Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"You're My Al Bell!"

Recently I reconnected with an old business competitor and dear friend from my hometown of Ames, Iowa named Rich Weiss. He made a comment about my writing from overseas, saying, "You’ve become my personal Al Bell and I find your insights quite interesting."

When I asked, "who is Al Bell?" he replied with this:
 “What do you mean "who is Al Bell?”  Didn't you grow up in Iowa?
Oh!  I get it!  This is your way of pointing out that I am much older than you.
Al Bell and his wife traveled around Iowa, visiting elementary schools, giving “assemblies” to the students on trips they had taken to exotic locations around the world.  They would take a new trip each year and then spend three seasons going around, showing native items they had brought home and showing us a film about their trip.  This was big stuff to Richie Weiss in Miss Frederik’s 2nd grade class in 1962.
Here are links to items about Al Bell.  I found the first one about 4-years ago when my son was living in Hong Kong and I told my daughter-in-law that she was my Al Bell.  I hadn’t thought of him for 35-years and did a Google search.  The other links here are to an assortment of stories about him from bloggers or area newspapers.  He was a very colorful man who was known by virtually all small-town kids in Iowa in the 1960’s.
Did You Know Al Bell? (The comments are the best part of this one.  We all remembered the same things.  Mine is on page 1)

Al Bell Brought the World to Rural Iowa

Assembly Program comes to Goldfield, Iowa (column 2)

Lecturer Al Bell Bitten by Mad Dog in Alaska (bottom of the page)

Al Bell ~ An Iowa Legend
If you’ve read the links, you now understand why you’ve become Al Bell in my eyes.  Your words take me to all these wondrous, mysterious locations.  You let me see the sights, smell the bread, taste the coffee, meet the people and feel like I’ve been there myself.  Thank you."
Wow, what a compliment to be mentioned in such august company as this distinguished gentleman who shared his travels with rural Iowa farm kids. Just reading the comments on link one, it shows the journey communication has taken in one lifetime. While the ease with which we find out information about points unknown has changed, what hasn't changed, is our own awe and wonder at the diversity of the world and our love of seeing beyond what we know to places unknown.

Readers, did you experience an Al Bell or someone like him? Who made you wonder about parts unknown as a child? Who makes you wonder about parts unknown as an adult?

You might enjoy these other posts about Iowa:

Talking About "My People," Iowans, to the Travel Junkies

Enjoying Hometown Friends in Istanbul

Dvorak Embraced Spillville, Iowa; Spillville, Iowa Embraced Dvorak

UNESCO Names Iowa City, Iowa a 'City of Literature'

 'Empty Nest Expat' is on Facebook. You're invited to "like" my page.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grateful to Miss Out on America's Media Obsessions

 Washington working on the Debt Deal
Recently, friends were visiting Istanbul from Palo Alto, California and I asked them, "what's everyone talking about in Palo Alto?" Being political junkies, like me, they cited the inability of Washington to come to a debt deal. Now this was something I have an opinion on!

Even though I'm overseas, I'm still an American citizen and care passionately about the health of my nation. It's easy to follow the twists and turns of the debate because all of that journalism is easily accessible to expats.

 Casey Anthony

Not all of America's journalism is so accessible to expats.  For that, I'm grateful.  It causes the occasional occurrence, where all of a sudden, my friends back home are discussing something and I have no idea what they're talking about.  Their Facebook feeds light up with outrage at a story, and I"m left with "huh, what?" Such was the case with the Casey Anthony story and a lady named Nancy Grace. Apparently, using a lot of understatement, America does not like either of them.
 Nancy Grace

Casey Anthony is a young mother whose child died. She waited a month to report it. She was prosecuted for murder and was not convicted because the jury was not convinced that a murder happened, thinking it could just as likely have been a bad accident that the family did not have the courage to report. Nancy Grace is the America reporter whose anger at this young mother has captured the notice of numerous chroniclers as completely over-the-top.

Reading enough about the story to get the gist, I'm glad I missed it.  Following it closely would not been a good use of my time and given how angry the people are who DID follow it closely, I can't say it would have been good for my soul.  I don't love to be outraged, although I recognize there are plenty of people who do, and this Nancy Grace lady seems to play to that. And what could I have done to improve the situation? Nothing.

 Tony Blair
Facebook makes it very easy to see the media's influence on folks because all of sudden, numerous people will all break out discussing the same issues, often with the same take.

In conversation, I notice this most often with British people who all use the same word to describe Tony Blair.  To a person, Brits call him George Bush's "poodle." Now if they were all thinking that idea on their own, without help from the media, wouldn't there be some variety in the language used?  'Poodle' is not the most common pejorative.

This week's news story about the extent of privacy invasion in Britain all in an effort to bring readers the "dirt" on celebrities has caused me to reflect.  How, have I, as a reader contributed to this sad practice? Do I need to read about celebrities? Do I want to know stuff that's not my business?

 These dresses! I love them!

I don't care about Hollywood celebrities' private lives, but I do enjoy seeing their dresses. That doesn't involve invading their privacy. Whew!

On reflection, however, there is a particular story I'm ashamed of reading.

I followed the ins and outs of the DSK scandal in New York City. I had never heard of DSK before he made the news for being arrested and have nothing against him personally. Being a feminist, my heart did go out to that poor immigrant single mother.

When the case collapsed, I was sad for her, because I just couldn't believe nothing had happened. I'm sure others following the story believed the same thing which made us want to know how the prosecutors and police said one thing and then changed their mind about going forward with the case.

The New York Times (ironically, not a Murdoch publication) published a story with her confidential hospital report and I read that story. It had been provided to the prosecutor's office for evidence. I am 100% sure the reason they did this is because that's what their readers wanted to know.  The journalists follow the market. I am part of that market. In light of the stories about large corporations using people's misery to sell newspapers, I am now not proud to have done this. I take responsibility. May that lady find peace and be left alone in dignity. I resolve to do better as a reader.

One of my very favorite things about CNN International is that it does not focus on celebrity news.  I've even heard their anchors make fun of CNN domestic for the network's need to run celebrity news (Nancy Grace's ratings were through the roof) because that is what America wants and is voting for with its attention.

I couldn't help but contrast CNN's deeply admirable "Freedom Project" on human trafficking with all of the current headlines about hacking footballer's phone calls. I bet that took real executive courage to put on that series of news reports because it doesn't appeal to the lowest common denominator and asks a lot of us citizens to just view, taking in the very real and gritty story of powerless people.

Can we do better as readers and viewers? Do you have a story you've followed that in hindsight either wasn't appropriately sourced or the best use of your time? Can we help empower executives to focus on stories that really do make a difference like the "Freedom Project" rather than on celebrity news?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My 7 Links Blog Project

Thanks to Miss Footloose (aka Karen van der Zee) I've been invited to participate in the My 7 Links project organized by Tripbase, the wonderful organization that has recognized both our blogs with Expat Blog of the Year awards.

In this post, I am sharing 7 of my old posts you might not have discovered yet, at the end I list five other bloggers I've nominated to do the same.

My Most Beautiful Post - This is from one spectacular afternoon overlooking the Vltava River in Prague with my friend Sher. If you know nothing about Prague, this will help you understand why people fall in love with it. A Springtime Stroll Around Letna Park

My Most Popular Post - I'm deeply committed to doing what I can as an individual consumer and citizen to prevent climate change.  So I decided to sell my car and live without it.  Then one day I realized I had survived just fine without it for quite awhile. Starting My Third Year Without A Car

My Most Controversial Post -Looking back, I can't say I write very controversial posts. This one might not be the kindest one I've ever written, and I did try to put the behavior I was describing into historical  context. Little Corruptions

My Most Helpful Post - The American lifestyle has a cost structure that feels unsustainable to me. In this post, I try to help Americas imagine a lower cost structure. The Czech Republic is the same size as South Carolina.  Imagine if you were able to travel around a state the size of South Carolina for $400 a year.  How the Czech Government Delighted Me As A Consumer

The Post Whose Success Surprised Me The Most - Who knew a visit to a gift shop would generate such discussion? My post The Swedish Tourist Attraction That Did Not Attract Me ended up featured on the Displaced Nation Blog where ABC News Royal Correspondent Jane Green and I debated the idea of monarchy. 

A Post I feel Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved - Is it my idea? Or my blog post? What do I need, pictures? I only received two commented on this post, and I still like my idea.  Why not give the opposite of a Nobel Prize to countries that could use, well, an intervention?
Does the World Need the Opposite of a Nobel Peace Prize?

A Post I am Most Proud Of - In 2009, I was struck how my Czech friends felt their opinions were ignored on a proposed American missile system that was slated for installation in their country.  I wrote a blog post asking President Obama to come to the Czech Republic and either sell them on it or announce it would end.

He came, gave an amazing speech, and won the Nobel Prize. And the anti-missile system moved away from the Czech Republic. What a win/win.  All because of my blog post!

I hope you're smiling here. I don't actually believe President Obama came to Prague because of my blog post. But I was contacted by the BBC to provide commentary about his speech (didn't happen due to logistics) because their producers had been reading my blog.

I do feel I showed my Czech friends, feeling their way through their new democracy, that taking action makes you feel better rather than being paralyzed.  They marveled that I felt I could effect positive change.  They didn't (which is exactly what politicians want you to think cause then you'll leave everything to them).
Dear President Obama, Please Come to the Czech Republic

I live for comments so tell me what you think!

Here are the links to five blogs I've nominated to join the project:

Adventures in the Czech Republic

Black Girl in Prague

Blogging Gelle

Ricky Yates

Senior Dogs Abroad

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Ottoman Empire from the other side as told in "The Bridge on the Drina"

The Bridge on the DrinaAbout five years ago, a friend whose book taste I completely respected told me about this book.  He was so enthusiastic I knew someday I would read it, even though I had never heard of the author, never heard of the book, and knew nothing about Bosnia.

 Who could have suspected that I would eventually be living in Istanbul someday, be familiar with Ottoman history up close, and have walked a historic Mimar Sinan stone bridge with my very own feet. Not me.

What a book! What an author! And what a translator! This book is a haunting wonderful memoir exquisitely rendered in time and place. A young Christian boy is taken to the Ottoman capital to serve the Ottoman Empire. He converts. Eventually, he rises to a position of advisor to the Sultan.  The Balkan native decides to use his position to build a stone bridge designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to commemorate the land he came from and to glorify God. The book "The Bridge on the Drina" is a fictionalized history of all that happened on that bridge over 400 years of village life.

We often assign metaphysical powers to grand urban assets like the Eiffel Tower, but this book made the reader cherish a rural stone bridge as a precious jewel that made life grander and more meaningful for all the villagers who come in contact with it.  Could a man-made creation serve a nobler purpose?

Ivo Andrić is almost like a Balkan "Mark Twain" so great were his powers of observation about human nature, sometimes wryly so.  You can not read this book without feeling he has an enormous love for humanity because he can describe people at their worst, their weakest, and best with such compassion and grace, it's impossible not to love his writing for that fact alone. I found myself writing down sentences within the book just to savor their genius later.

After I finished the book, I looked the author up on Wikipedia and I realized I had no idea while reading the book what faith he was because he wrote about the Christian and Muslim villagers with such insight you could almost think he had both faiths in his family. Ah, such is the Balkans.

Lastly, his patriotism moves me. Ivo Andrić gave all of his Nobel prize money to improve libraries throughout his homeland.  He had an ability to make the whole world care about his little corner and love it as he did. I want to read everything else he has written.

What book has made you see an area of the world for "the first time?"

You might also like: 

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed

In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading at the Cafe Europa

Who Was Atatürk?

Share the Best Of Czech Culture

I Served The Kind of England

The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hanging out the with Expat Harem at the Istanbul Simulcast of the TEDGlobal 2011 Conference

 Me with fellow expats
Catherine Bayar and Anastasia Ashman

This week I attended the Istanbul simulcast of the TEDGlobal conference live from Edinburgh, Scotland. If you're not familiar with TED, I can't recommend it enough. The original organizational idea behind TED was to bring together innovative thinkers to share ideas worth spreading from three worlds: technology, entertainment, and design. There is a yearly TEDGlobal conference, offshoots like TED Women, and local versions organized by locals held globally called TEDx. Every year, one exceptional individual is chosen and awarded $100,000 to make happen "one wish to change the world."

Our simulcast was held in a beautiful facility, complete with a gigantic screen, provided by Turkcel, a local Turkish telecom. The day's events were a wonderful opportunity to meet up with American expats living in Istanbul whose work I have long admired: Anastasia Ashman, internationally bestselling author of The Expat Harem, and Catherine Bayar, a former product line designer for Nike and Adidas, who is currently deeply involved in Turkish handicrafts, especially those made by Turkish women.

Anastasia was profiled just this week in the Istanbul Daily Newspaper, Today's Zaman. She always has some project going.  During our short break for lunch, we headed down the street to the Istanbul Culinary Institute where the students of the Institute test out their cooking creations on the public. While dining over grilled octopus, she told us about the current book she's writing, a forensic memoir.  Sounds intriguing. You can watch her blog for details.

I was especially interested in comparing notes with Catherine about her old blog, Tales from Turkey, on the Google blogspot domain.  I say, old blog, because like mine, her blog was censored by the Republic of Turkey. Since the censorship went on for what seemed like months, Catherine moved her blog to Wordpress, named it Bazaar Bayar, and she is presenting some of the most exquisite photography of Turkish handwork on her site for you to enjoy. The work featured really is breathtaking and it helps local women.

I could tell you all about the talks I heard and how intellectually stimulating it was but I can't do that better than another fabulous blogger whose work I love: Bulgarian Maria Popova. Maria has built a mammoth following with her Brainpickings Blog, and here is her rundown of Day #2 of TED Global, the day of talks I heard through the simulcast.

If I had one criticism of the conference, each presenter could have enhanced their talk by deciding what it is they wanted us to do with the information. What is their "call to action" for the listener? Even if a scientist is sharing her exciting news that she has been able to double the life of an organism, why not tell us who the funding body is and ask us to support continued scientific research? I bet people would be able to see the value of increasing taxes if they knew it helped support research that could double the length of life of living organisms!

You can access all of these talks through the TEDGlobal website as they are loaded. I thought the presenter who did the best job of sharing an idea (and frankly, scaring the heck out of me) was a young scientist from Tasmania named Elizabeth Murchison who is working to prevent the Tasmanian Devil from being the first species on the planet to become extinct through contagious cancer.

The moment that touched me the deepest was Cambodian anti-torture activist Karen Tse, who broke down why torture happens in over 90 countries.  It's not just what we all assume (the presence of evil), and when you hear her talk, torture all of a sudden seems very solvable.

The moment that made me most proud was when the Chinese founder of the "China Lab" and the "India Lab" at MIT, Yasheng Huang, was explaining why China was the Michael Jordan of economic development and India, as a nation, was not quite to superstar quality like China and Michael Jordan.  India, as a nation, was still amazing in terms of economic development, though, because they were still able to "make the NBA" (metaphorically speaking).

"It comes down to literacy. Literacy in China is defined as being able to read 1500 Chinese characters.  Literacy in India is defined as being able to write your own name in whatever language you speak." If you compare the literacy rates of China and India (mid 60s% vs mid 30s%), especially of Chinese women compared to Indian women, it makes the difference."

Literacy rates helped bring about twenty years of double digit growth for a billion people. I am so, so, SO proud of being a librarian. Here then, is my call to action.  Wherever you may live, I'd like to ask you  if your nation is helping school and public librarians help citizens achieve literacy and economic growth? Please support the work of your local libraries and librarians with enthusiasm.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Expat Envy on the 4th of July

On the 4th of July, it is hard to replicate the wonderful experience of celebrating America's independence the way it is done back home.  You can get together with fellow expats, you can try and make the right food, you can pull up some You Tube videos of "A Capitol 4th" from the nation's lawn in Washington D. C. but it's not the same.  Sometimes to really experience something, you just have to be there.

Today, I saw some smoked ribs, baked beans, and cole slaw my friend Scott made for his family, and I was filled with such longing for American food, I had 'expat envy.'

So here's a toast to my friends participating in boat parades on Ten Mile Lake in Minnesota, or marching in the 4th of July parade in Illinois, or watching the fireworks over the lake in Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, or Lake Okoboji, Iowa.  Enjoy your 4th, enjoy your wonderful plate of food, enjoy the view from Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs of purple mountain majesty or of gathered elk in Estes Park, Colorado and pinch yourself at being able to experience such a glorious day. Sometimes we don't appreciate the extra-ordinariness of our everyday existence until we can't experience it like we usually do.

To anyone reading this who has served, is currently serving, or keeping the home fires burning for someone serving our country, thank you so much for your gift of service to the nation.  I appreciate it. I have enjoyed the years of freedom I have experienced that you have made possible.  I don't take it for granted for even one moment.

Similar posts:
My Wish for You: Freedom

My Favorite Freedom

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Yes, the Czech Republic is really like this

Imagine, being able to find beauty like this and world class beer for under $1 a glass all in one country.  Yes, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are really like this. The girls *are* this beautiful. The guys, unfortunately, not so much. Click on my title to see the Czech and Slovakian ladies nominated for Miss Universe via Tanya at Czechmate Diary.
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