KIEV, UKRAINE -- A babushka was singing traditional Ukrainian songs on the metro in a thin, sweet voice. She took my hands in hers after I took a couple of coins out of my pocket and thanked me with the warmest light in her eyes. Her face was so close to mine, I gave her a kiss on the cheek and she laughed. The creases on her riverbed face told me a hundred stories. I imagine her singing her own children and grandchildren lullabies instead of strangers.
My Russian-speaking Polish friend talked briefly with the woman and said I was from California and exchanged good wishes. She helped me ask if I could take a picture of her. Afterward, this Polish friend told me that life is hard for old people in Ukraine, because pensions for the elderly are inadequate. Many old people sell wares on the street, though their old bones cannot take the 30 below zero days like today.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK -- This was the last place I expected to see a pair of old Beijing-style cloth shoes 北京布鞋 (people under age 50 in Beijing don't even wear these anymore!). This shushu 叔叔 explained in Mandarin that he moved from Shanghai to Copenhagen in the 1990s. His daughter, now in her 20s, speaks Danish as her native language. When he suggested to her that they go back to Shanghai, as the economy there is now booming, she refused -- Copenhagen is home now. "I guess there is no turning back now," he said. "I will live here until I die."
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK -- "And finally, and most importantly, I promised myself, that darkness will never dull me. I promised myself, that the more darkness I will see, the more light I will unleash and produce in return. Each time I am a witness of any type of suffering, I store all the anger inside, I transform it into energy, and I release it into a forever stronger light. All of those horrible things that I see, and all the “bad” people I come across, give me the desire to become the total opposite of them. Instead of dulling me, they make me shinier and stronger, showing me how I would never want to be.
"As a matter of fact, the person I am today, is only the result of everything that I’ve seen since my birth, positive and negative. Each time I saw something positive I used it as inspiration, and each time I saw something negative, I became its total opposite. Good and bad equally contribute to make me better and stronger. I use the darkness of the world and transform it into light."
I dropped into volunteer at the women's program at Trampoline House, a social and resource center for refugees in Copenhagen. When they asked for two volunteers to make dinner, Jena and I were the ones to raise our hands. The two of us went shopping with an allotted 250 kronen and cooked up a storm: chow mein, green beans, coconut curried veggies, curry chicken, and a peach and apple crumble.
As we embarked on the journey of making a meal together, I got to learn about the remarkable and resilient woman Jena is. Jena came from the Philippines to work as an au pair first in Norway, then in Denmark. In the time that she isn't working, she volunteers at more than five different charities and social initiatives -- knitting winter hats for homeless people, a choir that performs in refugee camps and homes for the elderly and hospitals, a soup kitchen, a "pay as you feel" community dinner, a letter writing group, a cafe for the benefit of asylum seekers, and more.
After our dinner, we left together on our bikes and Jena headed for the library to read about her passion: anthropology. She wants to understand how people from different cultures can be good to each other. Having been abused in domestic work, yet feeling powerless because she relies on the host family for her immigration status, Jena is angry yet hopeful about fighting for migrant rights. She hopes to transition from working to studying anthropology in Germany, but has faced many barriers in immigration, such as the requirement to prove several thousand euros in your bank account to apply for a student visa.
DUBLIN, IRELAND -- "Among Irish people I suppose there’s a lot of romanticization of the past, how we’ve lost so much, and a lot of people are like, 'Well, it’s the British’s fault, because you know, they invaded and conquered and all that.' When I was younger, I was definitely like that, because it’s the easy option, like, it’s somebody else’s fault that we don’t have whatever. But if your goal is to preserve a culture, you have to do it. If your aim is to preserve it, you can’t blame someone else for having taken it away.
"If you can demonstrate that young people really care about the culture, that’s half the battle, to disprove all the people who say that speaking Irish is just for old people. There’s this misconception that the people who speak Irish are old people in the distant, remote west, that have no connections to modern society, and so Irish is irrelevant to current globalization.
"The movement to preserve the Irish language is being driven by people who are a lot younger than people realize — the manager of this place is 22, 23? The Conradh na Gaeilge is great, having places where people who have Irish come and use their Irish. And not just in a place like this, but with your friends, and in the streets.
"I’m actually a published translator of Game of Thrones to Irish. I started in secondary school. All my education was in Irish, but we had no Irish textbooks. The secondary school teacher would take the English textbook, and give us notes, or a terrible lecture, it just pushes forward the notion that Irish isn’t relevant anymore. It isolates the language a lot. There’s so little Irish stuff translated, so I thought I might as well get on the ball and start doing it. 'This isn’t available in Irish. Nobody else is going to do it. It’s not going to be there. I might as well do it.'
"The problem is not our generation, but one or two generations before. I don’t think it’s the sole reason, but a significant one — Irish education was really… it just wasn’t… good. It was beaten into you. It felt so irrelevant to modern life, people were force fed it. People learning off verbs, but didn’t know what they meant. It wasn’t a language, it was a weird… punishment. ‘I don’t use this in my life, I’m forced to learn it, what’s the point?’
"Previous to that, Irish was associated with the poor. Ever since the famine, in which the majority of the Irish speaking community died, you know, it’s been associated since then with poor people from the countryside. So English became the language of success, of health, even. So loads of people abandoned Irish.
"A couple generations ago, families used to have a stick, and if children didn’t speak English, they put a notch into the stick and the teacher would give them a beating. Because they wanted their child to have a better life. It’s really sad, you know?
"Younger people come up now and say, well it’s not that bad. Everybody complains about subjects in secondary school anyway, but in college, a lot of people are like, “Oh you speak Irish, that’s cool.” Loads of people are like, “I wish I knew more.” In our mom and dad’s generation, I don’t think that was as common. I mean, sometimes you still get “why do you bother,” or “what’s the point.”
"I’ve thought that before — I was on the bus once, people were just walking down the street — does it make that much of a difference what language someone speaks? Does it influence you? These are all people now, the majority of people don’t know Irish anymore, does that impact anything?
"I don’t know, but I think it does. Because you have to accept that language and culture are indivisible. You can’t take one away from the other. Like the Chinese proverbs, they’re encoded in history and culture and stuff. I value those things, most people do, but most people don’t realize… maybe people don’t feel like it’s necessary in that way. Some people can say you can translate a bunch of Irish to English, but to me that’s not the same as understanding it. It’s a hard question to answer. Loads of mushy feelings, I guess."
It was dim and quiet inside. Shannon and I stuck our noses through a couple doors until we found the pub, where Shannon had told me people could gather and practice their Irish. Unfortunately, it looked like we were the only ones this Monday night. The bartender, a lanky young man with blond hair, put away his phone half-startledly and greeted us in Irish. Shannon reciprocated smoothly in Irish and I stared dumbly. “Um, sorry, hello.”
The young man introduced himself as Oisín (pronounced, in my mind, like ‘o-sheen’) and poured Shannon a pint of Bulmers and me a half-pint of Guinness from tap and we settled in for the evening. Turns out Oisín published a translation of The Game of Thrones from English to Irish as a teenager and was now pursuing a degree in Early and Modern Irish at Trinity College Dublin. He grew up speaking Irish with his family and came to realize its importance to him after a trip abroad, where he was asked repeatedly about his national identity. Ever since, he has since been meditating on what exactly does it means to be Irish in this day and age?
LVIV, UKRAINE -- In the early morning of a cold January morning in a Christmas Market in Lviv, singing could be heard from blocks away. It was more like belting than singing -- frankly, I don't feel that they were aspiring musicians, but people trying to make some money in a creative and respectable way. I dropped a couple bills in their beanie and motioned questioningly to my camera. They nodded, mid-song, and paused for me to take a shot. Loathe to disrupt their song, and taking in their lack of excitement, I nodded a thank you and watched the most melancholy buskers I have ever seen amble onward through the madding crowds.
BERLIN, GERMANY -- "I have a degree in business administration from Nigeria. I wanted to further my education, but university is not free like in Germany. My family needed to save money so the younger ones in my family could reach the same level of education as me.
"I've been in Germany three months, before that, Italy for three years. I'm waiting to hear back from construction jobs in January so I can move out of my hostel and into a flat. Then, I've got to save up money to visit my family. I'm lucky to be alive, lucky to have these opportunities, so you've got to stay hopeful. You've got to."
KIEV, UKRAINE -- A sweet Polish woman with soft laughter who works with youth and dreams of taking time off to work-stay in a hostel in Georgia (the country), Renata and I met in a hostel in Kiev over a cup of tea and I wandered the city with her and her friend Asia. When they left Kiev, Renata and Asia handed me a plastic bag of Polish and sweets (michałki białe, a milky candy with a nutty filling, is the bomb dot com) and invited me to visit in Kraków, where they work. The three of us spent one more night walking the snow-laden city of Kraków, a friendship budding across two cities.
CHEFCHAOUEN, MOROCCO -- “My name is Said. It means happy!”
“I live my life free and independent, and I hope I die that way.”
“Wealthy people I know, they can’t sleep at night. Me? I go to bed and sleep. And I have time to talk to you!”
“I never married, but I adopted three kids. When you love children, it doesn’t matter if they’re yours or not. You just love them.”
“After I retired from being a diplomatic translator and I moved back into my childhood home in Chefchaouen, they asked me if I wanted electricity in my home. I said no. One friend gave me a solar lamp so I can read and write at night. Other than that, I don’t need much."
“Every spring, I pack my things and hire a car to take me to the seaside. I bring a tent, pots, pans, and books. Every morning, I walk in the mountains. At noon, I sit down and have a picnic. In the afternoon, I read and write. Sometimes I walk to a nearby village to stock up on more food. I come back in September.”
“Humans are made of two powers: one material from the earth, and one spiritual from the sky. You need to feed both. The material body is not so hard to feed — you need food, water, warmth.
"The spiritual is not so easy to feed. Have community. Learn something new. Be in nature. Nature! Just sit down and close your eyes a little while. When we die, our body goes back to the earth and our spirit goes back to the sky.”
“I will keep the flavor of this morning on my lips. This memory is sweeter than the honey bread.”
SANTORINI, GREECE -- "When the kids ask for money, I give them. The Greeks, the tourists, they don't give. They're looking for jobs, no work, no money; no money, no food. If they're hungry and I'm working here, and my boss isn't here, I say, 'Come in, eat quick!' Anyways just three euros a meal, if my boss sees, I give three euros no big deal. If my boss is here, nothing I can do."
On Niku's right forearm, he has a tattoo of three stars, one for each of his brothers. The siblings moved from Albania to the Greek tourist island together to work. In the summer, Niku works 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 euros an hour in the restaurant industry. In the winter, he works 12 hours a day. Now he can speak Albanian, Greek and English, and is keen on learning Spanish.
"It's not so bad," he says, "only three hours from home." After the Communist Party of Albania was replaced by the Democratic Party in 1992, and Albania was accepted into the Council of Europe in 1995, many Albanians have migrated for work, especially to Greece and Italy. Despite Greece's own high unemployment rate, Albanians have stepped up to do work that Greeks don't want to do, and for very cheap rates.
Depite, or perhaps because of his enthusiasm for his ability to work, Niku has compassion for the young people who are sometimes asking for money on the side of the road.
TIJUANA, MEXICO -- *Pointing to the book he is holding* *Thumbs up* *Vigorously agree* *He points to another book* *Enthusiastic thumbs up* *Vehement head shake*
NEW YORK CITY -- "Can you take this for my Facebook profile?"
AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - Abdul feeds pigeons in the park every afternoon. We had a nice tea together.
"It's 105 degrees and my AC's dead!"
My brother and I met Jon Breedlove at a truck stop in the middle of the Arizona desert during a cross country road trip. Jon, a Cherokee man from Pennsylvania drives freight around the country--in his haul today, a generator for General Motors. He’s pulled over in the shade of the old truck stop to cool off.
He shows me a picture he took yesterday of the parking lot of a motel – captioned, “cops busting a lizard and the pimp.” Looks like truck stop crime is a thing. “Watch out for the glass in there,” he says, looking at my sandals and nodding toward the abandoned building. "Be careful, this is Apache land, don't stay past night."
ATHENS, GREECE -- Young people singing Christmas pop songs with lots of spirit.
ATHENS, GREECE -- On a December morning in Athens, this man from Crete (whose name I have written down somewhere, but currently cannot find) took a walk to the tourist-filled Acropolis, where he sat down on a bench and met me. With a penchant for traveling himself, he told me that he had been to China and tried out his basic knowledge of Chinese phrases -- admittedly, about as good as my Greek. He left me with an address in his home island of Crete where he hoped I would send him a postcard from my later travels.