Browsed by
Category: Europe

Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

During our time in Athens, I explained to a number of Greeks that, as a history teacher, Athens was a pretty special place to me. I had always wanted to come here. I spent a lot of time sitting around pondering the history of democracy.

Athens Will Contemplating

 

Here I can be seen at what’s left of the Theater of Dionysus looking out at the stage where western theater was born. Sophocles and Aristophanes scripted plays that were performed here. As one historian put it, the Greek dramas don’t tell us much about daily life but they give us insight into the spirit of the people. Art. It’s not overrated.

Athens theater

 

Down the street is this much larger complex built for concerts and recently renovated for use during the Olympics.

athens music spot

 

I also thought a lot about the benefits and excesses of Democracy. In other countries we’ve visited we’ve seen grand ruins that served only the rulers of an empire. In Greece, the monuments are almost all public buildings. But Democracies are far from perfect. Here is the jail where Socrates awaited his death. Athens had recently lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. They had lost standing as a major power and they were angry about it. And angry nations can do crazy things. Like kill the founder of Western philosophy. Maybe the most rational man of all time.

Athens Socrates jail

 

Of course, the most enduring symbol of Athens is the Parthenon. Unfortunately, the front is currently under renovation.

Athens parthenon

 

But the back still looks pretty cool. Notice how it seems to swell as it rises instead of tapering like most tall things? That impressive feeling it gives off? That’s not an accident. There are a series of optical refinements to create the sense of an enhanced perfection. The corner columns are wider than the others. The horizontal line across the top is actually slightly curved. And each pillar is sculpted to bulge slightly in the middle. Geometry. Finding real world application since 438BC.

Athens parthenon back

 

The Parthenon was meant to display the might of Athens and project the superiority of its democratic system. But the heart of its democracy is tucked on the side of a park, hidden from most tourist maps. Here is the assembly where the property owning men of Athens would meet to debate and vote on the laws they would live under. Early in the Peloponnesian War Pericles stood on the orator’s platform on the right and gave one of the most thorough defenses of Democracy ever argued. He talked about how, in Athens, the power was in the hands of the many and that there was equal justice for all. He spoke of how a man was judged for his merit and not by his birth. Anyone could rise from poverty to greatness. He talked about the benefits of being an open society eager to learn from the world. He bragged that this was a city where citizens could trust one another and did good because of civic duty. I stood in this spot for a while, as I do, and thought about how hubris led to the decline of Athens. I dwelled how long the world went without a Democracy before the American Revolution. Democracy is delicate, not to be taken for granted. I think, in America, we may be forgetting that.

history of democracy

 

There’s slightly more recent history in Greece too. Like this hill where Elizabeth is standing near the acropolis. This is where St. Paul gave his first sermon and essentially launched Christianity as an up-and-comer religion. A few days before this we stood here and watched New Year’s Eve fireworks above the acropolis. That was pretty cool…

Athens Liz and Paul history of democracy

 

Even if you’re not interested in history, there’s still plenty to do in Athens. The gyros are awesome (much better than in Turkey). The ouzo is delicious. And there are so many great hills for sunset, you could hike a different one every night of the week.

Athens Sunset

The islands get all the buzz for traveling Greece, and I’m sure they’re great. But Athens is pretty cool too, especially for anyone interested in emotionally connecting with the foundations of western civilization.

  • Will

For more reflections, specifically about American democracy, you can check out this post about my reflections after running around the National Mall in DC.

Also, this in descript case at a museum is one of the coolest things we saw in Greece. It’s crazy these things still exist. Conspiracy, Betrayal. War… For full context you may wan to check out this documentary.

Athens Themistocles history of democracy

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

To plan the Italy portion of our trip, we leaned on the recommendations of our friend Stephanie who had lived here for many years. Her endorsement of Venice was unqualified, “Venice is the only place I’ve ever been that can’t be captured in photographs. The Greek islands are beautiful, but they basically look like the photographs. Being in Venice is an experience.”

I decided to take her comment as a challenge. Over our 10 days in Venice, I set out to capture the essence of the place in photos.

Of course, the first thing people think of when they hear ‘Venice’ are the canals. They’re not overrated. There are no wheeled vehicles on these islands, not even bicycles, and that reality lays the foundation for a truly unique setting.

vebice canal

 

At night the bridges are even more charming, and the streetlights flicker in the water.

venice brideg

 

The shops that line the narrow streets are as much a part of Venice as anything else. You can’t talk about the essence of this place without mentioning affordable Italian leather handbags.

venice shopping

 

Or elaborate masquerade items.

venetian masks

 

There are scores  of fine dining establishments, but if we’re talking about the essence of the Venice, it’s the piles of baguettes in street windows that come to mind first. Though the spaghetti with clams, at pretty much any restaurant, is incredible as well.

venice food

 

We loved how the narrow and angular streets open into irregularly shaped squares with very little warning.

venice square

 

The grandest square is around St. Mark’s Basilica.

venice outside st marks

 

And the Byzantine style, gold leafed interior speaks to the opulence of this place like nothing else.

venice st marks

 

Great art is also woven into the essence of Venice. The consistency of the quality and the shear scale of the canvasses surpasses anything we’ve seen in or outside of Europe. See how tiny Elizabeth looks at the bottom of this photo?

Venice tintoretto

 

Of course, you can’t talk about capturing Venice without at least one photo of a winged lion. Coolest city mascot ever!

venice lion

 

The view from this bridge down the street from our hotel became my favorite view in the city. I love how the streetlight also serves as a lighthouse.

venice light 2

 

Now, I know I’ve failed miserably in my attempt to capture the essence of Venice. But I think it was worth a shot. We loved our time here, and it’s in the running for our favorite place of the trip. Spending time here truly is an experience. Still its essence remains elusive. In photos Venice will always be a place shrouded by fog on the other side of a grand canal.

venice fog

  • Will
Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

 “You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.

“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”

Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.

There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.

desk at school in switzerland

Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.

We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.

Swiss School 02

He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.

At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.

It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.

 

On Comfort Zones

On Comfort Zones

No doubt – Africa was an awesome experience. Between the landscape, the people, the wildlife, and the history – it was a travel experience I will never forget. But by the time we were leaving Malawi, headed for Zanzibar, I was feeling homesick. I was sick of the food, the mosquitos and the heat were getting to me, and the Paris attacks had just added an extra melancholy to being far from home. I fantasized about getting on a plane to the US instead of Italy.

Two weeks later, we flew from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Rome. Upon checking into our hostel and taking a walk through the streets, I felt euphoric. I was back in my comfort zone. We got a cappuccino and a croissant. We took a meandering city walk. We had pasta and wine for dinner. The windows closed and we didn’t need a mosquito net. We could log on to Netflix again. I felt a little guilty to admit it… but being in my comfort zone was AWESOME.

Eastern Africa had me uncomfortable in ways that were both tedious and perspective enhancing. I missed coffee that isn’t instant and milk that needs to be refrigerated. I missed always feeling appropriately dressed. I missed being able to wander city streets and explore without being hassled to buy tourist trinkets. I missed the predictability – of not having to haggle, of reliable electricity, of consistent expectations on public transportation.

Comfort zones get a bad rap when you are doing anything adventurous or challenging – whether it’s traveling or moving ahead in your career or meeting new people. Your comfort zone is where you DON’T want to be if you are looking for an exciting, meaningful, learning-filled life. No one says “yeah, I’m looking to stay in my comfort zone on this next adventure.”

where-the-magic-happens-3
Just because the magic happens outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean your comfort zone isn’t also magical.

But this makes comfort zones seem like bad places, when really they play an important role in the journey. Your comfort zone is where you regroup. It’s where you process what has been difficult and prepare for the next challenge. It’s hard to be uncomfortable all the time – everybody needs a reprieve once in a while.

Traveling for a year is a huge gift and privilege. But without moments in my comfort zone (for example, the 6+ weeks we spent in western Europe over Christmas) I wouldn’t be able to appreciate and process everything I’ve learned while outside my comfort zone. And I certainly wouldn’t be ready for the next chapter – India and Southeast Asia – if I remained outside a familiar culture straight through the trip.

I guess this all to say: you should definitely get outside your comfort zone and explore things unknown to you. Being uncomfortable is a good thing. It’s also okay to relish feeling at home.