Quebec Highlights

A firefly-studded dusk walk down a country lane a few hundred feet on the Quebec side of the US border.

Entering a food desert in Nouveau- Bourdeaux, Montreal with old friend D, and scouring an Afro-Carribbean epicerie for snacks to fuel our attempts to save the world via wide-ranging conversations and a little frisbee.


Driving for four days straight with the wonderful T,  singing, philosophizing, listening to Invisibilia podcasts about human-black bear interactions and the philosophy of swearing.

Discussions with four year old S about why squirrels bury nuts.

Lovingly tended potted flowers outside Montreal apartments.

Long porch conversations looping in and around language with H. and G., a kiwi/quebecois couple.





Tuning in

Since I bought a car, I’ve been listening to radio stations here in the Triangle. Here are three of my favourites.


Election time voter drives and call-in discussions on Black Lives Matter belies the local liberal rag calling them “the worst radio station in the Triangle”. Late night, the standard commercial fare is replaced by underground or classic hiphop.  

Image_amon_creativesFavourite track: NC’s native J-Cole’s brilliant story-rhyme Wet Dreamz

All the feels:  DJ Showtime’s tribute show to Obama on January 19th. Amid a parade of conscious hiphop classics, he dedicates the show to the outgoing president, describing him with a string of superlatives, ending with “I wish he was my dad”.

Gimmick: “if you’re listening on the road right now, honk your horns three times”

Typical ads: Events at Raleigh bars, BET shows, tax services, college courses.



Standard model for US public radio – syndicated shows from other stations in the NPR network and late night BBC, plus some local programming.

Suprisingly good: reruns of Car Talk, in which two brothers from Boston somehow manage to make a call-in automotive diagnosis show fascinating and funny.

Heartbreaking moment: hearing Hillary’s concession speech live. I almost had to pull over.

Wish they would: Play Radiolab at hours when I’m likely to be driving.

Ads: none -listener and sponsor supported.



Vanilla commercial country station linked to the IHeartRadio network. 

Menu du jour: overproduced “bro country” (according to, at least).

Listening in order to:  a) hear songs I can sing along to after one chorus. b) Feel like I’m not in New Zealand c) try to understand how so many people voted for Donald.


Standard fare: songs about small towns big relationships. or both. “Body like a back road/drivin’ with my eyes closed/I know every curve like the back of my hand”.

Favourite song title: “You look like I need a drink”

I don’t know why: every woman featured in the songs wears a ball-cap backwards.

Ads: insurance, vehicles.

What is Durham?

What Is Durham?

Durham is built of brick and addiction. Sometimes I think I can still smell the tobacco curing.

Durham aint Duke. Durham is rooting for the Chapel Hill team if you don’t work at Duke

Wikimedia commons

Old tobacco buildings. Image: Wikimedia commons

Durham is the thumbnail frogs that come out in summer at the Eno.

Durham is a guy winding down his car window to tell me his brother died because he wasn’t wearing a helmet and I should think about that.

Broken trees after the ice and snow.

Broken trees after the ice and snow

Durham is my being the only whitey riding the bus to Southpoint.

Durham is 100 strangers singing “groove is in the heart” in a bar


Bumper stickers, Trinity Park

Durham is going from mini-mansions to run-down shacks and vacant lots in two blocks, or vice versa in two weeks.

Durham is an uber driver from Niger talking to me about Heidegger.

Durham is learning the words “ice storm”

Durham is a woman crying alone in the park

Durham is the pandas spewing rainbows on the wall at the Pinhook.

Durham is home.

Eno river at dusk

Eno river at dusk

Glimpses of the USA

Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Asheville, Durham. While the last three names won’t be familiar to many of you, much the culture nonetheless will be. Throughout the world, we receive a glossy version of US culture on our screens and from our stereos. I’m just starting the endless task of prising apart this projected, expected USA from what’s really here. Reflecting on my first month here (2 weeks on the road, 2 weeks in Durham) I’m going to simply try to illustrate four aspects of the US that I’ve seen so far. The aspects are well known, but I hope to convey some of the “aha!” quality of the particular experiences that validated my preconception.

Multi-layered diversity, in the geographic sense, with the broad regions: West, Midwest, East, New England, South, and Texas, all (except Texas) broken up further into states. A speaker at the Duke Orientation excused his use of the word “guys” for the second person plural pronoun (instead of y’all). “I’m from Illinois”, he said, “so I’m allowed to say that”. California reminds me of Spain, in climate, language, smells, architecture, whereas Ohio looked like Germany, and here in North Carolina… it’s it own thing again. Regions, states and even cities have developed their own signature food. This diversity is represented in legal form as well. A lawyer told me the best answer to any question about

US law is “it depends on the jurisdiction”. Federal taxes, state taxes. Cities and even suburbs and universities have their own police force. State flags routinely fly next to the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes (although by federal law they must be flown lower). I must mention ethnic diversity, and along with it, bilingualism with Spanish, modern-day segregation and systemic racism. It’s an especially intensified version of what I’ve seen in many other societies, including  the UK and New Zealand. It is a whole other blog post right there.

People are generally speaking, a little brash. My first experience of this was after some really bad customer service while spending about an hour in a store trying to get my first US sim card to work. The two young sales clerks, who had blamed their own mistakes on me, still tooted their own horns. “Give us tens” one said.
“You’ll get a survey on your phone, give us ten out of ten for customer service… it’s how we get promoted…if we get enough tens.”
Another example was the arrival of an official to the stage during the welcoming party for us international students. A thunderstorm happened to be raging outside. “Do you hear the thunder?” he began. “That means I’m an awesome person”. It was a joke of course, and it went down well, but I’d never imagine anyone daring to make such a joke in the UK or NZ.

It’s easy to become homeless. “All you need to do is to not be able to get a job, or need hospital care without insurance” a volunteer worker with the homeless tells me. I know the Affordable Healthcare Act might be making some progress in regard to the latter, but I would be surprised if people don’t still end up destitute due to illness or accident.


Image by Zitona Qatar

Finally, people seem generally, and genuinely cheerful! Perhaps its just because its summer right now, but strangers, even in large cities, can be seen to politely greet one another. Acquaintances effuse, smile and laugh to a degree I haven’t often witnessed. The first American to greet me – a customs officer at the border – made jokes about getting drunk on vegemite. Two of my lecturers are comic geniuses as well as being great philosophers.

What can come off as over-the-top superficiality when Americans travel becomes the general baseline for enjoying yourself, and it all seems a lot more authentic when its actually a cultural one is immersed in.  I also have a theory about the link between accent and cultural temperament. It’s well known that the way we hold our bodies*and our mouths influence our mental wellbeing. Most American accents naturally form the speaker’s mouth into smiling shapes. Try reading this sentence with a British (any variant) or NZ accent and smiling at the same time. Now repeat, still smiling, with an American accent. Easier, isn’t it?

*Edit: Amy Cuddy’s research on this has not been replicated with larger sample sizes

Edited once for clarity

The River That Flows Both Ways or “Things I Learnt While on a Train Passing Through the Monotonous Midwest Countryside Part 1”

Photo: Wikimedia commons

Photo: Daniel Schwen (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Corn, Soybeans, Barns, Corn, Barns, Soybeans, Small Town, Corn…. The view today from the California Zephyr, rattling across the Interior Plains of the US, is a little monotonous. It makes the dull Canterbury Plains look like a World Heritage Site. A perfect time to research a little about the area, and my next stop – Chicago Illinois – on my smartphone.

The Midwest has been geologically stable for the last nearly 2 billion years: it is the centre of a continental plate, covered with debris from mountain ranges to the East and West. Thus, it is flat. So flat that sanitation-minded Engineers could reverse the flow of the Chicago river in 1900, by digging through the two-storey high ridge that separates the Great Lakes watershed from that of the Mississippi. People made Lake Michigan flow into the Mississippi more than a century ago!


Reversing the flow of the Chicago, 1899. Public Domain

This meant sewage stopped flowing into Lake Michigan – a source of drinking water for the burgeoning city. Apparently no-one cared that Chicago’s sewage now flowed into the Mississippi watershed (because that was already pretty polluted?). It also opened shipping from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico via the Des Plaines and Mississippi.

The Chicago River has a mind of its own though – in winters, when boat traffic on the river is low, water underneath the surface starts to flow back into Lake Michigan, while the surface water continues to flow away from it. This is, apparently because of some weird fluid dynamic effect I’ll never understand called a “gravity current”, or “density current”.  That must be one pretty flat river to be able to flow both ways at once.

Chicago River at Night

Public Domain

(edited twice for clarity and zest)

Vietnam in six senses


Maximum loading. Maximum smiles

Taste: Fresh mint slicing into a rich meaty stock, and the mild taste of rice noodles, accentuated by the smell of scooter fumes and salt air from the sea, at roadside stalls every morning.

Sound: The woman’s voice  introducing a water puppet show, speaking formally, accentuating the clean consonants and rolling pitch of Vietnamese, with unexpected sharp dips and rises that captivate me.

Feel. The hot fester of sunburnt thighs, after an unexpected hour-long midday trip on the back of a motorbike into Nha Trang.

Smell:  Petrol – an acrid sloping whine. I’m using it to wash the sticky brown oil residue off my body after swimming at what turned out to be a polluted beach.
Sight: Granite boulders, piled like knucklebones, as large as cars, which I pick my way over, between and under to get back from the secluded coral bay at Jungle Beach.

Emotion: A bittersweet ache, standing outside Ho Chi Minh City Airport, looking over the city. Feeling deep gratitude for a rich and vibrant trip, despite my work commitments, and sadness that it has come to an end (for now) Image

Words from China

In China, a semi-structured gathering to practice English is often known, quaintly, as an “English Corner”. Scenic Yangshuo has a bunch of privately-run language schools, and most of them offer free room and board indefinitely to foreigners (like me) who are happy to participate in the school’s English corners for a few hours a week. I love this deal. The English corners are a treat, not work: among other things, I get to pick the brains of a bunch of young, ambitious chinese, with relatively good English. Below are some choice fragments, most focus on the differences between the cultures more than the similarities.


About when your parents disapprove of your girlfriend/boyfriend.

L: You should respect your parents. Your parents are more important than love.

D : No! If I was a parent, I would let my child’s feelings come first.

L: Your parents should come first.


A: In China, if a man doesn’t have a house, it is hard for him to get married. Women expect him to have a house. So parents help their sons out to buy a house, and then the sons repay them later by looking after them when they are old.


P (a rare middle-aged student in the school): You don’t know how poor China was then, in the cultural revolution. Women would marry a man because he had a nice watch, or a nice bicycle!


C: (to another student) Your pronunciation is very poor!

Me: This is a big difference from the West, we usually don’t criticise someone when they are trying hard.

J: Ah, but in China, we can say these things to our friends, because they know we are joking.

Me: Like when you call your friends fat and ugly.

C + J: Yes!



These students would avoid such Chinglish

Someone brings me some ginger tea

S: you like it?

Me: Yeah, it’s pretty good

S: They shouldn’t be giving it to you know, it’s hot.

Me: I can wait for it to cool down.

S: Not the temperature, but it warms you up. You should drink it in winter

Me: ah… what else is “hot” food?

G: Fried food, beef.  Dog meat!

Me: and what is cold food?

G: er (looks at dictionary)… mung beans. Bitter melon


Me: Can anyone tell me any Chinese proverbs?

S: If you sow melon seeds, you get melons, if you sow pea seeds, you get peas.

Me: You reap what you sow!


Me: Are you saying you have studied here for 9 months, away from your wife, to improve your english?

H: Yes, dreams are important, If we don’t have a dream, there is nothing pushing us forward. I think your dream will come true, because you have a big dream, it will come true.



Yangshuo is dreamlike