News and notes from around the world
Illustration Peter Oumanski
LONDON – In a cluttered, warren-like industrial space in north London, Peter Bellerby is changing the world—albeit in miniaturized form. Since 2008, the 49-year-old has presided over Bellerby & Co., makers of handcrafted, bespoke globes whose prices range from around $1,500 to $100,000. And, for that kind of money, you can pretty much have the planet you want.
“We always make sure the buyer’s hometown is there,” Bellerby says, describing one of the less dramatic forms of customization his company provides. “In the end, cartography is a personal thing.”
All around him—on tables, under chairs—are globes in various stages of completion. The largest is over four feet in diameter, and so requires about a thousand more bits of geographic information than a midsize planet. If the person who commissioned it decides that one of those additions should be his favorite bagel shop, Bellerby will happily oblige.
Sometimes, though, his customers’ demands aren’t so easily managed. In one of Bellerby’s workshops is a large globe that looks wrong. Closer scrutiny reveals why: South Africa is located in the north, North America in the south, and there is not a single recognizable feature on the entire planet.
The globe was commissioned by a Brazilian law firm, which wanted the world turned upside down in order to make the Southern Hemisphere appear more prominent. This request presented Bellerby & Co. with a few problems, including the fact that the name of every town, river, mountain, lake and atoll had to be rotated and, thus, repositioned. “It was a challenge,” he says.
Even trickier, perhaps, was coming to terms with the way the new world looks. “It’s crazy,” Bellerby says, his nose inches away from the upward-pointing Cape of Good Hope. Also, unless you approach the globe on your hands and knees, a lot of the interesting stuff is hidden away.
“There’s so much going on in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Bellerby, pointing to a barren expanse of blue. “Even the Antarctic, which is amazing, is just a lot of white.”
With this, Bellerby squints at the lettering on his creation, in the way he does a hundred times a day. “The idea of selling a globe with a mistake,” he says, “is my biggest horror.”
GERMANY – Six teenagers shuffle their feet in a room at Frankfurt’s Dialog Museum, each of them clutching a white cane. “Come to me, please,” says a female voice from behind a floor-length curtain. The kids do as they are told. And that’s the last anyone sees of them for an hour.
Dialogue in the Dark is an interactive workshop aimed at giving people a sense of what it’s like to be blind. Founded in Frankfurt 25 years ago, the organization now has outposts across the world.
Today’s tour consists of seven rooms, each devoted to an everyday activity like hanging out at a bar, playing soccer or just crossing the street. The idea is that people will emerge on the other side as more empathetic individuals.
The immediate response to the exercise, judging by today’s participants, is closer to fear than enlightenment. “Here I am,” says the voice as the whimpering teens try to figure out what here means.
After fear comes confusion. “Turn right,” the voice says, which leads everyone to bump into everyone else, mainly due to the fact that, when the instruction is given, no two people are facing in the same direction.
A game of soccer turns into a series of tentative air kicks; a drink in the pitch-black bar becomes an exercise in not jabbing your nose with a bottle. But it’s the simple act of moving through the world that causes people the most problems.
“What do you feel?” asks the voice as the youngsters grope their way toward the exit.
“My girlfriend,” says one of the boys.
“That is not your girlfriend,” a stranger replies.
AUSTIN, TEXAS – Benjamin Ziek, a 38-year-old hotel night auditor, wipes sweat from his brow, but it’s not the heat that’s getting to him. “I’m praying,” he says. “Man-tis is hard.”
See what he did there?
In case you didn’t: Ziek was referring to the pressure of having to devise an insect-themed pun in five seconds or less, a requirement of the Punslinger round at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. Ziek and his rival are facing each other on a stage, in front of a Texas state flag, wearing expressions of fierce concentration.
The face-off will continue until one of the men falters.
For those competing at Austin’s O. Henry Museum, punning is no laughing matter. Over the course of six grueling hours, dozens of contestants deliver hundreds of puns on everything from Vietnamese food (“please don’t bánh mì from your sandwich place”) to World War II (“I did Nazi that coming”) to campfire drinking sessions (“a grizzly beer attack”).
The contest is strictly monitored; those who break the rules—such as resorting to “Matt Lauer” puns, which don’t involve homonyms (“The rail initiative is getting on track”)—are out.
In the end, Ziek prevails, becoming only the second person in Pun-Off history to pick up both of the competition’s major trophies, Punslinger of the Year and Punniest of Show. He will not, though, be greeted by a tickertape parade when he gets back to his Glendale, Calif., home. In fact, he says, hardly anyone there even knows he does this.
“It’s almost like a secret society,” he adds, standing next to a food truck named Guac N Roll. “These are my people.”
DUBAI – Fifty or so mesmerized-looking people are milling about in a large tent, set up on the grounds of a palace in Zabeel, a relatively leafy neighborhood in Dubai. The palace, and the tent, belong to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the emirate and the host of a function for members of the local media.
A half-hour or so into the affair, a resplendent Sheikh Mohammed approaches a young Englishman, his hand held out as if in greeting. “Quick,” the Brit hisses to his companion, “think of something for me to say!” A waiter passes with a tray bearing a single glass of water, and the Englishman reaches for the glass. Unfortunately, he does so at exactly the same time as His Highness, and there’s a moment when it seems the two men may engage in an unseemly tug-of-war.
The Sheikh, having claimed the water, asks the man if he’s having a nice time.
“I’m in a tent with a crystal chandelier,” the man blurts. “How could I be bored?” Sheikh Mohammed smiles and moves on.
VIETNAM – Nguyen Cong Son cuts a solitary, forlorn figure, blowing his whistle and waving a wooden baton in the middle of an eight-lane rotary, looking every bit like a man trying to ward off a swarm of mosquitoes.
“Every day is the same,” Nguyen says with a shrug. “Nobody listens.” The 32-year-old police officer has been directing traffic in Ho Chi Minh City for two years, and the experience has endowed him with a grim fatalism. “It’s pointless,” he says.
This city has always had traffic issues, but skyrocketing vehicle ownership and liberal interpretations of traffic laws have combined to make it one of Asia’s worst accident hotspots. A recent U.S. government report identified driving and crossing the road as the two most dangerous things you can do here.
“Look at it,” Nguyen says above the riot of horns and grinding gears. “It’s more like a video game than real life.” He points at a motorcycle hurtling down the wrong side of the street, three helmetless passengers on its seat. Other bikes carry mounds of bamboo baskets, stacks of caged geese, plates of glass. A middle-aged man with flip-flops and slicked-back hair buzzes by with another scooter tied to his back seat.
While visitors tend to regard the pandemonium with expressions of horrified wonder, locals move among the opposing streams of traffic with unconscious precision. “The simple act of crossing the road has been elevated to a Zen-like affair,” says John Labucha, an Australian who has lived here for a decade. “Breathe. Then slowly wade into the traffic. Then trust—the hardest part of the exercise—that it will go around you, and not through you. Follow those steps, and you should be fine.”
“April is the cruellest month,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” along with some stuff about dirty ears and planting corpses in gardens. You have to wonder, though: What was he on about? Certainly, there would seem to be more suitable cruel-month candidates (February is no picnic).
So, combining stringent research protocols (Google) and our own Cruel-O-Meter (rated from 1 to 10), we set out to test the poet’s hypothesis.