It’s September – what?

Today is the first of September. And a small part of me wants to take part in the seemingly collective response of: ‘Holy shit?! How is it September already?!’ but a larger part of myself wants to appreciate what I’ve done for the last month, or two, or eight. Now, this isn’t because I think I’m amazing or ahead of the game…actually quite the contrary.

I often feel like I’m not doing enough work (before anyone who knows me starts shouting at me, I know this is untrue), and I often feel like I’m falling behind on things. I rarely finish my to do lists (but that’s because they’re too full and aren’t actually realistic), but also rarely forget to do stuff and/or miss deadlines so I think I’m getting some things right.

But back to it being September.

The internet wants me to constantly be stressed about doing a PhD. It’s the common trope: the frazzled, up late at night working, stressed PhD student. I really don’t want to say that this isn’t the case for a lot of people, but I just hate the idea that that is the norm. Again, I don’ t want to say that this isn’t a real lived experience for a lot (far too many) students, and let’s be honest I’m often in the lab way too long after 5pm too. But when you search anything to do with PhD life, studies, careers, etc. everything that seems to come up are blog posts about how the PhD is the most stressful time of your life, about how supervisors tell students what to do, and about how the pressure is so big.

All these things are probably true. But why are they the norm? And it’s not just the internet that’s perpetuating this image of the PhD student: When I talk to some PhD students I feel guilty for taking weekends off. For not working when I’m at home. For having a good night’s sleep. Too often I even feel bad for being productive. It makes no sense.

I think this ties in with the whole ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. We never feel like we have done enough. We always look for our flaws, about how we had too many tea breaks yesterday, and ultimately about how we’re never going to amount to anything unless we stare at this document for the next 5h not really changing much but just avoiding sleep.

And I think that the image of the frazzled and stressed PhD student contributes to this. And I hate that it’s become the norm. I’ve had chats with some others about this, and I’ve definitely felt like I’m ‘doing it wrong’ at stages where I’ve not felt like all the internet tells me I should feel about my PhD.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love PhDcomics and all the other blogs, comics, and sites about how to write your PhD, how to survive your PhD, how to get a job after your PhD, etc. as much as the next PhD student – but where’s the balance? Where’s the alternative? Where’s the positive, the hope?

So that’s why I’m trying not to engage in the ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. I’m trying to tell myself I’ve done enough for the month to tick over.

Time waits for no one. Not even stressed out PhD students.

I’ve not completed my to-do list for the month, but I’ve done enough to be happy with what I’ve done. I went on holiday – on an actual, real holiday. That alone should be enough of a success in August! But I’ve also done loads of other stuff – and I’ve got stuff planned for September. It’s going to be a great month; even better than August was. Because that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I’m trying to relax and enjoy the PhD-ride.

So bring it on, September. Bring It On (Again)

 

 

Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.

One world Romania

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This past week was the One World Romania  Film Festival. The picture above was taken in the Muzeul Taranului (Peasant Museum).

I am not a film critic, and will not pretend to be. I don’t know much about films. I just know I enjoy watching documentaries and somehow end up at different film festivals. If you want a proper review of this festival or the movies I am going to talk about, this is not the place to go. I will simply give my opinions and impressions from the two movies I watched: 727 days without Kamaro and American Vagabond. Stay on the lookout for them on a new segment I am calling Thoughtful Thursday...even if my writing wont be particularly thoughtful. I like the alliteration, okay?

The two extremes

Today has been a slightly strange day. I got up quite early to go to the private school where I will be conducting my small research project to have a meeting with the principal about my project.

After that I took the bus to the NGO where I’m doing my research. Seriously. I went from one extreme to the other. Rich school to a centre for people who have nowhere else to go.

Personally, I think that these extremes are perfect examples for the way Bucharest is set up. There is such a huge number of people living off the €200 they make at their jobs (and I am not talking about really ‘bad’ jobs, but jobs regular people do. You know, building things, shop assistants, etc.), and a large number of people that do not even have that, but there are also a great number of people who make millions. You can see them drive around in their Porsches and Ferraris, which for me is strange, becuase at the number of potholes in the roads I wonder how their cars aren’t constantly broken…

Something that is great about Bucharest though, is that there is a growing middle class. It is definitely growing and quite visibly doing so. An example of this is the Pipera-Tunari area. 15 years ago there was nothing there. And when I mean nothing, there really was NOTHING. Grazing land. Sheep. The former owner of the area sold the land at pretty high prices and now resides in a huge villa. Around 1o years ago some expats began moving into the area because a school had recently moved there. But the amount of growth that has happened in the last 5 years is amazing.

The last time I was in Bucharest (2.5 years ago) some companies had built buildings and there were some new offices, but now this is a new place. People actually take the metro to the last stop now. There is more than one maxitaxi route, huge office parks, new bridges criss-crossing roads to reduce traffic, restaurants, shops, supermarkets. Everything you can think of. It’s a proper suburb now.I still remember when Taxis wouldn’t take you to this part of town without charging twice the rate because they would have to drive back to the town empty.

It’s strange, because Bucharest has developed so much over the last couple of years. Some other changes that I have observed are that people dress differently than they used to, there is actually less traffic although peoples lives have improved, you can just go to the supermarket and buy whatever it is you need, there are fewer street dogs and what seems to be a higher percentage of spayed and neutered dogs (seen by a tag in their ears). There are also more people riding bicycles and scooters. The buses are air-conditioned and peoples’ driving seems to be following the laws at least some of the time.

It’s great to see this city become more and more developed without losing its charm. Despite the many changes it is still the Bucharest I loved. No matter how much certain aspects of the city are turned onto their head, some things never change.

The homeless child experiment. A response

I recently found this video on youtube, and am not quite sure how to respond to it. Yes, it’s showing some interesting and probably true sides of society’s ignorance towards homelessness, but it is also giving what I feel to be somewhat false information on (child) homelessness in the USA and subsequently the rich world. In the UK alone, there are 80,000 children that are homeless; they may not be as obviously homeless as in developing countries, but they are homeless nonetheless. Before writing my thoughts on the video, I want to say that these are my personal opinions and that, in case I begin to sound like a terrible person by criticizing a video like this, it is my goal in life to at least attempt to make the world a better place for at least one person. I want to do this by finding the best way possible; and that is only possible if I look very critically at existing ways of creating a brighter future.

Before I say any more, please take a couple of minutes to watch the video.

While it is quite interesting to see whether people do or do not give money to a seemingly homeless child in the USA, I think the way this study was carried out was slightly strange. Yes, it’s not an academic study, but I think youtube videos shouldn’t be underestimated. The number of people that have watched this video is huge, 2,367,659 at the time of writing this post. Much like journals written for the general public are taken very seriously, this video is taken as truth by many.

One woman brings up what I want to say: She says that there are 29 million beggars on the street, and that she has seen child beggars herself.

While it is quite hard to disagree with a video like this, I would like to say that it is terrible that, at the end of the day Fouseytube had collected only $2.10, but at the same time, I do not particularly like how he handled certain situations. I feel statements like: “in the third world” or “son of america” make this quite an egocentric piece of work. To me, it seems like this video is saying: there are beggars in the third world, but there aren’t any in the US, so let’s see what happens if I put a beggar in the streets of Los Angeles. Which, is an interesting concept (that was inspired by this video).

He wants to make a change in society, but how? He looks at who will give money, and in the end he calls us to give money to “help those in need”. He goes as far as saying the following:

“You see, we’re in a position where we are blessed enough to help those who are in need. We got shoes on our feet we got clothes on our back and we’ve got food to eat, we’ve got a roof over our head. What about the countries that don’t. What about the kids dying, the kids starving, the kids who don’t have anything and nobody to help or do anything for them.”

Personally, I have quite a problem with statements like this. Just because somebody lives in a world that is very different to the one we live in, it does not mean that they are livig in dire poverty and are sad and horrible. Yes, there may be some like that, but for that we do not have to go to the developing world.

I have travelled and lived in developing countries for almost my entire life. I have read many articles and books, discussed with academics the discussions of aid, and developing countries, reducing poverty. Aid is not the only option, it may not even be a good option. I still haven’t made my mind up about whether or not aid is doing more good than bad in the world. There are many problems that come along with giving money to the less fortunate. For one, it is making developing nations dependent on the rich states which may lead to a whole new way of colonization.

Also, I feel like Fouseytube has a very western-centric viewpoint that we must help those in need. That we, as the rich community, the ones who have EVERYTHING, should be giving to those who have NOTHING.

Let me just leave it here, that travelling through rural Nepal (the poorest area in one of the worlds poorest countries) was where I met some of the friendliest, most welcoming, and emotionally, culturally, personally rich people I have ever known.

I am all for finding ways of helping countries and people develop, but I am also for finding the best way of doing it, even if it means going against the current and writing posts like this.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am glad that people are trying to do good in the world…the world sure needs it! And I am glad that there are people like Fouseytube out there, who try to show the public how we react to certain problems and how we should change our attitudes. I just think we need to think twice about certain things we say, to reflect on what we are really saying and to not live with an attitude that says: I live in a rich world, there are no poor people here. Therefore I have to give money to those poor poor people in the poor countries so they can feed themselves.

The problems of poverty go a lot deeper than that, and giving someone money isn’t necessarily going to alleviate the poverty they live in.