Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beggars on Holiday!

One of the predictable curiosities for expats living in Athens, Greece is the reality that almost everyone in this town takes a holiday in August. Sometimes, it’s the entire month; sometimes, it’s for two weeks; but, you can always count on very little getting done in August because nearly everyone who is normally here is somewhere else – on a sun-drenched island or a quaint village where great grandparents once lived and where the family still maintains a house!
The already, painfully slow Greek bureaucracy moves even slower during August. Mom & Pop street-corner businesses close completely, their windows and doors locked and shuttered down; the entire family is away, with signs left on the door wishing potential customers “Kalo Kalokairi!” “Happy Summer!”

The ordinarily clogged, tiny streets are much easier to navigate. Locating a parking space on my street in Pagrati is actually possible in August!
Among the “closed for holiday” businesses on my regular walking pathways, I have also noticed that the beggars are absent. The very-tanned young man with scraggly hair and dirty flip flops who ordinarily sits on a sheet of cardboard is nowhere to be found. The pre-teen Roma girl who holds a sign reading “Peinao” (“I hunger”) in one hand and, in the other, loosely cradles a crying, month-old infant with a dirty diaper is absent. Her treasured spot in the shade is vacant.

It caused me to ponder: Do beggars take a vacation? What do they do when not begging? Where do they go? Do they take their begging trade to a holiday spot? Are people on vacation more or less likely to give money to a panhandler?
While I am still searching for answers to those questions, it occurs to me that all of us –including you and me - are actually beggars of a sort! None of us, in our own right, earns the right to take a breath or to have a thought. Every one of us stands before our daily existential moments with our hands out, asking – yea begging – for another opportunity to live, to think, to breathe, to give, to receive and to become. What one of us has, in our own power, an inexhaustible supply of minutes to live and a guaranteed lock on a fully developed potential? Why is it that most of our prayers are selfish petitions, exposing us as beggars, asking God for what we want?

We are all, I insist, like panhandlers in this perilous, penultimate paradise of a world. While signs in the London Underground Metro warn that “Busking is not allowed,” every person I know lives most of his/her life in desperate need – of friendship, meaning, fulfillment, worth, legitimate response and other essentials. Although it is rarely in the forefront of our minds, all of us are very needy and unable, in our own strength, to meet those essential needs. Like a person who uses credit cards to finance a holiday, we travel about in our lives without knowing the full cost of our own mortality and rarely stopping to give thanks to the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) who generously gives “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) to us beggars.
“Hey, buddy! Can you spare me a dime?”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Another Trolley Ride!

Heading home from a downtown meeting with my Greek tax accountant on the same day that I sold the company car in preparation for our upcoming departure from Greece, I boarded trolley number 11. Well, I got on the trolley and grabbed one of those plastic wrist straps that hang from the ceiling. The driver was actually still in the street, arguing with the open-top, double-decker, tourist bus driver who had parked in his curbside passenger pick-up zone.
After a few minutes of in-your-face shouting and gesturing between the two drivers, as only Greeks can do, our guy hopped on board and, at last, we pulled away from the stop at Syntaugma Square. As we merged with too much traffic, the driver shouted several, well-chosen epithets, I guess, therapeutically to himself, but at a volume level which likely pierced the ears of most of those at the back of the bus. Another day at the office for this unshaven, shirt-tail-hanging-out jockey of one of Athens’ bendable, electric-driven people-movers, stuffed with folks like me, just wanting to get home.
Before we had travelled the distance of two city blocks, a boisterous argument broke out between a woman and a teen-ager, further up on the crowded, aluminum tubed, stiflingly hot, moving trolley. Since I couldn’t catch the gist of the argument, I asked the young girl next to me what it was about. She said, “They are having an argument!” (Duh!) Trying to be patient, I asked, “What is the nature of the argument?” In response, the now-bored and slightly irritated little girl in jeans and a tank top said, “This country has many problems. It’s the crisis. People get angry at other people.” I figured that was her final explanation, so I did not press further.
About that time, the pot-is-as-black as-the-kettle trolley driver stopped the vehicle in the middle of the street. To the accompaniment of a clamoring of auto horns, the driver used those same vocal chords which we had heard earlier and, looking into that long, rectangular mirror,  shouted back some words to the conflicted couple. Loud and with an irritated tone, he insisted that this type of boisterous, public dispute would not be tolerated on his bus and that these two miscreants should show some respect for him and his passengers and shut up! Lacking that, he asserted, he would be forced to kick the offenders off the bus!
As the trolley lurched forward, I noticed the extremely-short, almost-to-dwarf-sized, lady standing in the aisle. She nearly fell into the lap of a teenager who was proudly wearing a Miami Heat, official professional basketball logo shirt. When she regained her balance, she gazed up wistfully at the wrist strap above her head, slightly more than twice the reach of her child-sized arms. With resignation on her face, she shifted her tiny body-weight, as the driver moved us along, weaving from lane to lane, in search of some hard-to-find traffic advantage, against the flow of too many drivers, too much impatience and too little progress.

When we stopped at Agios (Saint) Dimitrios’ Church, the kid in the Heat jersey crossed himself three times in Greek Orthodox style - right to left to mirror the actions of the priest, as contrasted with Roman Catholic style - left to right. He concluded his religious gesture with a salute. I’m not certain if the salute was to the church, to God, to himself or to some of his friends who were disembarking at that stop. At any rate, I was impressed with the basketball fan’s finesse and gesticulating flexibility in merging the genuflection and the salute. Many Greek Orthodox people cross themselves when they pass a church. Although the official church position is that they are placing the cross on themselves, asking God for a blessing and remembering the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, functionally it serves as a sort of rabbit’s foot, carrying the same popular benefit as throwing salt behind one’s head, as a wish for good luck.
Indeed, in the midst of these times of difficult economic crisis in Athens, Greece, getting along with others at a superficial social level is about as likely as a dwarf-lady making solid contact with a public transit wrist strap made for normal-sized people. Whether from the right to the left or from the left to the right, with or without a final salute gesture, whether you follow the Heat or not, today will you join me in praying for this dysfunctional economic and social system in Greece and for all of my friends here who struggle to get along and to get home, while the trolley inches along in steamy traffic on a hot August day?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lingerie in the Limbs

I know, I know. For my male readers, the title of this article conjures up images of that 60’s movie with Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass). I hate to disappoint you, but the back story is not all that sensual. Interesting, yes, but sensual – not so much! It’s just a small snippet of our soon-to-be-ending sojourn in Athens, Greece.

Even as I write this post, the movers are headed our way. After 9 years in Athens and 2 more in Tirana, Albania, Janice and I are preparing to return home to the US and to take up residence again in the great state of Texas. While we received much help in getting ready for the language and cultural acquisition upon departing the States and heading overseas, precious little attention is offered to help us to be ready to re-enter the country in which we lived most of our days. But, I digress.

The lingerie in the limbs adventure happened because, although we have a clothes dryer, given the warm, July days, Janice often hangs some of her nice semi-frilly things on the clothesline that came with our apartment, on the back balcony. Those of you who have visited us will recall that we live on the 3rd floor, by European measure, but it is actually the 4th floor from the ground. Some of you will also remember that beneath our back balcony the ground slopes even more with a descending driveway, leading into our underground garage. With that additional decline, our balcony ends up being 5 floors above the ground beneath it. Get the picture?
To complicate things further, on the property immediately adjacent to our building, a large tree grows, whose branches reach out above the driveway below. Now, if you have a mental visual on this, you will appreciate my dilemma when one of Janice’s nice things fell from its clothesline perch and landed on a tree limb. Of course, Lord knows it’s the man’s responsibility to retrieve all sorts of fallen objects from the mid-air clothesline, including his wife’s underwear.

So, now our Greek neighbors are talking even more about the crazy old American guy who was recently seen climbing a rickety ladder, with a long broom in his trembling hands. As the ladder rocked back and forth on the sloping driveway below, while standing on its top step, like Karl Wallenda walking the tightrope over Niagra Falls, this senior citizen kept thrusting the long broom into the air. Many observers, unable to see the tiny article of lingerie in the limbs, must have thought that the American guy had finally gone “around the bend,” “over the cliff” or whatever phrase Greeks use to describe the radical precipitous onslaught of dementia or senility.
After several tries, retrieving both the broom and my balance on every unsuccessful stab into the open air, my physical education teacher in the 7th grade (who gave me a C in “maintains balance at all times”) would have been proud. I didn’t fall off the ladder! More importantly, in “the fullness of time” I speared those pesky undies, dodged the now-falling broom handle and head and proudly watched as down they came! And great was the fall of it!

Now, I don’t know about you, but achieving even modest success in challenging physical feats is becoming a source of great pride for me, these days. Since I soon will celebrate having lived and remained mostly upright on this wobbling, spinning planet for “3 score and 10” years, I am usually privately proud when I don’t fall down or when I don’t spill soup on my shirt front. So the next time you see me, if I walk with a slightly exaggerated swagger, or if you hear me saying uncomplimentary things about my 7th grade PE teacher, you can just know that I have conquered the extreme challenges of lingerie in the limbs in Athens, Greece. Can I get an Amen?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Al's Crazy Idea!

On December 1, 1990, Philippe Cozette, a French construction worker, reached a grimy hand through a tiny crack in a rock wall and grabbed the similarly dirty hand of Graham Fagg, of Great Britain. That handshake, between a Frenchman and an Englishman, with its careful pumping in a close space, was more than just social courtesy. This universal sign of a social contract was noteworthy because the crack in the rock was beneath the surface of the English Channel! These two ordinary workers from the countries on either side of the Channel were chosen by lottery to be part of the historic breakthrough between French and British underwater construction teams. Although skeptics predicted that the crews, beginning their work on opposite shores, would miss each other, good engineering prevailed. Almost five years later, on May 6, 1994, the Queen of England joined French President, Francois Mitterrand in a much cleaner handshake, celebrating the culmination of this joint project - a historic feat of both underwater engineering and international diplomacy.

Although an underwater link between Britain and France is a modern wonder, the origin of the idea is more dated. In 1802, Albert Mathieu, a mining engineer from France, made a proposal to Napoleon Bonaparte that, to most, seemed like a crazy idea. Mathieu suggested that a wooden, underwater carriageway be built, connecting the two often-conflicting nations. To the ridicule of many, he anticipated gas lamps and candles providing illumination, horse-drawn carriages as transport and ventilation pipes, sticking out of the top of the water, installed at appropriate intervals, to handle the smoke. He advised that an artificial island be constructed in the middle, for changing horses. If trained engineers and common people scoffed at Mathieu’s idea, the diplomatic corps correctly warned that the current peace between France and England would not last and that an open connection between two contesting nations wasn’t prudent. Through the years, both British and French military leaders opposed the idea and the notion languished, with many experts rejecting it as impractical and unsafe. When British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher acknowledged that she would not continue to oppose the idea, if it was funded privately, it gained new momentum. After a design contest, digging began on opposite sides of the Channel, resulting in the breakthrough which gave us today’s modern Chunnel.

I am grateful for Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, the Queen of England, Phillippe Cozette and Graham Fogg, along with a cast of thousands of unknown others who, over time, worked to make this happen. My wanderlust and travel schedule have personally benefitted from their ingenuity, engineering and entrepreneurship. But, today, I am thanking God for no less than Albert Mathieu, whom some surely referred to as “Crazy Al,” when he first had the idea. While many at the time ridiculed Albert and his absurd idea, with apologies to my English professors, today, I want to say that I am glad that he thunk it up! By dreaming the impossible and proposing the improbable, Albert Mathieu moved the unthinkable closer and made it imaginable. When he suggested the outlandish idea, it became, as a consequence, slightly less unreasonable. By dreaming and scheming along these seemingly absurd lines, Albert initiated a flowing stream of consciousness  enabling later-day engineers, economists, diplomats, soldiers, government officials and ordinary people to keep the notion afloat until it could become doable.

To my way of thinking, we need more people like Albert. Of course, proposing the unthinkable must always be guarded by other, boundary-keeping, values. Simply having bizarre ideas is not what I am praising. But, in a day in which our differences with others seem to define us and hold us hostage, I want to take a page from Albert’s book and propose that we work on impossible-sounding ideas – especially those that relate to connecting cultures and peoples who often are in conflict. Let’s dream with Albert about how we can erect better emotional and intellectual bridges between the shores of vastly differing worldviews. Let’s get over the fear of open connections with those with whom we disagree and figure out how to meet in the middle. Let’s consider how to build a better mousetrap, but also how to devise a better way to reduce the mouse-like characteristics that make rats of all of us, at times.

Will you drive your little horse-drawn mental carriage with me, down the wooden planks of this lantern-lit idea, holding your breath and looking for a way to ventilate the smoky implications of this ridiculous-on-the-face-of-it idea?

God, give us many who are willing to envision what others think are outlandish dreams!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stolen and Sold Cheap!

Visitors to PORTA – the Albania House in Athens, Greece will recall that this cultural center for Albanian immigrants is located in a two-story, neo-classical house on the side of Philopappou Hill in the village of Koukaki, in the shadow of the Acropolis. If you visit on a Friday, you will observe that the Laiki (People’s Market) takes over our area. Vehicular traffic is prohibited on Zaharitsa (Sweet) Street, to enable farmers and merchants to set up stalls and sell everything from ladies underwear to fruits and vegetables. Vendors yell out their spiel, enticing the passersby to see, handle smell and even occasionally to taste a sampling of their precious goods. Well, no one has set up a stand for edible underwear, yet, but you get the point!

While Janice was shopping, I waited in the car. Since the Laiki commotion had my usual route blocked, I prepared to turn the vehicle around and head in the opposite direction. To survive in Athens, despite the narrow-streets, abundance of automobiles and dense population, we always have at least 2 routes in mind for travel. If the Laiki doesn’t block you, street closures accompanying a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel or a predictable and sometimes dangerous protest demonstration certainly will.
I engaged my best automated friend, the motion sensor which is activated when I hit reverse gear, and backed up carefully. Headed in the opposite direction, I looked in the rear-view mirror, with the impatient hope that Janice was soon to appear. Do you know that awkward moment when you make eye contact with a total stranger in the car’s rear-view mirror? There should be a Greek word for that!

We looked at each other. I watched, as motive, means and opportunity brightened his countenance. He approached the vehicle and sidled up alongside my driver’s side door before I could activate the power window button. He spoke with the artificially sweetened friendliness of a used car salesman. I responded in kind.
Then, he leaned in my window, his weary, unshaven, street-dirty face even closer to mine, and began to speak in conspiratorial tones. He willingly shared his halitosis. Certain that my personal space was violated, as he passed far beyond my comfort zone, I cracked open a linguistic alibi as an escape hatch from this conversation. Over my protest that I speak Greek poorly, I learned that the polyglot spoke pretty good English!

Sensing progress, he furtively looked around, checking to ensure that no one could see what he was holding in a handkerchief in his palm. Methodically, he unwrapped the soiled bandana. My eyes followed the dramatic unfolding of a gold ring with a diamond located prominently, along with a woman’s bracelet. After a few seconds he informed me that the bracelet alone would sell in good shops for 600 Euro. Then, he said, “I sell to you, meester, for 200 Euro!” When, in two languages, I said, “No, thank you!” he evidenced that he had passed the salesman’s exam on how to handle rejection. “I sell to you, meester, for 100 Euro!” “No thank you!” I repeated, with growing consternation. “I sell to you for 75 Euro - for your wife, your daughter, your friend girl!” (His English was not perfect!)
I sensed the need for a new strategy just as Janice returned to the car. The sidewalk salesperson exuded momentum. “For pretty lady?” he asked. Without bringing Janice up to speed and with no acknowledgement of his accurate assessment of my wife’s attractiveness, I started my car’s motor and said to him: “If these belong to you, you should never sell them for so much less than they are worth!” As I pulled away from the curb, the desperate, persistent man shouted, “40 Euro, meester?”

In this case, it was only jewelry – baubles to “prettify” someone’s hand. Sadly and more importantly, I run across far too many on the crooked, crowded streets of Athens whose lives and hopes have been stolen and sold cheaply.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

“Everybody Stop and Change!”

On Sunday, September 3, 1967, I had recently moved into a graduate student apartment and was about to embark on an academic journey which would lead to my first master’s degree. My personal life was happily consumed with the delightful challenge of adjusting to the second year of marriage to the lovely Janice Ann Riley who, to this day remains my spouse, companion and best friend.

I could hardly have imagined the impact of an event an ocean away from me, since my self-absorbed world was …, well, self-absorbed. September 3, 1967 may have little significance for you, but it was a revolutionary day for the country of Sweden. I have no data regarding church attendance in that Scandinavian country on that particular Lord’s Day, but something akin to a modern-day miracle happened early on that morning.

While I was still sleeping, half a world away, they actually stopped the traffic on all the roads and streets in Sweden!  From 1 AM until 10 AM, circulation of non-essential Swedish traffic was prohibited. An army of road workers advanced on the empty motorways and changed every last one of the road signs.
Like a nationwide square dance caller, the entire country heard and responded obediently to a clear command: “Everybody stop!” But, instead of the instruction to “Change Partners!” the Swedes heard the injunction to “Change Lanes!” The country had decided to stop driving on the left side of the road and begin driving on the right.

While the automotive implications of this event fascinate me, I am thinking more about its symbolic implications for our current time. How utterly unthinkable would it be, in this modern day, to imagine an entire nation of people, with varied ages and types of vehicles, diesel or gasoline  engines, gun-racks or rainbow peace signs in the rear windows, differing socioeconomic classes, unlike political views, contrasting outlooks or spiritual experiences and a multitude of vested interests at stake, to act in such aggregate harmony!
Can you imagine trying to pull off such a current, simultaneous transformation? If a similar enterprise were attempted today, some would see an insidious attempt by “big government” to interfere with the “God given” rights of the citizenry to choose for itself. The paranoids would likely view it as some sort of conspiracy orchestrated by sinister known or unknown forces. Others would certainly protest that the “founding fathers” had ordained the “correct” side of the road on which we should drive our carriages and the ultra-libertarians would insist that mankind was meant to be free of such attacks on the “right to the pursuit of happiness.” Surely, some would interpret the Bible’s Book of Genesis or one of Paul’s epistles to prescribe proper driving habits or the Book of Revelation to predict just such an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario.

The Swedes pulled it off; but, it was not easy! As late as 1955, 80% of the Swedish population voted no on a referendum to change the driving lanes. By 1963, when the Parliament approved the change and the Right-Hand Driving Commission was created, the logistical work of preparing for change began in earnest. Official vehicles had to be adapted, major intersections changed and many other alterations were needed, in advance. 3500 buses were altered. The tram system in the center of Stockholm was removed entirely. The big changeover for Sweden had a positive result. On the first day after the change, there were actually fewer road accidents than on the day before, presumably due to enhanced visibility.
Let’s dream together about those more-important-than-vehicular-commuting changes in our world that we know need to be made together and that just might enhance our corporate visibility. Can we gain from the Swedes traffic transformation and apply the learning to our own essential, personal or corporate renovation? I hope so!

Monday, March 24, 2014

More Than Just a Face Book Friend!

Pity the elusive mouse who must struggle to disconnect himself in the minds of youthful humans from the ubiquitous, plasticized, keyboard kind! Does anyone any longer recognize the fundamental literary distinction between Walt’s beloved “Mickey” and some cordless, unconnected robot rodent? What have we done with our words? Rats!

Shame on the unwashed who thoughtlessly seem unable to differentiate the dissimilarity in essence that divides a computer keyboard and one played upon powerfully by Liberace or pounded upon forcefully by the fiery Jerry Lee! Oh, how far has the never very noble Spam now fallen from its wartime usage as a marker for government-produced, cheap, mixed meat to its contemporary reference to the unwanted and quickly-consigned-to-electronic-hell of today’s easy come, easy go communication! And what has become of the serious obligation of equally serious deletion? Where is today’s cutting room floor?

Those who vociferously bemoan the disastrous decline in what was once considered polite, civil discourse might well spend a few well-chosen words of grief over the corruption of common communication. In addition to the sharp descent of civil conversation in the public electronic square, is it grammatically correct, always, insistently and increasingly to be angry?

O, brother, where art thou? Where have all the blessed beatitudes gone, long time passing? Blessed are those who need not place LOL after their messages to communicate their humorous intentions! Blessed is he or she whose written words can stand the light of clever inquisition without a preemptive smiley face! How sideways have become our smirking smiles, how crooked our occasional grinning communication! Those that live by spell-check shall face an equal and equivalent death!

How curious has the malfeasance of our modern speech construction become! How wearifying the written art is fast de-evolving! Perhaps nowhere is this language loss more obvious that the steep degradation of the treasured old-English word friend. “There is a friend that stickest closer than a brother,” it was once said and believed, in King James English; but modern friends seem to have little elasticity and even less stickability! To be a Face Book kind of friend is unlike any previous species of genuine friendship and surely bears no resemblance to the Quaker kind. A true friend does not ask to be liked! If it is sadly true that one can be unfriended and if friendship may indeed be a verb, isn’t it also true that authentic friendships are rarely so numerous as our electronic ones. Real friends neither brag about their number nor boast of their political or ideological inclinations nor ruthlessly exclude those with whom they might potentially disagree! Neither do they post only highly idealized or photo-shopped versions of themselves solely for other so-called friends or groupies to admire!

It is actually rare for authentic friends to complain publically to the unfriendly world of sleeplessness or send out detailed reports of intimate toilet habits to be shared with a host of so-called friends and many other unsuspecting passersby. If the tin-alley wordsmith once suggested of friendship that “it’s the perfect blend-ship,” there seems less and less to blend, so little longing for harmony. Gibran, after all, said, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” But, in our days, we seek uniformity of thinking and conformity of doing from our erstwhile friends.

What thinkest thou? In our speech and written communication, can we be no more precise and selective than this? Can we not observe some boundaries? Can we forego some less important things, in order to experience genuine communication with others? Can we, at least, think as much as we type? When our words cannot be more properly managed, what hope is there for our ways?