I have long been fascinated and often frustrated by the seeming inability to make what seem like standard technical processes in the US or Europe work as expected in places like Morocco (or India, or other “developing” countries). To take one example from yesterday, WiFi connectivity. It was constantly dropping even though I was close and had a strong signal. It would ask for passwords that had already been entered. It would slow to a crawl very often. It would disappear from the network and then reappear sometime later. This is a technology that has been in use for many years, and it has a set of technical standards attached to its use. It is used millions of times over in countless places. In theory, this is not something that should be so unreliable here. But then you realize that technologies like WiFi (and many others) rely not just on the standardized equipment, but are based on a huge array of invisible items that go into making it so plug-and-play in places like the US:
1. WiFi internet connectivity is only as good and fast as the phone company or cable company or satellite company that supplies it on the other end. In the US, there are many fallbacks and safeguards that improve reliability, and these have been developed over many years.
2. Following on from the above, investment in the underlying telephone network. Capital improvements for things like this seem to happen rarely here and when it does rollout is beset by all kinds of corruption and delay. Often countries like Morocco are sold aging equipment and techniques that are no longer in use by their former colonial overlords (France) and sold to them by the same.
3. Technical expertise setting up networks. There are very few people here who have formal training in these things and they often are flying by the seat of their pants. They are reluctant to ever admit not knowing something for fear of losing a valued contract, and they often patch together these networks in ways they should not.
4. Places like Morocco and India do not have strict building codes, or they are not enforced. This results in the built environment often interfering with the signals through shoddy electrical wiring. They also tend to be places where, because of environmental conditions, they built quite thick concrete or stone walls which make it challenging to get a WiFi signal through.
I have to admit I didn’t expect to be back in Morocco this soon after my first trip 6 months ago. But this time I am here for work, so it is a bit more formal. The hotel they have put me up in is a western style boutique hotel, and it is nicely designed with a lot of nice touches, even as I am reminded of the chaos of certain places (there was a dog barking loudly just outside my not very soundproofed window much of the night). I am staying til Sunday, at which point I will finally head back to New York. After more than a month on the road, I am ready (even though I am excited to be back in Morocco).
Today was another gorgeous fall day out, and so we took the bikes and rode downtown to walk around and do a little window shopping. In particular, riding past the Alster on the way was so beautiful, the trees are all changing, the fall colors fully out but the leaves still mostly on the trees. It was warmer out than it has been too, and it was perfect for a ride. Today was my last full day in Hamburg. Tomorrow I fly to Marrakech for work, and then back to New York on Saturday, finally. I will miss Olaf and our time together here, but I know we will see each other again soon and that I will be back to Hamburg at some point.
A couple of days ago, Olaf told me he had to go to a “reunion of his old classmates” (basically a high school reunion, they were all together in school from the age of 13 to 18), and asked me if I would be interested in going. I said sure, as it seemed like it could be a strange, fun event — especially if I could show up as his flamboyant gay partner dressed in something tasteful like chaps and a neck scarf. But alas, Olaf had already been out of the closet at that time, so my enthusiasm for giving a shock to his old classmates completely deflated and I wore jeans and a sweater. I really should have thought the whole thing through before going, though, as when we got there it was a little awkward to make all his friends speak English. Despite what you may have heard, it does not come all that naturally to most Germans, despite their English being far superior to almost any American’s German skills. Not wanting to get in the way of their reminiscing, I stayed a bit off to the side and checked email for a bit at first, then was lucky enough to hang out with the other odd man out in attendance, a guy named Fred who was the partner of one of the other gays in the village, and who (like me) knew no one there. The reunion was held in a pub in a mini mall in kind of suburb of Hamburg, not far from where they all grew up and attended school. Through my conversations with Fred and the surroundings, I learned quite a few interesting things:
1. The pub we were in was called Humboldt, after one Alexander von Humbolt (and/or his brother Wilhelm, it wasn’t clear). He is apparently quite famous here, although I had never heard of him. His work apparently laid the foundation for the field of biogeography (something I had also never heard of specifically, so there you are). To be fair, most people in attendance couldn’t exactly explain what he was known for off the top of their head. Fred thought he had invented the compass or something (although that I knew had in fact been invented by the Chinese.)
2. Octoberfest is more celebrated in the south (and was already over), but for some reason this pub was decorated to celebrate it, and we had Octoberfest beer and food (Brätwurst and Sauerkraut)
3. After using my translator app a few times and discussing various things with Fred (whose English was quite good), we realized that the Germans have no word for wander. We were attempting to translate the word for hiking, which in German is Wandern, obviously from the same root as our word for wander. But when I explained to Fred that it was different from hiking in that there was particularly no destination implied with the word wander, he explained to me that the Germans had no single word for this. They would have to say something like “to walk or hike with no destination”, which I found hilarious. Of course Germans assume there is a point or destination to everything. Why would you just “wander” with no idea where you were going? I also realized that the word quite neatly describes much of my life outlook. I love not knowing where I am going exactly, that is where I discover the most amazing things.
It was a beautiful day out yesterday, so after a small amount of work in the morning, we decided to take advantage of it. Olaf suggested we go mushroom picking and I of course said “Sure…Wait, come again? Mushroom picking?” Yes, he wanted to drive 30 Km or so to a public forest and go looking for mushrooms. I guess I lump this in with other forms of German “Naturism” where they get “back to nature” by removing their clothes in open fields or grassy areas near lakes at any opportunity. Looking for mushrooms in a dank, smelly forest filled with bugs and boars and shit must likewise feel more “natural” to them than surfing the internet or having a beer at a pub. And since my own, personal aesthetics compel me to try anything I have not yet done before at least once, I agreed and off we went. I imagined it would be difficult to find mushrooms, but in fact they were everywhere. Except for the fact that the most common orange ones I saw all over the place were apparently not the ones we were looking for. I learned to identify at least a couple of types and found a few of the edible ones, as Olaf pointed out to me that the other ones might be edible, or they might be poisonous, or they might just have little to no flavor. Of course the ones we were looking for were hiding a lot of the time, covered up by grass and a color of brown at the top that tended to aid in their camouflage. It actually turned out to be kind of meditative and nice, one really needed to slow down and pay attention to the surrounding area to find them, and it really made you notice all types of thing in detail in the forest. Things like the beetles, the ticks, the broken branches, the grasses and mosses, the texture of the ground, the slimy coating on so many things, the smell of decaying trees and boar dung, and every so often, a prized mushroom. We collected a bunch of them (well, Olaf did; I collected about 5 or 6, but was happy to have found any since I was off to a slow start) and last night had a delicious mushroom pasta. Having woken up this morning not poisoned and still very much alive, I count yesterday’s adventure as a success.
In addition to going to the market and doing a lot of work, Olaf and I took a little walk around the Alster this morning and it really hit me that Autumn is here. The leaves are changing color and falling all around, the wind is blowing and there is a chill in the air. It is somewhat melancholy, but beautiful at the same time. It marks a change and makes me feel a little homesick, but not for any place in particular. And for some reason at the very same time, the weather makes me really happy to be spending some time with my dear friend Olaf. We can be quite silly together, reciting our favorite lines from various comedies and generally being catty, but with great affection. I have been in Hamburg enough times before that there is an easy familiarity here, and I always enjoy my visits.
Olaf and I got a lot of work done yesterday, and then in the evening went to a charity auction that the archive that Olaf runs had donated a photograph to. We first had to deal with the fact that I had nothing appropriate with me to wear. I borrowed an ill-fitting jacket from Olaf and spruced it up with a large scarf, feeling a bit silly, but Olaf assured me it looked fine, so off we went. The auction/benefit itself was interesting on a number of levels. It seemed filled with the kind of people that make themselves feel better about all the money they have by going to upscale benefits where they never really have to mix in any meaningful way with the yucky poor they are supposedly there to help. This evening’s benefit was for Sierra Leone, but it wasn’t entirely clear to me what the money raised would be used for. And I guess the crowd may have had a few native English speakers in attendance, because the auctioneer kept peppering her auction spiel with numerous English words and phrases like “last chance” and “gentleman in the corner” and “nine hundred euros” and the like. One of the funny things about the photography on auction was their stated values before auction, which Olaf told me are not independently assessed, but rather at the whim of the person or foundation that is donating. This allows them to assign some pretty ridiculous numbers and puff up their self image. (One image in particular had valued itself at 45000. It went for under 2000 I believe.)
It was a bit of a long journey yesterday to get here from Venice yesterday, as there were no direct flights and we were required to spend a few hours at the Copenhagen airport, but we are now in Hamburg. This part of my trip is much more work-related than the past few weeks, I will be working on a web project with Olaf while here as well as some of my other project work for about a week. Of course, how dull would it be to be in a foreign city and do only work, so I am sure we will have a few play things in store as well.
Just as I was thinking what a terrible (if not impossible) city Venice is for anyone who is wheelchair bound, I spotted not one but two biennale patrons in wheelchairs. I have no idea how they get around the rest of the city, but at least the galleries at the Arsenale (where a large part of the biennale is held) are accessible. We spent a fair amount of our last day in Venice viewing more art and walking still more. I have immensely enjoyed this trip with Olaf and the gang, seeing Venice in a mostly beautiful light both literally and figuratively. Of course, there were a few moments (mostly passing through the otherwise lovely Piazza San Marco) where the crush of tourists was just too much in evidence, but overall if you should come to Venice, I would highly recommend October. The weather can still be warm (with some risk of rain), but way fewer tourists than in the late spring and summer. Arrivederci, Venezia.
Yesterday we took a walk to the main area of the biennale and walk around a lot of the art. I had never been before and it was rather fascinating to see how the exhibits are set up. There was way, way too much art to take in the show in its entirely, so we viewed the main exhibit in the main hall and several of the other pieces in some of the individual countries’ pavilions. I have to admit, I find the very idea of separate country pavilions a little strange, as if to say that an artist always represents something essential about the country they come from, rather than a universal set of ideas. I guess this is mostly an artifact of the history of the biennale itself, and it’s evolution over time. For me, some of the most interesting work was in the German pavilion (in a show put together by France since they swapped pavilions this year). I also very much likes the Ai Weiwei piece in the French pavilion for its wonderful spacial quality (even if the over wrought explanation for its existence left me cold). The main exhibit “The Encyclopedic Palace” was to me a bit of a meandering mess (with a theme made a bit quaint and passé by the introduction of the internet), but there were a few artists within it who really struck me on their own merits. One of the biggest risks with shows like this is art/info overload. There is really just too much to take in and it diminishes some of the work that deserves more thoughtful viewing. (On the other hand, it probably elevates some work that deserves less viewing, so there you are.) At the end of the day I was rather beat as we had walked and walked and walked, both across Venice and back, and at the show. I hope today will be a bit more relaxing, but my friend Olaf is tending to treat this trip more as a project to accomplish rather than an easygoing set of possible experiences that may or may not happen. This is the German way, and I am along for the ride as the only American in the group. And I have been having a very good time with everyone, so I am not really complaining.