Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Simple, but Loud, Joy!

With Janice in the States, I am spending an exorbitant amount of each day’s early hours alone in the house. Most times, the television is my rattling, prattling, background audio companion, running off at the mouth, reporting in both English and Greek, the pressing problems and acute concerns of our ash-cloud interrupted, deficit-ridden, confidence lacking, globally warmer, much-conflicted world.

This morning, I remembered my often overlooked electronic companion, the CD player and that Celtic CD with the matching rapturous harp melodies and the energetic jigs played on a liberated Irish fiddle. I “juiced” the volume up loud on that thing, the better to hear it while in the shower and afterwards.

A few minutes later, dressed and ready for the day, I left the place for the run to the bank and to pay the bills, inadvertently leaving that machine running at full blast. Standing in the hallway, pondering the critical existential choice between the stairs or the elevator, I surprised myself with the abrupt realization that, from the neighbor’s perspective, the music was, shall we say, a little loud. Knowing that the queue at the bank was already forming, however, I hustled on down the stairs.

After two banks and a wait for my number to be called at the Post Office, I returned to our fourth-floor place that the Greeks and other Europeans, in their wisdom, insist on describing as being on the third floor. By the time I reached the second (or first) floor, I could hear and feel the melodious, mellifluous, yet lively music. Standing on the visitor’s side of my front door, I was greeted by an almost visceral tuneful salutation. Opening the door, the full weight of that otherwise soothing sweetness smacked me in the ears and sinus cavities, welcoming me home.

While I’m trying to be sympathetic to my neighbors (I really am!), I am also enjoying the high-voltage music. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much! Right?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


A couple of months ago, she came to “our” apartment - the one that she owns and we rent from her – to ensure that the old yucca plants on the veranda were removed safely. We all recognized that the leggy plants should be extracted from their fourth floor flower boxes. Having once provided cool shade and green beauty for the apartment’s residents, over time, they had grown up and out, tall and slender, with their pointed, long leaves now vanished from sight and reaching almost to the neighbor’s veranda on the floor above. While the plants themselves had grown leggy and skinny with age, their roots had become big and bound in their containers, threatening to burst open the concrete boxes. The combined weight of so many bottom-heavy, tall plants was now so great that we genuinely feared that, some day soon, they would threaten the structural integrity of the expansive patio, and break off from their exalted post on its edge.

So, Louiza came over to keep a close watch while the Albanian man carefully unearthed the aging plants. Because her son has a new home, she harbored a hope to recycle the old plants and move them to his new place. It was the last time on earth that we would see Louiza. We actually have seen her precious little in the nearly five years that we have rented the place from her. Through her English-speaking daughter, Maria, she was always responsive to our needs and willing to assist in any way when we called on her. But, the truth of the matter is that we have had very few problems with this great place to live while we are doing our work with Albanian immigrants in Athens. Increasingly, as we have gotten our Greek “legs” beneath us, we have taken care of the repairs that have occasionally been necessary. We usually just call Maria and Louiza, tell them the problem and our proposed solution. They generally agree and we have the work done and reduce our monthly rent check appropriately.

Just two weeks ago, both the refrigerator and the dishwater choose to go “out.” When it was evident that the appliances, purchased thirty years ago, needed to be replaced, Louiza went shopping for us and purchased new ones and arranged to have them delivered and installed – all on her own Euro nickel! In fact, on the very day of her unexpected stroke, Louiza was scheduled to come by the apartment to make certain that the installation was correct and that we were pleased with her new purchases. But, she didn’t come. Only later did we learn that she had suffered a massive stroke from which she would, sadly, never recover.

Last week, we attended the funeral services for this 61 year-old, strong and delightful, hospitable Greek friend. The intricate and somewhat mysterious protocol of Greek Orthodoxy, though strange and different to our American Protestant eyes and ears, could not disguise the genuine pain and powerful grief that generally gathers, like closet dust, around death in any culture. As “strangers” and “foreigners,” we are also fellow human beings and folks who have lost a friend. We grieve far more than the loss of a landlady. We have lost a kind and caring, competent and considerate companion on this journey through life.

Refrigerators and dishwashers and yucca plants eventually come to the end of their service. So, too, human beings, who were never intended to live forever on this planet. Our loss is great; the family’s loss is greater. But, together, we have powerful memories of days gone by. We have character-building relationships and soul-shaping influences that are more potent than life or death. And we also have hopes for eternity. Human beings, who place their trust in Jesus Christ, actually dare to believe that aging yucca plants, unbound from their earthly “boxes,” may prosper and thrive again. So be it with Louiza!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

City Welfare

The tragic events of this past week in Athens, Greece have been broadcast all over the world. Only the most myopic, distracted or ADD-afflicted among us could have escaped the report of widespread public demonstrations in this city, in response to the proposed austerity measures which are, in themselves, a response to Greece’s crushing financial woes. As part of a plan which caused the reluctant EU and the IMF to agree to provide “bail out” funds to Greece to the tune of 150 billion Euros in the next three years, Greece’s most recently-elected political leadership, with a Joannis-come-lately sense of righteous frugality, promised to push through legislation intended to reduce significantly the country’s unacceptable, looming deficit-to-GDP. Greek citizens, especially those employed in the public sector who can expect to see their salary checks cut from 14 to 12 each year and can no longer anticipate retiring at age 50, were understandably upset.

Of course, public demonstrations and strikes in this “cradle of democracy” are as regular as pigeon-droppings and usually more easily tolerated. Greeks make an outdoor sport of protests and strikes from workers at all levels of society. Ordinarily, they are peaceful, with resort to violence coming only occasionally and then, from students and others urged on by anarchists and far left groups who seem to have a vested interest in both protest and hostility.

At the height (or was it the depth?) of the protests, however, a home-made incendiary device was thrown into a bank and three innocent civilians (bank workers required to work through the demonstrations outside) were killed as a result. This certainly raises the ante and increases the level of concern.

The Albanian immigrants with whom I work, already at risk, due to powerful discrimination against them, are likely to feel the first effects of Greece’s austerity measures. Reflecting on their situation, my mind went to another group of immigrants. Years ago, Jewish exiles in Babylonia were also forced to live as the underclass among people who found every reason to dislike them. To their dismay, the Jewish exiles learned that they would be required to live as aliens among their former enemies for many years.

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking a word from God, told them to settle-in and expect to live in this adopted country for at least 70 years. They were told to marry, buy land and try to make themselves at home. Underwriting all of this advice, the prophet said: “Seek the welfare of the city into which you have been called, for in its welfare, you will find your own welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Shalom, that quintessential Jewish word, is used here. While shalom can be translated peace or welfare, it means far more than simply the absence of conflict. It is normally understood to encompass a mutual sense of wholeness and justice.

What a superb idea for all of us in this conflict-ravaged city. Lets work together to seek the welfare of this place! Immigrant or native-born! Public or private worker! Those soon-to-be subject to economic pressures or those who already have been for years! If each of us and all of us could recognize that our best welfare is to be found in working for the good of all concerned, not just a privileged few, things might just change! Hope so!