Category Archives: Europe
I’m first generation American, a position that gives me, I think, an interesting perspective on this country. I was bilingual until kindergarten when I came home from my half day of school and informed my mother that “this is America and we speak English here.” After that, I no longer was willing to speak German, a genuine loss when I visit my family in the Black Forest where most of them still reside.
Speaking a second language was not considered an asset in this country which arrogantly calls itself “America,” despite the fact that that is the name of two entire continents of which we are only one single country. In contrast, my mother spoke 3 languages while living in Europe, learning her fourth, English, upon arriving here in the mid-60s.
Growing up, we were encouraged to work hard in school because my mother saw education as the only means available to create a life better than the one into which we were born. My brother is a doctor and I hold an advanced degree. We own homes, have retirement accounts, travel, and generally have comfortable lives. In spite of childhoods consisting of a single parent home, Medicaid, and the shame of food stamps and free lunch, we made it.
Through hard work and social programs, my brother and I achieved what in many regards is considered the American Dream. So, why aren’t I more of a believer in the claim that America is the greatest country in the world? Well, it seems like there are quite a few reasons.
The income gap in the United States is outrageous. I don’t know about you, but I will never be convinced that a CEO is entitled to receive a salary that is on average 361 times the salary of the average worker. I’m not suggesting that the rest of the world is perfect, but America really excels in compensating executives at a more outrageous level than any where else in the world.
Do you have any idea how much our country spends on the military? How does the number $649 BILLION sound to you? It’s an amount comparable to the spending of the next eight countries – combined. Granted, this amount is less than what is budgeted for K-12 education, but it remains an incredibly large number.
Speaking of education, when I was in Greece last month, I spoke with a couple from Scotland and asked them how college “worked” in their country. How much does it cost? Who pays for it? Their response – tuition is free and students are only responsible for related expenses such as room, board and books. The cost of those items can be met with loans, which essentially have an interest rate close to zero with repayment of the loans not beginning until the borrower reaches a certain level of income. Doesn’t that sound a lot more fair and reasonable than our government, which is the largest lender to students, earning interest off citizens trying to improve their lives?
During my travels I’ve been struck by the price of groceries (low) and the quality of public transportation (high) in the European countries which I’ve visited. Access to health care, while not perfect, does not seem to bankrupt families in the way I’ve observed it occurring in this country.
Solar and wind energy seem much more common in Europe and vehicles are more compact and fuel efficient than those found in America. Homes are smaller, not requiring the same resources to maintain, heat and cool. Vacation time is more generous, as are family leave policies when it comes to child rearing, with tax incentives available to soften the blow of losing an income while a parent stays home to raise a child.
America has been good to my family, but it is not the greatest country in the world and we need to recognize that. While it once may have been a true beacon of freedom and opportunity for all, that time has passed. A country which separates families seeking asylum, fails to provide preventative healthcare to the poor and the underemployed and has different justice and education systems for people depending upon the color of their skin really doesn’t sound all that great to me.
This summer is flying by, don’t you think? I can’t believe it’s been almost three weeks since I got back from Greece. It some ways it feels like forever ago that we were there, however, I’m still successfully mentally resurrecting the sense of pleasure I felt being there just by closing my eyes. That country definitely is staying with me.
I’ve been to a fair number of European countries over the years, but there’s something about Greece that really rang a bell for me. It was effortlessly beautiful with blue skies, bright perennial flowers and white washed buildings. The hills were arid and reminded me of the mountain in Palm Springs, another favorite place for me. The ocean was everywhere. My eyes simply never grew tired of the sights before them.
The Greek people are wonderful, gracious with their use of English and seemingly always interested in providing hospitality that goes a little beyond the expectation. After nearly every Taverna dinner we were provided with some small treat – a scoop of ice cream, a shot glass of a local liqueur or hunks of watermelon. After a life changing* bowl of chick peas that had been slow cooked in a bath of olive oil, onions and salt, I was given a bowl of watermelon tasting ever so slightly of the garlic cut with the same knife. My satisfaction with the meal could not have been greater.
Returning to a particular island has occupied my thoughts since I got back home – Paros, the last of the three islands we visited. The reasons for the fondness I have for this place are purely emotional. I felt very comfortable there. The island isn’t too big, the towns are picturesque without being fussy and the food and drink both stellar. There were also two things that occurred that gave me a sign from the universe that I was in a good place, the right place even.
The first was when son and I travelled to a different town on the island, Naoussa, which was to the north of Parikia where we were staying. It was late morning when we arrived on the bus and walked through the village on our way to finding a beach. Imagine my surprise to hear someone seated at a sidewalk cafe calling my name. It was a group with whom we had enjoyed the previous evening’s Farm to Table feast down island and now here they were! How random is that?!
The second affirmation came on the bus. I had purchased tickets for my son and I for a particular destination from which we would take a hike. He decided prior to departure that he didn’t care to go, so I went solo. As the bus driver’s helper came down the aisle to collect tickets, it turned out the beauty rich, but euro poor, young woman seated behind me did not have the necessary fare for her ride. I was able to offer her my extra ticket which turned out to be exactly what she needed. The smiles exchanged between she, the bus employee and myself could have lit up a room. It was a simple, happy moment.
I’m going to figure out how to get to Paros again and create some more of those. We all need simple, happy moments, right?
*Only slightly hyperbolic
My relationship with souvenirs is complicated. I find it easy to buy things for friends when I’m traveling, but have grown into a person who doesn’t want to bring another thing into my home unless it serves a practical purpose. With a couple of exceptions, that is.
Here’s what I brought home from my most recent trip:
A miniature Parthenon for our family collection.
A bag of oregano to add to Greek salads and anything else as the mood strikes.
A couple of key chains and a bracelet for my son because I love the power of the evil eye symbol.
A jar of orange marmalade for my morning toast.
Some pretty stones and small pieces of marble I picked up while walking. They were warm from the sun and I thought I might give them to friends who might appreciate their beauty and need evidence that one never knows where they might end up. I mean, those rocks probably never imagined they’d make it to upstate New York one day!
Refrigerator magnets as gifts.
Vivid memories and hundreds of pictures.
And, about that whole eternal life thing…On our final night in Athens, G and I walked the Plaka and I noticed a copper necklace with a medallion bearing an intricate design. As I admired it, the vendor shared that it was a symbol for eternal life. My son told her I was buying it, even without the added origin story. He was right.
I’m really enjoying being a part of CivMix! The site is still being developed, but I think you will find there to be some cool features, both in terms of content and interface, once the website is fully fleshed out.
Here are my most recent posts over there. Why not give a read and some feedback – here or there!
I want to get away – Part I
…and Part II
Before I came to Greece I imagined it, in all honesty, as kind of dirty. I don’t know why that was my impression, but I kind of pictured it as sort of casually maintained. Maybe it comes from being raised by a German who presented my brother and I with our own shoe shining kits when we were in primary school. Who knows?
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cleanliness of Greece puts America to shame. Streets and sidewalks are regularly swept and even mopped. There isn’t garbage or trash strewn about and things are just plain tidy. But, the bathroom customs are a tad different, in case you are as unaware as I was until recently…
In Greece, toilet paper is not deposited in the bowl when one is finished with it. Instead, there are closed bins next to toilet in which you toss your used tissue. Kind of gross, in a way, but practical because the waste pipes are apparently much smaller than those in the States. I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for backing up a toilet and it became increasingly more routine for me to abide by the local customs as the days went on.
Picture for a moment what you might encounter in a public restroom in the States, maybe in a restaurant. Often something essential is missing – toilet paper, hand soap, or perhaps the means to dry your hands. Or perhaps the stall is simply filthy with the smell of urine, or worse, assaulting your senses when you enter the bathroom. In Greece, on three islands and in Athens, that was a situation I never encountered. Not once.
Now, take this to another level and consider the state of the bathrooms you may have needed to make use of at a beach…In my experience, they are generally pretty damn gross. Take that dirty, smelly situation as described above and add sand to it. A lot of sand. Everywhere. Now, look at the photo below. That is a bathroom at a beach taverna where we enjoyed lunch in between naps on the sun beds and swims in the Mediterranean. Immaculate.
We can learn more than a couple of things from the Greeks – their deftness with phyllo and the use of oregano when cooking and how to create a beautiful, unique village despite every house being painted white. Maybe we could just start, though, with bathroom maintenance?
Wait. Maybe that sounds harsher than I intended. It wasn’t actually a lie when I said it, more of an attempt to say the “right” thing. Because when we travel away from our family and friends and lover, we’re expected to tell them we miss them, aren’t we? It provides some sort of consolation in our absence and verbally demonstrates the importance one places on their presence in your life. It’s what people do.
The truth is, that when I’m away, I’m gone. I’m in some other place, hearing languages I don’t know, smelling scents that make me turn my head to locate the source, seeing things I’ve never before imagined and tasting foods that literally make me moan. I’m walking roads made of marble, swimming in remarkably warm and blue waters, and feeling the sun on my back and the wind in my face.
I’m absorbing as much as I can of the place where I am so I can carry it home. Where I will share it, with those that I love who were not with me for this most recent adventure. So, when I say “I miss you,” what I’m really saying is “I’m sorry you’re not physically part of this marvelous experience, but, I am. Completely.”