Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Of Reading Lists and Postcards from Barcelona

Given the time out from full-time student life, I've come to appreciate the fact that I can finally read fiction work again. It sounded strange when I first verbalised it to myself: as a student in uni, I consumed fiction voraciously. Textbooks were full of gibberish and the only thing I counted on were notes and scraps of paper.

Then that monster known as work came along. Consulting is not for everyone, and was definitely not for the fiction afficionado. So I compromised: I read less. Still, I could consume enough books to satiate that lust for stories. I read stuff from all over, and it was during this time that I started liking Margaret Atwood's feminist gab and David Mitchell's dreamy sequences.

Along came biz school and this time round, reading anything other than the required cases for class is a travesty. What's more, the profusion of reading material on the net (I speak of blogs, newspapers, whatnots) meant that my whole day is spent in a constant infusion of text into my brain. I just did not have enough bandwidth to consume fiction as well, and it was on a sad note that I stopped reading anything interesting (hey, some business texts are interesting in their own right - just go read Blue Ocean Strategy... but they aren't stories).

So summer without an internship was a kind of blessing in disguise. I've read David Mitchell's Black Swan Green (I like his previous work better), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in a Time of Cholera (I never thought I would touch that novel, to be honest), and Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (very weird stuff in this book... very very indecipherable). And due to the dearth of good fiction around the house, I'm actually reading the Da Vinci Code (after having seen the movie).

The Da Vinci Code reads like a person driving a car with both the accelerator and brake pedals depressed: start-stop-start-stop-start-stop-start... the protagonists find some new clue, and then the action stops at a critical juncture, and you ask yourself "Gee I need to know what happens!!!" and so you read on. Until the next critical juncture. Ad nauseam. Very useful device to convince the reader that you have an engaging and interesting book (but seriously though, the book reads like someone throwing his high-school history+art+bible lessons at you, wrapped around a treasure hunt story).


Someone once said that there were only 2 kinds of stories in the world: "A man goes on a journey" and "A stranger comes into town". Every other story is a variation of the 2 themes, a combination of both, or a sluice of something in between. Try looking for these themes the next time you read a book.


As promised, here are the photos from Barcelona. While there, I met up with a friend who was learning Spanish there (lucky guy) and he introduced me to some of his classmates, one of whom was Italian. That Italian lass and I sat glued in a pub watching the World Cup finals: I cheered for France; no questions who she cheered for. And for my efforts in cheering the losing team, the Italian lass gave me a lesson on what Italian hooligans sing about (they were everywhere in that pub and sang the lewdest songs!), and of course, goaded over their goddamn undeserved victory.

Anyhow, photos:

Go to Barcelona, if for nothing else, thn to see Gaudi's irreverent artwork
La Pedrera - Img2006-07-08-0090-1 (Barcelona 1)
La Pedrera

Parc Guell - Img2006-07-08-0078-1 (Barcelona 1)

Parc Guell - Img2006-07-08-0058 (Barcelona 1)
Parc Guell

Sagrada Familia - Img2006-07-08-0053 (Barcelona 1)

Sagrada Familia - Img2006-07-08-0025 (Barcelona 1)
And the Sagrada...

Sagrada Familia - Img2006-07-08-0041 (Barcelona 1)

Sagrada Familia - Img2006-07-08-0045 (Barcelona 1)
...with its interesting doors.

Barcelona, Gothic Quarter - Img2006-07-10-0195-1 (Barcelona 2)
The only place where skateboarding can be done around gothic buildings...

Barcelona, Riot - Img2006-07-10-0147 (Barcelona 2)
...and demonstrations take place outside the mayor's office regularly.

Barcelona, Restoration - Img2006-07-10-0113-1 (Barcelona 2)
Art, in whatever forms it assumes, is always being restored. The lady here is painstakingly restoring a letterbox carved during the renaissance for the building formerly used by a lawyer's guild.

Barcelona, Port Vell - Img2006-07-10-0068-1 (Barcelona 2)
Port Vell, where a shopping centre's front arcade features mirrors on the ceiling. Perfect for the narcissist in all of us; and a strain on the neck.

Barcelona, Port Vell - Img2006-07-10-0090-1 (Barcelona 2)
Oh yes, the bridges also tend to break up often. :)

Also, do not miss Las Ramblas for the street performers - to be honest, I find them all a tad too touristy and profit driven. Much preferred the occasional guitarist or opera singer I encountered around parts of the Gothic Quarter (a maze to certainly get yourself lost in).

Due to space constraints, check out the rest of my Barcelona impressions here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Home and Postcards from Provence and Cote d'Azur

I'm finally home. I can finally enjoy having uninterrupted Wi-Fi and the peace of mind to slowly upload my photos, sort through my clothes, and work on relationships. This is all the next month is going to be about: relationships.

One of the things you learn from Negotiations Analysis class is the usage of a framework known as the Seven Elements (our instructor, Horacio, absolutely swears by it). One of the elements is Relationship, and it is about considering how you can, and should, build the relationship in any ongoing negotiation that you may have.

Make no mistake about it: destroying the relationship, be it through the careless use of words or inept outbursts of emotion, is detrimental to any negotiation. It is not about being tough and acting tough - negotiations are also primarily about building the bridge between you and your counterpart and working towards a value creating outcome.

Hence, my focus for this summer: relationships. I am already starting by mending the most important one, the one which my future happiness and life depend upon, though the subject of which is somewhat depressing. I never realised how much distance can break a relationship. I never realised that feelings of longing can be so satiated with a simple meeting of hearts. I never realised how much some values meant to other people - too often, I held values with little regard, thinking them hinderances rather than morally upheld principles. I belittled the power of an idea, of a principle.

Next comes the next most important relationships: my parents and my grandmother. My parents have aged before my eyes and I have been blind not to see that ageing process. It is a slow, slow loris that creeps upon you unexpectedly, pouncing on you in the most unexpected way. He is 60, she is 58, and they have reached the point in their lives where the roles have somewhat reversed: he's forced into retirement and whiling his time away; she runs her own business and works insane hours. I'm amazed at the ingenuity my mother has displayed; I'm saddened by my father's spiralling descent from the peak of his success.

My grandmother has few years left, and the dignity to live it has gone from her, for each day is as uncomfortable as the next. Unable to speak properly for the strokes have atrophied the right side of her body. Unable to walk, to eat by herself. Worst of all now, she's unable to control her defecation and urination. I know people who'd rather die than live through a life such as hers - our dignity seems to supercede our quest to live. But she lives on and she has lived well by all accounts. Few years are left to her - she is 90. She wants to go on.

Then perhaps, the relationships that come next: friends. I'm not an initiator. Never has been one to initiate and start something going. I'm the classic tortoise - living in my shell of a house and hoping someone else invites me to the party. Perhaps I want to do something on my own this time. Perhaps I want to reach out, cast my net, and widen that small social circle. Perhaps I want to build stronger friendships.



BTW, photos from my trip in Provence and Cote d'Azur below. I hung out with a cool Shanghaiese babe, and an opinionated Beijinger dude. They made the trip really fun (and really tiring as well!).

Img2006-07-05-0023-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
Old busker playing an accordian. I dropped in 50 cents and asked him not to smile at me.

Img2006-07-05-0194-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
That disgruntled codger shut his windows on me after spying me taking this picture of him.

Img2006-07-05-0164-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)

Img2006-07-05-0168-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
She didn't really like me taking candid shots after a while. Such a poseur. :)

Img2006-07-05-0135-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
Yes, walking among lavender is hazardous to health.

Img2006-07-05-0131-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
We 3 spent hours searching for the perfect field. We never really found it but this one takes the cake for being the most expansive we found.

Img2006-07-05-0109-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
My dear friend's 到此游图. He wants one at every significant juncture we reach. :)

Img2006-07-05-0099 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
Living here = strong calves. Gordes is magnificent.

Img2006-07-05-0065 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
Pont du Gard - part of an old roman aqueduct that now is a UNESCO world heritage site, and place where tourists dip themselves in the river at low tide.

Img2006-07-05-0048 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
My attempt at being artistic.

Img2006-07-05-0044 (Provence Cote d'Azur)
My attempt at being artistic once more.

Img2006-07-05-0214-1 (Provence Cote d'Azur)

The changing of the guard at the residence of the Prince of Monaco. The ridiculous affair requires the guards to slap their sides when standing to attention. Several of them were actually portbellied. I fear for the Prince's safety.

See the full set of pictures from Provence and the Cote d'Azur

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dispirited Away

After 12 days on the road, I've finally found some time to blog, and with the WiFi to allow it as well. There were many memories of the places I've been and the things I've seen, but I don't have the heart to yak about them now. I guess the best thing I can do to describe them is to post them up on my flickr set - go check it out if you're interested (a picture speaks a thousand words - all that stuff I've uploaded will speak volumes if that rule applies).

The spirits have left me. Here now, in the countryside of Hampshire, England, I've become somewhat melancholic and down - little excited by what I'm seeing and, though it has been an experience, I'm starting to get discouraged that what I have been looking forward to for the past 3 months might turn out to be a something I'd rather not face.

There are many times in this short life I've lead where I thought I was doing all the right things, and no one says anything that is contrary to that. Work was one: there was a path which I took and I assumed it was right. Of course, those assumptions were checked with people I know, and often, they might have been assuring, they might have been patronising, but they were never correcting. People are afraid of correcting you, of giving you the bitter pill. Perhaps in some cultures, it is more forthcoming, but in the work culture of mine then, it was given in the wrong dosage, and at the last possible moment.

The mistakes I've made and the lessons I have learnt ought to have carried over into the relationships I make with people. I believed that I am now listening better. But I am still not doing some things right - I am listening, but inaction still grips me.

It is disappointing to learn that there are few second chances, and far fewer third chances in life. It is disappointing to also learn that when one gives, and gives, and gives, there is always something else that fail the expectations that the receiver has of one.

Perhaps it is something inherent and cannot be changed. I don't think that people cannot change, for love, for life, for oneself, for God. I just think that change is difficult - I won't change unless I am made to and I want to. If I don't change, I will die for the lack of it.

Maybe there's nothing I can say further, or nothing I can do to change things now - my inability to change fast enough, quickly enough, has led to the state of affairs now. I don't know - I think I have changed, just in a direction that isn't right. I think that life for the other has changed as well, and new relationships are entered into as the old are thrown away. Better related to, better treated with, and better listened to perhaps.

Am I looking to change things once again?

Do I still hope?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

What if God was One of Us?

As you're aware, this isn't an anime blog, and this post isn't about an anime either. I'm just a regular guy who got into watching anime purely for recreational reasons (at the instigation of Stripey) and to replace an unhealthy diet of TV shows. Come to think of it, I don't watch the telly anymore: the MBA kind of took that luxury away (no way can I stay glued for fixed times on regular days!). So nowadays, I supplement my entertainment with anime - freely available on the internet, and always a click away with bittorrent.

I digress: I've been seeing this really good anime called 'The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya'. To sum it simply, Haruhi Suzumiya is a typical Japanese schoolgirl who also happens to be God. Not like the God of the Judeo-Christian faith, but God in the sense that she is able to wish things into existence, without even realising it. A dangerous friend to have, but that's what the protagonist, Kyon (regular Japanese school boy in her class), is dealing with. It is like having a nuclear weapon as a friend, and certain interested groups of people are concerned that she should be kept as 'entertained' as possible.

Anyhow, I saw the latest episode (#13) of it two days back and a monologue from our heroine in the middle of the episode struck me as apt description of how small we really are.

First off, some context: Haruhi was talking to Kyon. She is not a typical Japanese high-school girl. In the series (which was re-arranged and not showed in sequence intentionally), Haruhi formed the SOS Brigade club with the expressed purpose of finding espers, time travellers and aliens. Unwittingly, she recruited one of each species (and Kyon, the narrator). The SOS Brigade get into the hijinks that can only happen in anime, and the producers puncture the action with philosophical insights into the creation of the universe, time travel and whatnots. Haruhi also has the ability to wish things into existence, and she's suffering from angst and feeling melancholic because life is too ordinary for her: she also doesn't know she has the power of God.

The monologue (translated from Japanese and copied off the subtitles of Ep #13):

Say... Have you ever realized how insignificant your existence is on this planet?

I have. It's something I'll never forget.

During elementary school, when I was in sixth grade, the whole family went to watch a baseball game at the stadium. I wasn't particularly interested in baseball, but I was shocked once we got there.

There were people everywhere I looked. The ones on the other side of the stadium looked like squirming grains of rice all packed together. I wondered if every last person in Japan had gathered in this place.

And so, I asked my dad, 'Exactly how many people were in the stadium?'

His answer was that a sold-out game meant around fifty thousand people. After the game, the path to the stadium was flooded with people. The sight stunned me.

So many people around me, yet they only made up a fraction of the people in Japan. Once I got home, I got a calculator and did the math. We learned that the Japanese population was a hundred million and some in social studies. Divide 50,000 into that and you only get one two-thousandth. I was stunned again.

Not only was I just one little person in that sea of people in that stadium, but that sea of people was merely a drop in the ocean.

I had thought myself to be a special person up until that point. I enjoyed being with my family, and most of all, I thought that my class in my school had the most interesting people in the world.

But that was when I realized it wasn't like that. The things that happened in what I believed to be the most enjoyable class in the world could be found happening in any school in Japan. Everyone in Japan would find them to be ordinary occurrences.

Once I realized this I suddenly found that my surroundings were beginning to lose their colour. Brush my teeth and go to sleep at night. Wake up and eat breakfast in the morning. People do those everywhere.

When I realized that everyone did all these things on a daily basis everything started to feel so boring. And if there were so many people in the world, there had to be someone living an interesting life that wasn't ordinary. I was sure of it.

Why wasn't that person me?

That's all I could think about until I graduated from elementary school. And in the process, I realized something. Nothing fun will happen if you sit around waiting.

So I figured I would change myself in middle school. Let the world know that I wasn't a girl content with sitting around and waiting. And I conducted myself accordingly. But in the end, nothing ever happened.

Before I knew it, I was in high school. I thought something would have changed.
Of course, our dear heroine, being almighty, did change things through sheer willpower alone (without realising it either). What struck me was how the thoughts that she had were probably not unique unto herself, but probably what we all come to feel at crucial points in our lives.

Just how significant can our lives be? Not everyone of us is going to be a superstar, model, or celebrity. Not everyone of us is going to be a world leader, opinion shaper, news maker. Not everyone will die a glorious death, have people worship us, or lead a congregation of believers.

In fact, most of us are going to be nondescript, unheralded individuals, living lives that are ordinary, simple and unadorned. Haruhi is right in one aspect: life is going to be boring and it is up to us to make it as exciting as we want it to be. It doesn't mean we have to be God to do it - it just means making the effort to seek interesting avenues in life - explore the less explored.

Well, we all can learn lessons everywhere, and I've learnt one from an anime.

Travel plans for summer - new and updated

Yay! P3 is over and that means the summer is here. For the suckers who have got an internship (or rather, indentured slavery IMHO), have fun slogging away at that investment bank, consulting firm and yadda whatever and earn that freaking big salary in the meantime. For slackers like myself, enjoy the sun, sand and sea and we'll see each other in 2 months. (or 4, or never ever depending on how fate plays dice).

Anyhow, travel plans for summer are more or less confirmed. The following is my itinerary:

From today (1 July) till the 5th: Head to the south of France, smell the lavender, drink and eat like mediterranean French do, hit the jackpots of Monaco and come back a millionaire

From the 6th till 10th: Hop over to Barcelona to chill out with a friend there. Make fun of the mimes on Las Ramblas, gape at the Sagrada, watch some beach action, and maybe check out the night clubs.

From 11th till 16th: Visit the queen in London and generally go bankrupt. Stay over at a future i-banker's humble accomodations, call up my friend in Southampton, eat fish and chips, see Big Ben, and generally do the tourist thing until the bank account suffers.

From 17th till the 20th: Parachute into Prague, the most picturesque city in Europe. Meant to be done with a loved one but heck, I'll do some recceing for later. Take pictures and generally soak in the beauty of it all. Eat Czech dosh and then decide that being all alone in an old European city is enough.

21st July: Singapore bound.

So there! If you're ever in any one of those places about during this time, hit me a note or call me.

Summertime - Birds are singing, and the weather is warm...