The Umeå Series: Preparations

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the name Umeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

Yesterday evening, after nine hours on the train, I arrived at the press center, where my hosts were working. This is the meeting point for a good number of international journalists. Being handed cheese and snow trousers, they got a little introduction to their weekend programme. As journalists, they will be carried around in a bus, visiting exciting places, and all they have to do in the end is writing about it. It was a different world there, in the hotel lounge filled with smooth music, while the other world was passing outside the huge windows, in the form of ordinary people wrapped in winter clothes, probably on their way home.

By now the town is abuzz with activities. Most of them involve heavy machinery. Setting up a dream scenery of ice and light is not an easy job. The town is filled with people in neon yellow working suits, cranes and the noise of chain saws. They sculpt statues and entire castles out of snow and ice for the opening ceremony. The temperatures provide perfect conditions for the stability of these pieces of art. After walking around for one and a half hours I had to seek refuge in a shopping mall, where the little part of my face that was exposed turned from blue to red. Minus 13 degrees and a little breeze that swirls the snow flakes around make me wonder how I will be able to volunteer today from afternoon until night.P1000724

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Outsourcing Fears

In these days of efficiency, outsourcing appears to be a magic word. Staff management will be outsourced. Advertisement will be outsourced. Administration will be outsourced. The customer service has been outsourced long time ago. Until the actual production is outsourced to some country where it is cheaper. What remains of the business is a white space, a person on a computer, running the company and earning the money.

I learned from watching news that outsourcing is not something good. It cuts jobs and only benefits the business owner, not the workers.

Nowadays you can even outsource your shopping, and not only if you are a celebrity, living in a mansion, not able to go on the streets. Even for an ordinary person, websites offer personal assistants for a fee. You can assign them to administrate your meetings, travels and medical appointments. You can also let them buy the birthday present for your grandmother.

And then, how has that helped you? They say you have more time. For what? Sometimes, when I have a lot of work, going to the supermarket or taking letters to the post office remains the only time of the day when I actually step outside and away from the computer. That is time that I really enjoy.

And while I struggle with all that annoying trivia like registering at some agency, borrowing books from the library, buying train tickets, getting an appointment at the doctor’s, organizing trips and setting up and designing a website, I learn. If I had the funds, I could outsource these tasks and had someone else do them for me.

It could safe me some time probably, but it would safe me a lot of experience, too. Do you also have those tasks that are lining somewhere in the corner of your desk, in the corner of your mind, in the corner of your to-do list and you manage to ignore them until they cannot be avoided anymore? These tasks that make you frown of disgust and discomfort just when you think of them? How you would love somebody else to do them for you. You would save time and unpleasantness and awkwardness. And you would prevent yourself from learning and growing.

We outsource our fears instead of facing them. Outsourcing is the opposite of self-dependency. When that task comes up again, you will depend on the outsourcing agency to do it for you. If we face the fears and the unpleasant tasks, we can learn that it is not that scary at all. We can get to know the process we did not know before and therefore were afraid of. We gain experience and are better prepared for next time.

We may as well fail and see that our fear is legitimate and reasonable, but we made it through anyway and we grew. When we face our fears and unpleasant tasks instead of outsourcing them, they will diminish, even vanish, dissolve, or at least become a more familiar part of ourselves.

Which fear have you outsourced? And how will you face it today?

Sour stories

It is in my teacher’s voice when he talks about his country Egypt. It is in my flat mate’s voice when he explains the situation in his country Mexico. My classmate uses it when speaking about her country Marocco. And it also sneaks into my talks about Kenya.

Cynicism.

It can be entertaining to listen to our stories. They are real-life experiences and they reflect the unadorned situation in the particular country. They appear to be objective or at least not as glossy as the TV and traveling agencies try to sell them. They have these components that surprise the listener, something unexpected which turns out to be the usual practice there. Those stories deliver unusual facts about places we otherwise would misjudge.

Cynicism presents ourselves as experts and even heroes. It shows how strange and illogical the situation is in those countries and that we are used to these circumstances. We can manage the situation and survive even the weirdest incident. It proofs that we are not tourists but inhabitants of these places, that we can cope with difficult situations that seem unbearable to other people. But we have no choice and we are brave enough to live through it, to actually embrace those moments of strangeness and get so used to them, that later on we can even make fun of them.

But if we are honest, we are hurting inside. Our faces become sour. We already know too much about those countries. We intend to express something funny, meanwhile our hearts are cold and we have given up hope.

When my teacher shows the ridiculous headlines of Egyptian newspapers in their attempt to ignore and deny the ongoing protests.

When my flat mate talks about the elaborate Mexican food and the country’s high obesity rate caused by industrially processed groceries.

When my classmate makes fun of some ministers who recently got knocked down by stones while addressing the public.

And when I describe the public transport in Nairobi and the phenomenon of the fancy but dangerously reckless mini busses that cause bad accidents and get robbed regularly.

We make fun, but our hearts are bleeding. We have gotten used to it, but actually we wish it was different and we could tell more pleasant stories. Stories which are truly happy and funny instead of making fun at the cost of others. We might even have some beautiful experiences at hand that we could talk about, but then again they are not as fascinating as the cynical ones. Cynicism might be a solution for ourselves to deal with what we have experienced and still are experiencing. But it does not help anyone else.

Maybe it would be better if I remained quiet next time, instead of telling one of those funny, surprising and cynical stories, if I do not have one that is truly humorous instead.

Why we should ACTUALLY go live in Nairobi

Those points adress a certain clientel and I am surprised that Think Africa Press shared them. In my opinion:

Here are the 17 reasons PLUS why we should ACTUALLY go live in Nairobi:

1. Uhuru Park

Photo: Jorge Láscar

Where the common person takes a nap.

2. Fresh Fish

Photo: Katrina Shakarian

Directly from Lake Victoria to the wholesale markets of Nairobi.

3. Goats in town

Photo: Suleiman Mbatiah

They are all over the place. Especially in the outskirts you can find them even climbing cars.

4. Go Down Arts Center

Photo: Gillian

An old warehouse where nowadays creativity bursts out of every corner in form of dance, art and other cultural phenomena.

5. Nairobi Marathon

Photo: Nairobi Marathon

21,000 people running for a reason.

6. Temples

Photo: G.R. Davis

There are several temples of various religions to be seen in town.

7. Jua Kali

Photo: Steve Daniels

The market where you can get anything, handmade from recycled material.

8. Corner milk shop

Photo: Tristan McConnell

Where you can get fresh, rich milk from the farmer, packed in a cellophan bag.

9. Public transport in a roller coaster-disco

Photo: Cheki Express

The notorious matatus carry people around town and play the latest music.

10. Sarakasi Dome

Photo: Kevin Sabuni

A venue offering regular festivities and home to Sarakasi Trust who focus on performing arts.

11. Jamia Mosque

Photo: open fire

Do not forget to buy mabuyu from the vendors in front of the mosque. They are baobab seeds coated in sugar, chili and food colour.

12. Performances at Tom Mboya

Photo: up nairobi

At the statue of Tom Mboya one will often encounter street performers or preachers.

13. Mlolongo

Photo: nyaran

Photo: nyaran

On the other side of town, Mlolongo grows fast. In this riverbed, however, you might still see monkeys.

14. Cheap Food

Photo: Mark Wiens

Whether you crave for fresh fruit, boiled eggs, roasted maize, chips, sweet cakes or a full meal: The next street vendor is certainly not far.

15. Jevanjee Gardens

Photo: Safari254

Another park to relax, which is especially beautiful when the jacaranda trees are in bloom.

16. Street Art

Photo: Sunil Deepak

It is a form of expressing non-conformity with the government, it is astonishing, and it is all over town.

17. Nairobi University

Nairobi University

The town has several institutions for higher education.

PLUS: Buzzing Blogosphere

For everybody who wants to dive deeper into this city even while not physically being there:

– Astonishing photography by Mutua Matheka.

– University life described by The Real G Inc.

– Nice literature reads by Biko Zulu.

– The entertaining combination of Tech, Motherhood and Everything Else by Savvykenya.

– More blogs are awarded annually by the Bloggers Association Kenya.

Plan the Year. Then the Month. Then the Week. Then the Day.

Finally I found time to envision what I wished this coming year will look like. It was easy, because I have a combination of interests at hand that clearly set the direction. And it was difficult because I have no clue whatsoever of what will happen in summer, when I will finish my studies and be released into the real world.

The Year in Visions

I took some time the other day, between the semesters, to work out goals that I want to achieve and habits I want to implement. I used this workbook. It helped me a lot to see the empty months in front of me and next to it my list with things that would be really nice to come true. All I had to do was transfer them from the to-do list into the months sections. Like that I will have a fixed time to get ready for action and make them happen.

The months in habits

A very good practice is to think of the habits I want to take to and work on only one per month. This is my month of writing. So as I get more and more used to jotting down 500 words first thing in the morning, other things which seem equally important have to wait in line. I will focus on fasting not before February and running will be picked up again in March. By that time, writing will have become a habit already that sticks with me.

The Week according to my Goals

It is nice to have it on paper. Like that I can always review everything, and I should, especially when I plan my week. I will remind myself of what I wanted  to happen this year. I will review the monthly steps towards it. Then I can focus on what to do during the week, what to squeeze between my schedule, which outcomes to aspire.

The Day on the Way to Completion

Often I even line out my day, according to what I need to accomplish during the week. It is really comfortable because I have actually already set things out for myself. And since I spread things over the whole year, nothing is overwhelming.

Four very important Things…

…to keep in mind while doing the planning are these:

ONE

You will not be able to finish everything. Things usually take longer than expected, and even if you put in enough buffer time, some tasks will definitely remain unfinished.  But as I  keep that in mind from the beginning, I cannot be too disappointed in the end.

TWO

The more important something is, the earlier it should be done. I am typing this before seven o’clock in the morning, just because it is a priority of mine. In that way, I will experience the great feeling of having something accomplished even before breakfast. I also know that by four in the afternoon, I might already have used a lot my of power and brain and will be able to check mails or clean the room, but maybe not write an article for university.

THREE

Luckily, life holds a lot of surprises, and something extra will always pop up. These things are chances to be embraced. Interruptions can be very inspiring, if we take them positively.

FOUR

Do not try to make up for what you missed doing yesterday. This will put you in an endless continuation of catching up. Yesterday was yesterday. Today we can start afresh, from zero, giving the best we can.

And then: Change it!

With all the benefits of planning, the number one principle is to be flexible. Nobody else but I myself made these rules and plans, so I am the one to change them, too, when they become too overwhelming or if something unexpected happens. That is why I usually plan with a pencil, not a pen.

The snow and us in it

Finally, the snow is here. Little flakes started dancing down to the earth on Monday and have been falling ever since. Sometimes it is merely a certain glittering that fills the air. The atmosphere seems to crackle.

The snow covered the ground quickly and stayed there. It did not melt away. And since the constant snowfall has continued without end, by now it lies ankle-deep.

People here are used to it. Some do not like it very much. Others seem to not even notice it. I adore it. The creaking under my feet, the tickling of the flakes in my face, the sudden silence that comes with it and the reflection of the light. It makes people move in a different way, forces them to slow down. The school children look quaintly different when they are walking on snow. Their silhouettes against the white background is something new. They gather in groups, come together and in the blink of an eye scatter again, vanish, run, and accumulate somewhere else.

Usually you hear the sound of a snowplough roaring somewhere. They are tirelessly driving around, flashing orange light, going back and forth and removing the snow from streets and parking lots. They dash along the roads, scour the tarmac and leave a dark trace behind them. Immediately, as they pass, behind them the snowflakes fall on and on, covering the spot again, and what has been dark and easily drivable for a second is already blurred again by the never ending gentle snowfall and will soon be covered in white as if the snowplough had never passed there.

The rivers slowly freeze, especially where they do not rush. The open water narrows down to a stream in the middle until even that is swallowed by a surface of ice.

The ducks seem not to care. Neither many of the people. They wear snow trousers, put some winter covering on their dogs and pull their children in sleighs behind them. They keep jogging, rushing in the car, even biking. I am one of the bikers, I had no alternative. It took me double of the time to get to where I wanted, though. People use winter tires even for their bikes but I do not have such. And although the snowploughs work throughout, they prioritize on the streets for cars and do the bike tracks only occasionally and far less often. So as a biker you can either get a smooth white track where only braking would be a problem, or a soft, fluffy white track where you cross the virgin snow, or a part where many people have walked down the snow to a hard and bumpy surface, or a track with skidmarks, slightly brown and impassable, because you easily lose control of where your bike goes, or rather lurches.

Generally, the sudden onset of winter made me realise how little we are in control. I have no car, the bus connections are of no big help, and I have a class in the university which is eight kilometers away. I must take the bike. And the snow does not care. It keeps falling. The town workers do their best to keep the tracks free but after two days of constant snowfall it is simply a task too big to accomplish at once. People have no other choice but surrender. We can complain about the weather, we can complain about the town service, we can complain about our unequipped bikes – the snow will even fall on our complains, it will cover our silent rebellion, and there we will be, quiet and paralyzed and spellbound by the dancing flakes, smothered like the frozen rivers, bereft of our motivation, doing what we always should do: keep calm and accept.

Two lessons well learned

Imagine you come into the classroom and the lesson has already started because you are a bit late. Imagine irritated faces and embarrassment. Imagine your classmate telling you: This is hell.

It took me a while until I understood what was going on. Our teacher had handed out scripts for American commercials and made us perform them in front of the class. With different voices. Not that we study drama. We study journalism. Then we watched videos on acting exercises. It was one of those classes you wish you had skipped. But now I was in, however late, I was in and had to sit through the torment and embarrassment and awkwardness.

The next lesson was held by the mentioned teacher’s wife. It was on video production, straight to the point, well organised, clearly arranged and obviously useful. We understood her points and saw the sense in the lecture. One of those lessons you definitely do not want to miss because it had a lot of helpful hints and facts and useful information, and it was actually fun to listen to her.

Now guess what stuck in my head? Not the facts of the latter, not the well outlined lists of things you have to pay attention to and take care of while producing video. Although I downloaded her presentation later and even wrote parts of it in my exercise book. When doing her assignment, I still and again had to look up things. But what got really stuck in my mind were the acting exercises. The importance of them before stepping in front of a camera or microphone. The way to stand and to breath and to focus. And the slight embarrassment you feel when doing them.

We mostly remember the stupid stuff. What sticks most to our mind are random, seemingly useless odd facts and situations. To make something stick in our head, therefore, we have to expose ourselves into odd situations. We have to leave the comfort zone and embarrass ourselves. Like that we might end up with some great memories.

Hard simple life

There is this priest on television who tries to live along the principles of Saint Francis. In the one episode that I happened to watch he set up his sustainable garden completely without money. He was living moneyless. And he made one profound discovery that already Saint Francis had talked about: Living without money is hard because you depend on others. The priest realized that his pride was often an obstacle when he needed help from someone or when somebody offered him something. For a meal and some food for his cat and chicken he would clean the dishes and the floor of a restaurant. For catching fish he would have to accept somebody else’s fishing hook. For getting somewhere he would depend on lifts from others. The good thing he figured was that he got into contact with people he otherwise would not have gotten to know.

I do not live without money, but I am trying to keep up a frugal lifestyle. Most of my food I collect at night, from overflowing dumpsters behind a supermarket. The furniture in my room is not mine. It belongs to the owner of the apartment, just like the bed sheets and the flask that I use.

I do not own a phone, either, because I hardly use one. But in rare cases I need to have one. My classmate just offered to lend me one of the several phones he is not using. I was almost embarrassed by the trouble it caused him to get the right phone with the right charger for me.

Recently I lost my gloves and I do not know where. I asked a friend whether they were in her office. She said no but offered to borrow me another pair of hers which she does not use currently. Soon I will visit her, bring some homemade candy and get the gloves.

I also did not have a USB. Someone offered me one because he had too many but then he must have forgotten. And there was my pride, standing in the way, preventing me from asking him for that favour again. But then I got another one from the IT service who fixed my school account. Just keep it, he said, rather amazed about my surprised joy. It is a small, practical USB with huge storage capacity. And it just found me.

Indeed it needs more work, more effort and more uncomfortability to live frugally. I have to ask people for favours and take extra ways to get things. But that way of life creates nice relationships. I realized that there is so much unused potential, so much stuff that people have lying around and do not use. So why should I buy those things? And sometimes the universe has some unexpected surprises in store for me and just sends me a little fortune without any effort.

Advice to my Sister: Mindset for a better Life

The big little sister is amazingly inspiring, especially when it comes to her health resolutions. After making some material changes in my own life recently I discovered that a lifestyle that feels more good does not stop with things, but involves and actually affects your mindset, too.

Better Person

The big little sister talked about becoming a better person. She feels the same urge like me. I went through a certain process, looking for inspiration. Becoming better is continuous. Being aware is the first step.

I started with the living better daily scorecard from possibilityoftoday.com. (Scroll down to find the scorecard and instructions.) It is a list of things you want to accomplish, for example to have a good mindset, to be productive, or to be helpful and supportive. In the end of every day you credit yourself with points and see what you have to work on. I quickly developed my own chart and crediting system. I had weekly overviews where I simply marked whether I had accomplished a dairy free day or a good deed. After a while some basic rules developed out of this. Some are very concrete, like “Don’t multitask on the Internet.” or “Avoid plastic.” Others are more metaphysical like “Let go. This shall pass.” or “Gratitude & calmness & trust & quietness.” I hung them on the wall.

Next to the piece of paper that shows how often per week I want to run and write and read and do good. Whenever I’ve done it for one day, I push the paper clip one step ahead. Of course I try to reach the last marker every week.

Magic Habits

What I learned from one of my favourite blogs, zenhabits.net, is the power of habits. The secret is to start very very small but regularly, and then increase. If you want to write a book, write a sentence each day for a while, then increase to a paragraph, then to a page. After some months, writing will be a habit that does not take much effort anymore. It will take long until that book is finished, but it will not be as hard and impossible as it looked like in the beginning.

I will implement my new year’s resolutions one per month. This month I want to start blogging twice instead of once per week and handwrite more. Baby steps, but I hope they will stick. In February I want to start fasting once per week. In March the marathon training starts. And so on. In the end of the year, I hopefully will have developed twelve new habits.

Comfort Zone

To achieve these habits and make them a daily routine, I have to get out of the comfort zone regularly. But that is the only way to develop. That is how I get assignments done for which we have to collect people’s opinion on the street (very uncomfortable!). That is also how I found out that it is not that hard to relinquish cheese and yoghurt (at first a very uncomfortable prospect!). That is how I learned to enjoy the early morning hour of writing instead of dozing.

Life Purpose

For all that it helps to know what you are doing it for. Having a goal or an idea where you want to be and what you want to do after some time can give you lots of motivation. There are these lists and questionnaires you can fill out that promise you a system to find your life purpose. But sitting down and thinking or exploring new things or tavelling or talking and working with people or even dreaming might as well do the job. And I guess, no I am sure that NOT having a life purpose or the one direction is just as fine. Life does funny things at times, anyway.

The Rhythm

Now that I plan my days and weeks and months, tick my deeds and credit my mindset – it happens often enough that I throw all those plans overboard and just do something completely else which does not fit in the schedule and will put me two miles back – but makes me happy. When a friend invited me for lunch: I ate a big egg and cheese pie during my vegan time instead of being picky. When I had planned to be productive and get done with all assignments before uni starts again: I went to a music festival instead of sitting at home. When I wanted to tidy up my room to start afresh the next day: I watched a beautiful movie. When your plans are somewhat picking on you: follow your rhythm. Under my basic rules I wrote after a while: “These rules are made by myself. I can adjust them.” It is good to remind myself of that.

Admit Imperfection

As I do all the above things, I fail daily. I am not able to accept some people in my environment the way they are. I always find myself feeling superior. I still eat a lot of chocolate and dairy products although I am trying to be vegan and healthier. I still do not take as much time as I would need for reading all I want. But I am trying and learning and improving. And I am aware that I am not perfect and never will be. Being aware of that is the first step on the way to improvement.

Advice to my Sister: Ways for a better Life

I started the new year in a very productive manner. With the big little sister I have been thinking a bit about a healthier diet, a better way of life and of being a better person altogether. Just in time for some new year’s resolutions. More than a year ago, I went through a process of developing habits and routines to spend my days in a fulfilling way. To save you time and give you an idea, this post is for you, big little sister!

Less Stuff

I am very interested in simplicity and minimalism. Reducing stuff makes your life lighter. I love the three boxes system: In one box you put stuff you definitely can get rid of – and then you actually GET rid of it. In the second one you put things you definitely want to keep. In the third one you put stuff you are not sure about. If it stays there longer than, say, six months without being used, out it goes! Monthly lists, inspiration and tips are well provided by slowyourhome.com for example. I also replaced cosmetics by household recipes and accepted the idea of even letting go of books! And that is a big accomplishment, if you know my frenetic relationship to books.

More Organisation

After slowly getting rid of material ballast it was time to declutter the day, too. Nowadays I spend most of the days with a feeling of using my time well. I organize myself, sometimes with the help of the schedule from storylineblog.com. One thing I learned from midwaysimplicity.com: Make Three-Things-To-Do-Lists! Don’t put more on your daily plate. In that way you will be able to accomplish all the three tasks and feel great about it instead of being constantly disappointed.

Tight Finances

I also started to keep a budget, inspired by livinglagom.com. It is amazing to actually see what you spend. It helps a lot to make rational saving decisions and to enjoy spending money for stuff you really need. A good hint as well: Delay your purchases. If I think I need something, I wait at least three days before I buy it. Often enough I find great alternatives and ways to avoid the purchase altogether.

I also go food rescuing. (And since the big little sister knows what it means and since I am planning to dwell on this topic in another post, I only wanted to mention it here.) It saves me money big time! As well as eating the left-overs from my prodigal flat mates.

Healthier Life

A year ago I just started running. I try to keep this habit up, once or twice per week. The big goal to run half a marathon in the spring is a great motivation. I get a lot of adrenalin or whatever it is running through my blood. It makes me feel good, whenever I make more kilometers than before. Actually whenever I run and I feel that my breath is not exhausted. That is so amazing!

Since I am a vegetarian already, I gave the vegan lifestyle a try, for forty days before Christmas with some exceptions. It worked and I will keep scaling down my consumption of animal products. Eggs and milk are out for a long time already, yoghurt and cheese might be the hardest. Later in the year I am planning to introduce one day per week where I do not eat anything after 3 or 4pm. A doctor once suggested it for me and I see the sense in it. By drinking a lot, all unnecessary stuff will be extracted from the body because it will not be occupied with digesting any dinner.

Not to forget: health checks at the doctor, concerning my eyes and teeth in particular, are high priorities for these first months in the new year!