22 November 2010

Just How Lucky We Are

I have recently come to terms with just how lucky I am to be an American...

Before I explain what I mean, allow me to explain what I don't mean. While I am most certainly proud to be an American, I am not going to sit here and proclaim that America is the greatest country and that all others should bow in our presence. Sure, there are lots of good things about America, most of which even those who claim to be anti-American must admit. For instance, America has long been known as the land of opportunity, a place where millions of people from around the world dream about as their ultimate home, many of whom never actually get the chance to make that dream a reality. America has all of the latest gadgets, an advanced postal system, a government that, while dysfunctional most of the time, does not directly persecute or otherwise seek to harm its own citizens, and an economic system that has pushed the world to new heights (yes, I am aware that capitalism is controversial and even hated by many people, but the point is that the American system has allowed for advancements and developments in the world that otherwise would only have been possible in the very distant future, if possible even at all.) America also has a judicial system that, while not perfect, is leaps and bounds ahead of any other system on the planet. Like I said, in many ways, America is good.

I am also willing to admit that America can be quite bad. The aforementioned and lightly praised economic system has lead to a disparity of income that in some cases is knocking on the door of human rights violations and in all cases is an embarrassment to the legacy of the country. America's public education system fails to provide a modern, relevant education to its children and leaves minorities in the dust at every turn, and while whites are far luckier and more privileged in the current system, the education that it provides this majority group isn't much to be applauded, either. The American people are also incredibly wasteful, comprising only 6% of the world's population but producing about 50% of the world's trash. A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope cites that American's waste 25-50% of all the food that is produced in the United States. Beyond that, many Americans are arrogant, tribalist creatures who are unwilling to entertain the idea that being American doesn't, in fact, make them any better than anyone else.

The point to all of this rambling is to say that America is both good and bad, and while many people will angrily argue either side of that coin without actually ever listening to the other perspective, that is not the debate that I am trying to ignite. The idea that I want to promote is the notion that instead of arguing about America's greatness or terribleness, US citizens should be talking about just how lucky they are to be able to carry that label around. Allow me to outline this concept...

First of all, it is important for me to initially note that not everyone in America benefits from being an American. I am aware that there are people (mostly rural poor) who benefit very little from their homeland's identity, but this group is quite small when compared to its percentage of the overall population. That is not to say that those people don't matter or that since they are such a small minority that they don't count. Instead, I mean to acknowledge that group while making a qualifying statement that the remainder of my points do not necessarily apply to those people within it.

The overwhelming majority of Americans benefit greatly from the happenstance of their birth, and many of them don't even realize it. The debates about same-sex marriage, gun control, educational reform, and economic policy are often inundated with claims that America is the sovereign-entity incarnation of the devil, himself, while failing to recognize that America is one of the only countries in the world where such debates are even allowed to be had. Americans don't fear governmental punishment for the expression of opinions. Individuals and groups alike can march up and down any street they want holding signs, banners, and toting bullhorns to protest or support any number of causes, free of charge and free of persecution. While our school system is floundering and does not compete with the top-tiered nations, the fact that we have a public education system in which boys, girls, rich, and poor are all allowed to participate sets us apart from a large portion of the world and makes us the envy of millions. While race relations in America are not where we think that they should be, the reality is that they are far better than most places in the world, even in so called progressive Europe, where in many cases, African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants are treated like second class citizens, not seen as equals, and given little opportunity to advance themselves in societal systems. (Many Europeans would disagree wholeheartedly with the previous statement, but just a few weeks of observation with a fresh perspective will prove this to be generally true.)

In the overwhelming majority of cases, poverty in the United States doesn't even begin to compare to poverty in the rest of the world. Yes, poverty is an issue in America, and there are many who struggle on a daily basis, but it is the definition of struggle that makes Americans different, and lucky. Poverty in America often means receiving governmental assistance, wearing clothes that are old and dirty, not receiving adequate preventative healthcare, living in an area with a higher crime rate and a lower level of education, having a glass ceiling to cap off social mobility, being subject to a cycle of poverty that takes generations to dig out of, if ever. Poverty in much of the rest of the world means not eating at regular intervals and succumbing to malnutrition, being subject to diseases like malaria and cholera that are unable to be contained due to lack of resources and expertise, no running water, no electricity, widespread illiteracy, unreliable emergency services, outdated medical care (if any), fearing violence at the hands of renegade militant groups and corrupt government officials who kidnap, rape, and kill their own people.

Ultimately, we Americans should be proud of the problems that we have, because in many cases, they aren't even really problems at all. Yes, our economy seems to be fading rapidly, BUT our GDP is still much higher than any other prosperous nation. Yes, we have a healthcare system that underserves its people and costs hundreds of times more than it should in many cases, BUT our people aren't dying from epidemic-like, curable diseases that run rampant due to a lack of knowledge and/or resources. Yes, we have a government that is no longer for the people and that makes decisions on a daily basis that are seemingly leading to our demise as a superpower, BUT no one fears that the government is going to raid his house in the middle of the night, raping his wife and children or taking a machete to his neck. Yes, blacks, latinos, women and homosexuals do not stand on an entirely even playing field with the white American male, BUT those minority groups have the right to express their opinions, fight for their rights, and make progress, even if it is slow progression. The fact that there even is a "race debate," "educational reform," "healthcare reform" and a "Prop 8" shows that people are discussing, arguing, working and pushing for a better America. Those sorts of things don't happen in most other places, and even in the places where they do happen, they don't happen to the degree that they do in America.

The beautiful thing about all of America's problems is the realization that many of them are a result of the standard to which we hold ourselves. For many years, America has been seen as the benchmark on several topics, human rights, economic progression, creativity and business marketing, social equality and mobility, healthcare. These are all things that Americans expect to execute perfectly, things that are not perfect anywhere, nor will they ever be. With great power comes great responsibility, and with great success comes high expectations. Americans should be mad at themselves for a lot of which goes on in our country, not necessarily because they are so awfully atrocious, but because they could and should be better. Americans should expect more from our society in lots of ways, not because our society is lacking or disgraceful, but because it is seen as the example to the rest of the world and should comport itself as such. I, for one, am proud of the high standard to which we hold ourselves. America is not a terrible place; it is a place that has the capability of being better, and its citizens know it.

In order to put into perspective this series of high standards and expectations, Americans just need to realize the foundations and purposes of their arguments and discussions. Turning on the TV, one can see any number of channels hosting talking heads that are discussing various issues, many of which are important. The problem is that these talking heads are often talking for the wrong reasons. Listening to the debates, one can easily detect within a few minutes that the participants aren't even really talking about the issue(s) at hand. Instead, they are trying their damnedest to prove the other person wrong at all costs. Instead of discussing their own opinions and working to a compromise, they yell at one another in a blind rage, only concerned with making a fool of the other person and fundamentally forgetting the fact that such a public debate is one of the beauties of American society. It is the same with political debates. The issues are no longer at the forefront, but instead, the chance to prove someone else wrong and by default one's self right. Politicians and political pundits are rarely concerned with what is best, but instead, with what they want personally. For Americans, these sorts of debates and decision making tactics are pointless, because they just create more strife and often cause a circular debate that never comes to any sort of conclusion.

Americans must put their issues into perspective and attack them accordingly. Instead of worrying about whose fault the problems are, we should be talking about how we can fix them...together. Instead of claiming that America is the devil and that all that it does is evil and unfair, we should look at our problems in comparison with the rest of the world, take a deep breath, calm down and create a plan of action that helps the most people in the shortest amount of time.

We just need to realize that we are lucky. Yes, we have our problems. No, we are not perfect. There are lots of things that the US could and should do better, some of which we are making little progress with; however, there are also many on which we are progressing quite nicely when viewed through the lens of the comparative world. In many ways, most Americans have it pretty good, even those who in American are perceived to have it pretty bad. The point is not to trivialize the struggles of Americans or in anyway discredit their problems or issues. The point is to view these struggles, problems and issues with the right frame of mind, a lucky one.

Que Será, Será

So, life has pretty much settled in here in Madrid. I do still experience some new things here and there and when I am explicitly reminded that I am actually living in Spain right now, I get all juiced up, but overall, life has become life. That is not to say that I am getting bored or otherwise dissatisfied with my experience, but instead, that I am actually beginning to feel like I am living a life here and not just visiting.

Moving to a new place is hard. When I moved to Memphis, I was going into the most vibrant and easily accessible social scene that exists, a college campus. I dealt with a bit of the transitional woes that always come with moving to a new spot, but that transition was one that was facilitated by several factors both in and out of the university that helped to soften the blow. When I moved to Chicago, I spent almost a year trying to get settled. While working the equivalent of two whole work weeks in just one calendar week, I hadn't much time to go out and make friends or otherwise acclimate to my new surroundings. I socialized every once in a while, and I did make some friends (and some lasting ones at that), but it took the better part of a year for me to really feel at home.

So far in Madrid, I cannot say that I feel "at home," but I do feel settled to a large degree. I have figured out my routine, gotten to know the city, spent ample time with my students, and made some friends along the way. I am no longer nervous about going to the grocery store and having to talk to the clerk. I rarely have to guess as to what exactly it is that I am ordering off of a restaurant menu. And, I can navigate the train system in my sleep.

Somehow, in only two months, I really feel as though I am living my life here and not just treading water with my head barely high enough so as not to drown. Perhaps it is the fact that I have more free time than I have had in years. Or, maybe its that I don't really have the daily stresses of a normal life. Or, it could be that work requires little effort, and well, thats really my only responsibility, if you can call it that. I have no idea what it is, but I do know that this will not last forever. I also know, however, that I should cherish it while it does. Few people get to take a pause from life and actually live. Now, obviously, every day of my life here is not particularly exciting. I mean, going to work, coming home, cooking dinner, and going to bed is not exactly the plot line of a riveting summer blockbuster. But, its the lack of stress accompanied by the intermittent spurts of excitement that make life here enjoyable. In my spare time, I read the news online, watch some TV online, or plan my next excursion. Sometimes I will call a friend, go for a walk, or take a nap, just because I can. I play English games with my students, shoot basketball with them on the playground, and then take a 2.5 hour lunch break to do as a please. Oh yea, and did I mention that I don't work on Fridays?

I am still not as confident in my Spanish abilities as I would like to be, partly due to the fact that I don't really speak it all that much. That might surprise you, considering where I live, but if you really think about it, it makes sense. I work in English all day because my job is to teach it. I live in an apartment with 3 other people whom I rarely ever see (which means we don't really talk), and meeting Spanish people is like building a skyscraper with play-doh, which is to say borderline impossible. I have a few Spanish acquaintances, and relatively often I get to have good conversations with Spaniards by way of social gatherings or things of the like. But, I would not say that I am completely immersed in the language in my daily life. My Spanish skills have definitely improved since I have been here, and I know that as time goes on, I will meet more people and get more chances to practice; however, after two months, the process is a bit slower than expected.

The only real question looming over my head that might cause me stress in the coming months is what to do next...? I have to decide if I want to do this program again by March. If I decide yes, then the problem is solved and I will be living in Spain for another year. But, if I decide no, then the real questions begin. I have at least a trillion ideas as to what I would like to do with myself and no real way of prioritizing them. I have thought about going back to school in the States or going back to school abroad, but either way, what would I study? I could move back to Tennessee, or back to Chicago, or to another place in the US, but where? There is also the exciting prospect of moving somewhere else in Europe or even somewhere else in the world altogether. I could get a job at a ski resort (I know, random, but I have actually thought about this one). I could stay here and get a random job doing something else in Spain, or I could try to work for Teach For America or the Harlem Children's Zone...and the list goes on. The point is, I have no clue what I want to do after this. Heck, I don't even know what I am going to do this afternoon. But, oh well, if there is one thing that I am learning it is that it will all work itself out. I am not going to allow myself to get stressed out about something that I cannot control at this moment. Worrying about the future would force me to stop enjoying the present so much, and I am not really willing to let that happen. When decision time comes, I will choose, and if I don't like my decision, I will choose again. I think its pretty obvious by now that I am not going to really follow the traditional life path, so choosing and then choosing again and then choosing again doesn't really frighten me. For now, I am going to focus on savoring every moment of the present while looking forward to the immediate future. I will be traveling to Málaga, Spain during the first week of December. Then, I will be off to Amsterdam for Christmas and Geneva, Switzerland and the French Alps for a skiing adventure in early January. After that, well, who cares? Its too far away to matter at this point.

07 November 2010

Weekend in Rome

I went to Rome last weekend. After the trip, I started laying out my plan for my extensive blog post, outlining each and every thing that we did and saw and how I felt about it. But, after writing for some time and seemingly getting nowhere, I realized that I was wasting my time. Its not about the individual happenings and the minutia of it all. Its about the experience as a whole, the physical, mental and emotional transformation that I go through every time that I do something new here.

While in Rome, I saw all of the major stuff. My friend and I (and two other Americans whom we met our second day there) sauntered all over the Eternal City seeing the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Forum, Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain, and dozens of other monuments and spectacles, some famous and some not so famous. We ate incredible food, met some really nice people and experienced a brand new culture for the very first time. My weekend in Rome was amazing and writing about it is difficult, but I think that it is important for me to try. So, avoiding a minute by minute itinerary recap of the entire 4 days, I'm just going to highlight, well, the highlights, and while the "highlights" are still quite extensive, believe it or not, what you are about to read is, indeed, the abridged version of the trip. I could write for days about some of the individual things that I saw and experienced during my weekend in Rome, and someday, maybe I will. But, for now, you get the highlights, and the rest will remain for me to enjoy...

It is important to know that I am a history buff, and that going to Rome was like going to small piece of heaven for me. Now, when I say "history buff," I am not implying that I am all knowing or even incredibly knowledgeable about world history. I think that I know a fair amount, possibly more than the average person, but to me, "buff" is more in reference to my affinity for the subject. I love to think about how things used to be and how that they have come to be as they are in the present moment. Standing in front of something that is hundreds or thousands of years old gives me a sense of humility and insignificance that fascinates me. To stand where others have stood before, others about whom I have read and watched since I can remember, is to come as close to traveling through time as I will ever come. In Rome, I felt this with an almost incessant desire to remain forever in that particular moment, although "that particular moment" references a string of 4 days of constant movement and stimulation during which I would be hard pressed to find a "particular moment" in which I would rather be more than any other.

St. Peter's Basilica at night
The monuments and historical pieces were each impressive and breathtaking in their own right, of course some more so than others. Our first stop was the Vatican City, through which we took a guided tour with a man from Amsterdam. The Vatican is full of some of the most beautiful and respected pieces of art that this world has ever known. Walking through the halls of its in-house museum is like walking through a history book in which Michelangelo and Raphael are the principal illustrators. Sculptures of emperors, dignitaries and gods line the walls. Massive tapestries interwoven with silk and gold hang along corridors. One hallway alone houses over 1,000 hand carved statues, most of which are busts or full body depictions of important leaders and Roman gods. At the end of the museum, I was able to see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's famed masterpiece, which he was forced to paint under intense pressure by Pope Julius II. Michelangelo's ceiling fresco, accompanied by The Last Judgement, his front wall mural painted 24 years after the ceiling, makes for quite a spectacular viewing experience. Outside of the chapel, we passed through the tombs of the popes and St. Peter's Basilica, both incredibly powerful sites full of masterful decor and inexplicable energy. Once outside of the Basilica, we stood in the famous St. Peter's Square, surrounded by other awestruck tourists and Italian police personnel. From the Square, we wandered to the banks of the Tiber River while having a cup of gelato and allowing to marinate in our minds the significance of our just finished tour of one of the most unique sites on earth.

The Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill were also quite interesting. These three sites are all basically in the same spot in the city and are much more "Roman" than the Vatican in that they represent some of the most important aspects of ancient Roman society apart from the catholic sector. The Colosseum was home to arguably the most gruesome series of public entertainment events that the world has ever witnessed. Built by more than 12,000 Jewish slaves between 70 and 80 AD, the venue could hold more than 50,000 spectators and was often packed to the brink of overflowing. Events here consisted of imprisoned gladiators being forced to fight animals and/or other gladiators. Crowds would go crazy as unwilling participants sent to die in front of thousands were forced to fight lions, tigers, rhinoceroses and other monstrous beasts. Across the street, atop Palatine Hill and at the Roman Forum, is where the business of ancient Rome took place. This plot of land was home to most if not all of the major players in the city. Government operated from this hill and many of the major financial institutions set up shop here. Today, Palatine and the Forum are a series of ancient ruins, most of which are generally unrecognizable. Pieces of broken columns and smashed buildings are strewn about in seemingly unorganized fashion. There are some mock up drawings of what the area looked like in its prime, but those are only as accurate as one is willing to believe. A few major structures still stand tall, towering over the not so well preserved collection of artifacts that constitutes most of the area. These conjoined sites of ruins are the most authentically ancient Roman attraction that the city has to offer, and while they were not the most exciting things to walk through, they are an important part of the story of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world, and I am glad that I was able to experience them.

View from the south end of Piazza Navona
In the center of the city I was able to visit the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. The Trevi Fountain is considered to be the most impressive fountain in Rome. Nestled against the side of a building, the fountain is a massive sculptural masterpiece depicting Oceanus being guided in a shell chariot by tritons and horses. Legend claims that if you face away from the fountain while throwing a coin over your shoulder and into the water, you will one day return to Rome. Nearby is the Pantheon, a concrete domed structure that is thought to be the most well preserved building in the ancient city. The dome is made of non-reinforced concrete and is the largest of its kind. At the top is a large hole that allows the elements of nature to enter. When it rains in Rome, it rains in the Pantheon. Inside the dome is a chapel of sorts with several shrines to saints and the tomb of the great Raphael. Down the street from the Pantheon are the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps is the largest and widest staircase in Europe, leading into the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Plaza). In close proximity to the staircase is the house of famed poet John Keats and the house of the Medici, an historically significant Italian family who during the Renaissance owned a major part of the financial entities of the region. The Piazza Navona is a large oval plaza that is home to several restaurants, street vendors, and the building that currently serves as the Brazilian embassy. This centralized area of sites was very entertaining, and besides site seeing here, my friend and I spent a lot of our time in the restaurants, bakeries and gelato places nearby.

The food in Rome was, of course, incredible. Pasta, pizza, gelato (actually spelled gelati in Italy) and wine. Among my daily meals, I had the pleasure of dining at two separate restaurants on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto, a serene and eternally romantic 20 minute walk from the Vatican wall. The pasta was cooked to the perfect consistency, not too soft, but not too hard, covered in a presumably homemade sauce that is unrivaled by anything you or I have ever tasted. The pizza, cooked in a handcrafted brick oven, came to our plate with a thin, crispy crust topped with the freshest, purest, most delectable of ingredients. This was, no doubt, real Italian food. There was no shredded cheese or factory produced tomato sauce. The sausage was not mysteriously in the shape of a marble and the ham had been sliced from the cured leg of a local pig, not cut from a log of bologna in the back. The bread was freshly baked and the tiramisu made by some little old Italian lady who has been using the same recipe for so long that she can't even remember from whence it came. The servers didn't speak english, and the menu was nearly impossible to read. At one of these dinners, we were able to sit outside, in the streets of real authentic Rome. Families, children, old couples and priests walked by as we enjoyed our dinner. The stars danced overhead and the remnants of an area once devastated by religious expulsion but now revitalized with traditional culture surrounded our table. Perhaps it was more than the food that made those dinners taste so good. Perhaps it was the ambiance, the fact that we were in Rome and we knew it. Perhaps it was the quiet serenity of a neighborhood consumed with history and significance that I have only dreamed of. Or, perhaps, it was just the food.

The most amazing part of my trip to Rome took place on the night of the first full day that I was there, and believe it or not, it had nothing to do with Rome itself. My friend and I were sitting at a restaurant just off of a small street that leads to Piazza Navona. After chatting with the waitresses, we sat at a table that was precariously situated half indoors and half out. We ordered a bottle of wine to share and started browsing the menu. As we perused the choices, we discussed and decided that we were willing to spend a bit in order to have a good meal. It was our first real night in Rome, and we were going to enjoy ourselves. Eventually, we both made our selections and then sipped wine and nibbled on bread as we waited. After a few minutes, a couple was seated at the table next to us. This couple, two Americans who seemed to be in their mid fifties, was doing the same as my friend and I, enjoying a dinner in Rome and attempting to appreciate a short stay in such a haven of historical magnitude. While completely consumed by my risotto di mare (seafood risotto) and chatting with my friend about our lives back in the states, I was interrupted by the female half of the American couple. "Are you two Americans?" she asked as she nervously gestured, failing at her attempt to hide the fact that she felt rude to interrupt our conversation.

"Yes, we are," my friend and I replied, "where are you all from?"

After this initial greeting, we four began to chat for what seemed like no less than 30 to 45 minutes. They were from Iowa and were taking a vacation to a few spots around Italy. They had been to Italy before, but they love Rome so much that they decided to come back. We chatted about traveling, life in the states, the brutal winters of Chicago, and what we had seen and done in Rome so far. Inevitably, they asked what we were doing in Rome, and we proceeded to explain to them that we live in Madrid as elementary school English teachers but were visiting Rome for the weekend. They appeared to be very impressed and commented extensively on how great they thought it was that we would travel across the world to do such a thing. We gave them some tips on ways to skip the lines at the sites in Rome and presented to them a sales pitch as to why they should visit Spain, a place they said that they had regrettably never been. After some time, they let us know that they were leaving. They spoke to the waitress, paid their tab, shook our hands, and walked away. Once they were walking away, my friend and I decided to call the waitress over to request our own check so that we could go enjoy the rest of our night, but before we could signal for her, she approached our table voluntarily. "I'm not sure if you know this, but they just paid for your dinner," she said in broken but surprisingly well spoken English.

"What?" we said, not sure if we heard her correctly.

"They paid for your dinner. I don't think that they wanted you to know, but they told us that they wanted to pay for your dinner and then they were going to leave."

My friend and I sat speechless, staring at each other not knowing what to say. The couple was still within our view, and we could have run out to tell them thank you and to try to pay them for our food, but we both knew that wasn't what they wanted. They didn't want us to know. They didn't do it so that we could tell them thanks. Instead of running after them and spoiling their good deed, my friend and I both reacted to the shocking revelation with the exact same idea. "When I'm older, I'm going to do that for someone. I have to." There was no doubt in either of our minds that we were just handed a free dinner and an obligation of reciprocation, an obligation that we both accepted willingly. I am not sure why they paid for our food, and I guess it really doesn't matter. I definitely didn't expect them to do so, and when the waitress told us of what had happened, it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. All we did was chat with a couple at the table next to us while enjoying our Italian cuisine. We could have shrugged them off, answering that "yes" we were Americans and then turning our backs to continue our solitary dinner. But, we didn't. We had a great time chatting with them and sharing stories about a wide range of topics. I guess paying our tab and leaving without giving us a chance to realize what they had done was their way of saying "thanks for the company."

Well, you're welcome.

(click here to see the remainder of my pictures from my weekend in Rome)