euphemisms, the US military have provided us with quite enough of them) who inspired me to start a blog, in an interview:

" ... if I wasn't writing the truth I wouldn't be bothered with anonymity."

Monday, January 17, 2005

Seeing the future

A quiet weekend. Most of my thinking, as throughout the previous week, was dedicated to a piece of work I have been trying to get done since last July. I believe that I at last essentially finished with it tonight, with some presentation matters only left to take care of now. Which is good, because the backlog is sizeable.

(Hooray for Huygens, a glimpse of human achievement in the midst of the usual 'fare'.)

On Friday I saw my friend X for coffee (the new local Starbucks is dearly treasured, here you can see why). X recently successfully entered the Principality's Diplomatic Service -- that's why no hint through a nickname, not even X's sex can be revealed: the Outpost is tiny. Understandably, X was, as ever, very upset, but quietly so, with local politics. I tried to explain to him / her not to worry too much: everyone is happy, the system works (for the time being), the privileged are happy and the oppressed sedated. Only a handful of intellectual troublemakers have a problem. Telling X such things, I had in mind that some time this week is my 3rd anniversary in the Outpost: lately I have been trying to forget about what there is around me and embed myself within work, domestic happiness, travelling and imported friends.

My argumentation was squarely refuted the following evening. By Jod, as ever, who used the two c-words and a third one: compromise, conformism and appeasement. Following this and after a vodka-tonic and a dubiously mixed Black Russian, I promptly had a vision about how we are going to be leaving the Outpost... It involved two options (yes, even the visions revealed to me come with binary options): either there emerges a better job somewhere else and we leave here, or we become completely fed up and just leave here.

While you are here, look at this. I will tell you about Outpost cabarets some other time...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Sights from the Home City

Here is a laurel who I would like to befriend.



And here are two really cool young people I met in Lucia's Famous Comedy Club. I like the way they gaze at the fire -- but is it the electric fire they are gazing at?



Before I forget: greetings to dystropoppygus. Also, Happy New Year to you, too. I keep whistling but nothing happens.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Parallel lives (probably just the blogs)

If you almost like what you read here, try Schmootzie's blog (not his real name), who is hailing from Gainesville, Florida. (Woh, and I thought the Outpost was bad...)

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A giant leap

Yesterday, the judicial of the Principality allowed women lawyers to wear trousers in Outpost courts of justice.

Sombre thoughts

Yesterday the funeral was a gloomy occasion and not one easy to overcome, even though I did not know NL's daughter personally. One moment that was especially revealing -- perhaps my only moment of lucidity during the service -- was that of the eulogies, were a local guy's hollow verbosity and formulaic praise of the deceased (characteristic, alas, of the Outpost, Compatridia and this part of the planet in general) contrasted sharply with NL's sober, witty, eloquent, expectedly personal and unexpectedly theological speech, in a continually breaking voice. Of course, NL is Australian.

One thing that I admired during the service is the dignity and composure of the local mourners (the girl's father is an Outposter). Not that they were cold or detached, not that there was a single pair of dry eyes or stiff lips anywhere in the packed church. But I know that in a 19 year old's funeral in Compatridia you cannot hear yourself thinking for the succession of cacophonous emissions of high pitched screams and shrieks and yelps, you cannot concentrate on the deceased for the waves of fainting women and for men banging their heads against walls. Ok, Outposters may lack in clever wit or warmth of emotion or what have you, but they also appear to show wondrous dignity, not numbness, not repression, towards such pain. I was profoundly impressed.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Lacrimosa dies

I wrote about agony in the previous post and it was genuine agony I felt thinking of all those trapped in front of TV sets. Then, this morning, on our first day in the office, life (or the Lord of Circumstances, really) overtook me in cruel irony.

My office mate, NL, was not in and I remember looking at the neat piles of documents on her desk under a kind of weird, but blurry from the early start, premonition. That's normal for me in the mornings, when everything feels weird to me; actually, I wake up as an alienated nihilist and go to bed at night as a serene acolyte.

Greetings were exchanged with colleagues in the corridor, by the secretaries' desks, by the pigeonholes, in the kitchen, in the common room. People knocked on the door looking for NL, as ever. Then, Poet Abu-Jonathan stormed our office, as customary. He was in shock. He told me NL's daughter, 19, suddenly died yesterday.

It is NL I can't bear to think of. I picture in horror the countless times she will be waking up from now on. In the precious few initial seconds everything will be fine, then -- some days gradually, some days abruptly -- the unbearable loss will be establishing its presence, again and again, sharp and irrevocable. Just this has been enough to cause me sorrow and unease today, so I don't think any (more) eloquence is in order, for the time, at least.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Kill your TV (but can we?)

So, I returned from the Home City and now I am gazing ahead at a Monday with cataclysmically much work to do, deadlines as intimately close as the 15th of January, and so on. Although I was busy while there, the City gave me the equivalent of a breath of fresh air in the musty rooms and halls of my internal life.

What really freaked me out in Compatridia is the television. It seems that there is truly nothing on over there. I mean it. Only a local music channel and the channel run by the Parliament of the Compatridos ever have anything of interest on. The rest overflow with (A- to Z-list) celebrity trivia, even during the news, pointless talent shows (pointless, as they feature no talents whatsoever), extensive commentary on them, 'reality' show muck and that's all. Is that really all? Yes. Although I know people are free to make choices and, yes, there is such a thing as an Off button, the sorry sight of Compatrido television created a sense of quiet but genuine agony in me. Consider what TV is for the poor: the only source of entertainment; for the hard working, maybe the principal source of relief from a long and tedious day. And what they get is, well, that.

Back to Out There

We caught a 7 am flight back to the Outpost this morning. It was a Boeing 737 and there were 4 passengers and 8 crew. Regal. We spent the rest of the day basically sleeping. Home is where home is, and it was good to be back home.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Hare

Today I was looking for a PC game as a present for my sister's fiance. While in the shop, a tall and outlandishly featured guy approaches me and asks me if I speak English. He explains to me he is an undercover Krishna monk (he wore a cap) from Latvia (Americans! Assemble! Open up your few atlases!) who would like to give me some literature in compatridese on his creed.

I am back to the Outpost in few days.