Monday, March 30, 2009

Portrait #80: Albanian Ali G and his sidekick

We walked into the car rental agency and saw two men seated at two desks behind two computers, looking very important. They both sported trimmed beards - the kind that around here seem to suggest that they're in the minority of Albanian Muslims who actually care about being Muslim. The Yusef Islam Islamic pop music wafting from one of the computers confirmed this impression. The fact that the more talkative of the two said "A-Salamu Aleikom" (in Albanian spelled, I believe, "Selamu Alejkum") at the start of each phone call further confirmed this.

So when they said they didn't speak English, I asked if they spoke Arabish. But no, Shqip (Albanian) is all they know. And it's enough for them, they nodded.

Ali G, or so I've mentally nicknamed him, the guy subtly blasting Yusef Islam, did three things during the hour that we waited for someone to show up at work who could actually rent us a car.

(That's right: Though they worked at a car rental office, we have no idea what Ali G's job is, and are pretty sure that his colleague's job description was to sit at a desk and stare out the window. For, other than occasionally enter the linguistically challenged conversation with a suggestion as to what us foreign girls might be trying to say, he did nothing else throughout our stay.)

The first thing Ali G did was chat on MSN Messenger. It was also the last thing he did. And the middle thing. No matter what else he was doing, every few seconds he'd go back to MSN and type in a message to keep his conversation going. Who he was chatting with at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning is another mystery to us, but then again I suppose it could be some other young Muslim Albanian nationalist whose job it was to sit at a desk doing nothing at that particular hour.

The second thing Ali G did was make phone calls to his boss on our behalf, whenever we had a question. There was a phone call for each question we asked. What time will we get the car? How much will the car cost? What will you do to compensate for making us wait an hour when we pre-reserved the car? And so on and so forth. Ali G's boss is apparently the only person who works at the rental agency who can speak any English. And with all these calls on a Sunday morning, it stands to reason that he really should have just come to work instead of leaving Ali G and his sidekick manning the office. Each of the dozen or so times he called his boss, Ali G started the conversation with "Selamu Alejkum".

The third thing Ali G did was try to convert us to Islam. When he learned I speak Arabic and am from Brazil, he showed me a YouTube video of Ronaldinho speaking Arabic on an interview in which he talks about his conversion to Islam. The Albanian title of the YouTube video was "Ronaldinho speaks Arabic". (What, you ask? When did Ronaldinho convert to Islam? As far as I can tell, it's an unfounded Internet rumour. In this YouTube video, he's actually speaking Spanish with an Arabic voiceover - I couldn't actually hear what he was saying. But, to be fair, he did say "Selamu Alejkum" at the beginning.) Then he showed another YouTube video entitled "Famous Muslims" with before and after photos of sports and music icons who, according to this video, converted to Islam.

So I asked him why he didn't speak Arabic, why he didn't know his Qur'an, and how he could call himself a good Muslim if he didn't bother to learn. He didn't understand my questions, though. He only knows Albanian (and when he discovered that I know a dozen or two words, he pretty much prattled at me in his beloved language).

But since he didn't understand my challenge to his religious practice, he just went ahead and turned Yusef Islam on again and typed in another message to his MSN buddy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Portrait #79: Pharmacological Snob

I needed eyedrops. Specifically, Refresh Tears eyedrops with Carboxymethylcellulose sodium. That's what my surgeon prescribed.

So I went into a local pharmacy and mustered up my best Albanian: "A Keni Kjo?" (Do you have this?) And held up my empty bottle of eyedrops.

The thirty-something brown haired woman who served me took the bottle from my hand, read it, then said in virtually perfect English: "Refresh Tears. Yes, we do. Just a second."

She skipped to the back room and came out a minute later with a small box and handed it to me, informing me brusquely but not unkindly that it would cost me two and a half Euro. Being the daughter of a chemist, my first impulse was to look at the Active Ingredients information on this unfamiliar box.

It was completely different from the information on the bottle I gave her.

So I said, "This isn't the same. You don't have anything with this active ingredient?" pointing again at the writing on my bottle.

And she replied, "Yes, this is the same!"

So I pointed out that it has a different active ingredient. She shrugged and flipped her long wavy brown hair as she asked me if I am trained in Pharmacology?

I didn't have a ready answer for that, and before I could come up with a reasonable reply, she said, "I didn't think so. So until you go to Pharmacology school and become a pharmacist, don't tell me what is and is not the same. I am trained in this and I'm telling you it's the same thing."

To which I muttered some flabbergasted comment about the chemical composition being different. So she could tell me it was similar but it obviously wasn't exactly the same. Her reply was to say that if I didn't want it I didn't have to get it. It was my choice, but I shouldn't tell her it wasn't the same thing.

But just as I was turning around to leave in disbelief, fully aware that there were several other dozen pharmacies within walking distance of my house so I could take my business elsewhere, her co-worker asked her what the fuss was about. I handed him the bottle, he read the bit about Active Ingredient Carboxymethylcellulose sodium, and disappeared into the back room.

The pixie pharmacist turned to attend to another customer, leaving me standing by the door. When the other pharmacist, a much older gentleman whose dignified appearance actually suggested he might be a real chemist-pharmacist - even if he didn't speak English, returned, he gave me another little box. The active ingredients listed for that included Carboxymethylcellulose sodium, among a few other things. His junior gave it to me and explained that her colleague found me this, but, "I don't recommend this for you. I prefer for you to take the other one."

That kind comment almost redeemed her, but not enough for me to make a purchase in her store. I turned around and walked out, wondering what cultural faux pas I'd made to evoke such animosity.

I have now concluded that she was in fact being snobby. I concluded this after I did go to the dozen or so other pharmacies and no one else tried to pass off a different product as the same. Some of them suggested an alternative with apologies that they didn't have what I wanted. And others simply shook their heads and said they didn't have Carboxymethylcellulose sodium Refresh Tears in stock. And none of them told me I didn't have the right to ask for that because I'm not a trained pharmacist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ironing

Today I came across the video for the song by Mattafix entitled Living Darfur.

It touched me very deeply.

For one, the singer is obviously not African but dances in African style freely. He looks like I feel when I'm dancing around my house if no one is looking. Two, there video is full of shots of wide-open spaces in the desert, and I love wide-open desert spaces. Third, it presents the human side of Darfur: a region which we all associate with nothing but suffering and war is portrayed in this video with kids laughing, women playing, and men dancing. You should watch it!

There is one 2-second vignette which portrays a man using an antique-style iron heated in a fire (you know, the real kind) to press a white robe. He has a blanket spread out on the dusty ground in an outdoor space, and the robe is laid out on the blanket. He is working carefully, using his hot iron to make the white robe beautiful.

Ironing struck me in this moment as the ultimate expression of mankind's desire to find structure and beauty in the midst of a world we can't control. Some people even seem to iron in a search for meaning in life. If their clothes look professional, lovely and organised, then maybe life will be those things too.

Ironing is in the centre of what is probably my most vivid memory from an entire year living in the University City (the Medina), the student housing complex in Damascus, Syria. Ironing may be the clearest picture left from a year that I often refer to as the best year as my life...

One morning I woke up and was chatting with the girls in my room. Neither was a roommate, but one was a permanent guest and the other was staying with us for a few weeks. We made our tea and ate a simple breakfast, as we usually do. We were in no rush to go anywhere, as we rarely were. After a bit, we each got about getting ready for our day. For me, that meant going out to visit some friends and run some errands. For the permanent guest it meant cleaning the room and doing some shopping.

For our temporary guest, that meant doing nothing. She had no plans for the day. She might cook our dinner for us and she might visit a neighbour. But she might not. In fact, I think she was staying with us because she was hiding from someone else, so she certainly would not be going out.

So as the two of us washed our face, plucked our eyebrows, made our beds and chose our attire... she plugged in the iron. She had only one outfit, so she spread the blanket over her bed and lay that outfit on the bed. Somehow, at this point I was captivated, so I sat down and started to watch. I noticed that her hair was perfectly styled: even though she wore pyjamas and would not be going out that day, she had styled her hair the day before. It was straight in the back and curled at the ends. So there was this girl with perfect hair, wearing ratty pyjamas, laying out her only clothes on the bed to iron for apparently no reason.

We chatted as she ironed and whenever she'd look up to say something to me, I peered into her eyes, trying to figure out what her motivation was for pursuing order and structure in her appearance and her attire. Was it because she had time to spare? Was it because she wanted to impress someone on the hall? I saw nothing. In fact, her eyes looked empty, almost dead. It was like she was ironing her clothes because it was the only thing she could do to hold on to a tiny thread of life.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Portrait #78: highlights from bulgaria

- snowstorm on the way to Macedonia. I was in the front row of the bus but still hadn't a clue what was going on. We moved 100 metres in 2 hours. And the bus driver chatted with other drivers, with a cop who stopped by (I still can't get over how their uniforms have big writing in English on them), with the passengers, etc... about the back up. And during the 2 hours the three cars in front of us gave up and turned around. I never found out the problem, but discovered that my impatience was much less than usual when I have no hope of knowing what's going on around me because I don't understand the language.

- saying "Do you speak Macedonian?" It felt very biblical.

- The farm in the middle of nowhere in 3-foot snow. This was our rest stop, just a couple of miles from the Bulgarian-Macedonian border. The door was locked so I could go pee in the snow. I didn't, but I did wander around a bit. How could I resist wandering in 3-feet of snow on a farm by the 2-lane highway at 4:30 in the morning at the end of a huge snowstorm, right near the Macedonian-Bulgarian border?

- Discovering a Dunkin Donuts

- Where the three world religions actually meet! You can stand happily centred between a church, mosque and synagogue. All big, gorgeous and old.

- Sofia had three daughters: Faith Hope and Love. Trying to figure out which daughter my Babci did not have, since she was Sofia and had two daughters. (btw, Sofia is pronounced SOfia, not SofEEa)

- the Yellow Brick Road - built in the late 1800s and it's still there and still in good shape.

- the strangest mausoleum I've ever seen: I think it was intentionally that it looked abandoned. And there was a lamp that looked like a candle illuminating melted wax scattered around the floor. And a cross in the back of the cave.

- I didn't get to hear the bells - 100 tons of church bells!!!!! They are only played on Saturday evenings, Sunday mornings and Church holidays. I must return to Sofia just to hear these bells.

- Starbucks - twice. Hooking my friend on coffee in the process. It really didn't take much convincing. But when we got to Starbucks, I realised that going from Kosovo to Bulgaria was not unlike the good old days when we'd go from Syria to Lebanon and always stop at the first McDonalds after the border (even though we never ate McD's anyway, then Starbucks as soon as we got to Beirut, and always Dunkin Donuts on my way back to Syria).

- Changing socks five times in a day because of all the snow and slush and my lack of clothes made for snow and slush

- the Wheat drink that starts with a B (apparently most foreigners are not adventurous enough to try it). Strange it was, but not in a freaky way. Nothing like eating bugs.

- McDonalds Happy Meal. Just to be able to tell people in Kosovo - who get all dreamy-eyed when talking about McDonalds - that I did.

- Looking for the tram schedule. Written in Cyrillic. On a sign leaned up against a shack, really high up. So I got up on a pole to read it - or, rather, to look for the pattern of figures described to me by my friend standing below. I found it but it didn't make a lot of sense, so she was inspired to get up and stand on the pole to read it for herself. At which point a man came up and asked if we needed help. The good: he had the answer to our question. The bad: in exchange he wanted "a relationship." He said he was Russian, so it would be OK.

- The weird guy who was desperate to give me chocolates in the bus station, no idea why.

- The university professor from Macedonia who wouldn't let me sleep on the bus home because he decided I could be his personal spiritual guru. I tried to stay awake, because he seemed like a fascinating combination of in-love-with-learning and overworked-and-miserable. He said he hasn't opened a Bible yet because he doesn't feel ready - he has to know everything first. And he expects he'll be ready in 5 or 6 years.

- The gorgeous Macedonian man who sold me all my tickets - going in both directions - and answered every question I could come up with about bus schedules.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Scenario #23: Defeating the smell of cigarettes

Since I've been in Kosovo, my daily routine has a new dimension: airing out my clothes. If in the course of a day I go to a cafe, or a restaurant, or a store, or a colleague's office, or a friend's house, or pretty much any other indoor destination... that evening, I will spread my clothing out around the flat in an attempt to replace the distinctive cigarette-smoke smell that has pervaded all layers of my attire with something a bit fresher. Preferably fresh air.

Some highlights of my smoky existence in Kosovo have included, to date:

- Sitting with colleagues in the basement of a lovely cafe named Picasso, with intriguing art deco and faux retro decor. They were kind enough to suggest that I and the one other non-smoking member of the party (nb: 2 out of 12) sit together at the same end of the table so we wouldn't have to be surrounded by the smoke. Even with their thoughtfulness, as we left the cafe I looked back toward the table where we'd sat and discovered that the entire room was filled with a haze of smoke produced by my friends.

- At a luncheon, sitting downwind from four women, all of whom smoked. They smoked while they waited for appetizers. They smoked in between appetizers and main dish. They smoked after they finished the main dish, and they smoked while they drank the end-of-meal coffee. And when they weren't smoking, they left cigarettes burning in the ashtrays - and if you spend much time around smokers, you know that the smoke produced by non-puffed cigarettes is much more brutal to breathe in than that produced after puffing. It took me longer to eat than it took them to eat, so I ate a lovely meal of veal, rice, salad and cigarette.

- Walking into a local pharmacy and discovering three people sitting around next to the medicine stock. Smoking.

- For the first time in my life, being very nearly peer-pressure-forced to smoke. This happened at Jazz Club 212, where my friend asked our very friendly attractive server if he had a cigarette. He gave her one, then he gave me one. I tried to politely refuse but he stuck it in my mouth. As he lit my friend's cigarette, I took mine out and put it on the table. I wasn't too worried: my friend finished hers and then had mine. Then she smoked another one given to her by the girls dancing next to us.

- At work, most days, sitting all alone at my desk while all my coworkers socialise on the balcony where they're getting their morning smoke.

So what is the solution? How do I air out my clothes and my hair without washing everything several times a day? If I'm going to be second-hand smoking as long as I'm here, why don't I just join in the fun? (Ha! I can't really imagine myself doing that!) Some foreigners refuse to enter public buildings, but what a loss, to never associate socially with anyone at all. Because here, that's what it takes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Portrait #77: The Ghetto Lives On

I spent my early adult life living in a stubbornly divided city of the United States, in which there were a variety of different neighbourhoods - all of which fell into one of two categories: poor drug-ridden black, and lovely ritzy white. The first category was referred to by many as "the ghetto." To me, ghetto was defined as inner-city, usually African-American, usually a drug problem. But I always felt a bit of an affinity to the ghetto, because it was where I lived.

And I just love the phrase "ghetto-fabulous" - who wouldn't want to wear that badge of honour?!

Eventually (yes, I am a bit slow) I realised that the term "ghetto" was borrowed from a radically different context, the only similarity being that it was where the racially disadvantaged lived. European ghettos were, in essence, Jewish neighbourhoods in European cities. Ghettos became a key point in history lessons after World War II, when the Warsaw ghetto was the site of countless atrocities: starting with restriction of movement for all who lived there and culminating in mass murder.

Photos of those ghettos generally portrayed nice and normal looking neighbourhoods where people lived in poverty. Houses with nice architecture but with sallow sad children sitting in the windowsills. Abandoned houses next to overcrowded flats. Constructions pocketed with bullet holes and gates with guards deciding who entered and who left. Kids playing on the street, mothers running errands, and everyone looking just a bit frightened. My mental picture of European ghettos spoke of a fading glory that had was quickly being replaced by despondency and despair.

All these photos were, of course, in black and white. Because they are a history lesson: they told a tale of the evils of Nazi Germany and the centuries of European racism that preceded that.

Well, this week, I entered a European ghetto. I felt like I was walking into a coloured version of the ghetto photos. Except instead of a synagogue, the large building in the centre with the crumbling paint was a Serbian Orthodox church. There was no gate and there were no guards, but the entrance to the ghetto was marked by a terribly neglected, pot-holed alleyway.

Directions to the ghetto: drive to the outskirts of town, but just before you leave the city, look for the entrance to the right that's in the worst shape - in fact, you might think it's just someone's back garden because it's not even paved. Turn there, head up the hill and around the corner, and there you are.

I was only there for half an hour, but the look on the faces of the students I met there mirrored perfectly the look on the faces of the kids in the photos of Warsaw ghetto windowsills. Hopeful and hopeless, empty, content to enjoy a simple pleasure, trusting, frightened.

There was a bit of a sinister silence in the neighbourhood. I was told that most of the people who live there don't really ever go down that pot-holed alley to enter the city at large. They just rush from school to home and to their friends' home, and to church if there's something going on there.

I knew it was a ghetto because I'd seen photos of ghettos before. I was told it was an "enclave." That's what they call them these days. The political and cultural issues which pushed the Kosovar Serbs into "enclaves" are complex, and I don't have any reason to hold this fact against the government or majority population here... but nonetheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the discovery that the ghetto is still alive and well in Europe.

Portrait #76: Jazz Club 212

I live next door to a jazz club. Which, it turns out, is largely just an excuse for a club. Word is that in Kosovo, there's not a lot of demand for different types of clubs. People just want to go out at night - on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, to be specific - drinking and dancing to the usual suspect songs.

But on Wednesday nights, there is live music, and that is often Jazz. They also have karaoke nights. Karaoke in Prishtina is often actually DJ night, but Jazz 212 has stuck with the real deal, I hear.

I finally ventured into 212 this week - twice. Arriving between 22:30 and 23:30, my friends and I were definitely the early-comers. The place filled up maybe an hour later. As we walked in, the bouncer told us to walk down the right side of a long railing. This railing divided the corridor which took us past my house into the club located in actuality directly behind my flat. If we went down the left side, we'd have to pay, he said. And it's true: women walk down the right and men down the left. Men pay.

The first night, the manager sent over free drinks for my friend and myself. I now know that there's something so gratifying yet terribly unnerving about someone buying you a drink in a jazz club. The second night, he came over to chat. Turns out he recognised me as the girl next door. I was further unnerved. He told me that lots of neighbours complain about the loud music at night, but... "business is business", he said with a shrug.

I told him I don't mind at all - in fact, I enjoy falling asleep to the vague rumblings of dance music. But he replied by saying that my best strategy would be to stay with them until 3 or 4 in the morning, when the bar shuts down. Then I walk home and fall asleep to silence. I wonder if he'd keep sending me free drinks if I did that.

On Wednesday I got live music, but not jazz. It was a local band - a talented one at that - performing hits from the 80s - a lot of Depeche Mode. On Friday, though, it was the top 40 dance hits all the way.

The ambiance of this place is great. I'm so proud to live next to Jazz Club 212. They should open during the day and make it a cafe, open in the evenings and make it a pub-restaurant, and then they can also open at night for clubbing. It's a large, spacious wood-paneled room with an island in the centre. The island could be a bar, but instead it's an open space where the bands play. The bar is at the far end of the wall, with a mirror behind it. My favourite feature is the cast iron twirly glass racks hanging above the bar. Must get a photo of those.

The same cast iron curves are repeated in the bases of the tall tables peppered around the room, each with two or three stools. The outer edges of the room are lined with sofas, in natural tones, each with an orange and a yellow cushion/pillow. The sofas have low tables. Wherever there is a table, there is a lamp with a stained glass lamp cover, or else a candle. I got endless entertainment playing with the candle on the table where we sat on Friday.

The place is gorgeous. To be fair, though, Prishtina is replete with such gems hidden in cafes and clubs. Something in the Kosovo culture is an amazing sense of decorative taste. Of course, by the time 212 fills up, you can barely see across the room through the haze of cigarette smoke. And they keep the lights too dim to get any work done - if I had my way, they'd install free wireless (which I could mooch from my flat - ha!) and I'd go there every evening to work. But nonetheless, I like living next to a nightclub.

Portrait #75: The guy who spoke 5 more words of English than anyone else

I'm trying to get to Bulgaria. On a map, it looks like it can't be more than a 2 hour drive, so I figured it'd be a piece of cake. As a further chapter in my experience living in a baby post-conflict nation, I have recently learned that Bulgaria was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo as a state. In other words, the two countries are geographically close to each other, and they like each other.

But there is absolutely no way to get to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, from Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. Unless I drive my own car, then it's about five hours because of border crossings and the need to take a laughably circuitous route. (After one week's worth of knowledge about the local situation and further perusal of the map, this fact actually did make perfect sense to me.)

Anyway, in my naive state, I thought that the best place to inquire about buses to Sofia, either from Prishtina or from some other nearby city, would be the bus station. So I walked fifteen minutes to the highway, crossed the highway in the company of about a dozen young commuters, and entered the enormous bus station which has more than thirty spaces for buses.

As soon as I entered the ticketing hall, I was reminded that this is a post-communist country. The ticket sales offices were sorted by destination city, not bus company, even though there were a dozen different companies working out of that station. There was a consolidated schedule with all the departure and arrival times posted on one big poster. The lights were dim and the enormous space was filled with a light haze of cigarette smoke. Being early evening, only a few of the ticket booths were open: those for cities whose last bus had not yet left.

There was only one ticket booth for all international destinations, and that was closed. So I wandered to the Information booth, and asked if anyone spoke Anglisht. "Jo" was their answer as they shook their heads in dismay. I stared at them curiously, seeking to shame them into helpin a girl out!

It worked. One of them eventually stood up and walked to one of the still-open ticket booths and introduced me to one of the men sitting in it warming himself next to a space heater. There were also another man and a woman sitting in the small space. They left when I arrived, and the tall white-haired man with bad teeth and whose English was about twice as good as my Albanian (pak keq - a bit lousy) motioned for me to enter.

I refused and said I really just needed information about buses to Bulgaria. He shook his head. "No. No Bulgari." I know, I told him. I need to go to Skopje (capital of Macedonia) first. But I want to know when the bus leaves Skopje. "No. Go to Skopje." Exasperated sigh. I know. But then what?

He just shook his head and once again gestured for me to enter. I obeyed this time, hoping this meant he would research buses from Skopje to Sofia for me. Instead, I was treated to a series of personal questions: Where am I from? What am I doing in Kosovo? Would I please sit down? Drink tea? Coffee? What company, where is my office?

So I got up to leave and when I got to the door I desperately repeated my question: Can't anyone tell me how to contact the bus station in Skopje to find out about buses there? In Albanian, he exchanged words with a guy loitering in the centre of the large hall then pointed to the director's office and suggested I try him.

I eagerly went off to the director but my English consultant wasn't ready to let me go yet. He shook my hand and said, as I was walking away, that he hoped I'd come visit the bus station again soon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Portrait #74: Happy Women's Day!

I have recently come to the conclusion that Kosovo is one of the most progressive countries in the world.

You are probably vaguely aware that the 8th of March is Women's Day. For many years, I have given Women's Day a passing thought each March as I consider that it was my brother's good fortune to be born on International Women's Day. Then I call my brother, wish him a happy birthday, and move on with my life.

Kosovo has changed that. Here, my new women friends and I celebrated in style. Saturday was a big church event for women of the church and their friends, complete with flowers, cakes and dancing. On Sunday, the actual holiday, I spent the afternoon with a friend and her sisters, cooking and eating a big feast - you know, women's stuff (to be fair, we would have done this even if it weren't a holiday, but we did preface it with "Happy Women's Day!" well wishes). Many of the women I've spoken to told me they exchanged gifts yesterday with their sisters and mothers. Then, today, our office treated all the women to a nice lunch at a local restaurant.

And catch this: after lunch, the women were given the rest of the afternoon off, while the men kept working! I kid you not. How awesome is that?!

(OK, that last point might be considered gender discrimination in the workplace, but it's a nice change of pace that in a society generally considered to be quite patriarchal, as I'm told Albanian Kosovar society is - the stories I've heard about that may one day be worthy of their own blog post - that the discrimination was in favour of the women.)

Anyway, the reason all of this felt progressive to me is that, at our girls' feast yesterday, I learned that Mother's Day is not celebrated in Kosovo. Women's Day is the equivalent. But you don't have to become a mother to celebrate. Single women, married women without children, women whose children are far away and don't care... we are all equally validated on Women's Day. We don't have to follow a certain life course to get the flowers at church and the lunch at work. We just have to be ourselves.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Globalisation: the tragic advent of online classrooms

Next in my accidental series of blogs on globalisation... "Webinars"!

Please excuse me if this post is at all sarcastic, but I pretty much think they are right up there with Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and Titanic. People and Relationships: meant to be together, but torn apart by virtual learning, the ultimate affirmation of estrangement.

I'm a big fan of Facebook, Skype and e-mail. To me, these are tools for maintaining relationships when circumstances keep me apart from people who are dear to me. Even E-harmony and Match.com have their place as tools that bring people together who might not have otherwise met. But the destination is still the human contact.

Not webinars. They have tragically pushed the concept beyond the boundaries of what is healthy. I just spent the last week participating in an on-line course which was, in essence, a justification for keeping people apart. After doing the group assignments for class I now have three new best friends in Pakistan whom I have never met, and for whom there is no motivation to ever meet in person. Because they offered the course in an on-line format, I was given the perfect excuse to sit at home and not talk to another human being for five days straight.

So, the good: I now have friends in Pakistan and was able to soak up knowledge from people in Japan, Switzerland, Ghana, Albania and the U.S. What a privilege!

The bad: Now I never have to talk to another human being again. Never have to travel to meetings, never have to make the effort to sit down with my teacher for a face-to-face conversation. Nope, Globalisation has brought the world so close together that we never have to see each other again.