My mother came here on a tourist visa (read: temporary visa) in the mid-1960s, accompanied by my aunt and uncle, college-educated professionals who were recruited to work for US-based companies during the 'brain drain' that saw so many professionals leave Asia and come to the US.
My mother never left. She was an 'illegal' (even if she will never admit that she was, and shows an incredible disdain for undocumented immigrants). She eventually became a naturalized citizen, but she did not come through the 'proper chanels' to get here. Her story is not an uncommon one. She, like most other immigrants that come to the U.S. (legally or illegally), came here to chase the American dream, to be able to send her children to college, and to create a better life for herself. My mother and I, and my cousins that have immigrated to the states, send money back to the Phiippines to help pay for my grandmother's health care costs and my cousin's schooling. This global economy and First World v. Third World conditions forces us to have to stay here (even though some of us don't want to) because this is where the money can be made. This is where some modicum of economic opportunity exists.
That's why I'm marching in the streets tomorrow, May 1st, May Day, International Worker Day. That's why I support the call for "A Day Without an Immigrant." And even though the large mobilizations that took place in early April were mostly of Latinos, I hope that Asian, African and Middle-Eastern and other immigrant groups (I mean, unless you're Native American you're an immigran) get out in the streets too. We need to be there, otherwise the Right is going to continue to try and divide and conquer us (like the sickening example of the Border militia group the Minutemen Project making a public statement that illegal immigrants are taking jobs and 'hurting Blacks in the inner city the most'. The Minutement don't give a s**t about Black people in the inner city.)
I'm thrilled to see major news outlets like CNN are covering this historic moment. Millions may walk out of school and refuse to go to work to march in the streets, stop 'business as usual' and stand up for not just immigrant rights, but human rights.
FOOD: Terrible. I had heard that fresh veggies and good food were hard to find in London, but I thought that the fact that it's a world-class city would prove the critics wrong on both counts. Nope.
The only decent food we found was Indian and Thai, and even that was only passable (the Indian food was good, but honestly I don't think what we had was any better than Indian food we could get back in the Bay. Of course, we only had time to go to one Indian restaurant while we were there). And veggies? I think potatoes were the only vegetable we could find on a consistent basis, and the other veggies we had weren't very fresh or tasty. Fish and chips, however, were pretty yummy. And English tea, of course, was quite delicious (don't drink the coffee, opt for the tea for your caffeine fix instead). We brought a few boxes back from bling-bling department store Harrods (see picture below of their amazing Food Hall).
Now on to the good stuff:
FREE MUSEUMS: Which are pretty much all the major ones. They're all free free free, all the time. We saw this cool installation at the Tate Modern, made up of hundreds of white plastic boxes piled high in the huge, post-industrial warehouse space behind the lobby.
We also went to the British Museum, which holds miles (literally) of antiquities from all over the world (yes, the British were major plunderers). We mostly focused our time on the beautiful, round National Library (first picture), where Karl Marx completed Capital, and the Egyptian collection. That second picture with H. is of the fist of a huge statue of the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses. We also saw the Rosetta Stone, which was pretty frickin' cool.
FASHION: I looked around everywhere we went (mostly in Central London, which is where the major sites are and where we were staying), and I swear, EVERYONE had a 'look' in London. Whether it was casual-preppy, high-fashion couture, punk-rocker girl, hip hop b-boy or whatever, everyone was sporting a very distinct and put-together 'fit that made me feel quite shabby in my used, slightly generic Seven for All Mankind jeans and boring-beige Ann Taylor Loft raincoat. And there is TONS of fashion shopping to do in London--it seemed that on every corner there was some kind of clothing store (although not as much as in Rome), catering to every income level and fashion taste. We spent the most time in Oxford Circus and on Knightsbridge (where Harrods and one of the H&M's are, as well as Zara and other big stores). Unfortunately, the British pound was worth almost twice the US dollar while we were there, so I didn't have much disposable cash to clothes-shop with. Boo-hoo.
SOCIALIZED HEALTH CARE: I actually got sick (a bad bout of food poisoning) while I was in the UK, and got treated speedily and cheerily in a small hospital outside London near Luton airport (Luton's a suburb that seemed to have a much higher population of people of color than central London). And all I had to pay for was the meds they gave me (rehydration salts and some anti-nausea medication). They didn't even ask to see my passport. I couldn't believe it. The US is so behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to health care, it's pathetic.
All in all, if there is any US city I'd compare to London, it would have to be New York. The constant crush of people, the multi-culti, high-fashion consciousness of the general populace, the late-night buzz on the streets (even though many pubs close around midnight, which is unheard of in the states, especially in New York), all reminded me of my trips to the Big Apple. There were lots of people of color in London, too, and we even saw a crew of Filipino men working and hanging out at a casino (I'm not even kidding) in Bayswater.
It's also an expensive city, like New York, but as a tourist you can see quite a bit without having to spend too much, thanks to the free admission at museums and such. And of course, there are just amazing layers upon layers of history in London, as in Europe overall, that are interesting to examine close-up, in churches or the architecture around the city, which you can see plenty of just wandering around the streets.
H. standing before Tower Bridge. We didn't get go inside the Tower of London, which is right next to the bridge, but I really wanted to. We ran out of time and it's quite expensive (around $30 I believe) but any history-buff would be crazy to not go take a look from the oustide at least (see picture below). This is, after all, the place where executions took place, where royal heads were lopped off (e.g. Ann Bolyn and other of Henry VIII's unfortunate, son-less wives) and royal prisoners were kept. Now it houses the crown jewels and is a big attraction for kids, if you can believe that.
This is Westminster Abbey, a nearly thousand-year-old church where all English coronations have taken place over the last nine centuries. We saw the tombs of King Edward the Confessor and Queens Mary and Elizabeth I here as well, not to mention the graves of other luminaries such as Sir Issac Newton, Oscar Wilde and Charles Darwin (yes, Darwin is buried in a church). These people never seemed real to me, since I'd only read about them or seen period movies about them that seemed more fiction than fact. But after seeing their graves, I left with a real sense of their mortality and their impact on the world. And of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married in Westminster Abbey. It's quite a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. If you go, pay the extra 4 quid (pounds) and go on a verger-guided tour.
When we were in Paris, we stayed with very kind hosts, friends of a friend who hadn't even met us before they welcomed us into their home. They lived in a small, top-floor apartment in Belleville, a neighborhood-in-transition not entirely different than the Oakland neighborhood I live in here. Lots of immigrants, mostly Asian but also African and Middle Eastern, lived in the neighborhood, along with white Parisians. (Dat Lan, an amazing Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, was a couple blocks away).
One of our hosts, a high school teacher in Paris, had been on strike as part of the city-wide general strike in, the day before we arrived. A GENERAL strike. The concept is virtually unheard-of here in the states, even in the progressive hotbed of the Bay Area. This is a strike when EVERYONE stays home and doesn't go to work. Where 'business as usual' stops for a day, a week, however long the unions, the student groups, whoever is organizing the people, decide. The Metro (subway) doesn't run, there are no schools open, the post office shuts down, etc. Everyday life comes to a standstill, and politicians and policy makers and corporate CEOs have no choice but to wring their hands, try to make backroom deals, and hope that the workers will come back soon. A general strike gives everyday, working people a huge amount of leverage in negotiations around things like the new labor law (CPE) that students and workers were protesting in France (the workers and students won, by the way).
Today, Oakland Unified School District teachers (of whom I count several close friends) had planned to go on strike, since the district (run by the bulldozer known as State Administrator Randolph Ward) had refused to give them a good deal on health care (a major issue that has come up in other labor struggles recently, such as the Safeway/VONS strike, etc.). And then, as reported to me by my downstairs neighbor, who teaches at an OUSD school, the district pulled a fast one at the last minute: ten minutes before school let out yesterday, the district sent notices to all students and parents, saying that the next day (the day teachers had planned to strike) would be a 'student free day' but a mandatory work day for teachers. A smooth, manipulative way to try to take the punch out of the teachers' strike. If no students show up to school at the district's behest, is it really a strike, after all?
But it seems that the teachers' union and the district have reached an agreement, in the end. Still no details on it yet in the news, but union reps seem to be happy with it. Of course, it's not over yet. Union members still have to vote to ratify the contract, and there's no telling what they may think of it. Is it a real, livable contract with good health care conditions for Oakland's overworked teachers? Or is it a last-minute ditch-out/sell-out compromise that will weaken teachers' positions (and slim down their pocketbooks)?
Unfortunately, this is not Paris, and although the teachers' union was possibly going to be joined in their strike by school staff (secretaries, janitors, and the like), I didn't hear of any AC Transit bus drivers or UPS workers in Oakland striking in solidarity. We are a long ways off from having the kinds of mass-scale social movement that exists in France and other more industrialized nations, that's for damn sure.
But it is beautiful to see community members band together in response to the 'free day' / strike whatever it is. Oakland recreation centers will be staying open later to help take care of children who have no where to go since school isn't in session. My friend M. reports that her son's school, a progressive charter school in the Fruitvale district, had a parents' meeting recently to notify them of the status of the possible strike and help them make alternative childcare arrangements. And my organization has offered students a place to hang out in our offices if they have no where to go so that they don't get targeted by cops for truancy.
At this point, it's a wait and see game. Wait and see. And hope that, no matter what, the students will be the ones to win out in the end.
Heading back to work today for the first time after my vacation. I actually managed to check work email only twice during these past two weeks, and I didn't respond to anything, just checked to make sure any emergencies were being dealt with. That's a big deal for me, miss Type-A borderline workaholic.
I'm actually looking forward to it. I'm one of those rare people that actually loves my dayjob/ work. Which doesn't always mean good news for my writing, but it is fulfilling to know that you are doing good work every day and that the people you work with appreciate you and your work.
Only 16 more weeks until the conference!! It sounds like a long time but I know it's gonna fly by. I'm coordinating the program and fundraising components (the revolution WILL be funded, dammit!), so I'll be a busy bee.
Haven't gotten a chance to upload all my photos on flickr, but here's one pic for you to enjoy, from Paris. This is the Arc de Triomphe, built on Napoleon's command to commemorate his Imperialistic military victories in Europe, built in the self-aggrandizing style of the ancient Roman Emperors' triumphant arches (I know because I saw those in Rome, too!), but actually not finished until well after his armies' defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Hitler also marched his occupying forces through this Arc and down the Champs Elysees during World War II. So much history in Europe, so much to see and touch and experience with your own senses.
As much as I enjoyed my Europe trip (on the last night in Rome, I truly didn't want to leave, wanted to spend at least a few more days in the Eternal City), I am so glad to be home.
I get homesick rather easily, which is why I was pleasantly surprised to not feel much homesickness on this trip. Maybe once or twice, I longed for the creature comforts of my very American lifestyle (ah, hot water and good water pressure, and toilet seats!!) or the wildly diverse range of cheap ethnic foods one can indulge in in the Bay Area ("shall we have Ethiopian, Indian, Filipino or Japanese tonight, babe?"). But overall, I was totally immersed in and enjoying my European experience. (Well, there was one negative experience with a xenophobic Italian woman at the end of the trip that made me wish I could click my ruby-slippered heels three times and be back home, but I'll get into that later).
It's the little (or maybe they're not so little) things that make one appreciate home more than any other place on earth: The way the light shines in my apartment, with its white walls and clean, shiny hard wood floor. The feel of the cool wood under my bare feet, familiar yet somehow strange and new after two weeks of living in hotels and strangers' homes. A hot shower in your own bathroom after a long, long day (we were in the air and on the road for almost 24 hours yesterday). The comforting smells of home--clean sheets, clothes, blankets--the scents you take for granted when you are here and that you forget when you are away.
The time change from Rome to the Bay was 9 hours (right now it's nearly 4pm in Italy) so my body is a little disoriented, but I'm feeling simultaneously refreshed, exhilirated and body-fatigued to be home right now. I feel that I am back in my own place, where I belong.
I wish I had more time to blog while I'm here in Europe, but I don't have my beloved laptop and Internet cafes are time-sucks away from my precious sightseeing excursions, so I'll be brief.
I'm very excited to read in a Nation email today that the CPE (the awful proposed law in France that would have eliminated the little job security young French people have) has been repealed by Jacques Chirac in response to all the pressure from students mostly and also labor (University campus shut-downs, strikes, rallies, marches, etc.--at least one general strike our host in France, a school teacher, took part in). And in Italy, a new left-leaning President has been elected, booting out the rival incumbent, who was a staunch ally of Bush's vis a vis the war in Iraq. There are political posters up everywhere in Rome, including Green (Verdi) party and Reformed Communist party posters. We even passed a Communist party office the other day where a bunch of people were gathered in the street outside watching the exit poll results of the Italian Presidential race. The Nation reports that the election of this new President shows that Italian voters want out of Iraq.
Yesterday H. and I strolled around in awe in the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseo (Coliseum). Of course we've been eating a lot of delicious Romano food and drinking some off-the-hook coffee everyday too. Now we're off to see our last big site of the trip: the Vatian Museums and the Sistine Chapel.
More updates and pictures of my trip--which, in short, has been amazing amazing amazing--when I return back home (and to my laptop and wifi :-)).
Arrived safely yesterday morning in London. Had a bit of a challenge getting to the hotel in Bayswater (very close to Kensington Gardens, home of the mansion where Princess Di once lived) from Heathrow, but it all turned out fine in the end, and we were even able to check-in to our hotel room early so we could nap. But this only after we had our first full English breakfast, which reminded me a lot of Filipino breakfast (garlic fried rice, fried egg, and some kind of meat), only in London they give you toast instead of rice, of course. Pretty flavorful stuff, not bad. They even gave us a nice grilled tomato on the side.
The weather here is much like it is in the San Francisco Bay Area right now--partly cloudly, intermittent showers, a bit chilly. The sun was shining bright and beautiful for much of yesterday morning, however, making me feel as if the city was welcoming us with open arms.
Jet lag is a bitch, I have to say. We took a red eye out of Boston to London, arriving around 8am, and didn't get too much sleep on the flight. Who can sleep for more than hour sitting up in a space the size of a tiny closet? And then when we got here the sun was just rising over the horizon, the city just waking up to a surprisingly busy morning commute. Tourists, I'm guessing, and locals making their way to shops, a home decorating show that was going on in the city. We took a couple naps yesterday to try and compensate for the lag, but my body's still on Pacific daylight savings time, which right now would be 4:20am!
Went to the Tate Modern museum yesterday, a brilliant place (do I sound British yet? ;-)). All the big museums' main collections have free admission--ah, to be governed by a much-less-than-perfect Labour party still has its advantages--which is great since H. and I don't have a lot of money to spend on sightseeing (especially given the fact that the pound is worth roughly twice as much as the dollar right now). The Tate is housed in an old industrial factory in a seemingly desolate part of town, one that I'm guessing is in the throes of gentrification. All the signs are there--fashionably gritty industrial warehouses, a random fancy restaurant or two, a tiny black box theater tucked away in between--and the Tate I'm sure is helping to rapidly advance that trend.
The museum itself was stunning--a giant box of a space with a very phallic tower rising from its middle, topped by a strange purple-blue-lit observation deck (I think, we didn't get to go all the way up there). We saw a Pollack, a Picasso, a Matisse, some Calder mobiles in the 'Abstract Expressionism' section, an interesting installation of a giant concave, spoon-like sculpture that you can stand within, its reflective dark-red surface making you feel dizzy and claustrophobic and stimulated at the same time.
I've observed some interesting things about the British--well, maybe Europeans is a more accurate term, since there are so many German and French tourists here. Personal space is a very different thing here than in the U.S. (or California, at least). More than once I experienced a little discomfort because people (all white, but I really don't think that was the only reason for their ease at taking up space) would walk very close to me, or nearly collide with me, despite my best efforts to avoid doing so, and they didn't seem to mind, it seemed to them only a matter of course, that we were all in a space together, and that bumping into each other was bound to happen. For example, a British woman on the Underground brushed heavily against H.'s legs as he was sitting and she was walking past him. She mumbled 'Sorry' but it wasn't resentful, and she didn't pull away as quickly as she could (which is what would happen back home), as if his touch were burning her. She just kept moving along at the same pace.
For some reason this really strikes me, because I think this lack of obsession with personal space (relative to what I observe amongst my fellow Americans back home in the states) say something. Does it point to a greater sense of collective belonging? Of more ease within one's own bodies? Of less fear of others? Of none or all of these? All I can say for sure is that while it's jarring, it's also somewhat comforting, that I don't have to expend as much energy as I normally do back home avoiding any and all physical contact with the strangers (and friends) that may be close by.
Lastly, been following the news about the ongoing protests in Paris, because last week the protests grounded a third of the flights coming out of the city. Protests have turned violent, I read, although I wonder how much of that is property destruction, how much is fighting with the police, etc. Supposedly, no tourists have been injured. But I'm such a cynical reader that I have to find three stories to corrobate something before I'll begin to think of it as 'true'. Especially when the stories about protests.
There are demonstrations being called for Tuesday, April 4, the day we are supposed to fly into Charles de Gaulle. And while I support the protesting students, I am beginning to fret a little that our travel plans--both to Paris and to Rome, since we were to fly out of Paris--will be disrupted. The U.S. Embassy is warnings its citizens traveling in Paris to avoid large gatherings, as Paris police have been using tear gas to quell protests. (And me without my water-soaked bandanna, damn.)When I told him that I was both worried and excited about traveling to Paris during such intense movement activity, my boss joked that H. would have to be my personal line monitor/security person--to hold me back from jumping into the fray.
No matter what hpapens, if I've learned one thing so far on this trip, it's that part of the beauty of traveling is letting go, of being open to and experiencing a given moment for what it is, and learning something from it. The exact kind of thing that is easy to avoid being back home in our comfortable, sheltered environments. What will be ironic, I'm guessing, is that so much protest is happening around me (back home in California, mostly Latino students continue to walkout in protest of a horrid anti-immigrant bill being debated in Congress) but I will most likely not take part in it. It's where my life is at right now, as much as the young radical within me wants to be a part of the action.