Mea She’arim… Under cover.

Mea She’arim is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and populated by Haredi Jews. It was established in 1874 as the second settlement outside the walls of the Old City. It remains today an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem, as life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish texts.

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“Groups passing through our neighborhoods severely offend the residents, please stop this”, says the poster. “To women and girls who pass through our neighborhood, we beg you with all our hearts, please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes. Modest clothes include : closed blouse, with long sleeves, long skirt, no trousers, no tight fitting clothes. Please do not disturb the sanctity of our neighborhood, and our way of life as jews committed to G-D and his torah”.

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Of course, pictures are not welcomed and I left my GoPro in my pocket, which explains the weird perspective of my pictures. Though, I think it still conveys the strange atmosphere of the place, reminding somehow the Eastern European shtetl…

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My “Stan” Countries…

Kirghizistan (KI), Uzbekistan (UZ), Kazakhstan (KA). What are their common points ?

What about the language?
In KA, everyone speaks Russian, they have almost no knowledge of their original language.
In KI, everyone knows Russian, would speak it with you, but they would speak their own language when they are together.
In UZ, Russian comes as a second language, and some people don’t even speak it.

What about their English skills?
I’m not sure they know more than Russians but they are highly interested in talking to foreigners to practice their skills. In Tashkent for example, as I was taking the metro, two young students decided not to get out at their station but stayed with me until I reached my destination, so that we could chat together.

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What about religion?
In KA, you will find as many orthodox churches as mosques.
In KI, there is a mosque in every single village. Though, people don’t go everyday. Mainly on Fridays, and still, when they have time only. The adhan (prier call from the minaret) is even forbidden.
In UZ, it looks like they pray more often. Whenever they hear a prayer, they would freeze, open their hands like if they were holding an open Koran, and pray.  Around 85% of Uzbeks claim to be Muslim (nearly all are the Hanafi Sunni variety), although only around 5% to 15% are practicing.

What about women?
No veils. Scarfs for old women in KI, and one most of women outside of Tashkent in UZ. As a matter of fact, in Bishkek (KI) and Tashkent (UZ), the youth is completely westernized. In KA, Astana’s youth seems trendier than in Almaty. And you could even meet there some bimbos in a Russian style.
Though, Uzbek women struggle for equality. Considered second-class citizens in the workplace and in the home, women are not given the same rights as their Western counterparts, or their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbors. Domestic violence occurs in 40% of Uzbek homes, yet overall household control lies in the hands of the husband’s mother. Abuse, however, rarely leads to divorce, and there are occasional reports of suicide by self- immolation, a cultural trait that dates back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-14 à 22.34.30from left to right : Bishkek (KI), Astana (KA), Tashkent (UZ)

What about their knowledge of France ?
All of them know Mireille Mathieu, Piaf, Brel. My driver to the Isyk-Kol Lake in KI was able to sing some of their hits. And I remembered that when I was in Ekaterinburg, Russia, we saw posters featuring the next Patricia Kass concert. Several time, in bars, coffee shops, or on the radio, I heard French songs.

And of course, they all know about the Eiffel Tower. My driver to the Aral Sea has made it is anthem: He wants to see the Eiffel Tower.
More surprisingly, all of them heard about the gay marriage that was voted last year in France. This is the first thing the taxi driver who picked me up at the Bishkek Airport asked me : “Are there many gays in France ?”. He knew everything about the debate and didn’t seem judgmental, just very curious. The son of Dilbar, in Almaty, asked me completely out of the blue : “Is Hollande gay ?”. Unbelievable. He don’t hear a single thing about those countries and they know everything about mine…

What about their vision of USSR ?
Overall, all the people I talked to miss USSR and their independence in 1991 was a chock. “Before, we wouldn’t have to worry about our future”, said my Tashkent (UZ) taxi driver. “We used to have social services, and we miss that”. “Poor people are more poor and rich people are richer”, said the woman I had met on my flight to Bishkek (KI). “All of the sudden we had to reflect on what we should do to make a living”, said my mountains guide in Almaty (KA).

8042856025_33a66ef779_z(Lenin at the Historical State Museum, Bishkek, KI)

What about their vision of Putin ?
“He did a lot for his country”. This is what I heard everywhere. They have a great admiration for him, and wish they could have such a leader in their own country. A rich country, recognized as a serious power by the entire world.
I was there right in the middle of the crisis with Ukraine but none of them mentioned any fear of being annexed by Russia. In my opinion, may be some of them even wish they would…


What about their democratic transition after independence ?

In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev became first secretary in 1989 and has ruled Kazakhstan ever since. Kazakhstan’s first multiparty elections, in 1994, returned a parliament favorable to Nazarbaev, He dissolved parliament in 1995 to get more favorable deputies and afterwards won an overwhelming referendum majority to extend his presidential term until 2000. Nazarbaev continues to rule Kazakhstan with an iron hand, but enjoys broad popularity as the country posts 10% economic growth year after year and maintains broad ethnic harmony. He won another seven-year presidential term with over 90% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Nazarbaev’s political rivals and critics are frequently sacked, jailed and even, in two cases in 2005 and 2006, found shot dead.

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Uzbekistan’s first serious noncommunist popular movement, Birlik, was formed by intellectuals in 1989. Despite popular support, it was barred from contesting the election in February 1990 for the Uzbek Supreme Soviet by the Communist Party. The resulting communist-dominated body elected Islam Karimov, the first secretary of the Communist Party, to the new post of executive president.
Following the abortive coup in Moscow in August 1991, Karimov declared Uzbekistan independent and held the first direct presidential elections, which Karimov won with 86% of the vote. His only rival was a poet who got 12% and was soon driven into exile (where he remains to this day). The real opposition groups, Birlik and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and all other parties with a religious platform, had been forbidden to take part. A new constitution unveiled in 1992 declared Uzbekistan ‘a secular, democratic presidential republic’. The years after independence saw Karimov consolidate his grip on power. Karimov won a third consecutive term in January 2000, garnering 92% of the votes. Foreign observers deemed the election a farce and international condemnation was wide- spread. But the 9/11 attacks on the United States gave Karimov a reprieve. Karimov sought another term in 2007, which he won on a turnout rate that was placed at 90.6%…

Kirghizstan knows alternance, but change comes every time from street insurrections denouncing corruption, nepotism and civil unrest.

What about Jews in those countries ?
Oh, that. Well, all of them were very happy and nobody understands why they all left Central Asia in 1991 when USSR collapsed…Capture d’écran 2014-06-16 à 08.10.13

So, I’m gonna check in Israel what’s going on. Next time I’ll report from there, after a one-day stop in Istanbul, this city in between two worlds…

Commonwealth : Why do they ride on the left side ?

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 10.14.46Usually, I like the spectator way : sitting in a bus or in the passenger seat of a car, looking at the window for hours, and hours, and hours… But here, in NZ, I had no other choice but driving, as the buses network isn’t as efficient and cheap as the Australian’.

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 10.15.04I had driven left in India, Bali and Java, but only with a motorbike. How was it going to feel with a car ??? But first of all, why the hell to we have to drive left in some countries and right in some others ???

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 10.15.31The history of the keep-left rule can be tracked back to ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, and was more widely practiced than right-side traffic. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans adhered to the left side while marching their troops. If two men riding on horseback were to start a fight, each would edge toward the left. Thus, they would be able to draw swords from their right and uphold a defensive position. Eventually, this turned into custom, and later, a law.

The keep-left rule was well-established in Rome because of congestion in the city. In the city of Rome, rules banned wagons and chariots during the day; in other parts of the Empire wheeled traffic was banned during the night, so as not to disturb citizens from sleep.Pilgrims who wished to visit the city were instructed to keep to the left side of the road. By the time the Pope ordered instructions to keep left of the road, this rule was already widely used. The regulation has been practiced by some countries ever since. by some countries ever since…

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 10.15.18So why do other countries drive right then ???
Well. In Continental Europe, driving on the right is associated with France and Napoleon. During the French Revolution, a decree of 1792 ordered traffic to keep to the “common” right. A little later, Napoleon consolidated this position by ordering the military to stay on the right side, even when out of the country, so that everyone who met the French army had to concede the way. In the early 19th century, those countries occupied by or allied to Napoleon – the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain – adopted right-hand traffic…

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 10.31.49So. Do I manage ? Yes, I think I do. The mean problem, that far, is that I mismatch the windshield wiper and blinker joysticks, as their position is reversed. Suddenly having your wipers in action when you enter a roundabout can be tricky 😀

No worries… Why is this motto about ?



The first time I heard “No worries”, I got puzzled and thought: “Hey Man, I am not worried, I’m just being polite”. Later on, I finally got it : In Australia, when you thank someone, you shouldn’t reply “You’re welcome’’, you’d rather say : “No worries”.

I’ve done my homework and I’ve found out this has become a national motto in the 1980’. Crazy isn’t it? In France there is “Liberty Equality Fraternity”, telling about the Revolution and French philosophers. In the US there is “In God we trust”, demonstrating the power of Church and WASP. But what about “No Worries”? What is that supposed to tell?

According to research, the expression illustrates important parts of Australian culture, including amiability, friendliness, mateship, good humor and casual optimism.

noworries mate

Mateship. When you have a medical appointment, the receptionist wouldn’t call for “Miss Smith”, she would say” Hey Stéphanie, how are you today?”. The first time it happened to me I’ve had a look over my shoulder, thinking she might be speaking to her best friend standing behind me. But no, she was talking to me with a very natural friendliness. As Europeans, we often think that American’ warmth might hide some hypocrisy, that in fact they don’t really care about you. But here, in Byron Bay, Australia, when I went back to the doctor a couple of days later, the receptionist was remembering everything about our previous talk. So she wasn’t faking, she was really dealing with me as a mate!

Good humor. They joke. Hotel staff, bus drivers, cashiers, always a good story to share. Even though you don’t smile – Either you don’t find that super funny or you don’t understand a word because of an outback accent – they keep joking. Happy.

Casual optimism. According to many, this might become an issue. My Frazer island’ driver told me: “We have a shitty government, everyone agrees on that, but nobody demonstrates. We all think it’s gonna go away. No worries, right?”

No worries frazer

I haven’t been able to find how many demonstrations and strike take place every year in Australia, to compare it with other countries. Should anyone have the answer, I’d be very interested, as it could confirm, or infirm, my drivers’ feelings – He wasn’t the only one to tell me so by the way.

I’ve read a funny article by Chason Gordon, a blogger, warning on misuse of the expression: “You must consider the gravity of the situation when applying the phrase. If somebody killed your dog, slept with your spouse, or enrolled you in a terrorist training camp, you should not try to make them feel better by saying “No worries,” even if it seems really cool.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it: use this expression in a professional context in the next days or so (outside of Australia obviously). Share your experience in the below comments box.

no worries

My neighbors are wakwak

“The Bernardos are wakwak”, told me a friend of mine about his neighbors. “My driver has already seen them flying at night, in their garden”. Waouh, what is that supposed to mean ???

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The Wakwak is a vampiric, bird-like creature in Philippine mythology. It is often described by old folks to have long sharp talons and a pair of wings similar to those of a bat. It is believed that this monster is called “Wakwak” due to this sound it makes when it flaps its wings while flying. It uses its talons or claws to slash its victims and to get their heart. Many say that its wings are also sharp as a knife.

In the Philippines, particularly in the Visayas or Central Philippines region (where Cebu is located), a belief in the inherent evil of witches prevails. As a matter of fact, even though the population is catholic, the ancient animist beliefs haven’t disappeared. Therefore, Filipinos’ daily life is made of superstitions, taboos, attitudes, beliefs, very similar to what you can meet in ”primitive” populations…

Korea… So Kawaii !

“Kawaii” is a Japanese word meaning (more or less) “cute”. It stands for girly mangas, kiddo merchandising, etc. Hello Kitty, for instance, is the very essence of Kawaii. According to specialists, it blossomed in Japan as a way for Japanese adults to escape their heavy lives, torn apart traditional and modern duties… Then, the kawaii aesthetic became popular in the Western world, before contaminating China, Singapore and Korea as they were emerging.

And indeed, in Korea, kawaii prevails!
The curious thing though, is that everyone embraces kawaii… not only individuals or companies, but also institutions.

Here, two cities. On top, a Seoul metro station, with puppets sitting on a platform bench. Below, Gyeongju’s mascot, used everywhere, from the train station panel to the trees grids.

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One step further: corny cartoon characters are also used for educational, civic purposes:
Stoping at crossroads, calling the fire brigade…
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Another step further, and this is, by for, the most fascinating: featuring the army and the police as funny things.Capture d’écran 2013-10-22 à 07.40.33

On the left, this ridiculous cop is paint on a police bus !!!
On the right, this is how the police is going to respond demonstrations…
And that kaki lion, here? The army sign I’ve discovered on the demilitarized zone area.
A restricted zone, with real dangers, real weapons, real military guys, real hostile country behind the line… A cartoon character still ! Unbelievable !!!


Diversity ? Korean don’t mix

Today, as we were lost on our way to find the UN cemetery, we passed by Busan’s University. Where I captured the following snapshots of students, on their campus.
Don’t you notice something weird?

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And here are pictures I took a few days ago when visiting museums and temples. Seniors taking package tours. Do you notice?

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Men and women don’t mix. From 7 to 77 it’s the same story. When being in groups, you will see benches of girls, groups of boys, barely a mix.

I don’t have any explanation to that.
What I know is that co-educational schools is a recent trend in the country. In 1996, only 5% of all schools in South Korea were co-ed. Today, many schools still teach boys and girls separately.
Though, other countries have that educational system in place and I don’t see so little diversity in groups of people… Let’s investigate further…
Traditionally, in Korea, men and women were strictly segregated, both inside and outside the house. Yangban women (aristocrats) spent most of their lives in seclusion in the women’s chamber. It is said that the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up and down on a seesaw-like contraption (balançoire), originated among bored women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family compounds to see what the outside world was like.
I like this seesaw trick very much, don’t you?
Anyway, this tradition segregation might explain why today, still, male and female don’t really mix…

Why do Korean Women hide from the Sun ?

Like everywhere in Asia, it is important for women to have white skin, pale skin having historically prized as beautiful and tan as unattractive – having a dark skin meaning you’ve been working as a farmer in the fields…

In the Middle-Ages, women where crushing pearls and eating the powder, then they used skin creams containing amazing levels of mercury, then Michael Jackson turned grey, then they came with those blistering hats…

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Sometimes they remind me of Joan Collins (Evil in Dynasty – above), some other times they  copycat Laura Ingalls (Angel in Little House – Below).Capture d’écran 2013-10-09 à 16.35.37 Capture d’écran 2013-10-09 à 16.35.48

Either a tribute to nylon (above)… Not very breathable between you and me – Or to natural fibers.

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Sometimes, some of them even look like bee catchers…
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In the US, women stopped being obsessed with white skin in the 1930’, as the society moved away from agriculture. Tan became progressively a sign of wealth. According to sociologists, it’s still going to take some time in Asia, where you’ve got a huge number of the population that just one generation ago were still farmers. As long as they are still trying to leave that behind, as long as it’s a little stigmatized, that’s probably going to act against a deep tan becoming the mode.

Why don’t Russians smile?

Apparently, the reason Russians don’t smile at each other on the streets is because smiling is generally considered to be something to be shared with a friend. Smiling at a stranger is considered to be an “Americanism” and is assumed to be insincere. Even Russian waiters and store clerks will usually not smile at you. In the metro, people even tend to avoid eye contact with other people…

In addition, it seams there is some geopolitics behind smiles, so to speak. Let me explain.
In general, the American smile has a terrible reputation in Russia. The campaign started in the early Soviet era and continuing until the late 1980s, the Soviet print and television media carried regular reports called “Their Customs,” which focused on contemptible bourgeois lifestyles in the United States and other Western countries. A favorite topic of these reports was the infamous American smile. Soviets were told that behind the superficial American smile is an “imperialist wolf revealing its ferocious teeth.” The seemingly friendly American smile, Soviets were told, is really a trick used to entice trusting Soviet politicians to let their guard down, allowing Americans to deceive them both in business deals and in foreign policy.The message was clear: Feel fortunate you live in the Soviet Union, which has an honest moral code of conduct, where people trust one another and where there is complete harmony at work and among different nationalities. In reality, the only smiles people saw in public were the ones depicted on ridiculous Soviet propaganda posters showing the idyllic workers’ paradise.

Sourire soviétique

There is a very interesting article about that in The Moscow time, which you can access here.

We had the feeling, though, that young people are behaving differently. They were much more curious about us and pretty often trying to interact with us, even with a very limited knowledge of English.
Here in Tuymen for instance, Alec and Andreï came to us to know our names…
Later on, a bench of school mates didn’t have any problem in being photographed.



And even young military guys seem to be quite curious.
Dimitri, hereunder, brought us to a commercial center we couldn’t find in Novossibrisk. He also wanted to know more about France’ position regarding Syria… I didn’t really answer the question though!


Why is there no tourists in Russia ?

During our journey, we were surprised not to meet (almost) any foreigners on the trains. So I did some research, and found a good article in “Russia beyond the headlines” (, a very informative website for whom is interested…

So, it appears that Russia has been unable to draw even close to number of visitors seen in the Soviet era – 6 millions a year at the beginning of the Perestroika, mainly from the Eastern Bloc. In 2010, the number of tourists visiting the country barely topped 2 million – about the same level as in 1970 (at the time, InterTourist was the official tourism agency of USSR).

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Official statistics show that 2.4 million people visited Russian in 2010, but privately, travel agents are sceptical. They estimate that the number of tourists is really between 500,000 and 1 million, while the rest are visiting the country on tourist visas but traveling for other reasons – Especially Chinese.

90% of tourists only visit Moscow and St-Petersburg though, and the two first Nationalities of tourists travelling in Russia are Germans and Chinese (around 350 000 each – 100 000 for French).

Indeed, on the Red Square three weeks ago, it was only Us and a group of Chinese:


China tourism agencies even organize “nostalgia” tours for fervent communists.

I don’t blame people for not being excited about visiting Russia. It’s not only that nobody speaks English, it is also that nobody smiles, and this is weird.
But Why don’t people smile? Well, I’ve also done some research about that, you’ll have the answer in my next post.