Saturday, August 01, 2015

Cultural differences and the perception of time

Probably the biggest difference between German and Paraguayan culture is the perception of time.

The most clichéed manifestation of this difference is the idea of "punctuality."  But even though this is certainly a constant point of frustration, it is by no means the deepest.  Having a differing perception of time influences a lot more aspects of your life than just what you mean when you say "let's meet at eleven."

German culture is often named among the most future-oriented in the world.  This shows itself not only in the way Germans start planning for retirement when they're 21, but also in the way the language itself can refer to the future as if it were the present ("Morgen gibt es Fisch"), the obsession with insurance (preparing for disaster requires projection into the future) the German reputation for efficiency, quality and innovation, and the way Germany has been one of the leading forces in developing sustainable energy.  All this can't be done if one does not, to some extent, "live" in the future.  

Whenever I came to Paraguay, my first impression, from the moment I got off the plane, was how little all that mattered here.  Efficiency, durability, safety, etc., are very low on the priority list.  When I moved here, I resolved not to be in a hurry.  Hurry is the luxury of people who live in the future, and it's out of place here.  In Paraguayan culture, a person who is in a hurry is sort of an embarrassment to everyone around.*  

(I fail daily in my goal to not be in a hurry, but I'm still glad I made the resolution.)

Here people live in the present.  Some of the signs are easy to point out, like the many people who ride their motorbike down the highway at night with no lights and no helmets.  But a lot of it is more subtle: I just have an IMPRESSION that the supermarket queue moves much slower than in the rest of the world, but it is difficult to explain quantitatively what it is about the whole vibe that seems to exhude "nobody here is in any sort of hurry".  It has to do with the prevalent body language.  

Some of this, of course, is a welcome relief to the fast pace of the 21st century.  But for the most part, the German in me finds a thousand things per day that really "should" be different.  A lot of my daily energy is expended just trying to make my way through an inefficient environment.  A culture that lives in the present will not bother about making anything high-quality, or about maintaining things in good repair.  As a result, things need to be replaced more often, which costs more in the end.  Many of the problems in Paraguay -- not just the problems I see as an outsider, but also those that they complain of themselves -- are directly traceable to short-term thinking.  

One Paraguayan doctor told me this:

A hospital's ultrasound machine needs a special gel to lubricate the transducer probe.  The problem is that Paraguayan hospitals run out of gel, because the re-orders take so long and no one thinks to order ahead of time.  So they have no gel, and someone finds out that they can just use rubbing alcohol instead.  The problem is that alcohol dehydrates the transducer probe, and so a $2,000 part that should last at least five years is rendered completely useless within a few weeks.  Then the hospital either stops doing ultrasounds or needs to dip into its budget to buy a new probe head.  

This is the sort of thing one encounters in Paraguay.  One is constantly thinking, "just A LITTLE BIT of foresight could save you thousands of dollars!"  And the attitude is endemic, it is the backdrop to practically every interaction I have here.  

I'm afraid that my posts on my adjustments to Paraguayan culture have been on the negative side.  One challenge for me is to learn to appreciate the positive element in all these differences.  For example, it is no secret that people who live in the present are happier, and that living in the present is a very Christian idea (Jesus did warn us about the whole "worrying about tomorrow" thing).  I think I will appreciate it more as time goes on, and certainly (sadly) once I move away and look back fondly on my time here. 

*One exception, of course, is traffic.  While I see less overt road rage here, it does seem that these people learn the meaning of "being in a hurry" the moment they get behind the wheel.  This sometimes gets really dangerous (overtaking into oncoming traffic), annoyingly counterproductive (not wanting to wait for a clogged intersection to resolve, people keep edging into the chaos until it is hopelessly congested and NO ONE can move), and bizarrely disrespectful (cutting off a freakin' AMBULANCE with sirens blaring and all).

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Cultural differences and the spectrum of tolerance for ambiguity

[This is another entry in which I talk about adapting to Paraguayan culture.  I'll confess that the process is not easy, but I do hope that no one mistakes my observations for a lack of respect.  It is a difficult topic. ]

Last time I wrote about how German and Paraguayan cultures seem to be at opposite ends of the "discomfort threshold continuum."  Today I'll mention another continuum we're at opposite ends of: the "tolerance for ambiguity" continuum. 

We Germans are notoriously intolerant of ambiguity.  Uncertainty makes us squirm.  We want clear and reliable information, we want to be able to interpret the situations we are in.

Paraguayan culture does not seem hold this as a value at all.  The first place you notice this, obviously, is in traffic.  I'm constantly asking questions like "who has the right of way in this intersection?"  Or "what lane is that car in?"  Or "how many lanes do we have here, anyway?" And I'm finding that the problem is not that I, being the new guy, still don't know the answers to these questions; it's that NOBODY knows the answers, but I'm the only one who seems to NEED any answers.  Most people are more like "why do you need to know who has the right of way?  You just sort of approach the intersection and see if there's a space to squeeze by."

I like to know what's going on around me in traffic, but the average Paraguayan seems to have no such dependence on information.  They seem to be able to be totally cool with not knowing whether or not that parked car will suddenly swerve into their lane (I'm more used to, you know, signaling and stuff).  Their reflexes are primed for any expected or unexpected thing to happen at any time, and they roll with it. 

Being German, I find it draining to live surrounded by such ambiguity.

But it obviously goes beyond traffic.  I've been baffled by how hard it is to get information.  There are major organizations here that don't have a website, or that have a website which contains no helpful information at all.  Forget trying to find out where the nearest steakhouse is -- we're talking about UNIVERSITIES that even google can't find.  Even the national symphony orchestra, and the even more famous recycled instruments orchestra operate more like underground bands do in other countries: the website does not necessarily tell you the performance times and venues, you have to be connected to some secret organization to find out these things.  And when you go shopping, it's not uncommon for most items to not have a price tag.  Even online shopping.  It's like being on Amazon and that little notice at the corner of the screen telling you that you have 4 total items in your cart, but no information at hand as to how much those items cost.  

I'm still trying to find out how locals deal with all this lack of information.  Part of it, of course, is that they have other avenues of data that I'm not aware of.  I look to the internet, whereas locals (I guess?) ask around the neighborhood or get it from their WhatsApp group.  One of the major challenges of integrating into this culture will be learning where they get their information from, and learning to survive with less information. 

The "tolerance for ambiguity" thing also extends to personal communication.  Germans are known for being abrasively blunt, which I realize goes over the top at times, but I think it's at least party due to our intolerance for ambiguity.  We like to know exactly where we and others stand.  Speaking for myself, I hate the sort of mind games where I have to try to figure out, based on some vague comment, how someone really feels or thinks about something.  But I do understand that a culture more accustomed to ambiguity will prefer that over direct, unsparing frankness. 

Of course, the most famous example of German vs. Latin American "tolerance for ambiguity" is the way time is perceived.  I'll save that for another day. 

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cultural differences and the threshold of discomfort

[In this entry I talk about cultural differences.  Since I have my own biases and preferences, it is easy to come across as aloof, condemnatory, generalizing, etc.  Please understand that I'm aware that my observations are subjective.  They are more about my personal experience in a time of transition than about evaluating cultures as a whole.  I've addressed some of these problems before.]

Cultural values can often be placed in approximate locations along a continuum or spectrum.  As a German living in Paraguay, I constantly notice three spectrums and continuums (or is that "spectra and continua"?) that these two cultures are on opposite ends of:

1. The threshold of suffering continuum.
2. The tolerance for ambiguity continuum.
3. The "live in the present" vs. "live in the future" spectrum.

Today I'll talk about the "threshold of suffering" (although maybe "suffering" is too strong a word -- let's just call it the "threshold of discomfort").  This was first pointed out to me by my aunt, who is an anthropologist.  We Germans have probably one of the lowest thresholds of discomfort.  If something is slightly off, slightly inconvenient, slightly dirty, slightly uncomfortable, we'll get up and do something about it.  Everything is primed for efficiency and efficacy.  We can't relax as long as it's not all perfect. 

Here in Paraguay people don't have the problem of being unable to relax.  There is an overwhelming "meh, that's good enough" attitude about most things.  You can see it in the way things are built and maintained, in the way businesses and services are run, in the way almost everything is approached.  This is not a nation of perfectionists; it's a nation of people who are perfectly content with imperfection if it means less immediate effort. 

The easiest example I've come across is in building and maintaining houses.  In an average Asunción house, the rain leaks through the roof.  Power outlets and light switches are scarce and awkwardly placed (the light switch to one room might be in another room, and many power outlets are unnervingly close to water faucets or showers).  The toilet doesn't flush properly, the shower doesn't drain, window and door handles are unreliable, floor tiles are uneven, etc.  This isn't just the poor parts of town, this is how even the wealthier people live.  And the problems are, for the most part, structural: the shower can't be fixed by pouring some caustic chemical in it because the problem is that the shower tiles don't slope correctly.

A lot can, no doubt, be explained through circumstance: heat and humidity and bugs and the local economy make it harder to build things in a solid, functional and lasting way.

But it's not just local circumstance.  It is also the attitude. If you tell people that your roof leaks, you may get a "what's the problem with that" sort of response.  If you tell them you'd rather have door handles that don't fall off, they look at you as if you're some sort of spoiled rich prima donna insisting on surrounding yourself with outrageous luxuries.  Most Paraguayans would never say it out loud, but their thought is, "ooh, Mr. Accustomed-To-The-Finer-Things wants expensive wines and his own private dinner music orchestra and functioning door handles and those other fancy-pants things he had over in Europe."

Please understand: these people aren't poor.  We're not talking about explaining your first-world problems to starving people in mud huts.  These are people whose monthly income is better than mine.  But that doesn't mean their living conditions (as my culture would understand that term) are better than mine.  They simply don't see why someone would value functionality enough to invest an extra amount of work and money into it.  For them, if a door handle falls off, you put it back on.  If a toilet doesn't flush, you pour a bucket of water in after it.  If your light switch for this room is in the other room, you simply go to the other room to turn on the light.  If your cupboards and drawers jam, you just use more force in opening and closing them.  These are simple problems with simple solutions.  A German, of course, sees a myriad inconveniences.  A Paraguayan would emphasize that these are LITTLE inconveniences.  They hardly amount to anything at all.  How can you legitimately complain about something as minor as having to mop up after every shower, or having to put a bucket under a leaking ceiling?  What are you, some diva? 

The examples I gave were household-related, but you have to consider that it's endemic.  My German perfectionism permeates most aspects of my everyday life, just like a Paraguayan's preference for low-effort solutions permeates his. It is a constant point of tension as I try to find my way in this culture. 

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saltos del Guairá, or Sete Quedas

One of the side effects of the Itaipú Dam between Paraguay and Brazil are the flooded waterfalls of Saltos del Guairá (or Salto de Sete Quedas, as they were known in Brazil).  These falls on the Paraná River disappeared when the area became an artificial lake in 1982. 

I kept looking online to see if there were pictures of what these falls looked like, but I didn't find much.  It's one of those baffling things where you'd think there would be thousands of pictures of something like this out there.  There probably are, too, but if you do a google search you'll mostly find pictures of Iguaçu Falls for some reason.  But here are a few sites that have pictures of the Saltos del Guairá: 

Statistics say that these were the largest in the world by water volume (twice the volume of Niagara), but it's hard to see in the pictures.  Saltos del Guairá consisted of 18 individual falls, and from what I can tell they weren't situated in a way that would make it easy to get a panoramic view of the whole thing. But it also seems that these pictures are just teasers that only represent a fraction of what could be seen at the falls. 

There are some videos that show a little more of what it was like:

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

And now 2014 is ending, like we all knew it would...

Also, I just turned 40. 
I started this year in Paraguay, as part of my sabbatical year of traveling around.  I'm finishing it in Paraguay as well, as I decided to move here and be closer to family.  

In the year that passed between those dates, there's been plenty happening.  I had some great trips to Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.  I also managed some trips to a few European destinations, including my first visits to Budapest and to Paris.  

I returned to the Netherlands, where I found an apartment in the town of Ede, but I didn't stay long.  I got my old job in Amsterdam back for a few months.

I got to be in Germany on the night that Germany won the World Cup, which is something I've always wanted.

In July I had volvulus and needed a major surgery in which they removed part of my intestine.  It sounds very weird, but the time in the hospital might just be the highlight of the year for me.

But recovery has been slow, which was very inconvenient during a time when I needed to move all my belongings.  But I have good friends who helped me.  Now I'm almost back at 100%.

In October I moved.  I found a sweet little apartment in a nice Asunción neighborhood and am now doing an apprenticeship at a travel agency until I get my official papers for living and working in Paraguay. 

That was 2014 in a nutshell.  Wishing you all the best in 2015.



Friday, December 19, 2014

More on Paraguay's economy

I think my last blog entry depressed some people, as I stated how it seems that the residents of Asunción have few options of getting ahead financially.  

The fact is that, I don't know exactly how, but many are doing quite well for themselves.  I see lots of expensive new cars on the streets.  Most people I talk to are homeowners.  Well-dressed people walk through the streets.  The shopping malls are full.  I see very few panhandlers (although every intersection has a few people offering to wash your windshield, which I guess is practically panhandling).  

My constant question is: with the prices here and the disproportionately low minimum wage (and, it seems to me, disproportionately small number of jobs that pay MORE than minimum wage), how can everyone afford it?  

It's a secret I haven't solved yet, but there are three things I have observed: 1. there are businesses (like cattle ranching) that pay very well.  Not all are legitimate.  2. many people seem to be doing fine, but are actually in debt, and 3. a household with several incomes can make money stretch farther.  

Numbers 1 and 2 aren't really unique, but for a European, #3 is something new.  In our more individualistic culture, I'm expected to make my own income with which I pay my own rent, car, food, bills, etc.  Here in Paraguay I'm told that it is not at all uncommon to have three generations under one roof.  Sometimes the exact relations are obscure to the outside observer as any number of cousins, siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. all seem to wander in and out of inhabiting the same house (which could often more accurately be called a "labyrinthine complex of nooks and crannies").  This, of course, can make sense economically.  If there are a dozen of you sharing a house, and maybe six are working and the other six are children, students, or full-time housekeepers, the net amount of money left over at the end of the month may be higher than if each one has to secure their own income and pay their own bills.  

But the thing is that, despite me still puzzling about how to make ends meet with this wage vs. cost of living ratio, Paraguay is in fact a country that is doing well economically.  The local currency (Guaraní) has phases in which it is more stable than the dollar.  During the last decade, when there were several worldwide recessions, Paraguay's economy has been on a steady growth curve.  

I simply don't understand enough about economics.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Asunción is not, strictly speaking, a tropical city.  The Tropic of Capricorn passes about 200 Km north of here. 

But it feels very much like a tropical city. It is hot most of the year, and the life rhythm in most neighborhoods is adequately relaxed.  For much of the year the humid heat is oppressive and the rains are violent.  And, of course, the vegetation seems tropical.  Palms and mango trees and heavily perfumed flowers and all that.  It used to be so green from above that it hardly looked like a city.  But by now the urban density has increased, and if you look at it on satellite pictures, I don't think it would strike you as much greener than other cities of its size.

There aren't many old buildings.  Not really a historical core like some other South American cities.  Still, the downtown looks pretty used up.  Lots of buildings covered in grime and looking like they're in a state of disrepair.  Not to the point of caving in yet, but to the point of having dripping ceilings and bad plumbing. 

I mentioned the relaxed life rhythm, but that's an ambiguous term.  The financial situation here means that people do have to work hard and long hours (they are just, as a culture, less inclined to be in a hurry).  Also, Asunción has been growing far beyond what its infrastructure can handle, which means that every morning and every evening there are about two hours in which all major streets are bumper-to-bumper crawling traffic. 

In the downtown there seems to be busy traffic all day long, although it seems to me that it gets pretty quiet there in the evenings.  I haven't spent enough time downtown to really observe.  But the urban sprawl is certainly fanning outward.  I'm told that some neighborhoods in the downtown have many deserted buildings. 

I briefly mentioned the financial situation.  It is somewhat depressing.  I haven't come across much true poverty (malnourishment, danger of starvation, homelessness, etc.), but minimum wage here isn't much.  That wouldn't be so bad if prices of living necessities were proportionally low, but they aren't.  When I walk through the supermarket, it seems to me that on average the prices are comparable to those in an average supermarket in Germany or the Netherlands.  Some things are cheaper, but many aren't. 

It also seems to me that most people are working a lot more hours, and that a lot more jobs pay only minimum wage. 

These are some impressions after living here a few weeks.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cultural differences: disclaimers

I like talking about cultural differences, since that is one of the most interesting things around me.  But there are obvious difficulties with such a topic.

For example, let's say I say something like:

"Germans are punctual." 

If I make such a statement, I can't really let it stand as is.  I need to provide qualifications and disclaimers because there are dozens of objections in my mind, and probably the mind of my readers as well.  Here are a few:

1. it's a generalization.  The moment I say "Germans are punctual", my mind protests  because I could list plenty of Germans who AREN't all that punctual.

2. it's relative.  Maybe someone from Ghana might find things going too much "by the clock" in Germany, but someone from Switzerland might miss some good ol' Swiss punctuality while in Germany.

3. it sounds like a value judgment.  No matter how hard you try to use neutral language, anything you say about a culture can always be perceived as an approving or disapproving comment. 

4. Even if it were true about the culture in general, cultures are constantly on the move.  Sometimes a counterculture becomes the mainstream culture, and often it happens while the old stereotypes are still in place.  You can often find greater variations between, say, the younger and the older generation of the "same" culture, than between the culture and another one. 

5. Most such observations are not only anecdotal in nature, but also problematic when attempting to make one-to-one comparisons within different situations.  Maybe German culture values punctuality to an appointment or a concert, but expects you to be fashionably late to parties or barbecues?  Many cultural misunderstandings arise when we assume that you have a set of values figured out, when all we're doing is projecting the things we've observed into other areas that may not be governed by the same value system.

We could go on.  My point is, when I talk about cultural differences I will not stop at every statement to address the many objections that could be made to the statement.  I'll just refer to this blog entry and we'll all assume that I'm aware of the problematic nature of my cultural observations. 

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A view from my rooftop

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The distance difference

So I've been in Asunción for almost a month now. 

I mentioned last time how the first unexpected thing that happened was how distant and exotic Europe had suddenly become.  That remains the most difficult thing, I think, in this transition.  It isn't so much the general and specific things that I miss, it's the sense of distance.  When I think of something or someone in the Netherlands, my mental picture zooms out from Asunción, across the expanses of the Mato Grosso and the Amazon basin, across the wide Atlantic, the Iberian peninsula, France, etc, and it all seems so very, very far away.  It's like when someone who used to live just down the street from you has moved to another continent, the fact that you don't see them any more isn't the only factor that colors your emotional state when you think of that person; maybe you hardly ever saw them even when they were in your neighborhood.  There's something about that person being FAR AWAY that carries psychological weight that is a little different from just absence. 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

New beginnings in Asunción: the expected and the unexpected

I've now been in Paraguay for several days.  I'm officially here as a tourist, but my intention is to get a permit and stay for a few years.

Obviously, there are transitions, and obviously some will be difficult.  I've been thinking about this a lot.  I don't want to show up to my new home always talking about how "everything was better in Europe", but I do want to be able to verbalize the differences, and how they affect me.  "Different" doesn't mean better or worse, but it does mean that there is adaptation and adjustment at work.

The first differences have been obvious right away, and many have to do with the contrast between a culture that lives in the future and a culture that lives in the present.  I'll get other opportunities to talk about that, but it can be seen in everything: from a customer service desk to the state of the paint job on your neighbor's house, from the terms of an insurance policy to the amount of garbage you see on the street, from traffic safety measures to the job descriptions of an electronics store personnel. 

These things are obvious, and I came here fully expecting to find them. 

But there is one "culture shock" moment that hit me almost right away but was totally unexpected: the way I view Europe from over here. 

When I was growing up in Brazil and Ecuador, Europe was a semi-magical world across the ocean.  Although I'm German, I only saw Germany every few years.  But the concept of "Germany" was not just constructed from childhood memories of a place where things were cleaner and less broken, but also from the many pieces of Germany that could be found in our household.  Our music collection contained, for example, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; we occasionally received German shopping catalogues showing us the awesome things (toys) that were available for purchase in Germany; on special occasions our parents would dig out some German chocolate that they had hidden away somewhere; and no matter where we were, if something was "made in Germany" it was understood (not only by us, but by non-Germans as well) that it stood for quality.  All these things came together into a concept of "Germany" as a place that makes great things that are difficult to obtain. You can imagine it was easy to feel patriotic.  

(Of course, the associations weren't all positive.  For example, the average German tourist in Ecuador was not someone who inspired patriotism in me.) 

The interesting thing to me is how quickly Europe has re-attained that image in my mind.  They say that when we're with family we revert to our childhood roles, and I'm staying with my parents at the moment.  Watching my mother bake a cake yesterday, using Dr. Oetker* products that were hard to acquire when we were growing up, I'm suddenly back to viewing Europe (and specifically Germany) as the place where they make cool things that are difficult to obtain. 

This came as a total surprise.  I was fully prepared to spend years struggling with the tension between my own internal values and those of the culture around me.  I was fully prepared to have daily bouts of lamenting how much I miss cycling around Amsterdam and how much I miss my closest friends and my favorite foods and a sewage system that doesn't overflow onto the streets every time it rains.  But I was not prepared to have the continent I lived on until last week suddenly revert from concrete home to abstract distant land of my childhood associations.  Even just the fact that they center around GERMANY, while I've been living in the NETHERLANDS for the last ten years, is baffling to me.

Looks like I may be in for an interesting time.   

*(Dr. Oetker makes products that, for example, make the whipped cream just a little bit thicker and the vanilla sugar just a little bit more vanilla-sugar-y.)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014


As I prepare to move to Paraguay, there are many things I'll miss about Amsterdam.  I'll probably list them at some point.  But one thing I won't miss are tourists.

When I tell people I'm moving to Paraguay, many don't even know where that is, and those who do know are usually not familiar with it to any significant degree.  It's no wonder.  Paraguay doesn't have anything to attract attention to itself, certainly when compared to its neighbors Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.  It is not a popular tourist destination.  But it will be good to be far away from tourists for a while. 

Tourism is a weird thing.  Travel is always good, it expands your horizons and makes you less likely to be a small-minded bigot.  And most forms of travel have at least some touristic element.  And I myself have been a tourist many times.

Still, it feels like tourism cheapens the riches that travel can afford.  It has become about experiencing something in the shallowest way possible, as a sort of "seen it, took a picture" item that can be crossed off a checklist. Things are mostly valuable for what they are as attractions.

This past summer I finally made it to Paris, and of course had to go to the Louvre, and of course had to see the Mona Lisa.  I'd been fascinated by that painting since I was a little boy.  The hands.  The eyes.  The smile.

It was such a disappointment.  There was a huge crowd in that room, but the painting itself was cordoned off, with a guard standing on each side, and no one could come anywhere close.  I understand those precautions for such a masterwork, but the crowd did not look like people who were admiring art.  They just looked like people who had come to look at one more attraction, and document that they'd been there.  Many were taking selfies with the Mona Lisa.  As a friend said, "they travel halfway around the world to turn their back to one of the world's great artworks."  I couldn't even penetrate the crowd to get a good look.  And the hallway outside was filled with Da Vincis and other great Renaissance masters, but no one crowded and no one blocked your view. It was not art, it was the attraction called "Mona Lisa", that people were interested in. 

I've seen it in other places, and been part of it myself.  I hung around Berlin a few years ago with some friends, seeing the sights and taking pictures.  We also went to the holocaust memorial.  I took pictures, even though I felt very wrong about treating it as an attraction.  "Yes, we were there.  Look at this picture of us with all those tombs behind us." There are plenty of appropriate ways that someone -- even a tourist -- can take pictures of the holocaust memorial.  But that didn't occur to me at the time.  I was in "hey, here's another Berlin attraction to tick off the list and show that we've been there" mode.  Even concentration camps -- monuments to warn us and to commemorate suffering -- get treated as tourist attractions. 

Even my visit to Iceland last summer -- which included a three-day hike through the mountains -- felt like tourism.  Granted, walking through mountains for a few days takes a bit more commitment than just taking a selfie with an attraction.  Still, it felt like the essence of tourism.  There were so many other hikers, and our presence was sort of destroying the solitude and isolation and weird, inhospitable and breathtakingly beautiful landscape that is so central to what Iceland is. 

One thing I can't get used to in Amsterdam, no matter how often I see it, is the tourism of the red light district.  I understand that keeping prostitution open and legal might be a helpful strategy to help these women not get trapped, and I also understand that this openness and legality make Amsterdam something of an attraction.  I understand that someone who's traveling to Amsterdam might want to see this neighborhood in which women are standing in shop windows like goods to be purchased.  But it really bothers me. 

In fact, as far as I can tell, the majority of the visitors to the red light district aren't sex addicts or other johns (though there are plenty of those), but "innocent" tourists looking at an attraction, like you would look at the leaning tower if you were in Pisa or at the Alamo if you were in San Antonio.  The other night I was talking to a Chinese girl who had three days and nights in Amsterdam, and spent two of those nights in the red light district.  I don't understand.  You have only three days in Amsterdam, there is so much to see and do, and sure, you want to see the red light district, but what brings you there a second time?  Was the first time not depressing enough?  Or does this young Chinese girl somehow not get depressed at the sight of drunken men ogling scantly clad women in shop windows? 

So, although there are many things I'll miss about Amsterdam, tourism isn't one of them.  I think I'll enjoy living in a place where most tourists don't consider going. 

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