Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Man's Inclination to Invade

Left: Norman ships sailing to England
Right: depiction of fallen D-Day soldiers on the beach at Normandy
Within a space of a few hours, we visited two historic sites which coincidentally focused on the same theme - invasion. One the invasion of England, the other an invasion launched from England.

The Bayeux tapestry is an incredible depiction - in embroidery - of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and events leading up to it. William the Conqueror sailed from France to defeat the usurper Harold and become the first Norman king of England. http://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/la_tapisserie_de_bayeux_en.html

The other site was the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, one of the landing locations of the 1944 D-Day invasion of the Normandy coast. During the battle for the foothold on continental Europe an estimated 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded, or went missing. For all of World War II, as many as 25 million soldiers and 55 million civilians died.

Growing up, I saw a lot of movies and television which sanitized WWII. But when you visit, in person, sites like the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor or you touch the names etched into the wall of the Vietnam memorial - and you recognize names of people you knew when they were alive - the sense of sadness is overwhelming.

What a waste that so many die and suffer because of the greed of a few.

And ultimately the root of war is greed. For power. For wealth.

It may be fueled by hatred, revenge, racism, fear. The elite stoking pseudo-nationalism so the serfs willingly throw their bodies into battle. And ultimately the elite control more land, more tax revenue, more oil, more personal perks. The world's so-called leaders are all too willing to send other people's sons and daughters into battle so the realm of designer-dress galas and offshore bank accounts can be preserved.

The soldiers who do not fall on the battlefield are then ignored when they return home, left to struggle with their wounds and inner demons.

Ever hear of a President or Prime Minister suffering from PTSD?

In the past thousand years, from the mace-wielding William to the drone-bombing Bush and Obama, we don't seem to have learned much.

Monday, May 9, 2016

To Russia With Respect

Yesterday, May 8, was the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day for World War II. 1945. 71 years ago. In my Facebook stream, a video appeared showing this elderly former Russian soldier, and it struck me that, to a certain extent, I and other Americans and Europeans owe my freedom to this man and his colleagues.

They would have been young men when Nazi Germany attacked Moscow in 1941 in a battle that cost a million Russian lives. But the stubborn Soviets eventually prevailed, Hitler's first defeat.

The Germans also laid siege to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. For 872 days, almost 2 1/2 years, Hitler & Co. tried to starve the people into submission. There was no food nor water. Temperatures dropped as low as 40 degrees below zero. Over 1.5 million died, only about 45,000 of those from the constant bombing, the rest from starvation and disease.

Overall, about 33 million Allied soldiers died in WW II - 26 million of them Russian, or nearly 80 percent.

What an incredible sacrifice for the free people of the world. Without it, we might still be under the heel of Hitler's successors. Certainly there are dictators and wannabes in parts of the world who are following his oppressive example.

I know some of you will ask, what about Stalin? Putin? Are they not the devil incarnate? What of the repression of dissidents such as Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn? I would point you to the parallel of Edward Snowden by US authorities. The Gulags? Have you heard of the Homan Square "black site" in Chicago where prisoners are detained without charge and no one knows they are there?

I will not defend the atrocities of any government. I'm not here today to debate the merits of capitalism or socialism, or the ways in which both have been corrupted in practice.

I am simply expressing my thanks to the men and women of all nations who have fought against Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Franco, Pol Pot, and other despots - some sacrificing everything so that others might live in some form of freedom.

We were fortunate not long ago to visit St. Petersburg, a beautiful city with incredible museums. The people we met were, for the most part, friendly and accommodating. Their lives are not without the kind of economic hardship that is prevalent throughout Europe and North America as the elite suck up the wealth and ignore the middle class and poor. But they are resilient, defiant (at least in spirit), and adaptive to changing circumstances.

For most of my life, growing up and living in America during the Cold War, Russia was portrayed as the boogeyman. Then they were regarded as "friends," or more accurately as a market for Western goods. Now they are depicted again as the enemy whenever politicians need a nemesis and there have been no recent terrorist attacks. Living in Europe with Russia much closer physically, I have a different view than the one spun by the US media machine. And yes, I sometimes watch Russia Today TV, which is their politically tethered media just as the Washington Post and CNN are to the American corporate-political cabal. It's good to hear different viewpoints ... then decide for yourself.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Brit Envy

Sometimes I envy our Brit friends whom we mingle with in the south of France. Or our Danish friends. Swedish, etc.

They can go back to the UK in a couple of hours to see family and friends. Pop back and forth across the Channel every few days if they like. Super-cheap airfares.

Not so easy when people you'd like to see more are across an ocean. Not so inexpensive. Three days, basically, of travel just to get there and back - same day going over, leave Europe in the morning, arrive in the States in the afternoon, but better part of two days coming back, red eye, long layover in London, another flight, maybe a 3-4 hour taxi and train ride.

The time passes easily. Get some work done on the flight over. Sleep on the way back. (The most recent trip was wonderful - three empty seats, three blankets, three pillows, fully reclined for several hours and woke up fresh and with my body clock in sync.)

Now that the year of cancer is over and Donna-Lane is stronger, we'll ease back into traveling, perhaps even across the pond a time or two in the coming months. We talk often about people we want to see in Boston, in New York, in Texas, Arizona, Oregon.

Curious, at least to me, we don't think in terms of "things" we might be interested in seeing. Maybe it's because I think I've seen pretty much everything I ever wanted to see in the States. Grand Canyon, check - via helicopter, check. Rockies, check. Mount Rushmore - probably awesome, but it's so out of the way, is it really worth it?

There are a few golf courses I would still like to play. Pebble, of course. Maybe I can catch Bandon Dunes when we're in Oregon. I might sell my soul to take a few divots at Augusta. Might like to play the IBM course I grew up on one more time. But the top of that bucket list is The Old Course at Saint Andrews. What used to seem like a major excursion is now more or less in my new backyard.

And much as we like living in a little village in the south of France (with one of the biggest, best beaches in the world five minutes away that we almost never get to) and in the internationalist city of Geneva where peace elsewhere is argued over, what makes both of our places special is the eclectic mix of people we are fortunate to spend time with.

We often schedule our back and forth around who is in which place. And even though we get to spend more time with our Euro friends, sometimes the occasional visiting Yank, it's never quite enough before they have to move on or we do.

So maybe it's not so much the distance or the ocean. It's that we're blessed with an abundance of friends, family, and family of choice. Look forward to seeing each of you as soon as we can.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Back to School

Impressive lycee in Perpignan named for Aristide Joseph Bonaventure Maillol,
French sculptor and painter who was born in Banyuls-sur-mer and lived from 1861-1944
D-L and I went back to school Tuesday.

As practice partners for French high school students who are preparing for their English language exams next week. With about 25-30 other adult volunteers.

Interesting experience.

We worked one-on-one with about 6-8 students each; the students rotated about every 15 minutes to try their skills on a different Anglophone adult.

The older students I spoke with had a pretty good command of English, both reading their prepared compositions on Myths & Heroes as well as conversing, which required them to understand what I was saying then mentally and verbally compose an appropriate response. One young lady wanted to become an obstetrictian. A young man want to study psychology and behavioral sciences.

The younger students, ages 15-16, were much less sure of their English skills and often struggled to find the right vocabulary word. Sometimes they would tell me the word in French and ask me for the equivalent word in English - on occasion, I actually knew it.

Not surprising that they struggle with another language. They only spend 3-4 hours a week on English in class, and once outside the school walls they have no opportunity to use what they have learned. From my attempts at learning French, surrounded most of the time by Anglo colleagues and friends, I empathize with their challenge.

One thing that surprised me is that most of the teenagers had not traveled very far from their homes in the south of France, and consequently they knew very little about other countries or cultures. This is not unlike American kids who have not had opportunity to travel, so to them their own backyard in Texas or California or Wisconsin seems like the center of the universe.

I really admired one young lady whose parents are from Morocco. For the first 15 years of her life, she grew up in Spain, before they moved a couple years ago to France. She knew no French, yet was dropped into a francophone high school and culture, and seems to be doing very well. Her English was exceptional with a couple minor pronunciation issues. She also speaks Arabic at home. As a multi-lingual, I expect she'll succeed in her career.

Every young person in every country should learn a second and even a third language. As the world grows smaller, the ability to speak and think in another person's native tongue is of immense value in business and personal relationships.