Category Archives: Correspondence

Correspondence from Chicago

by Sophie Johnson – Chicago, Illinois

As much as I try, I simply can’t get behind cockroaches.

I take that back. I haven’t technically dealt with cockroaches, according to the (useless) exterminator who visited my apartment three weeks ago; I have been dealing with American waterbugs. In my opinion, American waterbugs are, in fact, worse than cockroaches for two reasons: first, I’m convinced that they are bigger than cockroaches (research would refute me here, but I refuse to believe that any insect could possibly get larger than these things that crawl around my apartment); second, cockroaches don’t make me wish I were dead. At least, not as of yet.

The first waterbug in our Hyde Park apartment was discovered approximately four weeks ago by my roommate Juell. Juell screamed like she was having her feet cut off.

“What the hell?” I asked her.

“There is a mother-fucking roach behind my mother-fucking bed.” I looked behind the bed, but there was nothing to be found. “That fucker was fast!” I was convinced she probably imagined it. Nevertheless, Juell insisted on sleeping on the living room couch until the cockroach was uncovered and annihilated.

That lasted a few days—until Glendon (another apartment-mate) discovered a cockroach scuttling along the kitchen sink. Then reports started to come in from everyone in the apartment of roaches crawling out from under dirty dishes, the recycling bins, the fireplace. I saw my first one in the bathroom right as I was turning on the shower. Now, I barely let my own boyfriend see me naked; what right did this cockroach think it had to stare at me in my birthday suit like that? These fuckers had to go.

Easier said than done. We called the exterminator—a man with a ratty ponytail and a plumber’s crack who smelled like compost and pepperoni-flavored Combos. He put some red gel in all the sinks and swore that would stop the problem.

It didn’t. A week later, I found no fewer than four of the “waterbugs” upside-down (but alive) in the kitchen. I begged Glendon to step on them, which he was glad to do because he’s a boy and boys like making living things crunch.

Before I go further, there are a few things about cockroaches (closely related to waterbugs) that you should know. First of all, they are meant to live in tropical and subtropical climates, which Chicago in October certainly is not. They do not like the cold, which Chicago in October very much is. Their solution, then, is to find their way into Chicago apartments to get out of the cold and infest our places of living. I guess that’s resourceful of them, but annoying.

Second, it is important for us to recognize that cockroaches do not usually die on their backs in the wild. They are just not used to living on slippery floors, so they fall and cannot right themselves without debris around to grab hold of using their legs. And then they starve. And die.

These are important lessons for us to learn because they teach us irrefutably that cockroaches did not evolve to live in a place like Chicago. I simply cannot understand how they got here, or why. My mom says it’s because long ago people used to keep them as pets, but that got a little out of control, and now they’re running rampant in big cities. If this is true (and it seems unlikely), I must raise the question: WHY? Why on earth would you ever want to keep one of these repugnant, evolutionarily useless creatures in captivity? What could you ever hope to gain from such an action?

Now, I’m a Unitarian Universalist vegan. I am an example of nature’s most spineless, vulnerable, and blubbery. I’m the kind of person who is always saying shit like “Love everyone and everything. Give peace a chance. Hate is not the answer. Try to see things from someone else’s perspective.” If there were anyone in the world to find something good about cockroaches, it would be me. I can find the good in most naturally occurring things: spiders, rats, worms, even the neglected and reviled maggot.

But not cockroaches. Seriously. They’re too robust for their own good. It’s dangerous. They are almost certainly going to take over the world someday in the near future, and I’m going to say, “I told you so.”

It’s about time we voted these mother-fuckers off this island called Earth once and for all. And we should start the cockroach genocide in Chicago. I am not interested in watching another cockroach, waterbug, or any other creepy, reddish, antennae-bearing insect make a home in my apartment ever again. It has far outrun its novelty. The roach has got to go.


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Correspondence from France

by Emma Wood – France

Yesterday I ate a whole baguette in something less than 10 minutes. Not only was it whole, but warm, and made from the soft part inside the wheat kernel that’s really nothing but sugar. This I learned from the boulanger who gave us Americans a behind-the-scenes tour of his shop; the place where briosch and baguettes are born. He rolled soft white dough as potters roll clay, telling us how he’d gotten up at 2:30 that morning, just like every morning; telling us four hours of sleep suffice because he’s never known anything different. “Been like that since my internship days,” he said.

I’m living amongst people who know their crafts well. In the evenings when I return home from la Fac, I pass a shoe repair shop where a man sits, one pair of black pumps in hand and 60 on the shelves behind him; a poissonerie where they’re dumping out ice bins that keep the scallops cold all day; a fromagerie lined with bricks of soft chevre. Everyone knows exactly where he fits into the scene.

I’m still wanting things the Whitman way—a little bit of everything, more the supermarket lifestyle than specialty shop. A little bit of salad bar, a little bit of soft serve. A little frat party with my activism, philosophy with my tea. I’m the girl who wants a taste of everything, who sits in French restaurants and orders mint ice cream and green salad with a cup of chocolat chaud. “Anything else, miss?” the waiters tease me.

And oh, there are so many flavors to taste, food-wise and otherwise. I wanted to run away with the skydiving crew I met at a tour of Mont Saint Michel. Last Saturday, it wasn’t skydivers but break dancers, a group who camp out with a boom box by the public library, dancing like human dreidels. (The spin on their heads with no hands! How?!) All these people have found their niches. Even that group of regulars at the Pourquoi Pas? Café. (It’s my running goal to choose a neighborhood bar and become a regular too!)

My prof at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts brought a show-and-tell art book last class: a collection of mini photos of people and the patterns they make from afar. Perfectly, yet obliviously, people arrange themselves in beautiful clusters.

I forget when I want to join every club that to each still shot there’s a rhythm, a history—that is to say, tandem jumps and weekends of training before that glorious jump through the clouds and daily beer tab at the Pourquoi Pas.

I haven’t become a skydiver or a break dancer, and I haven’t joined the circus (I leave that to Sebastion Grubb), but I’m finding my patterns: my euro-a-day flan, and that evening walk by the man in his shoe repair shop.

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Correspondence from Spain

by Sally Sorte – Spain

As I drank my Colombian coffee stirred into leche semidesnatada (one percent), I opened the kitchen window and peered out at the courtyard over which my apartment building hangs its laundry. How are we going to dry our laundry on rainy days, or when the temperature falls below zero? I’m not really worried, as Spaniards have been getting dry clothes for years now somehow. Big, splattery raindrops slap down into collecting pools on the black tar below. Boasting their surface tension, drops precariously cling to the clothes lines, looking like strings of twinkle lights draped between windows. The second real rain in Spain and it makes me so happy!

On the metro there are no longer bare, sandaled toes to avoid, but wet umbrellas held at people’s sides instead. And coughs, warm jets of germy air bursting through the finger slats held over mouths. As I walk out the subway tunnel the black, tiled floor is slick on the left, where people are coming in, and dusty and dry on the right. I ascended the slippery steps of the metro exit and accepted a newspaper from one of the boys handing out the stacks of morning papers from free, small name editions—in case the pleasant splattering turns into a downpour and I need more shelter than my cotton sweatshirt hood can provide.

How will the rain affect the homeless? For some it simply means a change of wares as they sell “paraguas” (which means umbrella but literally translates to ‘for water’) on the street, catering to the seasonal market. For others I suppose the weather will spur inner-city migration to warmer, dryer doorways and temporarily abandoned construction scaffolding.

I turn the corner onto Calle Prim, twenty meters from my school, three rainy blocks away from the line four metro exit. I can hear a jaunty accordion from across the street in the tree-lined Paseo de Recoletos. Homeless musicians, paid on an instrument case by case basis, play the soundtrack of the city.

Yours from Madrid

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What’s in a name?

by Emma Wood – France

I had just settled in with tea and a book when my host father came into the kitchen, pulled up a stool and began to pluck the feathers one by one from his freshly shot partridge. “Don’t worry, it’s under the table,” he said, and I nonchalantly nodded—inwardly squirming at every mysterious crackle.

He’s the type of man who’s always occupied with his children, his news or his mirror and necktie, so with the pretext of reading I began to grill him. “Where did you meet Beatrice? Did you grow up together in Nantes?” In snooping through the family photos, I had come across a wedding photo (in which they couldn’t have been much out of high school) in an ancient-looking tiny stone church. The church at “Les Lucs sur Boulougne” (just outside Nantes) is the same where their daughter Alexia will be married next June. “People don’t often move far from where they grow up,” he explained. “When we talk about ‘birthcity,’ we say ‘berceau.’”—which means, in English, ‘crib.’ Poetic, isn’t it? He didn’t see it.

What poets, what pragmatists these people are! I never much liked geography, geology, or anything that involved memorizing lists of names with no immediate application (What 12-year-old needs to know the capital city of Ghana?). But now, as I travel, I begin to see how vital these names are; not just names of places, but names for rocks and restaurants. I see now why Hashimoto is obsessed with names, and why my crazy geology housemates always talk about scarps. Nantes, Saint Malo, Mont Saint Michel, la Place Mellinet, Place Canclaux, and my favourite: Rue des Trois Croissants! People care about their places, enough to give a name to every last scrap of dirt. You never know what one little name will open up in conversation. Even “France” unlocked mysterious pieces of history in people I thought I knew well. “My daughter’s in France.” “I lived in Paris when my husband worked for the military.” “I worked in the south of France as a nanny, just out of high school.”

The BFG collected dreams; I am collecting names to bottle up and bring back to the states. Names of cities, creperies—names to give reference points for all the stories I’ll want to tell. But I don’t want to be that type of tourist who lives with the perpetual thought of her post-trip PowerPoint presentation.

Names of places mean little unless they’re places lived-in and well-loved: Good old General Mellinet who points, with his dagger fiercely in hand, in the direction of my house. Le Cigale, the plush restaurant where I huddle over five-euro hot chocolate on rainy afternoons. Oh, I want to see everything! But countries come best in small bites.

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My country ‘tis of thee: sweet land of liberty

by Sophie Johnson  – Chicago, Illinois

You might get the wrong impression if you walked by Margie Sadinsky’s house. The 60-something-year-old woman casts her strictly-Democrat ballot in every election, is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and makes the best organic apple crisp in the universe. Her modest blue house, though, has a rather defining characteristic: a giant American flag is displayed just above the mailbox.

If you ask Margie why she so prominently exhibits this nationalistic symbol, she’ll answer without hesitation: “Patriotism is not another word for Republican.” How often we forget that the two are not synonymous.

It’s taken me many angst-ridden teenage years to realize that this is a great country. After the 2000 presidential election, I joked with my friends that I was going to move to Canada as soon as I was old enough; upon the painfully similar election results four years later, I seriously contemplated relocating to the north. In Canada, I figured, I wouldn’t have to worry about hanging chads or corrupt congressmen. Everything would be maple leaves and venison and re-runs of “Degrassi.” Canadian life was clearly where it was at.

And maybe I was right. But what I failed to realize then was that we cannot define this country by its administration. I understand that it is difficult to separate a nation from its government, and ours is not always a government to be proud of. Many liberals agree that even the most Democratic presidents in history were vastly conservative in their politics.

This, after all, is a country that has a bad reputation for good reasons, especially today. Since the war in Iraq, there have been more than 2,900 American soldier casualties and between 50,000 and 150,000 Iraqi and Afghan causalities.  Despite the Geneva Convention edicts, the United States has gained the status of a country that has no qualms with utilizing torture procedures on war prisoners. It is no wonder international criticism of this country is at an all-time high.

There has not been a day since the United States bombed Baghdad in 2003 that I haven’t believed that this war was ludicrous, counterproductive, and launched for more-than-questionable reasons. The Bush administration, like many past U.S. administrations, commits acts of terror in order to get richer and more powerful. In my mind, the evidence to support this notion is practically irrefutable. Still, I love this country and I am proud to be a part of it.

In a CNN debate with Bill Bennett in 2002, Noam Chomsky said, “I choose to live in what I think is the greatest country in the world, which is committing horrendous terrorist acts and should stop.” Here was one of the biggest and most outspoken critics of United States policy asserting that the same country he vocally rebukes is in fact the greatest in the world.

And in so many ways it is. We are a country that is framed around rebellion, after all—we came into our own after 13 colonies, sick of British governance, fought and won a war in order to gain independence in 1776. Although the United States we know today was built on the backs of slaves and indentured servants, although our history is stained with the blood of millions of unfairly oppressed people, that original rebellion has carried itself through generations and generations, and it still thrives.

This is a country made of people, not of policies. The typical American is a rebel, a radical, a revolutionary.  We are the heirs of immigrants who escaped tyranny for a better life, or the slaves that survived unfathomable hardships. We are the heirs of the brave.

Last week, Ebonee Stevenson, a college student and activist, gathered together with two dozen other angry women and stormed Chicago’s City Hall during a City Council meeting. They came demanding answers: Why was their neighborhood—a historically African-American community south of Hyde Park—being gentrified? Where were the displaced working poor going to? How was the city going to help its citizens when it came to matters like this?

“It was so cool,” Ebonee told me, “all those angry people determined to make those aldermen listen.”

Of course, the group didn’t find exact answers to their difficult questions. What they found, though, was a sense of connection and the freedom to fight for what they believed in. These people—not the aldermen, not the mayor, not Condoleeza Rice or George W. Bush—are the people that make up the United States of America.

The fighters will not always win. It is easy to become discouraged when the newspapers are racked with death tolls and political sex scandals. But despite all that, the rebellion continues. It’s written into our history: If something is wrong, it is the people that will not rest until it is made right.

This is my country. I sing the National Anthem, and I salute the flag. But more than that, I band together with the people to fight mercilessly for what I believe in. I do it because it is right; I do it because I can.

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Experiencing Ben Harper, Madrid-Style

by Sally Sorte – Spain

“Yesterday seems like a life ago,” because I went to a concert. This was no black tie, knee-length skirt affair; this was Ben Harper. Silly, that I’m a fellow West Coaster and flew across nine time zones to see him. This warranted some dirty looks from A-haters, but I told them to “¡Vete a freír espárragos!” (Go fry some asparagus!)—the Spanish equivalent of “Shove that where the sun don’t shine.” Well, más o menos, they’ll probably both cause discoloration.

After enacting certain scenes of “Alice and Wonderland” at a friend’s “piso” and deciding that the cheeseburger in the microwave should probably not be making “fuegos artificiales,” we were prepared to take on the Harper.

“Does anyone know how to get there?” Apt question.

A few phone calls later, and after a beer can was pried out of my friend’s grasp “de aceite” (drinking on the “calles” is illegal in Madrid), we were stumbling onto the line four metro. School girls on their way home sat on the floor, legs splayed, in their uniform plaid skirts. My guy friends were practically creaming their coffee as a 14-year-old showed off the “cigarillos” she had purchased.

Complaining about the stairs, a friend from Pomona remarked, “Look how socialist this is that we have to go down before we can go up.”

We entered the labyrinth, and without Daedalus to instruct us, we opted for a Spanish security guard. We lined up because our group had seats on a few different “plantas.” I began people-watching like it was an intramural sport, and I was on my way towards a blue shirt when the security guard reached for my ticket. He looked me up and down, smiled (I think he liked my red, yellow and green ensemble), and pointed for me to follow a group of people headed at an acute angle for some double doors. I obediently followed, expecting one of the backs in front of me to belong to one of my friends. I quickened my pace and my hopes were dashed; negatory.

“Will I even recognize Ben Harper when I find him?” I wondered. “I don’t know what he looks like. Oh well, love is blind.”

Feeling lost, I asked a cleaning person where I should go (this strategy works on the streets), but apparently this “limpiadora” was better versed in the bathroom so that’s where I found myself. I “stalled” and then departed to show my ticket to another security guard. After consulting his crony he pointed me farther downward. I felt more oriented when I eventually found myself at the bar (familiar territory nowadays), but still no concert. I looked for a sufficiently metro European, there was, por supuesto, an ample supply of gel-haired men and I chose the one wearing a Lockhart shade of persimmon.

He was the ace to my face card because he spoke English. The mystery was that the floor/seat number had either not been printed, or had been ripped off of my ticket upon entrance. Forgoing the necessary conversation that would earn me a $15 drink, I proceeded to two more security guards and showed them my ticket.

Laughing, one showed the ripped off corner to his buddy (an “Engraved Invitation?”), and then ushered me through the door onto the floor. After weaving my way through the crowd to the stage I realized I wasn’t going to find my friends. I looked behind me, I’d forgotten to trail a back-tracking thread like Theseus, yet without a Minotaur in sight I may as well stay and enjoy the show.

It was time to make friends. I spotted two blondes and began edging toward them, but once I got a view of their “adult shop” outfits I turned around, skating across the beer-glazed floor on my platform flip-flops like Pippi Longstocking on her scrub brushes, only less effective. “Pippilotta, delicatessa, windowshade, mackrelmint, efraim’s …”

A tall guy was waving his hand and I charged like a toro to red. “Hey, I saw you waving your hand and thought you were my friend,” lie. Lie. Myth? “But since you’re not,” truth, “can you tell me where to go?” Rhetorical question. After he unsuccessfully looked for my floor/seat number like all of his more qualified predecessors, he introduced me to his gang of friends, all guys, all Catalonians. I switched to Spanish and was warmly welcomed; Spanish hospitality.

The “Ojos de Brujo” opening finished and plumes of smoke began to issue upwards from the crowd during the stage change, like hydrothermal vents. One of my new friends took a packet of white powder and stirred it into a cup of clear liquid. The clear liquid was probably water, but I’m betting the white substance was less benign. I declined the imminent offer, “take care of your body like you care for your soul,” and focused onstage.

A raging concert and multiple encores ensued. Ben laid his guitar flat on his lap and playing it like a Harp(er)sichord and then used his teeth! At one point, Ben came up behind his drummer and played over the top of his Rastafari dreadlocks, reminding me of that camp skit where one person encircles their arm around the other, creating the effect of a human tyrannosaurus rex, and uses their arms to blindly brush the other person’s teeth and apply lipstick to the other person’s mouth.

The rest is a blur. Yeah we’re “One dimensional fool[s] in a three dimensional world,” but “What good is a cynic with no better plan?” “I believe in a better way,” we aren’t innocent criminals unless we do it, “With our own, with our own two hands.”

From a broad

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Correspondence from Spain

by Sally Sorte – Spain

Summer tan just starting to fade, I headed to Almuñecar in southern Spain for the weekend. With coconut huts, palm trees, Mediterranean Sea, el sol, and yes, topless tanners, it was a popular destination even after the seasonal Madrileños returned to the city for work.

The beach in front of our hotel lacked sand, so everything was sold on the rocks. South African vendors walked from lounge chair to beach umbrella singing out, “Ho-la, ho-la!” trying to sell bootlegged CDs and DVDs, fake Loui Vuitton wallets, fake Gucci sunglasses, and other black market items.

I was almost tempted to buy a counterfeit purse because it was so aesthetically do-able, but my West Coast ethics held me back. Apparently, though, counterfeit is too legit to quit. Last year the World Customs Organization estimated the counterfeiting business to be worth $500 billion, or seven percent of world trade. Other estimates are as high as 10 percent.

Even if you are someone who refuses to fake it, how much of the music on your iPod did you actually pay for? The Internet breeds stolen property like lemmings, with over 90 million illegal music files out there and no population-controlling cliff in sight. Doesn’t it suck that the music we steal is the music we like? Such disrespect, Aretha’d make you leave the (network) key. I know, it’s just a number in a computer; so is your bank account.

Faking it isn’t restricted to the pharmaceutical drugs in your junkmail or Rolexxx or Hermes Birkin handbags in “Sex and the City”; industrial parts are counterfeited as well. It’s estimated that there is at least one “suspect unapproved part” in every airplane. The Federal Aviation Administration blamed 174 air accidents on counterfeit parts between May 1973 and April 1996. While I can handle brand image torro caca, counterfeit engines and tail assemblies are obscene. If I have to forego safety testing I at least want airlines to start serving food again.

The counterfeit industry goes way back. In 27 B.C., the wine stopper of an Italian wine merchant was faked in order to dupe Romans into drinking cheap French wine. The fake wine stopper’s only difference was that the writing on it was illegible. Of course, after a few bottles of wine, what isn’t?

Nowadays the counterfeit industry fosters corruption, undermines legitimate manufacturers, skews economic development, and increases child labor and crime. All of this is very difficult to combat due to globalized intermediaries, overlapping authorities, and gaps between public and private sectors.

Italy and France have taken a hard-line stance on the counterfeit issue. In Italy you can be slapped with a fine of over $12,000 if the plainclothes police catch you purchasing a fake. Venice even started an ad campaign called “BAD BAG” to warn bargain-hunting tourists. France increased their fines for wearing or buying fakes to triple the retail price of the real thing and confiscated 5.6 million counterfeit articles last year.

Of course, until China, which is home to two-thirds of counterfeit production, does more than make weak public pronouncements in lieu of hosting the 2008 Olympics, nothing will change very much. 10 pecent of the medicines in your cabinet will be fake, as well as 33 percent of your CDs. Even so, try to connect your purchases with the child labor and inset corruption that it took to produce them.

So when the vendors came by my lounge chair on the beach I let them “Ho-la” right on by. Then I went over to watch the man fashioning a “que guay” castle with intricate turrets and flying buttresses out of sand driven over from another beach. The castle was a date-able height and that night he lit it up with candles, scratching “más mañana” into the sand. Authenticity; I tossed a few euros into his bucket.

—From abroad.

—In case you Sparknoted “The Odyssey” and want to read more, check out Tim Phillips’ “Knockoff.”

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