The case of the sausage-fingered man

I’m in the Munich airport, on my way home. Hopefully I’ll blog more when I’m back in Canada. In the meantime, here’s a post I wrote for Kosovo 2.0, a multilingual magazine currently planning their first print edition:

(Original link here)

I had this moment, leaving the apartment Monday, which may or may not say something about what it is to be a foreigner in Kosovo, or anywhere else.

I’m staying in a place up the hill from Prishtina’s city center. It belongs to another journalist. He’s in Belgrade for the week and left me the keys.

The apartment is on the fourth floor of a decent building down a long driveway near Magic Park, a skating rink cum banquet hall that plays loud pop music about 18 hours out of every 24.

Each floor in the building has four suites arranged around a wide foyer and staircase. My moment occurred on the second-floor landing.

I was walking down the stairs when a man with thick fingers and a moustache told me to stop. He had a sheaf of invoices and was, I presume, some kind of bill collector: maybe for the water, maybe the utilities.

As it turns out, “stop” was about the only thing either one of us understood in the other’s language. For about five minutes he tried to give me a bill  —I think —while I did my unilingual best to explain that I was just visiting.

“I don’t live here,” I said. He waved a finger. “I’m a guest,” I replied. He jabbed at his sheaf. “Guest,” I said again. “Guest.” As if by repeating myself I could achieve some form of immaculate translation.

And so it went on. He would say something. I would reply. He would jab. I would gesture. Soon we were half yelling in the stairwell.

Eventually, both of us frustrated, I just walked away, down the stairs, out the door and into the street.

It was the kind of event that always feels more sinister in the moment than it actually was. The two of us had no common language and no shared social norms. Neither of us knew what to expect from the other.

I was flustered. So was he. He wanted something. I couldn’t tell him why it would be useless to get it from me. It was a classic fish-out-of-water moment, the kind that litters travel writing and says, I think, almost nothing about Kosovo or Canada or even much about me or that guy.

Living as an outsider, a foreigner, one not familiar with the way things are done, can disrupt your everything. It can occupy your brain. Force you to think about little things you usually do without thought. And as a writer, that’s dangerous.

My original idea for this blog was to write about crossing the street. My first night in Prishtina, I stood at a crosswalk for an uncomfortable period, waiting for the cars to slow down. I considered how long I could be there before people would notice. I thought about working my way around or just going back to my hotel. I even tried to look like I was waiting for someone or otherwise occupied in something other than staring at a street. (I did this by putting my hands in my pockets and pacing. Once, I fiddled with a pen.)

The point of this story, I guess, would have been that you cross the road differently here. Back home you wait till the cars slow down, make eye contact and go. Here you just go.

Does this difference say anything about either culture? Probably not. But it’s the kind of anecdote writers, like me, use in lieu of actual understanding. It tells the reader how it feels to be me here, but it doesn’t really speak to what here is.

A few years back I interviewed an American author about a book he’d set in Buenos Aires. The writer grew up in New York and lived in Israel. He’d spent time in Argentina but not enough to consider himself local.

Still, he told me, he wanted to write the city like a local would. He didn’t want to dwell on the landscape an outsider would notice, the physical reality of any place that is jarring at first but soon blends in.

Sometimes I worry that, in writing about Kosovo all I have is the outsider’s reality, the run-ins with bill collectors and mishaps while crossing the road. After all, I don’t really understand this country. I don’t see how I could. I’ve been here barely a month and half of that was spent in a half-nervous fog.

But when I get home, I’ll still try to build something from what I’ve seen. I won’t cut myself out. I can’t pretend I wasn’t here. But I do hope I’ll have more to offer than awkward encounters and my own neurotic fears.

As for the bill collector, he left the tab at my door. It was there when I got home.

So Nate, if you’re reading this, there’s a bill here. It’s on the counter. I think you owe 4 Euros.

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What I want to do when I go back in time and become a kid again

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Raj Sherman’s Triple Crown

A few years ago, not long after I moved to Edmonton, I interviewed a Tory MLA for a story on homelessness. It was a good interview. He was frank and open in a way most politicians aren’t. But near the end of our talk, he did something most politicians don’t: He choked up. While talking about his upbringing, his eyes watered and he had trouble going on.

I walked out of his office a little stunned. I’d covered politics before and never had this happen. Outside, I phoned (or possibly e-mailed)* one of our legislature reporters. “You’re never going to believe what happened,” I said. “An MLA just cried.” Her answer came with little hesitation: “Was it Raj Sherman?,” she asked. “Because that happens all the time.”

I thought about that exchange today when I read this story in the Journal.

Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman says he wants to run for leadership of a provincial party: he just doesn’t know which one.


In the next month or so, Sherman said he plans to sit down with representatives of the three parties currently seeking new leaders: the Progressive Conservatives, Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party. He also wants to talk with his family before making a decision.


“Once I announce, I am running to eventually be premier of the province,” Sherman said. “Make no mistake about it.”

At first I thought it was funny. Now I just think it’s a little sad. I only met Sherman the once. But I liked him. And I’ve never heard anyone suggest he’s in politics for any but the best reasons.

The thing is, though, this makes him sound a bit unhinged. He wants to lead a party, but he doesn’t know which one. He wants to be premier, but it’s hard to imagine he knows how.

Four months ago, Sherman had political cache. He could have defected to the Liberals or the Alberta party and it would have been a coup for either. Now, not so much.

What’s sad, though, is that I think Sherman might think he can do it. He might really believe premier is a realistic goal and that playing the girl from Elimidate with Alberta’s political centre is the best way to get there.  To be honest, it suggests a mind not totally in touch with reality, at least in the political sense.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Sherman has a plan to build the kind of team it takes to win a major party leadership. Maybe he can overcome the bitterness of the Tory caucus (he didn’t exactly leave on good terms) and steal the crown from one of the front-runners. But I doubt it. And I would bet against it, even if someone offered me awful terms.

That’s just not how politics work, much as any of us might wish otherwise. And if Sherman doesn’t know that, or thinks he can overcome it, well, I don’t know. Good luck I guess.

But while he’s off deciding which kingdom to conquer Sherman might want to think about what it’s doing to his credibility. As a practicing doctor and government MLA, Sherman carried enormous weight when he spoke out about problems in the health care system. But if the public starts to think of him as ‘that guy who wants to lead three parties,’ that’s gone. If he becomes a joke, his critiques do too.


*Given that I can’t remember whether this was a phone call or an e-mail, it’s probably safe to assume the quotes below aren’t exact.

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Excuses, Excuses

Sorry for the link-free days this week. I know the five of you (that may be a generous estimate) who read the site depend on them so (that is most definitely an exageration.) I’m on the home stretch of a biggish project and, as I almost always do near the end of a story, have been stressing myself out and not getting much done this week.

I also haven’t linked or tweeted much about Egypt or the other recent revolutions. Not because I don’t think they are the biggest story in the world. They are. But because I haven’t felt I’ve had anything to add. I find the older I get, and the longer I do this, the more I want to be somewhere and describe what I see and the less I want to opine. I’m not in the Middle East and I don’t understand the politics of Egypt or Bahrain. I can’t tell you what will happen there in six weeks or even this weekend. Not with anything more than an uneducated guess.

I did read two stories today about groups that teach non-violence and may have had an influence on the current round of protests. Both are good reads and both are below. I’ll be in the Balkans next month. Maybe I can get an interview with someone from the group in the top story. I can always hope, anyway.

Inside the Serbian revolution factory

An interview with the leading scholar on non-violence

A sad, scary story about former heavyweight champ/Rocky V star Tommy Morrison

In Puerto Rico, tuition protests shut down the University

While in Texas, Hispanics drive population growth

And in Oklahoma, an entire contaminated town is demolished

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Jersey Shore Meets Charlie Brown

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Prison Rights, Abortion and the Dating Advice of Ghostface Killah

Haunting story in the NY Times about prisoners dying in a Texas jail, allegedly without receiving medical care. It opens with a strong anecdote before moving to the broader issue:

Ms. Cowling was pulled over on Christmas Eve for speeding and arrested for outstanding warrants on minor charges. She was bipolar and methadone-dependent and took a raft of medications each day. For the five days she was in Gregg County Jail, Ms. Cowling and her family pleaded with officials to give her the medicines that sat in her purse in the jail’s storage room. They never did.

(NY Times/Texas Tribune)

In B.C., a man claims prison dentists removed his teeth without his consent and have since refused him to give him dentures:

Although members of the prison population are entitled to access to health care, “the prison is stating that it is not medically necessary for him to have teeth,” said (David) Eby (from the BCCLA).

(Vancouver Sun)

A proposed law in South Dakota could legalize the killing of abortion providers:

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, a committed foe of abortion rights, alters the state’s legal definition of justifiable homicide by adding language stating that a homicide is permissible if committed by a person “while resisting an attempt to harm” that person’s unborn child or the unborn child of that person’s spouse, partner, parent, or child. If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman’s father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one.

(Mother Jones)

Or not

(T)he Jensen bill wouldn’t legalize the killing of abortion doctors. It just looks like it does, right now. It would legalize of abortion doctors if abortion became illegal.


Elsewhere in the U.S., veterans are suing the army, claiming they were raped and then forced to work with their alleged attackers:

In one incident, an Army Reservist says two male colleagues raped her in Iraq and videotaped the attack. She complained to authorities after the men circulated the video to colleagues. Despite being bruised from her shoulders to elbows from being held down, she says charges weren’t filed because the commander determined she “did not act like a rape victim” and “did not struggle enough” and authorities said they didn’t want to delay the scheduled return of the alleged attackers to the United States.

(AP/Globe and Mail)

From my experience in Alberta, no politics are more hilariously dirty than small-town politics. Still, this story from Bell, CA, pushes the envelope:

As Bell prepared to hire a police chief in 2009, the top candidate for the post exchanged e-mails with the city’s No. 2 official: “I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell’s money?!” Randy Adams wrote shortly before starting the job. “Okay … just a share of it!!”

”LOL … well you can take your share of the pie … just like us!!!” responded Angela Spaccia, the city’s assistant administrator. “We will all get fat together … Bob has an expression he likes to use on occasion,” she continued, referring to her boss and chief administrative officer, Robert Rizzo. “Pigs get Fat … Hogs get slaughtered!!!! So as long as we’re not Hogs … All is well!”

(LA Times)

A beautiful elegy for a murdered gay-rights activist in Uganda:

David Kato was one of a group so tiny, hated and hounded—indeed, illegal—that most Ugandans had never knowingly met one. Gays like him called themselves kuchus, meaning “same”, as in “same-sex”. He was not the same in any way ordinary Ugandans cared to recognise.


Kids In ‘Scared-Straight’ Program Visit Horrifying Cleveland Cavaliers Practice

Ghostface Killah gives dating advice: “So its like um, basically…you know. Make her something to eat. Take her out, you know.”

Aaron Sorkin will guest on 30 Rock

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Things I Read This Morning: This Time With More Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla explores basketball, history and Youtube:

(W)hile it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Via The Morning News, Malla and Bethlehem Shoales on the intersection of Blake Griffin and Porn. Via me, Blake Griffin and why we watch sports.

In honour of Valentine’s Day, Malla’s definitive guide to the eternal question: Does She Love You?

If she hides your shoes when you’re late for work, and from a supine position on the couch plays “Hot/Cold,” and, finally, after 15 minutes of you ignoring her screaming, “Boiling! Burning up!” every time you stalk angrily by the dishwasher, gets up, flips it open to reveal the shoes, sitting there among the plates, and hands them over with a kiss and a giggle, and then laughs some more as you tie your laces in a silent rage: She loves you.

And because I hate scotch, Malla on Scotch:

Benriach 1984, speyside single malt

Here’s a guess: an ox that drank nothing but lava its entire life urinated into this bottle, then someone set the ox’s pee on fire, put the fire out with bleach, and shook it up with equal parts turpentine, nail polish remover, and cigarettes. Also, would it be ludicrous to suggest a hint of pear?

In the NY Times, David Carr looks at the where the money is in new media:

The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.

The Huffington Post, perhaps partly in an effort to polish the silver before going on the market, did hire a number of A-list journalists, but the site’s ecosystem of citizen bloggers and its community of commenters represent some share of its value. (How much is open to debate, as Nate Silver pointed out on the FiveThirtyEight blog.) Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Quora have been positioned as social networks, but each of them hosts timely content that can also be a backdrop for advertising, which makes them much more like a media company than, say, a phone utility.

In Slate, Josh Levin examines “new school” TV writing:

Television criticism used to be like restaurant criticism: A writer would sample a few episodes and then issue an informed recommendation. Today, it’s more akin to visiting the same restaurant every week, then reporting back on the mood of the wait staff, the condition of the silverware, and what dishes might appear on the new fall menu.

Paul Krugman looks at the tricky politics of balancing budgets:

The moral is clear. Republicans don’t have a mandate to cut spending; they have a mandate to repeal the laws of arithmetic.


The new House majority promised to deliver $100 billion in spending cuts — and its members face the prospect of Tea Party primary challenges if they fail to deliver big cuts. Yet the public opposes cuts in programs it likes — and it likes almost everything. What’s a politician to do?

Something we are not unfamiliar with in Canada:

We saw this again last week, when Treasury Board President Stockwell Day told a parliamentary committee that plans were in place to balance the budget while reducing the size of the public service through attrition, but refused to explain how this could be achieved and what impact it might have on government programs. Trust me, he says. Why should we?

In the Journal, my old colleague Keith Gerein reckons with Kandahar Airfield:

Up until now, the scariest assignment I’ve ever received during my journalism career was to knock on the door of the Edmonton Hells Angels clubhouse at 10 in the morning to ask the leader if he was happy Queen Elizabeth had decided to allow the gang’s London branch to ride in her golden jubilee parade (I’m not kidding… that was the assignment). Fortunately, no one answered the door and the photographer and I made a hasty retreat to the car after a quick decision not to knock a second time.

New York Magazine goes inside the male- model fight club:

It’s clear some models feel they have something to prove—that despite their long lashes and the fact that they get paid to be dressed up like dolls, they are tough enough to pack a punch and crazy enough to take one. “The models that are doing this are basically the wild models,” says Joey Lopez, who did the Marc Jacobs spring-summer campaign in 2010 and fought in the previous Throwdown. Lopez is Puerto Rican and Irish, a combination that mixes well both on the runway and in the ring. “Everyone’s loving you, taking pictures of you. You walk around the streets of New York, and people stop you, like, ‘Yo, you’re the kid from fight night, right?’” Though Lopez has no trouble winning over the ladies under normal circumstances, even he was impressed with the attention. “When I was leaving the ring after I fought, people were screaming, ‘You’re sexy, you’re hot.’ And I walk back, and all of a sudden there’s a bunch of women—I swear to God—they were lined up. What the fuck is that?” He widens his blue eyes, still surprised by the ease of it all. “I got a few numbers, took one of them home. And, uh, yeah, you know what happens after that.”

Ridiculous goal

Stupid hockey

What everyone in Vancouver is afraid of.

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