Sunday, December 7, 2008
I know, you have all missed seeing my lovely face and glowing teeth. So I thought I would appease the masses (and practice some humility) by posting a picture. No, those black spots (which only accentuate the ivory white of my beautiful teeth anyway) are not rotting cavities, though with the amount of sugar I have been consuming, that's not an entirely unlikley proposal. The black is mattak, a favorite edible (questionably, in my opinion) of most any Greenlandic child. What is this lovely mattak?, you may be wondering. Mattak is the raw outer layer of fat and inner layer of skin on a whale - this particular dental disaster is narwhal stuck between my teeth.
How did I get narwhal stuck between my teeth? Funny story (and only funny because it ended happily, when I found the floss). About a month ago, a bit bored with life in Ilulissat and anxious to experience a less urban part of Greenland before I departed for warmer places, I pursued a trip to Uummannaq. Only an hour's
plane/helicopter ride, Uummannaq is one bay, one peninsula, one glacial ford or 28 days (on the icecap) by dogsled north of Ilulissat, the town where I was living. And somehow those geographical distances have crafted a town that to me felt very different from the bustle and drive of a rapidly developing Ilulissat. In fact, as I sat in the airport at the ned of my seven day trip, awaiting my flight home again, I was a bit regretful, wishing I could stay in this stunningly beautiful and fairly laid back seaside, mountainside town. As the helicopter landed, I thought: 'Hmm, I didn't think the shore here was quite so rocky, and how odd that it says Uummannaq on the airport sign (seriously, Kendell?) and how did the baggage collector from the
Uummannaq airport get to this airport so quickly?'. Right. It actually took a full 5 minutes, disebarking form teh helicopter and walking into an airport that looked exactly like the one we had just left (a single room with 4 tables and 2 chairs) for me to realize that indeed, it was the airport we had just left. I grabbed my bag and a ticket for the next scheduled flight (3 days later) and headed back
I stopped first at the Uummannaq Children's Home, a remarkable foster home whose children experience everything form European vacations to music therapy to springtime dogsledding with local hunters (http://www.bhjumq.com/UK/index.htm). I had been staying across the road at the new 'Uummannaq Polar Institute' (UPI), which is run by Ann Andreasen, the director of the Children's Home, and her husband Ole Jorgen, 'Greenland's greatest living native explorer' (http://www.meltfactor.org/blog/?p=22). Ann, a Faroe Islander who moved to Uummannaq decades ago, and Ole Jorgen, a Nuumiaq (from Nuuk, capital of Greenland) live in a beautiful blue house that is packed with local art, narwhal tusks, music, always guests, always tea, always cholate and always tales of Artic adventure. Actually, my main purpose in coming to Uummannaq was to present Ann and Ole Jorgen with the project I was developing in Ilulissat, to help archive the work of all the foreign researchers and reporters who are constantly flowing through town. UPI, Ann and Ole Jorgen's brainchild, serves as a residence and homebase for researchers in Uummannaq who in return for this incredible hospitality try to include the children across the way in their research. Many give presentations or take a few lucky students out to study sites. I made pizza. And on the particular evening when that stunning photo was taken, I was actually going to the Children's home to make chocolate chip cookies.
But if you're from Greenland, chocolate chip cookies have NOTHING on mattak. So I deserted that plan and took a slice, hoping my gag reflex wouldn't, well, flex. Actually, narwhal mattak is not so bad - I'd had beluga a few times already. It is sprinkled with Aromat, a salty soup spice, and eaten in one-inch-square gridded chunks. You chew it for a while, but you can't actually masticate all of the fat (that's why it's gridded - the knife chews for you) so at some point, you just give up and swallow those bits whole. And then politley decline seconds, which no one minds because it means more for them.
The mattak was a pretty rare treat of traditional fare for the kids and anyone else in town who was lucky enough to procure a fresh piece of the afternoon's hunt. The narwhals had only just made it as far south as Uummannaq, fleeing the ice, and Uummannaq's hunters had killed 10 of their 79/year narwhal quota. Determined to see the flaying of one of these whales, I climbed from the shore across the hulls of three boats, docked and empty for teh night. Four hunters had pulled their kill up onto a thick, flat iceberg and had begun the process of peeling away its skin and blubber, extracting organs, dividing ribs and finally, chopping off the tusk that would fetch about $100/lb of weight.
(Jens Ole, on the right, is from the Children's Home. He and the hunter on the left killed this narwhal)
Completely engrossed, I was gripping the boat railing with my sealskin mittens when the captain turned on the light in the cabin. He waved, I waved, and we went back to what we were doing until he came out and invite me in. We stood at the window and I asked dozens of questions to this English-speaking fisherman and
hunter. He had not got a narwhal today, but was hoping for one within the week that the hunt would last. When interviewing anotehr hunter earlier that week, I had been told that climate change was not the problem or concern at all - quotas were the problem. According to him, the government was restricting his livelihood and making it impossible for him to live off of his traditional work. He now worked part-time as
a hunter and part-time at the Children's Home, which is, admittedly, a pretty good deal and a fantastic opportunity for the kids.
Karl, whose boat I had commandeered for spectating, dsagreed that quotas were a problem. He liked that the quotas guaranteed the sustainability of traditional resources and food, so that future generations could still feast on mattak. Such feasts, of mattak and smoked halibut, narwhal meat, reindeer stew, seal soup and all the other traditional foods, were rare and precious. In many of my interviews and conversations, I would ask people what Greenlanders were most concerned about, if not climate change (and ALWAYS it was not climate change). Access to traditional food was the most common answer. For one, it is too expensive - tourists eat more traditional food than locals do because people simply can't afford it. For another, people don't have the time anymore to do (or in the case of younger people, to learn) things like smoking their own fish.
Why are we so attached to food, taste? Why is it such an integral part of a culture, a community? I wondered these things as I flossed my teeth and wished, just a little bit, that I could have made the cookies instead.
Monday, December 1, 2008
I arrived here on … Wednesday, I think – just in time for an ex-pat Thanksgiving of pheasant and duck, shared with two great friends from Williams. I am staying on the mostly sanitary dorm room floor of the mostly-smells-like-a-hockey-locker-room dorm of the entirely wonderful William B. Bruce, Jr. You should remember his name – he’ll be a powerful man one day, though perhaps less successful once people find out he lived in a smelly dorm … William is doing another (after graduating from Williams) bachelors of economics here at Oxford (paid for by Williams College), along with our friend Martin, who is on his second masters and headed for a PhD (also paid for by Williams) at Oxford. So between oddly intellectual and sometimes overly economic bar-room conversations, we toast Williams, who buys our drinks regardless of who picks up the tab J Thanks, Williams!
I spent my first day in
After fending off the guilt and questioning for about 24 hours, I started to wonder about the culture of this place and what I was participating in and if I should participate and if it should feel weird or wrong or something. Yes, the thoughts were that rambling and confused. Walking through the street with my nose in the hair (and quite high in the air, when I wear my new boots – hehe), gazing into shops and thinking about evening plans and what to eat and what to buy, I started to really hate it. Everyone around me was doing the same thing – nose in the air, completely unaware of other people unless you happen to bump into them and step on their heel as you both rush down the sidewalk, to make your next appointment or just to get to the next thing, because that’s the point … I couldn’t handle the impersonality and self-centered pretension that seemed to be everywhere. That’s not to say that
And then I woke up this morning and had the best day ever and mostly decided that my life is about the best thing that could happen to me, which is pretty lucky because it happens to me ALL THE TIME. First of all, it was sunny and I got to bask in beautiful warm rays while waiting for my train to
Martin Palmer welcomed me into his office with a huge smile and hearty handshake. He introduced me first to the coffin in the corner, then to the rolling, green grounds that have been distracting and enchanting everyone who approaches that window since the 1770’s, when the estate was built. Fantastic. (The coffin is from an eco-coffins project in
‘Cup of tea? Earl Grey? Milk and sugar?’
‘That would be fantastic,’ I answer, astonished that he offered the one thing that always reminds me of England and my parents, who drink Earl Grey every evening after dinner.
We sit down at an old wooden table and Mr. Palmer starts asking me questions about my grant and why I am doing it and where I am going with it and many other things that are difficult for me to answer, but interesting to ponder and somehow safe to wonder aloud in the presence of his patience. Eventually, I stop talking and hear more about ARC, which is truly a fantastic organization. I thought everything was fantastic. In fact, I think he might have begun to think me disingenuous after I told him the grounds, the conversation, the organization, the biscuits, the tea, and the website, were all fantastic. If anyone has other words of praise you could lend me, I could use some variety in my excited vocabulary.
Basically, ARC’s mission is to facilitate and mediate partnerships between faith communities and the environmental movement. But beyond the basics, they do A LOT more [check out their fantastic website at www.arcworld.org], for which I am currently completely infatuated with them.
‘Climate change is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem,’ Mr. Palmer proposed. ‘Climate change is a product of greed and consumerism, the assumptions that the planet is infinite and happiness is material.’
BING! Putting words to my confused experience at
‘The paradigm that produces climate change also produces poverty and inequality, it endangers species and it rips the planet apart.’
So, ARC is trying to imagine and create a different reality and a different paradigm, in which people learn to value not material wealth, but more modest contentment, because the earth isn’t infinite and ‘development’ and ‘progress’ as we know them are not sustainable. Why is religion the place to do this?
“Ultimately, the environmental crisis is a crisis of the mind. And likewise, appropriate development is ultimately an appropriate development of the mind. We see, do, and are what we think, and what we think is shaped by our cultures, faiths, and beliefs. This is why one of the more extraordinary (hey! They like this word too!) movements of the past few decades began to take shape. For if the information of the environmentalists needed a framework of values and beliefs to make it useful, then where better to turn for allies than to the original multinationals, the largest international groupings and networks of people? Why not turn to the major religions of the world?” (Palmer and Finley, ‘Faith in conservation. Yes, a book he gave me today).
And that is only part of why I twiddled and tweeted out of the 18th century estate with unquenchable smiles. In two hours of talking, Mr. Palmer filled my head with new ideas, my research with new directions (not the least of which is contacts in
Now I am back at
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
What do you see? by Black Fire
You can go as far as any road
that you take how can you get anywhere
if you stand in your own way
take it for what you can
you take for granted what you don’t understand
what do you see?
and we find between these differences there's a very thin line
we see, what we were looking for was right in front of our eyes
you got to hold onto what you might lose learn what's not yet forgotten
when you know where you're from it's easier to find where you're going
it's your choice to carry on it's a part of who you are
sometimes we need to live a little more than we dream
leave this world a better place of unity
what do you see?
‘What does he mean when he says ‘see’? Does he mean see with your eyes? Or notice? Why is it important to do more than just see with your eyes, to think about things a bit?’ I begin, eager to see how the girls will react. They react in the same way you might expect a dieter to react to low-sugar, low-carb, organic, 7-grams-of-protein-and-no-fat coffee cake bar: a slightly sarcastic, you-expected-us-to-like-this, blank stare. They react as you might expect thirteen-year-olds to react to critically-engaged academic questions. Sigh.
‘Ok. What about this line, here,’ I reread the text, ‘What does it mean to ‘take something for granted’? What are some things that you think visitors to this place take for granted? What do you take for granted – perhaps something that your grandparents may not have had?’ They pitch I-don’t-knows’ and more blank stares: strike two for me.
‘Hmmm,’ I hum the m’s into a pause. Maybe today won’t be any different from every other day with this class. I plug on, a bit deflated. ‘What about when he says ‘Hold onto what you might lose’ and ‘learn what’s not yet forgotten’? What does he mean? What is the thing ‘you might lose’? History? Culture?’
‘I think he’s talking about culture,’ Levina answers. Whoa. For real? Thank you Levina!!
‘Ok,’ I push, after a long silence and some eye-rolling from Rosa, who is feigning sleep, her head on the desk. ‘Is this true in Ilulissat too? Do you need to hold onto culture? How do you do it?’
‘By talking. With grandparents or families. We have to remember,’ answers Parnaq, with some additions from Rosanguaq, who has suddenly decided that our conversation is actually more interesting than tracing a circle on the desk with her pen.
‘OK, so do you talk with your families about this? How do you learn about history and culture?’ I stumble a bit in excitement and momentary distraction from the stuffed birds I’ve just noticed in the cases behind Parnaq. Apparently the school AV room is also a natural history museum? And is also a Socratic seminar where they exile the American trying to do indigenous empowerment with 13-year-olds who seem (only seem!) to care more about dark eyeliner than about Inuit identity.
‘No’, they answer (to that question I asked in the last paragraph, before I went off on that tangential description). ‘We don’t talk about it at home. Sometimes in school. We can learn it from history books, sometimes.’
This seems a tragedy, for these Inuit kids to be learning about their cultural heritage from history books that probably give limited, biased and even racist information. Definitely a tragedy. But then think about it. When was the last time my family sat around the dinner table and discussed our Irish heritage or American culture? I don’t know. Maybe the problem here is my assumption that ‘talking about it’ is how kids learn about their heritage. You don’t talk about culture to learn it. You watch it, you experience it, you grow up with it, in it … It is ‘What you see’. (And anyways, I realize, this school doesn’t have any books. So that text written by some European trader in the 18th century and tragically pawned off on Inuit kids as cultural history doesn’t actually exist for my students. Phew, tragedy averted. Oh wait … no books?)
‘OK’, I hesitate a bit, aware that I am wavering on an academic cliff and though I’m ready to leap off onto some deep and important question that will make their minds and our conversation soar, I know that the wrong step will send me tumbling and crashing into a valley of ruthlessly disengaged, too-cool-for-school teenagers. The setting doesn’t help: this windowless museum of a classroom just about emanates sleepiness. Can you blame these girls? They’ve been sitting in 1.5 hour-long classes since 8 am.
‘Alright, take out your notebooks, did you bring your notebooks? No, of course not. Ok, turn over that paper that I gave you with the lyrics on it. For the next ten minutes, write down what you see in Ilulissat. It can be a list of things you see with your eyes, or it can be a paragraph and it can be about an idea, something you can’t see, but that you notice. Think about the things that are important to Ilulissat, what makes Ilulissat different or special.’
I try to busy myself. Oh! I’ll read that Manifesto from the Black Fire website. OK, done. Hmmm. Maybe I should write about what I see in Ilulissat? That’s a good idea.
Children on sleds; dogs; fresh produce in the grocery store; snow; hills; icebergs; warm hats … The bell rings for our mid-class 5-minute break. I go to the library to see if we can try using a computer to play the song.
I return and the girls haven’t moved. ‘It’s your break – you can go out if you like.’ I try to encourage them, afraid that they think they have to stay because I haven’t dismissed them. No one moves. Fine with me. What am I gonna do during break but twiddle my thumbs or talk with the English-speaking students?
‘How were your vacations? What did you do?’ I ask, referring to last week’s autumn break.
‘Sleep. Watch movies,’ Rosa replies in her usual monotone, which becomes all the more monotone when it reverberates off the desk her head is still lying on. ‘No, I don’t know what movies I watched. They were boring. I played Sims on my computer.’
Tragic or typical? These girls live in a beautiful town, surrounded by snow-covered mountains to the east, and iceberg-dotted ocean to the west. And they’re bored?! And they sleep and watch movies?! Oh wait, they are thirteen. And they live in a tiny town. And there is no mall. What would any 13-year-old girl do? It is tempting to pity them as victims of Westernization. But pity and victimization are as bad as ‘Westernization’ itself, in my opinion. I’m also tempted to say that we need to stop imposing their indigenous identity on them, expecting them to do the things that their ancestors did for centuries, from walking in the mountains to dog-sledging, to sealskin-cleaning and craftwork. That’s not to say that this whole situation isn’t really fucked up, that Western culture hasn’t bulldozed some very beautiful customs here. It is to say: it is not for me to feel nostalgic about the culture lost, it is not for me to judge, with my pity or my efforts to talk about cultural traditions, what is better: now or then, and it’s not for me to try to balance the two. Apparently it is for me to try to get these girls to think about all that.
We go to the computer lab, which is more 1990’s than it is ‘now’: a dozen ancient computers that actually can’t play sound. ‘It’s because we’re poor,’ Parnaq complains. ‘We’re not poor, the school is poor,’ Rosanguaq corrects. Odd, in a place with a 45% income tax rate, one would think that public services like schools would reflect the prosperity of the population. Anyways, the plan of listening to the music goes out the window. But we sit in a circle and conduct class in the lab, because at least it has a window … and no stuffed ducks to eavesdrop on us.
‘Dogs pooping,’ snickers Rosanguaq from her twirly chair. I laugh, the girls giggle. It’s funny, and true.
‘OK, you see dogs. They’re an important part of this place. Do you like the dogs - even though they poop?’
‘We love the dogs,’ Rosa shows some enthusiasm. She no longer has a table to lay her head on. So rather than sleep, she adapts to the new, more energizing classroom by racing and twirling around on her wheely chair. I move her to a chair sans wheels: she slumps. ‘There are too many dogs. There are more dogs than people. We should have less dogs.’ So much for excited Rosa.
‘I have six dogs. Well, my family does. My dad feeds them and everything, but he says they’re mine’ Levina offers.
‘I have a dog. And a cat and a fish’ – the only words I get out of quiet Bethina all afternoon. All but one of these girls has dogs. However, not one of them goes out dog-sledging, an essential Greenlandic tradition that makes travel and hunting possible even when everything is frozen over.
‘It’s too cold’
‘It’s boring,’ I’m reminded of David, my pant-splitting mountain guide, and his diatribe about modern kids who crave the stimulation of town over nature.
‘We don’t have time,’ Levina mumbles. No, they don’t have time. There are lots of things to do now, things that there weren’t to do fifty years ago. There are sports, school, and music, tv, clubs and computers. Then again, despite all of these things, they did have ‘boring’ vacations …
‘OK, no dog sledging. What else do you see, here in Ilulissat?’
‘People change,’ Levina pops in, as though this statement needs no explanation.
‘Wait, ok. What do you mean, Levina, that people change? How do they change? In what ways?’
‘Like our parents, they’re not educated. Because when they were young, you had to go to Denmark for an education. And they didn’t speak Danish, so they didn’t want to go. They stayed and they’re not educated.’
‘And is that different now, is it changing?’
‘A little, I guess.’ I can’t figure out if this is a good change or a bad change, and Levina seems a bit ambivalent about it too. Education is a good change, but it still means leaving Greenland and probably following a Danish curriculum, which places strain on families and traditions.
‘Stupid people.’ Parnaq scoffs, ‘They’re so selfish.’ I cannot get her to expand on this thought. But I do offer that I am very impressed by them, that I don’t believe 13-year-old American girls would equate stupidity and selfishness, that selfishness is in some ways part of our culture. I was a ridiculously selfish 13-year-old. But here, this idea that selfishness is bad and stupid – that’s a bit un-Western, no? The Western sheen on this Greenlandic town dulls as our conversation continues.
‘Happy old Greenlanders,’ Rosanguaq reads from her list of what she sees.
‘Do you think old Greenlanders are happy?’ I push them.
‘No. They miss Greenlandic food. They’re only happy when they have Greenlandic food … and when they’re drunk.’ More giggles. More tragedy.
‘Not many young people that go out and hunt,’ Yes, Rosa! You are awake and you are thinking! I knew it! ‘Kids would rather drink, do drugs, sports, go to the club (there is one) … they want to do other things, not hunting.’
But why? I ask aloud and get little response. The girls maintain that this decline of hunters is bad, that more young people should go out hunting (mostly because ‘it tastes good,’ but also because it is an important part of their culture – both the acts of hunting and of eating the food hunted). The girls don’t, however, seem to want to take any responsibility for changing this pattern – by learning to hunt or going out on sledges. I wonder if it is partly a gender thing? They may not take responsibility, but at least they are thinking about it and about the challenges of balancing modernization and tradition.
‘I THINK THAT TOURISTS ARE MORE WELCOME IN GREENLAND THAN GREENLANDERS.’ I write this sentence in full on my paper as I try to engage all the girls in a discussion of this jolting piece of Ilulissat that Parnaq notices.
It’s expensive, they explain. Tourists eat more Greenlandic food than we do, because we can’t afford it. It’s true, given the cost of living up here. Greenlanders get paid shit, and salaries haven’t been adjusted in years. I’ve heard the same complaints from Karen, my co-worker, who asserts that more than climate change, Greenlanders are worried about being able to afford their traditional foods.
‘The politicians are stupid, they don’t know what we want,’ all the girls are talking now, offering their opinions on how politicians favor tourists over Greenlanders. ‘They only speak Danish. They want to make the country more modern.’
‘But I don’t want Ilulissat to become like New York City,’ Levina, the punk-rocker city girl defies my assumptions. ‘I don’t want Ilulissat to change. There are too many buildings and we can’t see the mountains anymore.’
There is so much packed into every one of their statements. Levina doesn’t want Ilulissat to become New York – a hilarious comparison in this town of 5,000 people and 6,000 dogs – despite the fact that she consumes so much of the modern culture that New York represents. She loves ‘the nature’ and wants to keep that quality of Ilulissat, as well as the way of living here, as it is. OR, even, as it was twenty years ago: ‘We should take away some of the buildings’, she trails off.
‘They’re always talking about tourists and how to make them feel good. They don’t talk about what we want.’ They sound like thirteen-year-old girls whining about their parents. No, they are thirteen-year-old girls whining about their government. Sometimes they don’t seem thirteen.
‘OK, so what do you want? If you were the politicians, if you could make decisions for Ilulissat, what would you decide? What laws would you make?’
‘No more buildings,’ Levina declares. ‘They’re blocking our view.’ This reminds me of Kent’s experience upon first arrival in Igdlorssuit. He was choosing his house site and realized that everyone had an amazing view – and coveted it. OK, yes, everyone everywhere wants a nice view. But even here, we can see Greenland peaking through the cracks of a Western modernity that might choose high rises over high icebergs. I’m trying to get these girls to wrench Greenland through those cracks … or at least to think about it.
‘More music,’ says Paarnaq. ‘We should have more music in this town. Like on Saturdays, we could play music. Any kind of music, with guitars and drums and … anything! We should have more instruments.’ Again, typical thirteen-year-old. But also, typical Greenland? The idea of sitting around and playing music on a Saturday, enjoying the company of friends and the joy excited by music and maybe the dances that would accompany it … It’s laid-back, it’s about enjoying one another’s company and creating beautiful things and comfortable social spaces. From my very limited experience here, from the books I’ve read and stories I’ve heard, this is very much in keeping with ‘traditional Greenlandic culture’. Perhaps it is even infusing those traditions with new elements: guitar, drums, a TV in the background, the American tourist who would sit, placid and curious, overanalyzing and trying to fit the whole scene into descriptive sentences that connect it in rational and meaningful ways with the past and the present and globalization and everything-that-was-ever-important… It’s silly but I can’t help it.
But then Parnaq gets a phonecall, which of course she answers in the middle of class because you do that here. She and Rosanguaq have to retrieve their bags, but they’ll be back before class ends in eight minutes. Mmm-hmmm, I think.
I can’t get the conversation started again, so I decide to count my blessings and move on. I turn to the computer and pull up Black Fire’s website. We look at pictures and try to play some of the music. We fail, of course. I remember the Black Fire Manifesto/mission statement (www.blackfire.net/) that I printed out earlier and, with three minutes and six girls (Rosanguaq and Parnaq have returned, and brought a friend), I decide to end class with these words. It’s a bit too long and a bit too heavy, I think. Most of the girls dutifully and swiftly shuffle out once I’ve finished reading. But I’ve given them some websites to look at, some music to listen to, and I hope they’re thinking …
After class, we talked about music. I played some Feist for them, off my iPod. They loved it. Feist (relatively well-known Canadian folk/rock singer) was in Ilulissat a few weeks ago, with an expedition of artists learning about climate change (http://www.capefarewell.org/). We check her website to see if we can find a blog post about her time here and what she thought of this place. These girls leave with more websites and more music. I wonder if we could write to Feist. Maybe she could help with the Parnaq’s Saturday afternoon music law …
Friday, October 17, 2008
This a quotation from Rockwell Kent, copied out of his 1935 Salamina, a memoir of the year he spent living in a small village in North Greenland. Strange how history repeats itself, no? I mean, Kent, the great American artist, was in North Greenland, I, the great American ... Just kidding. But really, if we were to rewrite his opening sentence as 'In the fall of 2008 ...', the rest of the paragraph would be pretty believable. And his advice, when applied to the terrifying and explosive realities of climatic, political and economic changes today, would be both daunting and inspiring.
'What do we need?' Kent asks and, in ensuing chapters, describes how his experience of a simple life in Greenland taught him about all the gadgets and luxuries that he didn't need, as well as all the personal security that he only thought he'd had anyway. The book (which is VERY good, I highly recommend it) jokes and meanders its way through a year of unplanned life in Greenland, punctuated by celebrations of anything worthy (or unworthy) of celebrating, close encounters with death and ice, and basic, often joyful, living with the resources at hand.
Wouldn't he be surprised by Greenland today. Rather than find in this culture inspiration for simple living, without excess and sometimes without those things we assumed to be basic (example: any food source that wasn't harvested by harpoon, a.k.a. vegetables), Kent might be turning the question to the excesses of Greenlanders: 'What do you need?'.
In my experience thus far, which is certainly not universal but may be true for many who live in Greenland's bigger towns, there are a few essentials of every Greenlandic household:
1. A freezer, because you can only hang so much meat in grocery bags outside the kitchen window. Really though, frozen food has been a staple in Greenlandic diets for a long time. Last week, Marie froze seal kidneys and fat together - apparently it's just the best when fresh out of the freezer. She covets this delicacy the way I obsess over bread fresh out of the oven ...
2. Binoculars, especially if your house is on the shoreline, because there is always something out the window to look at and, given the expanse of things here, it is almost always too far away to see.
3. Thermoses to keep the tea and coffee warm. There is always coffee. There is almost always tea.
4. A big pot, to boil meat with potatoes, onions and rice, a dish called 'souaza'. I have eaten seal, eider duck, and halibut cooked in this way, all harpoon-harvested just hours before. It's possible that meat is served other ways. But who knows when Silver is at the stovetop - there is nothing traditional about anything he does. Did I mention that he was once in the circus?
5. A radio. The first thing Marie does when she comes home is turn on the national radio station (we only have two stations, the other is the local station). The radio gives news reports, plays music (Spice Girls this morning), hosts talk shows and, on Tuesday evenings, radio bingo!
6. A television. The first thing Silver does when he comes home is turn on the television. And the last thing he does before he goes to bed is turn it off. Sometimes this means 8 hours of tv. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy.
7. Cell phones. Everyone has them. Kids (tiny ones! I see 7 year olds on their phones) put music on theirs and play it while they walk or sled home.
8. Cigarettes. Everyone smokes. The 9th grade students I teach take smoking breaks during class. I saw a pregnant woman smoking the other day. EVERYONE smokes.
9. Alcohol. This is a touchy issue. Some say that people here don't drink anymore than people anywhere else, but that alcoholism is more noticeable because it's a small town. Others say alcoholism is absolutely out of control, that alcohol is involved in 95% of crimes here, that people are obsessed by it. It's about as rare to find a Greenlander who doesn't drink as it is to find one who doesn't eat meat. Meet Marie: an ex-vegetarian who hardly drinks! Except when Silver makes Irish coffee and serves us each two and we end up giggling into the morning at our sewing table in the living room...
I'm getting off topic. But it's fun. My point is, the list of things considered essential here, what people need, has greatly expanded in the last few decades. And this expansion has greatly affected what people do, how they live, how they relate to one another, how they pursue contentment. Take television, for example. Before TV, people in Ilulissat would visit each other in the evenings, gathering in a house's living room and chatting in a circle around the hosts, who would be going about such household taks as mending or cleaning a sealskin. Now there is a TV in this living room. If people do come by, the focus in the room is directed at the black box, conversation dies down a bit, picking up during commercials or when one of the dogs on Animal Planet does something really ridiculous like flip into a pool. And that's only if people come visiting, because if everyone has a TV, why not just stay in your own living room, where it's warm and where you have easy access to your coffee thermos and freezer of marine delicacies? The tradition of visiting, the way that people interact with one another, is changing.
'People don't go outside the way that they used to,' laments David, the somewhat dramatic, somewhat precocious 19-year-old that took me hiking on Wednesday. 'When I call my friends and ask if they want to go for a hike, they whine that we should just stay in town, watch a movie, play video games, listen to music, walk around. Sometimes they'll agree to go snowboarding - it's fast and exciting. But no one will just go for a walk.' I went for a walk with David and have to admit that I don't entirely blame his friends - he was leaping such distances between rocks that in my attempt to follow, I split the butt of my jeans! Hehehehe. But part of what he was getting at is that the pace of life is changing - his friends need the stimulation of television, town, video games, and have, perhaps, lost their ability or drive to find the stimulation and fascination that is so much a part of the natural world (in my opinion).
And in order to get access to some of these modern necessities, more people are moving into the bigger towns, which makes the towns even bigger and the likelihood of neighbors knowing one another even less. People don't say hi in the street anymore, David says. I've taken to trying to smile at everyone i meet when I'm walking. I quite like it, because most people smile back. But who knows? Behind my back (or in front of my face since I understand neither Greenlandic or Danish), maybe they're calling me 'that crazy American girl who is always smiling like a goon'. C'mon, guys! I'm just trying to build some community!
So. Enter television and other essentials of 'Western' living, exit the simplicity and community that Kent found in Greenland 75 years ago. Certainly, we cannot say that all the modern conveniences that Greenlanders have adopted are bad: Northface outerwear is warm, ice cream is delicious :), medicine saves lives. Even televisions can be great, as a learning tool that relays an awareness of current events and the world outside the isolated towns up here. Change, in itself is not bad. In fact, it is unavoidable. The trick, as Kent points out, is that we can control the changes that happen: determinism is not as determinative as it sounds.
In our attempts to direct these changes, we might refer to Kent's proposition that we consider whether 'what we need' is consistent with 'what is good for us'. In Greenland, it seems that sometimes, 'what we need' is eroding some of the most lovely traditions of this place. 'What we need' is changing how we live and therefore, how we think, how we dream, how we treat each other.
But of course, this phenomenon is not in secluded to Greenland - it's just been happening so fast here and is easy for me, an outsider, to see. These questions, of 'what we need' and 'what is good for us' are asked everywhere. I hope that many of you in the States have been pondering these questions, as the dipping economy threatens your access to those things you consider essential or your awareness of your carbon footprint compels you to ask if you really need a new car, teh banana trucked from who-knows-where, heat in your living room (hehehe). In addition to our economy and climate, Obama's campaign for change is sending us ricocheting through 'days of change of revolution', as Kent might call them. Right now, before November 4th, before our atmospheric carbon levels reach 385ppm, before we enter economic 'reconstruction' and the threat of 'relapsing again into that unreflecting acceptance of prosperity', there are so many reasons to think about what you need and what is good for you to need. Go for it! Turn off the TV and go outside, walk to the store and greet people in the street on your way (try smiling like a goon), turn down the heat and cuddle in a blanket (I was talking before about making new friends, but you might want to choose someone you are familiar with for this one). Maybe what we need is more splitting of pants in the mountains, goofy streetside smiling, and cuddling. Did the cuddling reference just make it too cute? If you want to learn more about paring down the things you need for the sake of your contentment and that of the global climate, check out http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/index.html
Also, leave a comment if you want! I love getting comments :) Or write me an email: email@example.com.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Silver, the little, mustached Italian man who looks eerily like my dad and whose most common comments to me are ‘Oh! Why you so beautiful?!’ and ‘Why you don’t eat?’, lent his boat to a friend for the afternoon. It was the friend, an equally short and equally wonderful Greenlandic man named Niels, who passed his half-dozen hours catching so many Atlantic Cod that I’m beginning to wonder if all the cod that have disappeared from New England waters have just migrated up here. And then it was Marie, Silver’s Greenlandic wife who is always smiling, joking and keeping her hands busy (making a seal skin purse for her daughter, knitting a sweater for Silver …), stood at the sink from 6 PM – 12 AM, chopping the heads off the fish, setting aside their stomachs and livers, and slicing the meat off the bones. Ten of the fish are hanging from a clothesline-type contraption on the porch, where they are supposed to dry (I tend to think they will freeze?). The other dozen fishy corpses are individually bagged and packed into the huge freezer that is an essential in any household in Greenland (kind of ironic, since temperatures outside often FEEL colder than temperatures in the freezer!).
OK, so obviously when I said ‘guess what WE did’, I meant that the people surrounding me did all the work and I was told to sit and look pretty. You all know how good I am at doing that … So I went for an evening stroll through town. It was about 8:30 PM and -2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees F) when I left the house in fleece pants, a puffy jacket, a hat and a scarf. The sun had just sunk below the horizon, leaving an echo of soft, horizontal bands of color that made me want to dance and cry at the same time. Of course, I did a little of both J And then? I reached the top of a public staircase (Ilulissat has lots of staircases – pedestrian shortcuts in a town built into a land that rises out of the water and into the hills) and saw the moon! As much as I wanted to swim Southwest across the bay to meet the colors of the sunset, I wanted even more to walk north until I reached the moon. It floated just above the horizon – seemed like I could have touched it, just above my head, if I had walked all the way up there! Its crescent, old-man-with-a-big-chin-profile shape was the color of caramel, if caramel could shine, and made me think of the comfort of hot chocolate after a long day of sledding. And I’m about as good at ignoring thoughts of chocolate as I am at sitting pretty, so I started home again. The walk home, away from town and up the hills, takes me past the big grocery store, the incineration plant and a field of sled dogs that are more scary than cute at 9:30 at night (or any other time of day for that matter). So I had kinda thought my stroll had ended when I turned away from the sky and back to the (SNOW COVERED!) mountains. But alas! The Northern Lights were out! So I got to watch the ribbons green dance across the tops of the mountains and weave through the stars that looked on from a distance. Needless to say it was a magical evening. And when I got home, there was hot coffee waiting.
No, I don’t spend ALL my time wandering through town dreaming about various elements of the universe. Right now, I’m at work – at my computer, in my office … in Greenland. I am working for the Ilulissat municipality, as an intern in the Environment Department. Since I am unpaid, I get to decide my hours and my projects (within reason…) – they just give me resources and occasionally take breaks to come in here and tell me all about what they do (I just learned all about sewage in Ilulissat – intriguing). It’s a pretty sweet set up.
I am working on two environmental education projects for the municipality – one focusing on tourists and one on locals. Today I am meeting with the head of all the tourist agencies to talk about the tourist industry here and how best to communicate the natural history and climatic changes of this place to the 36,000 tourists that come to this town every year. The project for local awareness-raising is inspired by my experiences and conversations with people here about nature and climate change. Everyone loves the natural world around town and all the resources and adventures they glean from it, but very few know/believe much about climate change and the affects it could have on that natural world. Part of the problem is that most of the information that they get about climate change comes from the international press, which tends to use Greenland as an example of current, drastic climate changes that disturb animal populations, human lifeways, etc. But for many people here, the melting ice cap, receding glacier and rapid Arctic warming that they hear about are inconsistent with personal experience: the glacier still calves huge icebergs into the bay regularly, there doesn’t seem to be any less ice, and it is still cold (duh, it’s Greenland). So I’m trying to figure out 1. what the reality of climate change is up here (vs. what is media exaggeration) 2. how to communicate that reality to local people. I like the idea of having public forums and publications in Greenlandic of all the research done in the area – because I meet scientists all the time who are here studying permafrost or the glacier or ice cores, but they are not required to share any of it with local people. My first experiment will come on Tuesday, when a scientist from NASA will come to one of the English classes I’ve been helping with at the adult-ed center in town…
Right, I also teach English! Well, kind of. I have been to maybe 10 classes to introduce myself and talk about America – this at the request of the teachers, whose students are intrigued by the American culture and news that bombards them every day on the TV, radio, etc. So I’ve had two discussions about 9/11, which were really interesting, and 2 about climate change at the adult ed center (hence the interest in local environmental ed). Then I’ve had a bunch of classes at the local high school, where I’ve talked about what it’s like to grow up in the States, how the US is different from and similar to Greenland, etc. I only have one class that I teach on my own and it is a group of five 9th-grade girls who are very advanced English speakers. Last week we just did an introduction and this week I am starting a unit on Native Americans with them. I’m interested to see what kinds of connections we’ll be able to draw … They’ll (hopefully!) have pen pals from the Lakota reservation where I worked during my year off.
Alright, for a girl who is ‘at work’, I haven’t gotten very much done this morning! There’s much more to talk about and, now that I have a computer and regular internet access, I’ll try to tell you about it more often! For now, it’s coffee and the IPCC IV report for me …
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Ilulissat is unbelievably beautiful. I’m posting some pictures with the understanding that neither the images nor my words could come close to doing it justice. But if you attach some imagination to the images, and try to dream about the incarnation of sublime and blue mixed together … well, maybe you’ll get close J. I have already hiked out to the fjord twice in the 2 days that I’ve been here. I even hiked on the same trail both times and was equally awed each time. Also, I saw three whales. Whoot whoot!
Before I arrived in Ilulissat, I stayed 5 days in Sisimiut, a town/city (it’s hard to make the distinction, because the largest city here is only 15,000 people) between Nuuk and Ilulissat. It was FANTASTIC. I stayed with Mads and Trine, a young Danish couple who moved to Greenland about a year ago. They have a small apartment that is full of books, which was one of the best parts of Sisimiut J We spent multiple evenings talking about American culture and politics, Greenlandic politics, books and bread-making. Needless to say, I could have gotten very comfortable there. During the day, I wandered around town and spoke with various people about climate change, sustainability, oil, culture and independence for Greenland. Sometimes, my head got so full of ideas that I had to hum a little to calm them down. I won’t bore you with all of them, except to say that I’m thinking a lot about how it is not climatic changes that are rupturing life ways and culture here, but rather economic changes. A lot of those changes are attached to Greenland’s economic development and bid for independence from Denmark, but also to global forces and a desire for general ‘modernization’. There’s an impossible tension between preserving ‘traditional culture’ and achieving economic and political independence (which is another way of preserving culture, but it has to be done by modern means …). I don’t know if I’m making any sense, so I’ll move on …
After a few days of reading (An Afruican in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie about the first African man to travel to Greenland – it’s really good!), walking and boating in Sisimiut, I left for Ilulissat. I arrived at the youth hostel in the afternoon and, after discovering that the man who was supposed to rent me an apartment was home sick, decided to take the rest of the day off and go for a hike with Jean, the French professor of political science whom I met in Nuuk and ran into here. He is as poor as I am, so after our hike, we scrounged in the ‘leftovers’ box in the hostel kitchen and made pasta with one onion for dinner. It was delicious.
The following morning, I discovered that the alleged apartment for rent was not, in fact, available and I had one day to find another place to live at the height of tourist season in a town that is always crunched for housing. By the end of the day, I had 3 offers – partly because I was lucky, but mostly because I have met the kindest and most wonderful people who were so willing to help me out. I ended up agreeing to move in with the Italian/Greenlandic family that runs an adventure travel service in town. Unreal. Perhaps I will end up practicing my Italian while in Greenland …
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
So I lied a little when I said I ate two danishes, because really I shared two danishes with my friend Stephan, who came to see me off at the airport this morning. Or rather, Stephan shared danishes with me, as he has shared so much in the past 5 days that I have been staying in his house, sharing meals and laughter with his family and basically following him around town. He has been very tolerant :) and overwhelmingly helpful, as his whole family has been. I am completely overwhelmed by their generosity and so grateful for their support and help during this first leg of my travels in what could be a difficult place to make the right connections.
But man, did I make some great connections! On Monday, I ran all over town talking to people about climate change, education, religion, culture and pretty much anything else that they would talk to me about. It was EXCELLENT and really reinforced for me how interested I am in this topic and how important I think it is. I don't want to bore you, but some highlights ...
I spoke with a young guy at the Institute of Arctic Education, where he is reforming the country's science curriculum and trying to incorporate lessons about climate change. He recognizes the severity of climate change and its potential impacts here and everywhere. He, like me, believes that to avoid the worst, individuals need to change their behavior. I see religion and religious communities as one powerful space for achieving changes in lifestyle, while he sees education as another. I hadn't thought about it and have quite enjoyed the ideas he opened up for me. He also gave me the bibliography to his master's thesis, which was on the affects of climate change on education in subsistence villages in Greenland. I am tempted to order some of the books ... but I already have more books than clothes and the weight of the library in my backpack makes it pretty certain that I will stick with what I have. However, if any of you are interested, try 'The Last Giant of Beringia' by Dan O'Neill or 'The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations and Arctic Environmental Change' by Shari Fox or, for more info on climate change in general, the book 'The Discovery of Global Warming?' by Spencer Weart is now a website documenting the history of climate change and can be found at http://www.aip.org/history/climate/.
After my visit at the education institute, I tried my hand at public transportation and took the bus a couple miles up the road to the Nature Institute, an Arctic scientific research center. *A sidenote: it's not that i didn't want to take public transportation earlier, it's just that the city is so small and I so enjoy walking that I just didn't feel inclined. But on Monday it was cold and rainy and windy, which even made waiting in the little green bus stop more fun than walking.* Anyways, at the Nature Institute, I literally walked in, said I was a student researching climate change and was introduced to a relatively young researcher who spent the next hour describing the intricacies of marine research in Nuuk's fjord system. It was actually fascinating for me but I will not relay it here except to quote: 'The changes we are observing seem to be happening faster than climate models predict'. All the more reason to read some of those books mentioned above. Or walk to the store rather than drive today. Or stop reading this super long blog post and turn off your computer :)
Really, I should conclude on that note, but I have to shout out to the Inuit Circumpolar Youth Conference, who were my third interview on Monday. I met Stina, the country coordinator, for coffee at the webcafe downtown and we sat and talked about politics, social issues, tradition, youth culture, Greenland's independence and climate change for two hours. I won't even begin to describe it, except to say that you can learn more about some of those things at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference's website: www.inuitcircumpolar.com. Also, Stina got me really interested in issues of natural resource (especially oil) exploration and potential drilling/mines in Greenland and all of the social, economic, political, cultural issues surrounding it. I'll work on finding more info and posting a website or something soon.
OK, the more time I spend in front of this computer, the less time I have to gaze out at this beautiful view of the water and wonder about what new things I will learn in this new town. Oh, right, I am in a new place! I took a one-hour flight up the coast to Sisimiut, a city (?) of 5,000-6,000 people (and counting). I am staying with my friend Mads, whom I met at the conference last week, and his girlfriend, Trine, who is a teacher here. Hopefully, I'll interview some people at the Arctic Engineering Institute and in between, I'll be exploring a new place. I hope all is well where you are ...
Sunday, August 31, 2008
As I write this, I am sitting in what must be one of the most idyllic living rooms in this city. Out of the bank of windows in front of me, I can see miles of calm, late-summer sea that connects the mainland of Nuuk to any number of mountainous islands. Because it is the weekend and because it is late summer, there are lots of boats speeding across the water as people take breaks from the city to go reindeer-hunting, fishing or mussel-collecting in different spots all over the area. I have yet to get out on the water, but I did spend the day yesterday walking around one of the big mountains, which was incredible. There are no trees, so the landscape looks like one big mountain summit, except that the ground feels like a bog, squishy and absorbent. There was not a cloud in the sky yesterday, which meant sunblock and sunglasses for me, but also long pants because it was still only about 40-50 degrees in the sun.
As excited as I was to be out and about in the mountains, I was even more excited to come back to this beautiful house, where the most wonderful family has welcomed me to stay for a few days. Last week, I was at the university attending a conference on arctic social science studies, when I met Stephen during a coffee break. Stephen is 23, speaks English and likes to cook (Stephen, I know you will read this so feel free to add any of your other charming qualities in a comment :), so we had some things to talk abouit. After being introduced to his mom, Ruth, on Tuesday, I was invited to come and stay with them for a few days while I try to work out the rest of my itinerary in Greenland and make contacts here and in other cities. I think Ruth must be the most well-connected person in Greenland and she has been unbelievably helpful to me in suggesting people and organizations to contact in different cities. She has also leant me a room, a towel, a computer, a phone, so much food and her very playful and funny family for the last few days. Ruth is from Texas and her husband is Danish, but they raised their two sons mostly in Greenland, where they spoke English at home and Greenlandic and Danish outside. So in addition to their company and contacts, I have also had translaters, historians and storytellers to fill my days and my imagination.
Before I came out here, I stayed one week in a 'bed and breakfast' downtown. Basically, I rented a room in the apartment of a 49-year-old Greenlandic woman, who served me breakfast every morning. It was great in so many ways and for so many different reasons than my stay with this family has been. When I came home to Mina's house in the evenings, she was usually watching television with the Icelandic guy who was also renting a room from her. I would sit on the couch and we would alternately get absorbed by the American T.V. shows and comment on them. In additiomn to 'America's Funniest Home Videos', one of Mina's favorites is *Paranormal Encounters* which is an ABSURD reality tv show about ghostbusters in middle-America. My apologies to the die-hard fans that might be reading this, but I was stifling giggles the entire time - or at least, during the times that I forgot to be aghast at the pieces of American culture that make it here. Today, Stephen wanted to leave the breakfast table to watch 'The Hills'. Oi.
In addition to ghosts, Mina is also a fan of Barack Obama, though she is sick of how much airtime he is getting on CNN (always on in her house) and Greenlandic radio. 'Oh, yes, we love Obama,' she told me, 'we need change!'. I agreed ... and laughed.
There is so much more to tell! There are apples at the grocery store that are from Chile but are crisper than the ones at Shaw's in Newton. There is a single club in town, where beer is $9 and girls dress like it is not 30 degrees outside so that they can dance 'MTV style' (this is what Stephen calls it. His mom and brother are both dancers, technically trained and on another level entirely than the kids at the club. His brother is 19 and just started at a dance academy in Norway). I spent my first few days here at a conference and mostly with a student from Alaska named Brit, who taught me a lot about the Arctic and about how to do social science research. I ate really delicious Thai food on Tuesday and found some of the best choco-chip cookies I've had in a while at the 'Barista Cafe' downtown.
I could keep going, but I also need to spend some time today doing some reading and writing for my research. If I get bored, I might dip into my 'adventure survival kit', created and gifted to me by Macall and full of crosswords, trashy magazines, pudding mix and toy cars :) If anyone is looking to purchase such a kit, feel free to get in touch with my sister, as she could use the extra income to finance her new apartment (and hire a dog walker ... or was Dad going to commute to the city to do that for you, Macall?).
I love and miss you all and hope that you are finding your own end-of-summer adventures, wherever you are.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I'm feeling tentatively ready to leave, if only because leaving on this trip has been on my mind since last August, when I started to dream it up. In typical me-fashion, the dreams didn't always materialize into concrete plans. Luckily, my laziness (often disguised as a "trust in the world to provide") is occasionally interrupted by anxiousness and in a week-long series of anxious moments (sorry, Auntie!), I found myself an activity and a room in Greenland ... for 5 days. Until Monday, I will be attending a conference in Nuuk on the social sciences and climate change. I'm sort of hoping that I make a friend there and things fall into place (laziness? trust?) for the remainder of my 3 months in the country. But if not, you might be hearing much more from me because I will be sitting, lonely, in internet cafes.
If, however, my blog posts are not so frequent (or as funny or stimulating as you would like), you might try some of the other stories in this "if you give a..." series: http://books.google.com/books?id=1LWExc-Ncg8C&dq=if+you+give+a+mouse+a+cookie&client=firefox-a&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0.
I love that the description of this book reads: "If a hungry little traveler shows up at your house, you might want to give him a cookie." Could anyone write that down in Danish for me so that I can present it to my hosts in Greenland? Then again, all the mouse had to do was ask.
So off I go, asking the world.