Gaining a better understanding of “The Full Catastrophe” that is modern Greece…

Quick.  What do Donald Trump and many right-wing politicians in Greece have in common?  Answer: they both seek to attract attention to themselves and deflect attention from other pressing national problems by focusing on the issue of illegal immigration.

This is just one of the insights I gained from reading The Full Catastrophe:  Travel Among the New Greek Ruins, by James Angelos (Crown Publishers, 2015).  Angelos, an American journalist whose parents are Greek, has published with this volume a pertinent and insightful evaluation of the current situation in Greece, where overwhelming debt and a faltering economy have brought the future of the entire European Union and its currency into question.

I won’t pretend to understand or explain all the economic and political considerations at play in the modern drama that is Greece.  I will instead refer you to this excellent book, which goes a long way towards making obscure headlines immediate and personal.  Through a series of vignettes that look at everything from pension fraud to tax evasion to illegal immigration, Angelos takes the reader on a thoughtful and clearly explained journey through the contemporary Greek landscape.  He uses interviews with a wide variety of Greeks, from top politicians to recent Somalian refugees, to paint a picture of a country struggling to reconcile deeply embedded cultural beliefs and practices, strongly felt views about historical events, and the expectations of the greater European and world community.

I have often pointed out on this blog that I believe we would function better as a society if we truly understood our history.  This book makes a strong case for the importance of that in every part of the world.  For example, while I knew from a cursory reading of the headlines that there was a deep animosity between Greek borrowers and their predominantly German creditors, I didn’t necessarily grasp how much of that is informed by a strong sense that Germany has still not apologized sufficiently, nor made amends for, atrocities committed during World War II.  That the Greek right-wing party I alluded to earlier, Golden Dawn, adopts many Nazi symbols and beliefs as part of its platform is a reminder that we ignore the past at our peril.

I picked up this book because I am fascinated by other countries and cultures.  I wouldn’t call it a travel book, though it does give you an excellent feel for present-day Greek life and culture beyond the tourist attractions.  Angelos’ Greek background lends it a particular sympathy and understanding that makes the book an important supplement to random headlines.  If you have an interest in Europe, politics, economics, or just how other people view the world, I strongly recommend it.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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On time travels both real and literary…

For the last few weeks I’ve been traveling, both literally and figuratively.  Back in May, my high school/junior high best friend, Deb, and I concocted a road trip that would serve two purposes:  she would deliver some antique family furniture to her sister-in-law in Colorado who had recently moved back to the United States from abroad, and I would drop in on my youngest child in Oakland.  To accomplish this, I flew to Portland (where Deb lives), we loaded up her CR-V, and off we went!

There are many things I love about traveling with Deb.  She has a delightful sense of humor, is relaxed and low-key, likes to try new foods wherever we are, is always up for an adventure, and doesn’t snore.  She also shares with me a love of history, which makes travels with her even more fun.  We started our trip by following the Lewis and Clark trail up the Columbia River Gorge, then picked up the Oregon Trail in Idaho and across Wyoming until we had to drop down into Denver.  We searched for trail ruts, visited museums, and reflected on how grateful we were that we didn’t have to walk across the prairie in the 100 degree heat!  After delivering the furniture, we took a detour south to Mesa Verde, where we tackled the ranger led “adventure tour” to the Balcony House cliff dwellings. We climbed 32 foot ladders, clambered up steps carved into the cliff face, crawled through narrow tunnels, and gazed at 800 year old hand prints.  After our day with the Ancestral Puebloans, we headed back north to the California Trail, crossing Utah, Nevada, and northern California while marveling at the emigrants who crossed scorching deserts only to have to hoist themselves over the Sierra Nevada.  After a lovely dinner with my youngest in Oakland, we picked up the Pacific Coast Highway, ending our trip with a couple of breathtaking days along the California and Oregon coast, including a retro feeling drive through the Redwoods.

Walking in the wagon trail ruts and footsteps of 19th century emigrants or balancing on the edge of 13th century cliff paths are about as close to “real” time travel as you can get, and they are the types of experiences that bring me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the past.  History intruded on our trip in other ways.  The night before our day in Mesa Verde we stayed in Durango, and witnessed first hand the ecological disaster that was the Animas River spill: on Thursday night it was beautiful and clear, on Friday morning it was orange and frighteningly ugly.  The mining industry that played such an important part in Colorado’s early mountain economy continues to influence our present day reality, whether we like it or not.

While traveling, I – of course – was also reading.  I didn’t particularly choose the theme of time travel, but by coincidence all three books that spanned my travel weeks shared that characteristic.  I started with Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis (Random House, 2010).  The premise of these sci-fi novels is that historians in 2060 Oxford, England, are able to literally travel in time in order to “observe” past events.  In these books, three young university students, Eileen (Merope), Mike (Michael), and Polly are “dropped” in 1940 England during the Blitz and Dunkirk.  When the “drops” that are supposed to allow them to return to Oxford won’t open, they are stuck in a terrifying and pivotal time, and for 1,000 plus pages we see them trying to figure out how to survive and escape.

I don’t usually read science fiction, but these books were suggested to me by my sister and nephew because of the history theme and because the author is a Coloradoan.  I was a bit uncertain at first.  I found myself annoyed by things like illegible telephone messages as the historians are preparing to travel into the past (I mean, it’s 2060, surely they have text messaging and cell phones?!).  But the characters and time period are compelling, and I became enthralled by the stranded historians’ predicament.  A few hundred pages into the second volume I experienced a recurrence of annoyance, when it felt like there was entirely too much “if only I had…” going on.  I do think the books could have benefited from a bit more editing, but by the end I decided that I had enjoyed the ride.  I really did get a feel for how World War II played out in England, and the premise was creative and engaging.

I also did some literary time travel with the novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (Random House, 2014).  This is my book group’s current selection, and I’m looking forward to the discussion this weekend.  While I ended up enjoying Blackout and All Clear well enough, I loved this one!  The writing is exquisite, with a tautness and precision that communicates desolation and hope in equal measure.  Moving between a dystopian future where 99% of humanity has died off from a pandemic and the present, this novel explores the ways in which we are all connected, and reminds the reader of the miracles we take for granted in our everyday lives.  The future of Station Eleven is one my grandparents might actually recognize and relate to more than my present reality, which makes it a thoughtful and provocative read.

I’ve always felt we would fare better as a society if more of us could really engage with history.  My trips, both the real ones and the literary ones, reminded me that our present very much reflects the decisions and actions of those who came before us, and that we in turn have an obligation to consider those lessons as we make our own decisions.  Which leads me to a seemingly disparate but I propose relevant conclusion:  please, America, please…do NOT elect Donald Trump president!