Thursday, November 27, 2003

Happy Turkey Day

I just wanted to wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. I hope everyone has a relaxing, enjoyable day full of things to be thankful for. I'm heading to Germany today for a weekend visit with friends, so you won't be hearing from me for a bit. Eat a little extra for me today.

What I'm Thankful For...
1. My parents...for being the best in the world (plus in case you didn't know, my mom sends the best packages ever).
2. My brothers...for being three of the coolest people I know
3. Jeff...for being so amazing
4. My friends...for making me laugh
5. My extended family...for being less "extended" and more "family"
6. My education...for giving me so many opportunities
7. My job...for paying me to live in Greece
8. My health, my country, green beans, laughter, summer, e-mail, books...I could make lists all day, but I have a plane to catch. Hope you all have as many things to be thankful for as I do.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Making a List, Checking it Twice

In case you are feeling generous (now or at any point in the future), I thought I would make my wish list clear. This way you can surprise me with one of the things I’ve always wanted. And yes, I know many of these things are not at all practical given my current situation (or perhaps practical at all), but that does not lessen my desire for them, and thus should not lessen your willingness to procure them for me. And don’t worry, I’ll be sure to update the list should things change. Now, in no particular order, the list….
1. an old typewriter – with raised round keys that make loud clacking noises when you type
2. a digital camera
3. a good bike and a helmet
4. quality hiking boots
5. a canoe
6. an Italian leather journal – They sell them in Venice. They have beautiful leather covers and the insides are filled with homemade paper.
7. The chest I received from my grandmother restored and lined with cloth.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Ready or Not, Here They Come

Last night, Carl, a friend of the house, stopped by and Kate, Darrell and I hung around with him chatting. Carl’s age is a mystery. We used to think he was in his late twenties, but references to jobs he’s had and how long he has worked at them, make us think that perhaps Carl is actually in his mid-thirties. His age really isn’t important, but it was kind of interesting how far off we were on his age. I guess it’s true that you’re just as old as you act.

Anyhow, Carl, who is Australian, works as a consultant to the Olympic Games. He started with this in Sydney, kept it up in Salt Lake City, and is now in Athens on a 2.5 year contract. Hearing him talk about the upcoming games is hilarious. Anyone who has visions of how great these games will be seeing that they are taking place in the birthplace of the Olympics will be set straight after a short chat with Carl. I’ve been in Athens for three months and I’ve frequently wondered if I just made up the fact that the Olympics will be held in this city in less than a year. Unless you’re walking through Plaka, where stores selling Olympic souvenirs abound, it’s pretty hard to believe that the attention of the world will be on Athens in August 2004. I can see the Olympic Stadium from the third floor of the high school, or to be more accurate, I can see the part of the Stadium that is actually built. I can also see the cranes that are supposed to be working on it, but which I have never once seen move. It will take nothing short of a miracle for this city to be ready.

Anything that could possibly be an issue is. The taxi drivers are constantly striking because they refuse to meet the demands of the Olympics Committee which include issuing receipts, having cash boxes, and brushing up on their English. The entire city is under construction, none of which seems to be scheduled for completion before 3850. There isn’t one single mosque in the city for Muslim competitors/spectators to worship in. The athlete village is a decent bit away from the main venue, yet there is as of now no arrangement for how to transport the athletes to and from the events. Getting from the airport to town is a huge pain, because no one seemed to consider it a good idea to link it up to the new Metro. Trash piles up on sidewalks for weeks at a time because the garbage workers are on strike. Really, you’d think that someone just sprung the idea of having the Olympics here on them about a month ago. And to think that they’re still pissed that Atlanta got the Olympics for the centennial event in 1996 instead of them.

All of the above are problems that need to be addressed and need to be addressed soon. The real problem though is an apparent lack of interest and leadership. According to Carl, no one wants to put their name on anything because they don’t want to be held responsible for its failure. So instead of things getting down, papers are simply passed around. Then, when someone asks about it, everyone denies having ever seen it. The most amusing part of it all is their method of planning. I’ll play out Carl’s story for you…
C: (talking to Greek officials) You all need to make a plan for this (referring to security, events, whatever)
Officials: What do you mean a plan?
C: You know, what you’re going to do, who’s going to do it, how you’re going to do it, when you’re going to do it…
Officials: Okay. But, how?
C: What do you mean how? Just write it down.
Officials: Okay. Do you have a copy of how they did it in Sidney or Barcelona?
C: Sure. (gives them a copy)
A few weeks later the officials give Carl a copy of their plan, which he proceeds to read through.
C: Um, I’m not sure about this reference to the Harbor Bridge. How exactly are you planning to use the Harbor Bridge for the games here in Athens?

Yes, that’s right. The Greek officials simply copy the plan they were given, not even bothering to change obvious things like the names of places specific to a city. And the kids at Athens College don’t understand why I make such a big deal out of them not cheating. Cheating, which will be saved for another blog, is rampant here and Greece, and this is evidence of the fact that it’s not a habit that you just lose when you are out of school. So yes, they’re even cheating on the hosting of the Olympic Games. I’m not really sure how that’s going to work out. I had really wanted to stay around for the Games, but now I’m fine with the fact that I’ll be missing out on them. But if you do go, let me know what you think of the way they incorporate the Harbor Bridge into the show. I imagine that it’ll be pretty interesting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

My Old Kentucky Home...

There’s something about human nature that compels us to make connections. Whenever we meet someone, we search our minds for anything that will build a bridge between us, no matter how distant we may actually be. As a foreigner in Greece, I am constantly asked where I am from, and then I am forced to listen as people dig furiously for an association.

Since I’m not from New York, Boston, DC, California or Florida (the apparent travel hotspots for Greeks), most Greeks have no real experience with my hometown or home state. Many, in fact, aren’t exactly sure where it is, and using the places they know, it’s still pretty hard for me to explain. Well, yes, Kentucky is north of Florida, east of California, and southwest of NY, Boston and DC. But hell so is Nebraska, Arizona, Ohio, Kansas and about every other state in the country. There’s not a tidy little explanation of where my state is. We’re not on the East Coast or the West Coast. We’re not really Southern (at least in comparison to Georgia or Alabama). We’re certainly not Northern. And we’re not quite Midwestern. We’re the gateway to everything, but we’re not quite any one thing. Try explaining that one to someone with a limited knowledge of both the English language and American geography.

Yet despite the relative anonymity of Kentucky, there are still connections to be made. KFC, for instance. The chain is all over Athens, and it’s the first thing that seems to pop into the minds of many Athenians when they find out I’m from Kentucky. Yes, of course, I say. You know, Colonel Sanders is my grandpa. Everyday we eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits straight from Harlen and Claudia’s kitchen. Finger-lickin’ good. Sometimes I’m not sure they realize I’m joking. Maybe I am heir to the most famous fried chicken in the world…me and every other Kentuckian.

But don’t despair fellow Kentuckians. There are those who know more about our state than KFC. The cab driver I had this weekend, for instance, upon finding out that I was from the Bluegrass State, immediately steered the conversation to bourbon. Great, I thought, a topic that I am extremely well-versed in. Bourbon. Is that what Jim Beam is? Is bourbon the same as whiskey? Hell if I know. But don’t’ worry…I didn’t let on. Instead I proudly announced the one fact that I do know about bourbon…to be real bourbon it has to come from Kentucky…just like Champagne has to come from France. That connection to France makes it sophisticated you see. Kentucky…just like France.

And oh yeah, I bet you never knew that the blue people who live in Appalachia are a topic of international interest. That’s right, one of the passages in the 7th grade literature book here at Athens College is titled “The Blue People of Kentucky.” Definitely an important thing to be learning about at that age. I hope they don’t forget the pearls of wisdom they gleaned from this reading. At least when they meet someone from Kentucky, they won’t have to talk about KFC. They can talk about Troublesome Creek, the Fugate family, and inbreeding. That’s a conversation every Kentuckian I know is dying to have. What, you think it’s strange that my brother is also my uncle?

To be fair, not all people I meet have such misguided ideas about Kentucky. Emmanuel (with two m’s as he pointed out), the self-proclaimed “Capitol Man”, who I met just this weekend while walking down Ermou Street in downtown Athens, proved to be quite the expert on Kentucky. In his own words: “Kentucky. The capitol is Frankfort, but Louisville is the big city. The first Saturday in May. The most important horse race in the world. Quite an event. Have you ever heard of a man named Rick Pitino? He used to coach the Wildcats, but then went and coached the pro team in Boston. It’s a pretty state, I’d say. Quiet, too. Nice.” After I informed him that Mr. Pitino had returned to the great state of Kentucky to coach the Louisville Cardinals, I asked him if he’d ever been to Kentucky. With his wealth of information on the state, I was certain that he must have some real connection with it. But alas, no. Emmanuel, aka Capitol Man, had never been to Kentucky or known anyone from there. He just liked memorizing random facts about every place in the world. Interesting, huh. Actually, it’s kind of weird. If the only people who really know anything about Kentucky are those who read reference books for fun, I think maybe I’ll just stick to the people whose connection to my state is KFC. At least that means they’re somewhat in touch with the world.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

He Who Saves One Life, Saves the World Entire.

Rosa is, in my best estimate, in her seventies. She is not even five feet tall and speaks in a quiet voice. Yet both her presence and her words are commanding. Rosa is a docent at the Jewish Museum in Athens, which I visited this morning. She spent at least thirty minutes sitting and talking with Kate, Sarah and me about the history of Jews in Greece and of her own personal history. I am fascinated by the topic of Jewish history, especially in regards to the Holocaust, and when I meet someone who has lived this history, I find myself captivated.

The Holocaust was a horrific event in the history of the world. While initiated and carried out by the German nation, the Germans were aided and abetted by the world. The United States refused to allow any more Jews than normal into the country. Cuba turned away a ship that was to dock there, forcing the Jews back into the hands of Hitler. The Pope harbored the Nazis in Italy. Gentiles in German-occupied lands cooperated with German forces, turning Jews in for monetary rewards, knowing full well that their actions would result in the murder of these Jews. Einsatzgruppen in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia were assisted by local civilians as they murdered entire populations of Jews. Humanity and morality were abandoned by an incomprehensibly large number of people.

But not all. There were people who looked into the terrifying eyes of the Holocaust and challenged it to a fight to the death. Rosa -who lost her uncle in Bergen-Belsen, who had to change her name to a Christian name in an effort to remain unknown to the Germans, who was one of the mere 10,000 Greek Jews who survived to Liberation (Greece lost 87% of its Jewish population), who has every right to be bitter toward the world - reminded us that there is always a light in the darkness. In Greece, there was Angelos Evert, head of the police in Athens, who issued false identity cards to Jews, recording them as Greek-Orthodox. There were Bishop Chistostomos and Mayor Karrer of the island of Zayknthos, who were told to submit a list of all the island’s Jews to the German authorities, but who instead turned in a list, on which there were only two names…their own. Of course, neither was Jewish. These two men then proceeded to smuggle out all 257 of the island’s Jews. And there was Archbisop Damaskinos of Athens, who wrote an angry letter to the Nazis, denouncing their “intolerable acts of barbarism,” praising the role of Jews in Greek history, and refusing to collaborate with the Nazis, thus becoming the only head of a European Church to officially demand a stop to the persecution of the Jews. When Nazi General Stroop wrote back threatening to shoot him if he did not cooperate, the Archbishop defiantly replied, “General Stroop, the Priests of Greece are not shot; they are hanged. Please respect this tradition…” He then issued instructions to all monasteries and convents to give sanctuary to any Jews who came to their doors, and he issued false baptismal certificates to aid Jews trapped in the city.

Despite all of these individual acts of heroism, Greece lost a larger percentage of its Jewish population than any other country. But because of these individuals, there were survivors. Because of these individuals, Rosa is here today, sharing her history with those who take the time to listen. Rosa has not forgotten the horrors of the Holocaust. For her, 65,000 dead has more meaning than it ever will for any of us. But Rosa does not dwell on this alone. To dwell on the horror of it all would, in a way, be a victory for the Nazis. But to look past the evil, the collaboration, and the cowardice to the moral courage of a heroic minority is to refute the Nazi message of hate. It is a bold statement of resistance. A statement that, throughout history, too few of us have been willing to make.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Saying Thanks

I am the granddaughter of veterans of the Second World War. My mother’s father served in the infantry from before Pearl Harbor was bombed until after the war ended. My father’s father served in the Army Air Corps from the time he was old enough to be drafted until the war’s end. Both of my grandfathers were POWs, one managing to escape twice and one being freed in a prisoner exchange. Both were wounded. Both lost friends. Both proudly served their country because they believed in the ideals for which our nation stands. Because of stories they have told, questions I have asked and research I have done, I know all of this. I know the facts of their years of service.

But I don't know what it must have been like to watch your closest friends die. I can't comprehend how overwhelming the fear must have been at times. I can't imagine not knowing if you'll ever see your family again. And for that, I am thankful.

I have never been called upon to sacrifice in such a way. My beliefs have never been put to the test. I don't have to decide if I am willing to give up my life for ideals like democracy, freedom, or the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, without multitudes of men and women throughout our country's history who were willing to put their lives at risk for these beliefs, I would not even have such concepts to ponder.

Today is Veteran's Day, a day to honor those men and women who have proudly served our country, who have protected the rights that we take for granted every day. Each of us must know someone who has served or is serving this role, and I hope we have all taken the chance to tell them how grateful we are. I know today there are many of us who do not support the military action that the United States is engaged in. That is our right, but a right that was given to us through the sacrifice of many, many lives. So take a stand against violence, war, and hatred, but don't forget to honor and respect our military personnel. They are performing a difficult job that most of us are not willing to do, and thanks to them, it is a job we do not have to do.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Shut Your Hole

Twice a week I help out in the college counseling office. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working with a student who’s applying to schools in the University of California system. Let’s talk about a pain in the ass application. But anyhow, one of the questions on the application asks: “Do you have a special connection with any particular cultural, ethnic, societal, or religious group? If so, please explain here.”

We both kind of scoffed at the question, joked about his attachment to his Greek heritage and then left it blank and moved on with the application. I wondered how many people actually answer that question. At age eighteen, how many people say they strongly identify with any one group of people? At age eighteen, how many of us have the first clue where we belong? Actually it’s probably not right to limit that question to any age. At eighteen, most of us probably don’t have a clue where we belong. But do we at age 25? At 30? At 50? Ever? I am not sure. I think we just think about the question more at age eighteen, because belonging is more important then. As we get older, groups become less distinct. We don’t divide ourselves up into the jocks, the cool kids, the nerds, etc. We know how to function within the many different groups that make up society. But that doesn’t mean we actually know where we belong.

But despite the fact that I think most of us aren’t completely sure where we belong, I think we have much stronger attachments than we wish to admit to the groups which we use to try to define ourselves. Wait until someone criticizes a group you associate yourself with and see how you react. I compare it to the way you react to people who criticize your brothers or sisters. You can say whatever you want about them, but as soon as someone else opens their mouth, you defend your siblings to the death.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a lot of critical things to say about the United States. I hate the corporate culture that puts money above human interest. I hate the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. I hate the ignorance most Americans have regarding the rest of the world. I hate the apathy we display when it comes time to vote or take a stand about something we believe in. I hate our kiss-my-ass attitude. But I also really, really hate it when someone who is not American says any of these things. Suddenly, I am America’s greatest defender. I justify. I make excuses. I attack them back. Who are they to criticize my country…and thus criticize me? Because I am American, because, despite my resistance, I am part of all of this which I hate, I have the right to comment, to criticize.

The same is true of people who make negative comments toward the Catholic Church. Lord knows, I have a long list of complaints. Confession, come on. Do you really think there is any need for a priest to act as a go-between between you and God? The Church’s stance on women and homosexuals. Don’t get me started. The pope’s infallibility. Celibate priests. Holy days of obligation. The bread and wine becoming flesh and blood. There are plenty of things about the Catholic Church that I scoff at, argue about, and can’t reconcile myself to. Regardless, I am Catholic, and I don’t want to hear your criticism unless you too are Catholic.

We are constantly defining and redefining ourselves. We become members of different groups in the effort to figure out who we are and where we belong. But there are some groups that we can’t escape. We are bound to them, for better or worse. Whether we admit it or not, we do have special connections with certain groups. And because of this connection we can criticize, and we can become overly sensitive and perhaps even unreasonable when someone else makes the same exact criticism. It’s not the criticism, but where it comes from that matters. I can criticize the U.S. I can criticize the Catholic Church. Because I belong to these groups. Because I am an insider. And because when this is the case, there is, behind all of the criticism, love.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

No Worries

Everywhere you go in Greece, you find men carrying worry beads. These strings of about ten beads, usually wooden, sometimes metal, are occasionally stowed away in pockets, but are usually clutched tightly in the hand. The plump, agile fingers of men close in age to me, and the gnarled, arthritic fingers of men whose lives have spanned almost a century find a similar solace in these beads. These men rub the beads between their thumb and forefinger, they let the whole string of beads slid through their hands like water, they flip the beads quickly and expertly. I don’t know if they actually use the beads for their worries, or if they simply like the repetition and routine. Whatever the reason for their widespread popularity, I like them. I like watching men drink coffee in a cafĂ©, unconsciously working their worries out with their fingers, the way babies do with blankets. I like watching old men, dressed in suits that have grown too big for their stooped bodies, walking with the beads hanging from their hands as if they are an extension of themselves. And, most of all, I like the way they remind me of my grandma rhythmically working a rosary through her hands.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

I Can't Hear You. I'm Reading

I go through spells where I consume books madly, as if I’m starving and they are my sole sustenance. I pick up a book and don’t put it down until it is done. And then when I’m finished, I immediately pick up another and begin the process again. It’s as if I’m addicted, and I can’t quit even if I want to. Then eventually the spell ends, and I have a short drought before the process begins again.

When I read, the whole rest of the world disappears. I might as well be deaf and blind. You can talk to me. I might even answer. But I'll have no idea what you said. It doesn't matter if I'm reading the ingredients in the toothpaste, the comics in the newspaper or War and Peace. For however long it takes, I'm lost in the world of those words.

I love books. They are not just one of life’s great pleasures, but for me, they are one of life’s necessities. I don’t think I could survive without them. I don’t need a TV. I could maybe get by without the Internet. But without books, I would starve. Living here, I’ve become even more aware of the truth of that. We have a TV, but it gets horrible reception and almost all of the programming is in Greek. I perhaps watch it for ten minutes a week. We also have the Internet, but the connection is miserably slow, so I use it to send emails and update my website but that’s it. Being here, I’ve realized how much time I waste in front of both the computer and TV, consuming things that don’t mean anything to me and are of no real value. I don’t miss them here. Especially because I have shelves full of books in my house and a whole library just a short walk from my house.

I don’t understand people who don’t like books. That’s right, Gregory, I don’t get it. I love everything about them. The way they smell. The way the pages feel. The flow of the language. An image that you can’t lose. A character you can’t forget. A world you are invited into and allowed to inhabit for a short time. I loved all of this as a child. Ask my parents about the times I took books to the lake so I could read while everyone else went fishing. Ask the librarians who I saw all the time as I read hundreds of books more than were required to earn the prizes for the summer reading program. Ask anyone who knew me. I was never without a book.

And I never want to be without one. Unplug my TV. Cut off my Internet. But don’t take away my books. I can’t live without them.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Tales of a Golden Kazoo

It is now time for you all to meet my friend Davos. Davos is a good friend for many reasons, but mainly because of his willingness to entertain his friends with his amazing skill at a most unusual instrument.

I met Davos only last week. It’s hard to believe I have known him for such a short time, because my memories of him are so dense and penetrating. Our friendship began on the beach at Gythia. Kate, Darrell, Sarah and I were enjoying the last rays of sun, when a man (who we later came to know as Davos) who was probably between 35 and 40 and wearing nothing but a blue speedo approached us. He crouched down and smoothly asked us if we had been swimming. Seeing that he had been watching us from down the beach for quite a bit and that none of us were wet or wearing swimming suits, it wasn’t quite as smooth as he had hoped. But he seemed friendly enough and considering that there were four of us (one of whom was a boy), we weren’t intimidated or concerned. He struck up a conversation, and we quickly realized that he was quite intelligent. He knew a number of languages, was very well traveled, well read and well educated. He owned a bookstore in town, which all of us found interesting. Additionally, he was full of local folklore, telling us all about the different winds and predicting how the winter would be based on signs he’d gathered through the year. We asked him for suggestions on a place to eat, and he informed us of the wineshop which I mentioned in an earlier post. It sounded charming (as it most definitely was) and we were convinced that we should go there.

Davos left the beach about 30 or 45 minutes before we did. When we left, we decided to go straight to this wineshop because we were all tired and figured that if we went back to our room we wouldn’t make it out again. We sat down as the sole customers and ordered our drinks and were deciding on dinner when Davos appeared at the shop. It turned out his bookstore is only a few stores down from the wineshop. He pulled up a chair and proceeded to order a wide array of food for us to try. It was all delicious and he was a most excellent host. This was Greek hospitality.

Dinner went on for quite a while, and we were all stuffed, tired and ready to fall into bed. Davos, however, had other plans. He kept making references to getting icecream, and while we kept telling him that we had no room, he was insistent. So when we left the restaurant and he began to walk down the street, we followed. We entered a door and suddenly found ourselves in Davos’ apartment, a very sweet bachelor pad. There were windsurfers, fancy bikes, and a huge amount of electronic equipment. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe he has to get something.” But no, he emerged with some chocolate and water and had us sit down on his couch, which we all did while looking at each other and making puzzled faces. “Whatever,” we thought, “he’s a nice guy and with such a big group of us, it can’t really be sketchy or anything.” This was, however, before he turned out the lights and lit the candles. At this point, I couldn’t help but begin to giggle. I was overly tired and at that point of silliness. But it only got better. With the ambience set, Davos pulled out his guitar, positioned his microphone and began to play and sing for us. He did the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan, playing okay on the guitar but singing like he had never before actually heard the songs. We tried to help out, but there wasn’t much we could do. So yes, at this point, I was out and out laughing. I couldn’t help it. Neither could Kate or Sarah. Darrell remained fairly composed. “What,” I wondered, “does he think he is doing? Is this normal? Would he do this even if we weren’t here and thought he’d just share it with us? Does he think we’re impressed? Am I in the freaking twilight zone?”
And then it was confirmed, I really was in another world. While playing a Greek song which none of us knew, Davos pulled out a golden kazoo and began to play. That’s right…a golden kazoo. It was made out of real metal and was quite elaborate. Yet it was definitely a kazoo…that weird, strange instrument that usually appears only in goodie bags at children’s birthday parties. There was nothing I could do at this point but collapse into gut-wrenching laughter. I buried my head in the pillows and howled. I literally thought I might die because I couldn’t catch my breath. It was unbelievably funny. It was a moment like no other. I looked around the room and took it all in, told myself to remember every little detail. It was a once in a lifetime occasion. It was not to be forgotten. No matter how hard I try I’ll never be able to tell you how funny it really was. But just imagine…a couch, a set of bicycles strung with Chinese lanterns, the soft glow of candles, a guitar, and a one of a kind golden kazoo. Ah, Greece.