Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tintin the Intrepid

All three of our sons were born in Europe, the two older sons starting school in a bilingual classroom (English/French). We spoke English in the home so the boys would be able to maintain it as their mother tongue, but we also began collecting French books and reading them to the boys from time to time. One of the earlier titles in our collection was Le Secret de la Licorne (The Secret of the Unicorn), one of the adventures of the intrepid hero Tintin
Tintin was the brainchild of Belgian artist Georges Rémi under the name HergéRémi began writing the Tintin stories in 1930's Belgium, and the stories of the boy hero, reporter and world traveler quickly captured the imagination of young people all over the Francophone world. One of my favorite talk show hosts, Tom Ashbrook of NPR's "On Point," interviewed his own French father-in-law on his memories of reading Tintin as a young boy in the midst of the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Director Steven Spielberg has now brought Tintin to the big screen -- none too soon, as the popular European comic series has been translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 200 millions copies worldwide. I haven't seen the movie yet (The Adventures of Tintin) -- but regardless of how many thumbs up the movie gets, it will bring back many fond memories of families the world over -- including mine.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Havel the Hero

The word "passion" is quite in vogue in our time. We want to find work we are passionate about, we are passionate about our favorite causes, and we like passionate love stories. But when we consider the etymological meaning of the word, it casts itself in a different light: we get our English word from the Greek pathos, meaning "suffering". When you list your passions in terms of what you're willing to suffer for, the list tends to shrink somewhat.

On Sunday, the world lost a man who was passionate in the purest sense of the word: Vaclav Havel, best known in the West as the leader of the 1989 so-called Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, passed away peacefully with his wife at his side. After more than two decades of peaceful protest, often through his plays, Havel and others brought about the demise of the Communist leadership of his country without a single shot being fired. What many of us did not know is that Havel also suffered for his cause, spending four and a half years in a Czech prison for his opposition to the oppressive, Soviet-backed Communist regime of the 1960's.

Two things strike me about the man and his life. First, the fact that a nation would elect a playwright as president. Not a politician, not a businessman, not an economist, not a diplomat. A playwright. A writer. All playwrights are not the same, but good playwrights have at least one thing in common -- an understanding of human nature. Havel seemed to have a grasp on the fundamental drives, the aspirations, the strengths and weaknesses of 20th century mankind, and I find it nothing less than astonishing now, as I did then, that a nation would turn to an artist for leadership. I have long said that artists are the mouthpiece of culture, but it is rare when a people chooses to entrust its political well-being to a playwright. Unfortunately, his leadership was attenuated when his party was voted out and Czechoslovakia became two distinct nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The other thing of note about Havel is that he chose the high road, refusing to yield to the temptation to meet violence with violence. His commitment to the non-violent protest of injustice put him in the company of monumental figures such as Gandhi, King and Mandela, and he doggedly continued to believe and profess that it is actually possible to take the moral high ground, even in the realm of politics. For this he was often dismissed as out of touch with reality. Perhaps he was not the most astute politician, but he will and must always be remembered as a noble statesman who called his people, and indeed the rest of the world who would listen, to higher ground.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Irresistible Italy

My wife and I, along with our friends Jim and Mary, just recently returned from a 10-day trip to Italy, where we were doing logistical advance work for the 2012 World to the Wise Cultural Tour. It had been 17 years since our last visit there, and Becky had never been to Rome, so there was much to see. 
I could have spent a month in Rome. It had a similar effect on me as London and Paris -- the word that comes to mind is gravitas. It's difficult to overplay the presence of the city's ancient history -- I've never been in a city that has succeeded in preserving so much of its ancient reminders. But Rome is much more than Roman ruins, more even than the Vatican and the symbolic yet paradoxical shadow it casts on the local culture. And it is virtually impossible to move about the city without noticing the astonishing attention -- and priority -- given to works of art. Even Florence, in all its Renaissance splendor, can't compete with the countless piazzas adorned with elaborate Bernini fountains and statuary.

Reluctantly leaving Rome behind, we trained to Florence, where we picked up a rental car and drove to a retreat center called Poggio Ubertini, about 30 kilometers outside the city. As we climbed the suburban hills in our peppy little Opel, the view of the Tuscan countryside below brought ooh's and ah's from the wives while I forced myself to keep my eyes on the winding road. Each day in Tuscany brought its own set of adventures, from the obligatory and timeless Renaissance masterpieces in Florence to the picturesque hill towns of Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni, from the magnificent Duomo to the salt-of-the-earth Ammirabile family and their wine and olive enterprise we were able to visit. 

We cannot WAIT to introduce our tour participants to this magical land, where you are tempted to forget that the rest of the world exists -- and that's only one leg of next year's tour!

Monday, October 3, 2011

We are pleased to announce the 2012 World to the Wise Cultural Tour, taking place from approximately June 5-21, 2012. Those who participated in the 2010 tour will tell you it was an unforgettable experience that left an indelible mark on each one -- and the 2012 tour promises to be every bit as life-changing!
We'll begin our tour with a few days in London. While our bodies adjust to the time difference, we'll take in sights such as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Tower of London, stroll through the Portobello Market, and hit one of the shows in the famous West End Theatre District. Then we'll hop on the Eurostar train that whisks us under the English Channel and arrive in Paris, the City of Lights.
Who can resist the sidewalk cafes, the masterpieces of the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, the artists' square at Montmartre, strolling by the book stalls along the Seine, and of course the Eiffel Tower and possibly a day trip to Giverny, the fabled home of Impressionist master Claude Monet?
For the first time, our adventures will take us to Bella Italia, where we'll spend an entire week exploring the inexhaustible treasures of the sunny peninsula. From ancient Rome and the Vatican, to the Renaissance treasures of Florence, to the fabled hill towns and sun-drenched countryside of Tuscany, to the inimitable charm of the Venetian canals, we predict you'll be reluctant to head home!
Interested? Just e-mail us at and request a registration packet or sign up at the right for periodic updates. Space is limited! All you need is a refundable $200 deposit to register for the tour, and the rest can be paid in installments. The tour is open to everyone -- adults, students and parents or grandparents (we do ask that students under 15 be accompanied by an adult).
It has been said that "the fool wanders, but the wise man travels" -- in other words, if you're going to travel, do it with a purpose. Sometimes it takes being lifted out of the confines of familiarity to gain a broader perspective of this world of ours.
We hope you'll join us!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on "The Help" Part II

As I mentioned in my last post, my wife was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, where the novel The Help is set. Her childhood memories include a quiet, unpretentious black maid named Rose, whose responsibilities were mainly cleaning and ironing -- at least as far as my wife recollects. The rationale of many white families was that they were providing much needed employment in exchange for services that made their lives a little -- or a lot -- more comfortable.

Becky and I spent two months in Zimbabwe in 1985, part of which time was spent on a tobacco farm owned by a white couple. At the time, white farmers were still the dominant force in Zimbabwean agriculture, with entire villages of black Africans working for them. Wanting to identify with the Africans, we elected to sleep on our air mattresses in the huge tobacco shed next to the villagers' huts. After a few nights, however, the rats had eaten holes in all our air mattresses, and the farmer's wife persuaded us to spend the last remaining nights of our stay in the house.

The first morning, we awoke to a tray of tea outside our bedroom door, provided by the household staff. When we were invited to go on an overnight excursion to our hosts' cabin at Lake Kariba (the world's largest artificial lake), the "help" came along to do all the cooking. 

As a middle class white American, I felt ambivalent about the treatment we were receiving. Sure, who doesn't enjoy a little pampering. But what was my vague sense of guilt about? It just didn't feel right.

Since that time, President Mugabe's policies have driven many of the white farmers not only from their land, but from the country. I have to rejoice, on the one hand, that the land is under the primary control of the majority blacks; but the objective truth is that many of those white farmers used agricultural methods that, if brought back today, would almost certainly improve the greatly deteriorated Zimbabwean economy. (The Zimbabwean situation is far more complex than agricultural methods and has more than anything to do with a despot clutching inordinate power.)

What do we do with all this? What is our personal responsibility? The way I see it, I am to live a life that treats all people with the respect and dignity I believe we were all created with. The places I see this happening on a regular basis are unfortunately few and far between.

I will say this in closing: most of us white Americans and Europeans are a long way from understanding what it truly means to be a minority. Since we cannot change the color of our skin, even if we wanted to in order to conduct some kind of experiment (or move to South Africa), the best we can do is examine our own hearts and "see if there be any wicked way" with regard to people of other color.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"The Help"

My wife, son, daughter-in-law and I saw this powerful movie this weekend. I don't claim to be a movie critic, so won't overly pontificate on the merits and flaws of the movie. I will say that there are a number of extraordinary performances, and I won't be surprised to see Viola Davis's name on the list of Oscar nominees for 2012. 

The story itself, based on the best-selling book by Kathryn Stockett, is one I find hard to shake. (I won't recount it here for the sake of those who haven't seen the movie yet.) My wife was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and seeing the movie through her eyes made it that much more poignant. My reaction of anger and shame reveals a particular sensitivity to the subject of race relations in American culture -- but we're mistaken if we think this is a strictly American phenomenon. More on that in my next post.

As we whites look at our parents' generation's treatment of blacks, there is a mixture of emotional responses. My Texan grandfather, a barber, refused to cut the hair of blacks or Mexicans. Not all whites were as openly hostile to African Americans; in my wife's Jackson, having black "help" was accepted as a normal part of southern culture. The attitudes of the white employers varied from blatant prejudice and condescension to a much more subtle form of racism. Many black nannies, as portrayed by Viola Davis, were so close to the children they cared for that they were like family. Though it is true that we tread on dangerous ground when we talk in stereotypical terms about that era (the notion of building a separate bathroom for the help, for example, was completely foreign to my wife), we can clearly talk about cultural trends that shift with each generation.
Not all whites were as hypocritical as the movie makes them out to be. Many were sincere, God-fearing families who believed they were doing the blacks a favor by providing them employment. 

"They were doing the best they knew how," we like to say.

While that may be true, it makes me shudder.

It makes me shudder because I can't help wondering what our children will be talking about when they say the same thing about us. I have often wondered about the collective blind spots in our cultures: why did it take so long for us to realize the evils of slavery? Why have women generally had to wait so long for equal rights? Why has democracy still not taken hold in many nations of the world?

But the most sobering question to me is this: what blind spots in this generation will our descendants identify? Of course we are aware that our current world leaves much to be desired and hoped for. But a blind spot is just that -- what is it that is completely escaping our attention? 

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Baby Is Born

After many hours of sitting in my own classroom, so to speak, learning about merchant accounts and all the elements of the back side of the tapestry, the e-book is finally out of the oven.

If I were seeking help and encouragement about a particular subject I was preparing to study, I wouldn't look for a large volume on how to go about it; I would want something concise -- so that's what I've done here.
Part motivation, part practical how-to's, How to Learn a Foreign Language: 7 Tips for Making the Daunting Doable is designed to be a shot in the arm for those who are either considering undertaking a foreign language, or those who have already begun but could use a little fresh perspective.

That word perspective is a huge word in my life. One of the themes of the e-book is the importance of taking the necessary step of lifting ourselves above our cultural assumptions in order to take a fresh look -- in this case, at the language we're tackling -- but it's a principal that applies in all areas of life. 

Perspective comes only when we are willing to loosen our clutch on what we perceive as real and important.

Check out the book for yourself, or forward the information to someone you know who could use a shot in the arm and a little perspective.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Almost out of the oven...

We're almost there -- we just need to make some tweaks to the website where my new e-book will be available. While I'm learning about online shopping carts and merchant accounts, we're getting great feedback and constructive criticism from my test group. Many have said it has made them want to go out and do something crazy like learn a foreign language.

If so, mission accomplished.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Born on the Four(teen)th of July

Dear loyal or occasional reader,

One year ago today, Becky and I were sitting at a long, food-laden table in the back yard of good friends in a quaint village outside Strasbourg, France. We topped off an already wonderful evening by standing in the midst of a festive crowd in the center of Strasbourg, oohing and ahing like kids at the fireworks above the medieval towers of the old city.

Today in France is what Americans call Bastille Day. The name Bastille is nowhere in the French name for the holiday; they simply call it la Fête nationale, or, even more commonly, le quatorze juillet -- just as we commonly say July 4 instead of Independence Day.

If you've been following me for very long, you know I'm an avowed francophile. What you may not know is that I was born on the 14th of July. It would seem my life was destined to be intertwined with that of our French friends, of whom I have many. This year, I'm celebrating at home with my family and good friends, taking part in local celebrations of Bastille Day hosted by the few but proud francophiles in my city of Nashville.

You haven't heard from me in a while because I've been busy putting the finishing touches on an e-book on how to go about learning a foreign language. I'll send updates soon, but in the meantime, feel free to sign up here if you're specifically interested in foreign languages -- and spread the word!

Finally, you've been reading for some time in this blog my musings on cultural and international issues, my passion and mission being to awaken cultural curiosity among English speakers. From now on, however, I intend to muse on other topics of interest as well; this will likely include more opinions, which you may or not agree with. Maybe it's my age (and we do tend to be more philosophical as we muse on our birthday, dont' we) -- but it's becoming less important to me to avoid stirring the waters a little. My philosophy is that we treat each other with the same respect we hope to be given, and I trust you'll stay on board with me.

In the meantime, Bonne Fête du 14 juillet!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Theme Park Culture

My wife and I have owned a timeshare in Orlando for a number of years. We bought it while our sons were still at home and were really into the idea of vacationing one mile from Disneyworld. This is the first year we have found ourselves using the week all by ourselves -- just the two of us. Since we have never been to Universal Orlando, we decided to go (under the pretext of checking it out for our new grandson -- yeah, right).
Our timeshare is just every other year, and I was in Europe the last time it came around, so my wife loaded up two of our sons and some of their friends and had a grand time. So it has been at least four years since I experienced the genuinely American phenomenon called the theme park. Some raw reflections:
First, I was taken back to my years of living in Europe when I would land at an American airport after months or even years away and be immediately struck by the number of obese people. America, the land of extremes. A multi-billion dollar fitness industry alongside the highest obesity rate in the world. I'm sorry, but this makes me ashamed.
Second, you've probably heard me say before that one of America's strengths is creativity and innovation. Disney and Universal are creativity on steroids, a celebration of storytelling and imagination. As I stroll through Universal's Seuss Landing or the new Harry Potter section, for example, it's impossible (for me) not to appreciate the wealth of imagination that was in operation not only when the original stories were conceived, but also in the translation of those stories to tangible "things" that can be touched and crawled on and ridden in.
What is contained in my ticket is a mixed bag, symbolic of the paradoxical day and culture in which we live. On one hand, my entrance price pays for the creators' innovations. I was thinking how much fun it must be to be an architect for Disney or Universal. Or an orchestrator. Or an engineer. The multi-faceted skills that go into just one of those rides is staggering. It also pays for summer employment for hundreds of high school and college kids. On the other hand, the ticket also represents obscene profit margins on food and drink, not to mention the not-so-subtle message, delivered long before you arrived at the park, that your kids HAVE to have that toy or keepsake in order to "keep the memory alive." These parks have a way of bringing out the worst in us consumers -- or teaching us a measure of restraint if we let them.
Since, at least for the time being, I don't have to choose between a make-believe theme park world and the preferred adventure of experiencing the real world we live in (stay tuned for more European adventures this summer), I'll most likely cave when my grandson asks me, with those big blue eyes, if we can go see Mickey.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Le Scandale

This past Sunday's arrest in New York of IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has sent shock waves throughout France -- but not for the reasons most Americans would expect. Strauss-Kahn, repeatedly voted France's most popular politician, was considered the most serious contender to oust current French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, in next year's elections. 
So the shock that many Frenchmen felt at the news was not that such a high-profile politician was involved in a sex scandal; it was either shock and dismay on the part of Socialists that their man would no longer be in the running to defeat the increasingly unpopular Sarkozy, or shock on a broader scale that the career of any French politician would implode because of a sex scandal and not a financial one.

Here is where the contrast between American and French mores can be seen at its sharpest: Newt Gingrich's candidacy is being called into question by some because of the fact that he has been divorced twice and had, shall we say, messy relationships with women. In France, on the other hand, it is practically a tradition that presidents and other leading politicians carry on extra-marital affairs, or at least be allowed the prerogative of open admiration of the opposite sex, unencumbered by a critical public eye. The fact is, the French are adamant about the right to privacy, and almost as adamant about the fact that it's simply not our business what goes on in the presidential bedroom (or other bedrooms of his choosing). By contrast, money and its poisonous tentacles are much more frequently the subject of scandal and demise chez les Français. What makes the Strauss-Kahn affair so salient is that a) this time it's criminal, b) it happened on American soil, where such a scandal is, well, all the more scandalous, and c) the French feel humiliated in the eyes of the world.

Before you say it serves them right, my dear American reader, you might ask yourself whether we are susceptible to similar incongruities. No culture is immune.

Monday, April 25, 2011


New Zealand film Director Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame and currently working on production of The Hobbit, Part I, tells on his Facebook page today of a visit he made to Turkey in 1990 for the 75th anniversary commemoration of ANZAC Day. The Australian government had made a rare gesture, flying dozens of World War I veterans, along with a personal nurse for each and numerous family members to the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Every Australian and New Zealander knows the significance of April 25, now an annual observance: the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps on that Turkish strip of land for an ill-fated mission. Their objective, along with thousands of British, French and Indian troops, was to capture Istanbul, thereby opening up the passage to the Black Sea for Allied troops and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war. Upon landing, the ANZAC soldiers were met with fierce resistance, and what was intended to be a decisive battle turned into an 8-month stalemate with the Allied troops trapped. So it is not a victory that Aussies and Kiwis celebrate, but the sacrifice at Gallipoli has come to symbolize all those from those two countries who have paid the ultimate price in time of war. One of those was Peter Jackson's grandfather, William John Jackson, whom he never knew.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Banning the Burqa

This week in France, the law banning the burqa (pictured) and the niqab, a full-face veil with only a narrow opening for the eyes, went into effect. A woman found wearing one of the traditional Muslim garments can be fined 150 euros (about US$215), and anyone forcing a woman to wear the veil faces a much stiffer fine. The ban does not apply within the workplace or the home. As the law went into effect on Monday, the first woman was cited in a Paris suburb Monday evening.
Needless to say, the law has sparked a heated debate. Some say the law's main proponent, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is making much ado about very little, even pandering to the far right -- as only an estimated 2,000 women in France bother with the burqa or the niqab. Others welcome the move as a liberation from the oppression of sharia law. Then there are those, in this post-911 world we live in, who believe the flowing robes and covered face pose a security threat. And more than a few must have been surprised that a number of Muslim women protested the ban, asserting that it was their choice to don the voile intégrale (full veil).
France has long been struggling to come to terms with its growing Muslim population (the highest in Europe). But the question that must be addressed above all others is not whether or not one likes the burqa, but whether the state has the right to dictate what a woman wears. 
I'm inclined to think not -- and you?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Nation on His Shoulders

It is Presidents' Day in the United States, when we traditionally honor the birth of George Washington, the so-called Father of our country. I find myself drawn to the kind of quiet strength he is said to have possessed. At the tender age of 20, due to the premature deaths of his brother and sister-in-law, he found himself executor of the expansive Mount Vernon estate. By the age of 23, he was commander of all Virginia troops in pre-revolutionary America. The striking thing is that, not unlike the case of King David, these were not necessarily positions to which young George aspired.

In the excellent TV mini-series, John Adams, Washington, adeptly played by David Morse, assumes the office of first president of the United States with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation. The scene of his swearing in, which I share with you now, will forever be burned into my memory:

Whatever your political persuasion, it is my hope that we all grasp with sobriety the gravity of such an oath of office.
My question for you to respond to: do we expect too much of the president, whoever he may be?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Nation Reborn...but What Now?

It was hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of the historic turn of events of the past two and a half weeks in the ancient land of the Nile. Egypt, for the first time in thirty years, was catching a glimpse of self-government. As the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in Alexandria swelled to the hundreds of thousands, the world was enrapt with the drama unfolding. At this writing, embattled President Hosni Mubarak has been taking refuge in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for two days, having stepped down from office after three decades of autocratic rule. After days of mixed signals, the entire country erupted into one giant street party at the announcement that Mubarak had definitively left office.

Americans and many other democracy-loving Westerners rejoiced with the Egyptian people. The Obama administration, pressed from all sides, scrambled to come up with the appropriate response to the break-neck pace of events. The result was a series of statements that would confuse anyone -- suddenly an ally of thirty years is being thrust from office by a popular revolt by masses demanding, of all things, democratic reform, the very foundation of the American nation. Even the most seasoned diplomats would be hard pressed to take a consistent stand without angering someone.

I was no exception to those thrilled at the result of nothing short of a revolution carried out almost entirely peacefully. I cannot help being moved by the words and tears of Wael Ghoneim, marketing director of Google Egypt. And speaking of Google, what makes this revolution all the more historic and remarkable is that it is the first uprising of its size to be carried out largely via the internet, and specifically social media. Truly a cultural statement of our time -- in spite of the fact that only 20% of Egyptians have internet access at home.

In the words of a young Egyptian internet entrepreneur, however, approximately one million of Egypt's 80 million people came out to the public squares to demonstrate. What about the other 79 million? Were the protesters speaking for the majority? Did the majority of Egyptians want such a swift transition that no one has any idea how the nation is going to go about forming a viable, healthy democracy? Has Egypt exchanged dictatorial law for marshall law in the struggle for self-direction? While the Tahrir Square masses have the sympathy of most Westerners (and other Arab governments squirming), the next days, weeks and months will determine the wisdom of such extreme demands. The road between here and free and fair elections, presently slated for September, will be frought with challenges, uncertainty, and hopefully, level-headedness.

What is happening before our eyes is not simply a political revolution, but also a cultural and sociological one. And at this point, it's hard to get anyone on Tahrir Square to think past the present exhilarating thought of a new Egypt, whatever it may look like.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit

I had the privilege last night of being a panelist at the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce educational forum, a bimonthly gathering that fosters business and cultural partnerships between the state of Tennessee and the most populous nation in the world. China is Tennessee's third largest trading partner, behind Canada and Mexico. It happened that the meeting fell on the Chinese New Year, which is no small occasion. Every year, over 230 million urban Chinese migrant workers buy train tickets to return to their towns and villages to celebrate the New Year. If they only get to see their families once a year, it is at New Year's. This is the largest human migration on the planet -- and it takes place every year. I was recently invited to a screening of a documentary that follows one family's harrowing journey and some of the painful dynamics of migrant family relationships. Read about Last Train Home here
Houses are thoroughly swept to sweep away any misfortune and make room for good luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red cutouts and poems that speak of blessings, happiness and longevity. Families gather to feast on the Eve of Chinese New Year, ending the evening with fireworks. The next morning, children rise to wish their parents a happy and healthy new year and in turn receive red envelopes with money in them.
The Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce was founded by Dr. Ming Wang, a renowned pioneer in lasik eye surgery and a prominent member of the Nashville community. Stay tuned for my interview with Dr. Wang, a fascinating and multi-faceted individual.

Still to come -- other fascinating tidbits about the waking giant that will be an ever-increasing part of our lives, and an inevitable daily presence in the lives of our children. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Racism 43 Years After Martin

On April 4, 1968, a voice of the ages was silenced during a trip to Memphis. 
Rather than adding my voice to the thousands who are writing today and pontificating on the monumental influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I would like to ask a question:

Where are we, in 2011, in the struggle to end racism?

In my soon-to-be-launched podcast, I intend to do a series on racism in the US and elsewhere; in the meantime, I welcome your comments  and perspective -- the more comments, the better idea we'll have of our own collective assessment.

How do you think we're doing? 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti: One Year Later

It was one year ago today that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated an already devastated nation in the Caribbean. Long known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is still on its knees. Only 5 to 10% of the rubble from the quake has been cleared, making it impossible to rebuild the thousands of houses -- even temporary -- that are needed by the 1.2 million Haitians still subsisting in 1,277 tent camps and makeshift shelters of corrugated tin and cardboard. Unemployment still hovers at as much as 80%, by some estimates.
Haiti is perhaps the most challenging study in the area of disaster relief. The causes for the slow progress have been pinned on outside donors' not following through with their pledges to an already corrupt government now almost completely incapacitated. Indeed, 30% of Haiti's public servants perished in the January 12 earthquake. But one has to ask how it is that over 900 NGO's working in the country -- many of whom were already there -- have not been able to make faster progress. It appears to be a classic example of a vicious circle -- the greatest need is shelter, but rebuilding can't happen until the rubble is cleared; but that can't happen until more trucks and other equipment are available, but in many parts of Port-au-Prince, there isn't even room between the buildings for a truck. One worker estimated that it would take a fleet of 500 trucks seven years to clear the rubble; no such fleet exists.
But this is Haiti. Having been there three times, I am continually reminded of Africa when I think of the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with its vastly different neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The difference is visible and palpable when crossing the border, as my wife and I have done by bus. 

Just why IS Haiti so different? What are the invisible forces that have held it hostage for generations? Why is hope for Haiti so elusive?

I am not an expert on Haiti and do not pretend to understand all the complexities of the situation. But I do have a hunch or two: at the risk of sounding harsh, uncaring and imperialistic, I have to ask if the Haitians themselves are willing to take responsibility for lasting change. Because of all that has befallen the island, it is easy to understand why the victim mentality could settle in. But I believe it goes back earlier, to the founding of the first nation in the world to have gained independence as the result of a slave rebellion. The African slaves whom the French populated the island with were treated so cruelly by the French that it is little wonder that, for many of them, their new-found freedom (in 1804) meant freedom from the curse of slave labor, and well, work in general. I am not saying all Haitians are averse to work; I am asking out loud whether there are vestiges of this pendulum reaction still at work today. What would it take for the Haitians themselves to take ownership and leadership in the recovery effort? What it would it take for the political circus to stop long enough to focus on getting the nation back on its feet? 
Fortunately, at least a few of the NGO's at work there have a long-term vision of raising up Haitian leadership to grapple with the staggering challenges. Then, and only then -- just as is the case in Africa -- will this Caribbean pearl with a very rough exterior be able to move into its destiny.

Some of those NGO's:
Youth With a Mission
Compassion International
World Vision

Friday, January 7, 2011

Museums: To Go or Not to Go

What is your conception of an ideal stay in a world class city? Does it include visits to museums? Some of you will say, "Of course, that's a no-brainer," while others may want to avoid museums altogether. This puts a tour host such as myself in a precarious position: how much time should we spend wandering the halls of great museums such as the Louvre in Paris (pictured), the Victoria and Albert in London, or the Uffizi in Florence? Here's where we land: 
Our approach, as you know by now if you're a regular reader, is to look at a culture from a holistic perspective. What makes up a culture? History, geography, language, religion, politics, leisure, and yes, art in all its forms. So what do I personally take an interest in? The answer is yes. One cannot fully understand and appreciate a given culture without taking all of the above factors and more into account. And it happens that many of these things are best captured and assembled in museums. What we do want to avoid is going into a museum with no orientation to its contents -- believe me, we've made that mistake; a museum can indeed be boring if one has no appreciation of the significance of the museum's treasures. That is why we now make an effort to prepare our travelers so they can take in as fully as possible the reason we're bothering with a given museum. We also try to take into account the particular interests of our travelers, realizing, of course, that we cannot customize each tour completely for every individual. 
There is much to be discovered about culture, however, outside the museums -- on the streets, in the churches, the homes, the restaurants, cafes and gathering places -- and especially in the people themselves. After all, if culture is about anything, it is about people -- their shared values, their past, their present and their future.
For my part, an ideal experience contains as many of the above as possible. We can't guarantee that you'll come home with lifelong friendships, but we do promise you'll be impacted in a way that will cause you to look at life and the world differently. For information on our two tours in 2011, click here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Goal Setting

One of my mentors in this season of my life is Dan Miller, a life coach with a very integrated way of looking at life. Although he is widely regarded as a business and career coach, I refer to Dan as a life coach because he recognizes that your career is only one part of a much bigger picture called life. This has been my approach for many years now -- life is one whole, where everything is somehow connected.
Dan talks about 7 areas where we should be making what he calls "deposits of success" on a regular basis in order to have a full, productive and meaningful life. In no certain order, they are:

Personal development

You will notice that financial and career are intentionally separated; career is how we make money, financial is how we manage it. I could say a lot more about these different areas, but I'll refer you instead to Dan Miller's website. In any case, the New Year is always a good time to reassess and take stock. While it is true that the concept of setting measurable goals is a fairly Western concept, all of us will agree that positive change usually happens because certain goals were set.

What does this have to do with World to the Wise? If we were to choose one of Miller's seven areas where we concentrate most of our efforts, it would be that of personal development. One of our foundational values is that we should all be life-long learners -- no matter what our career, vocation or avocation. Whether through this blog, our upcoming podcasts, or our hosted cultural tours, it is our mission to enrich your life by expanding your horizons. No matter where you find yourself on life's road, there is always much to be learned, and even better, savored, by discovering other perspectives. Discovery is the spice of life, and I'm grateful to be a fellow discoverer with you.
As you consider the area of personal development in your own life, why not consider enriching your life by joining one of our two cultural tours planned for 2011? It will make for an entire set of unforgettable experiences that you'll treasure for a lifetime.

In the meantime,

Happy New Year
   Bonne année
      Feliz año nuevo
         Frohes neues Jahr
            Gelukkig Niewjaar
               Buon anno
                  Feliz ano novo