Monday, March 25, 2013

How to Travel the World for FREE: I did it, and you can do it, too!

Michael Wigge wanted to see if he could travel from his home in Berlin all the way to Antarctica without so much as a euro cent in his pocket. Could he really travel halfway around the world for nothing? How to Travel the World for FREE: I did it, and you can do it, too! is Wigge's account of how he did just that. From the outset he had to beg for food and free hotel accommodation, dive into Dumpsters and invent new ways to make money when simple begging wouldn't work. Thus Wigge does in fact use money on his journey, just not money that he himself brought along with him. Wigge wrote a travel diary that I did not want to put down, and I enjoyed reading how he--often illegally--found his way aboard buses and trains by stowing away:

"On the train ride to Belgium, I decide to save my 55 Euros for later and don't buy a ticket. My brilliant plan is to hide in the restroom for the entire trip."

Wigge gained free passage across the Atlantic by doing minimal work aboard a container ship bound for Montreal. However once he landed in Canada he ventured to find one of his intended destinations:

"I feel extremely happy and lucky when I arrive later that evening in the town of St. Catharines (where Niagara Falls is located)."

Niagara Falls is most definitely not located in St. Catharines, which is a separate city twenty kilometres to the northwest. Glad he made it to the Falls, nonetheless.

While in the United States Wigge found that he could easily obtain free food from burger joints like McDonald's. Whenever he entered a restaurant, he told the staff his plans to travel the world for free. The staff, many if not all of them being cash-strapped students, were sympathetic and all too willing to overload him with free food.

Not all of his attempts to gain free food involved the generosity of restaurant employees. Sometimes he had to take matters into his own hands and, like his adventures stowing away, break the law:

"Normally I drink tap water, but owing to the high chlorine content here, it tastes horrible, so I find a new source of hydration. On the Vegas Strip I go through the different outlets with an empty cup from McDonald's, in order to refill my drink from the McDonald's soda machines. No one really checks to see who refills the cups, so it goes rather smoothly. I am growing more and more innovative by the day."

How to Travel the World for FREE appears to be self-published, yet since Wigge is a native German I expected to see a translation note in the publication data. There is indeed a German version which predated How to Travel the World for FREE by two years (Ohne Geld bis ans Ende der Welt: Eine Abenteuerreise came out in 2010). I wonder if Wigge himself wrote the English version. An editor was credited but I seriously doubt the book was given the once-over by a native English speaker. While I enjoyed Wigge's travel diary immensely, I cringed at the abundance of spelling and grammatical errors within. A little editorial tweaking could have turned Wigge's account into a diary that did not betray his less-than-fluent English proficiency. Some examples include:

"Mark and his wife, Elizabeth, live in a nearby house. When I first see Elizabeth, I have to wonder if I have landed on a Hollywood set and, like Harrison Ford, am actually searching for the witness. Basically, Elisabeth looks a lot like Angelina Jolie...
"Elisabeth married Mark when she was 19 years old..."

Wigge goes back and forth with alternate spellings of the name Elizabeth/Elisabeth. The former is the spelling used more often in North America; the latter is the German spelling.

As Wigge makes his way from Panama into South America en route to Antarctica, he passes through Colombia. In one single paragraph, he alternates the spelling of "Colombia" with "Columbia".

Another error:

"Some passersby look at me a little curiously: a six-foot-tall Latino wearing a traveler backpack is probably a rare site around here."

As a speaker of German myself, I could see from Wigge's English grammar how he sometimes calqued his own translations. It was most evident in his expressions using the preposition "without". On a trip around the world with no money, often with no food or accommodation (thereby leaving him with no option but to beg), the word "without" came up a lot. In German, one would leave out the indefinite article in the phrase "without a [plane] ticket" = ohne Ticket. Wigge would calque the expression into English as "without ticket". Examples of missing indefinite articles made the read choppy and ruined the comedic effect.

For the American reader Wigge converted all metric measurements to imperial, thus he used yards, feet, miles and pounds, but royally screwed up with one photo caption after he had made it as far south as Patagonia:

"Exactly 0.5 people per square meter: Patagonia"

This was the only metric measurement that slipped through, and it is incorrect. Per square meter? Wigge even spells words the American way, but that's not my point. Square metre versus square kilometre? Or square mile? How densely populated is Patagonia?

I will always nitpick works that have been sloppily edited (if edited at all). That aside, I found the episodes where Wigge acts subversively to be the funniest of all, inducing me to laugh out loud during my lunch hour read. While on the ship that will take him from Ushuaia to Antarctica, Wigge is provided free passage under the condition that he work while on board. Shortly after boarding, he meets the captain of the Antarctic Dream:

"A few hours after departing from the harbor of Ushuaia, I go to the bridge to say hello to the captain. He warns me not to go on either of the side wings of the bridge, because they are not protected against the wind. Naturally, I want to test this out immediately..."

...and he then proceeds to slip and fall against a very slippery and not too stable bridge while being drenched with icy water.

How to Travel the World for FREE was too short in some places, as I would have loved to read more about his Antarctic adventure than a mere nine pages. He makes many touching observations about the universal good nature of humanity, and specifically his time spent with an Amish family in Ohio, as well as with an enormous extended family in a cramped house in Cartagena, Colombia, are the most poignant. From "couch surfing" to sleeping rough outdoors, to being given free hotel rooms or free accommodation and meals in the homes of total strangers, Wigge has shown that his enthusiasm, charm and sincerity can open doors versus leave them shut in his face.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language

Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language by Jila Ghomeshi is a pocket-size book of 101 pages that is full of information. By no means a primer for armchair linguists, Ghomeshi states her case in the introduction that she "will not shy away from using more technical terms and concepts". Thus Grammar Matters is most definitely not a Very Short Introduction. The main argument is best summed up by the blurb on the back cover. I could not find a way to express it better myself:

"It is hard to find someone who doesn't have a pet peeve about language. The act of bemoaning the decline of language has become something of a cottage industry. High profile, self-appointed language police worry that new forms of popular media are contributing to sloppiness, imprecision, and a general disregard for the rules of grammar and speech. Within linguistics the term "prescriptivism" is used to refer to the judgements that people make about language based on the idea that some forms and uses of language are correct and others incorrect. This book argues that prescriptivism is unfounded at its very core, and explores why it is, nevertheless, such a popular position. In doing so it addresses the politics of language: what prescriptivist positions about language use reveal about power, authority, and various social prejudices."

Ghomeshi argues that there is nothing inherently wrong about using "non-standard" English and that all arguments about the superiority of standard English are baseless. For example, whether or not one pronounces the /ŋ/ as the final sound in present participles (such as walkin', talkin', refudiatin') does not an ignorant uneducated speaker make. There is no extra effort for the speaker to utter the final sound as /ŋ/ or /n/, so laziness is not a valid argument for those who clip their /ŋ/'s.

The chapter entitled "Why does non-standard grammar persist?" was the most interesting, wherein Ghomeshi analyzes why educated people deliberately write and speak in non-standard forms. From "Krispy Kreme" doughnuts to lolcat speak ("I are crying cuz I are out of focuss") we see the underlying reasons businesses and everyday people write and speak in a variety of idioms of English depending on their situation. University professors such as Ghomeshi or Condoleezza Rice might shift into an intimate vernacular when talking among family members. Having a PhD does not mean that one has abandoned the language of one's intimates. Ghomeshi writes:

"To take ain't as an example, if the people in my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances use ain't, I will too. To not use it may appear to be some sort of judgment on the language of those I love. By using ain't, however, I am not choosing to be considered an uneducated rural hick although I very well might be."

Note how Ghomeshi uses two different spellings of "judgement"/"judgment" in the quote above and in the introductory blurb at the beginning of this review. While both are correct spellings, she should be consistent with one spelling throughout her work.

In spite of the book's brevity I feel that Ghomeshi overdid it in when discussing her prescriptivism-versus-descriptivism argument. By the end of page 101 I was tired of hearing her argue against prescriptivism. I fully admit to being a grammar snob, one of those "language police" she writes about so derisively. In my opinion linguistic phenomena such as dropping one's /ŋ/'s is a symptom of being uneducated, or at least of speaking a non-standard form of proper English. I believe that it should be possible to look into the historical evolution of this trait and see where and when one first encountered this style of pronunciation. I do not believe that the dropping of the final /ŋ/ occurred in colonial American cities, urban centres where one found businesses and universities, but rather in homesteads and plantations where literacy or even schoolhouses were few and far between. Either that or I grew up watching too much "Hee Haw".

Monday, March 11, 2013

To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.

Canadian humorist and Christian speaker Phil Callaway has written a diary documenting his year of living truthfully. His goal was to be entirely honest about everything to everyone and then to document the consequences. If his wife asked if a pair of jeans made her look fat, what would he say? If hosts asked how much he enjoyed dinner, how would he respond? I was prepared for a story about damaged relationships, a broken marriage and a year's worth of self-incriminating flagellations, but To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie. disappointed in not being funny enough.

The blurb on the back cover, however, seemed appealing:

"Phil promised to tell the truth for an entire year, and he wasn't joking. Twelve months later, his journal was crammed with successes, near-successes, and outright failures. During his year-long experiment with veracity, he made a disastrous financial investment, fielded hundreds of intrusive questions from friends and strangers, attended a thirty-year class reunion, and waded into possibly the most revealing--and hilarious--situations he has ever documented."

The book certainly started off as a hilarious page-turner. I was laughing out loud for the first twenty pages. The funniest parts at the start of To Be Perfectly Honest were the moments when he shared his plan with his friends:

"I mentioned the book idea to friends who have known me for years. I said, 'I am considering taking a truth vow.' Without exception, their eyebrows shot up to their bangs, though one said, 'Isn't that a bit like giving up arson for Lent?'
"Yeah, sort of. But that didn't stop me from accepting the challenge. And in no time I encountered the first major drawback. Having shared openly that I was now solely a truth-telling individual, I found that some of my friends insisted on getting a straight answer to things they'd wondered about since fourth grade."


"Day 31. I received more e-mail input from friends who are taking advantage of this opportunity to hook me up to the self-inflicted lie detector."

and three days later, one can feel his exasperation:

"Day 34. I did it to myself. I asked people to send in any question they wanted me to answer, with the promise that I would respond truthfully. It's like releasing rabbits into a cheetah cage."

Callaway is a humorist, and sometimes makes his quest more hyper-literal than hyper-honest. For example, when in church, he sees the cards that one fills out asking "Is there anything we can do for you?". Instead of answering with a predictable request such as "Please pray for my sick mother", he replies with "Please come over and mow my lawn".

Callaway had been building up his upcoming thirtieth high school reunion yet barely talked about it. He decided to be honest with his now middle-aged body and chose not to disguise it (and thus lie through couture) by choosing not to wear a shirt with slimming vertical stripes. However it would have been hilarious had he gone to the reunion and revealed to his former fellow classmates what he actually thought of them.

Honesty was thus expressed not only through his words but also by what he wore. Callaway also stayed faithful to his truth vow in yet another way:

"By now I am so into the honesty thing that a bad joke doesn't draw a response from me. The laugh wouldn't come. Milton looked at me like you look at a little old lady accused of arson.
"'Milton, I have taken a truth vow. How can I be completely truthful and laugh at a joke I do not find remotely funny?'"

Callaway wrote in an oral style, as if he were transcribing a comedic monologue. His dialogue, especially with his wife Ramona, is loving and shows the unbreakable bond they have shared since meeting as high school sweethearts. She supports him on his year-long quest to be an honest man, and pokes fun at him at times. She is even understanding when he confesses his desires to be with other women. He however doesn't act on these feelings, which in effect would be like justifying his desire to fool around in order to be true to his honesty objective.

I laughed out loud when he skewered home-schoolers:

"Day 305. Today I spoke to a large group of public-school teachers. I enjoy speaking in nonreligious settings, although I didn't know there would be several thousand in the audience. I started out telling them, 'It's a little ironic to be asked to speak to you, because I was homeschooled'--there was an uncomfortable pause, during which I could almost hear someone sharpening a harpoon--'until the age of five, at which point my mother gave up on me and turned me over to our educational system.'"

After one year of being perfectly honest, Callaway reflected on the effect it had had on him:

"A friend asked me what I've learned from my full-immersion truth vow. Where do I begin? For starters, I'm more honest in prayer. This thing about trying to impress God was laughable. I've also learned how far short I land trying to rig things on my own. I speak the truth more speedily now, less concerned with what people say about me when I'm out of earshot. I've learned to be kinder to others, having never walked around in their slippers. And I've learned to appreciate the words of the great American theologian Tim McGraw: 'Live like you were dying.'"

To Be Perfectly Honest was not the riot of a read I thought it would be. The final chapter, about the death of his mother from dementia, is almost tear-jerking. Callaway does take an attitude towards death that I myself share, and he is comforted by his mother's release from her mental incapacity and by her reunion with her Saviour and late husband. He gets through this by finding humour even in his mother's declining state, and his reminiscences are both tender and saddening. To Be Perfectly Honest is a book of humour after all, and although the laugh-out-loud moments weren't many, they made the book nonetheless a worthwhile read.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Doubleday, 2009

Sold as a narrative nonfiction title for readers of adventure stories, this book helped get me into the whole notion of reading nonfiction for pleasure.  Any sort of archaeological adventure is an easy sell for me, so I avidly listened to this book on unabridged audio CD.

While the main subject of the book, explorer Percy Fawcett (1865-1925?), was an interesting character, I was particularly fascinated by the descriptions of the Amazon jungle. Most notably the myriad insects, ticks, worms and other parasites that plague explorers of this "green hell." 

I was hoping for more descriptions of ancient ruins and lost civilizations, but the other details more than made up for it.  I found the author’s hypothesis regarding the nature of the lost city known as “Z” fairly compelling, although my imagination almost demands ancient stone zigurats and complicated death traps to confound explorers!  The author’s ideas are much more realistic and have a power of their own.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How was the jungle viewed and experienced in the age of Victorian explorers, and then in our modern age of deforestation and "civilization?"
  2. Would you ever want to explore undiscovered country far from the comforts of civilization?
  3. Do you think there are any untraveled or unexplored destinations left in the world?
  4. The author spent a lot of time describing the insects and other parasites that preyed upon the explorers, and all the other hardships they experienced.  Why would people want to subject themselves to that, and even do it again?
  5. What did you think of Percy Fawcett as described in this book?
  6. How well do you think the author portrayed the mindsets and prejudices of the explorers and the culture they came from?
  7. How were native peoples described in this book?
  8. This book has been billed as an adventure story.  Did you find that it read as such?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness

Jan Wong is one of my favourite writers. I loved her writing with The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and Chatelaine, and I have posted reviews of two of her books to my blog at LiveJournal and also at and I was not aware that Wong battled depression for two years and struggled with her employer, The Globe and Mail, and her union to prove her medical condition. Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness is Wong's account from the onset of her depression to her firing from The Globe.
Wong is a passionate journalist whose drive to get a story is one of the reasons I love her. When I read Red China Blues and raved about her book to anyone who would listen, almost everyone I spoke to knew her reputation for being (in their words) cut-throat, merciless and self-absorbed. I disagree with these assessments. In my opinion Wong writes exactly what she feels because she owes it to her readers to be truthful. Wong will not compromise her principles to avoid hurting the feelings of others. The entire Affaire Wong which precipitated the onset of her depression left her without the ability to write yet her passion for bringing her case to justice was still there. She was a fighter, and would not sign her name to any document that denied her sick pay, or denied the acknowledgement from three doctors and psychiatrists that she was clinically depressed. In spite of her battle with depression she would not cave in to the demands of her employer. She would not leave The Globe and Mail solely on their terms and she certainly would not go under a gag order. 
I would never have read a memoir about someone's descent into depression if it hadn't happened to Jan Wong. Wong herself foresaw the healing power of writing about her ordeal:
"After many months at home, it occurred to me that writing about my depression might help me to claw my way out of depression."
"In the end, I felt I had no choice. If I did not vanquish depression by writing about it, I feared I would never write again."
Depression left Wong sleepless, moody, both hypo- and hypersensitive to the world around her and, worst of all, unable to write. Her sense of self-worth deteriorated when she realized she couldn't function as a reporter and do the job she was paid to do. Her own doctor, her psychiatrist, as well as an independent medical examiner all concluded that Wong was depressed and should take time off work, yet Wong found out that it is very hard to prove to your employer and even worse to prove to your insurance provider that you are suffering from a disorder that has no visible symptoms. Had she broken her leg or come down with a case of hemorrhagic fever, she would have had an easier time in claiming sick leave. Out of the Blue documents Wong's determined efforts never to give up and fight for her right, as she says, "to be sick". 
One reason I like Wong's writing is that she makes me laugh, yet when the news broke about her two years of emotional surfing below sea level, I was saddened. However even in a story about the gloomy blues of depression, I found myself at times laughing myself silly. I believe that Wong's ability to write humour is a sign of her recovery. For example, while suffering yet another sleepless night, she would often use her husband as a sleep aid:
"In fact, whenever I had insomnia, my solution was to nudge him awake and ask about his doctoral thesis. He would become animated, well, not quite animated, but he would start talking at length about parellel programming languages and the semantics of shared variables. As he droned on, I would fall deeply asleep, leaving him wide-awake."
Wong was able to see the humour in her own condition, and often put herself as the butt of a joke. She could start bawling without warning at any situation, no matter how innocuous, happy or sad. While attending a performance of "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, Wong wrote:
"When the house lights dimmed, I had a little cry. On stage, Butterfly was weeping bitterly. If those around me noticed my damp cheeks, I hoped they would assume I was just another crazy opera buff. I was, in fact, just crazy."
The "geographic cure" is the term for abandoning one's place of stress and getting away from it all. Wong was advised by her doctor and psychiatrist to go on holiday, and she definitely felt a turnaround in her attitude afterward:
"Although the sadness stayed with me, travel did transport me away from the rancid crust of everyday misery."
In a hotel, "You can shut out the whole world by hanging a sign on your doorknob. If only I could have worn a do-not-disturb sign at work."
Unfortunately, when a depressive goes on holiday instead of reporting to work, the employer can only look at you and your apparently symptomless condition with skepticism. Wong was accused of trying to cheat the Globe by claiming sick time when she was reinvigorating herself on holiday.
Out of the Blue is a valuable memoir in that it is focussed on such a high-profile personality and her battle with depression. Jan Wong overcame the blues and has used her journalistic skill to defeat the disease by writing about it. Her life is an open book in Out of the Blue; Wong tells it like it is and does not shy away from even the most intimate of details.