Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Trip dist: 0 kms. Trip time: 3 hrs, 15 mins. Tot dist:5,949 kms.


Heh. I have been summoned back to Vienna (ha ha! I say it as if I were someone important called by someone even more important! ;P): 2nd round of interviews for that little engineering company I told you about.

So not much to tell you about today here, except that I had a very amusing conversation with a Vienese gentleman (in his late 70's) on the train from Budapest. He approached my compartment shortly before departure (I was sitting alone up to that point), looked at me with piercing little eyes behind a pair of spectacles, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it, and sat down in front of me instead.

[I thought this amusing. I concluded immediately this gentleman was Austrian. I don't remember exactly what was that hinted to this: his dress, perhaps, a book he was carrying, the demeanor, I don't know. But what was amusing was that it was obvious he was about to ask for permission to occupy the same compartment, except that he clearly had thought I most likely spoke Hungarian, which he did not, and thus not knowing what to say, decided against saying anything at all].

A Hungarian girl then joined us (she did ask for permission, in Hungarian, first, but with neither me nor the Austrian gentleman knowing what to reply, we merely simply nodded when she said what I assumed was "Is this seat free?"), and proceeded to have a very long conversation on her cell phone, and when that ended, 45 minutes into our journey (the train to Vienna from Budapest takes almost 3 hours), she then occupied herself with grooming her eyebrows on the compartment's mirror.

This was, of course, of no consequence or interest to me, except for the fact that it produced a rather amusing reaction in the little old man in front of me, who looked at her quite appalled, and just obviously bursting at the seams to say something.

Which he, of course, did not, since he didn't speak Hungarian.

Anyway, eventually the girl got off the train at some border town, and as there was still at least an hour and a half to go before arrival, I decided to test the little conjectures I had up to that point been forming about my train trip companion.

"Sind Sie Österreicher?", said I, to break the ice ["Are you Austrian?"].

"Yes, from Vienna," replied he (in German, of course. All of this conversation was in German, I'm just writing it in English from here on for you).

[Bingo on deductions 1 and 2: He is Vienese and does not speak Hungarian.]

Me: "Neat! Day tripping to Budapest?"

Him: "Yes, visiting a friend."

And so on and so forth, with small talk conversation lasting long enough to get us acquainted, enough to know where we each come from and go to and why, and puncutated with very quick, subtle (unlike my former German encounters) unobtrusive corrections to my horrible grammar, and a chat which was very pleasant and relaxing.

Soon, of course, the conversation took a more interesting turn (one thing that is true about these Germanic tribes is that conversations turn to serious matters--politics, current events, history, etc.-- very quickly. Small talk is not typically of much interest to German speakers, which is a happy coincidence, because nor it is to me). While talking about what Mexico is like and what Austria is like and eventually what the world is like, the gentleman in front of me suddently burst out with what had clearly been simmering for some time, for it seemed to be one of his fundamental life conclusions, brought about by over 70 years of reflection and experience, and it was (or was something like) this:

"All of the world's problems are caused by overpopulation."

I had to find a way not to fall off my chair laughing as soon as I heard that. With the most serious face I could muster, and as politely as possible, I instead asked....

"Er...why do you say that?"

"Well, look at all those poor people having 8, 10 kids. That's no way to live! That's no way to come out of poverty!"

Me: "Er, yes, I suppose that's true."

The gentleman then ranted away at how could people be so ignorant so as to think that by having more children they would somehow improve life for themselves.

Now, Mexico, as you know, is a rather poor country, and up until very recently, but especially in rural areas, the custom was, in fact, to try to have large families. There is, to some extent, some logic to this, which I attempted to explain:

"I think what happens is that in rural communities the view is that the more farmhands are available, the better. Kids are made to work and help out at the farm since they are very young, and obviously the more kids there are, the more help is available. So it does make sense, in a way."

"Yes," said the gentleman, "but with more than one or 2 kids, you cannot send them all to college. It is expensive! How can these farmers think that they can send 8 kids to college, or make enough money to send them off to school. It is unthinkable! So now you have 8 uneducated, unemployable children running around, what do they do when the father dies? How do they get a job and look after themselves? They don't! They end up in the streets, causing all the problems we see now in the world, street violence, drugs, etc."

Clearly, my companion had assumed that it was unquestionable, that the goal for every child born to a family, farmer or not, was to get a college education. Interesting theory, which I did not see the point to discuss (I was afraid I would be unable to remain polite at this one---oftentimes my disagreeing is not as diplomatic as it could be, and I didn't want to risk upsetting this, now turned very passionate, little old gentleman). Nevertheless, the other assumption: that street violence, drug use, poverty, and basically, "all the problems of the world" were caused by uneducated children product of 8 member overpopulated families was just something I could not let go off so easily.

"Well, yes, but take for instance, Europe. Europe's population is declining, yet it has the same problems of drug use and violence that we all know and love. We even see these problems, and even more so, in "rich" countries, like the U.S. Overpopulation, therefore, does not seem to be the probable cause."

"Yes," quoth he. "But Europe and the U.S. have immigrants from poor countries coming in. And these immigrants are coming in because their countries are overpopulated, and therefore poor. Places like Africa and India."

Uh oh. Back to some specious and circular reasoning. It reminded me a bit of arguing with an old friend of mine, that did. How to remain respectful, without pointing out that the reasoning was faulty, that some facts were being intentionally left out, that evidence was being ignored?

"Well, in the case of places like Africa, I believe that the reason some of those countries are poor is not because of overpopulation per se. If you think about it, Africa had been colonized, enslaved, opressed, and exploited by wealthier countries until well into the 20th century. Even after decolonization and the abolition of slavery you still had nasty things like apartheid rearing its ugly head until only a few years ago. And to top it off, after that you ended up with local corrupt governments that have done nothing to improve the lives of the people. I very much highly doubt that this is because Africa suffers from overpopulation, on the contrary. Perhaps this overpopulation is, as I said, a way to try to cope with a situation that is already not quite ideal..."

[Now, all of the above sounds very cogent and well constructed, of course, because I'm writing it several days after it happened. In reality, you have to imagine me trying to say this with my limited German vocabulary and while being interrupted every minute or two by the small grammar "corrections" from my interlocutor. No small feat, but anyway...]

And so on and so forth, but no matter what I said ("There are even plenty of countries that are poor but not overpopulated, take Eastern Europe, for instance"), I could not convince him. At 70, his mind was already made up, and the conversation, at this point, had started to turn a little boring, with him always repeating the same kind of thing.

Now, those of you who know me well know that when conversations start to turn boring for me, I tend to like to spice things up by needling my interlocutor. It is an evil thing to do, because at this point, I'm no longer interested in the conversation per se (it has already revealed to want to go nowhere constructive), but rather in pure mental entertainment: at this point the talk is no longer a friendly exchange of ideas that enable both participants to learn from each other, but simply a way for me to do some simple mental sparring: twisting logic, redifining words, abusing rethoric to support any and whatever viewpoint (no matter how irrational) a typical favorite exercise of mine (as you know). But in this particular case, I decided to surprise my interlocutor with an observation that he would not have expected, taking the risk of it being discovered as impolite, but still striving to preserve the apparent innocence of the statement (and for these kinds of things my trustworthy demeanor always seems to serve quite nicely).

You see, there is one thing that I have noticed about people over the past few years, and it is this: Tell me what that person finds important, tell me what someone values the most, and nine times out of ten, it will be something that that person does not have. Show me someone who thinks that the most important thing in life is "to be happy" or "to pursue happiness", and I'll show you someone who is unhappy. Show me someone who thinks money is important, and I'll show you someone for whom it will never be enough. Show me someone who thinks "love" is the thing worth living for, and I'll show you someone who does not currently have a significant other. It is uncanny, how true this is, and it is after all not really all that surprising: psychology and economics tells us that we will value those things that we find scarce or are difficult to obtain. The people who are genuinely happy and know how to value the things that they already have in abundance are truly rare finds.

But anyway, back to my little old gentleman and "Overpopulation is the source of all problems." By this point, he was ranting on and on about how it was unbelievable that these ignorant overpopulated countries did not have a culture that looked kindly upon birth control, and whose fault was that, the governments', but also the male's, yes, the males were to blame, etc etc etc.

At this point I just nodded and agreed to every single thing he said, until there was a lull in the conversation.

"Say," said I, after a pause, a short, warning peparation for my beat-attack.

"Do you have any kids?" I smiled innocently.

He waved away my question (from which I quickly concluded that the answer, as expected, was "no"), said something more about "overpopulation, think about it", to which I promised I would, and this conversation, at least, ended shortly afterwards.


Anyway, the train ride was long, so that was not the end of our chat (though the overpopulation one, thankfully, had ended just exactly when I had wanted it to). Now it turned instead back to Austria and Mexico, and how those barbarous Mexicans had assasinated Maximilian I, when he had most kindly agreed to go govern them at their request, and how, had they really not wanted him, why not just put him on a ship back to Austria? Was it really necessary, to shoot him with a firing squad? Honestly! Whatever happened to common courtesy!

Again, I had to summon some superhuman strength not to laugh. It seemed very amusing to me, that he just could not see what to any Mexican would be shiningly evident and obvious: no one likes to be invaded. To have a foreigner come to govern your country as an Emperor is the greatest affront to national sovereignty.

I tried to explain.

"But he came at the Mexicans' request!"

"Yes," said I, "but he came at a time of some rather tumultuous times, politically. The Mexicans who requested him was a very small group of monarchists, and what's more, wasn't it Napoleon, who kind of pushed his going there? France had invaded Mexico just a short time before. What I'm trying to say is, he most definitely was not "invited" and most definitely it was not with the backing of the people."

"Well," he continued. "They shouldn't have shot him. If they didn't want him there, they should've just told him to go back home."

[Supressed a chuckle here again. Seriously, have you ever heard of an invader who politely leaves when the invaded country expresses their objections? Honestly!]

"You see," he pressed on, "When I was visiting Mexico City..."

"Oh, you've been there?", I was, to tell the truth, a bit surprised at this.

"Yeah, when I was visiting that Castle on the hill, what's it called? Chapatulec, is it?"

"Chapultepec," said I.

"Yes, anyway, the guide was telling us with great relish, veritable glee, of how the Mexicans had executed this tyrant. And he wasn't a tyrant at all, he was just someone who was offered this governorship, accepted in good faith, and look what happened to him. She didn't know I was Austrian, so when I tried to explain this to her, that he came in good faith, she kept telling me what you are saying, but how can they be so ignorant of history, not to know that he was invited, how could he not be welcomed, when he came at the Mexican's request?"

And here followed a side-rant about how tourist guides should be licensed, like they are in Europe, where they have to take a test, to prove they are knowledgeable in the history of the places that they are guiding tours in.

Again, I had to struggle not to laugh, and attempted to calmly explain.

"I believe it is not, really, that she was not well-versed in Mexican history. What happens, you see, is that, like in many countries, in Mexico, the history books in public schools are written by the government. The government, just like most other countries', has an interest in fostering a certain...pride in one's nation. Therefore, and consistent with 200 years of Mexican foreign policy, a sense of 'one does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries' is inculcated into the Mexican mind from an early age, since these books are distributed starting in Elementary school. Mexicans literally bristle at the thought of having someone else meddle in how they should run their country. Maximillian's arrival, you see, was an unabashed affront on this Mexican pride, and still is. It is understandable, that they would continue to portray him as a tyrannical invader who well-deserved what he got. And he did, in a way, for he should've informed himself a little bit better as to what the political and social realities were of the country he was supposed to govern..."

But of course, I could make no headway on the view that: "Still, they should not have shot him. That is barbaric. They should've just put him on a ship back. What's more, they should be thankful, He built this beautiful Castle on the Hill, what other beautiful monuments are there in Mexico City? None! Tyrant, yeah right, but you Mexicans got this beautiful castle which you got to keep."

I smiled. "You are right, of course," said I.

The conversation then changed, of course, after I had thus purposely killed it. But amusement was not over, for now it turned to the famous headdress of Moctezuma II, which, as you know, is exhibited in the Museum für Völkerunde (Ethnology Museum) of Vienna, and which I, in spite of having passed by several times, purposely did not visit, because I knew it would make me bristle to despair seeing this very precious Aztec headdress exhibited there.

"Take that headdress of Moctezuma. Did you know, that just a few years ago, a Mexican delegation came to Vienna, to demand it be returned?"

I had heard something like that.

"Well, guess what the Austrians said."

"Clearly they said no, since the headdress is still not where it should be." (That is, in the National Anthropology Museum of Mexico City, where a copy is displayed, with a little caption indicating that the original"taken" Vienna).

"Where it should be? It is the property of Austria. Either way, the Austrians first said, 'O.K., we'll give it back, but in return you give us all of those things that Maximilian took to Mexico from his home here in Vienna', and the Mexicans said 'no'."

"Well," said I "the things that Maximilian took to Mexico should remain in Mexico, because they would not have been purposely taken there if he wanted them to stay in Vienna. The headdress, on the other hand, was not taken by its owner to Vienna, it just somehow..."appeared" here under questionable circumstances, and ..."

"No, it doesn't work that way. We Austrians, we were willing to give the headdress back, but what, you just want handouts like that? What do we get in return? It is only fair, that we get what belongs to us back, otherwise, no deal. Besides, do you think that headdress would've been so well-preserved if it had remained in Mexico? You should be thankful, because here you can see it, it is well taken care of, if it had remained in Mexico by now it would've been long gone."

"Of course," capitulated I, in words only, again.

"Of course," said he.

I smile every time I remember this train ride. Irony is....a very curious thing.


1 comment:

Carlos said...

Oh boy -- Ignorance seems not to stem solely from overpopulation ;).