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young people visit Berlin Wall memorial

A collection of audio clips on the construction of the Berlin Wall that became a short article.

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

two elderly women in a small elevator

Ingeborg Koske, 86, and Christa Kaes, 83 in the elevator at Hansa-Ufer 5 in Berlin, August 2014.

Some came with canes, some with walkers, but they all came ready for a fight.

On Monday afternoon, elderly residents of the apartment block at Hansa-Ufer 5 gathered for a tenants meeting in the modest common room on the ground floor of the building on the banks of the Spree River.

In Berlin, it’s a familiar story. The rent spikes and those who can’t afford it are forced to move out.

In this case, the landlord — Swedish property giant Akelius — wants to renovate the building and surrounding property and wanted to charge 40-65 percent more rent. But this group of old folks wasn’t about to go quietly.

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

dog rummages through garbage pile

Radio: Putting a leash on Santiago’s half-million stray dogs

People who live in Chile’s capital Santiago hardly notice them anymore. But as an outsider, you can’t miss the thousands of stray dogs all over the city.

I’ve visited my family there many times and the dogs are always there: on the corner, in the park, at the market rummaging through garbage, on the stoop in front of the shop. A shabby pack of strays has even made its home on the grounds of the presidential palace, La Moneda, downtown.

And no wonder. A recent survey found there are half-a-million stray dogs on the street in Santiago’s capital region.

Come along as I follow a team of veterinarians tasked with helping the government contain the exploding stray dog population and find out why the problem is so out of control.

This piece aired on CBC Radio’s As It Happens in July 2014.

Franco Urbina standing in a dimly lit corridor
Photo: My father, Francisco Urbina, in the corridors under the seats of 
Santiago's National Stadium, where thousands of political prisoners were held.

Radio: Black Box – breaking the silence of my father’s past

Last September, Chile marked the 40th anniversary of the military coup that toppled elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973. The coup led to 17 years of brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet that deeply affected so many families, like my own.

The anniversary gave me chance to talk to my father about what had happened to him during that dark time, something he’d never talked about before with anyone.

Continue Reading…

There’s nothing like taking a stroll through downtown and happening upon the stages of the Montreal International Jazz Fest.  You’re not sure what, but something drew you in this direction: the distant echo of open air music, the stream of relaxed people coming and going, and the concert lights, lending their glow to the summertime festivities.

The air is fresh and the backdrop of Montreal’s newly redone Quartier des Spectacles is bright and modern.  Set up in front of some rocking performers, what better than a cold beer to make the show all the more enjoyable.  And why not add a grilled sausage to put you in the right frame of mind.

But as you step away from the vendor stands you won’t get far without bumping into a ‘duo-bin’, the Jazz Fest’s sleek combination of recycling and garbage bin.  “Generally, each stand is set up next to a duo-bin,” says vendor Karim Guennoun. “It’s absolutely [part of the organization].”

The rounded green containers dot the festival landscape and signs at all entrances and around the grounds encourage revellers to make sure they recycle at all times and before they leave.

Yves Archambault's artwork for the 2010 Montreal Jazz Fest

Members of the Jazz Net team, equipped with broom and dustpan, are there to keep the site clean and collect the bags from filled duo-bins.  It’s the job of partner organization Consortium Écho-Logique to see to the details.

“We sort the recyclable materials and we try to minimize the amount of material that goes to landfill,” says Olivier Gariépy, a green team leader.  “We receive bags of recyclable materials and we start sorting immediately and put them in the proper containers, be it plastic-glass-metal or refundable cans and bottles.”  The team also deals with paper and carton.  In 2009 the festival diverted 61% of its waste from landfill, recycling 33,661 kg of plastic, glass, metal, carton, and wood.

And this year the Jazz Fest welcomes a new member to the green team: compost.  “It’s a pilot project,” says Alexis Lavoie-Bouchard, grounds supervisor for the festival. “But up to this point it’s been a clear success that will be carried forward in the years to come.”

The festival has purchased compostable utensils and plates for all its food vendors.  Food providers and the festival’s employee cafeteria also have their own compost bins so as to divert as much waste away from garbage bins and ultimately landfill.

The festival follows in the footsteps of other Montreal events like the annual Rogers Cup professional tennis tournament held in August which debuted on-site composting for the tournament-going public last year.

Gariépy, whose Consortium group works with many events like the Grand Prix and professional golf tournaments, doesn’t think there is enough societal awareness of composting yet to make it available to the public.  “For people not to be afraid of composting, it needs to be made as simple as possible.”

“I think a cultural event like the Jazz Fest has to make an effort to limit the waste production and at least recycle as much as possible, so that everyone becomes aware of the waste they create,” says Lavoie-Bouchard, “but also to encourage the idea of…sustainable development.”

And there’s nothing like good music and a green message to help a cold beer go down.

My grandpa says this is the best country in the world.  In spite of the politics, the poverty and the seismic and volcanic disruptions, Chile’s excellent climate, its natural beauty, its diverse landscapes and its bountiful food production make the country a wonderful place to live.  He also says that it’s the country of the compadres.  In generations past, I’m told, the compadre was a good friend, perhaps a relative.  A compadre was also something of a godfather figure who looked out for his own and could be counted on to help one get into a good position.  Today, the compadre can be thought of as a well-placed buddy or a good connection.  But in either case, what remains true is that compadres look out for compadres.

In practical terms what this means is that elites on the political scene are difficult to distinguish from elites in the economic world and that interests in both arenas often run parallel.  Consequently, legislation at the political level that runs counter to the interests of the empresarios (entrepreneurs/business owners) is often a great challenge to push through.  The other meaning is that if you’re not a compadre or if you don’t know one, it may be tough to make it. In fact, it’s a general sentiment among average Chileans that this is far from the land of opportunity, and that unless you have a certain last name or a fortunate connection (which some call a pituto), you aren’t likely to do very well.

a group of men in suits sit and stand around a long dining table

The compadres of generations past (see if you can pick out my grandpa)

In a country of 16.6 million people spread over 4300 km from north to south, it’s a small elite who hold the wealth of the nation, in addition to foreign companies that have been allowed access through trade agreements and large scale privatization.  This distribution was made evident during the recent humanitarian effort to raise money for the victims of the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that battered much of central and southern Chile.  A telethon was organized days after the disaster, which brought in incredible donations from certain companies and certain families.  The donations were so large as to take the average Chilean aback and revealed in no uncertain way the true sources of wealth in the country.

But beyond the peso, in Chile trust is the currency highly valued and not easily come by.  And this plays into the culture of the compadre, such that merit may simply not be enough to get you that sought-after job.  What has many in the country frustrated is that at the same time, education continues to be a high priority and more and more are being prepared at the highest levels (and at very high personal cost), with an apparent void of opportunities, especially merit-based ones.

However, it is not merely merit-based opportunities that appear to be lacking, but also important information about the shortfalls in Chile’s labour market to inform all those would-be universitarios in whose interest it might be to know what sectors of the economy are in need of qualified people (like this — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s under-appreciated and perhaps little known labour market information bank).  Let the market allocate people to where there is a need, some may say, and this seems to be the theory behind the excess of post-secondary institutions in Santiago, Chile’s capital and bastion of progress.  The institutions seem to say, the market will find a place for our graduates, so let’s pump out as many as are willing to pay.  And make no mistake, there is a market for higher education: enter Santiago’s 40 universities, the majority of which are private, not to mention the professional institutes and training centres.

But what lies on the other side — a flood of graduates of varying quality in a given field and an unknown job market — is what provokes the disquiet which invariably comes up in conversation with people from the lower and middle classes in any part of the country I’ve visited.  Without a compadre (and badly needed reforms), an education may not carry the expected value and so when speaking with an outsider-Chileno like me, I find that many people have uncles, nieces, cousins or children who have lost the chance to leave or have left Chile in search of greater education and the opportunities that may follow, much as my own parents did in 1981.

Earthquake Redux

April 25, 2010

The sound of a seismic event is unmistakable.  I realize the earthquake has been a recurring theme of this blog, but read on and you’ll realize why.

On the scale of an individual human, the vibration is global, all encompassing.  Everything one can feel, see, touch, and hear is at first vibrating, then shaking, then convulsing, and then ceasing, on a dime.  The occurrence here has become incessantly intermittent, to the point of paranoia.  It shakes often enough to make one think it is when it isn’t (perhaps when a bus passes nearby), but with enough unpredictability to produce a schizophrenia that leaves an entire population with frayed nerves and on edge.

Case in point: on the night of April 4th, I was in Santiago staying at my tia Loreto’s house.  Sleeping arrangements had been made to accommodate me along with my three cousins, and just after 11 the lights were off and the eyelids gained weight.  The first images of sleep had begun to appear when came the vibrations.  At once, eyes open, adrenaline awakened.  One expects it to pass, so staying in bed is the norm.  It vibrates, then it begins to shake, sound emanates from everything.  Soon we feel it begin to subside, we can exhale, but suddenly it gains strength and in an instant, BOOM, we feel the shock portion of the aftershock.

19th century adobe brick house with earthquake damage

Some of the damages to the 19th century adobe brick Urbina family house in Santiago, Chile (not the one from my story)

The house seems to jump, perhaps like a house in a neighbourhood being bombed might, and we all equally jump out of bed and into the hall.  As aftershocks go, it was minor (4.4 magnitude), but the proximity made it seem ominous, with an epicentre a mere 35 km away from Santiago.  Catalina, the youngest of my cousins, complains that she was just falling asleep, while my aunt climbs the stairs to check on us and exclaim that it’s enough already.  The sentiment is popular.  And it doesn’t seem much to ask in a country that was hammered by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and that has been suffering hundreds of aftershocks, including one in mid-March of magnitude 7.3 (0.3 degrees stronger than the quake that struck Haiti).

The feeling, and above all the sound, brings on fear, perhaps panic and a realization of helplessness before the cycles of the planet.  These were my first days back from the north of Chile where, unfortunately, we can expect a large seismic event to hit in the comings months, if what we hear is right.

The Smoking Gun

April 17, 2010

The last time I wrote, it was the sound of my dad’s snoring that urged my pen on (yes, I’ve been writing in my notebook as a start).  Since then I’ve moved to another room, next to my grandparents, and out of range of my dad’s rumbling.  Of course, this only means that I have a new set of sounds to consider.

When I arrived in Isla Negra, I was made aware that both my abuelo and abuela had recently been ill, my grandma worse than Don Leo, and were still recovering.  The illness had left my abuela feeling weak and with little energy, though each day she’s been gaining strength and colour in her face.  My grandpa has been coughing heavily, bringing up the mucus du jour in a way that only the sound can describe (interested in what my grandpa is talking about? click here).  I had assumed that the cough was due to the remnants of a cold, but it persisted.  At the table, out in his workshop, and of course, in bed at night, the coughing (and the mucus) betrayed something deeper.  So finally, I asked my dad.

my grandpa peeling quince

Don Leo hard at work peeling and cutting quince

My grandpa, I learned, had been a smoker for many years, about 35 according to my dad.  I knew that he used to smoke, but I didn’t realize how long, and if today’s Chilean smokers are any indication, he must have smoked his fair tonnage of tar.  In fact, in his sixties, it led Don Leo to a collapsed lung, hospitalization and unfortunately, to what he suffers from today, chronic emphysema.  In the evening before bed, he inhales a drug that loosens the mucus from his lungs, which wells up overnight in coughs and throat clearings and which he must spit into a container.

My grandma’s cough has long since passed, but in any case, hers was a soft patter to abuelo’s bronchial lurch.  In light of such a story, news of a smoking ban ought to be music to the ears, though, when in Santiago, my cousin’s girlfriend tells me that bars that try to impose one inevitably fail.  According to her, in Chile everyone smokes.  That’s not quite right, but it’s tough to blame her when I find out that 49%, or half of Chileans ages 15-29 are smokers.  The latest numbers show that 37.4 % of Chileans age 15 and up are smokers.  Even more concerning are the statistics for youth.  In 2003, smoking levels in the 13-15 years age group were already the highest in the world at 33.9 % and in 2008 showed an increase to 34.2%.

In a country with a history of smoking and with tobacco companies well entrenched, it seems to be the perfect storm of a rapid rise in economic well-being combined with a lack of education on the subject and public health effort.

I can only speak for my own family, but of my parents’ generation, only 4 of 14 are smokers.  I must note, though, that one of them was my loving Tia Pelusa (Ana Isabel) whose death by cancer is very likely to have been related to her smoking.  So I cringe (and cough) when I see many of my cousins and their friends caught up in it and hope that the country, starting with its shining capital, will have the courage to stand up for Chile, stand up to pressure from tobacco companies or business owners, and put an end to smoking in public places (after all, if all bars have to comply, then no bar should be at a disadvantage) and help remove the smog from within its people, if not from above them.

The Latest: Yesterday, Chile’s newly elected President Sebastian Piñera, a right wing billionaire entrepreneur, announced that among the measures to raise funds for reconstruction, infrastructure, and social support in the aftermath of the massive earthquake, the tax on tobacco products would be raised from 60 to 67%.  The move aims to help Chileans suffering from the damage of the quake by targeting an industry that few will leap to defend, and may also result in a decrease in cigarette purchases, which can only help people move away from the harmful habit.

Life’s a snore

April 15, 2010

I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, that I wouldn’t have to get personal, but as I explained in my first post, sound is often intimate.  After I became accustomed to the neighbouring canine alarm systems, another nocturnal sound, far more local and disruptive made itself heard.

my dad and a neighbour's puppy

My dad and a neighbour's pup (aka alarm system upgrade)

In my first week on Chile’s central coast, I committed to helping my dad lose some weight over the next couple of months.  At first, I would simply observe his habits and interject to prevent what appear to be excesses of unnecessary fatty condiments, bread, sugar, and sweets.  Together, we would also monitor his weight.  My argument is that since he is fairly active and does regular and physically demanding work, that a simple shift in eating habits should produce a notable decrease in weight.  “Franco’s Gravity Experiment”, and my dad is on board.

Aside from a few complaints, justifications, or mutterings, the process ought to be rather silent.  The thing is, I’m most interested in a potential secondary effect.  They say — and I’ll refer to my medically educated Tio Sebastian on this — that a state of excess weight can contribute to that curse of the light sleeper, snoring.  So logically, a decrease in weight could also reduce snoring (less fatty tissue to vibrate in the throat, more muscle tone to control the muscles in the area).

Now I’m no saint when it comes to snoring, just ask Malika, but even she says that I’m not really that bad.  The fact is that anyone within earshot is liable to be violently awoken by my dad’s deep sleep growls.  One can imagine then, that sharing a small room with him is not overly conducive to a good night’s sleep either.  To save myself, I’ve moved to another room on the other side of the house, next to my grandparents, but as you’ll hear, their night time noises have a character all their own.

Update: a few weeks on and Franco’s Gravity Experiment has yielded no net change, though I’ve realized that it becomes increasingly tiresome to reprimand a loved one (for both parties) if the original commitment is not taken 100% seriously by both sides…and that I need to get some sleep

The sound of some helpful suggestions has reached my ears and so I’ve enabled the RSS feed for The Sounds Of blog and I’ve made it a couple of steps easier for you to feast your ears on the sounds you’re reading about with one click on YouTube.

Enjoy!