Finding My Way

Life beats on in Mons with hardly a second to reflect. The daily routine, though familiar and occasionally comforting, demands constant movement: I wake up to the early misty mornings, arrive at the bus stop at exactly the same time every day, see the barbed wire fences come into view atop the hill heading out of Mons, pass through security, and recite the daily catechism, "Bonjour. Merci. Bonne Journee." Another day has begun. Then there's coffee from a machine, a warm croissant, and a short walk from the cafeteria, past the bunker, to the office. Indeed, the routine is comforting because it creates its own customs, making life in a foreign place manageable and familiar. But the routine also robs me of the seemingly endless hours I once had to read and think and ponder and write.

There is an interesting world to be discovered at the workplace, no doubt. There are soldiers of varying ranks, a cadre of interns, and contractors from everywhere you can imagine. Stand in the copy room long enough and you'll meet everyone from janitors to generals, each with his (most likely not her) own pleasantries to exchange. Working in an international office is nice for all the reasons people usually say it is, and yet I miss the life of the mind that seems to be missing.

Writing this post right now is a luxury as there are groceries to be bought and papers to be organized and cleaning to be done. There is also sleep to be had. If there's anything I'm learning right now aside from managing people, assignments, and expectations, it's that I need to be patient with myself. Life beats on in Mons and I'm doing my best to balance everything while finding my way.

America The Marvelous

I heartily enjoyed this article, and how timely a week before I leave for old Europe. As my friend aptly commented, "Europeans tend to forget they have their own Honey Boo Boos. It's not all Proust over there." Here's an excerpt:

"Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people." I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can't remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don't need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I've heard this cock crow so often I don't even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief - no, the knowledge - that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America's medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations' and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.

Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It's embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It's about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized Continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world's best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren't everything, and America's aren't all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)

And are Americans emotionally dim, naïve, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn't understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It's not irony that America lacks; it's cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony.

America is Europe's finest invention."

Slightly Eccentric

The EU has won the Nobel Peace Prize for "having contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." One UK politician called the choice "slightly eccentric." The European Union, with its roots in the European Economic Community (EEC), was started as a peace project aimed at ending war in Europe forever by uniting nations and their people, but is that what it accomplished? And what is it now? Here's one answer:

"Daftest of all is the notion that the EU itself has kept the peace. It was the Allies led by the Americans, the Russians and the British who defeated and disarmed the Germans in 1945. The German people then underwent the most extraordinary reckoning, transforming their country into an essentially pacifist society. The EU had very little to do with it.
Throughout that period it was Nato, led by the Americans and British, which kept the peace in Western Europe. The American taxpayer picked up most of the resulting tab, and the British paid a significant part of the bill too.
Under this defence umbrella, the federalists who wanted to reconstruct the notion of Carolingian Empire which dominated 9th century Europe, created what we have come to know and love as the EU. Of course there are advantages in what they constructed – the single market and easier travel, making the South of France and Tuscany more accessible.
But they also built an appallingly designed single currency, a horlicks of an agricultural policy and rapacious bureaucracy determined to stifle the nation state in the name of utopian, unachievable continent-wide homogeneity. And at every turn those driving it looked for ways to outwit the democratic will."

Some people have called the prize a "confidence boost" at a time when the merits of the union are being called into question. Isn't that a bit like giving a gold star to a student who is failing? What are your opinions? Here's a pro article from Die Zeit (German language) and a con article from The Telegraph (cited in part above). And here's a longer article on the EU crisis from Foreign Affairs if you're interested.

The Greek Saga

Over the weekend, European leaders decided to give Greece a rescue package of nearly one trillion dollars to combat their debt crisis. With that gigantic package came austerity measures worth about 48 billion dollars, which include, among other things, public sector pay cuts, higher taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, and tighter retirement rules (NYTimes). The protests in Athens and other cities in Greece are led by angry public sector employees who don't want to pay for their government's mess. The BBC reports, "The unions regard the austerity programme as a declaration of war against the working and middle classes . . . their resolve is strengthened by their belief that this crisis has been engineered by external forces, such as international speculators and European central bankers."

To some extent this is true. "The spark for this financial crisis has been decades of overspending and cooking of the public books" (WSJ). However, as the Wall Street Journal also points out, there are deeper underlying causes. For example, it's hard to do business in Greece -- "The Doing Business survey reveals an economy that's hostile to free enterprise and private property, primed for corruption, lacking in labor and capital mobility, stifled by powerful trade unions and unlikely to grow without deep-rooted changes."

When Greece joined the European Union in 1981, it was far behind the rest of the member countries, but they promised to institute reforms to catch up. They were supposed to grow their economy, increase transparency, and make entrepreneurship facile, but they never did. Low-cost borrowing was so much easier, and the people seemed to be happy with their way of life. They knew their new European partners wouldn't let them down, and as we now see, they were right.

"As a euro member, Greece no longer has the option of debasing its currency, which was one of the main arguments for creating and joining the euro bloc. This means the burden of adjustment for years of borrowing is now falling on the Greek government, which is where it rightly belongs" (WSJ). The Greek citizens marching on the streets have a right to be angry at their criminal government, but to whom else should the burden fall? From the perspective of other Europeans, "the Mediterranean coupling of high living and low productivity" was never sustainable. In other European countries, particularly Germany, the average retirement age is a whole ten years higher than it is in Greece, and understandably, their attitude toward the protesters is tinged with some anger and annoyance.

Plenty of people wanted to let Greece default (one example). On principle, I wanted to let Greece default. I guess we all knew that wasn't going to happen. At this point the only option is to wait and see if Greece will get its act together and keep its promises, and if the PIIGS can wean themselves off the slop. I don't think a bailout will work in the long run, and I'm pretty sure the nauseating show of greed, corruption, and profligacy will continue. Plenty of others are as pessimistic, although some facetiously allow for the possibility of "a miraculous global boom in olives and Greek cruises." Going forward, we should keep in mind that the implications of this Greek tragedy go far beyond economics.