Reflections On Culture From A Travaholic

Traveling is a drug and I suppose I am a mild addict.  The thrill of the unknown, the independence, the not knowing all the whens, wheres, whys and hows; the challenges, the adventure…my name is Jimmy and I’m a travaholic.

I am actually afraid to go back home.  Seriously. It will be a forced sobriety for which I am not prepared. I fear ruts. I fear mundane. I fear the known. I fear certainty.

I keep wanting to push my departure date back yet I know I am just putting off the inevitable: The support group called Reality and facing my addiction.

Please do not get me wrong—traveling can be very stressful and difficult, particularly when you are among non-English speakers. I happen to be in Italy at the moment where the people are quite understanding and help you as much as they linguistically can—as they withstand my fumbling ciaos, gratzes and the occasional arivederrcis (I am quite certain I am not spelling those words correctly but I don’t say them correctly either and I appreciate consistency).

I find the best part about travel is watching people and observing how they live.  I am not a “places person” rather I am a “people watching person.” I would rather watch the people going in and out of, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, than actually go into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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When you watch people who live quite differently than you do it provides a point of comparison and contrast. For many years now I have understood the concept of culture as a somewhat arbitrary system of customs and rituals that are neither inferior nor superior to others—culture is just a way to do things and then we call that way of doing things “normal”—which is our bad. Nothing about a culture is truly normal. In fact, no social behavior is totally normal.

When you travel it brings this reality much more into focus.

Hence, I cannot separate out the “cult” in culture.  Back in my religious days I threw the term “cult” around with reckless abandon. Essentially, any doctrine that was not consistent with my own was essentially a cult. Was I really once that narrow-minded? Yes.  And call me whatever derogatory slang you will today though I highly doubt narrow-minded would be one of them. Traveling not only expands us in a geographical sense, it opens and expands our minds as well.

I am coming to realize now that EVERY culture is a cult.  It manipulates and brainwashes one into believing what is “right” and what is not. In fact, if  you were to examine the Latin roots of each word, cult and culture, you would find the same basic idea –CULTivating and tilling while preparing to be grown.  Each and every culture provides a basis for meaning, relevance and importance for each of our lives and then we come to really believe in these things as truthful.  It is as if we are the growing seeds in the fields of culture and come to expect a certain way to be watered, tilled, pruned and nurtured. The fields of culture and its farming rituals then permeate us as we become one with the field of culture. It is then not difficult to understand why our own culture can be so invisible to us as it is us and our everyday reality.

Anthropologist Ernest Becker went so far as to say culture is a complex symbolic creation of humanity to distract us from our awareness of our ultimate demise.  In other words, we create a bunch of bullshit (please understand my definition of this word)—and assign importance to it—to help us forget the fact that all of us are going to die and no one knows what happens next.  Thus, we create religious systems, designer jeans, status cars, entertainment, athletics, consumerism, etc…for the simple sake of helping us momentarily forget the fact we are all going to die—and dying frankly sucks.

Culture provides a background and narrative that offers meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence.  I observe this all the time when I see, read or hear of an untimely demise and the survivor’s struggle to find a meaning as to why this may have happened.  Scholarships, trust funds, “Amber Alerts,” or even “Megan’s Laws” are created to provide a context and framework for these types of deaths. Yet, the reality is this: The person just died.  No rhyme. No reason.  It’s going to happen to all of us eventually. And if there is a purpose? We could not possibly know it so what would be the point of trying to figure it out?

Death happens. So don’t smoke and wear your seatbelt…hedge your bets so we can make this thing called life happen for a while.

The creation of culture is actually a rather elaborate and reasonable strategy to help humanity cope with this problematic issue.  Culture can distract us and soothe us. We can get lost in movies, athletics, and entertainment and come to believe it actually means something – the fact is it’s just all bullshit – that is, it appears and acts to be something much more than what it actually is.

“Wow Jimmy, so cynical.”

Not at all. Not even close. When you travel and watch how others live and realize it is all just one big arbitrary system of ways to do things, you are now FREE from the shackles of culture. You can recognize what is important and what is not for yourself.  You can fully appreciate each and every moment like you never have before.  You can appreciate your loved ones like you never have before. You can take advantage of what cultures have to offer while realizing the ultimate meaningless of it all.

I am quite certain we are all familiar with the term “ethnocentrism,” meaning one believes his/her own culture is superior to all others.  I would love to declare a new word in the English language that is defined as, “Believing all cultures to be human creations designed to assign value and meaning to our lives, with all being both equally effective in some respects, as well as problematic.

I am accepting suggestions.

Afterward: I am now back from Italy in the lovely confines of Santa Clarita dealing with my domestic sobriety and traveling addiction. However, this travaholic looks forward to squeezing out every last drop of adventure and pleasure all the different cultures have to offer in the very near future.

Ciao…for now.

“Want A Friend? Be A Friend.” Or, “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Or, “Jimmy’s About To Get All Buddha On Your Ass.”

I have just returned from Edinburgh, Scotland where my friends Laure and her fiancé Vincent, both hailing from Paris, hosted and toasted me for a couple of days.

It is nice to have international friends in international places, for all parties involved, because, as a loving father once said, “If you want a friend, be a friend.”

Allow me to explain.

It all began with Laure’s plan to pick me up at the Edinburgh/Waverly train station at 11:30pm on a Thursday night as I arrived to my Scotland destination by way of London’s King’s Cross station. However, like most of life, things did not go as planned.

An undisclosed “incident” happened on a train in front of ours and we just flat out stopped…for about 2 hours. Of course I contacted Laure, via Facebook, to let her know that I would not be there at the time planned. Long story short, she kept vigilant about keeping up with the situation online so she could time her 35 minute bus ride to the train accordingly. As I arrived, about 1:30am, greeted by Laure’s smiling, welcoming and friendly face, one could never tell by her demeanor she was completely put out and her life disrupted by this American -and now had to take another 35 minute bus ride home just hours before dawn.

I stayed with her and Vincent until Sunday morning. During this time, I was wined and dined, not to mention given first class tours of the city, including Castles, forests and, of course, a Scotch Whisky distillery (the Scots dropped the “e” from their Whiskey as to distinguish themselves…see what you learn when you drink?). In short, I was treated like a Scottish king as I slept in my own room with internet, a down comforter and a teddy bear dressed up like Obi Won something or other from Star Wars.

It cost me nothing.

I suppose there may be a bit of personal payback involved for a trip Laure took way back in 2008 to California when she stayed with us for a few weeks. Yet, then again, when she handed me the keys to her condo in Paris and left for a few nights in 2011, literally giving up her entire home for me, I believed that “debt” to be completely paid: Karmic transaction complete.

Laure and Vincent are, what Rene’s father would call, “good people.” Yet, I keep meeting “good people.” Why?

I have had a fairly pervasive theme in my life lately, namely the idea of what goes around comes around, reaping what you sow, or the energy you send out to the universe will “Karma-cly” metabolize the energy you receive back in (as a side note, the notion of Karma for some is about what awaits each of us in the next life via reincarnation…I am using the term in a more liberal Buddhist sense). Perhaps it is the act of travel that allows the curtain shielding this universal truth from sight to be pulled back and revealed. This reality of Karma is always present -yet it is frequently hidden by the rote scheduling and banality of our daily existence.

Just as an aspirin will cure a headache or water will quench your thirst, travel exposes life’s truths in a way no other medium could possibly reveal.

Travel brings about both vulnerability and strength. To travel as a stranger in a strange land, at least for this sojourner, brings about powerful feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. I typically live in a world full of control, my surroundings quite familiar and my routine as set as they get. Yet it is vulnerability, brought about by a break from routine and the known, that precedes every victory in life. Be it the prizefighter who is the object of incoming strikes and blows from unknown locations moments prior to victory or the marathon runner whose cramping legs seemed impossible to overcome just prior to crossing the finish line, we come to understand that we only become stronger when we subject ourselves to both risk, even calculated risk, and vulnerability.

It is the one who fears and avoids vulnerability at all costs that never grows and expands: Just as muscle needs to be brutally torn and stretched in order for it to grow bigger and stronger, so our psyche needs to be splayed and challenged in order to expand our minds and be introduced to life’s often clandestine and clouded, yet beautiful, offerings.

Yet there is another major benefit to vulnerability, via travel, as well. When we become vulnerable we come to realize that self-sufficiency will not be enough -we must reach out to others in humility and trust.  It is a difficult for this self-sufficient man to admit, but needing others is a good thing…a really, really good thing. When we need others it connects us to humanity in general and we learn people can be really, really good.

Then when we reach out to others who are in need and vulnerable, we are sending out that cosmic energy that will return back to us in our most tender and susceptible moments.  I read somewhere that is better to give than to receive, but make no mistake- both are necessary in life and both offer us sweet rewards.

So as I expand and “vulnerable-ize” myself, I allow Laure and Vincent to give and add some currency to their universal cosmic bank account –perhaps I should have charged them for my stay? (Even Buddha can’t get in the way of good, capitalist principles!)

Want a Friend

As a wise man once said, “Want a friend? Be a friend.” It will result in more than just companionship and international friendships; it will open up a world of discovery and some new found cosmic kindness -this time by way of Laure and Vincent.

 

Some People Find Happiness, Jesus or Themselves: I Found Ro

I found Ro. That’s right. You heard me. I found him. And I feel damn good about it.

Let me explain.

I am currently in Paris, France.  (It seems weird to add “France” to the word “Paris” as the city has a unique way of standing on it’s own with no need for identifying its larger boundary -as opposed to Perris, California I suppose).

This time around I am with a group of about 20 twenty-somethings yet, ironically, in the context I find myself I am merely a fellow traveller along with them. I am not their “boss” or leader – I am, in many ways, a type of peer with them. I strangely feel like Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” or Will Ferrel in “Old School” as I travel on a pretour trip through Europe before I begin teaching for the semester in London (do I have to add England?). In any case, here I am while our leader and guide is all of 25.

Though the old man of the group, I feel in many ways I am as vulnerable and as very much a travelling “newbie” as they are.  This came to light this morning.

We arrived last night and I had some dinner with some French friends (and 5 twenty somethings, btw) and actually had a rather pleasant first night after not sleeping for nearly 35 hours.

It was when I awoke this morning and decided to go visit my French friend Ro, who lives on the outskirts of Paris –only a mere 40 minute train ride from where I am staying- that I realized my traveling vulnerabilities.  As I found myself straying from my twenty something tour package and opting to venture out on my own, I was in essentially the same place I was about 3 years ago when I visited Paris for the first time- alone, in a strange city, with a strange language, with strange geography of which I knew absolutely nothing about.

I experienced some moderate anxiety concerning my traveling to see Ro.  What if I get lost? How can I communicate with anyone?  I then realized I am in a big city with civilized human beings and a train system that is very internationally friendly. What is the worst that can happen? I am forced to eat bread and cheese until an English speaking French person can give me a hand? It is not like I am in the deserts of the Sudan – not knowing how I will survive Ebola and have to decide which insects to eat for survival.

Thus I put on my big boy traveling panties and off I went.

I safely made it to my final train exit when things got a little tricky. The directions provided went like this: “Exit on the right through the tunnel.”  Wait…did that mean the several tunnels that encounter each stop immediately when you get off the train…meaning I would have to go the far right immediate exit? Or did it mean enter any tunnel and when you exit the train station to go to the right? So, like any good grammatical contextual analyzer, I decide to read on and see if it offered any additional clues:

“Then pass the glass building while following the street on the left.”

Fine. I will exit the train station and look for a glass building and just head that direction.

I looked left. A glass building! Well, kind of. It was definitely more glass than your average Paris building but could it really be considered a “glass building?”

I could only guess what a “glass building” meant to a Frenchman in comparison and contrast with what it means to me…a California surfer-type with little interest in building design yet has seen his fair share of Los Angeles glass buildings.

Just look for a glass building, Jimmy, do not freeze with directional analysis paralysis,” I informed my meta-self. “Just go with your gut.

The problem was that only in Paris are most buildings made of 100 year-old bricks and cement with very few windows –as if windows were designed as an afterthought by engineers who decided that a small view may be a good idea, for some much needed ventilation at the very least. I determined that if you find any building that has more than a few glass panels in Paris it could be considered a “glass building.”

Yet still, was I looking for a building with a few extra windows or the damn Crystal Cathedral?

So I followed this glass building with suspicion. Again, I did what any good contextual analyzer would do, I read on for the next clue.

“Turn right at the bakery,” it read.

Great. Every corner in Paris is a bakery with mouthwatering carbohydrates and fattening cheeses. However, I became wary of the suspicious “glass building” I was following as it appeared to lead me to a residential area hence, no bakery. So I walked back to where I came out of the train station and went the other way. And, alas, I saw THE glass building. There was no mistaking this one –glass from bottom to top.

I guess glass buildings are like porn –hard to describe though you know it when you see it.

Now where was the damn bakery? I walked a couple of blocks not knowing at which bakery to turn right at. So I looked for more clues:

“Just past the hotel,” it read.

I do not know the word hotel in French though I saw a logo on a building that seemed “hotel-ish” and, lo and behold, a bakery just beyond it.

I am freaking Columbo mixed with Sherlock Holmes with a dusting of Hardy Boys,” I thought with smug satisfaction.

Not really. But I was pretty proud of me as I continued to successfully avoid the potential of Paris Ebola.

But my work was not done. Not even close. I had to meander a few more turns and buzz a door that had the number 11 on it, walk in, go up the stairwell on the left to the second floor and knock on the first door on the left.

I did all of this successfully…or so I thought.

When the door opened it was an old Frenchmen with a filthy apartment who did not speak a lick of English.

“Ro? Is Ro here? Do you know Ro?”

“Beswee boo doo doo oiu oo0 Dubai,” I heard…or something like that.

It is so strange how when two people do not know each others language keep talking to each other as if repetition will bring sudden linguistic enlightenment.

“Ro,” I repeated. “Ro. Is he here. Where is he? Do you know Ro. Ro. Ro Ro.”

My nonverbal skills kicked into full gear. It is at times like this I wish I was a feminine woman –trained in the art of nonverbal subtleties- searching for some universal nonverbal common ground and understanding.

He appeared a very kind man as he knocked on the neighbor’s door and a woman answered. He then again said, “Beswee boo doo doo oiu oo0 Dubai,” to the woman. I spelled out Ro’s name on a sheet of paper he provided and she smiled and pointed up another floor.

“Thank  y ..ahhh…Merci,” I proudly told her, quite proud I could finally use one of the three words I know in French.

As it turns out those weird French people consider the first floor the ZERO floor and our third floor is their second floor.

I went up and knocked –on the third floor door, not the second, as some things Americans just have flat out right- and out walked Ro.

I did it. I survived the rough jungles of Paris.

I am that good.

An hour of conversation later, I departed and just went back the same way I came.

So this 51 year-old did what any 20 something admittedly could do much better –navigate through a strange city with a strange language with strange people- yet I feel so accomplished and satisfied as if I told my 51 year-old neurons to quit carving that neural rut. I told my neurons to live a little, to carve new paths.

Damn, I want to make my neurons my bitch.

I feel younger already. Watch out twenty somethings –you have a match. Why?

Because I found Ro.

 

Jimmysintension The Podcast: Special Guest Lindsey Johnson (with a word or two from Jordan)

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Family friend and wonderful conversationalist Lindsey Johnson was over on Friday to ask me a few questions about Communication Studies and I asked her if she would want to guest on a podcast. Without hesitation she agreed. On went the headsets. Jordan later chimed in a bit. Join us as we talk about the field of communication, the dating scene, marriage, jealousy, sex, among other fascinating topics.

Jordan’s blog can be found at www.hashtaghologram.com.