Fruits of the Earth

Roman has been coming to photograph the Straubs each year for the last four years. Today we sit in their living room while Frau Straub sets out coffee and biscuits for us. I smile a lot and nod at what I hope are appropriate moments. Herr Straub dominates the conversation and Frau Straub sits beside him.  I throw in the odd question that Roman translates and I am rewarded with Frau Straub’s presentation of the pears she has drying in the oven, followed by a sack of cherry stones. The fruit and nuts from their trees are made into preserves, pies and cider or eaten fresh.The cherry stones are dried and sewn into packs. They are also placed in the oven to be heated and used as bed warmers. Herr Straub’s mother gave them a cherry stone bed warmer as a wedding present in 1963. Frau Straub has been making them ever since.

The Straubs valued self sufficiency, recycling and organic farming long before these phrases were even used. Herr Straub proudly tells Roman that their bedroom furniture is fifty years old and there is nothing wrong with it. And he is right. It is functional and in good order, but not fashionable. The same goes for the car and the tractor. Many of their purchases can be traced to the year they married.

We go outside and Herr Straub goes to his bicycle. Roman is surprised that he is still able to ride it as his back is bent. He isn’t. Last year he fell off and his doctor has forbidden him to ride it anymore, so now he wheels it for support, refusing to succumb to a mobility walker.

Frau Straub, walks ahead and brings back Flecki, their cow, who is treated more like a family pet than a stock animal. Finally we walk down to the trees, which Herr Straub defended against removal. He hugs the Linden tree his father planted in 1918 to celebrate the end of World War 1 and then shows us the walnut tree he planted beside it in 1945, commemorating the end of World War 2.

Laden down with a bag of apples and pears and a handful of walnuts we bid farewell to these gentle people of the land and hope that next year we will have the privilege of visiting them again.

Herr and Frau Straub in their living room in Stachen, Switzerland

Frau Straub displaying a tray of dried pears

Herr Straub reminiscing

Herr Straub wearing his traditional Swiss Farmers outfit

Beloved Flecky the 26 year old house cow

Herr Straub hugging the Linden tree his father planted to celebrate the end of WW1 in 1918

Herr Straub standing between the two Peace trees he and his father planted

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Literature for Third Culture Kids and other Global Citizens

 

‘Why can’t I live in a normal family? And if one more person says I am so lucky and  they wish they were me travelling round the world with my parents, I am just gonna die!’

The often sung lament of my daughter, who, having reached a certain age, challenged her parent’s lifestyle choice. She didn’t want to be travelling three to four months of every year. She just wanted to be at home.

Admittedly having good internet access in most places we travel to, made it possible for her to keep in touch with her friends, but it wasn’t enough to allay her anxiety of missing so much school and ‘events’ at home.

We took schoolwork with us and the international schools she visited allowed her to do her own work or join in the class work. This was all fine until she became a teenager.

As a young child she adapted to the lifestyle thrust upon her, and became adept at making friends and assimilating into whatever community we were in. Like many children in international communities she formed friendships with kids of all ages and cultures. But at thirteen a self consciousness set in. She no longer wanted to attend the schools we were visiting and her sight seeing interests changed. While her parents passion for art galleries, museums and other historical sites blossomed, her interests were music, fashion, movies and socialising, much of it online.

It was at this time I decided to write Fake: A HP Mystery, as a way to both affirm our family’s ‘bohemian lifestyle,’ and to give my daughter another perspective on her life, as I incorporated characters and events from it into a novel. But if I expected her to embrace it warmly and lavish praise on my attempts to present an engaging context to reflect on her life, I was wrong.

‘OMG. That is so embarrassing. I don’t want any of my friends to read this at all! And no way are my twenty thousand friends on tumblr going to see it either!’ There went my ready-made audience.

But the character HP is not my daughter, although I have done what all writers are notorious for, scavenging and re-inventing, to suit their purpose. Certainly many of the characters in the books are based on real people, especially the family. Most of the anecdotes and discussions on language and culture occurred and issues addressed in the series, such as antiquities and artefact smuggling, human trafficking and art fraud are happening today.

However, while my daughter has grown up and is now old enough to make her own decisions on whether she will travels with us or not, HP remains in the twelve to thirteen age bracket. Like many global travellers it is a normal way of life for her to be having adventures on three continents in one year.

There are now two books in the HP Mystery series, set in Switzerland and Turkey respectively, with the next two set in Australia and Japan coming out early in 2015.

HP also has her own blog:

http://hpmystery.tumblr.com/

You can buy your HP Mysteries here. Will ship to anywhere in the world.

http://www.freewebstore.org/schatz-blackrose/index.aspx?pageid=892401

books

A funny thing happened on the way to the United Nations

Although the Palace des Nations or the ‘United Nations’ in English, is in Geneva, Switzerland, it is on UN land, and therefore is a region unto itself. In 1919, at the end of World War 1, Switzerland, because it was a neutral country, was chosen as the site for the UN’s forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN continued the League’s work and philosophy of promoting peace and disarmament with its inauguration in 1945, at the end of WW2, and occupies the original League of Nations building.

It is a remarkable organisation and the buildings and grounds and their respective artworks reflect the ideals and stories of the organisation. I felt privileged to enter the room where world peace, disarmament and human rights are discussed and determined. I would rather stand here, in the room where words of peace are forged into action, than on any ground where acts of war are written in blood. On the eve of Armistice Day, November 11, when many nations remember their war dead, I am acutely aware that the United Nations is as important now, as it ever was, in securing world peace.

Our tour guide was a passionate and knowledgeable UN worker, fluent in at least three languages, and the group was was comprised of a host of people from different nations. I was able to enjoy spotting the cultural stereotypes in our group and sharing the humour of the experience with my husband and daughter who I travel with.

There were two Indian men who asked the guide complex questions at every stop along the way, a Middle Eastern Woman constantly coddling her bored son, a Chinese man who kept videoing, after being told to stop, a Japanese student photographing the cloak room, the stairs and anything else that came into view, two Northern Europeans complete with back packs, just in case we were locked in overnight. But there were no Swiss on our tour, and we discovered none of the Swiss we knew had ever been to the Palace des Nations. I put this down to Switzerland only joining the UN in 2002 and the fact that you don’t need walking sticks to go there. The Swiss would rather spend their time climbing mountains. Or is that another cultural stereotype?

I had my picture taken with one of the few flags I am happy to wave; the UN flag, and looked forward to posting it with an accompanying write-up. But that was not to be so.
After a day of storytelling at an International school in Geneva, the next day, our family met up at the train station for the five hour return journey to the German speaking part of Switzerland. Then one of our backpacks was stolen.

With all the gear to choose from: Mama Bear’s instrument of mass entertainment, the mandolin, her bag of Australian puppets and ribbons, Baby Bear’s pack with her homework in it and Papa Bear’s pack with ipad and cameras, the one chosen by our lightning thief was not the one with a platypus in it, or homework.

We were all in a state of shock! After that we boarded the train and the following process took place: ‘If only I … ‘ ‘bastards …’ ‘organized crime …’ ‘What have we learned?’ ‘We are lucky, we have each other and all we have had stolen are things, not our homes, our homelands, or our lives.’ Later; ‘it’s not your fault.’

Revenge was a feeling expressed by our daughter. She wanted all the things that had been stolen to hurt the thief. Vengeance! Punishment! Understandable thoughts from a victim’s perspective, but are they effective as a deterrent to future criminal acts? I remembered our visit to the UN and the discussion about the punitive measures imposed on Germany after World War 1 as a causal factor of the second world war? What role does vengeance play in the perpetuation of conflict? What would the UN do to address a nation who perpetrated a criminal act on another?

In our situation we didn’t see the thief/thieves, but have it on good authority that they are members of an organised criminal group of a specific cultural identity, operating in the area.
When a violation of a person’s person or property takes place and the nationality or culture is known of the perpetrator, generalizations are often made by others. These beliefs may be adopted wholeheartedly: All Bombalasiens are thieves, all Punvarion men are sleazy, all Gungalese are lazy. However, it is very rare for qualities to be generalized and wholeheartedly adopted by others. All Pelintians are good cooks, all Thepils are great hosts, the Umpwils are a gentle people. For every generalization there is a specific incident to challenge it. Some people rationalise their prejudices with ‘I’m talking about the ones from the North, the South, who moved to our country, who come by …’

When my eldest daughter was in high school, it was pointed out to her that her name was German and Hitler was German and he was a Nazi and Germans are Nazis, and therefore she was a Nazi. Ludicrous reasoning, to be dismissed by any intelligent human being. However, racist, intolerant and ignorant human beings embrace such propaganda, and their misinformed and often hateful ideas can infect others. Immediate action must be taken to address the perniciousness of racism and bigotry so that we do not perpetuate a climate where hate crimes thrive.

And what if there is a recognized problem with particular cultures and criminal activities? For a start we can’t say that all 20 million, 100 million, 1 billion, people of that same nation or culture as the perpetrator, are the same as the perpetrator. Generalizing on our own experience is as bad as generalizing on the experience of others.

I remember my father’s hatred of a particular race of people because his father had gone to war in 1914, and fought against them, in their country. A sixteen year old illiterate boy from Australia going to a war he knew nothing about in a country he knew nothing about. Returning to Australia with his stories to tell to his children, who in turn told them to their children. My father had never met a representative of the culture he so maligned, but spoke with authority because he believed his father’s truths. In the same way we can pass on our culture, we can propagate a cultural mythology.

In telling people about the theft of our backpack we have encountered both blame for allowing it to happen by not being more vigilant, and outrage that has taken the form of justifying the call for border control, stopping immigration and other xenophobic responses, because of the association of particular races and crime. But the answer is not one of exclusion, gated communities, stronger borders, not trusting anyone. In fact it is the opposite.

We need to be more openly human and have empathy and compassion for others. If we want to prevent crime we must prevent poverty and the circumstances that push people into becoming criminals. We must educate ourselves about the perspective of others and the choices they perceive they have. This does not mean we condone criminal behaviour, but the most effective way to fight crime is with compassion.

We must help people to become the best human beings they can be, by enabling them to live a productive life, utilising all their skills and knowledge. Quality education, housing and employment for everyone in homelands that are not beseiged by war and famine is everyone’s right. Quite simply, each one of us must embody the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights and represent the philosophy of the United Nations in our lives.

Our world view has offered us comfort and a rationalisation for what has happened, and now the process of rebuilding takes place; replacing what was stolen. After all, a photographer needs a camera to be a photographer. But I’m lucky, as I’m a storyteller, and a story is all I need. Now I have one.

 

Photo (taken with old camera) Peace by Roman W Schatz

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* 路(lù)遥(yáo)知(zhī)马(mǎ)力(lì), 日(rì)久( jiǔ)见(jiàn)人(rén)心(xīn) Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long period of time, you get to know what’s in a person’s heart.

Roman and I attended The Shanghai International Literary Festival in March 2010, and presented a bookmaking and storytelling workshop. I began with the Haitian folktale, Tipingee.  It’s one of my favourites because it shows the resourcefulness of children and their ability to care for each other. There is an action rhyme that invites children to participate in the story and it offers a poetically just resolution: Tipingee’s stepmother’s attempts to sell the girl are thwarted by the cunning, collective actions of the children, resulting in her own demise and Tipingee’s new life living with her friends.

Although I have been telling this tale for a number of years, I felt a particular need to share it in light of the recent earthquake in Haiti. Telling to an audience of caring parents who had brought their children along to this family activity made it all the more poignant; a contrast to the lives of hundreds of thousands of orphaned children who are doing their best to survive the devastation of their country.
One of my purposes as a storyteller is to ensure that people don’t forget. If we forget, we become complacent, insular and disconnected. However it is not enough for me to simply remember a story; I need to contextualize it in relation to other stories, personal, folkloric, historical and contemporary. Even if I don’t tell my listeners why I’ve chosen a particular story to tell, I need to know myself why I am telling it. 
Telling Tipingee at this time ensured that for all listeners the resourcefulness and resilience of children could be celebrated in the entertaining format of an oral performance, and yet the real life experiences of Haitian children could be easily realized by the adults.  
During my visit to Shanghai I chose to read Adeline Yen Mah’s book, A Thousand Pieces of Gold. It explores the relationship between her own experiences growing up in Shanghai, the history of China and Chinese Proverbs.  A storyteller after my own heart, she successfully interwove the story of her life to events and people across time, cultures and countries. 
She explained about thinking in proverbs and I immediately identified with her because I think in stories. Traditional stories help me make sense of the world and show me a way to live productively within it. I know that I can be an Australian storyteller, telling a Haitian folktale to a cosmopolitan audience in China and it makes perfect sense, because the story transcends time, place and culture to connect to all humanity.

 


References:

The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales, by Diane Wolkstein, Shocken: NYC, 1978.

A Thousand pieces of Gold, by Adeline Yen Mah, Harper Collins: London 2002

Photograph by Roman W. Schatz

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