Put It Out There: Talking into community

AJ works in London as a rickshaw driver. He loves it.

He grew up in urban Bangalore and lives in London as a rickshaw operator.  “It’s kind of a busman’s holiday,” he explained in that Londonized Indian accent you sometimes catch in a movie.  He smiled a broad, a genuine grin, as he spoke.  “The bus driver spends all day behind the wheel and then when he goes on vacation he drives all over the countryside in a van.  That’s me, kind of.”

AJ puts it out there.  He has to.  If you were riding solo from Athens to London, the long way round through Spain and Portugal, you’d be putting it out there too.  And dear sweet Jesus did he ever put it out there.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Well, that’s not true – I see it all the time, just in super low doses.  AJ is the crystal meth of putting it out there, the double absinthe jaggerbomb.  One can learn a lot from a man like AJ.  I’ll tell you what I learned.

It was actually me who approached him in La Place de la Comedie in downtown Montpellier on

Watch the movie and you'll understand why it's here.

a Friday afternoon, just as the daytime workers were hopping in the TRAM and nightlifers were gearing up at the brasseries and bistros.  He was engaged in conversation standing beside his Kona, a cross-over bike he’d retrofitted as a touring bike.  Kona is a Vancouver company so I wondered if he were a fellow Canadian, a fellow tour cyclist.  The rest, as they say, is la histoire.  After minutes we launched into philosophical discussion, bike talk, and all the while AJ called out to passersby, a legitimate wellspring of energy and fervour.  I am no shy guy, really, yet I felt dwarfed next to this gregarious, fearless chatterbox, an Indian Dean Moriarty and accented Elwood P Dowd.

That night we visited with, well, everyone.  Old and young, interested and interesting.  AJ does not speak French and yet his immediate connection to people, like hummingbird to nectar, broke through with those bright eyes smiling and a “enjoy life!” being called out to the doldrums of social sinners, closed in their little lives.  The next day we rode our bikes down to the beach.  We saw AJ chase girls like a Jack Russel bent on a ball.  We’d sit watching the waves and AJ would pass talking with one group of girls, and then pass minutes later talking with another group.  We all laughed at his tenacity, his brilliant tenacity, and I caught myself staring an incarnation of outgoing I’d never seen before.  “Weeks on the road lacks certain…company, you know.”  It’d be easy to call fault to AJ’s shameless approach to the women he’d pass, but we decided to absorb it into the average that was his incredible…putting it out there.

The world needs AJs.  Sure, he’s probably taken as crazy as often as he makes someone laugh or think.  That’s society’s fault.  The world needs AJs because otherwise we’re left with those we know, those we avoid, and not much in between.

Talk more. Think less.

So I ask you: how often do you put it out there?  Do you talk with cashier who scans your groceries?  Do you get a giggle out of an old woman on the bus?  Do you ever just talk to someone without wanting anything in return?  Are you afraid to do it?  I admit that I sometimes am afraid.  I’m afraid of being mocked, rejected, or thought an idiot.  And my world is smaller because of it.  So today I am going to up the ante.  I’m going to put myself out there more than I did yesterday.  That’s how you make good community.

Dance Together, Community Together: Feu Cul

This totally works: takes the pee out of pissed-off.

The cat peed right where my head curls while sleeping in the fetal position on my single bed.  How did she know to do it there?  And what was she trying to say to me?  Wasn’t it I who scratched her ears when she came-a-purring?  I did not deserve this.

I spent the rest of the day learning French words for baking soda (bicarbonate de sodium) and peroxide (the more challenging translation peroxyde).  My mood darkened and frustration settled in.  I wanted to just sleep off the rest of the day – definitely not dress up in white and violet to visit a weird carnival in a little town 60km away.

This is not from Pezenas, but helps with the imagery.

Lucky for me I couldn’t reach Boris.  Boris is from Pézenas, France, on the ancient Roman road from Rodez to Saint-Thibéry; a small 8,000 person town that hugs a medieval centre with tiny wrapping streets and alleys.  The town is home to Boby Lapointe (pronounced dangerously close to “boobie” which got a giggle from me), a famous 1950/60s French singer.  It also housed the famous l’Illustre Théâtre, the influential troupe of Molière (France’s Shakespeare) in the mid-1600s.  This little town, like many around France, boasts a lively festival as well – a charivari.  And had I reached Boris that afternoon, hoping to cancel because I was a cranky wuss, I would have missed one helluva night.

The charvari, an Occidental version of a carnival, didn’t start until 9pm.  We sat in a small picturesque square waiting, every once in a while a group of buzzed teenagers passing through with plastic bottles full of spirits to take the edge off the cool night.  You were to dress in white and violet, Pézenas’ colours, with the understanding that these clothes weren’t finishing the night without flour/wine/shaving cream/blood on it.  Whatevs.

Yes, a man with a BabyBjorn squeezed my ass.

Yes, this post is sounding much like a travel piece, but I assure you that it is not.  I want to bring your attention now to the angle most interesting to Daily Gumbooters from around the world: sex.  I mean community.  Sure, it would be easy to compare charivaris to their boring Canadian counterparts, but that wouldn’t serve our purpose.  No, friends, Gumbooters, I’d like to talk more about the very nature of having a festival, a carnival, a celebration.  I asked a bunch of locals about the origins of the charivari and most of them told me it was something to do with the beginning of spring, but they were kind of vague. The origin ended up being a distant reasonunimportant.  In its place was the tradition and familiarity of it all.  Every year before Mardi Gras the town gets together, young and old, children and white haired perverts (I’ll tell you about that in a minute) and they romp in the street following the drum/flute/shaker band of Pagans dressed in horns and furs.  And remember how I said these streets were tiny?  This ended up being important for the mosh pit.  When I say mosh pit, I’m talking about rugby players and little girls smashing against each other in drunken revelry with their uncles and cousins as the music crescendoed to feverish pitch.  The origins of raves, I’m convinced.

Totally not Pezenas. Picture white and violet clothes and fire in asses.

I was pushed and punched by 60 year old women dressed in spastic dresses and painted faces, grabbed by teenybopper boys, surely drunk, and squeezed by young 30-something fathers with their populated BabyBjorns.  People fell.  People laughed.  Tempers would flicker but never burst.  It wasn’t about safety or the fear of being sued.  It was your neighbour and you in the street letting off some serious steam and being the better for it.  It did go far, but never too far.

One of the traditions, unbeknownst to the international travellers who joined Boris, was the feu cul.  Yes, French speakers out there, that does mean fire ass.  The mid-fervour dance featured a circle of townspeople with torches gesturing the flame in the other’s ass.  Why?  I never quite understood.  Unimportant!  So the seasoned charivari-goers carried vegetables and poke…ahem…your ass as you danced through the tiny streets.  Or just grabbed them in a very penetrating way.  Surely a lawsuit would follow in a Canadian context, but for the more lassez-faire peeps of Pézenas, this was just play.  Unabashed and uncensored.  This type of carefree partying is, well it’s human goddamn it!  More doing, less thinking.

This one actually is Pezenas, feels like Pezenas

My point: fun is tremendously important for community.  Brining generations together is important.  Dancing together is important.  Tradition is important. Sticking things in each other’s asses is important.

Thumbing Your Way – Community Transportation

Vagabonds, transients, vagrants, drifters; deranged degenerates and wandering lunatics.  These are your colleagues on the long, winding road as a hitchhiker.  Oh, and there are wonderful thrill-seeking adventurer types…like me.  The Old Crow Medicine Show knew what they were talking about…

Green travel, economical transportation, community-oriented touring.  In order to explore the roads and highways of earth in romantic Kerouacian style all you have to do is stick out your thumb and let the fates (and good will of drivers) bring you a little closer to your destination, one ride at a time.  The Grapes of Wrath, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and the amazing trilogy in five parts: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – it’s more than cheap travel; to thumb your way along life’s bumpy roads is a philosophy, a religion to the risk-embracing wanderers of the world.  The possibilities are nearly endless.  Germany’s Stephan Schlei travelled over 600,000 miles by hitching rides around the globe (says earlier editions of the Guinness Book of World Records before they removed all hitchhiking records).

Last weekend I embarked in a race from Montpellier to Cassis in beautiful southern France.  There were 22 wanderlusters in mixed-gender pairs (as men hitching alone sometimes have trouble garnering a lift) vying for rides past Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence and even tremendous Marseille.  We separated to the best spots to grab a car and began traversing the seemingly meagre distance of 200km.  Me and my travel mate, a spirited German student named Corrina, designed a our strategy around smiles and sign.  With my calligraphic detailing, Sharpie on corrugated cardboard, and her grinning, non-threatening petite stature, we penned the names of cities lying between A and B in hopes of being picked up by someone passing through with a few extra seats in their Peugeots and Renaults.

Getting a Ride

This will not be a “how to” guide, but rather a brief synopsis of techniques that I employ.  For more you can check out WikiTravel or any of a thousand sites for would be Chris McCandless.

Put yourself in a place where cars can stop.  Since France likes toll booths on their national highways, this is ideal.  Cars have to stop to pay their 1.10€ to cruise along the next stretch of (beautifully maintained) highway.

Don’t look menacing.  This may be tough for some.  Hitchhiking has inspired as much porn as it has horror flicks.  Ed Gein has ruined the glory of the thumb for most of us, having planted firmly the image of murderous killers into the minds of drivers of careening minivans and put-putting pick-up trucks.

Use signs.  This can include the (almost) universal thumb or a straight-up sign drawn on a visible surface (not restricted to paper products) with your destination on it.  If you do not write clearly, drivers will squint to see where you’re going and may pass you by thinking that you’re travelling to Walla Walla instead of Spain (really bad handwriting).

Do NOT do the following:

  • Hitch from downtown.  First off all, you’ll look kind of dumb seeing as Calgary is far away from Yonge Street.  Second, there are too many people just going around the corner.
  • Be in the middle of a highway, far from a place where you can stop.  If you’re travelling at 130km/h you are NOT going to see a hitchhiker, let alone come to a screeching halt to pick up the little parasite.
  • Hitch at night, by yourself, outside a prison or asylum.  You’re just not going to get a ride…or if you do, you probably don’t want it.

Etiquette in the car

So you’ve gotten a ride.  Now what?  This is your chance to make some really interesting conversation.  Remember, this is a person that you’re probably never going to see again, so be creative.  Of course you want to just sleep and maybe listen to the radio, and it may come to that, but part of the motivation for your host to gather you from the cold, lonely road is the idea of company.  This is where community building comes in.  Imagine that you have a captive audience for twenty minutes to several hours.  Make it good, because you don’t want to get let off in the middle of a major highway (see Getting a Ride section).

Being grateful

You’re getting a free ride, so be polite and don’t be a douchebag.  Thank people.  Smile.  Sometimes people will go out of their way to get you to where you’re going, including, but not restricted to driving you hours out in the wrong direction, buying you lunch, and calling a few friends to pick you up in the next stage of the Tour de Highway.  When this happens, try and muster up your most gracious and humble smiles of thanks and be sincere.  There are amazing people out there who will do this out of the goodness of their hearts and this, my friend, is what makes the world go ‘round.

Corrina and I made it to our destination in 6 hours with only 3 rides.  On the way back it took us only a few hours with a stop on the beach, lunch, and a tour of Marseille by Antoine, one of our rides.  The winner of the competition did the ride in 2 hours getting a “hole in one” with one ride from A all the way to B.  But for Corrina and I, the ride was the destination – I saw more of France’s generosity and friendliness in those hours than could have been imagined.  This, people, is what it’s all about.  We made a real connection with a real person instead of plugging into an iPod on a bus or worse, driving our empty car passing by cheery, friendly riders along the way.

To be clear, I’m not advocating everyone ditch their cars and start hitching to work everyday.  That’d be crazy (or would it?).  Also, there wouldn’t be enough cars on the road to get picked up, which would be bad for me.  There are real dangers to hitchhiking and every precaution should be taken.  Judgement and escape plans.  Learning how to roll from a car at high speeds, perhaps.  Pepper spray?  I don’t know.  I’ve only had good experiences in my fifteen years of hitchhiking.  It’s easy in many places in the world – in fact, a necessity for many people.  I have never hitched more than in Cuba or Thailand.  So why is it illegal in most of Canada?  Is it the auto industry or passenger megacompanies that are doing this?  Are we just afraid?

What are your thoughts on free community transportation?

The Code of Community: Breaking Barriers Anyway Possible

Accessing a community is much like hacking into a bank’s computer system.  It either takes a code, mad esoteric nerd skills, or time.  When you don’t know the computer’s language, just add one power of magnitude to the difficulty of access.

As written in a previous post, I have tried to use the code of couchsurfing.org as my entrance into the system that is my new home, Montpellier, France.  And if you’ve parachuted into a new country before, where you don’t speak the language, you must use whatever codes and nerd abilities as you can muster to crack into an entire culture, one unsuspecting host at a time.  One of the main tools you may employ is “open-mindedness.”

Open-mindedness in action is saying yes, accepting difference even when it’s uncomfortable.

I arrived in the late afternoon into the Montpellier airport after a horribly long layover at Gatwick and an even longer period crunched into a window seat of an Airbus 319 from Toronto.  I left behind a snowstorm and walked out into palm trees and Mediterranean heated breeze.  Gorgeous, non?

I was picked up in Place de la Comédie and we walked to my host’s place.  An interesting and spiritual soul, we talked and drank some wine for a few hours.  Then the conversation moves to “naturalisme.”  I’m thinking nature, non?  “Oh, me too!  Totally love naturalisme.”  All of a sudden my host began pulling off shirts and pants.  Efficient too – buck naked in just a few seconds.

Open-mindedness is tested constantly in new places with new people.  So, as they say, when naked in Rome…  I’ve been to Wreck Beach and feel quite comfortable in the raw.  So, there I was, hours into my new community and the ice was long but broken between us.  I’d hacked into the mainframe.

I’ve been in my new community for nearly five days now and everything else has seemed easy and simple compared to that first night.  And the real work begins.  Opening the doors of this new community will indeed take understanding those social codes, lots of smiling, and a keen eye for those who may be my new community.

But the question hangs:  how far are you willing to go to be open-minded?  How far is too far?  Can you lose yourself by trying to fit in?

The Gumboot’s World Cup Anthem – Round 2

The Setup – Editors’ Cultural Editorials

French reaction after their loss.

John: Wow. Upsets were the name of the game in the group stage of the World Cup. And, I have to say, it has become clear that global football power has shifted from Europe to Latin America. The Azzurri’s tearful departure at the hands of Slovakia and the French spiral into horrible, embarrassing disaster, when coupled with the exceptional above-their-potential play of Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile reflects what the football/soccer pundits from around the world are chatting about: European Football is under performing at this World Cup. England, Germania, Portugal, and Spain have yet to hit their stride. Ironically, it is the perennial underachieving Dutch who went 9-for-9 on points in the first round.

Also, vevuzulas aren’t really that annoying – perhaps people just weren’t too prepared for the all-game-long trumpeting of these notorious South African instruments. Do you know what is annoying? Diving. Clearly, members of the Portuguese, Spanish, Brazilian, Argentine, and Chilean teams have graduated with honours from The Pele Soccer and Acting School in Rio de Janeiro. Seriously, it ruins the beautiful game and totally sets off my Jerk Alarm.

To conclude this intro, I’d just like to say that our friend and soon-to-be-profiled community-builder, Brenton, has a much, much awesomer blog about the tournament. Not sure where he gets the time, but whatever…

Actually, don’t even read the rest of this article. Go to Brenton’s blog instead. It’s that good.

Kurt: Yes John, Brenton does have a better World Cup blog than us – the guy is actually predicting (with some amount of accuracy) many of the matches. That being said, if you do decide to continue reading our blog, I’ll chime in that I’ve also been pretty impressed with the South American/Latin American teams. Particularly teams like Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, (the favored) Argentina and even Mexico who’ve done remarkably well.

As for the Europeans, well it is kind of hilarious. I have to admit, watching the French mutiny and then crumble had my German heart smiling a little. And when Italy flamed out (recent Cup champions no less) I was surprised to say the least. Even more surprised was I that on returning to my home that night (located smack dab in the middle of Vancouver’s little Italy) my apartment building was still standing. Chalk that up to either the mild temperament of Italian fans or the fact cappuccinos don’t fuel riots nearly as well as beer and whiskey. Finally the ultimate battle – England vs Germany this Sunday. My God, could it get more tense than this? To sum it up from a Eurocentric standpoint I’d like to quote a little verse sent to me by our dear correspondent Godfrey, who is reporting live for the Gumboot from South Africa:

This World Cup has turned out like WW2; the French surrender early, the US arrive at the last minute and English are left to fight Germans.

An African Moment

John: AFRICA SUCKS! Just kidding. But not really. South Africa broke a record in a terrible, terrible way: they are the first host country to not make it through to the elimination round in, like, four centuries. It’s embarrassing and you’ve gotta feel for the team, the country and the continent. Especially since two of the African teams didn’t really show up to the tournament and the other one was placed in a terribly difficult group.

And then there’s Ghana. In many ways – whether it’s democracy, economics or social services – Ghana has “gone right” when it comes to being a nation. A recent article in The Walrus paints a very interesting, and rightfully tumultuous, story of what is arguably Africa’s most well-put-together country. Whether or not that translates into their team winning, well, remains to be seen.

Kurt: John, you are right that its unfortunate that the South Africans didn’t make it through. But for a team that was ranked incredibly low going into the tournament, they certainly did alright. Especially considering they won one, drew one and lost one – it could be worse (ahem… France). They certainly put on a good show and didn’t get walked over in all/most of their games. Maybe the vuvuzelas helped? And then there’s Ghana, talk about a team in fine form. Sure I was cheering for their destruction last match with the Fatherland. But to be honest, they kept me and about 80 million other Germans on the edge of our seat.

It’s certainly a raw deal for the Ivory Coast to fall in with Portugal and Brazil. I feel for them – especially since they lost one of their best players before the tournament even started to get going. As for the rest of them, none really leap to mind and its too bad as Cameroon seems to have a reputation for usually fielding a very decent team.

Predictions – Round of 16

John: This blog is delayed because I had a lot riding on Spain and needed to see them win before I made ridiculous predictions. And they looked good, so I’ll stick with them going through. I like Uruguay a lot – they’re workers who recognize that they don’t have the skill to just coast and that they’ll be on borrowed time after they beat the Koreans. Speaking of borrowed time, one of my favourites from the group stage is the USA – the world is against them and they’ll be getting no love from the refs or the fans going up against Ghana. to my African friends and family, please forgive me for what I’m about to say: GO USA! I’ll pick England just to piss Kurt off – and, even if they win, Germany ain’t going any farther. Brazil vs. the Netherlands in the quarter finals will be epic. I’m picking Japan for the upset. So there it is.

Kurt: Japan looked in fine form. I’ll never forget while living over there and playing soccer, watching those guys dart around on the field and just plane hustle. Portugal’s ability to play Brazil to a draw today was impressive and the Spanish game was equally impressive – though the Chileans certainly held their feet to the fire. Plus the Chileans get bonus points for having such fanatically spirited friends. Then there’s the old favorites. I see Brazil getting far, but not taking the Cup. Argentina looks pretty strong tying the Dutch with 9 points. But in the end the reality is no one is going to beat the “Machine”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – despite a minor Serbian “incident” in the past, the German national team looks strong capable and solid. Schweinsteiger is playing terrific mid-field and despite lacking Ballack, the team’s really managed to look impressive. And then there’s Lam – I love that defense man.

John's Bracket

Kurt's Bracket


John: [INSERT INAPPROPRIATE WWII COMMENT HERE]. Kurt, your countrymen look like they’ve indulged a little too much in beers and brats. And, unlike the Spanish and Portuguese, they’re not particularly good looking enough to, you know, make up for it in the “overall-sense” and, well, not suck at life. That’s right. Germany sucks at life…not just soccer football.

Kurt: I know you’ve got Spain making it through to the end. The problem with this logic is that as the current economic troubles in Europe demonstrate, the Spanish are short term thinkers – eager to borrow and have “fancy” fun living beyond their means/talents. In the end they are a team/country teetering on the precipice of ruin. For all their soft passes and the fancy footwork of Torres, in the end they shall be defeated by the raw, undeterred determination of Germany.