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!