Saturday, February 21, 2004

Wankie Panky 

It's a beautiful Saturday morning—afternoon—here in Copenhagen, and it's idiotic of me to be sitting at my computer reading the news. At least, that's what I was thinking before I hit this story in the Hindustan Times.

Zimbabwean police arrested nine white Zimbabwean and Botswanian cricketers at the weekend for dancing nude in the rain in the middle of the cricket grounds in the northwestern town of Hwange, police said on Monday.

They were apparently celebrating the anniversary of their cricket club's founding:

The club was set up five years ago on Valentine's Day. The cricketers allegedly took off their clothes after a stoppage due to rain then rushed to the ground and danced in full view of all cricket fans.

Here's the police inspector's account:

"They were playing cricket, following the normal cricket rules and when it started raining all the officials and players left the ground. All of sudden these nine undressed, rushed back to the centre of the ground and started dancing around naked ... nude, nude. They showed their private parts to all the people in the ground ... And to some it was offensive," said Phiri, adding that it was not yet clear why the men had danced naked.

But what makes this story so magnificent is the name of the club... The Wankie Cricket Club.

Little (Taliban) Dreamer 

The Copenhagen Post has an interesting piece about the Danish detainee at Gitmo, who was called "The Little Taliban" in high school.

The 30-year-old Danish prisoner at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba has been roundly described by friends and acquaintances as a pleasant, fun-loving guy with a great sense of humor. Even US spokesmen from the Cuban base admitted that, despite the Dane's lengthy legal limbo and seemingly endless interrogations, he seemed to have kept his easygoing humor intact.

Well, sure. He was Danish. That's genetic.

He was born in Denmark in 1973 to a Danish mother and an Algerian father. After spending the early years of his life in a Copenhagen suburb, the entire family picked up and moved to Algeria, moving in with the Dane's grandmother in a small village. The mother later returned to Denmark without her children. The exact series of events relating to the separation are not known, but the 30-year-old is said to have told a classmate that he and his siblings remained in Algeria against their mother's wishes, and that his father was wanted via Interpol, for hiding the children from their mother.... [he] enrolled as a math major at Århus University, but dropped out after joining a mosque on Grimhøjvej, in Brabrand.

That street name, by the way, would be Ugly Hill Way in English.

By the time he conducted an interview with two students in April 2000, the Dane had grown a full beard and quit his dormitory room in Skejby for a flat in Gellerupplanen, where his life revolved around study of the Koran, prayer, and menial work as a janitorial assistant.

...And eventually he's captured at an Al Qaeda training camp in 2002 and brought to Gitmo, where, as we've already learned, he's the life of the party. But here's the payoff:

Classmates' description of him in the school's 1997 yearbook almost prophesied his eventual arrest... Listed under the Danish detainee's motto, the yearbook reads: "I'll set a bomb, I will." Under "Future Goals," the caption under Danish detainee's photo states: "To be a terrorist. It doesn't matter where—just a terrorist."

I'm sure he meant to say "freedom fighter." But as we learn in another article:

The United States has agreed to release the Danish citizen currently in custody at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, due to lack of evidence. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller reached an agreement with US authorities on the Dane's release, after the detainee voluntarily entered a similar agreement with US officials....

According to information obtained by Ritzau news bureau, the government reported during a closed session of Parliament's Foreign Policy Committee that the Dane was not, contrary to prior reports, apprehended in combat in Afghanistan. He was actually arrested in Pakistan, where he fled after the start of the war.

The poor young man didn't have the courage of his convictions after all. At least he's still got his sense of humor... and his freedom.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Feeling Toasty 

I'm horrified that I missed this piece from the Boston Globe yesterday. "Toast isn't just the best breakfast food; it may very well be the best food, period." That's how Keri Fisher opens the story. You'd think it would be all downhill from there, but it's not!

In fact, you don't need good bread to make toast. A beautiful, crusty sourdough, sliced and set under a hot element, will have an impenetrably hard crust that will scratch your mouth. The herbs on a savory focaccia will smoke and burn when toasted. Brioche? In most cases, far too sweet.

The little gray cells are all abubble, are they not? And yet there's still more to learn...

But the very act of toasting makes average slices of bread suddenly seem wonderful. The perfect toast is dry and brown on the outside, with a still-moist interior. The heat in a toaster caramelizes the sugar in the bread, resulting in the dry, golden exterior. That surface, with its craggy face catching pools of butter, makes toast so divine.

Sarcasm, irony, all of it flies away from me. In the face of Ms. Fisher's six-paragraph homage to heated bread, I stand defeated. What, after all, can be said in the face of prose such as this:

The best way to enjoy toast is the way you make it yourself: in a toaster oven that's seen better days or under the broiler, while you hover nervously, so it won't burn.

I'm staggered. Flummoxed, sniggled, and stumblemuffed. The article does mention the Toaster Museum and Dr. Toast's Amazing World of Toast. But it doesn't go the extra journalistic mile and look at the dark side of toast. Doug Dach knows about the dark side of toast. It killed his father.

Why are the Globe and Ms. Fisher giving toast a free ride? (Thanks to BostonCommon for highlighting this article.)

Car Trouble 

It's making the rounds via email, but it's easier to share here: safe sex ain't just about condoms...

Fastelavn (Shrovetide) 

The Christian holiday of Shrovetide is observed this coming Sunday in Denmark, which puts me in mind of a story I translated a few months ago.

Late last year, while I still entertained hopes of teaching myself Danish, I picked up a book of children's stories at a used book handler. The book was entitled 100 Godnathistorier ("100 Goodnight Stories"), by Inge Aasted, and is apparently a classic of Danish pedagogical literature. It was first published in 1955.

For a sense of how Danish pedagogical literature has changed over the last half-century, I should point out that one of the most popular books in recent years was Muldvarpen, der ville vide, hvem der havde lavet lort paa dens hoved, or "The mole who wanted to know who had taken a shit on his head." My critique of that book is posted here.

Because the Goodnight stories were all very short, and used simple language, I decided I'd improve my Danish by translating the stories and emailing them to my nieces, aged 6 and 4, back in Massachusetts. This went reasonably well, and I encountered few difficulties in translating "The Old Traincar," "The Tease-Sick Fly," "The Moon-Man's Clock Goes Wrong," and other such childish fare.

Then I stumbled into trouble.

One of the stories in Ms. Aasted's book is entitled Fastelavn, which is the Danish term for Shrovetide. I don't know much about Shrovetide and I'm not aware any American Shrovetide traditions, so I was more at sea than usual when I set out to translate Ms. Aasted's story. Context is vital to the translator's art. (Umberto Eco says so, so it must be true.)

I forged ahead anyway, and here's what I came up with (after a few minor fixes by the DMG):

by Inge Aasted
"Translated" by Greg Nagan

Grete was 7 years old and Niels was 4 and they’d been practicing their Shrovetide Song for a long time. Finally one day they could use it, for it was Shrovetide Sunday and they had to “twig up” their mother and father.

Niels had made a pirate mask, and Grete helped make him look just like a pirate and herself to look like Little Red Riding Hood.

When Niels was ready, he looked at himself in the mirror.

“I’m afraid of myself,” he said, and was just about to cry.

“It’s all just for fun,” said Grete, “we have to put masks on so mom and dad won’t know us, that’s the whole fun of it all.”

“Well, all right,” said Niels, but he didn’t look particularly delighted.

“You have to ‘twig up’ mom,” said Grete, “she’ll be all scared—she cannot possibly see that it’s you!”

The children went into the bedroom and beat on mother and father’s comforter with their Shrovetide Twigs while they sang the Shrovetide Song.

“Oh no,” said mother, “help! Here is a gruesome pirate, how did he ever get into the house?”

“You mustn’t be frightened at all, mother,” Niels hurried to say, “it’s just me, Niels, and Red Riding Hood is just Grete. I can’t stand him, the pirate, but I’d really like Shrovetide Buns.”

“You shall have them,” laughed mother, and hurried into her clothes.

When they sat down at the breakfast table, and Niels was about to eat a second bun, he said to his mother:

“It’s sure a good thing I said who I was, when I was a pirate, or else you never would have known me. It’s good I’m just Niels, ‘cause you never would have given the pirate buns—right, mom?”

Think what such a Shrovetide meant for Danish parents: early one winter Sunday morning, they'd wake up to children in costumes singing and whacking them with sticks until they got out of bed to bake them some goodies.

It was, as you can imagine, a doomed tradition.

Today, Danish parents can visit the local grocery or department store, or even the neighborhood kiosk, and pick up painted "Shrovetide Sticks" bundled together with toys and candy and wrapped in colorful cellophane. These are then presented to well-behaved children at a decent hour on Shrovetide morning. No costumes, whacking, or singing required.

I struggled mightily to understand all these traditions as I worked through the translation, and was enormously proud of myself when I was done. Shrovetide would still prove to be my doom, however, as I came across another Shrovetide story two days later that was so culturally disorienting I abandoned the translation project altogether.

The story in question was "Bedstemor Vinni Holder Fastelavnsfest" ("Grandma Vinni Holds a Shrovetide Party"). It contained a number of difficulties to this American translator, only partly relating to Shrovetide.

First, there was the unfortunate similarity of the words for kittens (kvillinger) and twins (tvillinger). Second there was the objectionable fact of one of the characters costuming itself as a "negro." Thirdly there was a bizarre mention of cats being beaten on barrels. And lastly, there was a question of someone being awarded the prize of "cat-king." Add all this together into a Shrovetide "context" that I'm trying to deduce on the fly and you can imagine my confusion. My original translation of the penultimate paragraph looked something like this:

"Kat became cat-king!" shouted the children, and all the rest of the day they knew the kittens from each other—because Kit was a clown and and Kat was a negro-cat-king.

It was hardly the sort of thing I wanted to send back to my nieces.

I had a long list of questions for the DMG when she got home that night. Why were kittens being dressed up as clowns and negros? Why was a cat getting beaten on a barrel? If there are two cats and one of them is beaten on a barrel, does the other one become cat-king by default? And so on.

She patiently explained that I had confused the words for kittens and twins: Kit and Kat were not a pair of kittens, but rather human twins. "Beating the cat off the barrel" is a children's game similar to the Mexican pinata tradition—you've got a barrel full of candy, with a stuffed cat on top of it, and the kids take turns whaling on the barrel until it breaks open and spills out its treats. The kid who smashes the barrel open gets the stuffed cat and a crown and is hailed as "cat-king" the rest of the day.

As for the negro costume, the DMG explained, "What's wrong with that? I dressed as a negro once. You've even seen the picture!"

Indeed, I had. I'd always assumed she'd been dressed as some kind of Hula Girl or something, in her grass skirt. It says something about American attitudes that I never thought of her "Hula Girl" outfit as troubling, but considered it to be in the worst possible taste the minute I realized it was a "Negro" costume. I suppose I'll be hearing from the Honolulu chapter of the NAACP any day now.

"Come on," she said. "This is Denmark. Don't call it a 'negro' costume in English, then. Call it a 'Tribal Villager' costume or something. That's no different than a 'Hula Girl,' is it?"

Actually I can't remember if she said that or I thought it, but it all amounts to the same thing. It's worth thinking about. It's all worth thinking about—Shrovetide and stick-whacking and little moles with shits on their head and Danes in "negro" costumes... but it's Friday, and I'm not in the mood to do much more thinking.

Weekend Briefing 

I forgot to mention that the weekend briefing is up.

Harbingers of Spring 

Copenhagen's urban planning pays enormous respect to the bicycle. It's a pleasure to ride a bike in a city designed, or at least regularly upgraded, to accommodate such transportation. Bikers have their own lanes on most major streets—elevated above the streets themselves, but lower than the flanking sidewalks. They often have their own traffic signals and signs. The only downside of biking here is that everyone else is biking, too, so you can actually encounter significant congestion on your bike. Like most foreigners, I spent my first month here learning how not to get run over by bicycles.

The cold, dark, wet winter diminishes these roving throngs, but the dropping off is so gradual you hardly notice it. Suddenly, yesterday, I noticed it—not because it had dropped below a certain critical mass, but because it had suddenly spiked upward again. Bicycle-parking areas that had been getting sparser and sparser all winter, to the point where I'd forgotten what staggering fields of chrome and rubber they'd been all summer, are suddenly popping with bicycles. The reapparance of bikes in Copenhagen must be something like the emergence of crocuses in my native New England.

It's not a very good picture, but that's not surprising when you consider I'm not a very good photographer. This guy's better (and Troniu, over in my expat blogroll, is better still), but I'm not so sure about his geography. Amagertorv? I thought it was Hoejbroplads. Maybe it's both.

(I can't seem to use Danish characters in Blogger... it converts them when I publish the post. So I'll have to use oe, aa, and ae until I figure out how to get the appropriate Danish letters in here.)

Haiti, Heidi 

If you're looking for a quick little piece to get you caught up on Haiti, here's something from the Times and the Council on Foreign Relations. If you want to get caught up on Heidi, try this article from the Oakland Raiders.

Sandwich Sense 

Andrew Sullivan links to a fantastic Harvard study that identifies, among other things, the geographical distribution of different names for "the long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce, and so on." (Click on "Back to Maps" when you get there to see the many other questions mapped out this way.)

Luck, Not a Lady 

I walked into Føtex at about 6:30 this evening. I went to the "convenience" register downstairs, where you can buy staples like liquor, tobacco, junk food, soda, candy, and lottery tickets without all the hassle of getting in line with the Shopping Cart People upstairs.

I picked up a bottle of Lord Calvert's Canadian Whiskey, which was on sale at 69.95 crowns (about $14 for 0.70 liters, an unbelievable bargain in Denmark), and asked the girl behind the counter for permission to speak English.

"May I speak English?" I asked in Danish.

"Well, yeah," she said in English. She was young and cute.

"I quit smoking, but it's poker night and I can't play poker without a little whiskey to relax me, and if I drink whiskey I need to smoke something, so what have you got in the way of cheap cigars that aren't so cheap all the guys will laugh at me?"

She giggled and did a great spokesmodel wave to indicate an entire shelf of cigars, many of them Cuban. (There's no boycott here.)

"But if you quit smoking," she mused, "then you really shouldn't smoke cigars, should you?"

"I didn't mean to say I quit smoking," I said. "I meant, you know, I quit inhaling. Cigars are fine."

"Mm," she said dubiously. "And anyway, you only live once, right?"

"Exactly. So what've you got?"

She showed me some cigars that were about 5 crowns each and told me they were the cheapest available.

"Then there's these," she said, indicating a stack of white oblong boxes. "They're nine crowns each."

"So, they're cheap, but not the cheapest," I said.

She nodded. I bought them. One drink into our game, I lit up one of my stogies.

"I'm sorry if it reeks," I apologized preemptively. "I don't know much about cigars, so I probably bought handsomely-packaged horse manure."

My fellow players shrugged. "A cigar's a cigar," one of them said.

"They all smell fine to me," said the other.

Damn it. Amateurs! I should have bought the five-kroner stogies!

By the time I'd had my third two-ounce serving of cheap-ass Canadian whiskey and had finished my second cheap-but-not-too-cheap cigar, I was down to my last crown. I'd bought in for 100.

"Give me a cigarette," I said. I was granted one. I smoked it guiltily, hating myself and loving every minute of it. My luck turned around. By the end of the night, I'd won all my money back with 60 crowns profit, but had consumed five wretched Canadian whiskeys and four lousy, magnificent cigarettes.

There may be a moral to this story, but it should not be shared with children.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Got Milk? 

I've been playing catch-up with Norwegian news this afternoon, and just stumbled across this gem. What are the "Got Milk?" people waiting for? They should have signed this girl to a lifetime contract! I'm partial to weird human interest stories with happy endings, but still... I don't know how I'd feel if I came home one day this fall to find the DMG nursing a couple of labradors.

A Gift For Understatement 

Sergeant Olav Tombre of Longyearbyen, Norway, reminds us, "It is apparent that if polar bears meet people, it can evolve into dangerous situations." The Longyearbyen Chamber of Commerce is going to have a hard time with this.

Woman, Raincoat, Gathering Storm 

It's not a bad time to pay some attention to Iran. I was surfing around last night looking for Persian blogs, and the best that I found, by a country mile (is that a kilometer?), was Brooding Persian. What struck me the most was this January 25 entry, which has a kind of Chekhovian feel to it:

The Young Woman and a Raincoat

I was planning a rant about the sit-ins today. It has been thirteen days and I figured it might be as a good a time as any. But then, on my way home there was a majestic sight to behold: a young lady, with a child and oodles of groceries in tow, looking in passing at a raincoat. Neither the women nor the raincoat, would strike you initially as out of the ordinary or odd. What caught my attention, though, was the astonishing nature of her gaze. There was a dreamy, longing quality about the way she just glanced at that raincoat—with an indescribable awe and an enchanted smile—the sort that melts your heart away. It was as if for one fleeting moment she lived out a lifetime of sublimated desires.

To understand why I react with amazement, you should visit this place for a week. There is something surreal about life in Tehran. Think fever to get a small opening into our universe. Try to recall how fever amplifies, rather negatively, all of one’s sensory perception--disconcerting blurred vision, maddening sound of one’s own rapid heartbeat, flustering colors and contours, and a miasmic atmosphere. Add to these a sense of nausea and a feel of suffocation that come from breathing the horrendously polluted air. Then you get a sense for life in Tehran.

The impulses and trends dominant in our society are not different from those in the lives of others you might encounter in cities your travel to. But there is a certain grotesqueness about life here. There is intensity about the way these impulses animate people into action and the way we come to perceive other people’s conducts. A lot of women, for example, might dress modestly elsewhere, but in Iran, we have an ocean of blackness—waves and waves of chador clad women in movement. Conversely, multitude of women might choose to liven up a bit with a touch of makeup. But not here. We have a throng with exaggerated foundations and colorful shadows—the kind adorning an old harlot planning seduction of a horde of drunken sailors on a desolate island.

Men in other places might put a bit of gel in their hair. But here, the hair simply gushes goop. You either have people who don’t play music in their cars, or play it very loudly as they pass you by. People are nasty, rude and brutish or feel the need to prostrate submissively before others. And so it goes on and on. A subset of our much vaunted “burnt generation” has got to have its mobile phones at a million Toomans a piece, no matter that they are unemployed and their parents at the end of their ropes. And then there are chat-rooms with obscenity galore, and jewelry-- gold, rubies and diamonds, and clothing, and furniture, rugs, drugs, alcohol and food-- lots and lots of food.

Again, no different from other places, mind you, but our expressions betray our unique frenzy. You never know why we so immediately want everything we see. Most kids cry for them, majority of men deceive and lie for them, and some women marry or prostitute for them. What is so urgent, I always wonder, about having the latest colorful manteaux, a cell phone or a shoe that would justify loss of our dignity, and the inevitable threat to our long term family stability, or to our sanity?!

And our glances-- they are the lascivious sort, or the dispassionate, aloof sort, the kind that would help communicate a sense of false disinterest just so we can haggle successfully over the price. The paradox, of course, is that most of us have no real immediate, unmediated relation with the objects of our passions. We quickly get bored with them, for we really wanted them in the first place since they were either the latest fad, or that, our neighbors or friends hadn’t yet managed to acquire them. And so here we are, the unique one beating the rest of the herd.

And so, this woman with her dreamy eyes stood out to me because her gaze revealed a unique undisguised affection-- she genuinely adored that raincoat and simply wanted it, for its own sake. She seemed resigned to the fact that having this raincoat was just not a priority in her life and so she embodied restraint and discipline-- she courageously just marched past without so much as a pause—something most of us can’t fathom. To me she epitomized all that is decent about this nation, and the enigma of its future.

Here is my funny feeling of the day: there are those here who carry such burden as no one should have to bear in a civilized society. They do so quietly, invisibly, stoically, with dignity and self-restraint. And then there is the loud, boisterous crowd, with a sense of entitlement, and a long list of the multiple ways they are being victimized daily. The latter group is living it up, mired in its delusion of grandeur, in its sense of superiority, with false hopes, obscene avarice, and silly expectations. Most are timid though, and paralyzed due to a lack of appetite for real risk and hard work.

I would watch out though for the pivotal moment this young woman decides she has had enough of merely dreaming about that raincoat and all it symbolizes. The fire of her desires will burn this rotten scaffolding to the ground long before the rest of us could settle on what to do.

Spot on. Sometimes I think we live in the Age of Silly Expectations.


The way I've set up my own site (JustMorons.com) is inadequate for the kind of free-hand, sporadic blogging I want to get into. So here I am.

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