Merry Christmas, Frau Bienkowski

“They’ve outdone themselves with the decorations,” said Frau B.

Word had it that some of the carers in Wohnbereich 4 had been up since 4 o’clock in the morning. The dining hall had been transformed into a winter wonderland, with baubles, fir tree branches and paper stars adorning the tables and walls. Someone even had the genius idea of hanging cotton buds from the ceiling to resemble a snow scene.

Most of the residents had dressed for the occasion. Frau B had on a navy jacket she’d sewn for herself at the age of 85. On it, she’d pinned a sparkling turquoise brooch. She’d had her hair done too.niko

I complimented her style.

“Katechen,” she whispered. “Have a proper look around. Later, I want you to tell me who you think is the most attractive person here. You’d better be honest though.”

The hired entertainer, an earnest man in a questionable cloud-patterned shirt, led the Christmas carol-sing-along. I heard Frau B join in to Stille Nacht. The lady next to me, who had been whimpering in distress only moments before, began clapping her hands on the table in delight as she hummed along pitch-perfect to the music.

“She has lost her Verstand [has dementia]” Frau Bienkowski whispered. “But occasionally, she has remarkable moments of recall.”

After we had polished off our Stollen (Frau B thought it was sub-par) and the entertainer concluded his festive repertoire, it was time for the exchange of presents. A carer in a Santa costume appeared on a sleigh carting presents for the residents.

“Ho, ho, ho Frohe Weihnachten, liebe Einwohner,” he said, enlisting the help of his colleague, whom he referred to as “mein Engel,” to distribute the gifts.

From observing those around us, we figured out fairly fast that Frau B was likely to get either a large animal-shaped heat cushion or a desk calendar.

It was the latter.envylopy

We had arranged earlier that we would exchange our gifts privately. This was after all, only the nursing home party, not our own.

Later on, back in Frau B’s room, she handed me an envelope. On it was written, in a scrawl I have come to know well, “Katechen.”

“I can’t see what I write,” she said. “So, I was quite impressed that I got any letters down at all.”

She made me promise I wouldn’t open it until I’m back in Ireland on Christmas Eve.

I handed Frau P a bag containing an assortment of perishable gifts. The hamper included a slice of mackerel, two bottles of Berliner Kindl beer,  a box of Lindt chocolates and some organic (it is Christmas, after all) apples.

She told me to hide the beer at the back of the cupboard.

“I’m not going to drink it alone,” she said. I took that as an invitation for a beer date in the new year.

Back in the quietness of the room, I asked Frau B how she had been feeling this week.

“Terrible,” she said. “I really thought my time had come. I was convinced I was going to close my eyes one final time.”

We looked at each other for a long time.

And then it passed and she asked me who I honestly thought was the most attractive resident in Wohnbereich 4.

 

Is the Internet making you more tolerant?

For those of us who work, shop, socialize, bank and even date online, it’s next to impossible to overestimate the effect the Internet has had on our lives. In the places it’s reached, the online revolution has transformed economies and enabled mass communication in ways that seemed inconceivable before.  Economists say that if the internet were a sector, it would be worth more than agriculture. But has the internet changed the way we view the world too?  In particular, has it made us more tolerant?cropped-blogpic.jpg

I checked out some research to find out what scientists have to say on the subject.

  • In 2003, the remote Pacific island of Niue became the first country in the world to offer nationwide free wi-fi.  Almost a decade later, Swedish business student Ludvig Foghammar traveled there to find out whether using the internet was making the islanders more or less tolerant. He monitored the hours inhabitants were spending online and gave them a questionnaire to assess their tolerance.He found that those who used the internet for more than an hour a day scored higher on overall measurements of tolerance. But the findings couldn’t establish a causal link between Internet use and tolerance. After all, people who spent longer online may have been more tolerant in the first place.
  •  In another study published last year, Japanese researchers controlled for a tolerant predisposition when measuring the relationship between internet use and tolerance of foreigners. Their findings supported the link between internet use and social tolerance, even when they controlled for other variables like existing contact with foreigners.
  • Exposure to and acceptance of other belief systems (a key feature of tolerance) on the Internet may also be causing us to abandon our own set of religious convictions. An analysis of two decades worth of data by computer scientist Allen B. Downey led him to conclude that “internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”

These findings might not strike many as particularly surprising.  After all, any repository of easily accessible information is likely to broaden the mind and turn us away from a prescriptive world view.

But is that really how we use the Internet? A cursory glance at the comments section beneath almost any YouTube video or news article shows little sign of tolerance flourishing online.

Many internet users have seized the opportunity of hiding behind an avatar to disseminate their own particular messages of hate. The phenomenon of cyber-bullying gained mainstream media coverage after the 2010 death of teenager Tyler Clementi who killed himself after his flatmate secretly filmed him kissing a man and then released the footage online.

Equally, hate groups made up of xenophobes, misogynists and even terrorists find like-minded company online, often using technology to gain new recruits.

After the Arab Spring, academics engaged in a fiery debate about which had come first: the medium or the message. While some credited social media with mobilizing protesters to come out in force, others argued that its use simply corresponded with a change in attitudes that was occurring offline.

In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, French author J. M. G. Le Clézio  presented a particularly optimistic view of the internet: “Who knows, if the internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded – ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.”

In a week that’s seen terrorist group Islamic State release a fifth video of a beheading online and an eminent astrophysicist publicly burst into tears after the shirt he was wearing during a historic moment in space history caused a #shirtstorm, that view may seem utopian.

I’m on the fence. Have we become more or less tolerant since going online? Post your thoughts below!

Eleven Tips for Aspiring Writers

I began blogging exactly four years ago, at the age of 22. At the time, I was living with my parents in Ireland. I’d graduated from university a few months earlier and had failed to find a job. Consequently, I had no money to travel or to do any of the other things that make long stretches of free time sound idyllic.

I spent my days refreshing the pages of job websites and crafting applications that got no replies. I would sleep in each morning and stay up until silly hours browsing the internet. Life was dull and I was under-stimulated; at 22, I felt ancient.

I was far too proud to borrow money and rejected outright the idea of my parents funding a Master’s. Eventually though, I allowed my mother to pay for me to do a one-month TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. That led to a teaching position, which changed everything. As most of you know, I’m now in Berlin, doing a job I love and against all odds, being paid to write. It hasn’t been a smooth journey and I thought I’d take the occasion of my fourth blog birthday to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.minime3.jpg

Be humble

An inflated sense of entitlement can not only be personally damaging but can harm your job prospects too. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you enjoy a level of material comfort greater than most people in the world. (See this graphic for more info) Working hard and not getting far really sucks but remembering how relatively lucky you are makes you a more likeable, and hence, more employable individual. Expecting some day to get a well-paid and exciting job is fine, as long as you realize that for many people, wondering how they’re going to finance their next meal is a more pressing daily concern. Keep things in perspective.

Find something else to do

Be realistic – hardly anyone gets a writing job straightaway. And if like me, you’re not divinely inspired, you need fodder to fuel your writing on the side. I was lucky that I loved teaching. Being around international students all day long was not only enjoyable, it also gave me lots of story ideas. The busier I was, the more productive I became. I still frequently suffered from writers’ block but at least I had plenty of things to keep my mind off it. Teaching also made me more confident – I had to embrace a leadership role entirely inconsistent with my personality type. (More on personality below, too) Kat Richter, one my favorite bloggers over at Field Work in Stilettos used to write hilarious posts about her mind-numbing job in a shop in Philadelphia. She’s since become a dance teacher and freelance writer.

Red

This picture of books is here simply to add colour.

 

Don’t be too proud

This is something I still need to work on. After I graduated my sister offered to lend me money so I could move away and try my luck elsewhere. I point-blank refused. As I mentioned above, I also turned down my parents’ offer to help finance a Master’s. (That turned out to be a good decision, though at the time it was pride, rather than principle that guided the decision). Allowing my mother to pay for the TEFL course was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my career.

 

Embrace failure

There’s a reason that Resumes of Failures are such popular reads. I’ll write my own sometime but in the meantime here are some of the things I tried really hard for but didn’t achieve: getting an internship at The Irish Times; a job at my local stationery shop, a scholarship to study journalism at Dublin City University; a position at a media start-up in Dublin. In all cases but the stationery shop I came really close. I was in the final six out of 600 applicants for the Irish Times internship; second in line for the journalism scholarship and received a nice phone call from the guy who rejected me from the media start-up telling me that but for my lack of sufficient experience, I’d have been perfect.

 

Know your personality

Being introspective is key to figuring out how to get to where you want to be. I’ve known for a long time that being fairly shy and risk-averse might not be ideal qualities for a journalist. But equally, being sensitive and spending more time listening than speaking makes you a desirable friend and someone people tend to open up to. So while I might never be good at cornering a person and sticking a microphone under their nose, I’m likely to get equally interesting sound-bites by giving people the space and time to open up. And while I’m not particularly assertive, when it really matters, I always speak my mind.

Help others

Helping others get to where they want is the best feeling. If you’ve achieved something, give back by offering someone else a helping hand. My favorite people to help are those that are almost too shy to ask. Those I’m not so fond of tend to be leech-types who attach themselves to you only in the hope of getting something. Last year, for example, I agreed to meet someone I’d never met who’d found me through my blog and wanted to “network.” I took time off work to meet her; she arrived an hour late, slipped me her business card immediately and subsequently sent me several texts and e-mails trying to convince me to leave my current job (and boyfriend) and partner with her in applying for a reporting program abroad.  That didn’t go down too well with me.

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Your blog matters more than you think

I don’t make money directly from this blog (although I do get intriguing advertising offers from time to time) but I’ve had articles here republished on news sites. The article I wrote for the Irish Independent last year was a result of an editor finding me online. Although I’m sometimes embarrassed when work colleagues find my blog, it’s a good way to show your commitment to writing and a more personal side to your work.

Write about what comes naturally

I wish I were good at writing political opinion pieces or snarky responses to bad movies but I’m not. (I still try sometimes though). I find it much easier to write about my friendship with Frau B, people I see on trains and things around me that make me think. It’s good to use your blog as an experiment in writing styles but be careful not to try to become something you’re not. Never try to sound smarter than you are.

Reward yourself for your effort, not your success

There’s a growing body of research indicating that praising children for their effort is more effective than complimenting them for their intrinsic merits. Same goes for yourself. If you’ve managed to scribble something together despite a case of writers’ block, pat yourself on the back for putting in the effort and consider its potential shortcomings afterwards.

Working for free

I did, a lot. Every article you see in my clips for The Journal was unpaid, as was anything I wrote for Generation Emigration. The articles I wrote for Spiegel Online were on an intern’s salary. Did it help me get my current job? Yes. Were they all necessary? Probably not. Would I do it again? Yes. Do I think there are major ethical issues with writing for free? Yes, but only when you’re motivated by desperation rather than opportunism. If you want to write for a living, the chances are you’re going to be working for either a dying medium (in my case television; for others print) or a rapidly-changing one (online). Getting a foot in the door is invaluable and generally unpaid. Know your limits though; in hindsight, I need not have offered to edit a romance novel for free. Once you do start getting paid, be frugal. Writing almost always means embracing an insecure Lifestyle. Always consider alternative income sources.

Be Persistent

I applied for an internship at Spiegel Online after experiencing all the failures listed above. After waiting six months for a response, my mother advised me simply to send it again. I heard back within a week, got a phone interview and moved to Berlin shortly after. Sending that second e-mail radically altered the course of my life.

 

Once upon a time in leafy Charlottenburg…

“Did you ever have any interesting neighbours?” I asked Frau Bienkowski.

She paused to consider.

“I used to live next to a woman who worked as a newspaper deliverer. She would get up at the crack of dawn and go from house to house with her Berliner Morgenpost cart. She earned pittance; I felt very sorry for her.

Then there was the man acoss the way on Nehringstrasse. He had a wife, a mistress and a six-year-old boy. The woman he was having an affair with wanted him to leave his wife. But he said no, because he didn’t want to abandon his child.

Early one morning, when the man and his wife weren’t at home, the mistress came by and murdered the little boy.

She took his body to the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace and threw it into the lake.

When the police got there, they found a Berliner Morgenpost cart on the bridge.

They drove around the area blaring their sirens asking if anyone had seen someone with it.

My neighbour was missing her cart. She’d left it in the foyer of the house across the road while she was delivering the papers.

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

She was an obvious suspect. But in the end, the Police believed her when she said her cart had been stolen. They arrested the murderer; she went to jail for many years. The man and his wife moved away.”

Frau Bienkowski paused.

“Now I come to think of it my poor neighbor really had terrible luck in life. One day when she was delivering the papers, she slipped on some ice and seriously injured her leg. A binman who was passing by carried her home, put her to bed and called a doctor. She could never work again. But because she’d been taken home, rather than left on the street, her insurance wouldn’t cover it as a work-related injury and she didn’t get a pension.

Awfully unfortunate. But enough about neighbours Katechen. When are we having beer?”

 

Gambling on the American Dream

Newark train station, New Jersey.

Homeless men rush to open the door for you. Then, looking you right in the eye, say: “Do you think you could help me out, Ma’m? Spare a few cent?”

Inside, unfortunate people sleep with their belongings on the grand benches in the waiting hall. Some stay  seated – their chins slumped against their chests, while others curl up in a fetal position.

But one woman, more than any other, captured my attention. She was old; seventy at least, with thin lips and narrow-set eyes.

She was very slight and unlike most people at the station, white. Her hands were gnarled; her fingers protruded at all the wrong angles.

She slept for an hour, her disjoined hand resting on the brown carrier bag beside her.

When she woke up, she hooked her hand under the bag and shuffled away, agonizingly slowly.

I watched her empty spot until she returned.  She had bought a packet of Doritos at the station shop. She formed a cup with her hand and dug deep inside the bag.

That’s how I left her as I eventually got up to catch a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia.

"20060627 Trump Taj Mahal from Pacific Avenue" by Original uploader was TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia(Original text : en:User:TonyTheTiger) - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : own picture). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg#mediaviewer/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg User: TonyTheTiger

Trump’s Taj Mahal Creative Commons (c)User TheCatalyst31 originally uploaded by TonyTheTiger source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_City,_New_Jersey

A few days later, after my sister’s wedding, we decide to take a day trip to Atlantic City. Known as the “Las Vegas” of the retired, it is exactly as horrifying as it sounds.

Casinos, gaudy and gigantic, dominate the shoreline. Along the seaside promenade, you can see obese electronic wheelchair users stopping to charge up at designated points. It is a Monday afternoon in July and the casinos are full of elderly people, their eyes glazed over recurring pictures of fruit on the slot machines.

If you turn your back to the promenade though, you can take in the beautiful horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.

A handful of children are in the choppy water, jumping to catch the waves of a faraway ferry.

Every now and then a speedboat glides past. It’s got a large digital display board advertising a restaurant in a nearby casino.

On the way back to the station, I see from a distance a small hunched figure on a bench nursing an enormous soft drink. She has on a headscarf. Beside her is a brown carrier bag.

As I get closer, I recognize the gnarled hands and sunken face.

Maybe she has a pensioners’ travel pass. Or perhaps the ticket inspectors turn a blind eye because of her age. Maybe she does the commute between Newark and Atlantic City every day, just for something to do, or somewhere to go.

The American dream, I think to myself, has been one giant gamble.

Ever the Bridesmaid…

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t managed to marry me off yet, which is a pity since she likes a good wedding. She’s always talking about William and Kate’s and is the first to know about the appearance of a new photograph of Prince George.

She’s interested in failed marriages too. Like those of former president, Christian Wulff who, scandalously, separated twice. And she thinks it’s high time his successor, Joachim Gauck marries his long-term partner. After all, Frau B says, she accompanies him to most official events.

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale www.anonlinegreeworld.com

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale http://www.anonlinegreeworld.com

Luckily for us both, our appetite for wedding-related stories has recently been whetted by living vicariously through my sister, who got married in Philadelphia in July.

Frau B was there every step of the way.

She was thoroughly briefed on the suitor. And on how he met my sister.

(“Everything is possible online these days!” she had said approvingly)

She knew all about  the navy bridesmaid dresses, which we ordered online for $25. She knew my sister was making her own wedding cake. And she had a good knowledge of the guest list too.

Ever the stylist, she worried about how I would wear my hair on the day. She suggested I get the same cut I had last December.

I have documented my fear of hairdressers here before. Believe me, they get worse when you cross the Atlantic. My cutter had scraggly blue hair and dreadful manners. She refused point-blank to cut the shape I wanted, instead insisting, “It’s 2014  dude. You sister is getting married! Try something new.” She also accused me of frequenting “old lady salons.” (She’s right obviously; hip salons don’t have libraries attached.) I ended up with a stupid cut. Relieved I wasn’t the bride.

Frau B was also privy to my pre-wedding music-related woe.(PWMRW; primarily affects  amateur musicians, according to DSM X)

I had brought my violin back from Dublin at Christmas after my sister hinted she might want my (other) sister and me to play during the ceremony.

Things were going okay at first, though I hadn’t played in years. My fingertips were getting tougher and I was playing halfway in tune. Then one night, when I was doing my floor exercises (as you do) LSB tried to step over me to get to the couch.

Except he tumbled over my open violin case instead. I watched as if in slow motion as he landed, knees first on top of the instrument.

Snap. Crack. An expletive.

I twisted out of my yoga pose faster than you can say “downward dog” in time to see my E string spring loose. Then the A string. Then the bridge collapsed. It was all very traumatic.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had to bring it to the Geigenbaumeister. He fixed it for €10 and told me he’d had a Stradivarius in earlier that week. Frau B told me I’d got lucky. She was right. Could have been much worse. Could have been a collapsed Stradivarius bridge.

When I visited her last week, Frau B said: “Tell me everything about the wedding. Then show me the pictures.”

I told her that my sister was objectively the most beautiful bride there’s ever been.

That the wedding took place in a medical museum which boasted among its displays a gigantic colon. (Available for guests to view before dinner).

That everyone survived the violin duet.

That the cake was spectacular.

That my tough big sister had to try really hard not to cry during the (self-written) vows.

That I had to try even harder.

When I showed her the pictures,  Frau B said. “My! What long hair your sister has got!”

Want to win the World Cup? Try “Konzentration”

I meant to post this yesterday but didn’t get around to it, sorry! The story begins at the Brandenburg Gate 24 hours ago:

As I write the German football team are dancing on a stage at the Brandenburg Gate. Before their “Sieger Flieger” landed, the plane took a spin over the fan-zone, where half a million people clad in red, black and gold were waiting to welcome their heroes home.

I have no idea how half a million people have nowhere else to be on a weekday morning. But this is Berlin; they’re probably in the creative industry or have called in sick.

As I watch Berlin explode with festivities, I’m reminded of the cliché that when Germans do party, they tend to party hard.

And, come to think of it, identifying the right time to party has been key to this team’s success.

Throughout Germany’s stellar World Cup campaign, coach Joachim Löw has refused to celebrate prematurely.  Instead, he remained adamant that each team Germany faced had the potential to end their championship dream. He was right too; after his side’s spectacular 4-0 defeat of Portugal, Germany could only muster a 2-2 draw against Ghana.

And after their epic 7-1 win over Brazil, which broke social media as well as footballing records, he remained determined in his caution.

Löw’s measured style may be seen as a tactic to keep his team level-headed before the final. But it was matched, if not exceeded by Merkel’s  endearingly understated response.

Appearing at a press conference the day after her country’s  7-1 defeat of Brazil, she said: “I agree with the global opinion that it was a very good match … I think it almost merits the description ‘historic.’”

She went on to wish the team “strength and concentration for the task at hand.”

Strength and concentration, seasoned with some good old-fashioned caution,  is the German recipe for Weltmeisterschaft success. What’s yours?

Help! I am an insufferably smug gardener

Okay, I admit it. Ever since I planted some radish seeds and bought a pot of dahlias, I’ve become quite insufferable.

I’d been looking for a new hobby, you see. My small, north-facing balcony was looking sad and bare so I decided to take up gardening. But before you could say “from seed to sprout” my hobby had become an obsession and I was finding myself boasting about my zucchinis at social events.

My plant-purchasing habit has since spiralled out of control and my balcony can no longer accommodate my botanic buys. The obvious solution might be to stop acquiring vegetation but instead, I have directed my attention to house plants.

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren't they just wonderful?

Look at my beautiful plants!!! Aren’t they just wonderful?

I recently signed up to the Berlin section of Freecycle, an online portal where users offer to give away items they no longer want. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that someone in Friedrichshan was giving away a Crassula ovata, known more commonly as the “money tree.” He also mentioned that he intended to shed two spider plants (or Chlorophytum comosum, to nerdier naturalists).

The kind stranger lived on the sixth-floor of an uninviting block of flats close to Alexanderplatz. Upon disembarking the lift, I encountered several entrances boarded up with concrete. It occurred to me that the promise of a free money tree may have lured me into a murderous, Communist-style Venus Fly trap. But soon enough a young man appeared and led me to his doorstep, where the three potted plants were ready for collection.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

This money tree is NOT a desk plant.

The money tree turned out to be several times larger than I had expected. It became clear to me that this was not going to be the desk plant I had envisioned.

My benefactor was slight and shy and appeared quite keen to keep our encounter brief. He expressed some sympathy with me for having to ferry the portly plants across the city and advised me to re-pot the money tree.

As well as receiving quite a lot of attention on the tram, I was a little concerned about the fact that I was on the way to a work social event and would not have time to stop by at home to drop off my tree.

Needless to say, arriving at a bar wielding an enormous plant proved an ideal opportunity once again to regale my colleagues with my latest botanic news.

It would seem wrong to sign off without mentioning that my oregano is doing well, that my cress is developing nicely and that both made a flavourful appearance in my omelet this morning.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

My radishes are ravishing! And my cress is far from crass.

Why I want to get naked at Teufelsee

A little while ago, LSB and I were cycling through a forest. The sun was glistening through the leaves. The air was sweet. All you could hear was the crunch of tyres on the path.

Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves at a lake. A sign told us we had arrived at “Teufelsee.” Naked men and women were lounging on the grass reading magazines, while others stood knee-deep in the water, patting their arms with water before diving in. Up a little hill, a young and bare-skinned couple was embracing. Unmoving and perfectly entwined, they reminded me of a Renaissance painting.

“This is wonderful,” I said to LSB as we walked by some middle-aged men and women chatting together; their breasts and penises exposed as naturally as my hands or feet.

“It’s nice,” he said, and pointed to a group of ducklings, which were creating tiny ripples as they paddled behind their mother.

Image source: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Freikörperkultur – or free body culture – thrived in Communist East Germany, where people knew a thing or two about being denied personal freedom. The movement spread to West Germany and now even in a united and free Germany, nudist areas are relatively common.

A few months ago, I was writing a news story about nudist bathing spots in Munich. “It’s not right,” my young, male editor said.  “What’s not right?” I asked.

“Imposing yourself on others,” he said. “I don’t want to see some…” He paused.

“…Fat people.” I think he had wanted to say “ugly” too but stopped himself.

If words have a smell, these reeked of privilege and prudishness.

That, coupled with the recent click-whorish delight he had displayed while creating a photo gallery of women posing for a sexy Alpine-themed calendar under the caption “Farm girls calendar shows pick of the crop” made me see red.

“People don’t exist for your viewing pleasure,” I said.

He scoffed. “I don’t want to be confronted with some .. naked person when I’m walking down the street,” he said.

Poor man, I thought. Imagine his horror when he realises not every woman looks like the Alpine farm girls. Or that men get old and have saggy flesh and that someday, he will too.

I read the following quote recently, which sums up perfectly what I want to say:

“It is illegal for women to go topless in most cities, yet you can buy a magazine of a woman without her top on in any 7-11 store. So you can sell breasts, but you cannot wear breasts, in America. ”

It is okay to post naked pictures of women on the internet, as long as it generates clicks and income for your website. It is not okay to meet one in real life. Particularly if she doesn’t conform to your ideals.

And here is the saddest part.

Even though I have promised myself I will, I have reservations about going nudist bathing at Teufelsee. I dread the idea of meeting someone I know, or alarming somebody with my less-than-perfect body.

Because in spite  – or maybe because of – of all the education I have had; the material comfort and political freedom I enjoy,   somewhere along the way, I failed to learn that my body has to please nobody but myself.

The Quiet Revolution

Susan Cain’s “Quiet“came out in 2012 and her TED talk about introversion has been viewed more than 8 million times.

So having just finished reading the book, I’m a little late to the party. But it’s one of the few I’m happy to be at!

Susan Cain’s argument is that introverts live in a world designed for extroverts. She says western society fails to value the traits associated with quieter, more reflective types.

And it’s true. We value speaking over listening, flamboyance over reservation and risk taking more than caution.

Cain believes that our schools and workplaces are designed for the loud and commanding and that such individuals often flourish at the expense of the more sensitive and careful-minded.

Of course, as a self-diagnosed introvert, reading “Quiet” brought with it a great sense of validation. As I raced through the book, I re-purposed all of my perceived failings (lack of assertiveness, fear of public speaking, dislike of group conversations) into virtues (talent for listening, social intelligence, capable of intimacy).

Susan Cain doesn’t dislike extroverts. In fact, she is married to one (which may or may not have inspired her to write “Quiet”.)

Instead, her “Quiet revolution” is about reclaiming the traits which have become sidelined in a society obsessed with the limelight and where what she calls the Culture of Character, which emphasised values and morality, has been replaced by the Culture of Personality, which values the ability to entertain.  And even if she herself doesn’t, her message speaks volumes.