Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cleaning Up Sandy's Mess

First thing tomorrow morning, my wife Becky and I leave for Ocean City, New Jersey, where we will participate in the cleanup and recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I am a trained reservist with Hope Force International, and this will be my first deployment.

I am letting you know not so you will think we are some kind of heroes for giving up our Thanksgiving -- we are incredibly spoiled by the fact that all three of our sons, our two daughters-in-law and our grandson all live within ten minutes. We are doing our best not to take this for granted, as we know this season will probably not last forever. It is not as if we had family coming in from the four corners to be with us on Thanksgiving. We treasure every time our immediately family is able to be together. 

I am letting you know because I'm sure a number of you are interested to know what conditions on the ground really are like in the wake of this disaster. While we had a flooded basement after the 2010 flood in Nashville and had to replace several appliances, that pales in comparison with the plight of more than 30,000 people in parts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut who have been left homeless in Sandy's wake.

Since I'm not at all sure I'll be able to blog about our observations while we're there, I'll most likely be posting occasional updates on Facebook -- so please feel free to follow me there. I'm sure it will be a Thanksgiving we won't soon forget.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This Day in 1517...

On this date in 1517, history changed forever.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The resulting uproar can be felt to this day. From what we know, Luther  never intended to formally sever his ties with the Catholic Church. In fact, he denounced the peasant revolt that his writings sparked and sided with the nobles. He simply felt compelled to speak out against the corruption and heretical practices of his day. Little did he know that armies would march against each other in his name. Little did he know that, because of his gesture, kings would extricate themselves from the Roman Catholic church and forever change the course of their nations' history. Little did he know that the Wittenberg door would come to symbolize one of the greatest schisms in history.

Luther was no saint. He is believed to have held strong anti-Semitic beliefs. But his passion to see man in direct communication and relationship with God led him to translate the Scriptures into the language of the people, defying the exclusivity of Latin as the language of the Church.

And you thought October 31 was just Halloween.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The (Lost) Land of Civility

A recent article in The Economist struck a chord that was already resounding more and more loudly. I read The Economist for a number of reasons: being a British publication, it gives the badly needed perspective of an outside observer on US issues. Its global scope also covers international issues many American periodicals ignore. 

The writer (anonymous, an Economist trademark), put his or her finger on yet another paradox of life in these United States. Lexington, as said writer is called, has lived in a number of world capitals, including London, Beijing, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Only in Washington, however was the newly arrived Lexington met with such friendly neighbors as to offer home-cooked food and invitations to backyard softball. Such civility is actually documented by the OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development), which states that "Americans are far likelier than its average citizen to have helped a stranger in the previous month...and twice as generous when volunteering their time."

The paradox is that such a civil country is engaging in more and more UNcivil politics. Lexington observes that, although both presidential candidates talk a lot about the future, their campaigns are actually nostalgic attempts to recover the mythical power of the American dream. What the two campaigns have in common -- and the camps they represent -- is that each side blames the other for the economic woes of our time. "Seeking to blame each other for economic shifts that are bigger than either party," Democrats and Republicans openly accuse each other of sabotaging the American ethos. It has suddenly become more about being on the right side than being an American. Period.

This polarization can have devastating consequences over the long term. As partisans become increasingly inflamed by the righteousness of their relatively short-term cause, each election leaves the nation licking its progressively deeper, self-inflicted wounds. The result: a weak and introverted society incapable of confronting the challenges of being a world leader with any sort of united front. As Lexington remarks, American "trust and generosity cannot forever survive a widespread sense that they are being abused."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lessons from Serbia

I just returned a few days ago from Novi Sad, Serbia, where the Sozo Festival was held for the first time. The purpose of the festival, founded 14 years ago by my good friend Randall Morgan, is to promote national and ethnic reconciliation among the peoples of strife-ridden Eastern Europe, primarily in the Balkan region. Over a dozen nations were represented, including Hungary, where the festival has been held 10 times in past years.

Many years ago in Switzerland, I learned a lesson from a student of mine. Born and raised in the French-speaking part of the country, she harbored a bit of an attitude towards her German-speaking countrymen. She was certainly not alone. There is an invisible barrier between the two regions that is ancient and undeniable. My student, named Catherine, recognized this unhealthy attitude in herself and decided to do something about it by finding a one-year position in Zurich, the largest city in the country -- specifically so she could get to know the German-Swiss up close. She came back with a completely different outlook on her compatriots, as well as some lasting friendships.

Although my attitude towards the Serbs was not nearly as pronounced, I realized I still looked at them primarily as the aggressors in the Balkan Wars of the 1990's. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians were raped and killed at the hands of Serbian soldiers, while much of the world, including most Americans, remained ignorant of the situation. I knew it was not a one-sided conflict (it rarely is), and I knew I needed to get to know some Serbs up close and personal.

I'm so glad I did. I discovered a proud but warm-hearted people, eager to show hospitality and to put the wounds of war behind them. Although I knew it academically, it came home to me that the atrocities committed in the wars were largely due to a handful of individuals, with Slobodan Milosevic as the ring leader. (He died in his prison cell in the Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes.) Today's generation of Serbs desires peace and relationship with the rest of the world. Pictured at right is my interpreter, Boža, and wife Sylvia. Boža was not only an excellent translator, but a remarkable human being. We had many meaningful conversations about our respective cultures and how much we can learn from each other.

At left is Darijo (pron. 'dario'), the local organizer for the festival. Darijo has attended numerous Sozo Festivals in the past and was ecstatic to be able to bring this great event to his native Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia on the banks of the Danube. His passion for his own nation was contagious, as he brought lessons learned abroad back to his home soil.

In the seminar I taught, I invited each of the participants, from 8-10 different nations, to look inside and identify the cultural traits they have inherited, as well as those they have chosen. We all have choices when it comes to our culture, and our lives are waiting to be enriched as we learn to reject the negative aspects of our culture and embrace the beautiful things -- of our own as well as other cultures.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Old Country

Some people might wonder why World to the Wise cultural tours have been exclusively to European destinations (so far).  The 2010 tour took us to England, France and the Netherlands, and this year’s tour saw us in Italy, France and England. While there are many, many other destinations that hold our interest (and perhaps yours as well), there are a number of reasons we have chosen to focus initially and primarily on Europe.

As Caucasian Americans, my wife and I both recognize that our roots lie almost entirely in Europe. By blood, I am actually not a Durham; my father, whose surname was originally Oatis, was adopted by an aunt who had married a man named Durham. Still, there are strong Anglo-Saxon lines in my family, as well as German. My mother’s maiden name was Knox, as in John Knox, the great Scottish church reformer. When I am in Europe, I feel a sense of connectedness, as if I were visiting grandparents I never knew. Although cultural differences abound -– both between American and European cultures and among European cultures themselves –- many “aha moments” are waiting for Americans who seek to understand their own culture better.

It also doesn’t hurt that I have lived in Europe for a total of twelve years, have friendships and contacts there from the last 30 years, and that all the languages I speak are European languages. This greatly facilitates the tours, as I’m sure any of the participants will attest. As I said earlier, there are countless other places on this planet of ours we would like to discover and/or take others to see -- for example, we hope to organize a third-world experience for Americans in the not-too-distant future (Haiti, perhaps?) –- but much of my heart, as well as much understanding of where we have come from as a culture, lies in what for many of us is The Old Country.

Tell us about your experiences visiting the land(s) of your ancestors.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


We have just wrapped up the 2012 World to the Wise cultural tour. My wife Becky and I said goodbye to some perhaps travel-weary but no less satisfied people at Heathrow airport, while we prepared to take a few days in the Midlands and Lake District to decompress.

One of the most gratifying moments at each destination was seeing their faces when confronted with the wonders of human achievement. In Rome, for example, as soon as you come out of the metro (what Americans call subway), BAM! the Coliseum towers above you like a toothy-grinned giant. Nothing can prepare you for its imposing presence. In Paris, we took the metro from the right bank headed south; at a certain point, the train that is mostly underground becomes overground, and BAM! the Eiffel Tower looms larger than life over the Seine and the great city it adorns.

One's senses would have to be entirely dulled not to appreciate these wonders; many other things, however -- some more subtle -- awaited discovery and marveling. The gentle hills of Tuscany, home to countless olive groves and vineyards; the reminders from the Renaissance that changed the course of human history; or the awe-inspiring majesty of St. Peter's Basilica or Westminster Abbey drew more gapes and gasps than I could count.

The next few posts on this blog will be musings on this life-changing experience -- an experience which sharpens and cultivates what I like to call marvelability.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In just three days from this writing, a dozen curious souls will wing their way to an adventure of a lifetime. The 2012 World to the Wise Cultural Tour kicks off on Tuesday, June 5, and you're invited to come along via the photos, blog posts and vlogs we'll be posting. Follow us here on this blog or on Facebook ("like" the World to the Wise page while you're there!) -- and who knows, maybe you'll be among those who join us for the next great adventure.

We'll begin in Rome, the "Eternal City", then train to Pisa. Our Tuscan hosts, the Ammirabbile family, will then pick us up and take us to our home base for the next five days in the village of Montespertoli, a half hour outside Florence. After reveling in the Renaissance and Tuscan cuisine, we'll make a brief stop in the mythical canal city of Venice. An overnight sleeper train will take us from there to Paris, the City of Lights, where we'll take in as much as our senses can handle, followed by a five-day stay in London. We'll include a day trip to Oxford, along with some of the quintessential sights and experiences that British culture has to offer -- Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, cream tea, the Globe Theatre, and a spectacular performance of Les Misérables in the West End theatre district.

We look forward to sharing our impressions and experiences with you! To receive regular updates in your e-mail box, just sign up on this site!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Two-Thirds World

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you know I am an avid proponent of overseas travel. Not so much to see how many of the world's great beaches you can enjoy, but primarily to expand your cultural horizons. I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Vanderbilt University Virtual School, a wonderful program that uses video conferencing technology to reach middle school and high school students all over the US and beyond. My assigned topic was "Travel as Cultural Education", and even though my audience in this case was middle schoolers, I gave them plenty to look forward to, encouraging them to think about how they could take advantage of opportunities to broaden their cultural landscape.

This summer my wife and I are leading a group of primarily high school students to three European countries. We take great delight in helping Americans discover new cultures, languages, and, of course, this means people. But I also like to challenge young people in another direction: spending time in the two-thirds world. What we mean by this term is the fact that two-thirds of our world still lives in conditions that almost any American would consider substandard, whether it be lack of indoor plumbing, running water, or other commodities most Westerners consider indispensable.

What does this look like? The possibilities are too numerous to mention here, but one does not have to go far to find the two-thirds world. The poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti, is in our back yard, a two-hour flight from Miami. You get off the plane and feel as though you're in Africa in many ways. Then there is Visiting Orphans, the organization my daughter-in-law works for that facilitates visits to orphanages in developing countries. It would be difficult to overstress the importance of getting outside one's familiar surroundings to see how "the other half" lives -- and what better time than while you're still young. Bluntly put, it is better to see how spoiled one is early on. If used properly, this experience can help shape our decisions and lifestyle for the rest of our lives.

Are you or do you have a graduating senior? Perhaps the best gift you can give them is an opportunity to see how (part of) the rest of the world lives and thinks.