Stories and histories

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words. These antiques live down at Mu Lan Warehouse, a two hours away trip by metro and bus from the center of Shanghai. Spiced up by layers of dust and erosion, by dirt and hundreds of engraved fingerprints, they routinely inhabit an old, covert secondhand store in a space forgotten by the fast pace of the big city’s hustle and bustle. The spirit of these objects’ previous owners live on through them. The lives, stories and trajectories of their owners are deep inside the core of the antiques. At the same time, these broken down, malfunctioning and in a way ‘dead’ items tell a story of their own existence. They have a life of their own and possess an acting energy, a life force to call it so, that exercises an influence on owners. Of course, the owners had an agency of their own that guided the trajectories of the objects.

In a material culture world, these articles are more than lifeless things, they are actors that impose their will on people and spaces. What might their stories and histories be?

Their beauty and uniqueness lies in the dust that covers them, in their cracks, in the faded paint, in the fingerprints that touched them. Antiques have soul or a multiplicity of souls that can touch your inner self, your life, your space, your house. They come with a vibe that bounces back and forth between past, present and future. Antiques kick ass in comparison to new, mass-produced, hollow items.

I don’t want to make a case about how sustainable it would be if we were to adopt these antiques and give them a new home, instead of buying new articles all the time, whose production requires the use of too many resources!

But let’s imagine the stories of the antiques  in the pictures!

Female silhouette frame:

The deceased Mr. Weng Zhou purchased the object at a flea market during a business trip to Beijing on the 12th of September 1955. He hid it in a secret compartment of his brown leather suitcase and never revealed it to anyone. When he got back home to Guangzhou, in the middle of the night, he locked it up  in the drawer of his desk. He was fascinated by the female silhouette, attracted by its shapes and by its apparent nudity. He imagined its nudity, he played with it. Every midnight he would slip out of his matrimonial bed and go to his desk, take out the female silhouette, gaze at it for hours on end and get lost in imaginary scenes of passion and perversion. His wife was a shy lady that never wanted to experience anything new in bed and had a totally conservative notion of what their sex life should be. The female silhouette incited Mr. Zhou’s and his midnight fantasies made up for his wife’s lack of imagination. When Mr. Zhou died, his children inherited his possessions and decided to get rid of the ‘useless’ decorative objects. They frowned when they found the female silhoutte and threw it in a bin never to talk about it again. The female silhoutte was meant to burn with a pile of rubbish in an incinerator outside of Guangzhou. However, the antique collector, nicknamed Tintin (yes, like the Belgian comic book character) rescued it during one of his collection journeys and brought it back to his Shanghai store.

 

Broken typewriter:

My name’s Jack the Ripper. I killed a few, but I also gave birth to a few…books, satires, novels, poems, letters, newspaper articles, love notes, etc. My keys moved with the speed of light from morning ’til dawn, at very  odd moments. I slept very little, if at all. I never took a rest and I almost never had time to replace my ink. My life was long and painful, whereas my friends, the poor paper sheets, were regularly doomed, destined to die as soon as they were picked up by my master’s fingers. During my entire lifetime, I gave birth to 3 novels, 4 love letters, 12 break-up letters, 3 satires, 55 poems, one nonfiction book and a bunch of newspaper articles. Should I be content? I killed, ripped, cut the throat and abdomens of other 113 letters, 12 novels, 5 books, 89 poems, 27 love notes and 43 newspaper article. I am surely an innate murderer. Despite, my life was nothing but miserable. I fretted the writing pace of my master, he struck me down various times, he tossed me in the middle of the room, he threatened to burn me and terrorized me with abandonment. He poured whiskey on me, he smashed glasses of wine on my keys, he took out the letters he hated,  he punished me for his writer’s block and every second day he would pathetically apologize to me. He liked to call me “The industrial-strength machine” since I was highly resistant to his constant abuses. I felt more like ‘Jack the ripper’, guilty and full of shame. Of course I wasn’t psychotic, but one day I couldn’t take my master’s temper anymore and I broke down for good. He put me out angrily in the middle of the road, hoping that a car would run me over and smash me into little pieces, However, his will was not to be. It so happened that Tintin saw me when he was crossing Wuding Lu, picked me up and took me to his antique store with the taxi. I get peace, company and a lot of affection from visitors in the store. Look, I was even given  a voice by a visitor and now hundreds of people will get to see me and know my story. Boy, I am happy!

Can you imagine the stories of the other objects in the pictures?

Thoughts of wisdom

 

I love people’s diversity and their inner resources of wisdom. Hence, a few years ago I decided to collect the thoughts and ideas of my friends, of acquaintances and travellers I came into contact with. Unfortunately, I got caught up with other things and I stopped doing it. However, I promised myself I will collect fragments of wisdom again. Here’s what I got so far: 

 

” A poetic vision comes from observing a creative landscape, then act upon it. The key is to realize what the action will be, or will do to you and others. “  By Julien Pearly from France

 

” A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes!” Adam Barnett citing Gandhi from Edinburgh

 

“I wish I was                                                                                                                                  

Where I was                                                                                                                                          

When I was wishing                                                                                                                            

To be here. ”                                                                                                                                          

By Cristina Grigore from Pitesti

 

“Words I spill on paper,                                                                                                                        

Ideas trapped in blue ink.                                                                                                                    

My thoughts are fireflies in flight;                                                                                                      

They lose their light when                                                                                                                  

With clumsy hands                                                                                                                              

I catch them.”                                                                                                                                          

By Ana from Brazil

 

“If you give a warm enough rope to hang itself it’ll turn around and bite the hand that feeds it.”  By Ivan Rochford from Ireland 

 

“O ramurica pe o stea –                                                                                                                    

 uite, a incoltit luna!                                                                                                                              

Cine scutura mugurii                                                                                                                          

lucitori noaptea pe cer?                                                                                                                    

A intunecat un gnom noaptea!                                                                                                         

Si ce a facut gnomitza?”                

By Elena Daniela Smoke from Pitesti

 

“A smile and a pleasant turn of phrase.                                                                                          

Take pleasure in the mine of life. Happiness is a choice” Anonymous

 

“If we are attached to smaller joy, then it is impossible to attain bigger joy.” By Tashi from Tibet

 

“Words are not enough to describe reality” By Lawrence Pedregosa from the Philippines 

 

“No smart quotes from me, my mind, thoughts, ideas change with every encounter.”      By Ahmed Ismail from Egypt

 

“El medio es la actitud.” By Carlos Brown from Canary Islands 

 

“It’s safer to believe in religion than not to believe. If at the end of time it’s proven that there is no religion , I guess we have nothing to lose.” By Immanuel from Nigeria

 

 “Life short                                                                                                                                              

suffering tall                                                                                                                                          

 plenty of water                                                                                                                                      

 no fish                                                                                                                                                    

no fish at all.

“By Kokothett from Myanmar 

 

“In summer the trees are full                                                                                                              

In winter they are bare                                                                                                                      

No leaf falls in the wrong place.”                                                                                                    

By Stan from Ireland            

 

“It’s interesting to see how a combination of different perspectives can enrich or change someone’s outlook on life.” By Jeroen from Leuven

 

“Knowledge opens several doors, but you close the one you want to open. That will make the difference in your life. Which one is the right door? Nobody knows. Just make sure the way to happiness doesn’t become harder.” By David from Czeck Republic 

 

“Confused? At loss at what to do? Don’t worry, you’re only human. Happiness is a state of mind.” By Florian Piron from Belgium

 

“All the small things matter!” By Julio Rodriguez from Ecuador 

 

“Travel to unknown places will be nourishment for your soul. It’s about learning to leave friends behind , but gain so many new friends on the way.” By Lukas from Lausanne

 

“Every action should bring you more freedom!” By Sebastien from Lausanne

 

that_s_all_folks__by_surrimugge-d6rfav1

For now!

 

 

 

 

At the Movies

 

Chamomile is my cup of tea

Old notes, the purple lilies of the field

The dusty, rigid, oak tree chairs

The spirit of the past, dim lights

And oldies music set the scene.

The sounds of life, a child’s energy

Blonde heads and quiet dreams

All captured in the room

In the entirety of its sea

Across the stage of hopes and screens

There is a writer

Creation and impression,

Spontaneous intention.

Last winter’s cold day, the coming of spring

There is a stranger caught in my string.

Timid glances and loud laughs

Our nervous moves on Milli Vanilli are delirious

Chamomile is my cup of tea!

His is syrup from the pine tree.

Have you ever been at the movies?

What is coffee?

coffee

 

An aromatic, bitter strong drink with a distinctive taste that forces your body and mind to come to life.  A dark brown beverage that marks the start of a new day. A liquid that takes our taste buds by surprise and gives us a boost of energy in the morning. A mildly sweet drink that envelops us in humble pleasure. Precious fine coffee crystals that delight our smell sense. An essential product that has been, is and will be exchanged all over the globe for profit. The nectar of the gods that only high-class nobles had access to in the Europe of the Middle Ages. Odoriferous coffee beans produced at high altitudes (arabica)  and at lower altitudes  (robusta). A vital part of breakfast. An indispensable part of work and business culture. A symbol of high-class. Everlasting pride for coffee connoisseurs.

What is coffee? A means and an excuse to socialize, to spend hours talking over a cup of coffee. A magical beverage served when you visit a friend’s or acquaintance’s house and you lose track of time exchanging news and information. Something that gives you a reason to gossip forever. In Turkey, Greece and Romania coffee is closely related to foreseeing the future. Coffee is a way of passing time and taking guesses in what might happen to you in the next few days, weeks or months. Fortune-telling in coffee cups marked my childhood. It was something magical, mysterious and somehow hopeful. This cultural custom drew me in until I felt completely absorbed by the world of coffee. I was swirling in a whirlwind heading to the bottom of the cup where the gate to stories and future predictions stood. The coffee cup had agency, had a power of its own, had the ability to tell you what you hoped it might happen. How did this happen?

I remember that ever since I was 4 or 5, old enough to understand what happened around me, I was granted permission to participate at my grandmother’s get-togethers with her neighborhood friends. They would come over to our flat and sit at the kitchen table over cups of homemade coffee and small plates of rose jam. After finding their sits at the table these ladies started discussing the newest happenings of our small city, family business/ problems and future opportunities. This group of ladies, together with my grandma, functioned as an unwritten daily newspaper of our small city or the daily news radio show. As a child I was delighted to be allowed to listen to and to be included in adults’ talks. For them I was only the cameo of the movie, but I felt like the director granted me the main part. It made me feel important and I was hoping to grow up as soon as possible to comprehend even more those mysterious things they were talking about. As a child my curiosity had no boundaries and I devoured all the tittle-tattle they passed around. The conversations smelled like freshly ground coffee and tasted like sweet, pink roses. Once in a while I received permission from my grandmother to have a few sips of coffee. On those occasions, when the ladies’ had finished their coffee they told me to spin one of the cups, to turn it upside down and then to put it on a small plate. Afterwards, I left the cup there for the coffee grounds to dry up. It came as a surprise that a few minutes later these chatterers proceeded to interpret the symbols and images that appeared inside the porcelain cups. They were fortune-telling. This act felt mysterious to me. One of my grandmother’s friends was always especially good at doing this. She was a true storyteller and captivated the attention of the audience not only with her carefully selected words, but also with her imposing figure. She was a 1.8 m tall lady, with a heavy and strong body who used to read magazines about paranormal activities. and allowed me to do so to. I was a sucker for the occult and for mysterious, unexplainable phenomena. She was also the one who took delight in summarizing for me the books of Alexandre Dumas , Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. Thus, she inflicted on me an ardent desire to read, a passion for books and a wish to grow up faster in order to be capable to grasp the meaning of those books. She used to tend to me when my parents were away for work and I have to say she did a superb job. She opened me up to the world around me and fed me curiosity. The curiosity to read, to know more, to learn, to explore the universe, to listen to people’s stories and to write my own, to become an intellectual and to keep evolving. She made amazing brownies too and used green coloured lipsticks that turned red when applied on the lips.

I loved her and I never got to say goodbye before she passed away. But thanks to her, coffee became my best friend. Aid when reading and assistance when writing. A special artefact that inspires me and acts as a referee at social encounters. A beverage that hides a story at the bottom of the porcelain cup (snakes, tigers, owls, figures of men and women, bees, waterfalls that signify wealth, money, danger, betrayal, good luck, future trips, arrival of love). Coffee is a friend. A cup of coffee is, for me, full of my grandmother’s friend’s spirit. A cup of coffee is a flawless confidant to intellectual affairs. It gives an intense flavour to special books, to important life journeys, to changes, to philosophical movies, to artsy museum exhibitions, to late mornings, to good friends, to lovers, to affluent writers and famous historical figures, to choices, to travels, to my perfumes and lipsticks, to my kisses and to crossroads.

Over a cup of coffee I started listening to Ayn Rand’s audiobook ‘Atlas Shrugged’. As a child I used to listen to immortal stories series on radio cassettes.Those fantastic stories fascinated me and accompanied my afternoon naps. When I rediscovered the habit of listening to stories I was over the moon. I had some problems sleeping and I made audiobooks my sound sleep medicine. So what impression did Atlas Shrugged leave on me? What struck me about it? The spirit of Atlas Shrugged and how I felt when I listened to it. In general and in real life I believe that economic monopolies are to be condemned and I am all for the equality of chances for small and big producers alike. Thus, I understand the side of the opposition against Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, but I also feel for them, for their support of reason and efficiency. There is something outrageous in how they are being sabotaged. My heart goes to support them and I am on the side of reason this time. The stance of exaggerated postmodernism of industrialists, the scientists’ group, the government and even part of the philosophers in Atlas Shrugged represents yet another failure of society to reach an equilibrium. Combating Dagny’s and Hank’s cold, austere personalities and their feverish chase for profits are not justified if pursued through unjust and equally shameful and unscrupulous means. In the end all that sticks whenever I finish listening to whole passages of Atlas Shrugged is that I feel for Dagny Taggart’s and Hank Rearden’s struggles against the coalition formed to ensure their failure.

However, what strikes me the most in this book is the accentuated question : ‘Who is John Galt’?  A ghost, an unknown man trapped in the world of legends, a supposedly important affluent man who found the lost town of Atlantis, a mockery, an unresolved question, an unsolvable issue, but also a symbol of unprecedented power.

Coffee and the question ‘Who is John Galt’ helped me advance in life through hardships, through political changes, through the realization that I only have agency on myself and my life (sometimes not even that), that I am the size of an ant in the world and that I might not even be able to arrange my own life, let alone helping others. At the same time hearing and assimilating  the question “Who is John Galt’ gives me a sense of pleasure, makes me feel like I can lose myself in the absurdly gigantic world that surrounds us and in the vast array of choices we are given. It can make me disappear and live my life in my own imagination, in books and glasses of wine, in coffee cups filled and enjoyed in cottages in the middle of the forest. Atlas Shrugged reinforces my belief that nothing matters anyways (except how you make yourself feel) before you die. Hence, no matter how disappointed you are with life and what happens in your reality you can always escape for a while like John Galt and you can let absurd legends and stories form around your character. In the end you can get reborn from your own ashes and become a successful business ( like the John Galt railway line). For a while, at least. Then it’s time for another book or perhaps a movie?

Coffee and movies. My favourite movie director, Woody Allen, possesses the mind of a genius. I love the way he regards life and the way he treats it in his movies. His quotes and sentences are like a bitter-sweet muffin to me, pure delight and amazing sarcasm. His humourous dark comedies touch the insides of my soul and mind. I identify with what he created in his movies. His dramatic comedies sweeten loss and pain by transforming them into the witty  and amusing absurdities of life. These add page after page to the albums of our existence called experiences.

So let me take a quote of his and share my thoughts on it: “I am not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Let’s put this in a simple way. No one desires to end her or his life in painful ways. If we were given a choice in advance we will all opt for dying in our sleep or when we are unconscious. If we are masters of our own lives, why can’t we be the monarchs of our own deaths? I am with Woody Allen on this and I think that the best way of dying is without feeling it and without realizing it.Why is this so?  Because no matter how many times I meditate, I read Buddhist books or want to believe in an afterlife  I am still afraid and cannot conceive the moment when my spirit and my whole being will cease existing. I cannot cope with the reality of death and its implications. I can accept it, but I cannot stop being afraid of it. I think you are never really ready to die, unless you are a monk or an illuminated being (and I am pretty sure that even they have some unresolved issues related to death somewhere deep in their subconscious). I remember talking to an old person and asking her how she perceives death. She said that no one is ever ready to die because they have a desire to keep living, experiencing and seeing the changes that happen around the world. Can we really say at any point in our life that we are ready to pass on, that we can let go of all our loved ones, that we renunciate feeling, thinking, experiencing and that we have no traces of curiosity left for what another day of life might bring to us?

 

Daydreaming

 

A red lucky moving hand Japanese cat

Looks insistently at a Westerner with a hat

The street barbecue floats in fat

The teachers gave a talk to a random Matt

A handsome Korean on an Alvar Aalto chair sat

Another daydreaming session in a café

With my pet the rainbow bat

The letters of a faded, burnt postcard

Rotate with fervor in a mental hospital ward

Imaginary friends eat a bowlful of lard

The emperor’s castle collapsed and killed the bard

The foundations of this fantasy story are hard

Covered in milk the lamp seems a tart

I am stuck in a corner; I am Alice in love with a leopard

At the counter full of cakes there is a clown

The odd collection of teaspoons fell down

The construction worker, the nurse, the guard are all sound

But the sofas, the fluorescent walls, the plants are bound

Are chained to my notebook while they drown

In the room there is a single crown

The queen lost, the plot was written by my hound.

Christmas and Love: Controversial in Shanghai

 

 

 

It’s a rather warm Sunday, winter afternoon and it is Christmas Eve. It is one of the most charming and lovely days for me. I would have liked to admire the frozen nature and for my face to be bitten by the rushing wind, the flakes of snow and the cold air. Since mother Nature refuses to comply with my wishes I decide to make the most of my time strolling through a park. Thus, I leave the coziness and isolation of my house for a relaxing walk in People’s Park. (In China, by name, everything belongs to the people; e.g. :people’s money, people’s square, people’s bank, people’s hospital etc. Sounds like heaven, unfortunately it isn’t so).

Back to myself. I feel nostalgic and memories of Christmases past flood my mind. Imagine! Hills covered in blankets of immaculate snow, children giggling and running towards the very top of sharp-sculpted valleys with their sledges, people going to church when evening settles in, groups of boys and girls travelling from house to house to sing decades old carols, hosts receiving guests with a glass of mulled wine and a slice of sweet walnut bread (cozonac), delicious food shared by family and friends near the stove, the smell and heat of burning wood in my grandparents’ house, rosy cheeks and noses, woolen hats and gloves and vapors of hot air leaving our mouths and becoming magical floating smoke in the cold. And that is the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of winter that I am missing so in China. I did find at least a dozen small Christmas markets in Shanghai and fancy elaborate Christmas decorations in every reputable shopping mall. Probably this made it better than being stuck for Christmas in…let’s say, Saudi Arabia. However, the superficiality and commercialism of the holiday is what dominates Christmas in China. The kindness of Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, the feeling of being in a community where people share the same believes and relate to the most important festive season of the year in the same way is somewhere far away.

While all of this makes sense because Christmas is not a holiday rooted in Chinese culture my heart still aches. Why? In the upcoming years the government and certain cultural conservationist advocacy groups decided to forbid Christmas decorations in public areas. Their scope is to encourage Chinese people to concentrate on their own holidays and customs. They want to sabotage Christmas! Gosh, that is sad. People won’t even be free to enjoy Christmas decorations in public places any longer? Let’s just take it the other way around. In any of the countries I have lived before (Romania, UK, Turkey, Belgium) I was free to enjoy and attend celebrations belonging to various religious and ethnic groups. Displays of joy and decorations were welcomed and not ostracized. Shouldn’t we, inhabitants of Earth, by now celebrate and accept multiculturalism? Withdrawing into our own conservative, nationalistic corners that proved times and again to fail is not the right path for future evolution. Didn’t we learn already that not love and accepting each other means failure?

So just because I am not Buddhist or because I am not Asian, it does not mean that I should not be allowed to  celebrate or share the meaning and joy of Chinese New Year. Many other people and I are curious about others’ holidays and their meanings and would like to celebrate along with them.  And we usually have the freedom to experience that in any European country. But tables might turn in China….Chinese people might not have the same privilege in their own country and with them everyone else will be denied Christmas.

Now, let me tell you what Christmas was all about in People’s Park. The main scene was occupied by a huge marriage market. Middle-aged people and a few youngsters arranged colorful open umbrellas on the sides of alleys on the ground and stuck A4 papers on top. These sheets of paper contained the personal information of the elders’ daughters, sons or other related singles who wanted to get lucky in love. If you have ever been to a market: vegetable, fruit, flea market, etc. you will have an idea of how things were displayed here. Every person was standing next to the other and was advertising attractive marriage partners on A4 papers placed on top of her or his umbrella. They were also calling attention to more than one person. The most interesting part was that the man or woman who was mentioned on the sheet paper was not present and there wasn’t even a picture of them displayed. So what did this paper contain? The year of birth, age, job, height, university attended, phone number, what was their material situation (whether they had a car or a house), what province they were born in and future requirements from a partner. Everything was so chaotic and there were probably a few hundred people circulating through the market. There was a constant flow, a vibe of looking for the right arrangement. Old people were walking around and engaging in talks with one another exchanging information about their ‘goods’. The ones who were publicizing and trying so hard to find suitable partners for their offspring were calling out to passers-by. According to which principles are these marriages arranged? Who is considered a potential suitable partner for one’s daughter or son? What are usually regarded as good marriages in China according to parents and grandparents? Most old people or middle-aged ones resort to traditional matchmaking methods. Thus, they try to match future partners by analyzing their birth dates and their representative animal signs. Due to the unequal ratio of men to women (too many men and not enough women) brides-to-be require houses and cars or other monetary gifts as wedding dowries. Where is the love in all of these? Potential partners contact each other by phone or wechat (the Chinese version of whatsapp) and end up going for blind dates. Arranged marriages or at least arranged blind dates are all too common in China. Why? Because parents and grandparents pressure young people to get married and have children. That is the ultimate goal that young people should fulfill in China. The pressure is even higher for women, who come to be considered leftover women if they reach the age of 30 and they are still single.

Where is the love in all this affair? The delight and freedom of selecting one’s partner, the spontaneous first interactions and innocent flirts, the idea that you are independent and that you are in charge of selecting whom to share your life with, the ideal that love is not material, that love is not something that should be arranged or advertised or sold? That love happens in mysterious ways and exactly that is its charm? Well, that concept of love, that construction of the feeling of love varies from individual to individual and from country to country. Love is nothing but a made-up cultural and psychological concept which we learn from childhood onwards. We acquire the information on how to live it, how to feel it and how to think about it from our surroundings and experiences. The concept of love: what I described above, the ‘genuine love’ that some might say comes spontaneously and is partly based on shared interests, personalities, physical attractions and common goals is something we see in movies, in magazines, on TV shows, at celebrities, in articles, in books, idealized in our own minds and most of all in talks with people who share the same ideas about what love is. However, in China love can happen in arranged marriages, love can happen through blind dates, love can happen through negotiation and love can come if material requirements are met.