Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here

If you were there; if you were her

I’d difficulty deciding on the topic of my blog this month. My heart goes out to Manchester in the UK, especially to families, relatives and friends of those who were at Ms. Ariana Grande’s concert last May 22. More than one hundred people were injured and 22 were killed in that vicious terrorist attack, including an eight-year-old girl and an off-duty female police officer.

Last Wednesday evening, I had a mixed feeling of warmth and sadness watching on BBC Tony Walsh reading his poem ‘This Is The Place’ as a tribute to Manchester city at vigil. His rendition was defiant and resilient for peace. For me, it means not hating and living in fear; but be hopeful yet stand up for your rights.

So, here I am doing my usual routine on the first day of every month.

Most-stressful departure ever

You’ve certainly heard about flight delays and lack of information at airports that angered passengers. You probably know at least one person who has lost a luggage or whose baggage ended up on the other side of the world. How about long check-in lines that make you nervous about missing your flight? The story below is an addition to the list of disappointing travels.

Maria has been an international traveller for over 30 years and has visited about 40 countries with more than 20 stopovers/transits. Stories and anecdotes about unfortunate travelling were foreign to her until last month. Her Expedia-purchased tickets (Brussels-New York) had a very short transit in Montreal. To her surprise, she and her family couldn’t board Air Canada because they didn’t have a visa for Canada and their US Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) was not enough to get them into this plane for New York.

They didn’t think of getting a Canadian ETA as they were only transit passengers for less than 2 hours; there was no exiting from and entering into the Canadian soil outside the airport; and they were in the same airport flying with the same airline company. It was amazing that Expedia reminded them to get an American ETA when it was obvious they had to as they were going to New York, and which they already had before purchasing the tickets.

After about 10 minutes of talking with the female staff who hadn’t yet told them how they could obtain the Canadian ETA, Maria queried, “So, tell us how we can get this ETA?” She responded, “online.” There was no sign of empathy or willingness to help, so Maria asked, “How long will it take?” “Between 2 and 72 hours,” she said.

Before this, while queueing, another airline/airport staff spent at least 20 minutes looking at their passports and jovially asking them personal and social questions. Consequently, there was less than an hour and a half left before the scheduled take off. Nevertheless, Maria ran around like a lost hen looking for a computer where she could apply for the Canadian ETA. To add to the stress and chaos, the application form had several pages of questions on personal background, travel information and passport details. The next 30 minutes were un-describable: perspiration, unusually fast heartbeat, shaking hands, etc..

With the approved Canadian ETA fresh from the printer, they rushed to the check-in counter. Guess what? It had already closed. More perspiration, stress, etc. There was no Air Canada stand; more panic.. After a quick look around and a few steps here and there, Maria approached a Swiss Airlines’ female ground staff, who quickly rang the boarding area. She then turned to them and said, “Run; you might be able to make it but you couldn’t bring your luggage with you.” Armed only with a piece of paper that had the name and phone number of this considerate staff, Maria jumped queues explaining her situation to everyone (passengers and staff alike) along the way. As the door of the plane closed behind her, she wiped her forehead and face then walked slowly towards the vacant seat.

Unfortunately, one member of her family had to stay behind to look after their 3 suitcases. The only flight for New York that day was through Washington D.C. This family member joined Maria in Manhattan 7 hours later (the Canadian ETA, afterall, was a waste of money and time as far as he was concerned).

Maria has since written to Air Canada and its response is summarized in this paragraph “We sympathize with your situation but respectfully, it is the customer’s responsibility to obtain the proper travel documents. If you could not fly because you required the eTA and did not apply for one, all fare rules associated to your ticket apply. Further information regarding the eTA is available on the Government of Canada website http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/visit/eta.asp.” If you were in their shoes, would you have checked on travel requirements for Canada? (You were only transit passengers for less than 2 hours; there was no exiting from and entering into Canadian soil except at the airport; you were in the same airport flying with the same airline company; and Expedia didn’t mention this to you).

She also brought this joyless experience to the attention of Expedia who, until now, hasn’t responded to her email.

What’s the rationale behind the Canadian eTA for transit passengers of less than 2 hours? If it’s to collect an airport tax, why not do this at the check-in desk or in one of the pre-boarding counters?

We’re all in the same boat

Happy Labour Day!

Four of my friends were born in April. When I was in Australia, April was a month of non-stop partying, gift giving and receiving, and catching up with relatives and acquaintances. It’s widely known that the birthstone of April is diamond. Meanwhile, it’s still a wonder why this fourth month of the year is called as such. One explanation refers to its Latin origin, Aprilis, which is derived from aperire meaning “to open” as in the opening or blossoming of flowers and trees throughout the month of April in Europe (the northern hemisphere). Another theory is that since Aphrilis is derived from the Greek “Aphrodite” and since months are often named for gods and goddess, it can be deduced that April is in honour of the Greek goddess of love (the Romans called this goddess ‘Venus’). (http://blog.dictionary.com/april/)

This year’s April, however, didn’t seem like a month of wealth (diamond) and love for many individuals and families. The Hunger Project reveals that 795 million people, which is one in nine persons in the world, do not have enough to eat; and 98% of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries. (http://www.thp.org/knowledge-center/know-your-world-facts-about-hunger-poverty/)

Last April, you’d surely seen on TV the horrifying chemical attack in a Syrian town that prompted the US airstrikes, suicide bombing of the 2 Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, stolen truck driven by a terrorist into a store in a busy Swedish street, killing of a police officer in Paris, etc. I know none of the victims, nevertheless, these incidents have saddened me a lot and made me earthlier.

There’s only one planet Earth, and “we’re all in the same boat.” The loss of lives and sufferings due to crime and poverty contribute to more fears, anxiety and insecurity. On the other hand, these can bring individuals and communities together (and have done so).

No individual or nation thrives alone or in isolation. As such, there are many international alliances, e.g. The United Nations and its many bodies, European Union (EU), The Commonwealth, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), G7, G20, International Criminal Court, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), etc.

Though it looks like a person is an insignificant fish in the ocean, individuals make up the whole; and we can’t anymore pass the buck around. There are simple and costless ways we can do to help prevent and tackle crime, climate change, safety, insecurity (all forms including poverty), inequality and other ills in our society. Voting during local and national elections for the person and party that address these issues seriously, for example, is never a small step. We’ve to think globally and act locally!

As with the Titanic in the 1900s, when one side of the ship/boat sinks (sooner or later) all other parts submerge into the bottom of the sea. Some passengers may survive due to their quick thinking and surviving skills, sacrifices of loved ones and strangers, just pure luck or their own selfish acts; others perish; and many are left heart broken.

Sailing or travelling is smooth and peaceful, and we reach our destination with a grin, when no one or nothing rocks and/or destroys the boat. Let’s go an extra mile to smile, understand, cooperate, care and participate in making our neighbourhood (eventually our world) more liveable, sustainable and fun.

Fake news – a global concern

Last March 4, the BBC reported on the joint declaration regarding fake news, disinformation and propaganda by Mr. David Kaye (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression) and his counterparts from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organisation of American States (OAS) and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

After some minutes of flicking and clicking online, I got into one of the United Nations’ websites which I thought would shed more light on this declaration. Someone from the Special Procedures Division of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responded promptly to my request for a copy of the declaration.

This declaration focuses on concerns about fake news and the risk of censorship while trying to combat these. It, likewise, mentions the danger in which the growing prevalence of fake news or disinformation, fuelled by both State and non-State individuals and agencies, mislead citizens and interfere with people’s right to know the truth. Charter 6, the last section, says “All stakeholders – including intermediaries, media outlets, civil society and academia – should be supported in developing participatory and transparent initiatives for creating a better understanding of the impact of disinformation and propaganda on democracy, freedom of expression, journalism and civic space, as well as appropriate responses to these phenomena.”

Last month, you most probably heard about the much publicised video of a female cyclist responding to catcalls from men in a van by chasing them and destroying their vehicle’s wing mirror. This was posted on Facebook then by the media; several of them later updated their stories calling it as a hoax or fake.
How to recognise fake news?

Publishing or reporting fake news undermines the trustworthiness of the media as a whole. But, why are some media outlets and journalists not careful and thorough with their information?

Facts and information take more time, effort and money to produce than entertainment-style reporting. Even well-known major media organisations use entertainment model to gain maximum audience and profits.

The onus, therefore, is for us – the consumers (readers, listeners, audiences) to decide whether we want to be informed or entertained. If our goal is the former; firstly, we should find out about the source of the information (i.e. do we recognise the author or publisher)? Are there supporting materials or reports from credible sources, i.e. has it been reported elsewhere? Most importantly, let’s be more questioning and less accepting, such as thinking about underlying purposes or intentions of the story and its source (e.g. income from ad platforms, political gain or propaganda).
Why are fake news believable?

Stories are attention getter (e.g. outlandish, involving famous people) and disseminated to meet specific agenda, but not really to inform factually. As well, often their formats and sources resemble those of reputable media outlets. According to the U.S. News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2016-11-14/avoid-these-fake-news-sites-at-all-costsPrdicker@usnews.com.ublication), these news outlets produce fake news: The Onion (satire), The Borowitz Report – The New Yorker (satire), American News (hoax), Daily Buzz Live (propaganda) and World Truth TV (propaganda).

Why should we be vigilant about fake news?
According to research results by Zubiaga, Arkaitz; et al. (PLOS ONE, 2016. doi: 10.1371/journal), “Whilst one can readily see users denying rumors once they have been debunked, users appear to be less capable of distinguishing true from false rumors when their veracity remains in question.” As well, “highly reputable users such as news organizations endeavor to post well-grounded statements, which appear to be certain and accompanied by evidence. Nevertheless, these often prove to be unverified pieces of information that give rise to false rumors.”

Though we may know that it’s a fake news, we (human beings) have the tendency to remember this because of its entertaining element that interests and abets processing.

False news influences beliefs, attitudes and actions; therefore, can lead to fears, conflicts and loss of job/family/friends/belongings. It divides and destabilises communities and society as a whole.

For instance, fake news about crimes committed by illegal entrants and refugees, such as the reported rape in Germany that led to street protests (although Germany’s government officials debunked it quickly), undermine peace and the country’s refugee and humanitarian programme.
When it comes to our decisions and actions, there’s no short cut or substitute for facts and truths. Thus, we should always go for reports that have in depth analyses and are professionally-generated.

*(The prefix dis indicates reversal while mis means wrong or erroneous. Misinformation is a form of disinformation that is disseminated intentionally to mislead or confuse).

Carnival here and there

This week, 9 of my acquaintances are on holiday or have taken days off from work to participate in carnival activities. One of them lives in Binche, Belgium, where every year during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (i.e. today) there are street performances, dancing and merry making. The Shrove Tuesday’s parade includes the throwing or giving away of oranges to spectators by the Gilles – famous participants colourfully dressed with wax masks, ostrich-feathered hats and wooden footwear. The oranges are considered to bring good luck because they are a gift from the Gilles and it is an insult to throw or give them back. (Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, Pancake Day or ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French as it’s the last night of eating rich and fatty food before fasting during Lent, which is 40 days before Easter).

According to http://www.carnivalpower.com/history_of_carnival.htm, the Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed by, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and the practice spread to France, Spain and all Catholic countries in Europe.

Two years ago, I was at the Notting Hill carnival in London and it had a fully Caribbean flare with lots of feathers, and I have since found out that in Africa feathers are used in masks and headdresses as a symbol of humans’ ability to overcome problems, pains, illness and difficulties. I’m certain you’ve heard a lot about the spectacular carnival bonanza in Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago, and the lavish Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, Sydney, Venice and other cities.

During my early days in Luxembourg when I read everything from billboard notices to free newspapers, I remember seeing something like “You haven’t lived in Luxembourg properly or fully until you’ve sampled the country’s magnificent array of carnival processions and parties.” Indeed, in Luxembourg, carnival is a serious and month-long celebration with various Luxembourgish associations organising a host of festive events and cavalcades (tradition that goes back to 1870); and February 27 was a no-work day in some companies.

During the carnival period, people enjoy tasty doughnuts, pancakes and other local specialities, such as knots of pastry sprinkled with icing sugar (Verwurrelt Gedanken) and small cakes made of scalded pastry (Stretzegebäck).

I did make some pancakes last weekend. As well, I was in a fancy-dress party organised beautifully by a lovely Polish-French couple, which included games, dancing that lasted till dawn and devouring on bigos (made of cabbage) and faworki ‘Angel wings’ (a yolk-base dough well aerated, kneaded then fried in deep oil, which are traditionally eaten on the last Thursday of the carnival).

Often, we hear about disorders and drunkenness that result from carnival festivities. Generally, however, there are more ups than downs: they liven up arts and cultures, vitalise local economy, provide employment and attract tourists. They encourage community spirit (e.g. one of my students serves as a volunteer First Aid personnel in his German-speaking hometown in Belgium); social integration; self-esteem; optimism and happiness. They also provide opportunities for authorities to showcase their organisational skills in terms of security, safety, transport, etc.

If you want to go beyond the carnival atmosphere, check the following local and world events in March: concerts and shows in your towns and cities, Water-Drawing Festival in Japan, Festival of Colour in India and Nepal, Bali Spirit Festival in Indonesia and Semana Santa in Mexico.

Our brains adapt and change

I hope 2017 has started well for you and your loved ones. I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions but believe that there’s always a room for improvement. So, in any day of any month, I try to deal with my faults and weaknesses. These imperfections make me wake up in the morning wanting to do something better than yesterday.

As you can see on the above photograph, I got a trophy 3 weeks ago for finishing 2nd among adult female participants at a chess tournament in Marange-Silvange, a commune 20 km from where I live in Moselle department in north-eastern France. From time to time, I join this kind of competition because it makes my avid-chess playing son happy and proud of his mum. As well, I find the atmosphere festive amid rivalry characterised by fair play, respect and camaraderie.

What pleases me most is watching children, as young as 5 years old, sitting for some time thinking, analysing and making decisions which pieces to move to corner their opponents’ Kings. For me, all players are winners because they learn and exercise discipline, accept or manage their wins and losses, and try to improve their future performances. Furthermore, spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon playing and socialising is more productive, with long-term benefits, than being a couch potato — which is likely when the outside temperature is -5°C.

Though there’s been a widespread use of computer and video games, Internet entertainment and online socialising, individuals and families still get involved in group activities. According to http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-popular/the-top-10-most-sold-board-games-ever), the following are the most popular board games ever: 1. Chess 2. Checkers 3. Backgammon 4. Scabble 5. Monopoly 6. Clue (or Cluedo) 7. Othello 8. Trivial Pursuit 9. Pictionary and 10. Risk.

Except for Clue and Othello, I’ve played them all; and when I was at university my favourite was Scabble which was responsible for my many sleepless nights. During the first decade of my professional life, I used to play Risk with 2 close male friends who either tried to persuade me to form an alliance to get rid of the other player or accused me of being unfair for showing leniency to the other.

On the other hand, except for a few hours of self defense lesson required by my father and membership to a local gym, I’ve never been in any sports club or group. Sometimes I play lawn tennis with my family and bowling a few times a year, and wish I could ski.

As you probably know, football (US ‘soccer’) is the most played sports in the world. Cricket and field hockey come next then tennis, volleyball, table tennis, baseball, golf and basketball. (http://www.mostpopularsports.net)

Whether you are a board game or sport enthusiast, you are doing something that helps develop or strengthen your mind as these activities train you to be patient and resilient in the face of difficulty or inconvenience. Likewise, being with other people widens your social network that can also have a flow-on effect on your professional life; and of course, it entertains you that has positive psychological and health benefits. It’s never too late to start a leisure activity or hobby, and why not a board game? Most towns and cities have local clubs that welcome new members.

I’d spoken with many chess players during tournaments and they told me that they started playing at home with their relatives or friends (or friends of friends) during family gatherings, through encouragement by teachers and classmates, watching the game or sport live on TV/movie/online, and living near the club or tournament.

Whatever game or sport we decide to do, let’s bear in mind that, as Dr. Doidge has said, not all activities are equal. “Those that involve genuine concentration—studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, and dancing—are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration. Less intense activities, such as bowling, babysitting, and golfing, are not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s.” (Dr. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher and author at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry and New York’s Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research).

Dr. Doidge has also said that “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” (http://www.azquotes.com/author/18876-Norman_Doidge).

PS:My website was down for a while for reasons unknown to me, and it took a few days to fix it.Our brains adapt and change

Surprises, wonders and hope

Happy New Year!

December 2016 was an unusual Christmas for me because I had received an unexpected, generous gift from someone who’s not a friend or relative. When I opened the envelope, I thought it was handed to me by mistake, so the next time I saw her I tried to return it. With the sweetest smile, she said “it’s not a mistake, it’s for you from Santa.” A week later, I still couldn’t believe and accept such a present. What did I do to deserve such kindness? This act of generosity propelled me to do the same, and I was even more blessed. I was so joyful to see the sparkling eyes of contentment and happiness of those I shared my blessings with.

The year 2016 has just ended, and it’s quite a challenge trying to find words to describe it. It has been a tough year for several people whose friendship I value (i.e. losing parents and family members, colleagues, etc.) This reminds me, as in other gloomy situations, that I should not neglect my family and friends, and be greatly grateful for what I’ve.

As well, I should look at the glass half full, and not half empty, even in surprisingly polarising events, such as Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election as the US president. The situation in Syria’s Aleppo is dehumanising and unbearable, and how can peace and security be restored there? Last month’s terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East resulted in the loss of many lives, which have contributed significantly to making the fear of migrants and refugees even worse. Consequently, insecurity in many facets and from different directions besets our society. On the other hand, there were inspiring events last year that have left a positive imprint, such as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with its Refugee Team (the first time in its history).

What could we have done better in 2016? There are things that we definitely can’t undo, however, these can serve as hard-earned lessons to be a good or better person. I won’t seek for perfection as “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” (Stephen William Hawking – born 8 January 1942, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author who has a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and uses a speech-generating device to communicate).

But, I’m persuaded that the following actions can make life more fun, fulfilling and challenging:

If you’re not happy with today, do something about it (i.e. willing to change).
Bury experiences that make you angry.
Be honest: the truth is easier to remember. The so called ‘white lies’ or an economised truths distort and can cause emotional pain to others.
Cultivate or have a sense of gratitude.
Stop making excuses and blaming others.
Avoid being cynical and defensive.
There are always two sides to every story, so listen to both.
Forgive
(What else?)

The above statements are easier written (said) than done; however, they are worth giving a go. If we don’t succeed the first time, let’s try again and again.

May you experience lots of love, joy, peace and good health in 2017 and beyond.
Take care!