Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What I Did Last Summer

After spending 14 hours on the plane, I was too cross and jetlagged to drag my horribly heavy luggage to the metro, on top of the very likely possibility of getting lost, therefore I wasted no time (I wish I can say the same for money) and flagged the first taxi I saw. I was to spend the first night in an HI Hostel at the edge of Paris since my flight arrived a day early. Despite the borderline cheapskate fare of 17 Euros per night and the tiny 4-bedded dorms, it was spotless and the breakfast was as hearty as any. The crowd was eclectic and the people were very helpful and informative. The next morning I found my way to the rendezvous spot at the Latin Quarter BVJ on the left bank of the river Seine, where I’d be staying in for three nights during the pre-session. It was much more decent than the hostel (for 10 Euros more) and I shared a two bedded room with Raysha, a participant from India. By the end of the session she was the closest friend I’ve had among the group. She told me she didn’t get to choose her session; India sent the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners to France for separate sessions and this session was the 1st prize. So I guess I made the right choice. Our room had a stunning view from the balcony overlooking a small Church and chic apartments with red flowers lining their ornamented windows, and if you look to the far right you’d see the domed top of the Pantheon and to your right was the Seine and with a little squint you can make out the gargoyles perching perpetually over Notre-Dame’s ancient crevices. No wonder in French movies people were so fussy when their bosses gave them offices “sans fenêtre”. As Virginia Woolf had put it, one could always use a room with a view. When I stepped out of my balcony, listening to the sound of flute playing from the apartment across the street, I thought to myself, I am so in Paris.
I went around the area with Raysha on the first day and snapped pictures at every corner. I actually saw a travel souvenir shop selling bits and pieces from Indonesia just around the corner. The guide, Cécile (très jolie, looked like a Parisian version of Jennifer Aniston), gave us coupons for travels, lunch coupons and allowance for three days so we could buy ourselves nice meals during the free nights and a sandwich for the long train ride to the South at the end of the pre-session. I went to lunch on the first day at Flunch (short for French Lunch, perhaps?), a restaurant next to the Centre Pompidou that looked a lot like Marchё Mövenpick, with Raysha and three participants from Brazil: Deborah, Cristina and Émilie. All of my four companions were apparently French teachers and have been speaking French half if not their entire lives. I cowered slightly thinking that my six-month old acquaintance with the French language will never be on par. J’étais vraiment nerveuse. But soon another participant arrived from Japan, Yukari, who spoke very little French and no English, and my (wicked) spirit was lifted a little. One by one the participants arrived and the entire group of twelve (eleven girls and one guy, le pauvre…) comprised of: Raysha, Deborah, Cristina, Émilie, Yukari, Natasha (Bosnia), Maria (Lebanon), Marwa (Egypt), Léon (Latvia), Dulce (Mexico), Sandra (German) and yours truly. In the afternoon Cécile gave us a guided tour around the Latin Quarter: Ile de la Cité, Notre-Dame, Hotel Du Ville (the town hall), Pantheon, some Museums, Paris Plages, Place St. Michel, and I couldn’t believe that just behind the hotel was Sorbonne! I took it as good karma. The first night I went to Place St. Michel with Raysha to have dinner at some Italian restaurant and we got to see street performers, artists, a row of Greek joints with heaps of broken white plates at their entrances, and the whole bustling night scene at St. Michel that kept me coming back again and again during my stay in Paris. We were back at the hotel at almost midnight, but it felt early since in Paris it doesn’t get dark until ten.
The reason we couldn’t stay up late the first night was that because the next day we would be leaving for Montmartre bright and early. By seven a.m. I was taking breakfast downstairs and had, for the first time in my life, a bowl of chocolate for breakfast. I was astonished at the size of the serving, I mean, a bowl! Not a cup, not a glass, but an entire bowl! I thought they were pranking tourists or something. Apparently, explained my German friend understandingly with just the right dose of pity, it was perfectly normal in Europe to drink hot beverages from bowls. I guess it was simply one more thing citizens of third world countries are missing out on besides food, healthcare, educated politicians and proper internet access. We took a metro to Montmartre where I went souvenir shopping like crazy. Seriously, I entered shops saying things like, “Can you pack me fifty of those key chains?” If I knew I had a long climb ahead of me I would have shopped after I visited the Sacré-Coeur. We got to the foot of the church and climbed the stairs – pilgrim style and all, and reached the entrance drenched in rain. When I entered the church, a certain sentiment overcame me and it was not just the high ceilings or the dimly lit interiors, but the entire atmosphere of the place was purely enchanting. I thought I’d feel the same way, or even more, when I enter Notre-Dame or other famous cathedrals they certainly had in store for us, but it was in the modest sagacity of ancient Sacré-Coeur where I felt most humbled. In the words of my lit teacher: it was a pathos-evoking, cathartic episode.
After another lunch at Flunch (where we sat in a bunch to munch and had a bar of Crunch) we went to the Louvre. There were so many paintings to appreciate, sculptures to marvel at, ceilings to crane upon, and frankly, as much as I tried to timely ponder the important ones or the ones I liked, it was not easy with only a few hours and the gazillion tourists swarming inside. La Joconde, otherwise known as the Mona Lisa, kind of reminded me of my last Sum 41 concert (back in my groupie days…) where people line up to ask the band members’ autographs and there were bodyguards with earpieces all around. They actually put up lines for people to queue to stare at the chubby face for a rationed time. You stare too long; the guard will shove you aside unceremoniously as though you, les tourists, unlike the Mona Lisa, are dispensable trivialities. I did see, however, some wicked sculptures like the goddess Victory, Venus di Milo, Hermes and Eros, the opulent Galerie d’Apollon and ancient Titian paintings so old that you can see the contrast between their standards of beauty and the contemporary ones. I mean if Kate Moss and Rosie O’Donnell walked into a party in the year 1532, no one would even talk, let alone dance, with Kate while bachelors would rest at nothing to get Rosie’s attention. At night I went with Raysha, Émilie and Natasha to the Champs-Élysées avenue which was the shopping hub in Paris, if not the world. Orchard Road felt like a poser-ish tiny alley, and the MRT network looked amateur compared to the convoluted flower-shaped metro network. I lost the girls when I was shopping for perfumes at Marrionaud and ended up having to find my way back alone. The girls wouldn’t worry since I already got lost that morning at Sacré-Coeur, when I lost track of time and everyone had exited the church long before I realized that I got lost. But I managed fine, surprisingly, as I did at Champs-Élysées. My only worry was that the girls might be looking for me and I would trouble them plenty. Fortunately they had learned of my tendencies to wander off and gone straight home. That day I had my first ever Nutella crepe in a sandwich shop around the corner of the nearest metro station from the hotel, which would later lead to a Nutella crepe addiction that led me to do the craziest, and yet also the most unforgettable, things over the summer.

“Paris Je T’aime” My Foot: eight days in the so-called city of love

In a city where one can lock eyes for three seconds with a passerby and easily mistake it for love at first sight, my journey was amazingly anti-romantic. After the passionate Riviera and the serene Alps, I was hoping to get my own version of Paris, Je T’aime by returning to the city of lights for eight more, hopefully lovely, days. I was staying in the Latin Quarter (it’s in the movie in the “Quartier Latin” part with Gerard Depardieu and the old couple who were getting a divorce) in a youth hostel called BVJ. Unfortunately, the closest I’ve had to a Parisian encounter was when I was dared by F, my Mexican roommate, to scream “voulez vous-couchez avec moi ce soir” in Italian outside the balcony of the youth hostel. I thought, what the heck, I would be saying it in Italian therefore no one would understand me anyway, and I wanted that Crepes au Nutella she promised me. So I screamed out the balcony, and two seconds later a window across the street opened and a guy came out the balcony and said something in rapid Italian and started blowing kisses. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but my other roommate, N, who was from Naples, was in a fit of laughter. She told me then that the guy said he wouldn’t mind and it would be his pleasure. The next morning we went for breakfast and the same Italian guy was there, said his name was E from Torino and I fortunately had the chance to explain myself.
The lengths I would go for a Nutella crepe.
I don’t know how others do it. Like F, she didn’t come back to the room until 4 am one night because she got lost around Les Halles and met a guy, S, who helped her find her way, after she let him buy her dinner. Apparently he worked just around the corner of the hostel in a bar. She took me to meet him the next day and he turned out to be the owner of the joint and looked like Olivier Martinez. I mean, of all the guys in Paris, she has to get one who guaranteed her free liquors and looked like a model? The injustice.
Another night I went to the bustling night scene at Place St. Michel with two Irish girls from Belfast (they said it was no longer like in Angela’s Ashes but it’s still the most boring place on earth) where they have all these restaurants, bars, gelato vendors, street performers, artists and an entire row of Greek bistros where you can pay to break plates. It was their last night in Paris so we went to get Sangrias in a place where they hang money all over the ceiling. We met two other Irish girls there (one was wearing a T-shirt that said “I wish I spoke French”) and decided that the five of us should go some place to dance. So we went to “Ze Bar” (we thought the name was funny) to dance and ordered the package (2 shots per person) and after getting our tongues burnt by a drink called “license to kill” (the waiter told us later that the mysterious “???” in the content menu was actually Tabasco) we went to the Haagen-Dazs near Notre-Dame and one of the girls, E, was apparently drunk and started asking homeless people on the streets whether or not they have some weeds to spare for her. I told her to stop because these people were cold and they needed the weed for themselves. She shrugged me off and started belting out Spice Girls songs and A Whole New World. We sat by the Notre-Dame side entrance and watched the fire-eaters, the Spanish guitarist, the skaters and the bateaux-mouches sliding along the river Seine. It was one of those moments when you feel like you have to congratulate yourself for being alive.
I went to Versailles with F the next day. It was raining cats and dogs and I swear to whoever’s listening that it was colder than the summits of the Alps. It was not that pretty because they were doing a lot of restoration work here and there. We went back to the hostel and there were two other girls in our room from South Korea. I spent the afternoon showing them around the area, to Notre-Dame, Hotel du Ville (the Mairie), Paris Plages, Centre George Pompidou, Les Halles, Rivoli, Place St. Michel, Sorbonne, Pantheon, and had pasta for dinner in a place where they serve pasta in Chinese take-out containers. They told me to call them Unni because they’re older than me, and we talked about everything from Won Bin movies to the potential for reunification with North Korea.
The morning after I went with F and N to the Church of the Sacred Heart (Sacre-Coeur) and Montmartre to look at the artist district and check out Pigalle where the Moulin Rouge is (and countless other shops they will never allow in Indonesia). Pretty Parisian girls in skimpy costumes were standing along the sidewalks, fawningly inviting male passersby in and glaring condescendingly to female passersby, giving us a what-do-you-think-you’re-doing-here look. I felt like a free cat going to a cat circus watching other members of my species in cages, forced to wear and do silly things. Then we passed the Sexodrome (I cringed at the lack of subtlety in the name) and the Museum of Erotica where in the display they put up this wooden chair that had a hole with a rotating giant tongue in the middle of the seat. And to think that this scene was juxtaposed right next to the Sacred Heart church. Oh well.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"Sven Kommt!" a.k.a. birds do it, bees do it, even polygamous bouncing sheep do it.

Okay. If you know German and, perhaps, the use of puns, you can probably guess from the name of the German video game "Sven Kommt!" (it means "Sven Comes!" in English) what the game is about. If that wasn't clear enough: there were splatters of white, I can only assume, paint, in the background of the animated cartoon title "Sven Kommt!"

People can have a very, very sick imagination.

At first I thought it was this harmless game (my friend's brother's friend brought him a copy from Germany) since the display was completely in animated cartoon - much like Super Mario Bros or Crash Bandicoot. My first impression was, SO CUTE! The main character was this black male sheep who always looked happy (a better word might be "contented") and he didn't walk but instead he bounced around with a proud, alpha male gait and a huge smile - ready to charm the white female sheep placed all around him, picking flowers, lying on grass, etc. Turns out he was ready to do a lot more than "charming" those white sheep.

I wondered, what does he have to do to get to the next level? Then, defying all moral standards, my friend grabbed the mouse and did the most unthinkable thing, she made the black sheep approach one of those helpless white sheep and bounced on it over and over until the white sheep EXPLODED! (Please remember that these are cartoon animated SHEEP) And then Sven (the black sheep) approached another white sheep and did it again with a different style (throwing it up and down), and then it approached another, and another, and another, until it got to the next level, where there were even MORE white sheep to, um, bounce on.

Moreover, in the game Sven can use something that looked like a candywrapper to assist him in his bouncing. But if he used the candywrapper, it would take a longer time for the white sheep to explode, meaning, a lower score. Hence, it is better not to use the candy wrapper.

I thought, Whoa. Do they not censor their video games in Germany?!? Whatever happened to the importance of a pure childhood of innocence, where kids only watch Disney cartoons or play Sonic the Hedgehog? And what kind of message are they trying to send? The more the merrier? Candies are bad for you? You need to score to score?

My friend, S, who was a guy, asked my other friend, T, who was a girl, when she was playing the game, "Don't you feel offended by the game?" T replied, "No, I actually feel empowered!" My other friend thought the game "frees you from stress".

I told them, I think it's an interesting - certainly unique - game, but in order to make it educational - or at least morally justified, the end of the game should be changed. I think in the end Sven should be shown meeting a sheep doctor who showed him his sheep blood test result and told him that he has positively been infected by HIV and will soon suffer from AIDS. And after he comes out of the clinic, there should be hoards of white pregnant female sheep asking for him to take care of them and be responsible.

And then Sven should never be able to bounce again. Ever.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Slow and Excruciatingly Painful Death of My Stressball

The story began around two very long years ago in another lifetime across the strait of Malacca, in a teeny-weeny little island surrounded by the ocean. There was a school populated by very stressful (arts) students about to face the most important trial so far in their eventful, albeit short-lived, lives: the dreadful, horrible, monstrous A-Levels. Okay, enough intro.
When I was about to face the exams period in junior college, the head of my faculty gave each of us in the arts faculty a bouncy ball. Before we were given the ball they (the faculty) made us watch a movie on a sheep who felt really sad every time after he was shaved but then met a frog (I think it was a frog if I recall correctly) who told him that every time he feels sad he can feel happy again by BOUNCING around. So the sheep started to bounce around following the frog’s lead (ignore for a moment the fact that sheep can’t actually bounce up and down in reality, except in cartoons like this and games like Sven Kommt - but that’s another story altogether), and guess what? The sheep felt HAPPY again!!! So the moral of the story was, you can actually control your state of mind – you can be happy if you want to. Like that famous quote: “If you want to be happy, be”. So every time you feel sad, just remember that you can just BOUNCE BACK and be happy again. Then they gave us the ball to remind us of the message. The ball could bounce around and every time I felt stressed out I used to squeeze it. It was coloured in different shades of orange and it was bouncy and squishy and I couldn’t leave home without it; I carried it everywhere. It was, as they say in the Lord of the Rings, “my precious”. We were supposed to be together forever (sounds like a boyband song lyric).
Even after I returned back across the borders to continue my studies in my shanty little village town, so that I can take care of my family and help support my two little sisters (okay it’s going a bit far...), I still carry my orange stressball around in my pencilcase. It went bounce, bounce, bounce... when I failed a french test... bounce, bounce... when my car got stolen... bounce, bounce... when my grandma passed away... bounce, bounce... when Spain and the Netherlands lost in the World Cup... bounce, bounce... bounce, bounce, bounce it went all the time, helping me recover. I thought we would bounce forever, me and my orange stressball. But, alas, nothing in this world lasts forever (I learned that a long time ago when I lost thousands of mp3s that took years for me to collect because of a single computer virus), and the same thing goes for my poor, poor stressball.
A few days ago, I came back from campus and, as usual, put my bag on the living room table and went to the kitchen to fix myself some supper. It was a tote bag and as it had no zippers in the first place, it was always open. Inside was my black pencilcase and as I was rushing out of my International Relations 101 class to catch the elevator, the pencilcase was unzipped. My orange stressball was inside.
My sister, who is in fifth grade, came into the living room and started to rummage through my bag and my pencilcase, all the time making very serious accusations about how I’ve ruined her life by borrowing her correction pen (tip-x) without asking her first (she does that all the time, she’s totally dramatic; gifted, I’d say). In the process, she managed to pour the entire content of my pencilcase on the living room floor. And the stressball rolled across the living room floor (I can only imagine this happening as I was in the kitchen during this whole episode so this part is a hypothesis) and out the open entrance to the patio, and eventually reached the garden. By this I mean it had entered, how shall I put it, the Sovereign Territory of the Killer Puppies. My half-siberian wolverine, Nero, and my recently adopted beagle (that actually looks like a hamster because of his brown-and-white fur), Bruno, are notorious – despite their young age – for tearing down any interloper who dares enter the garden (they attacked everything from old sandals to my three-year-old cousin). Their powerful and persistent bites are known to destroy everything from elastic rubber bones to sturdy plastic bones to garden rocks and stones, and even, once, bricks.
Hence, the inevitable happened. When I came out of the kitchen, curious of the unusual silent at this hour (the puppies usually make a lot of noise around that time because it was time for their afternoon wallk), I saw it. The Remains a.k.a. whatever was left of my orange stressball a.k.a. shreds of orange plastic scattered across the green grass. Nero and Bruno were already on to their next conquest, a green sponge that we use to clean the cars. I can only imagine the slow and excruciatingly painful death my stressball had to endure; the silent torture as the beasts tore away its skin, little by little, bit by bit, like they did in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I can only imagine it calling at me silently, asking for my help, asking for me to give it salvation, to take it away from the agonizing torment. And I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when it needs me most, while it’s been with me through my hardest times, bouncing hard up and down, making me bounce back too. And what was I doing when it was dying?
I was drinking bloody Swiss Miss. With Marshmallows.
I didn’t know what to say. I can’t yell at the puppies, can I? There is no way I can possibly make them understand the extent of moral and psychological damage they have caused me, the history behind the stressball, or how they have taken the most pragmatic tool that provides me instant moral support. And it was ORANGE. My favourite colour. I was shattered.
First, I wanted revenge; I thought (foolishly), maybe I should feed them fish food or something, or tie them for days and bring other dogs (their friends) to watch them being grounded to embarass them (I know, it’s ridiculous, but obviously I wasn’t thinking clearly). But later I came to my senses and realized that indeed, nothing lasts forever. My stressball had had a full life, it had served its creational purpose which is to help keep people happy – and it has, indeed, kept me happy.
Wherever you are now, stressball, I hope you are still bouncing happily... bounce... bounce... bounce.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Vampires

After reading Kostova's "The Historian" about a month ago, I've been thinking, wondering - more likely, about the matter. It's such a tempting subject to ponder. I've always been enthralled by vampire tales, by this I refer to those Stoker-like tales not like those jumping-jacks-like oriental ones. I find it rather glamorous and classy, I suppose. In the book there's been no mention of how one can be transformed into another. Is it inherited from parent to child? Or can it be given deliberately, like in that movie "Interview with the Vampire".

Sometimes, when I'm being very liberal and thus allow all sorts of ideas to hatch and grow in my head, I wonder if it's that bad to be one. A vampire, I mean. As I've said, it's very tempting. I've never been that fond of daylight anyway. I always prefer night to day. And I am still ambivalent of the supposed "appeals" of heaven. I only wish to go to heaven because the alternative is hell, and I can't stand places without air conditioners. But the idea of an eternity of worship, without challenges, without the threat of failure, without competition or developments or possibilities of change, that doesn't sound much like a paradise for me. I'd rather stay alive for good. Or at least for a long, long, long time. How I wish vampires were real and I can be one of them.

Haha. Okay perhaps this is just me being crazy. Nevermind.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth: A Commentary

Note : An Inconvenient Truth is a film documenting the environmental campaigns of the former presidential candidate of the 2000 U.S. Election, Al Gore. Most of the movie shows him giving a slideshow on the dangers and threats of global warming.

Simply said, after watching this movie, I became a newborn environmentalist.

It is simply appalling how ignorant I could have been. But there are, you see, moments of epiphanies and truths that open your eyes and realized that simply, you have been mistaken. I had decided long ago to never hold my decisions and perceptions in the past against me since it will not do me any good but instead only leave me with guilt; but again, I was mistaken. I did not realize that this guilt is so paramount in giving me the ability, the motivation, and basic sense of responsibility to change and develop and to learn from those mistakes.

In the movie, Al Gore quoted Churchill when the late prime minister was explaining his irritation to the British citizens on their ignorance and lackadaisical reaction to his warning of an unprecedented storm about to hit the nation. Churchill said that we are passed the age of procrastination and have entered the period of consequences.

The damage is done. I am left with the tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, diseases, and the rest of the remains of the apocalyptical warnings previewed in the Book of Revelation. This movie is more terrifying than if there was a movie written by both Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King, directed by Tim Burton, and starred by Bela Lugosi and the woman who played Sadako in the Ring. It is pure, unadulterated horror like something that would haunt me for years to come.

It hit me when Gore said, “our ability to live is what is at stake.” And then he showed us a picture of the universe taken by the Galileo a few years ago, and the Earth is just this tiny little dot, a speck of light amidst a huge void, a white pixel on a screen of dark colors. And he said, “(earth) is our only home”. At first it might sound cliché to you, but ultimately, we have to admit it, we have nowhere else to go.

But there is no way I can make anyone understand the amount of understanding that I have gained from watching the movie, I mean, if you are a skeptic and you are reading this, you would probably just think that I am temporarily disillusioned. But take a challenge and watch the movie. If you don’t get the point of the movie, never mind, it’s just another movie, but if you do get the point of the movie and become as startled as I have, then it will be a rare eye-opener. But in any case, you have to experience it for yourself to understand it. So just watch the movie. And watch it till the end or you will miss the point.

I am glad I learned about this ‘inconvenient truth’ happening around me now, and not later. It’s always better to find out about things sooner, rather than later. And people can change their perception. You might think that there are two kinds of people: people who care about the environment (them tree-hugging hippies) and people who care about themselves (normal people). But the problem about this idea, and the paradox inherent in it neglected by so many is that caring for ourselves is exactly the same thing as caring for the environment.

And what is scary is that for many people, in order to realize this, something bad has to happen to them first (that is why there are eco-terrorists). For instance, I used to think that animals are simply that, animals; they have no brains and feelings and hence it is ridiculous to protect and help them. I used to think of the term ‘animal rights’ as an amusing oxymoron. But everything changed after I had to adopt my late uncle’s dog and cared for it. Last week when she died, I can’t help but cry. If someone had told me a few years ago that I will actually shed a tear for an animal, I would have laughed at his face.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Regret always comes last.

In the end, An Inconvenient Truth serves as a much-needed reminder to humanity that the earth is starting to grow wary of our nonsense. We need, like that frog in the movie who did not realize that he is sitting inside a gradually boiling container, to be rescued. But this time around, the salvation must come from ourselves.