In theory, teaching looks like the ideal job. All those school holidays. In Europe, every six weeks we have vacation. We even shut down for the week long ski break to hit the slopes. But there is no escape. Even on mountaintops, teachers obsess about how to reach kids. For today’s students, conditioned by instant gratification in a society wired 24/7, attention spans last no longer than 15 seconds, the time it takes to microwave a muffin.
Flying into the next decade is for the birds.
Literally. If you are physically unable to expand your wings and catch the breeze, forget flying. Take it from me, frequent flyer extraordinaire; human air travel is perilous in the 21st century. A normal 7 to 8 hour flight to Europe (depending on tail winds) took a day.
personnel. Summer storms and winter blizzards make flying in and out of the Midwest challenging any season. Our flight out of Minneapolis was delayed due to the late arrival of our incoming plane from Amsterdam, which was further detained due to « minor aircraft impairment » during a rough landing due to ground conditions. Over share. I would rather not be informed about structural damage. At regular intervals a stewardess announced, « KLM/Northwest/Delta Flight 258
to Amsterdam will be delayed another hour. Boarding in 20 minutes. Oops, no detained 45 more minutes. Suddenly, boarding in 5 minutes.
could only be assigned at the gate. We joined the long line of anxious flier wannabees at the gate.
informed the plane is bigger than we anticipated, so I invite everyone without seating to report to our desk immediately. » How can a flight attendant mistake a plane’s seating capacity? Between security procedure updates, airline buy outs and cost cut backs, changes are implemented so rapidly that no one knows what is going on, least of all airline personnel.
because no one knows what is going on.
Terrorist threats abound. With pace makers, belt buckles and body part replacements setting off alarms, everyone is jumpy. I look forward to the new full body x-ray machines, so we wont have to strip down at every security checkpoint. While we waited at our boarding gate, CNN flashed Breaking News about Obama’s new Homeland Security measures, while an entire regiment of TSA workers patrolled like in a police state. In air, I added to the excitement by reporting a suspect, a green hooded, fidgety young man who remained in the toilet for over 15 minutes!
baggage-handlers’ strike at the airport.
Switzerland made the news again for the wrong reason. Rightwing leaders of the Central Democratic Union launched a popular initiative fora constitutional ban on minarets, the domed-topped spires on mosques, theIslamic architectural equivalent to the Christian steeple. On November 29th, the ban passed with an alarming, 57.5 % percent of the vote. Only 4 cantons, the French speaking ones, voted against it.
Muslims represent 5% of the country and only FOUR minarets exist in Switzerland. So much for the image of peaceful, bucolic alpine country where cow bells ring.
Youssef Ibram, the imam of the Geneva mosque insists. « We have failed to communicate that terrorism is not part of the Koran. If there are Muslims who have given Islam a negative image here or elsewhere, it should not be generalized to the entire Muslim community. »
Prejudice is always based on fear and ignorance. We fear most that which we do not understand. If we are truly a democratic society, freedom of speech and religion are non-negotiable human rights and to tamper with this by changing the constitution in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism is abominable.
remember, when as 6th grader my son visited temples, churches and mosques in Geneva and claimed, « the mosque was the most welcoming. » Our daughter, voicing a sentiment heard throughout the Swiss international community, insists « It is unfathomable that issue ever came to vote in the first place. »
mortals here on earth before it is too late.
On November 9, 2009, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, signaling the end of the Cold War. It is also the sad anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) the Nazi state sanctioned anti Jewish pogrom which led to death, destruction and 30,000 Jews being sent to concentration camps. Like Germany, each nation’s past reflects good and evil, gallant moments when man did the right thing, dark hours where his actions were morally wrong.
No matter where you live, walls surround you. But in the West those walls have doors. Free to wander outside our homes, around town, over the state line, across the border, it is hard to fathom waking up one morning to a city split by barbed wire and concrete, dividing friends, lovers, and families. How could something so atrocious have happened in the 20th century? Unimaginable! But the political climate was different during the peak of the Cold War, where the communist east and capitalistic west were at odds.
During the 60s, 70s in the States, growing up in the heartland, one understood, almost by osmosis, that communism was evil without really knowing why. Calling someone was a commie was a defamation of character. In schools, we learned to duck under desks at the sound of an alarm in case of an air raid, as well as, a tornado warning. To children it was all mysterious and intriguing. Had anyone actually ever been inside the neighbor’s bomb shelter?
Yet childhood lessons remained ingrained. When I lived in Germany in the early ‘80s, friends proposed a trip to Berlin to see Check Point Charley, yet owning an American passport, I feared approaching a 100-mile radius of the Berlin Wall.
How much was propaganda? How much childhood fantasy? The fact remains, hundreds of East Germans lost their lives attempting to escape and millions of others lived in fear. Without a doubt, in that time, the Soviets ruled by force and oppression. The wall, originally built to prevent those in the east from fleeing to the west, served its purpose brutally well.
Yet walls remain dividing nations, races, religions, ethnicities, classes and ideologies. The Israel- Palestine wall of discord along Cisjordania. China – North Korea the wall of anti exodus. S. Korea –N. Korea the last wall of the Cold War. Botswana and Zimbabwe wall of unwanted. India-Pakistan –separating the two Cashmeres. Between Mexico and the United States, India and Bangladesh, Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco barriers prevent illegal immigration.
Invisible walls of racism, intolerance and discrimination still stand in our homelands, even in our neighborhoods. It is important to remember, to witness, and to bear testimony, to learn from our past.
Good and evil exists side by side in society. Yet to judge an individual by his race, country, religion, ethnicity or political affinity is to shortchange ourselves.
Today I treasure my friendships with those once labeled enemies. Wherever you live, dare to reach across the boundaries, to break down walls, real and imagined, that continue to separate us.
In thirteen years, a baby grows to an adolescent, a child finishes education, and a man grows paunchy and gray. Imagine spending over a decade in solitary confinement in a cell the size of a closet? Picture being tortured for fighting for equality?
The world remembers the names of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King,Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, but who has ever heard of Mauricio Rosencof?
In the 1960’s and 70’s, like a modern day Robin Hood robbing banks and kidnapping political prisoners, he worked with the Tupamaros Revolutionary group in a fight for of social justice in Uruguay. Never heard of him? Me neither. Worse yet, I had to look up Uruguay on the map.
Though technically, I am the teacher, I learn more from the people I meet each day at an international school in Geneva, in this culturally diverse community in the heart of Europe. Yesterday my English class met with Mauricio, a small-stature man from a little country whose big ideas for humanity made a huge difference.
Dressed in a grey jacket, beret and brown trousers, 76- year- old Mauricio addressed a room full of thirteen-year-olds. “ The most important thing in life is having a dream. My dream– everyone has the right to have basic needs met.”
In Spanish he recounted the story of how Uruguay, an agricultural country, had “millions of cows” and only a few owners. While most of the population starved, a few got rich and fat. The Tupamaros tried to talk to the owners, but no one would listen. Instead they threw the leaders of the movement into jail in hopes of crushing the revolution.
“We were in three separate cells without any daylight or human contact. We drank urine and ate bugs to survive,” Mauricio said, “but we learned that flies make a good dessert because they are sweeter.”
How does one survive such torture with an intact sense of humor? What they did do all day to pass the time?
“Think,” Mauricio answered. “We devised a type of Morse Code to communicate through the walls. We talked about our childhood, our families, our girlfriends, our revolution, our dreams.”
My student asked him, “Do you believe in destiny or the work of man?”
“I am profoundly religious but do not believe in any of the religions. However, there is too much harmony in the universe for there not to be a God,” Mauricio answered by paraphrasing a quote from Albert Einstein. “God didn’t have time to enter into the destiny of man because he was too busy balancing the universe. Therefore, every individual needs to help him out. Everyone holds the whole world in his hands.”
“Was it worth it?” Another student asked.
“Yes. It took a long time but today, Jose Pepe Mujica, my friend, in isolation in the cell next to me, is set to become the next President of Uruguay.”
In 1985, democracy was restored in Uruguay and Tupamaros returned as the political party, Movement for the Popular Participation. Mauricio lived through WWII, solitary confinement, and tremendous social upheaval. Though he regrets now that the Tupamaros resorted to extreme measures, he believes in non-violence. He continues to write books and run a children’s Cultural Center of the Arts, yet he remains humble enough to cook dinner for his wife when she comes home from work.
“My belief? Equality for all. Men, women, rich, poor, black, white, brown!”
This self-effacing, courageous fellow retains a twinkle in his eye as he tells simple stories with profound lessons. Little man. Small country. Big dream. Great change.
After a mere nine months in office, only history may tell whether President Barack Obama is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. But as an American living abroad, that is not the issue; what is at stake is the image this honor symbolizes for my country. Thirty years ago, I moved to France during the Rea “gun” era. I have endured the Bush blunders and survived a backlash of anti-Americanism ever since by keeping a low profile. If anything, USA has always been the country everyone loves to hate.
Obama’s role is like the one I once played as a professional basketball player on European teams, only on a much greater scale. He is expected to win every battle without stealing the show.
That he received such an unexpected honor one morning, and met with a war council that afternoon, reflects his precarious position during an unsettling time. War is no farther away than the next terrorist act – acts that respect no borderlines.
Should the USA withdraw from Iraq? Should we send more troops to Afghanistan or enter Pakistan? In retrospect, history allows us to weigh repercussions of past decisions such as dropping the atomic bomb in WWII. No one, however, can predict the implications of today’s policies. The stakes are even higher. A nuclear war would never allow hindsight.
What has Obama done in a short time to deserve such a highly esteemed award? He turned around the image of the Ugly American. In a nation once divided over slavery and split by centuries of racial inequality, his election as the first African American to sit in the White House gave hope to other oppressed ethnicities around the world.
He extended an open hand to the Muslim world, demanded a ban on nuclear testing, reopened the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and reversed the unilateral American foreign policy by becoming more compromising and multilateral.
The Nobel Peace committee awarded Obama the 2009 Nobel Prize, “For his extraordinary efforts in reinforcing diplomacy and cooperation…. creating a new climate in international politics.”
Humbled by such an honor, Obama stated that “this not about my accomplishments, but an affirmation of my country… I accept this award as a call to action.”
Instead of demanding what HE is going to do to prove his worthiness, I ask what are WE going to do in our own lives to help him in his vision. As everyone insists, one man alone cannot change the world.
Obama, nor the USA, exists in a vacuum. For better or worse, in sickness and health, in rich times and in poor, all of us – black, white, Jew, Muslim, capitalist, communist –are intermixed, destined to share one planet with limited resources.
When asked if Obama merits such an award, former Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, said simply, “He is a good man.”
At the International School of Geneva in Switzerland, I struggle to unite my class of freshman English students hailing from dozens of different countries, speaking in as many different mother tongues. I can only imagine Obama’s challenge in addressing the United Nations where policy decisions affect the wellbeing of entire nations.
“What has Obama done so far? “Nothing,” critics insist, “he is only a great orator.”
Well, that’s a start.
Words may be our safest weapon, language our best tool of communication. Communication fosters understanding. Understanding breeds compassion. Compassion makes for a better world.
Today, I will ignore the naysayers and stand tall. Congratulations, Mr. President. Thank you. For the first time- in a long time- I am proud to be an American.