Month: March 2014

Tango for Export

Astor Piazzolla, Flores, ciudadencolor

Tango Week continues here on Classically Educated and, as they say, it takes two…  Today’s guest post has been written by two people who learned the dance far from its traditional home, and who can give us the perfect complement to Alex’s Tuesday post: the view from outside of Argentina.

Our first guest poster prefers to be known only by his WordPress sobriquet: iwasforcedtoregister.  Our second, Alejandro, was born in San Juan, in the northwest of Argentina. He did his undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering in the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, and his graduate studies in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Even though he is currently working as a postdoctorate scientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, he is already looking for Professor positions within Europe.

Alejandro gives complimentary tango lessons at the EPFL to everyone willing to explore this part of his heritage. He also participated in the organization of the 2013 Tangofolies de Lausanne festival as artistic director. Currently, Alejandro is also looking into exploring a new facet of the tango world. He made his debut as a singer during the 6th Bergen tango marathon, in Norway, and he does not waste opportunity to sing whenever he goes to a tango event.

One of the best things I got from tango was the friendships. At the top of the list is Alejandro Aragón, from whom I am now separated by an ocean, but with whom I constantly connect to discuss different events in our lives, although we inevitably end up talking about tango.

We both had a similar introduction to tango. We are both Argentines who were brought up in Baby-Boomer households where the predominant artists were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones instead of D’Arienzo or Troilo. We both left Argentina in our late 20s to get our Master’s degrees (different states in the US) without really paying any attention to the genre, until one night, thousands of miles and years apart, each one of us were listening to  a song we probably heard several times before when something suddenly clicked. Maybe it was just regular nostalgia, but this music, that once felt ancient and dated, resonated with all the frustrations and loneliness of our immigrant experience like nothing else ever did before or since. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were hooked.


Our Tango experience differed from most Argentines because it started outside Argentina in, of all places, the US. It’s not the fact that not everyone understands the lyrics, but it does start with the fact a few come into it with the lens of years of watching or practicing ballroom tango, which is as close to Argentine tango as figure skating is to ballet. If that were not enough, with the distortion of distance, some people here resort to YouTube videos in order to imitate that spectacular step sequence they saw in a tango show in Buenos Aires (which was choreographed for foreign audiences). Moreover, some of the great traveling Argentine teachers who come here are encouraged to spend their rime teaching as many steps as possible. Steps, steps, steps, steps; as if tango was nothing more than a coordinated dance routine, where acrobatics is the equivalent of technique. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification since there are also some genuine “tangueros” here, but you get the point. What is exactly the same in every milonga around the world is the oxymoron of a relaxed atmosphere while drinking with friends, coupled with a scrupulous scrutiny of other’s technique, love life, and whatnots.

So, what is Real Tango*? What beginners and outsiders have in common is that the former will give you a meticulous definition, and the latter a confused one, but both will be ultimately wrong. Advanced dancers will usually say one word: ”Uf… “ and switch to a different topic (within tango, of course).

What everyone feels in tango is that bliss, that adrenaline filled dance that ends with a strong connection with the other person, and although you probably won’t remember what steps you performed, you will remember that dance; and believe you me, that feeling has such a high intensity that it will shake you to your core and you will mistake it with love, passion, and anything and everything that feels worthy and powerful. It will create a hole that cannot be filled with anything else and you will look to repeat that feeling, which as technique improves, it becomes more scarce but more intense too, and you will spare no money for classes, no distance will be too far to find a decent partner, and sleep will become an overrated commodity. In other words, you will become a tango junkie. It happened to Alejandro, and now that tango occupies a major part of his life he is becoming a recognizable character in some European tango cities. It happened to me, although this addictive circle full of happiness and bad habits was broken by the most wonderful person on earth, a tango-heathen who is now my wife, who was the only person capable of filling that hole I had in me, which now I realize was only uncovered, but not created, by tango. And if you were wondering, this effect also happens to these few miscarried US tango dancers as well, although every time it happens it sends them marching double time towards their mecca of unlimited cool tango moves.

Yet, they are mistaken. That’s the conclusion both Alejandro and I reached, after spending our obliged time learning “steps to impress”, as we both later understood that tango is not about the show.

For me, tango became an emotional outlet, a psychologist to whom I withhold no secret and hid no vulnerability, where without words I offered every 3 minute partner a simple proposal: “I will give myself entirely to this moment with no regards to where the song will take me physically or emotionally, come with me.”  I can remember every time someone accepted wholeheartedly. Steps never mattered, because it was never about trying to amaze people on the sidelines who will never be able to guess what happened in that dance. It’s not about anything you are trying to express or communicate, as your partner will probably never guess what’s going on inside your head (unless you are trying to be creepy) and if there’s anything you are trying to say, it will probably interfere with the dance. The “tango high” is all about that physical and emotional un-choreographed synch which is built on both absolute trust and absolute abandon.


Still, I wanted validation, and what I got from my friend was an article he wrote that was published in a tango magazine that was almost, but not exactly, entirely unlike my definition. The following is his article:

“What is tango? I was asked during a radio interview in Switzerland. And I stayed there… without being able to say anything. Because saying that tango is a just a feeling or passion would be the most unfair thing I could have said. In the end I don’t even remember what I said. But then I wondered why I couldn’t say anything, and I concluded that not answering was much better than saying something empty. I concluded that I couldn’t say anything because I just can’t summarize in a sentence or two what tango means to me. And now, alone, I ask myself the same question…

Tango is the shelter I find from a system that imprisons almost everyone, where to engage you have to follow exactly what you have been taught since your childhood. It is the escape from the stress produced by that system, where my mind can finally disconnect and think only about feeling and producing passions.

Tango is the legacy of the masters, who left us so much by just following their vocation. It’s that internal struggle between D’Arienzo and Di Sarli, which shows two sides of me, very different but equally vehement. It’s that violin solo put by Pugliese from time to time that gives me goosebumps.

Tango is her, the woman to whom I taught the dance. To whom one day I couldn’t teach anymore and with whom I started to grow. The woman who marked me for life, and who will be always remembered every time I hear Poema. The woman who one day, after splitting because of differences, said to me: thanks for giving me tango.

Tango is them, the boys, who share what I feel but who don’t know how to express it other than with a lápiz or a parada. The wizards who draw, and those who try but still enjoy. Those who constantly come with stories that are woven between tanda and cortina. Those who laugh while dancing, and those who suffer when listening the lyrics, and those who seduce and are driven by feelings.

Tango is my homeland, which I miss so much, but to which I can’t return because it has betrayed us so many times. The city I try to come back from time to time to reduce the nostalgia. The land by which I try to be worthy emissary, wasting no opportunity to hold the blue and white high.

But above all this, for me tango is that insatiable quest for harmony. A search that sometimes forces me to travel because I can’t find what I’m looking for where I live. Harmony that seems to come across in that tanda for which I’ll smile in the coming weeks. It is the search for that woman, who still does not come into sight, the woman I’ve searched for my entire life and who seems to hide between giro and adorno in a remote milonga somewhere in the world I haven’t visited yet. That woman with the sublime embrace that I haven’t felt just yet, but which I would recognize immediately, for I would have finally found the harmony that I pursue”

So even though we started our tango journey in the path of “exported tango”, I know we are both starting to understand it as if we would have studied in Buenos Aires. Because when you find yourself immersed so deep you neither know nor care which way is up, you don’t need to follow someone else’s definition of tango, you’ve made it your own. (Unless, of course, you still think it’s about steps).


milonga san telmo

(*) Real Tango©, as observed and approved exlusively by the legitimate, quasi-independent and virtually irreconcilable, pontific milongas of San Telmo, Almagro, Uquiza, et al; and, under no exception, prohibited from copying, reproducing, modifying, distributing, displaying, performing, or be merely stated or implied, without written consent, outside the boundaries of formerly mentioned sacred entities. Amen.

Tango: The Forgotten Argentine Passion


Our guest post today is written by Alex Vidal, an Argentine tango enthusiast who, despite the short time he has been involved in the tango scene, has already begun to make a huge impact, having his own shows – both singing AND dancing.  Here, he gives us an insider’s view of what tango means to some, what it should mean to many, and most especially, the place it should have in Argentine, and probably world, culture.  I’m sure he’ll be delighted to respond where you can see him sing or dance, if you leave a comment!

When trying to figure out where to begin talking about this, I endlessly perused many articles describing the origins of tango, it’s peculiarities, musical form, dance history, how it become a huge success during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in Argentina thanks to the advent of radio and such, and finally decided  not to summarize the history of tango in a nutshell but rather tell you about it from a different perspective.

Tango is a passionate form of art: it expresses emotion, sorrow, and evokes deep feelings. When sung, the music, the beautiful poetry in the lyrics, and the singer’s expression can have a huge impact on the listener, either because of the sheer beauty of the piece by itself or the reminiscence of evoked past experiences.

Dancing a tango is also a unique experience: there is no dance in the world that can connect two people the way tango does. It is an extremely sensual dance, an implicit wooing that demands both giving in to your dance partner and, at the same time, showing your worth to him or her as a dancer.


A great video of Carlos Gavito, one of many Tango dance legends, can be seen here.


Having enjoyed its golden age a bit over sixty years ago, tango nowadays struggles to stay alive. There is very little air time for tango on radios or television, and the politicians only devote themselves to Tango when it serves the proper tourism-related purpose. This is the main reason behind non-thriving Tango artists and lack of interest from the Argentinean population itself. The art still survives though, mainly in the form of milongas, a type of social gathering where Tango-lovers assist to dance to the music of treasured recordings, listen to good music, have a good meal or just hang out with friends. The milongas, once the most popular social event in Buenos Aires, date from the time when Tango was the undisputed king and many tango bands (usually called “orquesta tipica”) played live music to the delight of everyone present. The recordings played nowadays in a typical milonga are almost entirely those left by those popular Tango orchestras of yore. However, every once in a while, a live tango orchestra performs in a milonga, stirring up memories from the ‘good old days’.

Contemporary Tango artists mainly survive thanks to the tango-for-export concept: carefully produced and choreographed tango shows that tour all over the world, usually performing with live orchestras and professional dancers and singers. Consecrated Tango dance masters also tour, teaching seminars and exhibiting their talents in world milongas. For a very long time this has been the best way to earn a living as a Tango artist. And, for all we know, it will continue to be so until Argentinean authorities decide to assign Tango the place it deserves in the country’s cultural agenda.

But Tango is not all about the music. It is a proven fact that tango is beneficial for your health: It increases testosterone levels, concentration, coordination and stability. It has also proven to be very effective as a complementary treatment for patients with mild or severe dysfunctions of the nervous system.


It all comes down to your own taste, but let me assure you that once tango enters your life you become addicted to it. It took me almost thirty-four years to truly discover what Tango can give you, so it’s never too late to start. I’ve been dancing tango for almost four years now, and also been singing for a year, so I can say I’ve truly become a Tango junkie.

Tango was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009 so it might strike you as odd that Argentina is still paying so little attention to its own child. Tango is admired and respected worldwide. Maybe it’s time the folks at home did the same.

Urban Planning for Gypsies*

Pruett-Igoe - social housing being demolished

Whenever I hear the words “sociology” and “science” used in the same sentence, I know that I am about to be sucked into an argument.  The sticking point here is what, exactly constitutes science, and what makes someone a scientist.

If you ask a sociologist, they will say that sociology is a science, just like physics.  If you ask a physicist, they will ask you what the sociologist was smoking when he made that statement.  You see, the physicist knows that science is built by hypothesis and logic, but is only validated through empirical verification. A sociologist, on the other hand, might say that the hypothesis and the theory are enough (I say might, because some sociologists are true to the scientific method, and I don’t want to generalize excessively).

There are both practical and philosophical reasons for the sociologists’ position.  Practical, in the sense that doing science with large groups of people can be difficult, and is understandable to a certain degree.  The philosophical is more insidious, as it involves the sociologists’ belief that as a scientist his theories are valid, and can be built upon with no experimental confirmation, which leads to houses of cards that seem incredible (through the lens of observation of actual human behavior) to anyone but another sociologist.

Hence, the title of this post, oxymoronic as it is.


I don’t really mean to imply that all sociologists are pseudoscientists, of course.  Many of them do keep their scientific training in mind and don’t fall into the trap of believing that well-constructed philosophy is in any way related to good science.  The bad ones, of course, become social engineers.

Social Engineers seem to commit the classic logical error of taking something particular and generalizing it.  The upside is that when they present a solution to this “problem”, they immediately have a compelling argument that shows that what they are proposing is important.  Typically however, social engineers (especially amateur ones) create more problems than they solve, simply by trying to do good.  Paving stones on the road to hell…

the reality of social engineers

They spend all their time trying to cure symptoms as opposed to studying the numbers and making decisions based on what is really going on, and seem to think that a small amount of sacrifice from everyone seems to be justified, if that can keep an individual or small group from suffering a little bit more.  Essentially, they are against any form of privilege and rile at anyone enjoying life when others can’t.  They seem to feel that we all have to be in the same boat – despite the fact that history teaches us that that’s not the case.  When, I ask of them, has everyone really been in the same boat?

prohibition - most people didn't want it

So we end up with things like Prohibition, Political Correctness, the Hays Code, Library book banning, gender/race quotas in companies and universities, protests against genetically modified foods, and countless others.  My favorite example is how many of the people involved in the anti-tobacco movement seem to be the same people pushing for the legalization of marijuana – despite the fact that a lot of the pulmonary health issues are the same!

To summarize, Social Engineering seems to be all about using small data sets to make generalizations about the whole of society, and to use anecdotal evidence (as opposed to statistically relevant evidence) and moral outrage when challenged.  Then, using nothing but these arguments, they force everyone into doing what they want (helmets on $%&!! motorcycles, for christs sake!) Seeing the state of the world, it seems to be a surprisingly effective way of doing things…

To quote longtime Road and Track Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis:

Social Engineering is to Engineering what Social Disease is to disease.  Both involve he hypocritical screwing of other people.

Yep, that’s precisely it.  Sad that we still have to say it twenty years after he did!

*MAJOR Brownie points if you can tell me where this phrase came from initially –  book and author.

Meshing with the 1001 Movies List


Lists are popular.  People like them.

Blogs (including this one) are full of lists.  Top ten this, ten best that, ten worst hat experiences*, etc.  So are websites, sports shows, books and Cosmopolitan.  In fact, though there’s no list included in this particular post, it is closely related to one, which is also a book.

Those who’ve followed me over from my venerable Livejournal know that I’ve been watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die in chronological order.  This is driven more by curiosity regarding something I didn’t know all that much about (cinema history) than true obsession regarding the field (which is, in my experience, how polymaths do things).  I don’t watch one a day, or one a week, or anything like that, but, on occasion, I watch one, and have made a decent dent in the list.

I used to blog about it on the LJ, but the theme fits Classically Educated much better than what is, in essence, a writer’s blog.  So, as from today, I’m moving them here.

Classically Educated joins the party at my current progress level, which means that classics such as Metropolis, Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation (possibly the most shocking -actually laughably shocking, as I laughed in disbelief almost all the way through the second half-movie to modern sensibilities that I’ve seen so far, but also a landmark in film technology and one that brought the medium new maturity) have already been discussed.  Anyone who’d like to have a look can go here.

Today’s movie is not the ideal starter, but that’s never stopped us before, so here goes!

Meshes Key

Meshes of the Afternoon is an experimental film from 1943, and a surreal one, to boot, so it’s really only lovable for people who either fancy themselves connoisseurs of the avant-garde or serious students of film history.  It’s a very short piece, focusing on a dream sequence with certain events repeated to reinforce their significance.  A woman walks into a house, sits on a chair, falls asleep, and then reviews the scene various times, with alterations and a sinister figure.  Then, the dream and reality kind of merge, leaving one to wonder what is real and what isn’t.

To the educated layman’s eye, the film is not particularly successful as entertainment, but it does manage to convey the “dream on film” effect it was aiming for and, as such, is worth investing 14 minutes on, if only just to have an opinion on it if it ever comes up.

But I would warn you to avoid going overboard if you find yourself discussing this one with either a film historian or a psychologist.  Non-specialists will have a hard time keeping up with specialists on any film that Maya Deren created, and this one, despite seeming superficially accessible, is no exception.

maya deren

Of course, one can always take the engineer’s approach to impenetrable artsiness and say that it’s just useless navel-gazing, but that would come under the heading of tweaking obsessive people, and we’d agreed that wasn’t a great idea.

*Which immediately begets the question “Is there such a thing as a good hat experience?”  Feel free to discuss in comments!

New kid on the Block

bksep 041

Being a global citizen is emphatically not an exclusively Western thing, particularly over the past few decades, where India and especially China have become huge drivers of the world’s population and economy.  Today’s guest writer, Vero Nica, spent a long time in China.  Unlike most Westerners who visit China, she wasn’t “just looking”, so to speak – she moved there, and had to work to make ends meet.  As you can imagine, she has amassed a wealth of amazing stories and insights and, better still, has agreed to share some of them with us.  Enjoy!

I arrived in Beijing in November 2006, with a job as an English teacher. I had the right qualifications for the job. Mainly, I looked foreign. This leads us to an interesting insight into the imagery of the Chinese population: all foreigners speak English. Therefore, the main characteristic needed to teach English at that time was to look foreign. Nationality, education and actual level of English were rather distant second considerations. However, I hear that has changed now, as you are expected to have a passport from an English-speaking country – and preferably, look foreign.

I felt in a different world. I had studied Chinese for a year, but quickly realized it was nowhere near enough the level I thought it was (particularly my pronunciation of the infamous 5 tones). It was surprising, though, how far the words “this”, “that”, “thank you” and “how much is it?” took me those first few weeks. Anyway, the first few days I didn’t explore much, as I was adjusting to the time zone, the college (a joint Canadian-Chinese venture), the job, the apartment, etc. I did, however, need to eat and clean the apartment, so I ventured out to get the necessary supplies.

The staff at the school had provided teachers with a computer-generated map to a supermarket catering to foreigners (meaning, expensive imported stuff, but in a language you could actually understand), and I headed that way. It was just two blocks away, but when I got to the first corner, I found a biggish sort of obstacle. It was the meeting of two two-way streets, and was fairly busy by my standards.

I stood there waiting for the light, and started to cross. And I was surprised to see that cars did not seem to respect the traffic light a whole lot. I made  to the other side in one piece, but the episode left me confused. A bit of background is in order here, I think.


I have lived most of my life in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Why is this important? Well, I am completely used to being on the receiving end of aggressive driving and having drivers treat traffic lights, speed limit and driving regulations as suggestions, as opposed to something that actually needs to be respected*. Still, cars can only advance – in any direction – when the light is green (with the exception of the usual homicidal/suicidal rascal who goes on ahead regardless of said traffic lights, other cars/pedestrians and anything else that might prevent them from gaining those precious thirty seconds). If you are big into survival skills, I do advise a trip to downtown Buenos Aires during rush hour. For the complete ninja experience, try a busy crossing with no traffic light. I have been to other places where driving rules are different, but they weren’t as notorious since drivers STOP for pedestrians. But I digress.

After a few more tries, I figured it out. There WAS a traffic light, and it worked,and people respected it, but traffic seemed to pour continuously into the street. Why? Well, I discovered that cars/motorcycles/mopeds/buses/etc. can always turn right, without having to wait for the traffic light, as do bicycles. At the same time, when the traffic light was green, oncoming traffic could turn left onto the street I was trying to cross.  None of this is legal where I come from, and made for some interesting/crowded moments, and made me feel like an owl every time I stepped off the sidewalk.


Chinese drivers have a few saving graces, though: they don’t drive fast, and they usually signal their actions. Not only with their lights. If they drive into the “turn” lane, they will turn. This, of course, is radically different from my native country, and initially added to the confusion.

The important thing is not to panic, grab your towel, do as the Romans do, and submerge yourself in the challenge (and the smog, as it was) of opening your mind.

*I am usually a pedestrian or obnoxious cyclist. I do turn into a wilder beast behind the steering wheel.

Documentaries – Decline and Fall?

Mystery Image

Normally, I am very upbeat about market forces and their effect on society.  The benefits of allowing the market to define stuff generally results in a net improvement of most everything over time.  For every unintended side effect, we are given ten products or services that make our lives better or easier in some way, or which allow us to concentrate on things that make us happy, as opposed to, for example, peeling potatoes.

Even consumer-driven TV, which is generally set up for audiences with about the intelligence of a hamster has never been an issue for me.  I watch very little TV other than sports, so I’m happy that the drooling masses are cooped up in their houses game shows and Big Brother instead of clogging the streets or committing violent crime.   Or worse, trying to think… that never goes well.  So the boob-tube serves a purpose.


But, sometimes, one is hoisted by his own petard, and suffers karmic vengeance.  While generalizing about TV, I was once under the smug impression that the documentary channels stuck somewhere in the 400s of the cable system were free from that particular plague.  It used to be that the media companies behind them had seemed to simply stick them there, hoping to get an intellectual audience in New York, and resigned themselves to making small profits from that pat of their programming.  Documentaries are cheap to film, as you don’t need to spend money on big stars, so even a small advertising investment is enough to keep the channels viable.

Unfortunately, there came a time in the mid 2000s when someone realized that people will watch stuff with a documentary format if you dumb it down enough.  Reality TV had proved popular enough to have a long run on network TV, just imagine what it could do for the History Channel!  And from there to the current programming grid was a slippery slope.  I did an experiment last night: of the ten documentary channels on my TV grid, only one was showing something that a reasonably bright 10-year old wouldn’t have shut off in disgust.  The rest were showing series about pet misbehavior, celebrity ghost stories, prisoners abroad, crime stories and psychic children.  I do enjoy the show about restoring stuff, but I have to admit it counts as entertainment more than documentary films.

So, out of a grid of ten channels, precisely one – Discovery Civilization – was showing a program actually aimed at teaching something: Time Life Lost Civilizations – a show nearly 20 years old (the Mesopotamia chapter, BTW, is brilliant, balancing the religious and historical themes very well).

Ouch.  Seems like teaching intellectually stimulating programming on TV has gone the way of the dodo.

Of course, documentary film has anything but a pristine, unblemished history (wikipedia entry here).  From its very early origins, it has had its issues.  Perhaps the first major documentary, Nanook of the North, was also one of the the first fictionalized documentaries.  It tells 1920s audiences about the life of an Inuit family in northern Canada.  Sadly, the film doesn’t reflect the true life of those families at the time, but is, instead an idealized picture of how it would have looked decades earlier – but that isn’t explained to the viewers at any time.  In one famous incident, Nanook is shown hunting with a seal with a harpoon, which nearly gets him killed.  What filmmaker Flaherty neglects to mention, however, is that, in real life, Nanook would have done what any sensible person in the twenties would have done: shot the thing with a rifle.


It got worse long before it got better.  Over the next twenty-five years, documentaries were generally used for two things: basic newsreels and propaganda.  While Battleship Potemkin is perhaps the best known early Soviet propaganda film, straight documentaries – as opposed to historical reenactments – were also a staple of the state controlled cinema industry.

But even the Soviets took a back seat when it came to showing off their ideology in a chilling, powerful way.  The title of most alarming documentary has to go to Triumph of the Will.   Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker (as can also be seen in her other masterpiece, Olympia), but she was in the pay of Hitler’s government, which meant that her talents were used to glorify the Aryan race (although Olympia, surprisingly, hero-worships Jesse Owens, but that is a story for another post).  The images in Triumph are some of the most powerful I have ever seen on film, and the scene with the massed party at night is probably one of the most disturbing things ever committed to celluloid (yes, I know there are more graphic images elsewhere – but if you think it through, the death of millions trumps most anything else).

triumphofthewill-thelongwalk1 Triumph_of_the_Will_-_Night_footage_(1)

This use of documentary film is still alive and well today.  The documentary format is a great platform to push an extreme ideology in a way that, to the uncritical portion of an audience, makes it seem legitimate.  Super Size Me, for example, is based on an extreme, unrealistic premise – and yet was widely hailed as a serious film as opposed to what it was, a cynical publicity stunt aimed squarely at one particular company.  Anything by Michael Moore also uses the format, very intelligently, to lend credibility to ideology.  Modern examples abound.

In fact, it may be impossible to present anything in a way that completely avoids bias, or giving credence to one theory over another, but I think what makes a documentary worthwhile in my book is to at least make the effort, although in critical documentary that may become difficult.

To my mind, the golden era of documentaries started at some point in the sixties, and is only starting to end today, falling to commercial pressure and celebrity, as well as the shining beacons of commercially successful documentaries that are just opinion wrapped in facts that support it, ignoring anything inconvenient.

Don’t get me wrong – critical documentary can be very thought provoking and intellectually stimulating (I can’t recommend Visions of Space enough, the film about Mies van der Rohe is simply brilliant), but that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which we are heading.

Of course, all is not remotely lost.  Despite the impression one gets when looking at the Oscar-nominated documentaries, there are still great documentaries being created all over the world, and if you have access to BBC or PBS, you will probably still get them on TV (we only get BBC news in Argentina, and no PBS).  But for the rest of us, it takes an internet trawl to locate the good stuff.

I recently found a documentary which shows the life of the wildlife that has adapted itself to life in Japanese rice paddies, and the farmer’s planting cycle.  Simply fascinating – but ten years old.

Still, I know there are newer gems out there, too.  It’s just a question of looking for the.

Also, there are bonus points for anyone who can tell me where the lead image came from…  That has to count for something, right?

Aerobics for My Brain

Open Road Canada

Today’s entry continues our series of guest blogs, and is perhaps the one (so far), that best summarizes what this site is all about.  Our guest today, Ace Lightning is a woman of many, many talents (as the piece itself will hint), having been everything from a Wiccan priestess to a broadcast engineer – which is a scope that is impressive even by the standards of this blog!  It tells of a familiar feeling for world travelers, and one that never gets old.  Enjoy!


My second language, after English, is Spanish, with French a very poor third (some random phrases I picked up when I worked at UN Radio – they inexplicably placed me in a French-speaking studio – and culinary terms). I live in the New York metropolitan area, and it’s easy to reach southeastern Canada from here. I had been to the cities of Montréal and Québec, and enjoyed both greatly. In Québec, I had occasionally had to resort to my fractured French, but as soon as I mentioned that I was American, not Anglophone Canadian, everything was all right.

Welcome to Quebec

When my son was in his early teens, we decided to take a family vacation along the St. Lawrence River. Neither my husband nor our son speaks a word of French, although we all speak Spanish. I was hoping I’d be able to see the Northern Lights (an obsession of mine); my son wanted to see moose in the Parc Gaspésie; and my husband was interested in seeing what Canada was like outside of the major cities. We flew into Montréal, rented a car and drove to Québec, then drove out along the river, staying overnight in a different place each night. Our accommodations ranged from a rather nice hotel in Montréal, to a rustic motel in Rimouski that had a door which opened out directly onto the beach of the river. The further away from the major cities we got, the less English people spoke; I soon found myself having to do most of the communicating. I had to teach the menfolk a few phrases, such as “Je suis Américain“, “Je ne parle pas français“, and “Où sont les toilettes?” I also watched French TV in our hotel rooms – usually MéteoMedia, the Canadian weather channel. Soon I was able to order meals for three people, buy petrol, and ask for (and even occasionally understand) driving directions. Everywhere we stopped, one of us would ask, “Do you speak English?”, and someone would reply “A leetle beet!”… which turned out to be the extent of their English. It was often frustrating, but also fun. (My husband and son just found it frustrating, although my son was often amused as well.)

We stopped in Cap-Chat, because I was especially interested in Éole – a huge vertical-shaft wind-powered generating plant, built as a “proof of concept”. I was immensely fascinated and impressed by the simplicity of its engineering. The tours were only given in French, and I wished I was able to ask more questions, but I still learned a lot. (Note: Éole is no longer in operation, although the structure is still there; the site is now an education center concerning wind-powered and other alternative sources of electricity.)

eole cap chat

We went all the way out to Gaspé, stayed for two days, and drove back to Montréal. I insisted on stopping at Éole again – this time they found someone who could describe some of the machinery in English. We also visited the site of an old copper mine, which had been made into a historical center, although we didn’t have time to take the tour of the mine itself. We made our way back to Montréal and flew home to New Jersey.

A day or two after we got home, I was describing this adventure to a friend, who said, “That must have been awful! Weren’t you terrified, being in a completely unfamiliar place, and forced to try to communicate in a language you barely know?” I said that, on the contrary, it had been positively exhilarating – I described it as being “like aerobics for my brain”. My friend couldn’t grok that at all; my mere description of the experience gave him a panic attack. Then I described it to another friend, a White Russian who had been raised in Paris and spoke something like 103 languages. He grinned and said, “Oh, yes, that’s always so much fun! But there aren’t many places where I can’t make myself understood.”

Next time, I want to try something really difficult, like trying to find my way around in Finland or China.