My Encounter with the Mafia

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At the Colosseum, note that I am newly bag-free but still with two friends to hold me up

This poem is dedicated to Susanna Brantley and Daniel Mouw.

Pickpockets are like alcohol

They/it wait/s until you are most comfortable

Content, vulnerable, with the ones you trust.

Bragging even, how long you have travelled without it occurring

How much you can drink without getting drunk

 

And then, they pounce

Taking you quickly at first, you didn’t even notice

Then slowly

For everything your body owns.

 

Your euros, your dollars, your intestinal lining

Your notebook, your pens, your ability to focus

Your credit card[s], your debit card, your physical stability

Your phone, your fave water bottle, your Burt’s Bees [the worst]…

Even more devastatingly (if one can imagine), your appetite.

 

Pickpockets are like alcohol

They fuck with your mind, as well as the bank

For not one, but several charges on your card they incur

After which, most becomes a blur.

 

Except for the fact that the charges were made

At a traditional Sicilian pastry shop

“50€ for a cannoli? 100€, 200€, €500?” the police laughed at my plight.

“The mafia stole your bag.” [Then I laughed.]

“No really.

 

Pickpockets are like alcohol

They make you question deeper things – what caused this?

My naiveté, my bourgeois bag, my society?

A simple mistake, the mafia, was it Evil?

Maybe I deserve this.

 

The details can make you go crazy:

What if I’d gone to that pizzeria instead of this one? Brought only my phone rather than my bag?

Yes, #thebutterflyeffect: it was that early-morning, espresso-less decision to bring a bag.

Coffee first, next time.

 

What if I’d spaced out the drinks or even stopped drinking at the final club? What if I’d eaten food; what if I hadn’t?

Water last, next time.

 

But still, they can get into your pockets.. maybe I shouldn’t bring anything at all.

I. cannot. wait.

to insert a chip in my body… yeah that will be safest…

OMG what happens then, when every human can be tracked??

I just shouldn’t leave the house next time. Yeah, that’s definitely it.

 

But still, if you space out your drinks with water, you might get drunk; and if you get drunk, you might feel like this

Unable to drink, even water, without the nausea. Oh my… the naseau, don’t think about the nausea…

Okay I’ve had it: I’m a teetotaler.

 

I felt them knock my bag over. What made me just pick it up and place it where it was before?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to the Colosseum, or any tourist-laden site.

Never will I, ever again.

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Inside the Colosseum for the first time; contemplating the human thrill that goes with taking from others (Photo credits go to Daniel since, after all, I didn’t have a phone).

I know- what if I’d not mixed my grains with my grapes –

What is the saying? Liquor after wine makes you feel like swine..

I drink, often enough, and never-have-I-ever gotten this sick…

 

Maybe I should have skipped

That mysterious last drink, the bartender’s “favorite”

With the color of ice-ice baby blue…

OMG was I drugged? is the world just generally a more sinister place than I believed?

Or is it a recourse to fear that creates this sad world;

As our attachment to our things creates pickpockets?

 

No… I don’t know. I didn’t do anything wrong, okay?

 

What I do know, is that

Pickpockets are like alcohol

Expensive

Breaking your body (and the bank) from time to time, but never

Your spirit.

 

For all we ever really “have” is the time we spend together.

 

Cheers, (I’ll drink to that).

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Taking back the night in beautiful, beautiful Rome [obscured only by our glistening faces]

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A Tribute to my Thea Roula: Reflections on when I moved to Greece

Rethymon, Crete

Rethymo, Crete

Sunday was my great aunt Roula’s 40th day ceremony in Crete. She passed away quite unexpectedly. I wrote this poem for two of her children, Elisavet and Giorgos, who have been wonderful, heartwarming friends since I first met them 3 years ago. Their kind, genuine natures alone indicate they were brought into the world by someone truly remarkable.

But if I’m fully honest, I wrote this poem for myself as well. Death is a hard thing, and I don’t really know how to make it less hard. Here is my best attempt.

To Elisavet, Giorgos and me:

There’s More Where that Came From

I moved to Greece in the middle of the night, I woke up on the plane.

My newly twenty, tired face, the cold window pane.

 –

Where was I, was I upside down, something was awry.

The city-lit Greek isles below, like star slabs on a sky.

 –

Little did I know how much my world would really turn

My taxi driver Nikos did, all the way to Reythmnon.

“If you really have Greek roots,” he said, “In one month you’ll know Greek.”

“What is the word for slow?” “Argós. For the sea, but not the streets.”

The sparkling, bluest ever sea, the sun was on the rise.

The messy marble tiles tinged pink, I really had arrived.

——

Nine. Hours. Beautifully. Blank

I woke up to a face.

Little curls, giggles, noise

“Wake up, it’s your birthday!”

My cousin, Anna, as I learned,

Said a party, everyone waited.

I walked on out, she was correct

The party, not the waiting.

My cousins with their cousins, it seemed

Food by the square inch.

A tasty chaotic laugh-filled blur

“Learn the name of every dish!”

Greens from Crete with filo dough

Hortópita, I learned.

Wine, grassi, Cretan cheese:

Graviéra, even better than féta.

I pointed to my birthday cake

Aftó. What about this?”

“Chocolate, layers, mousse,

No name, your Thea Roula made it.”

“Can you tell her it’s my favorite cake?”

She smiled with one cheek.

Efcharistó,” I said, for she,

Was a woman who was truly Greek.

Next she brough a fresh cheese pie.

“Típota?” I tried.

Anna laughed. “What did you say?”

Thea Roula glanced from the side.

“Don’t you call that típota?”

So much laughter I could bring.

Tyrópita, she emphasized.

I’d called her cheese pie… nothing.

The weeks went by, most days the same

Food, beach, rakí and family.

Roula’s kids, now my good friends.

“So loving, so accepting.”

“You’re getting fat,” in Greek she said

Proud of her achievement.

“This is correct.” My face turned red.

Much better, polý oraíos.

View from my cousin's house in Rethymno

View from my cousin’s house in Rethymno

As the sun slipped down on my good time

Before I moved to Athens

Tóra tha prépei na melétí.”

She told me, “Now you must study.”

Sunset at a wedding in Xania

Sunset at a wedding in Xania

—–

I remember my first day of class

My Greek teacher Eleni.

She spoke of culture, founded pride

Her words, like sweet méli.

“In Greece, the family comes in first

Second comes the food.

How many of you cook for fun?

Tha prépei na, you must learn.

To fahitó in Greece is not a chore

Not a science, nor an art.

Cooking in Greece is an act of love

Really!” As if we’d doubt it.

To cook in Greece is how you love

Everyone must eat

But can everyone create a dish

That makes a life complete?

It is the ones you hold most dear

The objects of your time

But your love can slowly grow and grow

For cooking and loving grow the mind

My thoughts began to drift away

To Thea Roula’s full table

Patátes, mousaká, xoriatikí

Need more? Well, she is quite able.

Thea Roula's table

Thea Roula’s table(s)

——–

Now three short years, I’ve heard the news

Her face again I’ll not see

Her food no more, but her love lives on

Her kids // their kids // and me.

———-

Me and Thea Roula, Crete, September 2011

Me and Giorgos, Thea Roula’s son

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Me with Giorgos and his wife Joanna

Me and little Roula

Me and little Roula

Being shown a family tree made just for me by Thea Roula's kids

Being shown a family tree by Thea Roula’s kids

Sunset in Rethymno

Sunset in Rethymno

Germany vs. Greece, but not all the time

Pina Coladas, Hydra

Pina Coladas with Kayla in Hydra, Greece

After studying in Germany this summer, I stopped over in the beautiful Greek island of Agistri for a short and perfect vacation. My good friends Brooke and Kayla met up with me, and we stayed with our Greek friend Christos who lives in an ancient windmill (literally). As we did most days, we spent one of our afternoons relaxing on the patio of a Greek taverna overlooking the sparkly Mediterranean Sea and pondering whether there was a better combination in the world than Mythos beer, fresh fish, a gentle Mediterranean breeze and the warm sun trickling through the vineyards overhanging the patio. (There isn’t.) Christos had just convinced all the tourists in the taverna to participate in the sort of Greek dance that makes people happy and dizzy enough to forget they are in an economically and socially distressed country. Or almost forget.

Despite the diplomatic row between Greece and Germany amidst the economic crisis, a cute little German couple was sitting beside us, also (unsurprisingly) enjoying the peaceful bliss of the Agistri. Partially because of the beer, but more so because I am me, I struck up a conversation with them and asked them all sorts of nosy questions. I asked them where they were from in Germany, whether it was possible for them to have cooler German names (Filip and Luisa), if they were alive when the Berlin wall fell, what their parents’ experiences were with the Soviets, who they would vote for in the upcoming German elections, and probably the most salient given our setting, what was their view on Germany “bailing out” Greece.

Their response was a little unexpected: “We actually are not voting in September because we are giving our votes to Greek people.”

They proceeded to tell me more about an initiative they helped launch called Electoral Rebellion, a program in which Germans who argue that Germany’s enforced austerity measures through “bailouts” in Greece has threatened Greece’s capacity for democracy offer to give their votes to Greek people. Having heard plenty of Germans express their disdain for having to “subsidize the lazy Greeks,” Filip’s and Luisa’s viewpoint was a pleasant surprise.

I promised my lovely new German friends I would tell all my Greek friends about their campaign, but forgot until now.

Electoral Rebellion is a small program, but noteworthy for its democratic cause. Basically, the logistics of the campaign are that Greek people who wish to vote connect via Facebook to Germans who are willing to cast your vote instead of theirs. Elections in Germany are September 22, so act soon if you want to get involved:

http://citizensforeurope.eu/prop-826_en.html

To all my wonderful Greek friends and family,

I think there are 2 positive things to take from this:

1) Everyone isn’t out to get you.

Even if you become discouraged by foreign governments’ hegemony in your country, don’t be disheartened. Know that there are many, many citizens of other countries who care very much for your plight.

2) There is something you can do!

There are many peaceful ways for you to speak out against the threat to democracy in Greece. Electoral Rebellion is a good place to start, and it is not the only one. Stay active in politics, stand up for your rights, and most importantly, never lose hope in your beautiful country.

In other words, keep being Greek. 🙂

Much love and filakia.

Kayla, Christos, Brooke, and me, Hydra

Kayla, Christos, Brooke, and me, Hydra harbor

Some initial thoughts after my trip around the European Union

Cool architectural layout of the Flemish Parliament, Brussels

Cool architectural layout of the Flemish Parliament, Brussels

In seven weeks I got to travel through Germany, Switzerland (not in the EU), Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece, visit numerous European political institutions, and meet with a variety of European politicians. Consequently my perspective on the European Union has been enriched in a brief amount of time.

To name a few of our visits, we visited the German Chancellory, met the German High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, met with a Socialist Spanish Member of Parliament (MP) in Madrid, met with a Liberal (so economically conservative) Dutch MP in the Hague, were briefed at the European Commission in Brussels, toured the Flemish Parliament and sat in on an open parliamentary session, were briefed at the European Parliament, and met a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is basically in the Labour Party.

Me with MEP Toine Mambers

Me with MEP Toine Mambers

My brief thoughts on the European Union are that it is a great idea, very convoluted and highly inefficient. It has accomplished some pretty amazing feats (most notably, no wars), but as the MEP we met with today said, the European Union is fighting the same types of wars they always have, but on a different level. Rather than using violence, the weapons are ideas, information, bureaucracy, money, and European institutions. Machiavellian objectives are still in play, but countries are fighting with different tactics. One could the European Union is just one big chess game in which nationalist aims still dominate. Indeed, that is essentially what Stanly Hoffman said, who developed the European Union theory called intergovernmentalism.

United Nations courtyard, The UN is an example of intergovermentalism at its height because each country explicitly acts in its own best interest.

United Nations courtyard, Geneva. The UN is an example of intergovermentalism at its height because each country explicitly acts in its own best interest.

I am not there yet, simply because I want to believe in the project of the European Union. The idea of integrating a region of nations with different languages, cultures, institutions, etc. into a unified body is new, ambitious, fascinating, and although a bit idealistic, it is worth pursuing. After all, struggling together toward greatness is better than achieving mediocrity alone.

Flemish Parliament in session, Brussels

Flemish Parliament in session, Brussels

A Day of Peace, Literally

After observing the capacity of humans to commit atrocious deeds against each other at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague, it was quite a relief to visit the Peace Palace nearby. Although the facility itself is not open to the public, the permanent exhibition was quite good. Short, informative, and intellectually interesting.

Peace Palace, the Hague, Netherlands

Peace Palace, the Hague, the Netherlands (Photo credits to Pooja Mehta)

The Peace Palace has a pleasant, but subdued external structure and grandiose, ornate facilities on the inside, much like a palace I suppose.

Alongside important contributors such as prominent thinkers Leo Tolstoy and Bertha von Sutner and financial supporter Andrew Carnegie, the founding of the Peace Palace was initiated practically in 1898 by the Russian Tsar Nicolas II, who invited all major nations to an international peace conference aimed at disarmament. A tidbit of information I learned that the museum left out is that Nicolas II was out of money to fund the next war… Regardless of his intent, it was a step in the right direction.

The Peace Palace is not just a big pretty building that advocates for hippies; it is the seat of two international institutions, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ad the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). The ICJ was founded when the UN was created and deals largely with cases like border disputes between countries and the use of armed violence by states against civilian populations. Countries can also consult the ICJ for advice. In order to pass a judgment though, the country must have accepted the court’s jurisdiction. I would guess these trials can become pretty politically complicated.

Rather than passing judgments like the ICJ, the PCA arbitrates between two countries or individual parties wishing to settle a dispute diplomatically, i.e. peacefully. Two representatives are selected for each side, then a fifth “neutral” participant is jointly appointed. An example of a successful case is the settlement of the islands in the River Nile between Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The process of arbitration, i.e. willing cooperation between opposing parties for the good of the whole, is much more impressive in my view, or at least warmer and fuzzier.

I left the Peace Palace feeling optimistic about life, peace, and international law. Then, as I was walking back to my hotel across an open square outside the parliament building, I came across what appeared to be a protest. Having experienced rowdy protests regularly in Greece, my initial thought was, oh great, another protest to ruin my short moment of peace.

The Remnants of a Violent Protest in Syntagma Square, Athens

The Remnants of a Violent Protest in Syntagma Square, Athens (2012)

A small group of people of different ages were holding signs, wearing odd accessories like feather boas and flower garlands, and singing a scripted, pleasant song in perfect unison. Since the Dutch speak perfect English, I joined the group and asked a nice older couple what the protest was about.

They told me that the government (like most governments) has to make cuts right now and they recently voted to remove funding for religious education. All of the protestors were religion teachers and their spouses from all around the Netherlands.

As I kept chatting to my new friend Sofie about why she thought religious education was important, I was surprised to see a few politicians exit the building and approach the protestors. Their sharp looking suits were distinct amidst the costumed group of people who stood around them in approval and shushed the bystanders (like me) in order to let the politicians speak.

Police, not politicians outside the Greek parliament, Athens

Police, not politicians outside the Greek parliament, Athens

They spoke in Dutch for a bit, and then the crowd erupted in applause. Sofie translated for me that they had announced the debate would be reopened later that week. I asked Hettie the possibility of the law being overturned. She was not sure, but seemed optimistic because they had also gotten a petition signed by over 30,000 people. Their argument is that cutting religious education is against the law since Dutch law guarantees that children in public education have the opportunity to learn about all types of religion (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, etc.). She personally argued that this effectively negated intolerance. I agree. I got her e-mail address to check up on the outcome of the debate.

I was in awe. What a peaceful, effective, democratic protest. How cordial the opposing parties were to each other. It may or may not be representative of Dutch politics, but it was an excellent model of peace, which fit perfectly with my day of peace.

Another peaceful protest I witnessed in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Another peaceful protest I witnessed in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

On Being the Best: Why Americans Need to Cool it

Preparations for Obama's speech, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Preparations for Obama’s speech, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Today President Obama gives a speech at the majestic Brandenburg gate, where JFK famously made the statement “Ich bin Berliner,” which translates “I am a Berlin-man” in this region of Germany, but funnily “I am a jelly doughnut” in others. In addition to the memorable double meaning, JFK’s statement was highly significant because it illustrated the idea that despite being American (indeed he was probably the most American one can become), JFK’s fate was wrapped up in Germany’s fate. In a deeply moving way, he was relating that Germany’s cares, thoughts and emotions were also his cares, thoughts, and emotions. Coming out of a nationalistic era that tore Europe apart, JFK was a precursor to the integrationist era that reunified Germany, as well as Europe. For this reason, among others, JFK was an admirable American citizen. Unfortunately, JFK’s perspective on international cooperation and unity is lost on many Americans.

The importance of breaking down barriers among people from different backgrounds and countries was easily discernable after World War II, but remains just as relevant today, if not more. Americans unfortunately are known around the world for thinking we are superior to the rest of the world, and indeed we often do. Living the past two years of my life back and forth between America and Europe has made the egocentrism of Americans more salient to me.

“America is the best country in the world,” “All the rest of the world does is copy America,” “Europeans are all just socialists”… these are the statements Americans often make. Apart from representing insensitivity and ignorance, these are empty statements.

America doesn't have to be the best in everything; we have the Olympics for that, Kallimarmaro Stathio in Athens, Greece

We don’t have to be #1 in everything; we have the Olympics for that.                                                 Kallimarmaro Stathio, the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece

What does it mean to be the “best” country? The response is often that America is the strongest economic and military superpower in the world. Well, does economic growth and military dominance mean “best”? For some, but not for others. For some, the best country might mean the one with the most equality, the one with a quality education system, the one that emphasizes a work-life balance, the one that pushes community values over individualism, the one with the least materialism, or the one with the lowest obesity rates or fewest mental diseases, etc. In these cases, America is far down on the “best” list. America is my favorite place to live for a variety of reasons, one of them being that it is my homeland, but it is important to recognize that it’s all about perspective; varying cultures appreciate varying aspects of economic and social well-being. To be perfectly honest, I do not know what is “best” is yet. I only know that being open to other people and cultures has served me well so far.

Further, it is meaningless accusation to say everyone copies America these days. If true, this is not a derogatory statement against non-Americans, but a global issue Americans might want to consider. Sure, we are sharing some of our extraordinary achievements like Hollywood, Britney Spears, and Dunkin Donuts, but alongside that, we are spreading things like consumerism and egocentrism, not to mention obesity. American and Western influence is spreading everywhere, the effects of which we need to seriously consider rather than gloat about.

Me and my German friend Cosima, Dresden

Me and my German friend Cosima, Dresden

Additionally, accusing Europeans of being socialist is a statement void of relevance. Socialism is not a cuss word, contrary to what our high school textbook told us. The arguments go, “Socialism is the last step to Communism” and “The world saw what socialism means under the Soviet Union.” These are misconceptions of socialism and Communism. Lenin and Stalin grossly misused Karl Marx’s ideas. At least on paper, one cannot deny that Communism is a very attractive idea.

People accuse President Obama of being socialist, as if this implies he is the antichrist, but saying someone is communist is not a very harsh allegation. Ironically enough, one can argue that Christ himself held many communistic ideals. He gave freely to the poor, condemned materialism and the love of money, and in an intense way, he advocated the lowering of the individual and the promotion of the collective greater good.

Flash Love Mob in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Flash Love Mob in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

I am not saying communism is the way forward; I’m saying perhaps due to our ethnocentrism, Americans fail to appreciate the good components of communism, like sharing, social equality, helping others, etc. We are too wrapped up in the remarkable comforts of capitalism to recognize the personal and social fulfillment to be found in ways of thinking focused less on self-interest and material well-being.

Me and Michael at the Semperoper Opera house in Dresden

Me and Michael at the Semperoper Opera house in Dresden, Germany

As a territorially separate and politically unique country, many of us have become unable or unwilling to escape our ethnocentrism. America is great, but certainly not the best it can be. Our expanding influence is noteworthy, but rather than boasting about it, we should take it seriously and find ways to become a better example. Instead of closing our ears to anything outside the realm of America, we should recognize the good things to be found in ideas and cultures outside of our own.

Russian Tea Ceremony at the Tajik Tea Room, Berlin

Russian Tea Ceremony at the Tajik Tea Room, Berlin

Despite JFK’s grammatical error (the “ich” was unnecessary), he got it right when he said, “I am a Berlin-man.” An American can be European in the same way a European can be an American. We are all unified in our dedication to freedom. Despite our different customs and interests, it is important to recognize that no nation’s individual interest is worth more than the good of all. Although America has achieved unprecedented economic and military progress, we are not superior to the rest of the world. America is an extraordinary country that I love deeply, but rather than being so critical and isolated, we need to humble ourselves. Just as other societies learn from the good things of our country, we should recognize the good elements in other societies, and perhaps even consider incorporating them into our own.

When Freedom negates Freedom

Sunset from the top of the Reichstag building, Berlin

Sunset from the top of the Reichstag building, Berlin

Exploring different countries and cultures and taking a class on 20th century politics has made me consider the different ways in which people view liberty. For Soviet rulers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), liberty meant freedom from the ills of capitalism and individual selfishness.*  For East Germans under Soviet rule, however, liberty meant freedom to speak their own language, freedom to travel outside the country, freedom from being raped by tainted Soviets, etc.**  For Mao, liberty meant freedom from bourgeois pigs.*** America, unlike present-day Europe, places less of an emphasis on freedoms like health and education, and more of an emphasis on economic freedom, freedom to speak out, freedom of the press, etc.

[A similar version of this post can be found on Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA) websitehttps://blogs.emory.edu/cipablog/2013/07/09/when-freedom-negates-freedom/]

My point is that the definition of freedom is a nuanced term, and although we are a country dedicated to freedom, the definition of freedom often becomes convoluted. In order to move forward, we should consider where we as a people want to place our emphasis on freedom. Looking at two political theorists, one democracy-friendly and one not, one could make the unpopular argument that America’s heavy emphasis on material well-being and economic freedom actually threatens some of the very freedoms on which our society is based.

One right we have unknowingly minimized in our society is freedom of thought or freedom of expression. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who in the 1830s was simultaneously deeply admiring of and cautious toward the American project, predicted that although liberal democracy is based on an appreciation for individual intellectual freedom, democratic people will exercise this freedom less and less until public opinion dominates individual thoughts. Rather than thinking for themselves most will begin adopting the viewpoint of everyone around them. The media will reinforce this process because they will print what the public wants, and those who think independently will be marginalized.

The way in which technology and social media has developed today indeed proliferates this command of the majority opinion. People have better access to public opinion via unreliable sources like Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, and Wikipedia, and with these massive pools of information, the media in turn has convenient access to what the people want. It is true that the political divide in America is becoming more polarized, but in a society where people accuse President Obama of being socialist, America is without a doubt more politically one-dimensional than most of the world. In America, the opinion with the most “shares” and “likes” becomes the majority opinion, and by our own doing, one of our basic freedoms, freedom of thought, is no longer a reality.

Ancient Stadium, Peloponnese

Freedom for the Greeks is preserving their culture                                                                                         Ancient Greek Stadium, Peloponnese

Another right we have demonstrably jeopardized is the right to privacy. Herbert Marcuse, the writer who showed us during the Soviet era that Lenin and Stalin had tragically misconstrued Marx’s ideas, explain that a society with an excess of freedom will begin to negate some of the freedoms upon which it is based. Regarding the right to privacy, he is right, at least in the sense that we have become less able to truly know whether this right is protected or not. The more material comforts economic freedom permits, the more agreeable we are to lessen our capacity for complete privacy, i.e. we willingly place tracking devices in our pockets. We have no concrete way of ever knowing whether we are being monitored, and I, like you, am okay with that. Put simply, I trust that I am not being monitored, but am apathetic that it can be done extensively so, and without my knowledge. (Check out this insider’s look at government spy camera technology). My love for material comfort interestingly dwindles my love for privacy, one of my  rights as an American.

Freedom for the Swiss is the ability to remain neutral in wars (i.e. World War II), but active in working toward peace (i.e. the Peace Palace and the Red Cross headquarters), Lake Geneva

Freedom for the Swiss is the ability to remain neutral in wars (i.e. World War II), while also active in working toward peace (i.e. the Peace Palace and the Red Cross headquarters), Lake Geneva

The original seals page of the First Geneva Convention, Red Cross Museum

The original seals page of the First Geneva Convention, Red Cross Museum

Additionally, privacy is threatened by the increasing development of American electricity industries. Like the Internet, electricity went from being a luxury to an economic necessity, and becoming more energy efficient is essential for further progress. Smart grid technology is efficiently tackling this issue by connecting electricity grids across the nation and at the same time, exposing us to further monitoring of our homes, not to mention the possibility of a massive terrorist attack against our soon completely interconnected electricity grid. Our economic progress is extraordinary, but so is the rate at which we have lessened our capacity to even conceive of personal privacy.

It is not terribly surprising that a democratic society has developed in this way. Because the economic and social comforts of a free society are so enjoyable, Tocqueville argues that democratic people will become more willing to give up freedoms to enjoy more economic comfort. People will care less that the government can easily monitor them if it means they get to have a device of immediate gratification in their pocket. They will exercise freedom of thought less often because they would rather spend that time making money, which brings better houses, cars and televisions. He explains that the more we focus on economic freedom and material well-being, the more centralized and powerful we allow public opinion to become.

I agree. We have come to care more about the pleasures of Facebook than the fulfillment of reading quality literature. We care more about the convenience of an iPhone than the security of independence and privacy. We desire military power and the economic well-being it ensures more than a world free from nuclear dictatorships. We prefer our ill-informed political opinions over the challenge of bettering our healthcare system. We care more about our individual work lives than the participation of communities an effective education system requires. The list of freedoms we have put by the wayside goes on and on. As Tocqueville predicted, we have come to focus on the material well being of those in our democracy rather than the other freedoms it provides. We should recognize this trend and change it, because a society in which economic freedom dominates other freedoms is not truly free and jeopardizes the future of freedom for all.

Freedom for Germans is efficiency, cleanliness, job security, and a unified country breaking free from its past, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Freedom for Germans is efficiency, cleanliness, job security, and a unified country breaking free from its past. Brandenburg Gate, Berlin (Photo Credits to Lukas Olson)

Freedom for the Spanish is having both siesta time and a job. Olives for tapas, the Market of San Miguel, Madrid

Freedom for the Spanish is having both siesta and a job. Stuffed olives for midday tapas, the Market of San Miguel, Madrid

Freedom can be defined in a variety of ways. We need to understand that financial freedom is an essential component of a successful liberal democracy, but so are freedoms like public participation, equal opportunity, privacy, thinking independently, etc. Rather than focusing exclusively on material comforts, we should exercise and incorporate protections for other democratic rights, which if taken away could render economic freedom irrelevant.

——

Mary’s version of freedom:

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* Read Stasiland: Oh it Wasn’t so Terrible, in which journalist Anna Funder interviewed both the resisters to Soviet rule and the implementers, i.e. the Stasi secret police.

** For an autobiography of what some East Berliners went through during this time read A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers.

*** Not on a bad hair day, take a look at Mao’s Red Army Faction documents.

Through the eyes of a German: When what’s history is not history

There is not much context when you learn about world history in high school, (especially if you don’t pay attention). Before I came to Europe and definitely before I started studying European politics in college, modern history, such as the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin wall, etc. might as well have occurred around the same time as the Roman Empire. The times I listened rather than slept in Mr. Hill’s class (collectively not a whole lot), I basically lumped everything together time wise – World War I and II, imperialism, Nazis, communism, colonialism, etc. – and just labeled them all bad and incorrectly, of the past.

On the contrary, the tragedies that came under Hitler and Stalin were quite recent, and their continued impact pervades society in manifest ways. America has not seen warfare on our soil since the Civil War, so exploring a city with such visible and tangible history is fascinating. In Berlin in particular, pieces of the Berlin wall are scattered throughout the city in random places sometimes, often as a type of art.

Piece of Berlin Wall, Outside a Cafe

Piece of Berlin Wall, Outside a Cafe

A large portion of the Berlin Wall was left and made into an exhibit called the Mauer Memorial.

My best escape face, Berlin Wall

My best escape face, Mauer Memorial

Further, a portion of the Wall stands along the River Spree displaying 105 murals painted and preserved on the east side of the Wall.

Goldy, East Side Gallery

Goldy, East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

Jae, East Side Gallery

Jae, East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

"Brother Kiss" by Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel, East Side Gallery"

Brother Kiss” by Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel, East Side Gallery”

GDR Trabant car breaking through the wall, East Side Gallery

GDR Trabant car breaking through the wall, East Side Gallery

Goldy, Jae and Shian, East Side Gallery

Goldy, Jae and Shian, East Side Gallery

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but as my German friend Cosima from East Germany put it, “It did not fall in the minds of some people.” What she meant is that although Germany reunified, East Germans and West Germans are still divided in terms of their perceptions of each other. Some West Germans consider East Germans ideologically behind since they spent so many years under repressive rule. In many regions, East Germans have a distinct accent that is often associated with being slow or ignorant, sort of like the Southern accent in the U.S. Although from the East, Cosima does not have this accent because her mom is an opera singer and made sure she learned “proper German,” as she called it.

When Cosima asked me what is the largest difference I find between Americans and Germans, I said it is our respective relationships with our nation’s history. Americans know and appreciate major figures and events like George Washington, the Boston Tea Party etc., but for Germans their personal connection to their history is manifested in the ways they talk, think, identify themselves, develop political opinions, perceive other people, etc. The racial divide in America before the American Civil War without a doubt still influences the American people, but Civil War battles are much more romanticized (indeed, they are reenacted for fun on Lookout Mountain) than is say, the Wannsee Conference house, where the details for the Final Solution were laid out by Hitler and his colleagues.

Wannsee Conference House, Pottsdam

Wannsee Conference House, Potsdam

Beautiful, but disconcerting view from Wannsee Conference House

Disconcertingly beautiful view from Wannsee Conference House

Wannsee Conference House from the Wannsee Lake

Wannsee Conference House from the Wannsee Lake

In fact, the sites of major bloody Civil War battles in my hometown of Chattanooga are my favorite places to take my visitors to relax and enjoy the springtime, while few Germans consider a visit to Sachsenhousen concentration camp a relaxing day.

Major Civil War "Battle Above the Clouds" site, Cravens House, TN

Major Civil War “Battle Above the Clouds” site, Cravens House, TN

Mary and Ashley, Cravens House on Lookout Mountain, TN

Mary and Ashley, Cravens House

Versus:

Barbed Wire security system, Sachsenhausen concentration camp

Barbed wire security system, Sachsenhausen concentration camp

The divisions brought by World War II and the Soviet Union are still felt today throughout Europe. Politicians who I spoke with from other countries still made comments such as, “the Germans need to have their power kept in check,” the Dutch still yell things at the German politicians like, “We want our bikes back!” and regarding German’s role in austerity measures in Greece, Greek newspapers publish cartoons of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel with Hitler’s moustache. Also noteworthy is how these things influence the German people.

I asked Cosima if the German people ever get tired of how cornered the rest of the world keeps them in international affairs following the Nazi era. She told me it is quite the opposite and talked about the German word Kollektivschuld, which describes the continued, collective guilt of German people for the atrocities committed by their ancestors. This is not something to which I can relate. There are many things about American history I think are quite terrible, but I do not place this on myself. By the same token, I am proud of my country, but do not feel like my history defines me. Germans are much more connected to their history.

As an example, I later was talking to Cosima over beers and described the “shoe testing track” I came across at Sachsenhousen concentration camp, on which prisoners were forced to walk for miles testing different military boot materials. I was very specific in my gruesome description, as I would have been if describing it to anyone who had not seen it: “The prisoners were forced to walk 18 miles a day.” They often times were given shoes that were not their size and developed terrible blisters.” etc. (See my post on Sachsenhousen.) Before I finished my story, I noticed her face turning rosy. She averted her eyes and replied, “Yes, that is one of the darker parts of our history.” I was kind of taken aback that she owned the story as her own, because I never associate the deeds of the Nazis with specific Germans, or Germany at all really. The Nazi atrocities were the acts of the ones who carried them out, not the responsibility of Cosima or the new Germany, in my mind. I responded that it was a darker part of human history.

Although discontent with the less reputable portions of Germany’s history, Cosima was contagiously admiring of her hometown of Dresden.

Me and Cosima, Dresden

Me and Cosima, Dresden

People joke (sort of) that Germans are known for their principled behavior nowadays because they are still trying to make up for World War II. Indeed, Germany is quite obliging to the rest of Europe financially, they avoid stepping on toes in military decisions, they are incredibly environment friendly, etc. One evening when Cosima’s friend stopped to remove a beer bottle from the path and add it to the recycle bin, she joked, “How German of him.”

The closeness of history to Germany is unambiguous in Berlin, where every other corner of the city has a memorial to some tragic or fantastic event. Further, as the people will tell you, German history is more than history; it is still a part of their very essence.

——

Special thanks to Cosima Olender for her contributions to this post.

A Marathon put in Perspective by a Nazi “Shoe Testing Track”

Finish Line, Nashville Country Music Marathon

Finish Line, Nashville Country Music Marathon

About a month ago, my friend Ashley and I completed the Nashville country music marathon. I trained hard all year, but very little could have prepared me for what we faced that day.

We woke up at an ungodly hour, groggily ate our peanut butter and bagels, and opened the front door to a daunting image: it was pouring rain. Basically, it looked like Hoover Dam had been rerouted to my brother’s front porch awning. Everyone loves a good porch awning, but the beating of rain on an awning versus the the ground is more daunting when you realize the value of an awning on marathon day. Thankfully, we came prepared:

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Despite the weather, the first 13 miles were actually enjoyable given the adrenaline from the starting line , but by mile 15, I was mentally done. I was hungry, my poncho was sticking to my legs, I was beginning to chafe, and my shoes felt like sopping wet towels. The rain just would not let up. It even hailed at one point. To make a long, begrudging story short, I finished the marathon, but it was a painful process which I would not do again if someone paid me.

What I wanted my marathon to be like:

What I wanted my whole marathon to be like

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What it was actually like:

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My marathon was a mental/physical challenge that warrants complaints, but pales in comparison to what I observed today at Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin. While walking around with my map of the compound, I sought out the area called “Shoe Testing Track,” and I found exactly that. A half circle about a half-mile long was laid out with various types of earth materials for the prisoners to test the sturdiness of various military boot materials.

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My audio guide tour told me this task was used as one of the worst forms of punishment. The prisoners would walk 18 miles a day, and little attention was paid to selecting the correct size boots, so they often developed the worst of blisters. The day was interspersed with “breaks” during which they were required to obey exercise commands such as knee-highs and to “jump on the spot.”

They completed their task rain or shine, and the distance was later upped to 25 miles to increase the efficiency of the project.

My sandals were not well equipped for certain parts of the track, which sometimes became less like a track and more like collections of volcanic rubble. By the end of my “trek” around the path, I was internally ashamed of my need to take a seat and rest.

Intense security system

Barbed wire security system

Execution pit

Execution pit

Mass Grave

Mass Grave

I completed my marathon at a much longer time than anticipated, but seeing my brother waiting for me at the finish line, soaring with my best friend at my side, and receiving my medal, I was elated. I cannot imagine how opposite I would have felt if I knew I had to do the same exact thing the next day. I can try to imagine though because one of the first questions my brother asked my sopping wet self upon finishing my marathon was “Would you do that again, right now, for a million bucks?” All I heard was “do that again,” and I started shivering even more than I already was.

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Me and Fred post-marathon

Me and Fred post-marathon

Apart from the volunteers who passed out unpeeled half-bananas during the race and Fred’s mid-race text from his comfy apartment, “I stepped in the pool of water you spilled on my carpet IN MY SOCKS and I am pissed,” there was nothing sinister about my experience, unlike what millions of innocent Holocaust victims faced.

I got to go home to a long, hot shower and endure my soreness in my brother’s big fluffy bed. This is where Sachsenhausen prisoners got to rest:

Concentration camp living quarters (more like a chicken coop)

Concentration camp living quarters (more like a chicken coop)

Their sleeping space was so tight that they all had to sleep on their sides, and were only physically able to switch sides if done in unison with each other.

Wet, sore and happy

Wet, sore and happy

Running 26.2 miles as a human is sort of an absurd thing to do when you really think about it (especially while doing it).  We were not built to do that. But much more absurd would be for a human to force that sort of physical strain on another human being. This is not something I will ever understand, but I think it is important to try. It seems self-evident that people were not made to harm other people, so why does it happen every day?

Learning from old, wrong writers: the need to address the social media boom

The Original Covenant of the League of Nations, League of Nations Museum in Geneva

The Original Covenant of the League of Nations, League of Nations Museum in Geneva

Following World War I in 1919, an English writer named H.G. Wells wrote a short pamphlet called The Idea of a League of Nations, which describes the theory behind the world’s first organization aimed at preventing war among nations. Wells was not the first thinker to contemplate this idea; indeed, the idea of international cooperation dates back to Immanuel Kant in 1795 and even back to Cicero. Although Wells made very incorrect predictions about the future of peace, his piece is important because he provided insight regarding the development of technology that is applicable to today’s social media boom.

After World War I, Europe had two directions it could take: one that furthered the continent down the path of pursuing greedy national interests or one that took on the challenge of developing cooperation among nations for the greater good of the whole. Wells thought the latter was more likely because most world leaders had learned their lesson during WWI, but as we know, most of Europe took the selfish, nationalist path straight to World War II, and the League of Nations was deemed a failure. Wells was disappointed with the outcome, and became increasingly pessimistic in his later writings. His predictions were a failure, but his assertions maintain significance in international affairs.

Wells argued that the new industrial forces Europe had gained, especially those that increased the capacity for communication, made way for cooperation, as well as destruction. “The very great increase in the possible vividness of mental impact” (1) could be a great thing or a terrible thing, he said. For Hitler’s project, it proved a terrible thing. In Berlin’s 1936 Olympics, television, for the first time, allowed a world leader very effectively to disseminate a dangerous idea to the masses.

Does this make television a bad thing? Of course not. Television also allowed the atrocities carried out by the Nazis to be exposed to the world in the 1947 Nuremburg trials. As Wells argues, technological progress can be used for the good or the bad. For example, Wells would be pleased to see today that in the European parliament, technology has made it possible for each European minister to address parliament in their native language and simultaneously be understood in 23 different languages. At the same time, new technology has made it possible for an Islamic jihadist in Egypt to view an anti-Islam film in America, and respond the same day with acts of violence.

Technological progress can be used for the good, but also can be catastrophic when society disregards the ways in which new technology will shape a people. In seeing the tragic possibilities of new trends in technology, it is worth considering the largest development today in communication technology, which is the present social media boom. Increased use of social media venues and the advent of almost universal smartphones make it possible for ideas to be viewed and shared almost instantaneously, the consequences of which are unknown. This could be a good thing or bad thing, but most certainly is impacting the way in which people communicate.

Facebook, for example, has changed the way we talk to people, meet people, learn about people, etc. It has increased the quantity of people with whom we can remain in contact, while possibly also decreasing the quality of those maintained relationships. It certainly has increased the capacity for unresolved misunderstandings. Facebook amplifies everything, but to different degrees, meaning Facebook makes happy people feel happier, bored people feel more bored, and unhappy people feel miserable. Facebook allows long distance relationships to grow, but also feeds unhealthy obsessions. Facebook educates the public on important social issues, but also widely disseminates ignorance. My point is not that Facebook is to be feared, only that its effects need to be better understood.

A web-based Pew Research Center study indicates that most people (in the study) expect that in 10 years social media will have progressed their integration into society in a positive way. Technology traditionally furthers civilization, but it is worth noting that tragedies can occur even in civilized society. Another way in which Wells was correct is when he observed that the next tragedy would sprout from within cultured society, not from an external, barbarian invasion. The question that still has historians dumbstruck is how a country that produced a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Hegel, etc., also produced an Eichmann, a Himmler, a Hitler. We should never again underestimate the possibility for irrational, destructive thoughts to enter society.

It is essential to assess the ways in which progressing technology can be exploited or conversely, used for the good. H.G. Wells was not anti-technology by any means. Rather, he said we should perfect technology, as well as the ends to which it is applied. Wells was wrong about his peace predictions, but he was right about his caution of society’s relationship with technology. Catastrophe came from within society, and its method (television for Nazi propaganda, trains and tanks for victims’ transportation, gas chambers for their annihilation, etc.) was the abuse of technology. The world failed to predict the capacity for tragedy influenced by unfettered and unexamined progress, a mistake we should learn from rather than repeat.

United Nations courtyard

United Nations courtyard, Geneva

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