Monday, July 8, 2019

Happy 5th of July!

I’ve not gotten confused over dates; this article is not meant to comemmorate the day of the US independence from the British crown.


Looking back over the nine years of entries that this blog comprises of, I realize I’ve never written a Happy Independence Day entry in honor of America’s celebration.

Perhaps that is because, historically – my history, not America’s, I was typically on the road in the summer months and not given to contemplation of the origins of the country known as the United States of America.

Or, perhaps I unconsciously stand with those who call it ‘Treason Day’ because those British colonists declared independence from their government.

But then, if I disdain America’s founding fathers and mothers for rising up against the injustice of being taxed in absentia and subjected to punishing rule, then I should equally disdain the actions of the French 3rd Estate for storming the Bastille and catapulting France into a civic revolution.

The long and the short of the story is that, sometimes, revolution is necessary.

The taking of lands without consent of the occupants, on the other hand, is not laudable and even more dismaying is the lack of their acknowledgement in modern day ‘birth of the nation’ celebrations – but that’s another story.

Now, I tip my hat to the United States of America for the celebration that millions of citizens and those who are citizens-in-waiting enjoy, and turn my focus to my immediate surroundings.

June 27th marked my nine-month anniversary in Szczecin. As yet, I do not have official permission to reside here; I am still only conditionally approved.

Fortunately, that stamp in my passport that permits my legal residence does not have an expiration date!

Outside of that miserable time, post-arm break, when I felt that every pavestone and cobblestone was a trip hazard; when I jealously watched those who sauntered carelessly along city sidewalks, presumably unaware of the danger beneath their very feet...

Outside of that time, I have walked and/or ridden just about every street in this city. Quite a few of them are named after remarkable citizens.

I think we all know the name Sikorsky – the family of military helicopters. That dynasty was founded by the Russian immigrant to the U.S., Igor Sikorsky.

The Polish Sikorski, first name Wladislaw, has a lush boulevard near my pok named after him.

As a lad of only 20, prior to the 1st World War, he engaged in an underground movement to liberate Poland from Russia. When war broke out, he fought with distinction in the hastily established Polish League – what passed for their army at the time.

He went on to complete a brilliant military career which had detracted from his efforts of unifying Poland as a sovereign state in its own right.

During the 2nd World War, he became Poland’s first Prime Minister in Exile and the commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces.

In short, it is easy to see why there is such a well-traveled road that bears his name.

Likewise for Gabriel Narutowicz, the first official president of Poland who was murdered a mere five days after taking office. He not only has an avenue but also a tram stop to honor him.

And the list goes on:

  • Augustyn Kordiecki, a prior of the Pauline monastery who protected priceless religious art
  • Jozef Bem, a man whose vast and varied talents saw him succeed on the battlefield as well as in academia
  • Tadeusz Kosciuszko, supreme national commander of the Polish armed forces during the insurrection that bears his name; later a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
    • Thomas Jefferson himself opined that this man was ‘the purest son of freedom he’d come to know.
  • Kazimierz Pulaski, leading military commander for the Bar Confederation; later a general in the Confederate Army
    • He is noted, among other accomplishments, for saving the life of George Washington.

I guess now we know why there are so many places named Pulaski in the States; 6 of them, to be exact.

And so, as I stroll/ride through this tiny town nearly on the German border, I am slowly discovering, through street names, the people and places of Poland.

Places’ because there are streets here that are named after geographical locations, too.

Such commemorations are not uncommon; every country I have been in identifies their roadways in that manner.

Some even use dates: in Berlin, there is a wide boulevard named Platz der 4. Juli – July 4th Plaza.

It just so happened that, during the Cold War, American army troops were stationed at McNair Barracks, which were adjacent to July 4th Plaza. American troops used that space as their parade grounds.

What I didn’t get, couldn’t understand and couldn’t figure out no matter who I asked was: why is there a street named 5th of July in Szczecin?

I confess that, at first, I did not know that street name was an actual date.

The Polish language having no fewer than 8 grammatical cases means that, in just about any sentence, any given word could change form completely, in some cases so that it bears absolutely no resemblance to the base form of the word.

A fine example of such – from my limited lexicon of Polish words and basic knowledge of only 3 of the 8 cases, is the word for dog: pies (pronounced p-yes).

Using the accusative case, ‘dog’ turns into ‘psa’ and in the instrumental – a case that has no equivalent in English, it becomes ‘psem’…

And there are still 5 more cases to learn – who knows how many more changes there will be to dogs by the time I learn them all!

I hope you can see why I could not immediately interpret 5 Lipca, the name of the street, as 5th of July; Lipca is a far cry from Lipiec, the base form of the word.

Dang cases!

It was only on the tram, on my way to class on the first Tuesday of the month of July that I connected the two words, and then only because every public conveyance here bears screens that show route maps, date and time and, of course, advertisement.

Once I understood that 5 Lipca was actually a date, I stopped wondering what it was supposed to commemorate 5 of and set about trying to find what was so important about that date.

As I was to spend the next hour and a half with a native of Szczecin – my teacher, I asked her what was so important about it. She thought I meant July 4th but, after dissuading her, she confessed to not knowing and vowed to look it up.

Back home after lessons, with my trusty computer at hand, I too did some looking and, after a bit of poking around, found the answer.

That was the day, in 1945, that this city was ‘given back’ to Poland by the Germans.

Already formulating this entry in my head, I decided to challenge my Polish friends at our Meetup, scheduled for the evening of July 4th.

Mercifully, our group has grown from it just being Jerzy and I; how great it was to see Tomasz and Sylwia again! Besides those 3, we had a newcomer, Pawel, a shy young man who hopes to improve his English so he can change jobs.

None of them knew why this city had a street named 5th of July.

I did not gloat or rub their faces in the fact that I knew of a portion of their history better than they did; in fact, I did not even let on that I knew anything about it other than it identified a street.

I was too busy being dismayed that such an important event is not more renowned. Just think: were it not for that event, everyone here would be speaking German!

Surely, such a defining moment in history should be taught in schools, celebrated and publicized?

I’ve ridden and walked up and down 5 Lipca Street several times and I have yet to see even a commemorative plaque. Nor is it listed as noteworthy in the tour books or websites I’ve skimmed.

And, even though I know only a handful of people here, none of them knew the significance of that date… and Sylwia is a school teacher!

I suppose that the people in Szczecin, embroiled in their daily affairs, have no time to spare for deep reflection of their recent history.

Life happens in the states, too and, amidst the tantalizing smell of grilling meat and the exotic displays of fireworks, few would spare a thought to the fact that, in order to declare independence from an oppressive government, the land the colonists occupied had to first be taken from native inhabitants.

But then, as I rush to meet Luiza for dinner, at the tram stop: an announcement of Szczecin’s 74th birthday party, to be held this weekend…

Looks like I’m wrong in thinking that Szczecin being reinstated to Poland has been overlooked.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

By Any Other Name

I believe that China has the only culture to give a name to the capital that relationships accrue – the goodwill and indebtedness that one might feel as a result of friendship, or simply because someone did you a favor that you must one day repay.

To be sure, other cultures have similar concepts; some, like Russia’s blat are considered corrupt while others, such as the Middle Eastern wasta, amount to nepotism.

In the business world, that concept is expressed by the term ‘networking’. One networks in order to establish relationships that could eventually become beneficial.

When seen in that light, building beneficial relationships for future usage sounds pretty distasteful, doesn’t it?

All of these ideas may amount to the same thing – an obligation incurred by or to someone with whom you are in a relationship.

Still, none are quite as prevalent, well-defined or as integral to the culture as China’s concept of guanxi.

The more I travel the world and the more people I meet, the more I find that such relationships are necessary, especially if you are just learning how to function in a new society.

Take Luisa and Ewelina, for example.

I did not befriend them for possible future use; I found them to be lovely, intelligent young women whom I would love to get to know better.

In their turn, they help me get along not for some benefit they might later enjoy but because they are good, kind, caring people. 

I believe that these qualities and motivations are the basis for friendship. Whether there are any gains to be had is immaterial.

The topic that brought this blog article about is something quite different...


Thursday: 11th meeting of the Szczecin English Language Club.

Much to my surprise, a total of seven people – five besides Jerzy and myself, had pledged to attend!

Not that I mind meeting with only Jerzy; we do get into some deep discussion... I did tell you some of his views are extreme?

Imagine my reaction to his saying women’s contributions to science and society were irrelevant...

Thursday: a bit larger a group to talk with. Yay!

Emilia would be there; I had met her before and had worried about her absence from the last two meetings.

Besides her: Oskar, a shy coder currently writing software for games, Tomasz, a retired coder and Sylwia a teacher who wants to be a coder. And, of course, Jerzy, our group leader who is also a coder.

It was a lively group coders (plus a musician and a writer). We skipped from topic to topic, getting to know one another.

Oskar has a job interview next Friday with an American software company; he is scared to death that his English skills are lacking, that his overwhelming shyness will do him in and that he simply won’t get the job.

Tomasz, native to Szczecin, left Poland for the states in 1987, after the fall of the communist regime. Now wary and weary of the socio-political climate in his adopted home, he has opted to enjoy retirement here.  

It was great to have him on my side of the table, literally and figuratively, when discussing life in the US because Jerzy doesn’t necessarily believe the things I say. Now, with a male voice chiming in, he has no choice but to credit my recountings!

Sylwia teaches both English and Polish but confesses her English language skills are poor because she doesn’t have much chance to speak English; for her, this group was a boon!

I am familiar with that phenomenon; English teachers in China also had trouble exercising their language skills; they often resorted to teaching English in Chinese. 

Could any of these conversations be considered building guanxi?

Sylwia was drawing immediate benefit from this meeting; her goal was to practice speaking English and it was met.

Oskar might also have benefited because he was combatting shyness as well as practicing his English skills.

For the rest of us, it was just the pleasure of socializing that made the event great. All in all, not much guanxi on display.

And then, Tomasz asked about my crooked arm.

The retelling was not a long tale of woe but the bare facts: I had been denied medical care because I didn’t have the right kind of insurance.

Tomasz expressed disgust at the way such things are handled here.

Emilia chimed in: she knows a great physical therapist who might be able to do something to help my misshapen arm.

To which Tomasz exclaimed: “That is the way things work in this country! You have to know someone to get anything!”

He then enjoined: “take my phone number; if you have any problems talking with anyone, you can call me and I will translate for you.”

And then, he went further to say he would check the Polish national insurance web page to see whether I could buy insurance without yet having my residence permit.

There is no corresponding page in English and I don’t yet have the language skills to conduct a search in Polish. Searching in English turns up no results.

Emilia also averred she stood at the ready to intercede on my behalf, be it on insurance matters or with the receptionist at the physical therapist’s office.

Talk about wonderful, helpful people! But is there guanxi-building going on?

As the meeting was breaking up, I offered to coach Oskar for his interview. Gratitude flooded his face, evident by the rosy blooms in his cheeks and his suddenly watery eyes.


As Emilia and I walked home together, she mentioned she’d like to have me over for a meal and to meet her boyfriend and his son.

The two of them are reluctant English speakers and she would like for them to have exposure to a native speaker of English. I told her I would relish the opportunity to coax them to speak and loose plans were formed.

It was a blissfully cool night after several brutally hot days.

It was a good meeting with interesting people – yes, even Jerzy with his extreme views is interesting.

It was a confirmation that humans are indeed social animals.

Even I, profound loner, need and enjoy human contact and, apparently, I am about to embroil myself into more of it than I’ve experienced in the last 6 months.

There was evidence of guanxi this evening.

Not necessarily in the offers of help that were made but in the proposed exchange of favors between Emilia and myself.

I am grateful in the extreme for those offers made to me and I imagine that others were also grateful for the offers they received.

Some might see that as merely a budding friendship but, once you’ve experienced guanxi, it is hard to not recognize it for what it is: capitalizing on a relationship.

I am not angry about it because the art of guanxi calls for balancing out one’s usage of a relationship with equal capital.

Come to think of it, there was also a mention of guanxi – not that actual name but in the assertion of how Polish society functions; that one must know someone in order to get anything done. 

That just goes to show that guanxi by any other name – or no name at all is just as delicate, intricate and integral to a functioning society, even if it is not recognized or acknowledged as such.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

On the Good Side; On the Bad Side

This week has been a mishmash of things that, on the surface, seem unconnected but, on a deeper level, are quite profound.

Profound in the sense that they are a reflection of the greater Polish attitudes; one in specific.

Let me lay them out for you.

My New Teacher

After six months of Polish language lessons – with my being tutored one to one, I am (not) proud to report that I could barely put a sentence together, let alone speak a word of Polish.

I believe my own attitude had a lot to do with failure to learn, in the beginning.

With a broken arm and some serious emotional baggage to work through, I attest that I was less than eager to learn anything.

On the other hand...

With a teacher who spent quite a bit of time on her phone while I did ‘busy work’ in my exercise book, a teacher who discouraged my attempts to speak and who corrected me without ensuring that the corrections were understood, I think I had a good reason for being less inclined to learn at that point.

I did try.

I asked if we could read dialog rather than play the textbook’s complementary CD. I asked if we could role play, if there were any learning games we might employ... I know how I learn best, after all.

All entreaties fell on deaf ears.

I fired that teacher. Not dramatically – no shouting accusations or pointing fingers.

My contract came up for renewal and I simply requested a different class, knowing full well that daytime lessons would cause me to be assigned to a different teacher.

And what a teacher I got! After only one lesson, I felt emboldened to make use of what Polish I know to carry out transactions at the grocery store’s deli section rather than selecting prepackaged lunchmeat.

Not only that, but I actually engaged the store’s service desk clerk in a conversation unrelated to the transaction we had just conducted and, when a random stranger asked me where ‘Dom Lekarz’ was, I was able to tell her!

Oh! The thrill!

Now anticipating my third lesson with this miracle teacher who knows how to explain and how to engage students, I feel no need to refer to the back of the workbook to do my homework (that is where all of the answers are).

In fact, I breeze right through my homework; a dramatic contrast to the frustration I felt trying to complete work the other teacher had assigned without so much as going over the vocabulary needed to complete the work.

Working with that teacher, I every assignment’s answers were copied from the back of the book.

The new teacher and learning Polish: definitely on the good side.

The Ongoing Struggle to Obtain Medication

You might remember, back in April, when I recounted a tale of doctors turning patients away for seemingly paltry excuses.

In my case, the excuse was the fact that I don’t speak Polish. That doc soon had to swallow the fact that I know people, and said peeps don’t take kindly to my being dismissed from medical care.

Luiza, chief protector and defender of my health, had been asking when we were going back to the doctor.

Now in the know of my medical condition because she talks to the doctor on my behalf, she is hellbent on making sure I get the care I need. I love her for that... and a bunch of other stuff! 

Last Thursday was the dreaded day.

I don’t care for that doctor; he seems to care deeply about practicing medicine to the best of his ability but not necessarily on me.

Maybe I expect too much... but is it too much to expect that, when you utter a greeting, you ought to get a response?

Instead, doc looked over my shoulder to Luiza and smiled, greeting her warmly. They proceeded to converse.

Luiza being much prettier than I am, I could certainly understand people paying more attention to her!

Thanks to my new Polish language teacher, I was able to pick up on some of what they were saying so, when he asked Luiza for my postal code, I spoke the first two numbers in Polish.

“71-...” is as far as I got before he turned away, muttering that he would have me write it down.

He then handed me a piece of paper and a pen, and I obliged, all while suffering flashbacks of my first teacher discouraging my fledgling attempts to speak Polish, and dealing with the persistent impression that this doctor would rather be treating someone who could speak his language.

As I’ve said before, he does go above and beyond to practice medicine.

When he could not get through to the pharmacy to call in my prescription, he first sent Luiza downstairs to ask if their phone was off the hook and, upon attempting to call again when she returned and still not getting through, he escorted us personally to the pharmacy. 

Being treated for thyroiditis: on the good side. Being cold-shouldered by the doctor, presumably for the simple fact that I don’t speak Polish: on the bad side.

Enjoying a Meal Out

I don’t often eat out, especially not by myself but, when the urge is upon me, there is one eatery I favor above all others.

On my first major foray into this city, with my now dear friends who were mere acquaintances at the time, I paused for a food break at a kebab restaurant during our apartment search.

It could not have been more authentic: Middle Eastern music blasting from the sound system, pictures of Syria on the walls and the favorite treat of my days in Berlin, the doner kebab, prepared by people apparently from the region that food originates from.

It took a few times of dining there for anyone besides the cashier taking my order to speak to me.

On a slow day, the person I had thought was the place’s owner (he has an air of command about him) asked me in English where I am from.

I always balk at that question because my origins are fairly convoluted: do people want to know where I was born or where I had spent the most time? Do they want my mother’s or father’s nationality?

Should I also throw in the land and city I most identify with?  

Through that whole ‘it’s complicated!’ conversation, we discovered that ‘the owner’ and I have several languages in common.

To our mutual delight, one of them is French, and that’s the language we speak when I visit there.

That doctor’s appointment had given me plenty of food for thought, not the least of which was how I might manage to continue living here if faced with ongoing bias... and with growing medical concerns.

Thus, my head in the clouds, I stepped into Only Kebab, greeted my friend and placed my order, immediately afterwards repairing to the dining area.

Whereas normally, diners carry their order to their tables in this cafeteria-style restaurant, I was served by none other than the establishment’s manager – my buddy! Turns out, he’s not the owner.

Of course, we prattled in ‘our’ language but, when I thanked him in Polish (as a joke), his reaction was immediate and visceral:

“Don’t speak to me in that horrible language! I hate it! I hate it here! I can’t bear it! The superiority! The racism!” 

I was hardly taken aback by his outburst; we had discussed how difficult it is to be an outsider in Szczecin before.

And, hadn’t I just come from an experience of bias against me – the doctor who barely acknowledges my presence?

With my Caucasian looks, I am often mistaken for a Pole... until someone speaks to me, causing me to stammer that I don’t understand them.

Unlike Riad, whose distinctively Middle Eastern appearance marks him from the get-go. 

My experiences in China, a place where I was visibly different from everyone else, permits an easy stepping into his shoes.

The early years there, the stir my looks cause was not ill-intentioned or ominous; people simply had limited exposure to foreigners and they wanted to make the most of their opportunity.

The ‘sour’ part of my China experience, being turned away from hotels and denied basic services at banks and post offices didn’t happen until later.

It left a lingering aftertaste that, even now, when friends in China beg me to return, I recall those times and gently turn down their offers of hospitality lest I be confronted with the same treatment. 

Is that what Riad faces every day? That, or worse?

Does he sense sneers and disdain? Outright contempt – the same as I felt from that doctor and from my first Polish teacher?

Identifying with someone who is discriminated against because of similar experiences: most definitely on the bad side!

How much it will weigh as time goes on... we’ll have to see.

Monday, June 10, 2019

“I’m Bored!”

‘Bored’: the universal cry of children all across America.

For all I know, children the world over may claim boredom – to be sure, my students in China certainly said they were bored. Actually, they said they felt boring... an adjective misuse.

But then, they were not exactly children; more like young adults.

True, they were fairly confined by university procedures and restrictions and, giving due to China’s technology sector, there is only so much of it a mind can employ before a longing manifests for new horizons, even electronic ones. 

Finally away from home and hungry to experience life, those students found themselves stymied at every turn by strict rules and financial constraints – much like people bordering on adulthood everywhere do.

By the time they did taste life – working part-time jobs so they could have money to spend on ‘life’, they found it mundane; dull, in fact.

But children? Those between ages seven to thirteen? My limited exposure to that age group outside of America reveals no instances of that exclamation. At least, none that I can remember.

There is a word for boredom in all of the languages I know; surely it cannot be an abstract concept that only few experience!

My kids grew up in America and, like so many children, they occasionally asserted that they were bored. They had good reason to, I suppose.

For much of their growing up, we didn’t have cable TV. They didn’t have many toys and we didn’t live in the best neighborhoods, where it would be safe to play outside or even make friends.

Son suffered especially because he despised reading; to this day he does not read for pleasure. So, whereas Daughter and I could relish the prospect of the type of entertainment only a library could bring, he, more often than not, had to find other ways to amuse himself.

We cooked together, cleaned together, played together – board games, outside games... still, there were instances where they felt time stretching like taffy.

Invariably, when they declared they were bored, I shot back: “Life is not perpetual excitement. You have to find ways to entertain yourself!

I now find amusement in the fact that Daughter spouts the same line to her daughter when that darling redhead moans about boredom.

With all of that being said, the topic of this week is not my boredom; it’s the fact that I have nothing to report on.

The temps are mild and the air is clear. I sit in my garrett and write – for you, for my clients and for myself.

Evenings, I grab my walking poles and march vigorously up and down the leafy, green medians that  divide the boulevards close to my house. Sometimes, I opt for a bike ride.

Grocery shopping and other household chores happen as needed.

In the evening, a bit of something to watch (thank you, online streaming!), a restful slumber and do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next... 

Once a week, language class. Once a month, hair cut. Twice a month, Meetup. When our schedules coincide, a dinner with Luisa and Ewelina.

To quote a popular song of my youth: “ jolts, no surprises; no crisis arises; my life goes along as it should...”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the awe and wonder that shadowed my China adventure and how, in contrast to living here, that world seemed one of perpetual excitement: everywhere something to see and exclaim over!

Here, everyone and everything is... hmm... bland.

I can’t say normal because ‘normal’ means different things depending on where in the world you live.

In some countries it is normal for women to be covered head to toe. In China, it is normal for women to dance in the streets in the evening.

Here, it is normal to be outdoors when the weather is nice. I know this because our green spaces are full of people – strolling around or taking a rest on the many benches while small children squeal and play on the playground.

It is normal to have a pet. In my newfound fitness workout of pumping up and down grassy medians, I compete for space with the many dogs who normally gambol in that space.

It was those dogs and their walkers that gave me the idea to make use of the medians for my Nordic walking.

It is normal to behave... for the most part. I say that with the remembrance of graffiti.

 Even the drunks manage to put on a bit of decorum, whether sleeping it off on the pavement or stumbling around only half-clad in these warm days.

It is normal to be appropriately dressed. Save for the abovementioned drunks, everyone wears clothes that fit and neatly tied shoes, polished slip-ons or, more recently, sandals.

Even those miscreants that caused a ruckus in our building were decently dressed and well-groomed.

No pants worn butt-level or below the butt, no unlaced boots... and, while a few men wear their ballcaps backwards, I’ve yet to see anyone wear such a hat with the bill facing in any other direction than back or front.

The younger, prettier girls tend to wear form-fitting or revealing clothing but most of us are fairly demurely clad: no short-shorts, no bellies or boobs hanging out... 

I find none of this boring; it is just life a’happening.

However, it does leave little to write to you about. This is supposed to be a culture and travel story; not my day-to-day-living story!

And so, as I ponder next week’s entry, I leave you with a comfortable slice of life as it happens.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Borders and Beyond Boundaries

Someone such as myself, a person who sees the world not as a collection of hemmed in territories so much as vast expanses to explore – full of diverse cultures and history, may find themselves stymied by the growing protectionism of some countries over their lands.

Such an attitude really makes this traveler wonder: why are they so protective? It’s not like their occupying that land is by manifest destiny; it is only ‘theirs’ by an accident of birth and a few bloody wars.

Likewise cyberspace: ostensibly, it is there for everyone to use, to whichever degree they wish, provided that malfeasance is not their agenda.

Of course, plenty of people who use the Internet have just such an agenda. It’s just that someone without a criminal bone in her body could not imagine the appeal of ruining for everyone a tool meant to unite people.

In order to protect netizens from such miscreants, every legitimate Internet service provides layers of security so that, should cyberpunks attempt to corrupt one’s account or to hack a system, such suspicious activity would be flagged and additional verification of identity would be required.

Naturally, it is incumbent upon the legitimate account holder to suffer the inconvenience and provide the proof; seldom do service providers trace the evildoers to ask them what they’re doing, messing about with accounts that aren’t theirs. 

Isn’t there such a thing as Internet Police to tackle that?

By and large, though, for travelers as well as freelancers who gig online; for coders and multinational corporations... in this day and age, the Internet offers possibilities and opportunities for borderless interaction.

As a traveler (and a freelancer), I cherish this borderless realm.

Imagine living the life of a vagabond a century ago: disconnected from the people who enrich your life, longing for the occasional letter through the post... Indeed, vagabonding in the days of yore would have been a lonely proposition indeed!


The Szczecin English Language Club Meetup, a group with a presence of 50 people online, has unfortunately shrunk down to just two active participants: myself and the group leader, Jerzy. 

It could be because he announces meetings only two days before they happen. Or because he plans no activities, nor does he set any agenda.

I can see why people would not be keen to drop whatever they had planned in order to attend a meeting with no set topics or activities.

Nevertheless, we two active members do manage to get into some lively discussion.

Jerzy has some decidedly strange ideas, in my opinion, and a certain amount of gall – the kind of chutzpah that permits him to openly declare that women and men could never be on par with one another intellectually, physically or in any other realm... in the presence of women!

Naturally, he is entitled to his ideas and they make for a vigorous debate, especially seeing as my worldview is diametrically opposite of his.

Thus, last week’s Meetup included a discussion of social reform in which I contended that, throughout history, social movements have brought about the greatest changes.

He contended that that wasn’t so. 

My jaw dropped. My eyes went wide. I could not believe that this man, who was an adolescent when the people of this country rose up to form their first independent trade union and ultimately went on to defeat communism, thought that social movements have no power.

“Communism was going to end anyway”, he countered. “It is not a sustainable model; Solidarity only brought its end about more swiftly.”

Change is inevitable... Benjamin Disraeli, British Statesman

If we accept the above quote by the former British prime minister as truth, then Jerzy’s statement is a non sequitur. Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that the Solidarity movement was the catalyst that precipitated the end of communism.

Had it not been for the Solidarity Movemement, who knows how long people in the east-bloc countries would have continued to suffer before their central government threw in the towel?

There are times that I suffer from L’esprit de l’escalier, what the French call ‘the spirit of the staircase’.
That means that the perfect comeback, argument or reply comes to you hours, days... even weeks after the instance you should have used it.

That sense bedeviled me when Jerzy averred that social movements mean nothing.

The Equal Rights Amendment, the Civil Rights movement, deposing the Russian tsar...

Of all of the social movements throughout history, the only one I could think of at the time of my dumbfoundedness was the French Revolution, when starving citizens stormed the Bastille and overthrew the monarchy.

He conceded my point in that instance but maintained that, in general, social movements have no clout. The meeting soon broke up; it was going on 10:00pm.

We parted as friends... or, at least, worthy opponents.

Still, I wish I hadn’t been possessed of the ‘spirit of the staircase’; I might have rattled off several other impactful social movements; effectively burying his argument under a ton of facts! 


While attempting to send an email from the account I use for my business transactions the next morning, I received a message: suspicious activity has been detected; my account has been blocked. To unblock it, I need to verify my identity.

Wondering what suspicious activity could have originated from my account and, more importantly, who might have hacked my account to conduct said activity – because I certainly hadn’t, I clicked the ‘next’ button.

The prompt: enter my phone number to receive a text message that will provide me with an ‘unlock’ code.

I live abroad but I don’t live under a rock.

I am well-aware of the concerns and issues surrounding data privacy, how citizens’ personal information is sold to the highest bidder and how various governments collect and categorize said data.

Needless to say, I am reluctant to part with any more information than I already have, especially when confronted with a vague allegation that there has been suspicious activity from my account and no proof provided of what that activity might have been.

Doesn’t it seem like a security risk to give out your phone number rather than using the alternate email address I had provided when I opened that account?

After all, a miscreant would certainly have a phone number s/he could enter but probably wouldn’t know my alternate email address.

In an attempt to circumvent the phone number mandate, I changed my account password. That service provider sent a password change code to my alternate email without my having to input said address.

With a new password – and thus, my identity presumably verified... the prompt to input my phone number reappeared.

Maybe there has been an update to their service agreement I am unaware of that states that account holders must now also provide phone numbers?

That company’s terms of service mentions the word ‘phone’ 14 times (Ctrl+F reveals them all) but does not state that one must provide a phone number as a condition to having an account. 

There is apparently no way around having to surrender my phone number if I want access to that account.

Contacting customer support and emailing that entity brought no solutions; every link on every page dealing with locked accounts led me straight back to the window demanding my phone number.

The email I wrote them was swiftly returned because I am apparently not on their list of approved mailers. Their chatbot insisted I needed to provide my phone number and there were no customer service reps to talk the issue over with.


Recently, Tim Berners-Lee expressed concern for the direction his creation is taking, specifically the mining and use of personal data, the rise of misinformation and the concentrations of its power in only a few hands.

Like him, millions of people, myself included, envisioned cyberspace as a vast expanse of possibilities.

All said, we were only wrong in assuming the possibilities would be beneficial – as opposed to causing mistrust, fear and outright deception.

Sadly, the very people who should be safeguarding citizens against data mining do not enforce the few laws in place – let alone enact stricter laws for consumer protection. 

We can’t look to corporations ensuring our data is safe; their motive for collecting it is profit for themselves. Profit generated in part by the sale of consumers’ data.

That is why advocates of Internet ‘freedom’, Sir Berners-Lee among them, emphasize that individuals must take control of their data and guard it jealously. I happen to agree. Thus, in the interest of security, I shall not divulge my phone number.

I will sacrifice that account; it was seldom used anyway. As long as that is the extent of this service’s attempts to glean more of my personal information, I can live with it.

But I wonder...

People all over the world slander China for its alleged intrusion on its citizens’ digital lives and Russia’s desire to insulate their country’s Internet, presumably so that they too can monitor their citizens’ online presence ...

Why aren’t netizens in the ‘free’ world over concerned over seemingly innocuous attempts to glean ever more data?

Time might be right for a social movement to limit access to personal data or even impose stiff penalties for capitalizing off of it and becoming a tool of social control.

I wonder if Jerzy, a freelance coder, would consider that movement worthwhile...

Note: this blog does not aspire to be political in any way.


Sunday, May 26, 2019

What is an Explorer? Do I Qualify?

Two things happened this week that led to this entry.

1.      My good friend Kevin asked two very pointed questions: what makes me leave all that is known and familiar and strike out for unknown parts? Do I come from a long line of wanderers?

2.      Celebrating Ewelina’s birthday, we got on the topic of where we would go if we could go anywhere.

The plan was that Ewelina was going to win the lottery and treat us each to our dream trip. Luiza said she wanted to give the idea some thought and I popped out with Tristan da Cuhna, a place that any explorer worth their salt ought to have on their list of to-go places.

Ewelina said her dream destination was anywhere she could go with a pack on her back, exploring every crevice to be found along the way.

I contended that, were I in her same age group, that would be my dream trip, too. Now a little more age-advanced and actually needing a few creature comforts, I have become a vagabond with pretentions.

My friends whipped out their phones to research Tristan, we all laughed at my being too old to want to sleep on the ground, and the conversation moved on.

It was a most pleasant evening. The shivers didn’t start till the next day, when I read Kevin’s message.


I want to take a moment here to thank those people who have stayed with me throughout this vagabonding adventure. 

These are dear people with whom I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with by sheer happenstance. Literally, an accident of geography brought us together; we lived in the same area and worked at the same plant.

Now, nearly a decade removed from that place of employment and having not been on the same continent for years, we still send text messages, emails and even maintain a fairly regular video calling schedule.

These people I am privileged to know, who don’t see my acts of wandering as acts of abandonment, are my bedrock. For them as for me, friendship transcends miles and time zones.

I find their devotion to our friendship remarkable. I only hope I give those ties, and those people, their due.


Kevin  is currently traveling. Taking a welcome break from our (my former, his current) place of work, he is now back in his family fold, where he will wallow for the next two weeks.

Perhaps it is the permanence of ‘the ole homestead’ and the four generations of kinfolk living there that made him ask, after all of these years, why I wander.

I suppose that, for him, the timelessness of ‘home’ might have caused him to wonder how anyone can stand to blow around the world like a tumbleweed, without ever putting down roots.

His innocent and obviously well-meaning query has been knocking around my head all day.

The short and ultimately unsatisfying answer to it is: I like to travel and learn new things.

It is unsatisfying because it is a slippery slope: there’s plenty to learn in the country of my citizenship and plenty of places to go... why don’t I just stay there and do my traveling?

And it implies that my likes take precedence over the people in my life. I REALLY don’t like that thought!

What is an Explorer?

By definition, such a person is also called a discoverer, a traveler, a rambler, a globetrotter...

As such, both Ewelina and I qualify as explorers. Are we in the same league as Gertrude Bell or Nellie Bly?

In my case, definitely not. I can’t speak for my friend; her spirit and thirst for adventure just might put her on par with those ladies one day.

On the other hand, the set of circumstances that women operated under a century ago make it doubtful that any adventuring female today could match the daring of past explorers who were women, even if they embody that sense of élan.

Naturally, that question is moot for explorers of the male persuasion; it is true that they face all of the challenges inherent in exploring but they are not likely to face obstacles thrown up by their gender.

But then, nor would they gain extraordinary recognition for any feats they might accomplish, whereas a female explorer might. But I digress...

Where, as Kevin asks, does my travel bug come from?

I believe I can discount my father’s side of the family; hardly any of those relatives ever left their home state and even fewer have left the country.

There is potential for inherited wanderlust from my mother’s side, though. The men were mostly all engineers and, according to my uncle, my family’s male ancestors helped run oil pipelines through west Africa. 

Bearing that assertion out is a collection of photographs, over a century old, including several of them in which my grandparents were dressed in ‘colonial garb’ while assigned to work in Senegal. My grandmother stayed at home (another picture reveals a house with servants) while her husband tromped all over the countryside in search of optimal pipeline territory.

If that epoch in my family’s lineage is the cause of my need for travel, that supposes that the desire to travel is hereditary. That the lust for distant shores and adventure is genetically programmed.

That sounds rather absurd. This next postulate does too.

According to family legend, I was born in the back seat of the taxi that was taking my mother to the hospital for my imminent arrival.

So the story goes, by the time the cabbie stopped in front of the hospital doors and  the medical staff trotted out to meet the laboring mother, I was already in this world, lying serenely on the seat with my eyes wide open and my thumb in my mouth.

Thus, because of my vehicular birth, I am doomed to a life of travel, never staying in one place for too long.

It could have happened the way they say it did. I might have been a beautiful baby, all wide-eyed and placid on the back seat of a cab.

However, having given birth to a couple of children myself, I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t have been absolute mayhem in that cab and that the driver wouldn’t have cussed a blue streak at the mess he would have to clean.

A thumb-sucking, wide-eyed baby, serene in the middle of all of that? And being doomed to lifelong travel simply because of accidental taxi birth?

It makes for a good party story but I’m not buying it.

I think what really doomed me to wander my whole life was moving, my whole life.

Before I was fully conscious of the world around me, we left the land of my birth for my father’s home country. Once there, we moved four times – to four different states in five years, after which we boarded an airplane and headed back overseas. 

Four years after that, it was time to move to another country again. And then, two years later... and the year after that, and then – oh, joy! - we stayed in one place for a full seven years! Not at the same address but in the same city... for a whole seven years! 

There was traveling during that time, just no relocating.

Those seven years were the longest stretch I stayed in any one place during the first 20 years of my life. In fact, I still identify with that city and country: that is where I graduated from high school, found my first job and where I transitioned from adolescent to adult.

Having been a traveler from birth, I have no true idea what it feels like to have a sense of continuity brought on by ties to a locale (or to extended family, but that’s another matter altogether).

I cannot imagine what it’s like to stay in one place more than a few years, to put down roots and to see what grows from them.

Well, I can’t say I have no idea; I see plenty of people with that sense of permanence. Kevin is a case in point: returning year after year to the city he grew up in, to the house he grew up in, to the people he grew up with...

Would I trade places with him, if I could?

Probably not. His family wouldn’t know me, I wouldn’t know any of his landmarks or even where his family lives.      

It’s probably best I stay an explorer.