Friday, July 17, 2009

Pearls Before Swine?

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:

he violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk...

6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

Your thoughts?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cultural Carnivores

One of my favorite travel hosts is Rick Steves, mainly because of his infectious passion for discovery and his admiration of cultural diversity. In his latest blog, he talks about being inspired all over again by his daughter's current travels through Spain -- and 'their unbridled fun -- not gumming the culture, but tearing into it with carnivorous teeth and selfish abandon.'

Here's to cultural carnivores.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I Belong, Therefore I Am

I mentioned in an earlier post Sarah Lanier's book, Foreign to Familiar, and the distinctions she draws between hot-climate and cold-climate cultures. One of many significant differences between these two groups is the concept of individualism as opposed to group identity. In most cold-climate cultures, children are brought up with an acute awareness of their individual identity. We are taught to think for ourselves, find our own path, and in America, we are made aware of our "inalienable rights" as individuals. And many Americans will go as far as to say that's the biblical pattern, the way God intended it.

In warm-climate cultures (which, incidentally, include the lands where biblical culture evolved), much more attention is paid to collective identity. Perhaps the most important thing a child can learn is that he/she is part of a whole -- a village, a clan, a tribe -- and because of that, the child has significance. The Maoris of New Zealand are said to have a saying, "I belong; therefore I am."

Needless to say, the implications are huge. When important decisions are to be made, the concern in the hot-climate culture will be the good of the group as a whole. A spokesperson will be careful not to speak for himself but make sure he is representing his people. A cold-climate person will not necessarily stop and think of the common good or the opinion of his group as a whole; what's important to him is that his voice be heard.

We must be clear that we are not distinguishing between right and wrong here -- those intent on a right or a wrong are missing the point-- but the distinctions are so significant that anyone seeking cultural intelligence -- whether the business person, the leisure traveler, or simply the culturally curious -- will do well to understand them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Artist Luke Jerram wants to awaken Londoners from their humdrum daily routine and add a little music to the urban atmosphere. Jerram has had 30 pianos placed at well-known locations such as St. Paul's Cathedral, Millenium Bridge and the Liverpool Street Station. Called "Play Me, I'm Yours," the project is produced by a nonprofit called Sing London and City of London Festival. The pianos are intended for passers-by to perform impromptu recitals -- whether beginners or accomplished pianists -- anyone inclined to tickle the ivories. The instruments come complete with songbooks and are locked to the nearest bench or railing. They are also customized to fit their surroundings; at the Royal Exchange, for example, the piano has money printed on it.

Jerram has already pulled this off in cities from Sydney to Sao Paolo...perhaps coming to a city near you.