Sewing for Freedom

Lieber tot als eingesperrt!

berlin wall

Berlin Wall

Translated this means “I’d be rather dead than locked up”. This is what many people in communist East Germany chose to live by before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thousands of people tried to flee from their own homes because the circumstances in which they found themselves were so bad they resembled prison. Even though some were successful with their escape plans, about 800 people died trying, 136 of them died right by the Berlin Wall.

However, not all the stories from those times ended in tragedy. The story of one family in particular stood out so much, that even Disney decided to turn it into a movie in 1981. They called it Mit dem Wind nach Westen (translation: With the Wind to the West). It tells the story of their spectacular escape from East Germany and just like Walt Disney likes it, it has a happy ending.

Picture of the actual balloon used

Picture of the actual balloon used. Click on picture for more details.

On September 16, 1979 two women, two men and four children crawled out of a metal basket into the unknown. They had been in the air for only 28 minutes, but to them it seemed like an eternity had passed by. The Strelzyk family had crash-landed deep into the woods of Germany and were not completely sure whether they had actually made it out of East Germany. The women and children quickly hid in the bushes, while Peter Strelzyk and his friend Gühnter took a signal flare and explored the surrounding area. They tell their family that if they see the flare it is safe to come out of hiding because they made it to West Germany. After a while, the two men ran into a police officer. When they asked them whether this was West Germany, the officer looked a little puzzled and just replied “Yes, where else… you are in Naila, Bavaria“. They instantly fired the signal flare and the whole family is so happy they break out dancing.

We know the story has a happy ending, but what is really remarkable is how they actually managed to build a hot-air balloon right under the noses of the feared East German Stasi.

The family always worked at night and sometimes during daylight hours. They constantly feared that at any moment the Stasi would knock on their doors, take their children away and punish them severely for their intentions to escape. Since they had already tried to escape with a hot-air balloon once and failed, it was only a matter of time till the police would track them down.

Disney Movie

Disney Movie

The Strelzyk  family invested all their savings in better material  and other stuff needed for the trip, and spent weeks sewing up a bigger and better hot-air balloon. This time they had help, the Wetzel family also had intentions to escape and joined them in their efforts.

At night, they spent almost two hours setting everything up for their escape. Everything was going according to plan, but they made one mistake that almost cost them their lives. They turned up the gas so high, that not only did it run out a lot faster than they had thought, but eventually burned a hole in their balloon at almost 7000 feet. The only reason they lived to tell the tale, is that the balloon they had sown together was so huge that it acted like a parachute. And so they crashed landed in the woods of Bavaria.

Today, they are taking BILD Magazine on the same 8 miles long trip they took 20 years ago in their hot-air balloon. A trip that earned them their freedom and even got them a spot in the movie theaters.

Tajik Internet Bollywood Star

Baimurat Allaberiyev was just another Gastarbeiter (German word now used in Russia to denote migrant workers from former Soviet Republics) from Tajikistan trying to earn a better living in hauling cardboard boxes in Kollona, a small town near Moscow.

Now, he is a star, known as Tajik Jimmy (He’s actually an ethnic Uzbek). After a coworker posted a video of him delivering an amazing rendition of a Bollywood musical song in his storeroom on YouTube, his popularity exploded.

Now he has an agent and assistant and is performing all over Russia. According to MosNews:

Performing recently at Solyanka, one of Moscow’s hippest nightclubs, he was greeted enthusiastically by adoring fans and the crowd clapped along to the catchy melody of “Jimmy Jimmy Adja”, his trademark song, with pretty young Russian girls screaming out “Jimmy Boy, we love you!”

The danger of Internet fame is that it usually is based on a gimmick, and the stars fade out quickly. But this guy seems to have talent. He speaks no Hindi, yet is able to memorize all these songs. He has room to expand and improve his skills.

No matter how far he goes, his fame could change people’s views on immigrant workers in Russia, who are generally discriminated against and subject to random violence. Jimmy himself had his teeth knocked out by while walking home one night.

So why Bollywood? What does Bollywood have to do with Russia and Tajikistan? Actually, Bollywood gained popularity during Soviet times when Hollywood and other western films were banned.

According to this Wikipedia article, Ashok Sharma, Indian Ambassador to Surinam, who has served three times in the Commonwealth of Independent States region said:

As there was no means of other cheap entertainment, the films from Bollywood provided the Soviets a cheap source of entertainment as they were supposed to be non-controversial and non-political…

These films were dubbed in Russian and shown in theatres throughout the Soviet Union. The films from Bollywood also strengthened family values, which was a big factor for their popularity with the government authorities in the Soviet Union.

A New York Times feature about Mr. Allaberiyev wrote that he grew up watching Bollywood films in Soviet Tajikistan.

For an impoverished boy growing up on a Tajik collective farm, there was no greater pleasure than Bollywood films, which were approved by the Communist Party as a politically safe diversion.

While Bollywood popularity has declined to the power of Hollywood after the Soviet Union’s collapse, there are signs that it is making a comeback in today’s Russia.  2009 is the Year of India in Russia, a year long government sponsored cultural festival where Indian culture is showcased throughout many events, including film festivals and screenings of Bollywood films in cinemas.

This article in RussiaToday discusses the comeback of Bollywood films.

In the wake of renewed interest in Bollywood the young Russian cinema goers want not only the serious art movies they also want to be entertained by the song dance glitz and glamour of Bollywood.

Now Indian cinema might again be easily accessible to Russian viewers. Two Indian TV channels have been launched in Russia recently: India TV in 2006 and Zee TV in 2008.

According to this article, India TV has gained 7 million viewers since its launch, and experts believe that Zee TV will be a success too. With the help of Tajik Jimmy, this might be the year that Bollywood reclaims at least some of its former popularity in Russia.

Public Enemy Number One Part 2: Texting Vs. Textbooks :-(

Have you ever been in class or somewhere far from home and felt a wave of overwhelming panic come over you when you realize your phone is nowhere to be found?

Even lil rascals like this one are finding the need for a cell phone in France. But will he have it for long? Photo courtesy of Laur5785 from Flickr

Even lil rascals like this one are finding the need for a cell phone in France. But will he have it for long? Photo courtesy of Laur5785 from Flickr

No, it’s not lost, it’s at home. Left on the charger. The one thing that you need that you forgot to pick up this morning in a rush.This nightmare happens to many people.

Although you might say to yourself, “It’s fine, I can go one day without my phone,” the reality of what you are missing hits you: missed lunch invitations; a text message from a friend about a forgotten assignment; the opportunity to play Word Mole during a dull meeting; and that call you’ve been waiting for from the cutie you met at your friend’s birthday soiree. Darn.

This feeling of panic and confusion that most people feel when they realize they don’t have their cellular phones will now be an everyday feeling for students under the age of 15 in France who will be forced to go through a whole school day without their handheld bundles of joy.

You see, while only a few years back it was irregular for a child under 15 to have or need a cell phone, now it is a constant in their hands and unfortunately, in class. So much so that Parliament is in the process of ruling to ban children under 15 from bringing mobile phones to school. They aren’t talking about making the students leave the phones in their bags; rather, they don’t want them anywhere on school grounds for those in elementary schools, junior high and high schools, otherwise known as ecoles maternelles, elementaires and colleges. Lycee, or University students obviously wouldn’t be affected.

The ban comes after a survey was done on 12 through 17-year-old students found that half of these young men and women confessed to using their phones during class. Many were even admitting to filming teachers during class as well…peeping Tom’s in the making I see…Some also cite that exposure to cellular phone signals can be dangerous to children. For further information on the health risks of cellular phones, check out the corresponding post by author Asia Jones.

While many people might look at this and think “Cell phones in elementary school!? They don’t need ‘em anyway,” many are up in arms about the possible ruling. Child protection agency Action Innocence opposes the idea because they feel that without cellular phones on school grounds, children wouldn’t be able to inform anyone if they were in trouble or if they wanted to check in with their parents.

While this may be true, those of us over 18 know what’s real. I didn’t have a cellular phone until I was junior in high school, and that was only because I was driving a car to school. From Kindergarten all the way to junior year I used the school phones and went straight home after school unless I was in after-school sports to avoid any drama or trouble. If I went to a friend’s house, I checked in from their residence. I survived without a cell phone, and I’m pretty sure these kids will be alright. In all honesty, I think only one emergency/familial call was made out of all the ones I made in a day during high school, so I doubt the students will be upset because they can’t contact their mommies. And if they are, payphones could slowly make their way back into style…

Print no evil in Germany

DomskyIslamA certain degree of censorship is generally accepted in Germany. But when a media outlet takes it to a whole new level by self-censoring, the outrage becomes personal.

A Düsseldorf publisher backed out of printing a murder mystery because of fears that the subject matter of the book – an honor killing – would put its employees at risk of an Islamic retaliation, according to news magazine Der Speigel.

The Droste Verlag was supposed to release Wem Ehre Gebührt, or “To Whom Honor is Due” on the shelves this September. However, shortly before it went to print, the publisher removed it from its list because author Gabriele Brinkmann – who writes under the pseudonym W.W. Domsky – refused to tone down certain phrases.

Speigel reported that Brinkmann refused to change a line of dialogue from “You can shove your Koran up…” to “You can shove your honor up…” She reportedly told Bild am Sonntag that she was outraged by the decision, saying that it’s “a scandal for a publisher to tuck its tail between its legs” and that it was an act of “anticipatory obedience”.

The story has attracted media attention, with German papers, pundits and bloggers accusing the publisher of self-censorship and bowing to intimidation from extremists, Deutche Welle reported.

Company executive Felix Droste reportedly had asked an expert on Islamic society to review the manuscript for things that might cause extremists to want to harm his family or his business. The expert had suggested changing that line.

“After the Mohammed caricatures, one knows that one cannot publish words or drawings that defame Islam without incurring a security risk” to his staff or family, Droste told Spiegel.

A spokeswoman for Dusseldorf-based Droste said that the company has a tradition of publishing controversial books, but would not publish those that insulted religions – whether Islam, Christianity or others.

A Israeli-German news site said that willingness to self-censor in this context could work two ways: That it might “please” the feelings of Muslims, but it will once again prove that Westerners are “whimps” who aren’t willing to defend their own ideals.

“Und die Islamisten können sich darin bestätigt fühlen, dass es sich bei diesen Westlern ja doch ganz überwiegend um Weicheier handelt, die nicht einmal ihre eigenen Ideale zu verteidigen bereit sind.”

An American pundit called the publisher’s actions “cowardly” and its reasoning a “lame excuse”.


While Germany, like America, has constitution that guarantees freedom of speech (it also has a very established freedom of the press), it does have some harsh censorship laws, some of which seem entrenched in the history of the country.

Wikipedia writes: Membership in a Nazi party, incitement of hatred against a segment of the population, or Volksverhetzung, and Holocaust denial are illegal in Germany. Publishing, television, public correspondence (including lectures), and music are censored accordingly, with harsh legal consequences, including jail time.

The country also takes measures to protect its youth from violence or ideology that the government thinks might be harmful. The BPjM, or Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons, censored popular American game Command and Conquer Generals and Zero Hero, citing that it idea of war in the game was too real. Its creators got around the censors eventually by changing human characters in the game to look like cyborgs.

In this case, author Brinkmann is not budging. A forum user on wrote: “I could almost understand if the book was printed and then removed due to controversy, but to not even release the book for fear is simply cowardice.”

Was the German publisher being too paranoid? Do you think this book would have been published in the US? Is it fair to ask authors and producers to alter their works to met censorship guidelines?

Public Enemy Number One Part 1

You’ve been told most of your life about the deadly bacteria invisible to the eye that hides in your home. You’re given a list of the usual suspects as to the source: critters in the carpet, mold in the air ducts and even your toothbrush.

The newest culprit in the line-up is your cell phone, you know that piece of plastic you can’t leave the house without, and France is taking extreme measures to protect its citizens from harm.

On October 7th, the French Senate passed a bill prohibiting the use of cell phones in nursery schools, primary schools and college. The bill makes it mandatory that researchers make public any new information about cell phone risks to others among other health requiremnts, mainly that cell phone manufacturers make amends to limit the amount of electromagnetic exposure to the brain.


This was not the French government’s first action against cell phones. In Januray of this year they banned the advertisement of mobile phones to children. Some of the guidelines mentioned:

  • Cannot sale a cell phone made for children under six years of age.
  • Advertising for mobiles cannot be directed to children under age of 12
  • New limits for phone radiation and the requirement of an earpiece.

The sudden crackdown has raised the question about dangers from electromagnetic waves across France as people ask: What are the real dangers? Studies have been conducted by various outlets about the dangers of cell phone use, with the results ranging from irregular sleep to blocking or decreasing agents that protect from cancer.

One French article goes even further and points out that the cell phones are not the only danger — it might be best to turn off wi-fi at night.

The problem of cell phones causing severe health risks reached the worldwide stage recently in a September International Conference in Washington D.C. The main focus in studies across Europe and America have been children as they are more suceptible to damage from the electromagnetic waves.

Throughout the tide of information about cell phone’s possible dangers, researchers put a possible bright side on the situation as they stress that the study of the cell phone’s effects is fairly new, as is the cell phone itself.

Food for Thought: The new laws bring up an abundance of questions but my main one: Was it really necessary to ban cell phones in classrooms, especially colleges? We’ve been told that things such as red meat, kissing and under arm shaving could cause cancer. How, if at all, will this affect the purchase of cell phones in France?

Now Showing: SKIN

French Skins Party Facebook Page

A new party craze has hit France. Young French boys and girls, usually 18 to 25 years old, attend “Skins Parties” which France 24 calls “even trashier than Woodstock? Really?” After watching remixed videos on the French Skins Party blog, it appears that the parties are all about dancing, drinking, drugs, and hooking up.

Party goers, or “Skinsofrenes” find the parties via the Internet, Facebook, or local skins event planners. Because the parties are so popular, they are organized months in advance. There are already Skins Parties in the making for the middle of December. The largest Skins Parties happen in big cities, like Paris, Aix, Lille or Lyon.

Skins parties seems to be linked to the British TV series called “Skins,” which began airing in January 2007. The show’s large following has crossed the border into France, where young people are imitating the “skins” lifestyle of partying, sex, heavy drinking, recreational drug abuse and showing lots of skin.

If one TV series can cause this reaction in France, how else can TV influence young people around the world? Do”Gossip Girls” or “GREEK” affect their American audience in the same way, or do the TV shows mimic how American teenagers already act? What kind of messages do shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” or “16 and Pregnant” give young, impressionable American teens?

“Le Fooding”: A New Emotion

So, what do you get when you combine the words food and feeling?

You may or may not have guessed it: Fooding.

Put a Le in front of it and you’ve got the name of a rebel culinary movement, birthed out of the neighborhoods of Paris, France.

Photo Courtesy of

The prestigious Academie Francaise – the official moderators of the French language – were sure to have squirmed in their seats with the emergence of this psuedo-French term.

Le Fooding, coined by Frenchman and cuisine connoisseur Alexandre Cammas in ’99, is a Paris-born “guerilla culinary movement that thumbs its nez at staid, starched-napkin cuisine, trumped by real food made with feeling,” according to a recent article on

Cammas believes all food that is cooked with passion, sincerity and taste is good cuisine – a thought most traditional French chefs would, in fact, thumb their nez at.

(For evidence of this – that even a young child could comprehend – please see the way in which the stereotypical French chef is portrayed in the animated film, Ratatouille.)

Perhaps traditional American chefs will do the same? Cammas thinks not.

This is one reason the Le Fooding made its premier appearance in New York City on September 26th and 27th.

Avante-garde, Long Island Museum P.S. 1 hosted Le Fooding d’Amour Paris-New York where innovative – and maybe even a bit “angsty” – American and French chefs showcased their “art” en plein air (outdoors) with deejays, visual artists and cocktails to provide the most flavorful side dishes.

Le Fooding also published what the New York Post calls a cheeky restaurant guidebook and a wildly popular Web site, again, bucking the traditinoal French culinary system.

“We have to cook in freedom because if we don’t, France will stay a museum of old gastronomy,” says Cammas.

Long live liberté, égalité and fraternité in the world of food.

AIDs in Russia

This very popular rapper from Belarus named Seryoga helps educate youth about AIDS through his rap video. The song is entitled “Olya and AIDS.” The lyrics translate into the following words.

Olya loves Kolya ever since childhood.
Olya loves Tolya, he lives in the neighborhood.
Olya loves Misha, he’s the butcher at the bazaar.
Olya loves Grisha, he has a guitar.

Sleeps, sleeps, sleeps, sleeps Olya
With whomever she happens upon.
But Olya’s never heard about AIDS,
She’s only heard the advert that says
To use rubbers of the brand ADIDAS.
Look guys, this isn’t all some joke.
Remember guys, Olya’s a prostitute.
The girl’s rich and she lives large,
But someone’ll make sure she gets hers.

Although a blogger called Buster criticizes the rapper for making a ridiculous music video with ridiculous lyrics, he does mention that the AIDS problem is growing in Russia. I think that the video is silly and could have been much stronger considering the topic it is covering. I give props to Seryoga for trying to educate youth about AIDS and the seriousness of the illness in a country that is not very well educated about it.

Despite the faulty statistics from Russia’s chief public health official there is no denying the increasing number. He claims that 467,016 people is the number of people infected with HIV since the first infection in 1987;  the World Health Organization claims that this number is way too low. And quiet frankly I agree with them; Russia is a huge country and that number is way too small.

According to BBC news more new HIV infections were registered in Russia in 2000 than all previous years combined.

The increase of illegal drug use and prostitution is climbing and adding to the increase in AIDS.

Russia has the largest AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe with 66% of all reported cases.

So what are Russians doing about this growing epidemic in their country? A few things have happened. They have launched a campaign called STOP SPID (SPID means AIDS in Russian). Here visitors can get information about AIDS, find hotlines and testing facilities and the latest news about the epidemic.

Although efforts are being made, it can be argued that Russia is not doing enough. The fact is their health care system is not that strong, so an AIDS campaign is not at the top of their list.This video from Russia Today explains the misinformation Russia has about HIV/AIDS. People are misinformed and have stereotypes and prejudices against those with the virus because of misinformation. Many patients in hospitals are discriminated against, so it is no wonder that people do not want to get tested and admit to the virus. It only makes sense to avoid the reality of having an illness if one knows they are going to be discriminated against. So why would they get tested?

So what do you think? Is it surprising that Russia has the fastest growing AIDS epidemic next to Africa?

Coffee and cultural identity

Starbucks announced this week that it’s going to offer an instant brew coffee in stores across North America. Although company officials say it’s not about the economy or habits, some might conclude that it will diminish the brand. After all, instant-brewed coffee isn’t what Starbucks is know for, right?

Americans, at least the Midwesterners that I know, adore their Starbucks coffees. It’s part of the morning routine for work and school. But will they switch to an instant? Unlikely, but we’ll have to see how things fare for Starbucks. The company has certainly surprised people before, in particular the French.

Starbucks coffee cup

Starbucks' new instant coffee Via

There’s no question that coffee drinking is deeply rooted in American culture, (After all, early Americans did dump the tea into the Boston Harbor years ago in protest of British taxes on the colonies.) but I wonder about the role coffee and coffeehouses play in other cultures.

What has been the influence of coffee in the French-speaking world?
Most Americans probably have a stereotypical image of a French sidewalk café where artists and writers gather for conversation. So, when Starbucks decided to open a store in France in 2004, some saw the move as the fall of French civilization and the end of café subculture. Martin Coles, head of Starbucks’ international operations said:

“I think we were worried initially about whether there would be acceptance” of the chain in France, amid a strong cafe culture and predictions that the French wouldn’t embrace an American chain.

But a Wall Street Journal article from early September notes that the U.S. coffee giant is going to expand in Paris. The company opened its first French shop in 2004 and has 50 locations around Paris and Lyon.
And with the new Via instant brews in Canada and North America, it seems that Starbucks is fairly popular in the French-speaking Western world.

Here’s a link to their French site.
Writing in 2004, Matthew Kaminski said:
The steady decline of French cafe culture predates Starbucks by about five decades. The number of cafes — which, for the record, serve more wine than coffee — topped out at about a half-million before World War II, before television and bigger apartments gave the French something else to do. Today the dirty secret is that the coffee often resembles “sock juice” — the old French slur against the American variety — and establishments are uniformly drab. At the Starbucks opening, co-founder Howard Schultz told me the old cafe just isn’t “as relevant” to French life as before.

Yet, people still seem to be enamored with coffee if not the coffee shop or café.
A few ex-pats living in Paris and Lyon have been writing about their anticipation of a new Starbucks opening in their neighborhoods. But there’s been very little mention of using the coffee shop as meeting place, even in the U.S. Perhaps the neighborhood bistro or patisserie is the first choice for French speakers today.

Do you think the cafes or coffee shops still have relevance today? What’s taken their place in the community? Has culture moved into online gathering spots instead? Why?

Going, Going, Gone.

I am talking of course about Europeans, who according to an article from Euronews, will see a decline in population by the year 2012. How big of an impact will this have on European culture? A seminar was held in Brussels to discuss and analyze the growth of human population.

Studies by the European Foresight Expert Group concluded that China will continue to have the largest population until about 2050 when India‘s population will steadily increase while China’s will continue to decline. Not only is the European population scheduled to decline, but a spike in the population of other cultures could create a world resource problem. At the seminar the group spoke out on resource consumption and how it parallels with population issues.

The group also forecasted both ominous and encouraging news for the world. The good news is that wealth will increase faster than world population will. The bad news is that this increase in the world’s wealth will put a strain on our resources. According to the group there will be an 85 percent increase in world consumption.

If everyone follows the U.S., who has the highest consumption rate per capita on food, water, and energy, a severe world crisis would unfold. I found a blog that talks about how world population affects the resources of poorer countries.

Population issues have also been a problem with Germans. After WWII there was a stigma put on Germans, and they were discouraged from pursuing an active population policy. According to an article from the Deutsche Welle, Germany has 82 million people with a birth rate of 1.4 percent. Making them one on of the most rapidly shrinking populations in the world. Is this one factor to why the European population is shrinking? What other factors are contributing to the disappearing European population?

How concerned should we be about cultures disappearing? Will the end of one culture bring about a new one entirely? Will the increase in the world’s wealth destroy third world countries even more? How can countries with heavy resource consumption work to better distribute their wealth?


Life’s reset button

The French Foreign Legion is a French military unit specifically designed for citizens of other nations. The Legion not only offers a steady paycheck as well as a way out of refugee camps for many, but it can also offer you an entirely new identity.


The Legion dates back to the early 1800’s when France was an empire but new laws had just forbid foreign nationals from serving in the French Military. The Legion was formed as a loop-hole that would allow France to continue to use the citizens of other countries while not technically making them part of the French military.

Over the years the Legion became a haven for the most serious of felons to escape justice, but today they check for serious crimes. However, as long as you haven’t been convicted of a felony, you can still join the Legion and start anew.

When you join, you create a new name. After a year, you have the ability revert to your old identity if you wish. And after three years, you can become  a French citizen, but only if you have reverted to your real identity and no longer are in serious trouble with the law. If you are injured in battle for France, you can also become a French citizen under “Français par le sang versé” (“French by spilled blood”).

The “Legionnaire’s Code of Honour“, roughly translated is:

  • Légionnaire, you are a volunteer serving France with “Honour and Fidelity”.
  • Every legionnaire is your brother-in-arms, regardless of his nationality, race, or religion. You will demonstrate this by strict solidarity which must always unite members of the same family.
  • Respect of traditions, devotion to your leaders, discipline and comradeship are your strengths, courage and loyalty your virtues.
  • Proud of your status as Legionnaire, you display this in your uniform, which is always impeccable, your behaviour always dignified but modest, your living quarters always clean.
  • An elite soldier, you will train rigorously, you will maintain your weapon as your most precious possession, you are constantly concerned with your physical form.
  • A mission is sacred, you will carry it out until the end respecting laws, customs of war, international conventions and, if necessary, at a risk of your life.
  • In combat, you will act without passion and without hate, you will respect the vanquished enemy, you will never abandon your dead or wounded, nor surrender your arms.

French-foreign-legionnaire-indochina-1954Everything in the Legion is done in French, and recruits are expected to learn and adapt.

Who Want’s to Join?

Starting wages : 1043 € / month fed and lodged.

An expected 45 working days in a year.