Friday, February 26, 2016

Moving to Minnesota!

This beautiful photo was available through m01229's flicker
This week, Owen and I decided to move to Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota English department has offered me a PhD position, which essentially means I will be paid to study and teach Shakespeare. This is a great joy. This is what I want to spend my whole life doing. This is reason enough to move, but there are many other reasons I'm excited for this new place to call home.

For my European friends: That's Minnesota.
One reason is a strangely sentimental layover from an odd chance on a new year's eve. When I was in grad school and Owen and I were still just dating I was supposed to fly out and spend the week with him and his family in Seattle. There was a blizzard in NYC, and my flight scheduled to go through JFK was cancelled, so I had to find a different flight through Minneapolis. As we landed it was a perfectly clear night and I got to see the sudden skyscrapers of the twin cities all lit and beautiful, and heard a mother from a seat behind me asking her daughter, "does it look like home?", in a comforting, midwest accent. And I was just a little overwhelmed that I was getting a glimpse of the place my parents had spent eight years of their lives. It was a 20 minute layover, but I think of it six years later with a great deal of fondness.

I can imagine you thinking, "So your parents lived there for a bit, and you have a happy memory of a layover there. What else is nice about Minneapolis? Isn't it just supposed to be super-extra cold?" I mean, yes. Yes, it is. But I like winter. I've dressed as winter at a costume party, and I grew up in Rochester, NY which has fierce winters. Not as cold as the midwest, I grant you, but cold enough to know it and miss it in the years I've been away. Yesterday it got below freezing here and I was so happy to be out biking in the snow I found myself singing out loud.

(If you're not convinced but want to look at lots of beautiful wintery pictures click here:

This happiness, (however naive) is a great thing, because Minneapolis is one of the best cities for biking in the US, even ranks internationally in top 20 lists for biking cities, even considering the fact that it has brutally cold winters! You can read about one author's incredulity on this matter here. Their extensive bike-only freeways, their financial investment in making biking safe in the city, a prospering bike-share program, and mentality that biking is normal and expected make it much safer than elsewhere in the US.

People in Minneapolis are not just bikers, they're also readers. They're regularly listed as some of the most literate of American cities, ranked number one this past year by USA Today. I don't know how much time I'll have for pleasure reading on top of my regular coursework, but it will be such a joy to be able to be inside libraries of books I can read, and be surrounded by people who care about reading. And check out the beautiful new Minneapolis Central Library!

This will be me. 
There's such a great cultural scene in the Twin Cities! So much great theater! With a fringe festival! And Music! And excellent public radio! Although I am a little crushed to be moving to Minneapolis just as Garrison Keillor may be retiring from hosting A Prairie Home Companion (a radio show I grew up with, thanks to my parents' years in MN). In case you do not yet know the sound of Keillor's voice, let me introduce you via the Writer's Almanac.

We won't leave until the summer, but wherever live takes us, be it Minnesota or beyond, I hope to (as they say on the show) be well, do good work, and keep in touch. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

How to get to La Sagrada Família on a six-hour Barcelona layover

After Clara and I booked our recent trip to Rome, the airline changed our flight times and we ended up with a six-hour layover at the Barcelona airport on our way back. This airport is beautiful and calm and not a bad place to spend six hours if you want to get some work done*, but on this particular trip we wanted to make it into Barcelona proper to see at least one sight: Gaudí's masterpiece basilica, La Sagrada Família.

Our first leg landed at noon and our second was due to depart at about six pm, so we had almost exactly six hours to make it to and from the city center. The internet was not very helpful in telling us how to get there, so I'm sharing what we learned in hopes it will benefit someone else. What follows is how we spent our time, hour by hour:

12:00-12:30: Get off the plane and follow signs for public transit.
We were aiming for a bus, but found ourselves at the metro: this turned out to be a great discovery as the metro connection to the airport seems to be relatively new.

You'll need two Aeroport-metro tickets per traveller: one for the way there and one for the way back. As of this writing, each ticket costs €4.50.

12:30-1:30: Take the metro to the Sagrada Família stop.
To do this you can take the L9 Sud line all the way to Collblanc, where you ascend an infinite sequence of escalators to transfer to the L5. Take this line to the stop called Sagrada Família. We found it helpful to pass the time with games and snacks.

1:30-2:00: Eat lunch.
We got cheese, bread, fruit, nuts, and chocolate at a grocery store about a block from the Sagrada Família metro stop and ate it on a park bench. For two people for lunch it was about 10-15 euros, not bad and very speedy!

2:00-3:00: Bask in the amazing church.
You don't want to skimp on this step.

3:00-4:00: Return on the metro the way you came.
Take the L5 line to Collblanc, then transfer to the L9 Sud and go all the way to the terminal where you originally entered: For us it was Terminal 1, the last metro stop on the line. It's extra important to hold onto your metro ticket for the return trip, because you'll need to feed it into a machine both when you enter at Sagrada Família and when you leave at the airport.

4:00-6:00: Your two hours at the airport before departure.
Congratulations! You've made it there and back again.

What made this possible: We entered the basilica via the very short timed-ticket line by booking our tickets in advance. The tickets are for fifteen-minute entrance windows (we selected 2pm, so could enter anytime between 2:00 and 2:15), so we did some serious calculating trying to figure out the earliest time we could be reasonably confident of being there. Our flight was actually a half-hour late—we were supposed to have a 6.5-hour layover—so we're glad we included as much wiggle room in our estimate as we did.

*We know the Barcelona airport is so nice because our voyage to Rome had the same six-hour layover. Clara filmed one of her videos there in a spacious and nearly empty waiting area with amazing natural light, and I got a lot of work done on my applications.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Empathy and action: thoughts on old news.

Let me open these reflections with a story. During the horrifically devastating 2004 Tsunami I remember my sister and my mother having quite different reactions to the news. My sister was visiting home at that point (I believe it was near Christmas?) and she was glued to the computer, watching as the death toll rose, just stricken and horrified by the immensity of the tragedy. My mother took the little old Hungarian lady out to go grocery shopping. Both of them were a bit peeved at each other. My sister, because my mom wasn't paying attention and didn't seem to care about this massive tragedy, and my mom because she didn't see my sister's tearful observation as useful or helpful, whereas helping Mrs. Jakob, an elderly lady with no car, was both a necessity and a way in which she could actually lessen the need of the world. Before it sounds like I am slamming either of family members, let me clarify. If there is a villain in this story, it's me. I was also mildly peeved at my sister, but only because her using the only computer connected to dial up prevented me from AIMing with my friends. My sister is generous with her talents and her resources, my mother listens with knowledgeable concern to the affairs of the world. But at that moment my sister was empathizing, my mom was moving her feet, and they were both frustrated at each other for not responding to the tragedies and needs of the world in the same way.

The Peace Palace displays a French flag in flowers after the attacks
In the past few years I've been seeing a lot of similar conflict not in my household but in my newsfeed as people respond to the news in different ways. Because our world is much more connected now even than it was twelve years ago, and I can listen to the news from everywhere not just my hometown or home country, and this raises a lot of questions about what should be newsworthy. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the world, and as follows, the internet flamed with a gigantic flare of empathy and solidarity for the city of Paris. And immediately following rise was a criticism of that very empathy. Personally? I found this criticism for the show of support of Paris a bit grating. Because on the on the one hand it feels like ragging on people as they express and experience their grief. No one quotes numbers and figures to one whose brother just died in a car accident. From where I'm living now, Paris is my neighbor, a mere 2.5 hours by train. I've visited Paris three times in the last 14 months. My friends live there. For millions of Americans, Paris is the only place outside the US they've ever been, the easiest place for them to picture in Europe. Of course everyone responds with grief.

But on the other hand, the criticism had some truth to it, because when similar acts of violence happen in other parts of the world, there is nothing close to the empathetic cry of solidarity. Paris feels like my neighbor, because it is close geographically and culturally to me. I've never been to Syria. I've never seen a film set there. I've read portions of exactly one book set in Syria and it was about the conflict. When I hear about a bombing in Syria I don’t immediately respond with shock and rage because that’s what I expect from news about Syria. Which reminds me of the Black Lives Matter movement-- a voice in America calling out against an expectation of violence against blacks, a more casual look at police violence if it concerns people who aren’t white. And again, here we find people not seeing other people as their neighbors, not empathizing with their sorrow. Because of course both of these things are wrong. Jesus calls us to consider as our neighbor not people we feel close to, but everyone. We make people our neighbors by showing kindness to them, by seeing their struggles as if they were our own, and by caring for their needs.

There’s been a lot of recent criticism of politicians saying that they’re praying for families who have lost loved ones, but consistently voting against laws that (these critics believe) would make the use of guns safer in this country. In December, media of all varieties was abuzz with comparisons of politicians calling for action, versus those merely expressing condolence or only prayers. And while accusations got a little ugly in this case I think this example continues to bring up some interesting questions about empathy. People say, “when you pray, move your feet,” but I think that it applies not just to prayers but to our feelings as well. How much do I get upset about something in the news because I fear that the people around me don’t seem to care? Maybe if I care extra, maybe if I am really, really, really sad about a tragedy involving someone who seems marginalized maybe that will make it better?

I recently read the somewhat mediocre novel, Sarah’s Key, and in this book an American expat living in Paris learns about French collaboration in the Jewish deportation. Her fascination with this history, and particularly the story of a particular girl becomes and obsession. At various times in the story it becomes clear that this story of this child is more important to her than her marriage, her daughter, her job, and it seems at the same time somehow noble and also unhinged. She wants to apologize, she’s sorry it happened, she’s sorry she didn’t know, she feels personally responsible somehow, if nothing else, for not knowing. This journalist character is full of feeling but none of it is productive.

To contrast with this fictional journalist’s emotional fixation, the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam tells the evocative stories of the Dutch under the Nazi occupation. One temporary exhibit was about the “hunger winter” and the children sent away from their families in city. They were sent to households in the country not because of air raids, like in London, but because The Netherlands is a small densely populated country and everyone was in such danger of starvation at the end of the war. The exhibit followed the stories of eight children, told in text and video by the now aging men and women themselves. You could watch videos of an old woman talking the time when she was just seven years old standing in line to get food and seeing someone keel over, dead of starvation right in front of her. You followed these children and their stories through the exhibit, seeing photos of their thin frightened faces, watching the elderly men and women cry at their memories, and every part of it was hard to watch. One child was sent to a part of the country where they speak not Dutch but Frisian, and when he returned to his family, could no longer remember any Dutch, another returned to find his siblings had all died, just heartbreaking stories every one of them. Then at the end of the exhibit, when I was all ready for closure and the happy ending, in the past there was a display about children dying of hunger today. Not many Dutch children starve these days, but children elsewhere do. The museum called for donations, and for activism. They wanted to transform all of the easy empathy we’d found by listening to sweet old Dutch ladies into food for hungry stomachs in Zambia or Tajikistan.

I was devastated by the end of this exhibit, but also incredibly impressed because learning to feel with another person’s hurt takes effort and determination, and it’s not any fun. They’re two distinct steps: the empathy and the action, but they’re both important, and they go hand in hand, because it is very hard to fill a need, to soothe a hurt if you do not see it. I hope that more and more I will be someone who is active in my engagement with this world. Conscientious, well informed, and especially quick to listen to those with whom I may disagree. When I pray (or cry, or empathize) I want to move my feet.