Alternative Athens: Air BnB and Exploring Exarchia

At first glance, Athens’ off-centre neighbourhoods do not look particularly enticing. Beyond the hubs around Monastiraki and Syntagma squares, neo-classical architecture quickly gives way to a mishmash of concrete buildings, narrow laneways and uneven pavements. Add in persistent strikes, protests and the occasional burning building and it’s perhaps understandable that tourists tend to hole themselves at the base of Acropolis in picturesque Plaka and Thissio, conveniently bypassing today’s Athens in favour of the spectacle of millenniums past.

Admittedly, as I’m waiting for the lift in the ubiquitous apartment block near the less than salubrious Larissa train station, there is moment where I too think that opting to stay in the city’s Northern sprawl instead of its Greek island-esque historic centre might not have been the best plan. This doubt lasts for about three seconds however, until the moment Air BnB host opens the door to the place I’ll be staying for the next few days.

The apartment is lovely, and I instantly feel happy to be here. There is a bright open plan living area, floor to ceiling windows and huge terrace all creating a warm and welcoming Mediterranean feel, while the avant-guard fashion photography on the walls looks oddly similar to that in my own Hackney houseshare. The best bit however is Eleni, my host and housemate for the next few days, who is friendly and open, immediately inviting me to make myself at home while handing me a cup of tea and an epic supply of fresh fruit from the local Carrefour. She’s just returned from a weekend in London, so we chat about how the two cities compare (Athens is smaller with better weather, beaches and outdoor cafes. London has better architecture).

AirBnB was perfectly designed for travellers who want to get a local perspective without breaking the bank. To stay in one of the large rooms in Eleni’s apartment costs just £26 a night; a bargain when you think that you not only get a home from home feel but also instant access to insider knowledge. As Eleni talks me through maps of the city, I immediately see how valuable this is in somewhere like Athens, where with the perceived turbulence on the streets it would be easy for visitors like me to play it safe and stick to the obvious tourist areas. However, as we discuss the recent riots, she smiles; “That was just one day! One hour! Those areas you saw on TV – Syntagma and Exarchia – are perfectly fine most of the time! In fact you should see for yourself, walk through them at least – Exarchia is just near here. It’s funny; tourists see that image of buildings burning and think it’s all that Athens is. It isn’t!”

She’s right of course. I’ve done enough of these trips to know that what you see on TV rarely if ever captures the real spirit of a place, and that the crisis points upon which the media so enjoys turning the spotlight are often just one small part of a much more complex picture. Keen to explore this for myself, I pull myself off the sofa and hit the streets, waving goodbye to Eleni as she heads off to work in a local café while I aim myself firmly at Athens’ anarchist hub.

Night Cafe: mkhalili, Flickr

Home to students, artists and activists, Exarchia’s laneways have attracted resistance movements ever since the Polytechnic uprising in 1973 – where twenty four people were killed when military forces stormed the university – in a tank – as activists barricaded themselves inside in protest against the then dictatorship. Walking down Stournari Street and past the uni it’s hard not to be reminded of the blood spilled within its concrete walls in defence of democratic ideals, though it’s also clear that this defiant spirit is still alive and well today as a group of students crouch down on the pavement painting black protest banners with white lettering; Public Enemy blasting out from some nearby speakers.

While locals complain that the area is succumbing to inevitable bohemian gentrification, as a first time visitor to the area it’s hard to see it. I veer left towards Kallidromiou Street the graffiti encrusted walls, crumbling pre-war townhouses and post-war apartment blocks still have an unkempt, gritty feel. And while Exarchia has been described by some as Athens’ answer to Dalston or Williamsburg, it still feels quiet and residential, with bric-a-brac stores, pharmacies and grocers sitting next to occasional vinyl record shops specialising in hard rock and metal.

There is, however, a sense of the usual vintage/art/music scene that you often find in the more counter-cultural, student neighbourhoods, and soon enough I’m in second hand clothes store Yesterday’s Bread – rummaging through nylon dresses and a mountain of old converse trainers while chatting to Charlie, an American student digging through the coats. I ask her about the local art and fashion scene, and while she confirms that there are other areas of Athens like Gazi and Psyrri which also have an urban edge, Exarchia is holding its own. “There’s actually a new arty-style vintage store called ‘Les Broderies Anglaises’ opening up near Exarchia Square next weekend,” she says, holding a leathery-style jacket, “There is stuff going on if you know where to look.”

Leaving several Euros lighter, she points me in the direction of the Pro Art gallery down the road, and after this, several bookshops and a fat chicken souvlaki pita wrap, my post-flight head is weary and caffeine is definitely in order.

Eleni had already told me that putting the world to rights over a coffee is something of a national pastime in Greece, and when I walk into the Floral café on the corner of Exarchia Square, I see what she means. Students are squeezed onto benches piled high with papers, buzzing with conversation and surrounded by hardbacks from the alternative bookstore downstairs. A book called ‘Debt-ocracy’ seems popular, and as I search for a seat and order a double cappuccino, a young guy hands me a leaflet advertising a meeting on ‘fighting the rise of the European dictatorship’.

It’s here that I meet Yannis, a journalist friend who moved to Athens to cover the crisis. We decide to share a fresh Greek salad and as I connect to the wifi and scan the place’s event listings on my smartphone, I note that with everything from live music to political debates Floral seems to be more of cultural centre in its own right than just a café. “This is typical in Athens,” says Yannis, “It’s just like in the time of Socrates. The food and drink is important – and of course it’s excellent – but what Greeks want are places to come together and exchange ideas. Things might be difficult, but this is part of how we manage. Art, debates, music – these things are happening everywhere.”

“Everywhere”, I smile, nodding my head sideways to draw Yannis’ attention to the table beside us, where a group of twenty-somethings are locked in an intense discussion. He gets that my lack of Greek is making eavesdropping a bit tricky, and starts talking to them, presumably explaining that the nosy British girl wants to know what they’re getting so exorcised about. Luckily, this isn’t seen as being particularly rude and a guy with folk trend beard immediately switches into English, “We are talking about food. That with this crisis we need to eat natural things. Not American burgers. Things we make here.”

Again, I smile. After all, beyond its pretty tourist centre Athens seems fairly grey and ever so slightly decaying. And yet here I am, with just one afternoon in Exarchia showing that just through the doors of the shops and cafes there is still an undercurrent of cultural action; new ventures, political and philosophical debates, art, music. That perhaps protest isn’t the only way people are responding to this crisis. And later, when I get my first glimpse of the Acropolis Hill lit up against the dark sky, it’s good to know that however breath-taking the ruins, there is something more to this city than just its past glories.

Featured Image: The memorial to Aleksandras Grigorópulo, by Jose Téllez, Flickr

Five of the Best Cafe/Bars in Athens

Athens is very good at cafes. It needs to be; as my friend Yannis says, Greeks like nothing more than gathering together over a good espresso and putting the world to rights. Which means than not only are there a lot of cafes, but that cafes need to be more than just place to grab a drink and a snack in order to attract the crowds. Cultural centres in their own right, if you will.

It’s also fair to say the lines between cafes and bars are quite blurred in Athens; bright homely places where you might go for lunch and a catch-up seem to transform as the sun sets into dark, atmospheric spaces where the music gets louder and the drinks get significantly stronger. So, for no other reason than because it’s impossible to separate them, I’ve bundled cafes and bars together here.

You’ll see what I mean. Here are my top five.

1. The Art Foundation (website) – Monastiraki Metro

‘TAF’ is a bit of a challenge to find; located around the back of Monastiraki on a small laneway and through what I seem to remember was an unmarked door. This of course makes the whole experience of actually getting inside all the better – the cafe section is set up in a beautiful outdoor courtyard (covered over in winter) surrounded by old townhouses housing art installations, which you are free to wander through while enjoying any number of strong cocktails or a spirit-fuelled hot chocolate. While I was there they were hosting an exhibit called The Blog Diaries, where local bloggers were invited to exhibit work from their personal blogs, but the programme includes everything from theatre to live music.

2. The Black Duck (website) – Panepistimio Metro

A self-proclaimed ‘multiplarte’, the Black Duck is a slightly classier kind of establishment, with a cafe on the ground floor, a restaurant on the first floor and a gallery in the basement. It’s slightly upscale without being in any way pretentious; very much the kind of place you could feel very comfortable spending hours typing away on a laptop, then meeting friends for coffee followed by food and wine from the gorgeous Euro/Greek menu. The filo feta with honey and poppy seeds is definitely worth stopping by for. And like TAF, the Black Duck isn’t short of live music, book tours, poetry readings and intellectual talks to keep you entertained.

The Art Foundation

3. Bliss (website) – Syntagma Metro

Bliss is just lovely; a caring, sharing, brightly coloured, slightly hippish kind of place serving Indian yoghurt, buckwheat muffins and ‘theraputic’ herbal teas. The cafe is a riot of pinks and oranges with tables covered in what seemed to be fruit inspired wrapping paper, while the back section is all big comfy cushions and low tables. They also have a packed seminar programme, covering a huge range of ‘good living’ topics from Mexican cooking to laughter yoga.

4. Floral (website) – Exarchia, Omnia Metro

Housed in a Bauhaus inspired blue building on the corner of anarchistic Exarchia square, Floral is part cafe, part university common room. The place is usually packed with students from the Polytechnic enjoying standard cafe staples like omelettes, crepes and of course good coffee, while the alternative bookshop downstairs gives the place an intellectual vibe. Definitely the sort of place you could feel comfortable sitting in for hours reading Chomsky or Sartre. Again; music, talks, debates. You get the picture now.

5. A is for Athens (website) – Monastiraki Metro

The rooftop cafe/bar at the A is for Athens hotel is quickly getting a reputation among locals and tourists alike as being one of the few places in the city you can enjoy the incredible Acropolis view without spending a fortune or booking a table. That said, by early evening the place is packed, so it’s probably worth going down as early as possible to secure a prime spot. Again, in summer the place is open air, but in winter the temporary roof gives the place a warm and cosy atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Tilemahos_E

Athens Now! Tourist reflections on riots and ruins

Hi everyone, here’s a quick video blog on how things are in Athens right now from a tourist’s perspective. I should say that minutes after finishing this I walked through Syntagma Square and saw the riot police/army gearing up again, so perhaps things are not as quiet as they have first seemed. Also, sorry for the wind / sound quality – what can I say, Athens is windy!
Hope you enjoy,
Kim x

Interview: A guide for visiting Palestine

Every day, Fred Schlomka’s Green Olive tour company picks up a car full of Jerusalem tourists and guides them through the Separation Wall into the Palestinian West Bank, visiting refugee camps, social enterprises and – in what’s been seen by some as a controversial move – settler communities.

Having joined one of these tours earlier this year, I recently interviewed Fred to find out first hand why he set up Green Olive Tours, and what he sees for the future of Palestine.

1. So, where did the idea for Green Olive Tours come from?

I launched Green Olive Tours in 2007. For many years I had been organizing specialized tours for two Israeli organizations that I worked for, Mosaic Communities and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. These tours were aimed at activists and researchers who came to Israel/Palestine to further their understanding of the political issues here and experience the events on the ground.

I decided to offer these types of tours to a broader public, and include cultural experiences and some more conventional tourist activities. The blend of experiences serves the general tourist public and enables them to go home with a more rounded view of our country.

2. And why was it important to you to set up Green Olive Tours?

Most tour companies offer a ‘Disneyland’ view of the country, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, often excluding information, experiences, and sites that conflict with their worldview. Green Olive Tours tries to offer a more comprehensive experience while gently advocating for a more humanistic and democratic perspective.

The tours serve as a bridge between my political and professional work. Through traveling the West Bank almost every day I am able to monitor the situation and stay in touch with my contacts. Through offering tourists the opportunity to benefit from my experienced guides’ knowledge, and witness the impact of the Occupation, they often are motivated to become politically active when they return home. Some return as volunteers in the organizations we introduce them to.

3. Is it important for tourists to visit the West Bank?

It is extremely important. Most Israeli tour companies offer only limited opportunities to visit the West Bank, often telling their clients that it is too dangerous. However there are many important religious and historical sites in the West Bank, and hospitable Palestinians who are eager to tell their stories. No visit to the Holy Land is complete without at least several days visiting the West Bank.

4. What’s been the hardest part of setting up and running Green Olive Tours?

Lack of capital. We are a ‘bootstrap’ operation and completely self-funded. If there was access to capital then the business could grow faster. However growing in an organic fashion has its benefits. When we make mistakes it is less costly.

Another issue is marketing. All the major tour companies that conduct day-trips have full access to the residents of tourist hotels. Our brochures and flyers are rejected by the mainstream hotels for political reasons, and we are restricted to marketing through the smaller and Arab-owned hotels.

5. What do you think is the main thing that people on your tours get from the experience?

They see the reality of life in the West Bank and Israel, and are provided with enough information to make up their own minds about the issues. People-to-people contact is also much appreciated by our clients. On most of the tours they are able to meet Palestinians and Israelis, have conversations, and often to have lunch with a family.

6. You have recently launched a ‘Meet the Settlers’ tour. Why did you decide to run this tour? Has that been controversial?

The tour was started to give visitors the opportunity to hear from the settlers themselves about their philosophy and reasons for living in the West Bank. Some Israeli and Palestinian activists are critical of this tour. Since the settler/guide receives a fee, they feel that the tour is actually supporting the settlement enterprise.

However on balance I think that it is more important to educate tourists about the settlements than to worry about a few dollars ending up in the hands of a settler.

7. What are your hopes for the future of Israel and Palestine?

My hope is that we all can find a way to live together within a democratic framework. However the present trends of settlement expansion and lack of negotiations does not bode well for the immediate future.

I believe that any possibility for the ‘classic’ two-state solution is over. The idea is a fantasy that the settlers will be removed from the West Bank and a largely Jewish-free state is formed in the West Bank and Gaza. Reality must sink in. There are now over 600,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories. I think the best we can hope for is a Palestinian state that allows most of the settlers to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. This will preserve the national aspirations of Palestinians, and the integrity of the state of Israel.  Of course if Israelis are permitted to live in Palestine then Palestinians should also be permitted to live in Israel.

Perhaps a solution like the European Union may emerge – a Three-State Solution, which would put a third government on top of the two states, with a hard external border but a soft internal border.

Thanks to Fred Schlomka and the Green Olive Tours team for this interview. You can find out more about the Green Olive story at www.toursinenglish.com

A Local’s East London Travel Guide

Here is a classic traveller’s dilemma; you want to travel to and experience one of the world’s greatest cities, but you want to see the ‘real’ London/Paris/Istanbul – not the one served up to you by the guide books and the tourist maps.

But when you have limited time, this can be tricky. If you’re anything like me, you can end up spending days on the tourist trail getting slightly frustrated as you just know there are cooler and more interesting places to be spending your valuable time. But without the benefit of a local to show you round, you just don’t know where to look.

So, as I’ve had a few friends travel to London recently asking for tips on what to do and where to go, I thought it was worth putting this wisdom down on paper (or, ahum, wordpress). If you were to ask me to show you around London – this is where I would take you:

Sunday Markets In North East London

If you live anywhere with an ‘N’ or and ‘E’ post code, one of your standard Sunday activities will be meandering (or more likely, pushing through the crowds) along the hipster market trial running from the gorgeous Columbia Rd Flower Market, through Brick Lane‘s vintage clothes stores, grabbing some food from one of the international street stalls around the UpMarket and Truman Brewery, and then finishing up with a more ‘civilised’ meander through the newly refurbished Spitalfields market.

This is one of those experiences which, in my opinion, sums up everything that is awesome about London town – people from all over the world coming together in mild chaos, enjoying great food, quirky fashion, unique architecture and a music festival vibe (helped along by the multitude of buskers playing everything from skiffle music to fleetwood mac). If you decide to head this way, these are just a few things you might want to check out:

  • queuing up for cheap as chips salmon and cream cheese bagels from Brick Lane Bagel Bake (nice blog piece on it here)
  • a dance and a pint on the outdoor terrace at Vibe bar
  • calamari from Lee’s on Columbia rd
  • perusing new music in Rough Trade East

And not too far away…

A night out in Shoreditch or Dalston

It’s fair to say that Shoreditch and Dalston come in for A LOT of criticism (Vice magazine, somewhat hypocritically, captures it perfectly here). On the one hand Italian Vogue is calling it “the coolest place in London”. On the other hand, well, just watch this video:

However, whatever you think about the strange eco-system that is Shoreditch/Dalston, it is, I think, worth a visit. If only to check out the outfits.

It is also an area on contrasts. You could, for instance, have a very classy (and expensive) night drinking cocktails at Collooh Callay, opt for a fun-filled fine old time at one of the quirkier events at The Book Club (life drawing or electro swing anyone?), or jump headfirst into Dalston’s slightly edgier scene at The Nest or Passing Clouds.

Now, it’s worth saying that some people definitely find this part of town a bit intimidating / pretentious. This is completely understandable (and not too far off the mark). However, I would encourage you to instead see it as a place where anything goes; where you can dance until dawn with a red stripe in hand or have peppermint tea and cake on sumptuous sofas at 3am (read this excellent write up on the Bridge coffee house if this appeals. I’ll see you there).

It’s also a place where new bars/cafes/clubs are popping up all the time. With this in mind I must mention my friends at Ridley Road Market Bar, which is down to become the new tip-top place in this part of the world, partly because it’s brilliant, and partly because of Luca’s amazing meatballs. Not a euphemism.

And finally, live music the London way

While most out of towners will have heard of the O2 or Wembley, London has a crazily long list of music venues worthy of a visit. For me, there is no better live music venue than the Roundhouse in Camden. A former steam engine repair shed, the building itself is pretty epic, built in the round (hence the name) with high vaulted ceilings and feeling that wherever you’re standing or sitting, you’re close to the action. If you can’t get into a gig here, they host all sorts of other events from film nights to poetry slams. You won’t be dissappointed.

However, if you’re looking for somewhere where you’ll be guaranteed entry for around a tenner, you could do a lot worse that The Lexington. Not only do they serve the world’s greatest rum, but their bands are always good quality in that ‘not really famous but we have a big muso following’ kind of way, and the bar/pub downstairs has an excellent table football table. Have had some very good nights here.

I could go on an on, but I’m already breaking the bloggers’ cardinal word limit rule. Hopefully that will give you a few sure fire ways to experience a Londoner’s perspective on this amazing city, and if you want any more tips, feel free to post below…

Top 5 Tips for Travelling Solo in Morocco

Morocco is really a pretty safe place for a woman on her own, as well as being a fairly easy place to get around. The buses between cities (supratours and ctm) are a darn-sight better than anything you’d find in the UK, the people in hotels and riads are really helpful and full of advice on where to go and what to do, and it can be really easy to meet other travellers, particularly if you book on a tour or stay in one of the hostels/budget riads (I loved Riad Fantasia in Marrakech and the 3 day group desert tour was brilliant for meeting people).

However, let’s not kid ourselves. There is sadly a bit of a stereotype about Western women which does not do us any favours when it comes to travelling in North Africa and the Middle East. You are female, on holiday, and therefore some men will think it is totally legitimate to persistently try their luck. Therefore, you’re likely to get some attention.

Now, when balanced against the amazing landscapes, great food and incredible value for money, having people regularly approaching you to buy stuff / chat you up might not seem like such a big deal. However, while I should probably have a thicker skin by now, there were times when I did find this attention pretty annoying. Luckily, there are a few simply steps you can take which will help to minimise the attention you get, so you can walk down a street without feeling on your guard and get on with having a wonderful time.

1)      Dress like you live here

Now, I’m not saying you need to don a kaftan. To be honest you’d probably look a bit silly if you did and may actually end up getting even more attention than you bargained for. But I am saying leave the ‘holiday wardrobe’ at home. Those little summer dresses and tube tops might work wonders on the beach, but will turn you into a moving target in the medinas. Jeans / over knee skirts and long sleeved tops / shirts are your best bet; and although t-shirts are broadly ok, I noticed a significant increase in cat calls on the days I didn’t have my arms covered.

You might also want to try out a headscarf. It’s by no means obligatory and many Moroccan women don’t wear them, but it does send a signal that you’re a woman giving (and deserving of) respect, as well as being a fairly useful way of keeping the sun off your head. I got very little chat on the days I bothered wearing one.

2)      If you don’t feel like laughing it off, accessorise

If you can just find it all a bit amusing, then you’re onto a winner. However, for those moments when it gets a bit much, try the following (not necessarily at the same time) : dark sun glasses, ear phones, pretending to talk on your mobile. All of these things send a signal that you’re otherwise engaged and not open to every invitation. Obviously they are not always practical – you’ll look a bit silly wearing your Ray Bans at 10pm – but all can be useful to have on hand if you feel the need to get from A to B hassle free.

3)      Walk with confidence

Being confident and walking with purpose makes people think that you know the city/town well and you have somewhere to be. They can therefore deduce that perhaps you might not be in the mood to peruse ceramics. However, if you don’t know where you’re going it can also be a sure-fire way of getting lost, quickly, so use with caution.

4)      Respond or not to respond

Really this one’s your call. A lot of people will say you should just ignore any advances and keep walking, which works perfectly ok, but to me it just felt a little rude and made me feel even more on guard as the calls of ‘hello, excuse me, how are you?’ followed me down the street in every language known to man.

I found it was better to simply say hello back, to keep on walking, and just say ‘maybe tomorrow’ to whatever request might be presented to me. It felt less rude and sometimes led to some mildly amusing exchanges.

And last but not least…

5)  Go out at night; but stick to the well lit areas

Not so much to do with hassle this one, but really just a note to say you do not need to hole yourself up in your riad at night time just because you’re travelling alone. The main square in Marrakech was as bustling at night as in day time and I felt perfectly fine having dinner on my own in one of its restaurants/street food stalls after dark.

However, I did find it was incredibly easy to meet people in Morocco, whether from your riad or on a tour, so finding a group to go out with was never much of an issue. Plus, most riads will provide an amazing dinner for you, so you don’t need to run the gauntlet if you don’t feel like it.

So finally…

Don’t listen to those people who might warn you off travelling on your own to Morocco. With a bit of preparation and decent a sense of humour, you’ll have a fine old time.

Photo Credit: DavidDennis on Flickr

20 hours in Morocco

Approximately 20 hours into this holiday to Morocco, I’ve gotta say; so far it is a little disappointing. Admittedly, I have spent all of one day here in Marrakech, so perhaps it’s a little early to be passing judgement on a whole entire country. However, I’ve been to enough places to be able to recognise somewhere interesting / exciting / awesome when I see it, and this – so far -is not it.

I’ve noticed that when travelling on your own that the place, and of course the people, have a much greater influence on your experience than if you are travelling in a group. When travelling with others almost anywhere can be fun – even 20 hour train journeys in the stifling heat or days spent stranded in a one horse town waiting for the next bus. Games, conversation and yes even vast quantities of alcohol can be enough to turn the most dire and dull of places into the backdrop for some of the greatest adventure stories of your entire trip.

Travelling alone, you are more reliant on your surroundings to fulfil your trip’s potential. Sometimes this makes for greatness – stumbling upon new activities, making unexpected friendships, meandering at your own slow pace exploring the new, weird and wonderful.

However, for some reason, Marrakech is not delivering. There are some environmental reasons for this. For a start, it is raining. Now technically this is not Marrakech’s fault, but it does make a difference. For years I hated Paris because every time I visited it was constantly damp.

However, the bigger point is that there isn’t really that much to see. Everyone I have asked tells me I must go to the souks or to Jardin Majorelle. I have done both and while they were charming, neither set my world alight.  I thought at least the souks would be exciting; everyone had told me that, as a girl travelling alone, I would be hassled within an inch of my life and find myself crawling out on my hands and knees sobbing and shouting ‘make it stop!’.  The reality? Not one person spoke to me. I was left to my own devices, browsing through scarves and getting lost in laneways without so much as a ‘bonjour’.

Possibly I was overly prepared. After all, I had my darkest sunglasses at the ready, had donned a headscarf and had my earphones in – just as my guidebook had advised. Perhaps my strategy worked too well, creating an impenetrable wall between me and the market folk? Or perhaps the ‘hassle-levels’ aren’t nearly as bad as most people make out? Both are probably true.

What I know for sure though is that, travelling alone, the last thing you want to do is start building barriers between you and the place you’re in. Be careful, yes. But don’t ignore. Don’t be so quick to say ‘no’, or worse ‘go away’ – one of the few phases my guidebook has translated into Arabic, Berber AND French, just in case people don’t get the message.  

So perhaps the reason Marrakech isn’t delivering is because I’m not letting it in? Intriguing. I think it’s time to take off my dark glasses…

Four Ways Israel and Palestine Defies Expectation

Having escaped the bustling streets in favour of nursing a strong macchiato in the wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, I got talking to a girl on the next table who, it turned out, worked for the Palestinian News Network. Mentioning this blog, we got talking about the challenges of writing about the conflict here in the Middle East.

“The easiest thing to do is just choose a specific, small incident and use that as a way of reflecting the wider issues. Otherwise there are just too many angles; it’s tempting to want to write about the whole damn thing, but you’ll only end up losing your reader, and probably your argument, in the process.”

I’m therefore approaching this article with some trepidation. Having had such a mind-blowing experience, with my understanding and viewpoint evolving and shifting on virtually a daily basis with every new conversation, it’s proving difficult to know where to start.

However, what’s top of mind for me right now is the massive number of ways this place challenges and defies any and all expectations and prejudices you might hold about this land and its people. Here are a just a few of the ways my eyes have been opened, which might help you too if you’re thinking of travelling to this region.

Expectation 1: Israel is unsafe for travellers.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong. I can honestly say I have never felt more safe travelling around a country than I have here. When I asked whether I should be careful about pick-pockets in Jerusalem’s bustling old city (as you would in London, Barcelona, New York…) I was laughed at. And when a friend mentioned that a couple of rockets had just hit Be’er Shiva from Gaza, I looked around the chilled Tel Avivian bar we were in and realised that these kind of occurances didn’t even register on people’s nervous systems.

Maybe it’s because everyone speaks English. Maybe its because people are pretty friendly and always keen for a chat. I don’t know. But I can honestly say that the only time security crossed my mind was when a friend from England might text / email imploring me to ‘stay safe’.

Expectation 2: People of different religions can’t live alongside each other

At sunset every Friday, hundreds of Jewish people from the secular to ultra-orthodox pour into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city and make their way on mass towards the Western (Wailing) Wall. When they have finished their prayers, finished off their catch-up chats with friends and rounded up their children, they walk back towards Damascus gate to the soundtrack of the Muslim call to prayer.

The next day, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is said to have been built on the place where Jesus died and was resurrected), Greek Orthodox monks wait for the midday call to prayer for the Omar Mosque to finish before ringing the church bells, while pilgrims step in the (alleged) steps of Christ down the Via Dolorosa, dodging Arab market stall owners intent on selling them scarves/sweets/really good shwarma.

I’m not saying it’s a vision of multi-cultural harmony. I’m not saying people from different religions and backgrounds sit around in circles holding hands and singing “all you need is love”. But every day, the most hardcore followers of the world’s three theistic religions go about their business with a respect and tolerance for one another which, I think, is a pretty amazing achievement.

Expectation 3: Israel is a bit scary

You’ll be interrogated for hours at the airport. There are eighteen year olds carrying guns on public transport. The people who live there hate all ‘Arabs’. These were all things I had been told before heading off on my trip, and I would be lying if I said it hadn’t coloured my perception of what Israel might be like.

Imagine my surprise.

Yes, I was asked more questions at Ben Gurion airport security than I would have been if I was departing from, say, Frankfurt or Rome, but to be fair I had just travelled in from Egypt just after the revolution. And the security guards seemed really sorry about having to hold me up and made sure I was fast tracked through the rest of the airport so I didn’t miss my flight. And on my way into Israel over the land border with Egypt at Taba, the major question the guy at Passport Control wanted to know the answer to was whether I liked Cliff Richard. Because he did. A lot.

Yes, the military kids carry their guns with them on public transport, which is undoubtedly a bit weird, but as one of them told me; “we get really shouted at if we don’t look after them. And we travel a lot – what are we supposed to do; dismantle them and pack them in our back packs? Where would we put our clothes?”

And as for the attitude of Israeli citizens towards the ‘Arabs’, saying all Israelis hate all Arabs is like saying all Brits hate all immigrants. If you read the Daily Mail you’d probably think it’s true, but speak to anyone with half a brain and you realise that most people aren’t that one dimensional.

Expectation 4: The West Bank is a war zone

Let’s be clear; there is some very dark stuff happening in the West Bank. People’s homes are bulldozed. Some children’s classrooms are covered in bullet holes. The Separation Wall has cut ordinary people off from their land, or worse, their families. There are still many UN supported refugee camps. Unemployment is rampant. Everyone knows someone who has been killed.

But the thing that struck me most about the West Bank is the incredible power people have to carry on as normal under trying, sometimes desperate conditions. Given these are a people under occupation, people are still starting businesses, going to school, relaxing in cool bars and cafes, sending their kids to dance classes. Parents I spoke to talk about how they hope their children will go to university one day. Children I spoke to were desperate to test our their English and talk about football.

I’m about to use a massive cliche, but I don’t care. Here it comes. People are people are people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re going through. For the most part, people pretty much want the same things; happiness, a relative degree of security, a good life for their children and something to laugh at once in a while.  Even in a ‘war zone’.


Five of the Best: International Courses in Digital Culture

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the world is undergoing something of a digital revolution. So it makes sense that more and more people are devoting their time and money to trying to understand what impact that revolution in connectivity is having on us – as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a civilisation.

It therefore isn’t a great surprise that all over the world top universities are adding digital anthropology courses to their under-grad and post-grad curriculums. Here’s a quick overview of some of the programmes and schools throwing their intellectual and technological might at developing a deeper understanding of this emerging field.

1. Masters in Digital Anthropology, UCL

This MSc brings together three key components in the study of digital culture:

1. Skills training in digital technologies, including their own ‘Digital Lab’, from internet and digital film editing to e-curation and digital ethnography.

2. Anthropological theories of virtualism, materiality/immateriality and digitisation.

3. Understanding the consequences of digital culture through the ethnographic study of its social and regional impact.

Sounds pretty cool.

2. Master of Digital Communication and Culture, University of Sydney

What might be marginally cooler however is heading to Sydney’s top university to hang out on Bondi at the same as studying. It’ll cost you though – $25,000 to be exact which is no mean feat when the pound is struggling so.

While not as ‘heavy-weight’ as the UCL course – the course description certainly uses fewer words with four or more syllables – it is comprehensive, covering practical study in digital design to more theoretical approaches to the impact of technology on society. Plus, it’s in Sydney (have I mentioned that already?).

3. McLuhan Institute, University of Toronto

Even from their old (soon to be updated) website you can tell this is an institute of real calibre. It isn’t clear if they’re involved in the pedantry of Masters study, opting more for full on PhD research programmes in things like information ethics, ‘techno-psychology’ and ‘the era of the tag’.

Having met a few people who have done their PhDs here, it’s clear that it’s a place with a solid history in researching the impact of technology on the world – they have been so since the 60s, decades before the term ‘social media’ was even invented.

4. MIT, Boston, USA

Of course this would be no list at all without a mention for MIT and their Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (or HASTS for short). While the site states ‘it is impossible for any program to cover the full range of problems raised by the multiple interactions of history, social studies, science, and technology‘, they seem to be giving it a fairly good go.

This one isn’t explicitly about digital technology – it covers everything from nuclear weapons to biomedicine, but they do run a course on the digital divide and it’s implications for development. Just up the road from Harvard, this is something of an intellectual technologist’s mecca.

5. Masters in Digital Culture, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

Taught entirely in English, this programme focuses on various aspects of culture and its digitalization, placing special emphasis on the relationship between humans and technology.
The best bit about this one is that there seem to be no tuition fees, which will come in handy when living in a place as expensive as Finland. Plus it’s in a pretty small town, so you’ll certainly have the chance to focus on your studies.

For Tibet, With Love

I just finished reading Isabel Losada’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World; For Tibet, With Love’ and am 3/4 of the way through the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, ‘Freedom in Exile’.

I guess, like a lot of people, I had heard bits and pieces about the Free Tibet campaign, and knew it had something to do with China and human rights abuses. It’s only after reading these books that I’ve started to get a sense of the sheer injustice in this situation; of Mao’s China effectively invading Tibet under the auspices of ‘reuniting’ this vast country, with its unique history and traditions, with the Motherland in 1950.

Slowly but surely, China took complete control of the country, crushing Tibetan groups who tried to resist them, torturing and imprisoning 1000s of monks and nuns, and destroying 6000 monasteries which had been the cornerstone of Tibetan life and culture for centuries. Fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s spiritual leader – fled to India in 1959, and has been there (along with over 100,000 Tibetan refugees) ever since.

China continually refuses to recognise the Tibetan plea for independence, or even autonomy. And Western governments, while occasionally taking issue with human rights abuses in the region, have reaffirmed their stance that Tibet is part of China.

In October, 2008, the British government clarified their official position on Tibet’s status:

Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geopolitics of the time. Our recognition of China’s “special position” in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty. Some have used this to cast doubt on the aims we are pursuing and to claim that we are denying Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory. We have made clear to the Chinese Government, and publicly, that we do not support Tibetan independence. Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.

Who knows whether they are right or not – historians throughout the centuries have grappled with Tibet’s legal status – is it an independent nation? An autonomous region of China? Or part of China proper? And arguably, it doesn’t really matter. Surely what’s important is what is in the best interest of the people who live there, and the refugees who were forced to leave. They have a right to safety and self-determination, particularly with regard to their religion, and China has an obligation to give this to them.

To find out more, read Isabel Losada’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World; For Tibet, With Love’ or the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, ‘Freedom in Exile’. Alternatively, visit www.actontibet.org or check out Amnesty’s view on human rights in Tibet here.

Picture Credit: TiagoPeriera on Flickr