Thursday, 18 September 2008

A piece of Cake

I know it has been ages since I last wrote, and I do have a million things to tell. However, a million things to tell easily turn into none at all :) I spent a month in Romania, and I am flying tomorrow to India.

In this post however, I want to talk about a simple and beautiful encounter I had, as I was volunteering at Amrita, a shop that belongs to the Yoga school I go to. I was there trying to learn playing the Tibetan singing bowl, when an old lady came in. I helped her settle down, and left her on her own so that she could look at the books in the shop. After about 1 hour, she chose a couple of books, and brought them over to me. She told me in quite a strong accent that they seemed wonderful. I explained her I had not read them yet, and not containing my curiosity asked her where she was from.

She inhaled deeply, looked straight into my eyes and said "I feel like a citizen of the world. I was born in Poland, but because of the war we became refugees. I asked her whether she was Jewish, and she explained me that she was not (which reminded me once again that many other people also suffered). She explained her father was a doctor that opposed what was happening so they had to run away. The lady was very old, she spoke with difficulty and sweetness at the same time, and once again I felt as if I was entering someone else's memory, visiting another time, another life.

They went to Russia, they had no money, everything was difficult, and the war was everywhere. Then they made it to Palestine and then to Iran. And I who am fascinated by Iranian culture did not miss the chance to ask her about it.
Her eyes inhaled, went far away, looked inward, as if she had decided to travel there, to that time in history, to visit a place that she had left a long, long time ago. And little by little she started to speak.

"I like Iranians very much! I remember that I was young, we had no money, but my mom decided to take me to Teheran to a cafe. There were many cakes in the window, but we could only afford a glass of milk. The cafe was empty. Apart from us, there was only a gentleman sitting on the far side of the room. We sat at the table so that I could drink my glass of milk and I noticed that the gentleman suddenly stood up and left. As he disappeared the waiter came to our table carrying a tray with a piece of cake on it. It had been offered by the gentleman that had just left. The gentleman had seen me, a little girl secretly desiring a piece of cake, and guessing my wish he had bought it for me. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, or make us feel uncomfortable, he left before the cake reached us."

Quite moved she smiled, and I knew she was carefully visiting that moment, looking at the cafe, her childhood, her mom, the kind gentleman. I felt quite honoured to share that moment to be there looking at the table, seeing the cake, staring at the girl in her little dress, her joy. In anticipation, and before she took me there I imagined the sweetness in her little mouth, I imagined her tasting very slowly and carefully each little piece of the cake, savouring it carefully, sharing it with her mother. I could see the happiness in her childish eyes... but then she continued.

"My mother was very touched by his kindness, but she could not accept it. She said no thank you, I am sorry but I cannot take it. And as I am telling you this, I feel a lump in my throat. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my childhood. To think that that Iranian man saw me, a little girl sitting with her mom, with no money and he just wanted to make me happy touches me. And that is how I remember Iran, and Iranians. They have the face of that gentleman who wanted to bring me happiness."

And as I heard her speak I was touched beyond words. First, because I could imagine how much this little girl probably wanted that cake. But suddenly I realized something deeper, that what remains in her mind are far more important memories than that piece of cake. She remembers the dignity of her mother, and the kindness of a man who wanted to bring her joy. And it became clear that the cake did not matter so much. The dignity of her mother, and the kindness and compassion of a stranger are much sweeter, more profound and lasting memories.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Symptons of a sick society

I want to talk about two stories in this post. The relation between them is not so obvious, but for some reason my brain linked them as soon as i heard the second story. One happened in the US, in relationship to Holland, and the other in Holland, in counterpoint to India. The common point is not really Holland, but lets talk about that later.

I spent a year studying in Amsterdam, and on the day I was supposed to fly back to NY, to finally graduate, my flight was cancelled. With an extra day Haiko and I decided to do something different. We decided to go to a swimming park. We took the whole day to get there, and when we finally did, the place was full of kids. Small children were running on the wet floor, climbing small concrete 'mushrooms', jumping from one to the other. Some kids fell down, cried, but soon enough stood up and started playing again. There were a few lifeguards, but I did not see any of them interfering. I told Haiko that this would have been impossible in the US. There would have been numerous signs forbidding this kind of behaviour.

The following day I flew to NY, and as soon as I got there I went for a swim in the university pool. I noticed a new sign, spread all over the wall. In gigantic letters it said: "IT IS FORBIDDEN TO PLAY BREATHING GAMES". A bit shocked and very curious, I decided to ask what this sign was sypposed to mean. The young lifeguard told me, with a serious face, that it was very dangerous to cross the pool underwater without breathing. And that it was forbidden to do it in that pool. Wow, i really was back in the US! At first i found it quite funny, but thinking about it later, i realised it was in fact quite sad.

My second story is about a Dutch couple in their fifties, who spent six months traveling in India. They visited many regions, participated in rituals, and took uncountable pictures. Once back in Holland, they showed those pictures in a night of slides and stories. The man said that since his return he had been quite depressed. Naturally, the differences in reality between the two countries were enough for a cultural shock, but his shock was strengthened by a particular event. The man, a university professor, told that once he went back to work, he found an absurd sign on one of the university toilet doors. The sign read: "Because of possible bad smell and annoying sounds, it is forbidden to poo on this toilet".

When i heard this story, the sign in the pool immediately entered my mind. These signs are not the problem per se. Isolated they are even quite funny. The real problem lies in this trend! How is it that we allow a whole generation of kids to grow up without the right to fall?? How do we allow a whole new generation to grow without being able to learn to stand up, without being able to take any decision without calling their parents' mobile, without scratching themselves, without calculating risks, without planning? What happens in a society when we displace our responsibilities to others, to the government? Suing everything and all? How is it that we got to the point that a toilet is no longer a place to poo? As if we had to "perfect" ourselves so much, that we would have to set ourselves apart from our vital functions. As if we have to set ourselves apart from our humanity...