Little Differences: Some Observations from Europe

In an iconic scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, John Travolta’s character (Vincent) says to Samuel L. Jackson’s character (Jules) “you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?… It’s the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but there they’re a little different.” Many of the Europeans I have met know the exchange by heart.

JULES Examples?

VINCENT Well, in Amsterdam, you can buy beer in a movie theatre. And I don’t mean in a paper cup either. They give you a glass of beer, like in a bar. In Paris, you can buy beer at MacDonald’s. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

VINCENT No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES What’d they call it?

VINCENT Royale with Cheese (…) you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?


VINCENT Mayonnaise.

JULES Goddamn!

Continue reading “Little Differences: Some Observations from Europe”

Travel Update

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN — Today marks exactly 100 days of traveling in Europe. I’ve been backpacking alone, taking classes, and spending time with family. I cycled through Amsterdam and hitchhiked through the Highlands. I learned Swedish folks songs in Uppsala and sailing fundamentals in Norfolk. I swam in the Gulf of Finland (saunaed for warmth) and in the Sound of Raasay (drank whisky for warmth.) I caught free jazz in Copenhagen, Dresden and Hamburg. I got to see an ecovillage in Scotland (and help out in the kitchen) and a refugee aid operation in France (and help out in the kitchen.) I made a bunch of mistakes and handful friends. I’m grateful, grateful, grateful.

Hey, here’s a map of where I slept for the past 100 nights.

What next? Now I’m in Gothenburg, Sweden, embarking on an internship with a small, clean-tech startup company. Next term I’ll go back to school.

From London, With Love [Poem]

I walk in London
Among immense, impossible
spirals of glass, and fantastic, slanting
protrusions of office-bearing stone
Impressive testaments to the city’s ingenuity, modernity
–Or, rather, its wealth

Magnificent, ostentatious temples
like those of Ancient Greeks and Egyptians before

Power symbols of the rich
containing the misery of the poor

When will we learn to wear simple clothes?

When will we measure the strength of a society
Not by the grandeur of its elements
But by the scarcity of its pain?

In thinking of future cities
We must let our imaginations pan down
from the flying cars and floating gardens
of tomorrow’s magnificent skyline
To the darkest, most neglected part of town
– Is it safe there?

[Click here to read as PDF]

Unpacking Dutch Tolerance

AMSTERDAM– In the two weeks I spent in the Netherlands, I repeatedly encountered the Dutch vocab word “gedogen.” This cherished verb– which one pronounces by issuing a flem-clearing throat rasp at the appearance of each ‘g’– roughly means “to tolerate.” It describes a kind of pragmatic tolerance, often expressed to me as ‘turning a blind eye’ or ‘seeing it through the fingers.’

It can be used to describe minor, everyday occurrences and major policy positions alike. For example, when a classmate of mine asked if he could eat his apple in the public library, and the librarian replied “No… But I won’t see it,” she gedogd it. The term is also evoked to describe the Netherland’s (restricted) decriminalization of prostitution, soft drug use (including marijuana), and the use of euthanasia for assisted suicide. As Yasha Lange explained in a 2001 article published on BBC News, these activities are permitted because the government believes they will occur regardless of their legality, but pose a lesser threat to individuals and society as a whole if they occur openly instead of in the shadows. Pragmatic tolerance. Gedogen.

In the optimistic understanding of this term, gedogen alludes to an admirable tradition of respecting difference within the Netherlands. That is to say, the concept of gedogen both reflects and reproduces various forms of tolerance, including tolerance of religious difference, artistic expression, sexual orientation, and more. Gedogen becomes a banner flying high above the country that reads ‘everyone welcome’ and illuminates the Netherlands as an uncommonly progressive nation.  Continue reading “Unpacking Dutch Tolerance”

Encountering Amsterdam: First Impressions, People, and Bikes

AMSTERDAM – Hello from Holland, this strange and exciting land renowned for its windmills and waterways, its tulips and tolerance, its pot, pedal-power, and prostitution. The language is Dutch, the currency is the Euro, and the affordable home goods & grocery chain of choice is Hema. Waffles are ubiquitous, ordering “beer” usually means ordering “Heineken,” and fries are by-default served with a hearty dollop of mayonnaise.

I arrived in here on Wednesday June 15th and spent two nights in a youth hostel in Noordjwik. I briefly explored Leiden and Rotterdam, then came to Amsterdam to embark on a two-week urban studies program offered through the University of Amsterdam (UvA) titled “Amsterdam Creative City: Media, Art and Urban Culture.

Houses on the canal in Amsterdam
Houses on the canal

Continue reading “Encountering Amsterdam: First Impressions, People, and Bikes”

Slaughterhouse-Five and Reflections on Destiny

Per my father’s recommendation, I recently read Slaughterhouse-Five, a classic and exceptional novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It follows the fictional Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier in WWII that is captured by Germans and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden. The novels describes the tragic bombing of Dresden, a beautiful city that gets completely demolished, yet the novel is not purely historical.

At some point in his life, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time, which adds a very unique and surreal element to the story. He claims to have been captured by aliens, Tralfamadorians, who explain to him the true nature of time: that everything is predetermined and unchangeable. (They can see the entire past and future all at once.)

They put him on display at a Tralfamadorian zoo, and eventually return him to earth. Throughout the entire book, we (following Billy) jump sporadically to different times in his life. Billy attributes this time-traveling ability to his newfound understanding that our lives are already completely written. The author is deliberately ambiguous as to whether all this is real, or if Billy is merely delusional after a traumatizing experience in the war.

Either way, I thought the Tralfamadorians had some interesting things to say about time and destiny. There’s a great passage when Billy is in the Tralfamadorian zoo and somebody in the zoo crowd asks him what the most valuable thing he had learned on Tralfamadore was so far.Billy says “How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace. As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time… If other planets aren’t now in danger from Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?”

Billy thinks he just spoke “soaringly,” but the Tralfamadorians regard this as a stupid question, since they already know how the universe ends “and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.” Billy asks how it ends, and they plainly state, “We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.”

Then comes the interesting part:

“If you know this,” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can
prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”

“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him
and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”

I don’t really believe that everything is predetermined. But sometimes it’s nice to think that way. What a relief! What a burden off our backs to suddenly realize that everything is already set, and now we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. In the novel, Billy is certainly comforted by the idea that all the horrors he endured simply had to happen that way, and could not have gone differently.

Yet as the website Shmoop explains, that freedom and comfort comes at a cost. He surrenders his free will- his desire and ability to change and improve things: “He doesn’t prevent his son from going to war, he doesn’t attempt to remind people of the bombing of Dresden – nothing.”

I think the struggle to find a balance between acceptance and ambition is one of the most complex and important struggles that we as human beings face. So much of our unhappiness and conflict comes from not being able to accept things as they are. Western materialism is an important example.

We tend to think “If I only had a new car, a bigger house, a better phone…. then I would be happy.” We link our happiness to things; objects, achievements. But this “if..then” philosophy is an exercise in futility, because there will always be something newer and bigger and better, and so by not accepting what we have, we are unnecessarily preventing ourselves from being happy.

If you decide that what you have is what you want, then hey! Look at that! You have everything you want! Wasn’t that easy?

If everyone was perfectly content with what they have, would there be war? Would there crime? If we accepted everything that happens as perfect and unchangeable, simply saying “the moment is structured that way,” would there ever be sadness? Anger? Greed? Regret?

In the time I’ve spent in South America, I’ve found that many people there tend to lean toward this end of the spectrum. They are laid back and easygoing. I volunteered for 6 weeks in a community in the Paraguayan countryside, where I was thrilled by a standard response to the question “Que tal?” (How are things?”). People would reply “Tranquilopa,” a combination of the spanish “tranquilo” (calm, tranquil) and the indigenous guaraní, “opa” (everything, complete.)

Though they were poor and lived comparatively simple lives, the people seemed content to have and do very little. They would often sit for long periods of time, enjoying the company of friends and family, passing around a cup of tereré. Sometimes I would sit quietly with my host dad, just thinking and observing the scenery.

Sipping Tereré in Paraguay
My partner and his host family passing around a cup of terere while we were volunteering in Paraguay, through the program Amigos de las Americas

Coming from such a fast-paced, competitive, and demanding culture, it was a little unsettling at first to spend so much time simply sitting, but I soon had moments of profound appreciation for this way of life. Relax. Breathe. Take in the scenery. Enjoy the people you’re with. What else could you possibly need?

Towards the end of the trip, however, I began to grow a little restless once more. At some point, a beautifully accepting disposition begins to feel like a waste of potential. My ambitious American side, which has been exposed to the idea ‘you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,’ since Kindergarten began to kick in, and I thought, Don’t you guys want to pursue something bigger?

For while there is power in acceptance, there is also merit to ambition. Not accepting things as they are is what drives progress and innovation. Why should we have to be cold, when we could be warm? Why should we have to die painfully of horrible diseases, when they could be cured? Why should we have to walk everywhere, when there could be speedier alternatives? Rejecting the status quo and seeking out something better is how mankind came to domesticate crops, discover the earth was round, invent the airplane, and build the computer. Almost all the great achievements of humanity are direct results of dissatisfaction. But perhaps, so are our biggest mistakes…

Life is short and everyone wants to live it to the fullest- as happily as possible. So the question is: is happiness best achieved through acceptance or through improvement? At what point should we strive for something better, and at what point should we simply accept things as they are? As with all things in life, I think the best solution is a balance. Everything in moderation. I suppose the exact ratio would be unique for everyone, but I think it’s important to remember that both are always viable options.

Many of us could probably benefit from letting go a little more often. When things don’t go our way and we find ourselves angry, frustrated, upset, or saddened, perhaps it would be useful to think: You know what? It’s okay. It’s perfect. That’s the way it had to happen. That’s the way this moment was structured. Perhaps then we can let go, and put our energy into something more productive.

On the other hand, there are certainly many of us that could be happier if we took more control over our lives and our world. Instead of just feeling sad or angry about something, confront it head on. Fix it. Do it. Make it happen. Get it done. In some circumstances, this is the best way to deal with the situations that befall us.

The right balance between these two approaches is infinitely difficult to determine, but important to contemplate. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was certainly aware of this struggle, and articulates it perfectly in a short poem that appears twice in the book:


The Importance of Travel

I am currently residing in what may or may not be a distant and foreign land, (depending on the location of the reader.) The territory in question is named Gotland, and it is the largest island in Sweden. This place is not new to me; I’ve traveled here many times before.

My mother is from Sweden, and from this fact you might correctly infer that I have many relatives here. It has become customary for my family and my Aunt’s family to gather here on Gotland, at my Grandparents’ charming abode. This has occurred nearly every summer of my lifetime, but what separates this summer from the rest is my outlook on the expedition.

Previously, this has merely been a time to see the family, hang out, and play. This year, I’ve been trying to also utilize the opportunity to really learn about Swedish culture. You see, my game plan for life consists primarily of three things:

  • To understand as much as I can about what already exists
  • Apply that knowledge to somehow contributing to humanity
  • Have fun doing it

In the quest of understanding, a broad perspective is essential. And among the greatest ways to gain that perspective is through travel. I don’t mean traveling simply as a tourist set on sightseeing, but rather to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, and try to deeply understand the lifestyle of the people.

My cousin Corinna is excellent at this. She has spent the past year with her boyfriend Cameron traveling all across South America. Check out her blog, Ruta Surreal. I got to meet up with her for a couple weeks in Peru, and it was a fantastic experience. It’s fascinating, exciting, and important to see the way other people live, and in the past I’ve hardly paid any attention to all the cultural differences here in Sweden.

But this year, I’ve been trying much harder to do so, as I have found a new appreciation for the importance of travel. There are so many different people on this world, living so many different ways. The more we understand one another, the more capable we become of peace and of progress. It is surely human nature to fear the unknown, and common for violence to be driven by fear. And as each culture possesses their unique set of strengths and flaws, much can be gained by understanding others.

Only through the collaboration of different cultures can we create peace, end hunger, and finally conquer that pesky challenge of intergalactic travel. (Of course, at that point we’ll have to start the process all over again…) The greatest achievements of mankind will come with breaking down borders. We can start by at least traveling across them.