Stringers

Stringers

Reports from South Africa, the United States and Russia
RE | Issue 12 | 2017

 

Reports filed by correspondents across the world

 

STRANGE CODES, UNWRITTEN LAWS

Chloe Taylor | South Africa


"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Although South Africa is my home, I have been visiting London on and off since early childhood. Now I live in this great city, at least for a while, on secondment from Johannesburg.

A great joy, indeed liberation, that London offers is the ability to walk to my office. This is an impossibility in Johannesburg, where the daily commute involves exhaust fumes, road rage, creative contraflow driving, and a random selection of other lethal and sub- lethal hazards; such a commute insists that one remains alert and fixed in 'survival mode'.

Walking, in contrast, is private time, my time to let the scenery around me flow over and past me, and for my thoughts to freewheel in kaleidoscopic fashion: here comes a flurry of brown, red and orange snowflakes, autumnal leaves driven by a sudden gust, so satisfying to crackle underfoot on the pathway; and the warm and sweet scent, somehow reminiscent of childhood, of caramelized chestnuts that greets me every morning at the steps by Tower Bridge, purveyed by street vendors of Dickensian appearance warming themselves over their ovens. And the noise, always the noise, a backdrop jangle of sirens, trucks, buses, trains and constant motion, immersion in this constant but ever changing symphony informing new neural pathways in the normally quiet mind.

In a city where each is bidden by his business to be somewhere else, strange codes and unwritten laws seem to apply: witness commuters striding towards each other on congested sidewalks, much like jousters who will not yield their path to another, yet who a moment later somehow brush past as if they had never been opponents at all. Observe those street crossings, where some wait patiently for an illuminated green figure to guide them safely to the other side, surging forward like a released spring when forbidding red changes to permissive green; while others, driven by an unseen but palpable haste, dart between the snarling traffic to the other side, gaining a few seconds on their more compliant brethren. Pace and movement indeed constitute the pulse of this city: a perpetual motion that the outsider might be forgiven for describing as random, but which in fact is purposeful to its participants.

I know afresh each day, on each morning's walk to work, that I am not tired of London, not yet.

 


THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR

Alexandra Howe | United States


On 20 March 2017, at his seventy-five-acre estate in the Hudson River Valley, New York, David Rockefeller died peacefully in his sleep. He was 101 years old, the last of the grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil and America's first ever billionaire.

At the time of his death, Forbes estimated David Rockefeller's net worth as $3.3 billion. The Hudson Valley property, a magnificent 1930s Georgian-style mansion designed by New York architect Mott Schmidt, was listed on the market for $22 million in September. In Rockefeller’s will, this and other properties were offered first to his five surviving children, who had the chance to buy at fair market value or else to sell them to fund various philanthropic endeavours.

David Rockefeller lived a life of almost unimaginable privilege and splendour. As a boy he roller-skated with his brothers along New York’s Fifth Avenue, followed by the family limousine in case they grew tired. His personal art collection consisted of around 4,500 works at the time of his death, including works by Picasso, Cézanne and Manet. The Rockefeller name conferred an unparalleled power.

But David Rockefeller remained true to a promise he made in 2010, when he signed the Giving Pledge founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Committing to contribute a majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes, he wrote: “Our family continues to be united in the belief that those who have benefited the most from our country's economic system have a special responsibility to give back to our society in meaningful ways.”

This is American philanthropy. It is a model that was created by Andrew Carnegie—the son of weavers from Dunfermline in Scotland, who was born in a one-room cottage and went on to accumulate in the New World one of the largest fortunes in modern history. Carnegie once said that he would sooner leave his son a curse than the almighty dollar.  His legacy was the assumption of charity. This is not like the personal, pious, almost rueful Old World attitude to donation. It is not about saving yourself and perpetuating your name, or at least, it is not just about those things. American philanthropy is public, and proud, and expected. It is a matter of civic duty.

New York is tattooed with the names of the generous: offices, monuments, parks, plazas, theatres and galleries unashamedly proclaim the names of their benefactors. You can find something similar in many countries and yet, to me, this universal belief that the prosperous citizen has an obligation to her community and her nation feels uniquely American.

 


SAY IT AS IT IS

Natalia Mushinska, Russia


My sister got married to a Swiss guy and moved from Moscow to a small Swiss village. “What are you missing most of all?”—I ask her. I expect her to complain about losing the cultural life of a big city and this is, of course, one of the points, but not a prevailing one. “I miss the Russian straightforwardness”, she answers.

“In Russia I always know what to expect. If someone invites you home, it means he wants to make friends with you. I do not understand the people here. They are all very polite, nice, talkative. But in the end it does not mean anything. If they invite you for tea or coffee ‘one day’, it does not mean that you are really invited.”

As it turns out, this is a figure of speech rather than an invitation, just a cultural code implied in the manner of communication. The hidden message is: Ok, look, I am sincere and warm-hearted to everyone on the street because of my sophisticated language capabilities, cultural background and European upbringing. In fact, I live in a closed society and do not want strangers to intrude into my private life.

This, I think, is one of the absolute, fundamental cultural differences between the Western world and Russia. ‘How are you?’ does not anticipate an answer. Then why on earth are you asking me? Why do you need all these speech formalities?

‘Mentality’—they say, when they want to explain something inexplicable, something in the air.

In Russia, people on the street are distrustful of strangers, don't smile at passers-by and generally are not polite. This is a product of our history. For so long we have had to protect ourselves against enemies, external ones but also internal. Just one generation back, people used to be killed, tortured or kidnapped. Fear is too close, too deeply rooted. The irony is that this same reasoning brought the idea that one could be safe only in a collective: ‘there is always safety in numbers’ and ‘army of one fails’.

This is why in Russian culture such an important place belongs to friendship; but not a friendship in the European sense. We treat friendship as a very close relationship, similar to familial connections, which implies a shocking degree of devotion, intimacy and openness.

Cheerful, friendly Westerners do not actually want close relationships (apart from their family ones); they are happy within their (closed) individuality. Seemingly rude Russians are in fact committed to close interaction with people and are looking for friendship in the highest meaning of the word. Am I right?


Chloe Taylor is a trainee lawyer on secondment in London. Alexandra Howe is RE:'s arts editor and is based in New York. Natalia Mushinska is RE:'s Moscow correspondent.. First published in RE: issue 12 (2017)