Ice Skating and Failure

Yesterday was a beautiful, cold, typical Montreal winter day.  The sky was perfectly blue and the temperatures hit -12°C.  Chico and I decided to break out the ice skates we bought last year (and used maybe twice) and head to a nearby park to skate.

Park Lafontaine
Our Nearby Park

We laced ourselves into our skates and tentatively stood up and inched forward.  As always when first putting on skates, I am really, really, REALLY nervous.  It takes a while for me to get into the rhythm, and I skate with my eyes peeled on the ice in front of me, evaluating its state of smoothness and likelihood to trap me into a painful fall.

After a while, and feeling more adventurous, I picked up speed and got into a good gliding motion.  But then, I hit a rough patch.  The blades of my skates got caught in the choppy ice, and a law of inertia came into play: my upper body stayed in motion while an external force acted upon my feet.  My skates slowed and my torso kept moving and WHAM!  I ended up flat on my stomach, arms sprawled ahead and looking extremely undignified.

As soon as I stopped moving and was able to ascertain I wasn’t injured, I broke into a peal of giggles.  “So that’s what falling feels like?” I asked myself.  “Is that as bad as it gets??  Man, that was NOTHING!”  And I got up, dusted myself off and skated off, my whole body much more relaxed, less tense and more ready to enjoy the skating.

A friend once said that if you don’t fall over on a ski outing, you don’t learn anything.  That was certainly true of my ice skating excursion.  And it got me thinking about the value of failure.  We are often so terrified of failure.  But we fail (ha, get it?) to consider just how useful failure can be.  Rare are the cases when our failure will result in something horribly disastrous, physically painful or hurtful to someone else.  Most of the time, if we make a mistake or mess up, we will at worst embarrass ourselves, be humbled and perhaps a little humiliated.  But hey, that’s all a healthy, learning opportunity.

Falling flat on my stomach on the ice yesterday reminded me that I needn’t be afraid of failure.  That doesn’t mean I won’t try to avoid it, but I won’t be afraid of it.  I’ll probably mess some things up in the future, but hopefully I’ll be able to dust myself off and keep skating.

Power Outages & Oreos

So Beyoncé’s pyrotechnic show caused a power outage at the Superbowl last night!  Did anyone else hear about that??  Crazy stuff, right??  Oh wait, apparently I’m late breaking the news, because during the now-famous post-halftime power outage, Twitter users posted up to 231,000 tweets per minute about the sudden gloom.

Responses to this year’s Superbowl commercials have been mixed, though apparently most people agree on one: the Budweiser bit featuring a baby Clydesdale has become the third most shared video in advertisement history, according to Unruly media.  Psy’s pistachio commercial, Crackin’ Gangham Style, certainly made me giggle; The GoDaddy.com Big Kiss commercial is creating buzz just by being gross (seriously, only click if you can stand smooching noises); and Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd’s appearance in the Samsung Galaxy commercial is admittedly pretty funny.

But my favorite was the Whisper Fight from Oreo and then their response to the power outage.  In a stroke of genius, Oreo had someone on hand to whip up this baby:

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Oreo is right on the money

Congratulations, Oreo!  For what it’s worth, you win The Brain In Jane prize for best commercial!  The video combined with the brilliant response to real-time events show that Oreo and their agency 360i have what it takes to stay relevant and clever and get people talking.  Well done!

#Hashtag of the Week 2

super-bowlA major trending topic in North America this week has been, unsurprisingly, the #Superbowl!  Woo-hoo!  American football!  How FUN!

Alright, I have to confess that I know very little about American football, and I have little to no interest in the game (rugby is my bag, baby!).  However, the Superbowl is more than just a football game.  It is a showcase of all that is good (?) about US culture.  The concert at half time features some of the US’s top artists (and sometimes foreigners, like that crazy Paul McCartney!).  Perhaps an even more important representation of American culture, though, are the Superbowl ads.

The Superbowl captures a HUGE national audience, and advertisers know that they have to step up to the plate (whoops, is that a baseball analogy?) to break through the clutter.  And the pressure is on to perform: with a price tag of about $4 million for a 30-second spot, a flop would make for a pretty expensive failure.  Over the years it has become tradition for brands to prepare their cleverest, most attention-grabbing ads for the Superbowl.  Some have lived on in our collective memories (we all remember the first time we encountered the man our men could smell like) and others have gone down in history as the worst ads ever.

Ad Age published an article listing the commercial spaces bought by which companies, but I’m afraid I spent so long on the article that AdAge.com got mad at me and demanded I subscribe in order to continue reading.  Needless to say, I did not subscribe.  However, I do remember that the list includes giants like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Chevrolet and Oreos, among others.  There are also some relative newcomers on the scene such as GoDaddy.com.  Some brands release their ads for some pre-game exposure before the big day, while others keep them dead secret until Superbowl Sunday.  They hope the clips will go viral, and eagerly look forward to the online conversations their spots will generate.  Already Twitter is abuzz with comments about the pre-released ads, and a significant number of tweets with the #Superbowl hashtag have nothing to do with football.  It will be interesting to follow the reaction to this year’s commercials and see if they have better luck than Volkswagen so far.

If you weren’t planning to watch the Superbowl, perhaps you’ll reconsider simply for the pleasure of seeing these commercials.  Who knows, you could see the ad that will spark the next viral video craze!  Or, if you can’t even bring yourself to watch it for the ads, you can browse through Mashable’s top ten Superbowl commercials of all time.

Happy Superbowl Sunday!

The Internet Never Forgets

I was chatting with a girlfriend the other day, and I told her how I periodically like to clean up my Facebook profile.  By “clean up” I mean remove older posts from my timeline and untag old photos.  Today, while I was creating a physical photo album of my wedding, I got to thinking about why exactly I feel the need to do this.  What makes photos and posts online different from a photo album on my shelf?

Here’s the big difference: The Internet remembers everything.  Once information is up there, it is very, very hard to take it down.  Photos are reproduced and saved elsewhere, status updates are shared, tweets are retweeted, and their reach grows exponentially.  (A recent example is of the kids who asked their dad for a puppy and were told they could get one if they got one million “likes” on Facebook.  Needless to say, they got the puppy.)

Hey, I never realized you could "like" this...
Hey, I never realized you could “like” this…

If  you don’t manage your Facebook timeline carefully, those posts, inane comments, shares and unflattering photos will populate it forever.  Unless you show some discretion (“having good judgement” or “being able to make responsible decisions”), comments, photos and the ugly details of a crazy evening out on the town could follow you online forever.  We have all heard stories of how dubious photos or thoughtless status updates have cost people their relationships or their jobs – let’s not even talk about what tweeting a photo of your crotch can do for your career!  Part of living in an online world is practicing online reputation management.  Companies and brands do it to monitor conversations about them online, but individuals need to become more aware of the importance of allowing ourselves (and the Internet) to forget about episodes in our past.

We all like to reminisce.  Sometimes we have memories that cause us pangs of embarrassment just to think of them.  Something we said to someone, a lie we were caught in, an outfit we wore (what was I THINKING?? – it’s okay, it was the 90s).  It is healthy to privately remember those moments and draw lessons from them for the future.  But why does a status update need to remind everyone who can see our Facebook timeline about it?  When you accept a friend request today, ask yourself if you really want that person whom you’ve most likely just met briefly at a dinner party to see the gory details of your college party days.  There is always the possibility of taking the time to carefully manage our groups of friends and limit who can see what, but in the end even those who lived through experiences with you might not necessarily want to be reminded of them every time they click “view friendship.”

But most importantly, we need to remember how the information we share on places like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram affects people other than ourselves.  Are you posting photos of yourself with friends or parents who aren’t on Facebook (yeah, I’m guilty)?  Are you tagging people in unflattering photos?  I have to admit to having gone through a Facebook phase in which I would post any and every photo I took, approve tags of all kinds of silly faces I made, and not think twice about posting a photo of myself with a friend or family member who isn’t on Facebook without asking permission.

It was my Chico who first challenged me to think more carefully about what kind of information I posted.  I have no right to invade his privacy by sharing with everyone the fact that he hilariously wore mis-matching socks this morning (that’s just an example – that has never happened.  That I know of.).  Then, working on this website and consolidating and managing my personal brand online made me even more conscious of that fact.  Doing a Google search of “the brain in jane” produced many surprising results that I hadn’t even realized would be visible publicly (nothing shocking, mind you, but that search was certainly informative).  That’s when it hit me that even information that is posted “privately” online and doesn’t show up in a Google search is still present in a public space.  The Internet is not, by any stretch of the imagination, private, no matter how strict your settings on social media.

So my challenge for everyone, including myself, is to think twice before posting.  Let’s ask ourselves, “How will someone else perceive this?  Will it hurt someone’s feelings or offend unnecessarily?  How will I feel about this when I read it in two weeks, two months or two years?”  But most importantly, let’s ask ourselves, “How will my kid feel when he’s a teenager and he sees all the poop-related status updates and baby photos I’ve posted of him through the years?”  How will he feel, indeed?

Review: Sea of Poppies

My rating on Goodreads: 3 stars out of 5.

sea_of_poppies2I was disappointed by “Sea of Poppies” (2008) by Amitav Ghosh. Having read “The Glass Palace” (2000), I was expecting a novel of similar quality from “Sea of Poppies.” This book is set up as an epic novel, and while it is certainly epic in scope and in the number of characters it encompasses, I find it is also epic in its failure to give the reader any character of much value or substance. Its reach is too broad, and it is missing a central, strong character to tie it all together.

I will start by saying that I did find the story gripping. Ghosh tells a good tale, and his ability to evoke landscape, color and space make it easy to picture the vivid fields of poppies, the slums of Calcutta and the desolate stretch of an empty ocean. That’s why I’ve given the book three stars: Ghosh knows how to place a cliff-hanger, and the novel’s got an exciting story.

My main complaint, however, is how flat, one-dimensional and completely obvious the characters are. Ghosh leaves no room for interpretation of the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” They are very black-and-white, both in the good-and-bad sense, and, unfortunately, in the sense that white is bad and black is good. There is a clear distinction between the “good” and “bad” characters: all the English characters are brutes, sexual deviants, clueless matrons or gluttons while all the non-English characters are virtuous, unselfish and sympathetic. There are a few exceptions, including Singh and Deeti’s in-laws, and Paulette and her father, who, of course, are not English but French, and have integrated somewhat into local culture, learned the language and rejected the social mores of the dominant Brits. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the practices of the English as colonizers were in any way excusable, and I am not trying to apologize for colonization. Far from it. But a human being is a subtle and complicated creature, and his or her character is not so easily placed in a category of “good” or “bad” as Ghosh has so disappointingly done.

The “good” characters are, predictably, the coolies, the lascars, the mixed-race second mate Zachary, the metamorphosing gomusta, and the disgraced raja.  Bad and good characters, English and non alike, are portrayed as so flat as to make them completely unbelievable. This is in stark contrast to the character of Rajkumar in “The Glass Palace” whom Ghosh writes as so brilliantly complex and intensely real. We love him at times and despise him at others; Ghosh allows us that freedom. But not so with the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” We are told exactly how we are to think of each character, which completely killed any sense of interest or connection I had to this book.

The one exception is Neel, the disgraced raja. I found him to be the most real of all the personalities portrayed: willfully blind to the folly of his business practices as raja, he is humbled in every way imaginable. His disbelief, defiance, rejection and slow resignation to his fate I found to be the most realistically human aspect of this novel. In this person, I saw some flickers of the brilliant characterization of which Ghosh is capable.

I got the impression that Ghosh was trying too hard to make his novel epic by going into the minds of each character at a time. When you think of classic epic novels like “David Copperfield,” or “The Lord of the Rings” (yes, I did just put them into the same category), and even “The Glass Palace,” they all focus on one person as the main character (Copperfield, Frodo, Rajkumar). While we get some deeper glimpses into other characters, the central personality of the novel is the main focal point which brings the others together. In “Sea of Poppies”, the ship “Ibis” seems meant to be this character, but it completely fails to act as anything other than the physical space which the characters share. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in “Shadow of the Wind,” uses the city of Barcelona as an influential character which brings the others together, but he also has his main character of Daniel to be the human glue of the novel.)

These reasons, and the fact that I felt like “Sea of Poppies” left me with no better understanding of anything other than human cruelty, mean that I will not be continuing with this trilogy. This book had nothing original to say other than try to tell an interesting story. It felt like I was watching endless episodes of a soap opera, one in which none of the characters are particularly compelling. So I do not feel compelled to pick up book two in the series.

If you’re looking for a good trilogy, check out the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.

Thoughts on a Cover Letter

I have managed to thoroughly intimidate myself by spending the morning on the websites of some top Montreal advertising and communications agencies.  They have offices all around the world, they specialize in gathering people from all different disciplines to create their campaigns and they work with some of the largest and most integrated international brands.  These places are young, innovative, creative, chic, and highly successful.  They’re looking to employ the best.

How cool would it be to work in one of these agencies?  They seem ideal, but at the same time so utterly uncomfortable to me.

That’s right, I said uncomfortable.  Reading about some of their projects on their websites and watching videos about their work made me wonder how well I would fit in in these places.  I’m not hip, and I would not describe myself as cutting-edge, which is what the look, feel and presentation of these agencies scream to me.  Wouldn’t I feel awkwardly out of place?

The answer is that I might, but only if I let myself.  My tendency to self-doubt would manifest itself in doubts about my abilities, my experience, my creativity, my talents and not to mention my fashion choices.

And that’s when I remember just how amazing I am.

I-Am-Awesome

Bear with me.

I spent the first semester of my master’s program doubting my ability to achieve the results I wanted.  Hours were wasted on Skype with my poor, wonderful and patient mother, listening to me saying, “I can’t do this, Moooooom!”  But then, do you know what?  I did it.  And not only did I do it, I did it with distinction.  I organized myself and got down to the business of excelling so effectively that I didn’t even realize I was doing it.  When the results came in, I was thrilled to find myself among the top students in the program.  But I wasn’t surprised (and nor was anyone else).  I knew I had put the effort, time and thought in to get those grades, but it wasn’t until I saw the result that I discovered that I knew all along that I would get them.  So why on earth did I spend all that time worrying?

While I knew what I had to do to succeed, I still learned a lot along the way.  I learned to trust my abilities and my instincts and to follow my hunches.  I learned that following up on an off-hand interest can lead to being passionate and knowledgeable about a topic.  I learned that creativity isn’t just an innate gift, it is also a process.  Not everyone is born creative: we learn creativity by putting ourselves in situations that require it.  You learn to push your brain in different directions and think beyond the conventional to the seemingly impossible and/or absurd.  I learned that I am perfectly capable (and even GOOD) at doing just that.  In fact, I crave the opportunity to push myself.

So would working at an agency be stressful and uncomfortable?  Yes, it would!  Would I sometimes doubt myself and feel like I couldn’t deliver?  Probably.  And that’s why I need to work in such places.  Their emphasis on hard work, creative environments, team- and result-oriented cultures are exactly what I need.  I must, at all costs, avoid complacency.  When I’m constantly wondering IF I can do something is when I do things best, because I stay positive in the face of a challenge and I do not give up.  Working in a team where each member is expected to deliver to the best of his or her ability (and nothing less) is exactly what I need and where I belong.  Not only that, but I also have talents and a fresh, international perspective to contribute to an agency’s success.  I am capable, I am knowledgeable about social media, branding, communications and creativity.  I have applied myself to learn the technical aspects of my métier, as this blog shows.

These agencies may seem intimidating, but only if I forget how awesome I am.  I AM amazing, and I know it.  Sometimes I just need to remember to believe it.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can write that cover letter.

Checking in with Mooncup Ltd.

Sadly, I feel it necessary to warn any male readers of this blog that this post discusses feminine hygiene products and will include words like “vagina,” “menstrual,” “tampon,” and perhaps even “blood.”  But if you can handle it, it will be interesting and informative.  Oh, don’t be such a sissy!

Yesterday morning, I woke up to find a link to this video in my Facebook feed.  Mooncup Ltd. is AT IT AGAIN with the viral video game!  Mooncup Ltd. FTW!!!

Many of you may not know that while at the University of Leeds Business School, I wrote my master’s project on communication issues surrounding the Mooncup, a reusable form of sanitary protection for women.  I follow them on Facebook and Twitter and am always delighted when I see something new from Mooncup Ltd.  I was especially happy when I saw yesterday’s video because it shows a shift Mooncup Ltd.’s marketing messages.

Lady_Garden
Part of the “Love Your Vagina” campaign

In 2010, Mooncup Ltd. launched their first print advertising campaign entitled, “Love Your Vagina.”  Posters on the London Underground and other public spaces showed different pet names for a woman’s genitals and extolled women to love their vaginas and visit this website.  Once there, you could contribute your own pet name, and in the spring of 2011, the “Love Your Vagina” song made its debut on YouTube and has been getting awkwardly stuck in people’s heads since (hehehe, just watching it again now makes me giggle!).

All this is wonderful, of course, and it set the advertising world abuzz with praise for their creativity.  Mooncup Ltd.’s advertising agency, St Luke’s, even won silver at the London International Awards.  But what did it do for sales of the Mooncup?  Not much, apparently.  And that’s why I wanted to help out (being a devoted Mooncup user myself).

"Love Your Beach? Love Your Vagina."
“Love Your Beach? Love Your Vagina.”

My research found that the Mooncup was still (in 2011) a largely unknown sanitary protection option which elicited responses like, “WTF??  Ewwwww!!”  Those who had heard about it associated it largely with hippies and eco-nuts, and wrote it off as not for them.  Mooncup Ltd.’s approach to communication and advertising didn’t jive with this perception.  The “Love Your Vagina” campaign was what is called an emotional appeal which peaked curiosity but did not directly provide much information about what the Mooncup actually is.  The subsequent “Love Your Beach” print campaign also used an emotional appeal about caring for the UK’s beaches by using the Mooncup.  However, it failed to even include the mooncup.co.uk URL in the copy.  No information about what the product actually was was forthcoming.

A thorough literature review showed me that emotional appeals are more effective when dealing with known products.  In interviews with non-users of the Mooncup, I learned that they would rather an informative appeal.   The ideal spot would be in a women’s magazine where a lady could quietly (and privately) read about the product, get used to the idea and then perhaps visit the website.  I also found in my research that Mooncup Ltd.’s tagline of  “safer, greener, cheaper” didn’t really appeal to women.  Rather, ladies were more interested in the Mooncup’s perceived health benefits (keeping natural balance, not irritating or causing TSS), its promise of more reliable protection (not one interviewee expressed complete satisfaction with her current choice of sanitary protection), and its being more convenient (as in, it can hold three times as much and therefore requires less maintenance than other forms of protection).  After months of stress and research (sorry to those of you who lived through that…), I put all this information into a tidy report and sent it off to Kath Clements at Mooncup Ltd.  She wrote me a lovely email thanking me and saying the report contained some real gold nuggets of information.  Hooray!!  That, and receiving a distinction level mark on the project made me feel pretty good.

Fast forward to yesterday morning and the new Tampon vs. Mooncup Rap Battle.  As I said before, I was very happy to see that the video addressed some of my suggestions!  The rap is easy to understand, and it provides a little information about what the Mooncup is and how it works.  The “tampon” side voices misgivings women have about the Mooncup, while the “Mooncup” side answers them.  The video is a bit of a balance between an informational and an emotional appeal, and I think it’s very cleverly done.

Here's a pile of Mooncups!
Here’s a pile of Mooncups!

However, while this is great creative and provides some information, I think that Mooncup Ltd. needs to balance this kind of viral marketing with a parallel informative print campaign.  (Now, to be fair, since I am not in the UK I do not know if they have in fact done this.  It could be that they have a print campaign running right now and I’m just not aware of it.)  As I said, the advantage of print is that you can provide lots of information.  A well-worded description of the product, similar to the one in this video, is an essential starting point for the Mooncup’s diffusion into mainstream consciousness.  Why would someone share an online video of a rap battle between tampon and Mooncup if they don’t even know what a Mooncup is?

In conclusion, this new video is a step in the right direction.  It includes a bit more information about what the Mooncup actually is (hooray!), and it answers some questions.  I’d be really curious to know what kind of an effect this video has on visits to the website and eventually, sales of the Mooncup.  I love how Mooncup Ltd. makes use of social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, but I still feel that in order to get a strong foothold in the mainstream sanitary protection market, they need to do more advertising in traditional media, namely print.  They do have a corner on a niche market, but their advertising activities to date tell me that they are looking to expand into the mainstream.  I hope that they can do it, because, frankly, using a Mooncup has completely changed my period, and I wish the same positive, stress-free experience for all ladies out there.

#Hashtag of the Week

This week, as I wasted time on–AHEM, I mean as I QUICKLY GLANCED at–my Twitter feed, I noticed #AskJack2 was trending globally.  My natural curiosity led me to click on the hashtag and it took me to this page which was full of questions for someone apparently named Jack.

Jack Harries, I learned, was a child TV star in the UK (he was on the BBC rather than the Disney channel) and vlogger (that’s “video blogger”).  He has over 576,000 followers on Twitter, almost 966,000 subscribers on YouTube with over 45,000,000 views of his videos, and an impressive quiff hairdo.  He even has his own Wikipedia entry!  While he doesn’t have a website yet, he has made the smart move of buying both “jackharries.co.uk” and “jacksgap.com”.  He often makes videos with his twin brother, and from the couple that I’ve watched, they’re actually kind of cute and fun in a very teenage-cool kind of way.

Yes, I said “teenage”.  This guy is nineteen.  And this 19-year-old has established his personal brand more successfully than a lot of celebrities.  His use of social media is consistent in its tone-of-voice and general theme:

Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 5.53.51 PM
This guy could school many people (including me) on successful branding.

If anyone is looking for a very simple, fun example of how to manage a personal brand, this guy’s got it right.  He’s upbeat, positive, and entertaining because he enjoys doing fun, every day things.  One could argue that his apparent mastery of his personal brand comes from growing up in a generation where people “live” online, and one could also argue that sharing so much of yourself with millions of internet viewers is perhaps not the wisest idea, but hey, he’s over 18 and that’s his choice.

My point is that he strikes a perfect balance between brand identity (as in, how the brand sees itself) and brand image (how the brand is viewed by the public).  Both he and his followers describe him as “cheeky, fun, and a bit random.”  There you have it.  That’s brand equity for you.  Jack has set the tone for how people view him (or his “branded” version of himself), and if he continues to manage this successfully he will make quite a name for himself.  This kid just needs to post “good morning!” on Twitter and he gets hundreds of responses and retweets.  You can’t buy that kind of engagement, folks.

I’m curious to see where he’ll go in terms of internet celebrity and if his will be a sustainable business model (Justin Bieber, anyone?).  The work he’s doing online now may very well bring him success in his dream job as a television presenter.  In any case, bravo to Jack, and I wish him all the best.

Each week I will post my thoughts on a trending global #hashtag on Twitter.

Raclette Lunch

Today’s raclette lunch with our dear friends Rafa and Esther was nearly a miss.  For the simple reason that my raclette machine, being from Switzerland, is built for 240 volts, whereas the voltage here in Canada is only 110…  Our cheese melted veeeeeeeeeeery sloooooooooowly…  Soooooo slowly that we pretty much polished off the potatoes, viande séchée, broccoli and pickles before even the first tray was ready.

Eventually, though, the cheese melted just enough for us to be able to spread it over our potatoes (no pouring action involved, we were too impatient to let it get that liquid).  The result was a fine raclette.  Chico and I had bought two types of cheese: one imported Swiss raclette cheese which had the wonderful tang that we associate with the dish.  The other was a locally made cheese from Oka which was much greasier (the grease dripped off the trays as we poured it) and sweeter.  While nice, it didn’t have the same zip to it as our beloved Swiss raclette.

Why is the cheese gone??
Why is the cheese gone??

Obviously, that didn’t stop us from devouring it all.  Now it’s time for a cheese coma.  Zzzzzzz…

EDITED: CBC Human Library Project

The following is a re-post of my original report on the Human Library Project, with some corrections.  Thanks to Lela for her feedback and contribution!

As I wrote earlier this week, I went to the Atwater Library in Westmount this morning to participate in the Human Library project.  I had signed up to speak with Lela Savic, a Romani journalist and documentary maker.  She was interning at the Human Library project, and considering her background they invited her to be one of the human libraries this year.

If you watch her introductory video, you will learn that Lela was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and when the war broke out when she was five, her family emigrated to Canada.  I briefly described to her how I am from Switzerland and in Geneva there is a very negative perception of Romani as beggars, pickpockets and thieves.  I asked her to describe her background to me so that I could see a different perspective of Romani.

Lela described how she grew up in Canada as any “normal” kid would.  She studied at Concordia University, she has travelled, worked, and maintained her connection with her family roots back in Serbia (in fact, throughout our conversation, she referred to “her village” in Serbia as home, rather than Montreal).  She told me she feels that the fundamental difference between Romani culture and others is that it is a very old, traditional culture.  It is not that different from many southern European cultures, but it is very insular.  For that reason many Romani (especially women) have little interest in education, development or what is going on outside of their group.  This often results in issues in healthcare and a lack of empowerment of women (though in her family, she and her siblings were all encouraged to study, regardless of gender).  Since so few people know anything about Romani culture, Lela feels that many do not understand her cultural perspective.

It was fascinating discussing Gadjo (or non-Romani) perceptions of her people, but also how Romani groups view each other.  She said that here in Canada Romani are viewed in romantic light: when she tells people she is Romani it often inspires images of an exotic “Esmerelda” who dances and sings.  Or, she is asked if her family is nomadic and travels around all the time.  However, in Europe, she hesitates to disclose that she is Romani.  She often gets very negative reactions which range from distrust to outright hostility.  Though she said she has one cousin who is a successful businesswoman in Belgrade, she has other cousins who have been shut out of the business world in Europe because they are Romani.

Lela comes from a community that is sedentary and lives in a group of six neighboring villages in Serbia.  They have intermarried, grown and established themselves as mostly farmers.  There are other groups of Romani who travel, and engage in what are negatively viewed as the stereotypical activities of the Romani, such as pickpocketing, begging, etc.  She said that among Romani there is a specific word for these groups, and they are often looked down upon for “giving Romani a bad name.”  However, because many Romani share the experience of being marginalized and discriminated against, there is an understanding that these groups often have no other choice. It is a vicious cycle: because they are rejected by society as thieves and beggars, they must become just that in order to survive, thus further reinforcing the negative stereotypes.  When one thinks about it, it is heartbreaking to think that a whole group of people is stuck in this wheel.

Lela’s goal is to continue working to educate the outside world about her culture.  She would also like to work as an activist among Romani, as she believes Romani people will more readily accept social reform initiated by one of their own, rather than from perceived outsiders.  Our conversation was fascinating, though brief, and it accomplished the goal the Human Library project set out to do: it opened my eyes to a different perspective and reminded me to always challenge stereotypes and be open to changing preconceived ideas.

After my conversation with Lela, I had a little time to spare, so I asked who would be available for a conversation starting at 11:30.  I had a fascinating conversation with Gabrielle Bouchard, a trans woman who spent most of her life as man, and transitioned to life as a woman in her late thirties.  I will tell you more about our chat in another post, though, as this one is getting on the long side.

Happy Saturday everyone, and have a good weekend!

If you are interested in hearing some of Lela’s interviews with members of the Roma community, you can listen to her interview with Kristin Molnar, her discussion on stereotypes, and her conversation about discrimination against Romani people in Croatia.  Please note that some of these interviews are conducted in French, so if you were looking for a good reason to learn French, here you have it!  I highly recommend you give these a listen.