168634_10150094561426445_4433390_nThe Alhambra is one of my most favourite places ever, and I love how the hedges and the arch draw your gaze to what’s between them, deeper into the palace!


Screen shot 2014-06-02 at 5.21.33 PM

The picture of this empty Russian train heading from Moscow to the Ukraine caught my eye because it brings back so many memories.  Over teh years, I have spent a fair few days and nights on Russian trains and this is not what they should look like!  Usually they’re full of life, crowded with people who have brought enough food to last for 2 weeks, rather than the 20something hours the journey should take.

Very quickly, a temporary community is built, food and drink shared.  And if you’re lucky enough not have someone near you who has had rather too much to drink, they can be fun times.

Now the trains are empty, no one wanting to head to the Ukrainian coast for a holiday.



Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 1.54.14 PMThis hit the news a few days ago.  Crowds attacking the Russian Embassy in Kiev, protesting against the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane.

The thing is, I have been in that building.  And waited in front of it for some considerable time.  Years ago, but still.  We had taken the overnight train from Moscow to Kiev (see above). Before going on to the conference we were to attend, we had to make sure we would be able to get back into Russia a few days later.  Which required getting a visa.  So we headed straight from the station to the embassy.  For what felt like a very long time, we had to wait for the place to open.  It was cold (February mornings in Kiev are definitely not warm…) and I seem to remember there being a lot of annoying dogs around.

At one point, it seemed like we wouldn’t even make it in.  Too many people ahead of us in the queue. But then one of the guards realised we were German. He had lived in East Germany and liked the place.  So he let us in and we got our visas.

Very strange when the news story we get so used to seeing suddenly feature places we know!

10341975_10152416817711445_8968715486407454732_nIt was a grey, wet day in May and I was exploring the beautiful city of Dresden/Germany.  The Zwinger is a palace built in Rococo style and I was loving the mix of gold, glass and greyish stone.

Suddenly I noticed something extra – the colourful splash of a bright red umbrella!  It added so much to the picture, bringing it to life.


Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 8.13.45 PMNow you see it, now you don’t.  Just a random bit of wall and yet so instantly recognisable.  And then it’s gone.  An image that tells so many stories.  A city once divided, now united.  Where once there were soldiers, now there is a cyclist (admittedly, in Berlin they can be rather dangerous as well).

An image that tells a story of courage, of hope, of suffering. Of joy and then disillusionment.  The story of a miracle.

An image that for some in this city is just history. For many, the story of something that shaped their lives. For others (like myself) something remembered but only experienced from a distance.  Yet still it chokes me up a bit.

The power of an image.

Picture from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/02/childhood-photo-re-creation-irina-werning_n_5418985.html

944420_10151641270301445_1795301226_nSplit-second story. Or long agonising hours, waiting…  This time last year, water levels on the River Elbe were rising.  And rising.  And then rising some more.  My friend’s parents live right on the river and it looked like their home would be flooded for the second time in 10 years.

A few of us went down to help fill sandbags. Hundreds of them.  It was all we could do.  Then the waiting began. In the end, their property was safe. Many others were not.

A split-second story, capturing hard work, friendship and the power of nature.


Red_onions_(cross-sections)What do an onion, a backpack and glass domes have in common?  And a kaleidoscope?  A shadow?

They are all metaphors of cultures, believe it or not!  In a course on Cross-Cultural Communication I am taking, this week we were asked to comment on different metaphors of cultures, as well as come up with some of our own.

A metaphor I have often used in talking about culture is that of an onion.

There are several reasons for that.   One of them being that as we engage with cultures, as we peel away layer after layer, there are bound to be tears. Unless we study culture in a purely academic context, being confronted with another culture (and in the process, our own), is guaranteed to lead to a few emotions!

More importantly, though, I like the metaphor of an onion precisely because it expresses something of the complexity of culture. Similar to the iceberg metaphor, initially we see only the outer layer, the behaviour. But it is so important not to get stuck there, but to dig deeper, to peel away layer after layer. Starting to understand attitudes, values, world view – those things that are below the surface – takes time and hard work (and probably a few tears!) but boy is it crucial if we’re ever going to make sense of a culture and truly engage with it.

Looking through what other people came up with, a couple of them caught my eye. A kaleidoscope – fluid, always changing. And together creating beautiful patterns. And a shadow. Not always visible but always with us. We can’t hide it or escape from it.

As I was reflecting on some of the metaphors mentioned, it struck me that (probably inevitably) each of them communicates some aspects of culture better than others. For example, the metaphors of “islands in the ocean” and “glass domes” are strong at showing the distinctiveness of cultures but weaker at showing interconnectedness. On the other hand, the “backpack” metaphor, while showing that it is entirely possible to surmount cultural barriers, seems to ignore the fact that cultural convictions run deep and that moving from one framework to another is not as easy as putting on a different backpack. Both the “iceberg” metaphor and my own “onion” one look at culture a bit more in isolation, i.e. not so much at how one culture relates to another.

Not easy to pin down, this culture thing!

This is the course I am taking: https://www.coursera.org/course/russians

10325345_10152354778891445_8995714388448385218_nCertainly plenty of twists here!

In an added twist, this boat used to belong to the East German navy and is now (after a stint as a tourist boat) being transformed into a home and a place of counselling and “soul care” (http://www.takkiwrites.com/frau-bord-vom-traum-zur-hausboot-besitzerin-berlin/)!



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