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An Open Letter to a Young Greek

October 11, 2015 1 comment

Theo & Orestes visitMy husband’s cousin Thodoris, his son Orestes, and their friend Vasilis drove down from New York to visit us for a couple of days.  Orestes and Vasilis are young men in search of career and meaning.  It was delightful to talk to them and show them around town, and since they left, I’ve been reflecting on their potential.  I thought I’d share some thoughts with them and experiment with the “open letter” form here.


Dear Oreste,
In our conversation yesterday, I was intrigued when you said you could be a motivational speaker.  There are two reasons to be intrigued: 1) I think it’s true, and 2) I think it’s exactly what Greece needs.  I understand your sense of hollowness–that you have the skill to connect with people but little substance to offer them.  In sales, you had a product to offer, and you could measure the extent to which it was taken up by your customers. Now that’s gone, and I know you worry about your lack of educational background. It’s as if you have skills but no field to plant them in. And charisma without grounding can be scary; it makes me think of demagogues. Fortunately, you have no inclination toward Golden Dawn or other nefarious causes. If your upbringing had given you a weaker character, you would be a leader in one of them by now.  So let’s all thank your mother, father, grandmother, and extended family for raising you well!

When I say Greece needs a motivational speaker, I don’t mean to suggest you’re the only one.  I do mean, though, that Greeks need motivation; they need an alternative to cynicism, corruption, and powerlessness.  I think you have an ability to change the conversation for people within your reach; you can uncover embers of hopefulness and creativity that are buried inside people.  If you blow on them, beautiful things could happen.

Your friend Vasili offers a wonderful complement to your skill set.  He has a well trained and inquisitive mind; he looks for underlying causes and patterns.  I think the idea of teaming up is a great one, and Detroit Soup might offer some inspiration.    I think it was founded just to try to get some attention on possibilities and new ideas.  It gives entrepreneurs and volunteers an audience and a little money, but most of all, it gets them together to listen to each other and focus on the positive.  You and Vasili would be great at that!  I can imagine you helping presenters speak with confidence, and you could rev up the audience to support them.  Vasili could help them think through the substance of their pitch (potential risks, rewards, etc.).  It’s not a career, necessarily, but perhaps it could lead to something.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but there’s a certain parallelism between the situation in Detroit and that in Greece.   Would you be interested in exploring Detroit and seeing if you could meet with the Soup leaders?  When you get to Niagara Falls, you’ll be just 4 hours away.

My Twitter feed this morning included a link to this article by Steven Johnson: The Hummingbird Effect: How New Ideas Surprise Us.  I recommend the whole article, but this part especially made me think of you and Vasili:

As the great James Burke wrote, in his book Connections:

“Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don’t happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts.”

The political system in Greece doesn’t seem to be generating much hope (to put it mildly).  So maybe hope – and large scale change – will need to come from the bottom up.  Whether or not the Detroit Soup model is interesting, I encourage you to value your own skills, Oreste.   When you figure out where to apply them, they will serve you and the people around you well.

Categories: Uncategorized

Update on Greece

Our relatives in Greece seem to be breathing slightly easier.  Pakis’ brother George, the iconographer, went to Trikala to take measurements in a church that had commissioned him to do some work about 15 years ago.  They want him to give them a quote for some additional iconography.  It didn’t seem there was any point in making the drive (8 hours round trip) a few weeks ago, but now George is ready to submit his ideas and costs.  And Nikos, Pakis’ surgeon brother, seems to be getting on with work and life, too.  It’s a relief to be able to talk with them about ordinary life again.

On the other hand, the outlook is pretty terrible.  Joseph Stieglitz’s column “Greece, the Sacrificial Lamb” convincingly presents  the bleakest view I’ve read yet.  Or maybe it just gives more detail.  As one commenter on the article pointed out, detail has been sorely lacking in the news coverage of the Greece-EU deal.  Stieglitz discusses milk as an example commodity, and it happens to strike a chord with me.  When I lived in Athens in 1983, milk was generally purchased in pint-sized plastic bottles.  It wasn’t generally consumed by adults, but it tasted very good to an American who was used to having it on cereal and in coffee*.  Unrefrigerated boxed milk from The Netherlands, etc. became available in subsequent years as EU commerce took off.  My experience matches Stieglitz’s assertion that it had far less appeal than locally produced, fresh milk.  It would be a pity if Greek producers were put out of business without even a price reduction to consumers (which is what Stieglitz forecasts).

Prospective taxation is another topic he addresses.  I had heard about it from Pakis, who reads the Greek press, but I could hardly believe it.  Stieglitz says, “The troika is demanding that Greek firms, including mom and pop stores, pay all of their taxes ahead of time, at the beginning of the year, before they have earned it, before they even know what their income is going to be.”  It’s hard to imagine a provision that could be better designed to ruin small businesses.

Joanna Kakissis’s story from this morning resonates with me: “Covering Greece: When It’s Not Just a Story, It’s Personal.”

*I often tell students, in the context of teaching a particular set of vocabulary words, about an encounter with a shopkeeper around the corner from the apartment where I lived in Athens.  There was no fresh milk in the cooler, and I asked when he might get some.  “Ειvαι αγνοστο,” he shrugged, meaning it is agnostic, or unknown.   I had never heard that word in such a mundane context, so it stuck with me.  This is one of many examples of words that are routine in Greek but, brought into English, become scholarly and intimidating.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Big Hug for Ukraine

April 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Fellows in the Teachers for Global Classrooms program went to half a dozen different countries for their two week “in country” experience. I went to India, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the group that went to Ukraine. Here’s a blog post from Sara Karakour, who has kept up with her host teacher in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.  It’s so interesting to think that two years ago, or even six months ago, we couldn’t have imagined that the world’ spotlight would be focused on that country!

Innovation on Earth

ButterflyFriendship Artwork by a 12 year old Ukrainian Student

“Thank you so much everybody for your support. Every word in your letters makes me smile. Because it is something special to feel that you are not alone and hear this not from politics or media but from you.”    ~Veronica, a student at Zaporizhzhya Classical Lyceum

reading2 Students marvel at the artistic talents of their Ukrainian peers

Today Ukraine entered the hearts of some very excited American students! It was a simple exchange — just a few pieces of paper sent in the mail — but it feels more powerful than any connecting we’ve done online. When the students looked at the photographs, letters, and artwork from their peers in Ukraine, the excitement in the room was palpable.

Ukrainian Hospitality Me on my fellowship in Zaporizhzhya, with waitresses in traditional dress

We’ve discussed the crisis in Ukraine in class, and last quarter students wrote cards of support…

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Miscellaneous thoughts

May 8, 2013 1 comment

Year 2 of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program is under way, and today I participated in a webinar for the group that will go to India.  It was such a pleasure to revisit my own experience and share details about it with them.  In a few weeks they’ll be landing in Bangalore, checking into the Royal Orchid Hotel, and meeting The Teacher Foundation’s awesome team.  If any of them should read this, I hope they’ll reply with their blog addresses.  I’d love to follow them online!

I’m working on creating an event at my school next fall.  It will focus on social entrepreneurship in the Middle East, with Just Vision as the prime example.  I met the founder, Ronit Avni, at the iEARN conference in Cairo, Egypt in 2007.  I’ve long wanted to bring her or one of her people to Durham Academy, and I’ve got support to do it next fall.  My colleagues in the history department are interested in creating a half-day or perhaps full day program for freshmen (since they study the Middle East in World Cultures and World Literature in the fall).   It’s always fun to have a new project on the horizon!

Here, just for fun, is an Atlantic article for NPR junkies: Why Do NPR Reporters Have Such Great Names?

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Chinua Achebe’s Significance to Me

March 24, 2013 Leave a comment
Chinua Achebe

Chinua Acebe speaking in Buffalo, NY Sept 25, 2008. Photo by Stuart C. Shapiro.

Around the world, people are reflecting on Chinua Achebe and mourning his death.  One of my favorite NPR reporters, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, did this beautiful report from Lagos, Nigeria.  I want to add my own appreciation to the mix.

Through his novel Things Fall Apart, Achebe introduced the world to the colonial experience from the perspective of the colonized.  He resisted any temptation to paint an idealized portrait of traditional Igbo society.  The main character, Okonkwo, brings suffering on himself and others through lack of impulse control and deep seated fears, and there is no refuge for the son who can’t live up to his expectations.  There is a violent conflict with another village and an oracle orders the death of a very appealing young man.  On the other hand, there is a justice system and a sense of social order; children are cared for, food is grown and bought and sold, people entertain each other and work together most of the time.  It is a civilization that looks completely different from that of the western world, but Achebe makes it make sense to western readers.

If we were to visit the world of this novel on our own, most of us would be utterly lost.  Achebe, however, was one of those rare and magnificent communicators who can reach across a great gulf of understanding and bring people to the other side.  Such people have made an enormous difference in my life–people in Greece and Israel and India and Durham, NC who have helped me understand what was going on around me, who have given me access to different ways of thinking and living.  Achebe will continue to do that for millions of readers.  What a wonderful gift to the world!

India & the US: parallel responses to tragedy

In the last few months, I’ve been corresponding with my friend and host teacher, Mala Singh, about a paper we’re writing together.  I’ve wondered whether to mention the terrible news stories from Delhi about violence toward women.  As I considered expressing condolences or hope for a gentler future, it occurred to me that she could say the same to me in response to Newtown and other shootings that have made the international news.  The issues are different, but both India and the U.S. seem to be undergoing a kind of national soul-searching.  I wonder whether either country is on a path toward real change.

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On Writing and Gun Rights

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Lately, I’ve been teaching Juniors in my Writing Seminar course to break down sentences into clauses and recognize patterns of construction–pretty standard fare for high school English.  I’ve also been listening to the national dialogue about the Second Amendment to the Constitution.  There’s a connection to be drawn here. Read more…