We attend an Inauguration protest in Dublin

I collected the kids at school today and we walked to the Maynooth train station where we hopped on a train to Dublin. We met up with my dear friend, Andy Auge, and his student Alex and headed over to an Inauguration Day protest that was being held in city centre.

The kids have been talking about and looking forward to this this all week. They are unnerved and anxious by the ascendency of #45 and sorrowful to see Obama exit the public stage. Atticus was up until nearly midnight earlier this week, composing a thank you letter that, among other things, informed President Obama that everyone Atticus has talked to in his travels over the past six months has supported Obama and that he shouldn’t worry about the people who don’t like him in the States. Attending the protest was a way for the kids to see that there are other people who are worried and angry about what’s ahead for our country and for the world. They were uplifted and excited by the collective action and I think, all in all, it was good for them. They held up signs, talked with other protesters, listened attentively to the speakers and even got an Irish Times reporter to interview them.

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Their first, and hopefully last, encounter with the media

I, on the other hand, have been dreading this moment all week. As I stood there listening to the speakers I just kept looking at the kids and thinking about the dangerous and uncertain world they were inheriting. I was angry to be standing out there in the cold, listening to people shout over loudspeakers, and I was distressed that my country was at that moment being turned over to a band of thieves and charlatans. Money changers in the temple of democracy.  I didn’t feel joyful or hopeful standing about with the 300 or so other folks gathered in the plaza. I didn’t feel connected to something larger than myself, and I didn’t feel at all that things were going to be okay.  As all this was running through my mind, I looked at my phone and read a  New York Times feed: the new regime had taken down all government websites related to climate change and LGBTQ issues.

I remembered a photo of  Obama and Andy’s son, Thomas, taken sometime in 2008. They live in Iowa and on one of Obama’s visits to their town Thomas had a chance to ask Obama a question at a town hall meeting. The shot was taken over Obama’s right shoulder so he’s in the foreground and he takes up nearly half of the frame. You can’t see his face, but you know it’s him because he has probably the most famous ears in the world. And given the aperture setting, what you see of Obama–the back of him from the waist up–is blurred. This in and of itself is unusual–usually the boken (the blurred or out-of-focus part of a photo) is in the background. To see the out-of-focus subject in the foreground and taking up a full half of the frame is part of the drama of the photo.  Thomas occupies the other half of the frame. The camera is trained on him so you see a smiling, clear-eyed and delighted boy  wearing an oversized Packers t-shirt and regarding Obama with a sense of wonder. Thomas’ right hand is in the air with his palm facing Obama and it looks like he’s taking an oath until you notice that Obama, too, has his left hand in the air, palm facing Thomas. They are just about to hi-five.

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Hi-Five.                                                                               (Thanks, Thomas, for permission to use this photo.)

I love that photo because it captures the idealism and the hope that many of us felt in 2008 and because it captures Thomas in what I suspect he’d refer to as a political coming-of-age moment.  I am pleased that Thomas and his generation had a chance to come of age under a strong and compassionate leader who carried our country forward, and I hope that his influence will inspire many of them to become public servants and defenders of democracy. God knows we’ll need them after today.

And I’m also furious that my children and their generation will come of age under an arrogant, bullying and hateful regime that is, as I write, trampling on the things we hold dear.

 

 

The New America Comes to Rome . . . Or Does it?

We have been in Rome for five days and I am happy and relaxed because traveling like this tends to keep my mind off The Unraveling of America. I am more focused, for instance, on admiring the multitude of public fountains, obelisks and statutes in this great city than I am on checking in on the latest Cabinet appointment or tweet from #45. That is as it should be. There will be plenty of time to mire myself in and fight against the reactionary forces that have become my country. For now, I’m just trying to bask in the ancient sunlight of Rome.

For the most part, that’s all gone fairly well. Until last night, that is, when Sujata and I, in that hour or two after sightseeing and before dinner, left the kids in the flat and trundled down the stairs and out the door to a quiet, cozy little wine bar just steps from the Pantheon.

Sujata had stopped in on her own the day before to get a bottle of wine for dinner and the young Italian barkeep, Alex, greeted us warmly and welcomed her back.  We sat ourselves in the middle of the bar’s only table–a long narrow wood-top that faced myriad bottles of Italian wine.  Alex suggested a bold, fruity Cab and in no time at all we were swirling our wine in glasses and chatting with Alex about his life in Rome. Alex is an uncommonly friendly and generous host. He shared stories about his own life and asked us where we were from and about the travel adventures we’ve had over the course of the past four months. At that point it was just the three of us in the bar and we were all laughing and enjoying the conversation.

I felt a cold breeze at my feet and turned to see the door swing on its hinges. A tall blond woman with a fur coat emerged from the street and behind her was a man in a Patagonia jacket and carrying (could it be?) a forty ounce bottle of beer in a paper bag. They had that charmless American habit of talking (loudly) as they entered a room and that, combined with the accents, gave them away as American passport holders within seconds.

Fair enough, there are plenty of Americans here in Rome and most of them we have had contact with have been perfectly nice, so I just tucked my feet under the chair for more warmth and turned back to the conversation with Sujata and Alex.

It became, though, increasingly difficult to focus as the New Arrivals paced up and down the bar, making audible observations about the decor and announcing to Alex that this was exactly the kind of wine bar that they planned on opening in St. Louis. The woman began taking photographs on her iPhone while the man, hunched over his beer, began a discourse on “price points” and square footage.

Alex, who was very happy to serve Sujata and me and to go into great detail about wines we were sampling, made the New Arrivals serve themselves. I was ready to down the wine and get the hell out of there, but, at the same time, I was enjoying myself and why should these people force us out? We stayed, ordered another glass and the New Arrivals, after 15 minutes or so of  continued public observations, picked themselves up and scuttled out the door, in search, no doubt, of another space to call their own.

While all this was happening, I (unsuccessfully) tried to supress a dark thought, so I just whispered it to Sujata. She winced.  Maybe my speculation was just that, just speculation. But, maybe this was it. Maybe this was that Two Americas that we’ve read about since 9 November, that has divided homes, enboldened some citizens to sucker punch, verbally harrass and deface the property of other citizens. The New America that we have  been protected by from our travels.

I hope I was dead wrong and I hope that my thoughts were rash and harsh judgements on perfectly reasonable and kind fellow countrymen and women.

But the sad thing is that the thought even occured to me and that I believe it is occurring to people all over the United States, every day and every hour.

Schadenfreude, Guns and Logic: More Notes on the New America from Abroad

Well, congratulations, America. You have, among other things, made post-communist, marginally corrupt and economically inefficient nations like the one I’ve been living in look like models of decency, civility and economic opportunity.

When we talk about the New America with our friends here in Romania, they laugh and say everything will be okay. They say that Trump will be controlled and that things will eventually return to normal. I can understand their perspective. After what they lived through, Trump and his brand of xenophobic nationalism looks like small potatoes.

They are, though, by and large worried about Trump cozying up to Putin and his threats to pull out of NATO. Most Americans either don’t know or don’t care that most central and eastern European nations have weak and disorganized standing armies. NATO is their firewall against Russian aggression. One good head fake from Putin could cause Trump to turn his head for a moment and voila any or any number of these nations could be occupied.

You may want to lock in that Prague vacation pretty soon. And, if you think that’s hyperbole, remember what Russia recently did in Ukraine.

I think what’s really going on, though, with my Romanian friends is that they are experiencing a pleasant, yet scary, sense of schadenfreude, the German word for deriving pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. The pleasant part is that we are finally experiencing what they suffered under a hateful, autocratic, intellectually and morally compromised narcissist. The scary part, of course, is that Trump, by nature of the fact that he controls the free world, can, and probably will, make choices that affect all of them, and none of it will be good.

I’ve been aware for a long time that guns are a mighty scourge on America. When my students in Romania learn that there are 30k handgun deaths a year in the States, they shiver. When I tell them that it’s common to get a text from my children’s school in Denver stating that the school is on lock down, they gasp. We (I’m using the term “we” more and more loosely these days when it comes to my attachment to America) are so inured to gun violence that most of us hardly care at all anymore.

But living in Romania, where guns are illegal, creates a very different habit of mind, especially when you go to public places. Here’s an example: we took the kids to a movie tonight and I didn’t think for a minute about the possibility of some crazy person storming the theatre and opening fire. Moreover, I routinely walk around Timisoara, or any other given city in this part of Europe, late at night and I never worry about my safety.

I don’t worry about these things because people aren’t walking around with concealed weapons in their coats or strapped to their belts. Because guns are illegal, citizens can enjoy a greater sense of freedom (yes, freedom from the anxiety of getting shot) and ease. God only knows how guns and violence will spread their already-powerful wings over the nation over the course of the four, eight, who knows how many years.

I’ve also been aware for some time that America is a land that plays fast and loose with the truth. Over the course of this past election season, and as I watch from afar as Trump continues his early morning tweets, it appears that reason and logic have simply flown the coop.

I imagine all those old Philosophy Professors who in the 1990s lost their logic classes to general education curriculum revisions that made way for sexier introductory courses. I can see them all gathered around televisions in university pubs across America, sniggering in their beers and shouting at the the television.

When Trump calls Hillary Clinton “very dumb” the Philosophy Professors leap from their chairs and shout, “Ad hominem attack!”

During the second Presidential debate, when Trump was asked to explain his aggressive comments about women and he kept repeating, “ISIS . . . . ISIS . . . ISIS,” the Philosophy Professors, face palm and mutter, “Begging the Question!”

When Trump tweets “Beyonce and Jay Z, I like them . . . I get bigger crowds than they do. It’s true. I get far bigger crowds,” the Philosophy Professors, sing in unison, “False Analogy!”

When the Philosophy Professors read Trump’s tweet, “14% of noncitizens registered to vote,” they just whisper to themselves, “Bat shit crazy.”

Not that even a national course on logic could save us from the mess we’ve put ourselves in.

I understand why President Obama has to publicly encourage the success of the Trump regime. He has to do that–it’s his job as the leader of the nation and the Commander-in-Chief to keep the ship of state right and true.

It’s not, though, my responsibility to do the same. In fact, I see it as my responsibility to do just the opposite of what President Obama is doing right now: Trump is a demagogue and a nationalist and and his brand of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic henchman must be stopped.

This should be shouted from the rooftops. We can’t wish or cry this away or think that everything is going to be alright. It’s not going to be alright.

As I write this, word is spreading that Trump and his emerging staff will implement a national registry for American Muslims.

Ominous days.

Scenes from a Romanian classroom

Prior to teaching at West University in Timisoara, I had zero international teaching experience. I certainly heard lots of stories, though. People told me the European system is so different than ours, that the students came to class if they felt like it, that there was a big plagiarism problem and that, compared to U.S. students, European students in general and Romanian students in particular, are shy about talking in class.

I’ve only taught six classes so far at the University of the West, but each class is 90 minutes long so I feel like I’ve racked up some good contact hours and, at this point, I’m happy to report that none of the complaints above are true. In fact, my experience to this point has been just the opposite: the students are lively, energetic and knowledgeable; they do the reading before class, they are very willing to share ideas and even disagree with me and their peers and they take writing assignments seriously.

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Students in my U.S Culture and Civilization class

They do have a slightly more liberal interpretation of attendance expectations, but that seems to be more of a function of their class schedules; that is, sometimes they get enrolled in two classes that meet at the exact same time. I still haven’t really figured out how that can be, but it’s a reality and it’s common for them, when they are in this situation, to attend half of the classes in which they are double enrolled.

Oh, they also laugh at my jokes, a big plus, and they are also playful. Last night, for instance, after I finished some opening comments, I looked down at my desk and noticed that my book of Flannery O’Connor stories was not there. This is a heavily annotated book that’s not replaceable. “Oh my god,” I thought, I left it in the library and I’ll never get it back!” About a minute later, I noticed one of the students in the back, smiling, almost giggling, and she said to me, “Dr. Fretz, I took your book as a Halloween prank!” I was relieved (that my book was safe) and grateful (you don’t do something like that unless you like the person you are playing the prank on).

I realize all this could change over the course of the next eight weeks and I also realize that, in many ways, there are qualifying circumstances: There are a number of Fulbrighters that come through here, so the students seem to be used to American professors, but, still, I suspect they see me as a bit of a curiosity and in that regard, show their best hand. At the same time, since I am here for such a short time and since this is all so new to me, I suspect that I am more relaxed than I would be in my classes back at Regis so I imagine that my students here are responding positively to that as well.

One of the things that has struck me up to this point, though, is the student’s willingness and interest to talk about controversial and sensitive issues. Last week, for instance, we were talking about two Flannery O’Connor stories in my first class. O’Connor’s characters liberally use the N word so it was incumbent upon me to address that issue straight away with the students. I told them a bit about the history of the word, why it made me uncomfortable and why it’s hurtful to blacks. It was hard to gauge how much they knew about the word, so I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but I can say that I was impressed with their willingness and ability to think through how O’Connor uses the word, how it’s used in popular culture and how the word has different meanings and connotations when it’s used by different groups of people.

One of the funnier moments occurred when we started talking about a reference in one of the O’Connor stories. In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a tragically racist character is heading to the Y for “reduction” (weight loss) classes. The students asked me what the Y is so I told them is short for Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. I noticed some funny looks on their faces and when I asked them about it, they wondered, “Why would she go to a place where gay men hang out.” It took me awhile to untangle that, and I’m not really sure I did it well.

A similar thing happened in my second class where we spent a good bit of time talking about the history and the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement. They were familiar with some of the spotlight cases–Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner–and they engaged in a lively discussion about gun laws in the U.S. compared to gun laws in Europe. They were deeply troubled by the levels of gun violence in the U.S. and they wanted to know what was being done to mitigate such violence (not much, sadly, I told them).

Last night, though, during our discussion of two of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, I had perhaps the most profound teaching moment I’ve had in a while. First of all, students (generally speaking) hate Hawthorne. He uses too many words, his sentences are baroque in their complexity and he’s writing about things that most of them don’t care about. Fair enough. I get it. Here, though, I purposely chose two stories–“The Maypole of Merry Mount” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”–because they both deal with issues of religious and political expression and political violence. In “The Maypole of Merry Mount” a band of Puritans break up a pagan celebration (a marriage around a Maypole), kill off some of the Merry Mounters and force two of them–the Lord and Lady of May–to convert to their harsh brand of protestantism. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a young boy, Robin, arrives in Boston at the lead up to the Revolutionary War looking for his kinsman, a Major Molineux. It gradually turns out that Molineux is a Tory whose been captured by the revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty. At the end of the story, Molineux, whose been tarred and feathered, is paraded in front of Robin. It’s pretty ghastly.

Toward the end of our discussion of the Hawthorne stories, I asked the students how they felt about Hawthorne’s portrayal of political violence in light of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. They jumped all over this, making connections, telling personal stories and just generally breathing life into this nearly 200-year old story.

I left class and I felt like I was walking on clouds.

Bucharest and Back

I just spent three days in Bucharest at Fulbright meetings. Sujata and the kids stayed in Timisoara. Here’s a brief photo essay:

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Blue skies in Bucharest
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The Bucharest Metro–not as nice as Tokyo, but not bad.
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Statue of King Carol I across the street from the National Museum of Art, Romania. The collection is mostly made up of Carol’s collection of medieval German and Italian art
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Peles Castle, Sinaia. The Fulbright Commision took all the 2016 Fuilbright Scholars here for the day. Peles was Carol I’s retreat from Bucharest.
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Outside Peles Castle
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The Communiists left Peles mostly undamaged. Carol remains on guard.
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Fulbrighters outside Pelisor, the summer residence of Queen Marie, consort to Carol’s nephew, Ferdinand
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Queen Marie was a working artist and this was her ork room
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Marie’s “Gold Room.” Hers was a mind on fire and this room nicely represents that.
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Back in Timisoara with the ones I love most
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Dr. T.J. Eckleburg eyes in Timisoara
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I missed these three

First Dispatch from Timisoara

We left Japan last Wednesday at midnight, took a nine hour flight to Dubai, where we laid over for four hours and then boarded a five-hour flight to Budapest. We stayed two nights in Budapest (lovely city)  and then rented a car and drove the five-hours south to Timisoara where we arrived Saturday afternoon, haggard and jet lagged.

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The Chain Bridge in Budapest

Needless to say, it was a bumpy arrival to this place where we’ll be based for nearly three months. Part of that is the really extreme differences between Japan and a middle-sized eastern European city. I was sort of prepared for it, but not really and that combined with the fatigue made Saturday a rough, rough day. Where Japan is clean, efficient, friendly, Romania, at first, with the veil of jet lag, felt dirty, cluttered, disorganized and a rough around the edges. I didn’t sleep much that night.

Things brightened up on Sunday, though. We woke up to warm temperatures and sunny skies, hung out in our flat for a bit and then ambled to the city center where we met up with Rob Manning, his wife Dana and their son, Sebastian. Rob is a former Fulbrighter to Timisoara who fell in love (with Dana) while he was here and has pretty much stayed here in Timisoara. Dana teaches at West University where I’ll be teaching and Rob teaches there too–he still holds his faculty position in the Philosophy department at Quincy University in Illinois.

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The streets of Timisoara

I’m forever grateful to Rob and Dana and Sebastian. They were kind and gracious–they showed us around the city–the nice parts!–and they were just fun to be with for the afternoon. We met at the plaza in city center and then walked over to an outdoor cafe where we ate lunch and talked for almost two hours. After that, we walked through the streets of the old city, through a series of connected plazas that dumped us out onto what Atticus calls “the best playground I’ve ever seen.” We have been on the move for so long, huddled into our own family unit that I sort of forgot how nice it is to talk to other adults (besides Sujata) in full sentences. I’m really looking forward to spending more time with them and I hope that we remain friends long after we leave Romania.

Right now, I’m sitting in the Timisoara airport, waiting for a flight to Bucharest where I will attend Fulbright meetings on Thursday and Friday. It was hard to leave Sujata and the kids–not because I’m worried about them, mostly because I’ll just miss them. Our day-to-day life is so different than anything we’ve ever experienced except perhaps when the children were infants and we were both home with them. Here, we wake up, eat a leisurely breakfast and then we all sit around the table and do the kids homeschooling. The kids do their math work online while Sujata and I prepare their history and literature lessons and then when they are done with math, we all come together and talk and write about the books that we are reading. After we discuss for an hour or so, the we give the kids a writing prompt. As they are writing, we prepare lunch, and then we go out and explore the city. When we get back the kids do more math and some science work, we eat dinner and by then we are exhausted.

I’m not sure about the Fulbright part of the experience. I haven’t met anyone from the University yet and I’ll miss my first classes because I have to be in Bucharest. I am, though, looking forward to meeting my Fulbright colleagues in Bucharest.

 

What I’ll miss and not miss about Japan

I’m sitting in the Osaka airport, getting ready to a board flight to Budapest, via Dubai. After a two-day layover in Budapest, we are off to Timisoara, Romania, where I’ll start my Fulbright teaching assignment at West University.

Before I leave Japan, here are a few things I’ll miss, and a few things I won’t:

Things I will miss about Japan:

  1. 7/11 Stores. The 7/11 stores in Japan are, for the most part, clean, stocked with nutritious Japanese food and run by people who are polite. I will especially miss the onigiiri–a ball of rice with plums or any kind of fresh fish rice wrapped in nigiri. Atticus especially likes onigiri because he learned that’s what samurai warriors carried in their pockets on long journeys. Sujata says that if you are looking for an Air B and B in Japan, make sure it’s close to both a train station and a 7/11 and that’s good advice.
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The 7/11 around the corner from us in Osaka
  1. Ramen Shops. We have three or four ramen shops in Denver and none of them hold a candle to even the worst ramen we’ve had here in Japan. My favorite ramen shop is a little 6-seat corner shop under an elevated train near the Osaka Mall. We walked in there this past Sunday afternoon and in addition to being served some most delicious ramen, one of the patrons (a local who was friendly with the owner) shared his sushi with us (which he had brought in, probably from 7/11).
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The exterior of a typical ramen shop
  1. Japanese Public Transportation. There may be another country in the world that has a sophisticated public transportation as Japan’s, but I’ve never been there. For the past three weeks, we have used our Japan Rail passes and they have taken us everywhere we have wanted to go on this island–that includes big cities and small, out of the way towns. Beyond that the trains are clean and they run frequently and on time. It is simply astonishing how the public transportation systems, especially in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka move people around. Finally, the shinkansens (the high-speed trains that crisscross the country) are brilliant. It is maddening that the U.S. can’t put together a public transportation system like what they have here in Japan.
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Osaka Station–Japan Railways
  1. Bowing and saying “Arigato gozaimasu!” I love how the Japanese bow as a sign of greeting and respect. I especially love bowing to older folks as I’m walking down the street or moving through the train stations. “Arigato gozaimasu” means “thank you very much,” and literally everywhere you go in Japan you hear people singing out, “Arigato gozaimasu!!”
  1. The Japanese people I’ve met and had contact with. They are an excessively kind and gracious folk. I love their understated emotions, the way they smile at me when I muster a few Japanese words and, especially, the way the elderly Japanese women fawn over my daughter.
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Yusuke, who gave Atticus and I the best haircuts we’ve ever had

Things I will not miss about Japan:

  1. Hitting my head. If you are over 6′, like I am, Japan is a treacherous country. Most of the light fixtures and door casings hover anywhere from 5’9″ to 5’11” off the floor. This means that pretty much anywhere I go there are things looming in the direction of my scalp.
  1. People staring at me. I suspect this has something to do with #1. I know it’s not because I’m terrifically handsome or that I have foreign object hanging from my nose, ears or mouth. I’ve actually seen dudes standing in front of me elbow their friends and then nod their head my way.
  1. Shopping/Malls. I really hate shopping and I especially hate shopping malls. In Japan, you cannot get away from either of these things. Each rail stop is anchored by a large shopping mall, so you literally have to walk through a mall each time you change trains or get off at your stop. Beyond that, people are just shopping everywhere, all the time. I really can’t figure out where they put all the stuff.
  1. Shopping for jeans. I didn’t pack any jeans in my backpack because they are heavy and I knew it would be super hot in all the places we have been traveling, so I’ve just been wearing shorts and Kuhl travel pants. Japan is a very fashionable culture–people look smart and stylish so I thought (wrongly) that if I could get a cool pair of Japanese denim that I’d fit right in and then people would look at my jeans and not elbow their mates about the excessively tall, white guy standing next to them at the 7/11. This quest has been an absolute and major fail and I am convinced (now, after wandering through countless department and even ’boutique’ jeans stores) that there is not a single pair of jeans in this entire country that fit me. Oh, and it’s the same for sneakers. They have to coolest Converse Chuck Taylor Hi Tops here. None of them fit me. Yesterday, desperate, I asked a clerk if they carried a size 11 and she looked at me, shook her head vigorously, and made the classic Japanese “No!” sign–you just cross your arms in front of you, bow and shake your head quickly back and forth. Sujata caught this and burst out laughing right there in front of the poor shop girl.
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Japanese “No!”
  1. Smoking in restaurants. It’s not too common in the bigger restaurants near city centers, but if you pop into the smaller ramen or sushi shops (which we like to do) off the beaten path, people are smoking, and it really sucks. It’s the same in the bars. Sujata and I went to this little place around the corner from out apartment last night and we were the only two people (of 6, including the bartender) who were not smoking.