Friday, August 4, 2006

When Returning is Harder than Saying Goodbye

As has been said one thousand times before, we live in a world of terror. As I sit on a flight to London, a new friend sits beside me, trying not to think that she may never be able to go home because her country is no longer safe. Meanwhile, another new friend goes from gate to gate in the Amsterdam airport after hearing word that the roads from Damascus to Beirut have been bombed. Unsure of where he will be able to go, he tries to find a flight to London or Orlando, where he will watch the news and wait, for better or for worse.

The Lebanese are not the only people scared for their homes—they join the ranks of countless others living in a world of uncertainty and anger, a world in which conflict too often results in displacement, disillusionment, loss of life, loss of home. The events in Lebanon and Israel during the past four weeks only emphasize how important our studies are. As we’ve said, we live in a new world order. This does not just refer to global cities but to the ways in which the world’s parts relate and interact. We live in a world in which the old answers are not enough. We live in a world in which trust is obsolete and security is never guaranteed. To relate it to this past week in Holland, what do we know now? What have we learned on these visits that we can use to smooth the transition of this new world order, how can we look at what we have to find out what we need? To me, these questions are powerful, and we can only begin to consider them.

I have seen a lot in the past week. I now know that states can work together and that they are held accountable for their actions. I know (from OPCW) that the world is interested in a more peaceful dynamic and will take steps to see this change. I know that if we don’t have faith in this, there is not much hope. So where do we pick up from what we have and continue on? How can we start to think and work proactively instead of retroactively? If I had all the answers to these questions, I would be sitting beside Kofi Annan and Tony Blair, implementing something better. But these questions need consideration and I will not give up.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006


After a week here, Amsterdam has grown on me. When I am old, I wouldn’t mind spending my hours bicycling around the canals and reading the International Herald Tribune in a cafĂ©. My great aunt, who in her younger days was a fashion model in Paris, has paid countless trips to Amsterdam precisely for the serenity that comes with a city shaped by water. In her memories, Amsterdam is the great escape, the place where the fabulous people of the 40s and 50s went to retreat. Amsterdam seems to have changed somewhat since then—instead of escaping the rambunctious British men populating London’s pubs, I have encountered them in hoards in the red-light district, where they stumble as at home, cursing and laughing through the streets of Amsterdam. Did Amsterdam have a more glorious day? Is it still an escape? I see two Amsterdams—the tourist’s Amsterdam and the resident’s Amsterdam, the latter of which has been pretty successfully hidden from view.

What I have enjoyed most about Amsterdam is its history and its beauty. Amsterdam is a city that is historically a maritime center, a leader in shipping and oceanic exploration. It is a city of liberal minds and opinionated voices, a city where free will is valued and right answers are important. But to me, most of all, it is a beautiful place to explore—the city’s preservation of facades and height-limits make it feel as though you are walking a path that has been tread a thousand times yet you are discovering it for the first time. Amsterdam also has a strong Jewish history and is home to Anne Frank’s hideaway (now a museum) and a number of stunning synagogues. What’s more, Amsterdam is a city of art—the Van Gogh Museum is here, as well as a museum of Dutch art that includes works by Rembrandt.

While these cultural facets are wonderful, I'm not certain that I could live here. I am realizing more and more that I love the buzz factor of cities like London and New York. The frantic, constant movement of a city is important to me— I need to be somewhere where things are happening, where even when I am not involved (and I’m usually not) there are interesting and important and enlightening things going on. Amsterdam is too quiet of a city in every way; while it is a place of fine art and beautiful architecture, and a place steeped in history, it is not hugely involved in today’s world. I get the feeling in Amsterdam that there are people sitting in the cafes, talking and talking about important things, while the people in New York, London, and Tokyo actually do them.

The Hague is in these respects both similar to and different from Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city that goes in and out of the global market, whereas The Hague has been consistently developing as an important city. At the same time, The Hague, in its small, niche-specific network, seems to be largely a place for conversation about things that are going on elsewhere. That said, The Hague is the titan of its industry. Beyond that it is a city of wealth, where diplomats dot the brick sidewalks and intellectuals fill quiet restaurants with controversial conversation. I like the way this city feels more than Amsterdam—it isn’t trying to be anything more or other than it is. It markets itself as the international center of peace and justice, and that’s just what it is. It knows its global reach and caters to that, yet it pushes to be a bit more. There is a kind of buzz in The Hague, of a global elite looking to make a change, to create a new world order. But it doesn’t try to be any other kind of buzz, because this is enough. I like this.


In two days I will say goodbye to another phase, another set of people and places. This has been a completely new experience. We, the seven-plus of us, have developed a new way of thinking. We have adopted a new lens which each of us will use in the contexts through which we experience life. We as a group are composed of very different individuals with very different backgrounds, yet we have come together in global cities to consider them and how they impact our contexts, our colleagues’ contexts, the world we share that is, on many levels, continually getting smaller and larger. We have become, together, citizens of the world, not just in our travels but in our dialogues, in the conversations, even casually, that a Beirut-ian and a Bangkok-ian and a New Yorker have together. How do they frame the world differently? How do they understand their role? How do they reformulate, reconsider, reinvent in and after these conversations? When they go back to Beirut and Bangkok and New York where do they fit? What is their perception? I believe that every experience remolds you and causes you to recalculate, perhaps unconsciously, your position. How will we redefine ourselves? We are our own community of fate. Will we contribute to the organization of a new political space? I will be interested to see where my fellow world citizens end up.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Visit to the Arts Council of England

It is raining in London today, for the first time in three weeks of unbearable heat and humidity. It is amazing how much I can feel the change—people continue to pepper the sidewalks, but their strides are more purposeful, even fresher. They have a new directive. It is gray again now too, that normally unescapable shade of London that has characterized it in so many of its portrayals. To be honest, the London I am seeing on this visit is different than the one I grew to love in the spring. This London is noisy and crowded, full of people wandering aimlessly and confusingly through overly sunny streets and past the tiny, pub-lined alleys that make this such a fascinating city. In this neighborhood, in this time of year, I believe that London is an unbearable haven for blinded tourists who do not know a city when it is sitting below, around, above, even between them. Yet I understand that we, as Londoners and lovers of London, need these people to make this city thrive, and of course that is important to us.

I have been thinking about this while reflecting on our visit to the Arts Council of England today, of which I have somewhat mixed feelings. The woman who spoke to us clearly understood our mission and spoke to it beautifully, discussing the need for culture in a global city and how people want to be in places where there is culture. She spoke about how funding goes in on one end and comes out somewhere else; I think this is such a great concept, and I am trying to use it to convince myself that these tourists are needed in order for the continued vitality of the London that I know. If commercial theatre brings in millions of pounds for London, will the small theatres and experimental groups eventually see some of that, whether by visitors looking off the beaten path after exhausting the West End or by a commercial theatre starting a small side troupe for new works? And I suppose, in the context of this course, this brings me to another question: are the small, more local arts projects part of the global city, and do they deserve the same attention?

I would argue absolutely yes. There are people who come to this city because they know that there will be a place for them, or because they know that this is the place to be for puppetry or sound design or modern dance or whatever. In the first class we talked about the draw of a city, the pull that makes people feel they need to be there. It seems like everything is happening in a city. To me, before it is a center for international commerce and a hub for world markets, London is a living, breathing, interacting city, full of daily exchanges on the personal, social level, and existing in the ways in which its residents and visitors and newcomers perceive it. It is a space for development and creativity, for the cultivating of ideas through many perspectives and many lenses. So is there room for the small creative groups in the global picture of London? I hope so.

One of the things I greatly admire about the London branch Arts Council of England, or at least about the woman who spoke to us, is the recognition of the tension between making the global city and addressing the local need. If London didn’t have a local population, would it be a global city? I think people need to live there for it to be a truly functioning place. This tension extends beyond London; the Arts Council of England focuses much of its attention, and finances, on London, and this is understandably sometimes difficult to explain to the other regions. In this movement of global cities towards being massive complexes of global power and wealth, I think it is important to consider the impact that this will have on local life and culture. Class and ethnic issues aside, for anyone can live in a global city and be involved in the local life and culture, what will happen to local communities if their character becomes dominated by international conglomerates tagged with names and brands applicable to every city in the world?

Friday, April 7, 2006

London Observations

Subtly, unintentionally, I think I’m learning more about the culture here than the organization where I work or the field of study I'm pursuing. I remember being a child and singing "London bridge is falling down," seeing Paddington bear and London Fog jackets and imagining a gloomy, phonebooth-red-tinted city of grime and Charles Dickens and proper accents. I think in many ways I have yet to open my eyes to this city. I have been so caught up in making this the place I live, in adopting a "British lifestyle," that I have ignored the beauty that is London and the exquisite opportunity of this recognition. It's gloomy today, as that typical London day is, and gray strips of clouds hang over Canary Wharf, lightly matching the dark gray water of the Thames below Greenwich. Everyone around me is exclaiming “brilliant” and “cheers” and complaining about the weather, as anyone anywhere would. To them this is life, but it's something that I'm learning--the differences are quiet and subtle, hidden beneath casual lunchtime conversations and the day-to-day acknowledgments and comprehensions of the workplace.