Tag Archives: thoughts

Chance, Coincidence, Connection

I’m on a bus, passing Californian vineyards and what I think are orange groves. I planned to write about my time in Denmark several times, but the motivation never came. The five months in Esbjerg was great, and in short, I took advantage of the quiet town and Lidiya’s busy study schedule, put my head down and worked and thought and planned.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls, the biggest waterfall in North America

I just spent the last four days in Yosemite National Park, which were quite surreal, partly because it’s so iconic—I’ve seen so many postcard-picturesque images of the park, and really everywhere you look is breath taking, that it felt like I needed a little conscious effort to make those images my own—and partly because of an insanely contrasting series of events that happened in parallel with my exploring this week, all related to work which I probably won’t go into.

Team Tito

Team Tito (minus Eoin)

Last week I was in San Francisco with the Tito guys, to work together as a team in the same location for the first time, and to host a meet up of friends and customers of Tito.io, an app we are building to be the best for buying and selling tickets.

San Francisco has been in my mind for some time. When I think SF, I think ‘alternative’; ‘the norm to be a little weird’; the words ‘yoga, vegan, organic’; ‘tech industry’; ‘startup capital of the world’, ‘liberal, progressive, open minded’. I had/have this romantic image of the place, that it’s perfect for me and that I would feel really good there. And, apart from a new type of crazy (homeless and crack addicts I’ve been told) that socialise around the Bart (metro, like the Dart) station on Mission 16th, my week’s experience matched my high expectations.

Bi-rite organic storeThe awesome Bi-rite supermarket; so much local, organic, delicious, super-tasty stuff.

Traffic pole

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge just after sun rise

I won’t ramble off the doings of my trip. I documented it fairly well on Instagram—you can follow me here if you like—or on Facebook. My last couple of posts were also heavily ‘doing’ filled, which is fine. I think the saying that “life’s a journey, not a destination” is effective in breaking a blind devotion to getting somewhere, but that it’s bias towards the importance of the journey makes the destination seem important when considered to the extreme, to the point of thinking that plans, goals or achievements are meaningless. A journey, by definition, doesn’t have to have a destination, but it can include one. So life can be a journey with a destination, or a journey with multiple destinations which decide and re-decide on, more or less, at will. That was a long preface to just say that I’ve been heavily goal/doing, or destination focused for some time (and still am), but feel more like writing some thoughts now, and that both are one and the same, not conflicting.

Buying a belt

At the end of my week in San Francisco, I returned to the Airbnb place I was staying at to pack and head to watch the Super Bowl with a friend from university, who I hadn’t seen in years. I needed to buy a belt, but didn’t leave time to go shopping before going to Brent’s. A house a few doors down was having a yard sale and I asked, by chance, if the guy running it had a belt to sell. He unexpectedly sold me the one he was wearing, which fit and was in good knick, for $7.

We started talking and he told me about his plans to move to Taiwan, to try life in a different country and that he was a couchsurfer. I’m now staying with Denis for a night, on my return for Yosemite, before flying home. There’s something about a shared love of travelling that increases the chances of random encounters turning into something cool staying with locals is more interesting that a hostel or hotel.

Talking to strangers

I’m moving at the moment, from Denmark, via London and San Francisco, to Slovenia. Not the most direct route and also means I’m carrying about 75% of the things I own with me. The downside is carrying 32kg on my back, the upside is always having my climbing and camping gear with me, which I probably wouldn’t have taken on the SF trip if I had the choice.

My bag at Camp 4, Yosemite

My pack, just arrived at Camp 4, Yosemite

I extended the week long ‘work’ trip by another week with the plan of exploring SF and the Bay Area. It wasn’t until one of my team mates mentioned Yosemite that I realised it was within reach and decided to spend my time there, unsure of bus times, weather conditions or where exactly I would sleep—I knew there were working lodges and campsites, but spent 20 mins trying to distill information from the Yosemite website to decide the best place for me to stay before giving up and deferring the decision to someone at the park who already had that info in their head. My bus driver turned out to be a veteran climber from South Africa who told me about the different routes as we drove through the park and suggested I stay at Camp 4, which I learned is synonymous with climbers. So the journey was smooth and by late afternoon I had pitched my tent in the middle of the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Despite it snowing towards the end of the week, weather conditions also turned out to be good and climbing is possible year round, so I set a mission to try and track down some climbers.

My tent

My little tent in the shadows bottom left

I spotted someone with a carabiner, and they told me how to get to some close by routes. There I met some climbers who weren’t really up for a third wheel, so I returned to the camp resigning myself to hiking for the rest of the day. At the camp parking lot I met Jacob, who was out climbing with his girlfriend and daughter, so I assumed there would be little chance of joining. But, Jacob offered a quick belay (to secure the rope while I did a climb) and I was ecstatic. We got on great, had a very enjoyable days climbing and chilled out back at the Mountain Lodge in the evening.

Climbing at Yosemite

Seconding Bone Heads in Yosemite

We parted company and the guys invited Lidiya and myself to come visit next time we are in the area, which I’m very excited about. I got one of those ‘I’m not sure when, but I know it will happen’ feelings. I returned the invitation, for where ever Lidiya and myself happen to be in the world. You can’t beat ending a day smiling and thinking that meetings like that are special and involve more than coincidence.

Connecting the dots

I watched the films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset back to back on the bus journey from Yosemite. If you haven’t seen the movies, they are two of my favourites which I’ve re-watched repeatedly and can’t recommend enough. There’s a line in the second one, Before Sunset, where Celine says that we tend to take connections with people for granted when we’re younger and then realise that they are rare as we get older. The optimist in me says that I will continue, relatively frequently, to connect with great people throughout my life, but the sentiment is a valuable reminder to appreciate and be grateful for them.

Those films, I watched around the same time as a few of friends. We related to, or just found fascinating, so much of the dialogue and discussed them a lot. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit, a couple of those friends, one who I practically grew up with. I’ve written before how, usually, I’m never home sick, and that I don’t really miss friends and family so much—with the exception of Lidiya, who I’m excited about seeing in the evening even if she’s only been out for the day. This time, pre-friend visit I was almost giddy excited, almost in disbelief, I realised I was more excited to see the guys and catch up, than explore SF. That was pretty interesting and cool. I thought about what the change was and the closest answer I’ve arrived at is a change in perspective. That, if I only catch up with these friends once or twice a year for a handful of days, then over the course of our lifetimes, that’s really not a lot of time.

So that makes this sense of gratitude twofold; to have met and shared and experienced so much with awesome people, and to have and appreciate the opportunities to spend time together.

Outro

So arguably that stuff is ‘doing’, not just thinking, but I’ve separated it from other doing stuff e.g. food experiences, visiting startup offices, running, climbing routes, hiking, camping in the cold, being afraid of bears, morning/daily ritual or other exercise and diet/nutrition stuff…. Stuff I think cool or significant, and could talk about, but more in a ‘describing the thing’, as opposed to ‘describing the emotion or experience’ from that thing. Or maybe there’s no difference at all and doing always involves emotion and experience, just at different depths. Or, another maybe, the events I decided to separate and write about made me think.

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A Russian Soul, Slovenia, Irish drinking and Generalisations

Feyda gave Lidiya and myself some home work the other day. To observe and talk to the people in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, and then to compare our experience during the day with our perceptions of Irish and Russian people. He said Russian people have something unique about them, that they are Russian Souls. Surely all peoples have something unique about them, but in this case I think he meant something particularly special to him.

So we started to observe. We asked questions, searched for differences from the moment we walked into the daylight and left Iztok’s house. We arrived in Kranj, Slovenia, after dark the previous evening after a long days driving from Croatia. Two days previous, September 14th, Lidiya and myself started hitchhiking from Sofia, on a mission to France. After a short trip to and walk across the Serbian border we were exceptionally fortunate to be picked up within five minutes of sitting to rest and enjoy some Bulgarian plums. The outstanding people who picked us up were brothers, Iztok and Feyda and Vlasta, Feyda’s wife, from Slovenia.

They were travelling in their motor home on the return leg of their trip from Slovenia through Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Greece and Turkey. Their route home saw them making a roughly straight line through Bulgaria and very happily for us, through Serbia, Croatia and back to Slovenia. We were to journey with them until the city of Niš (Ниш), at the centre of Serbia, but after an hours conversation we had planned to continue with them the next day all the way to Slovenia, the half way marker for our journey. That evening we dined in Serbia, in the small town of Cubura (Чубура), struggled some with ordering a meal without meat, and tucked in for the night in our tent under some trees by a parking lot at the edge of town.

Cubura was poor. We parked the camper in a lot, beside which was a bombed out building with yellow tape crossing the entrance deterring entry and a sign supporting the tape’s indication that stated cameras were not to be used. Iztok and Feyda started up some conversation with a local who said the town’s economy was in bad shape to say the least; the factories that once employed the majority of people their were now vacant and dilapidated, many other buildings in the centre appeared long disused also. The gentleman told us that there was no work for the people, that life was difficult because there was no money and that the future looked dull because there was no sight of investment of any kind to come into the little town, no potential stimuli for the people.

The bombed out building really made an impression on me. I saw young people walking and meeting in front of it, dressed modernly, they wouldn’t have looked out of place in any more western country. But, the backdrop of the building contrasted their appearance; the building looked like it should have long been buried. It was striking, that after such a long time, a little over ten years, nothing had been done with it; it hadn’t been taken down or reconstructed. I wondered what effect it has on the youth. To grow up in such an environment is completely normal there, to have the constant reminder of war, of falling bombs, of a lack of money to repair, to redevelop, to grow… How does this kind of environment effect the culture of the people; their thinking, there attitudes to life.

The most positive impression from Cubura was the fruit and vegetable market, the Bazaar. The produce was as inexpensive as Bulgaria and the quality as high, which is to say the best I’ve come across anywhere in the world. All local produce, in season, and mostly grown traditionally, which means with little or no chemicals, although the idea of organic is little known, understood, and not at all advertised at such a market. The old scales, the big space full of colour and merchants, is the type of place I gravitate towards in towns and cities. The many kilos of beautiful peaches, plums, grapes, peppers and salad we picked up here were quickly missed as we continued west and watched prices rise and quality deteriorate. The highest contrasting purchase came in Italy were we bought something, labelled peaches, which looked like fruit, but was not fruit. I give much consideration to what I view as wasting food, but in this case the item in question, these peaches, were not food; ten times the price of Serbia or Bulgaria with no immediate taste, followed by an unexpected and very much undesired aftertaste. They went swimming.

So we continued on to Ljubljana and to Feyda’s homework. Something that occurred to Lidiya and myself quite soon after starting our comparison of nationality traits was the lack of data we had for Slovenians from the capital. A days experience is no time at all from which to make any kind of generalisations. The only concrete experience we had came from the handful of encounters with locals, mostly asking for directions during the day. The people seemed happy, the responded very readily and helpfully to aid our sight seeing. Aside from the people the city was suprisingly attractive, very clean, with many impressive buildings and edifices of the old quarter lining the river Lublinitsa and is nearby surroundings. It was a pleasure to explore. On the bus from Kranj to Ljubljana we noted some differences also. The road sides were neat and trim, the quality of the roads was high, the houses, gardens, fields were rich, green and well maintained. A gentleman who picked us up in Bulgaria spoke of the corrupt politicians who, especially during 2008, pocketed much of the funds from the European Union for infrastructure development, among other things. He pointed to the overgrown roadsides and potholes in quite a lot of anger, saying that such a thing can’t be seen in western Europe. I have become quite used to the condition of the roads in Bulgaria and perhaps because I’m not a driver I don’t value neat roadsides so highly, but when this man’s complaint came to mind in Slovenia the difference was stark.

I have visited several of the countries of former Yugoslavia (I excitedly await the treasures to be found in those countries I have yet to had the pleasure of tasting) and it is apparent to me Slovenia has jumped miles ahead. I have no idea what the countries were like under Yugoslavia, but my assumption is that they were similar in their level of development. How Slovenia had such a great and immediately visible lead on it’s former communist neighbours interested me greatly. I asked Iztok had Slovenia’s entry to the European Union had much to do with this and he told me no. He quite firmly believed that the difference came from the people, that Slovenians were hard working and that this trait was the main force, if not one of the main forces, responsible for driving the development of Slovenia forward. My knowledge of the powers of change and growth isn’t sufficient to argue or to put forward opinions of my own, but identifying this gap has made me more keen to observe and understand these factors. What are the keys that separate countries, causing such a large developmental distance with such a small geographical distance between them? Production, trade, tourism, natural reserves, key political decisions… I feel I need to understand more in order to compare and balance with any accuracy the effect a cultural trait of the people has had in moving a country forward.

The reason I mention this is to tie together my more general observation of the country, with the more specific observation of Ljubljana and it’s people. The result of both my searches led to people, culture, identity, traits… and generalisations. From here I’ll stay a little from my tourist trail into the associated workings of my mind to analyse generalisations and their potential effects on the world.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in my mind testing the pros and cons of generalisations; the dangers and benefits. When Feyda asked to note the difference between the different peoples, it seemed to require the identification of generalisations of each country and I wanted to more soundly concrete my understanding and definition of a generalisation before using it as my primary tool for comparison. Iztok stressed the importance played by the hard working nature of the Slovenian people. Can such a statement be valid, useful or harmful? I started by asking what a generalisation was and listed some examples to help with this.

Irish people love to drink a lot
Bulgarian police are corrupt
Turkish people are very hospitable
Italians love pasta
French people love wine
Americans are fat and stupid
Roma people are lazy don’t want to work

These came to my mind in this order and I just wrote them down as they came. I think it’s not necessary to say if I believe any of them to be true, and I realise some are favorable and some are not so favorable. This also doesn’t reflect my preference or bias to any country, I love them all, it’s just to provide contrast for the deconstructing of generalisations.

Before defining, I asked whether I could start with a simple black and white result and say that generalisations are either all good or all bad; should they be completely avoided or not. I started by stating and believing that they are bad, that a country, for example, is made up of individuals and to label with a generalisation is to stifle diversity and to create a false and rigid picture of what someone from that country looks and behaves like. In achieving this, the generalisation accomplishes no useful purpose and only does harm, breeding falseness. I’ve back tracked a bit from this hard line view though and instead have found that a contextual value judgement needs to be made per generalisation, that is to judge each generalisation individually, on a case by case basis. I believe several factors can be considered to assist in judging the positive or negative value of such statements. These factors, are what I hope, will be the practical and useful result of my thoughts now, the purpose and aim of my mental wandering.

I believe that you can generalise and make a statement based on your experience with members of a certain people. For example, if you spend some time in Dublin and on every social occasion during your stay, of which there happen to be several per week, you notice that your fellow socialites drink an incredible amount. You have a lot of first hand evidence and experience to justify making a statement like, Irish people drink a lot. In making such a statement it should be understood that the statement does not mean that all Irish people drink, but that a high percentage of the Irish population drink and it should be remembered that such a statement is informed by your first hand experience. The percentage isn’t so important and is rarely necessary to be stated so long as the people involved in the discussion share an unspoken agreement that it means a majority. So in this case the statement can be said to be true and useful in that it defines a common cultural trait of the Irish people quite accurately.

If however you have never met an Irish person and have only encountered other people who possess and use a statement like ‘Irish people drink a lot’, then caution needs to be exercised, you then have no personal experience to justify using this statement. The statement becomes not something valid or useful in describing common traits of a people or culture, it becomes a separate entity which takes on an existence of it’s own, loses connection with the people it’s intended to identify with and from then on can turn into something harmful. A game of Chinese whispers takes place where the generalisation is passed on with increasing distance from the original form, possibly gaining inaccurate claims, and so falsely describing the subject of the statement. Take the unfortunately false statement, for example, ‘all Irish people own their own leprechaun as they are given out for free at birth in Ireland’. It is born of assumption and false information without real connection to Ireland or Irish people. The more it gets used, the more it is believed and without reevaluation or experience, connection, with Irish people this statement can held as true by some people half way across the world, or living in even closer proximity. Coming into contact with an Irish person for the first time would most likely cause the false statement to come to light, at which point the person holding the statement would be sadly disappointed to learn that very few Irish people possess their own Leprechaun. I’m personally not disappointed by this ‘truth’, but constantly look forward to being friends with a Leprechaun instead of owning one, in doing so, avoiding the new Leprechaun human rights laws that would undoubtedly be required to deal with Leprechaun ownership, while enjoying the benefits and cultural exchange and learning from said Leprechaun. 🙂

So for my factors for consideration

If you make the generalisation, where are the roots? Do you make it from your own experience? If so, really what are the experiences that make up your claim?

If you hear and adopt a generalisation from someone else, really, how valid are their experiences upon which the claim is founded? Has the person passing on the generalisation  just re-passed it on after hearing from another person without any supporting experience of their own? Claims from uncertain sources can be considered in quarantine until you attach some verification. For example, if you have heard and somewhat believe that Americans are fat and stupid, but this is second hand information and you have yet to meet an American. Meeting a slim and intelligent American, or one of any other description will inform and hopefully seriously damage such a falsity; you will re-evaluate the generalised belief.

Thinking about the source is important, especially concerning negative generalised statements.

I’ve simplified my goal to outline some things that were really bothering me about generalisations. I was searching in conversation sometimes for effective ways to counter people, in a constructive way, who made statements like, ‘but they’re Muslims, they asked for it’, or ‘gypsies live by stealing from others’ or ‘I don’t believe in generalising, but it’s the reality, Americans are fat and stupid’. My search started from a desire to better communicate my opinions on these matters, statements I saw as harmful. I see my ability to communicate effectively as very important. I don’t want to convert opinions to my way of thinking, but to open thinking a little bit, to encourage questioning. Then, all things considered if, what I see as, negative or discriminatory comments remain the same, at least they have been brought into question and at least I’ve tried with what is for now my best.

This thought became intertwined with Fedya’s question and homework and has very satisfactorily reached a conclusion for now, while at the same time opening a much larger door of question; specific cultural traits of people and the effect they have on a country’s development. I hope to practically apply this to the differences in development of Slovenia to it’s neighbours as I mentioned a little earlier in this post. Also, with a little groundwork covered on generalisations, I hope to now tackle more specifically negative statements and stereotypes which enforce the discrimination of people. But I’ll take a break now. 🙂

Feyda, my report is as follows. I can only comment very positively about Slovenia, but can’t possibly cite differences between the Irish culture after such a short, but amazing, experience. I will have to return to your beautiful country to do a little more research. 🙂 I have met even fewer Russians than Slovenians, so the same applies for my comparison with them, the Russian Soul I am still far from understanding or appreciating. Thank you for the very stimulating questions, I look forward to more the next time we meet. 🙂

(Update May 22nd 2013: I moved to Ljubljana, with Lidiya in February-June 2013, and wrote a little about my experience. Also, I have just launched one of the first Slovenian self-study language programs, Learn Slovenian Online, with my Slovene teacher, Valentina. Our goal is to create the best resource for learning the Slovenian language on the web.)