The Professor winced when he got out of his flight capsule.  He had to keep reminding himself of how crucial his assignment was, that every little bit counted.  No matter how hopeless it seemed.

“Remember, you’re doing sacred work, Henrik,” he muttered under his breath.

A rag-tag crowd of natives was already beginning to gather, gawking at his ship. A few of them cheered and applauded, but most just stared, stone-faced.

Naomi bounded out to meet him.  She looked energetic as ever, no matter how much human misery she witnessed on a daily basis.

“Thank you for agreeing to come here, sir,” she said after hugging him. “This is a rough area.”

“Rough areas are my job,”  he replied, his Swedish accent making the word “job” softer. Not all of his colleagues at World United agreed that the charity missions to Merka were worthwhile. He couldn’t blame them.  Visiting a place like New York wasn’t too bad–it was quaint with all the red brick, and the traffic-clogged streets and old-fashioned subways, but one still felt connected to civilization.  Out here, though….

“What part of Virginia are we in again?”  he whispered to Naomi.

“Western Virginia, sir,”  she whispered back.

The Merkans continued to eye him with suspicion, but they also started quietly lining up, knowing that a World United flight meant food and aid packages for them.  It was a heart-wrenching sight: a long line of silent, ragged figures, pretending to be too proud to care about the hand-out they were waiting for.

But Naomi was beaming at him. “We’ve got something very special lined up for you today, sir.”

He gave her a weary smile.  She led him carefully down the steps from the landing pad, and then down a narrow, uneven sidewalk, manoeuvering him past a large pothole.  On the other side of the street was a row of the typical small shacks Merkans lived in, holes covered with blue tarp, walls stained by the smoke from the town factory.  He could sense the residents peering at him from their doorways, but they were blocked from approaching him by a mix of local police and World United security.

They stopped underneath a flashing blue sign which read Debbie’s Cafe.

“We wanted to treat you to the best Virginia has to offer,”  Naomi said, showing him to a table on the side patio of the cafe. A server immediately jogged up with a styrofoam tray of greasy fries.

He would never admit it to anyone back in Europe, but Henrik enjoyed some of these exotic Merkan foods quite a bit. They never did switch to the health service diet over here. Of course, they never did get a decent health service, either.

Naomi interrupted his fascination with the fries when she tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to a red-headed boy who had climbed a small podium and positioned himself behind a cheap portable keyboard.

After an announcement by a community center music teacher which Henrik didn’t pay attention to, the boy began to play.

It was a halting but graceful version of the old Cohen classic, Hallelujah. As the sounds melted away into the humid Merkan afternoon, Henrik was once again overcome with wonder. It was here, among these simple people in their slums, that he could find something akin to spiritual enlightenment.  He breathed it in.

The kid was talented.  He listened for a while with his eyes closed.  After the song stopped, the teacher and Naomi clapped with great enthusiasm.  Henrik walked up to congratulate the young musician, and the gaunt and nervous mother hovering behind him.

Henrik shook the boy’s hand. “Excellent job!  That was amazing!”  he said.  “Would you please give me your contact info?  I could get you a visa for anywhere in the Northern World Region.  You could study music at a real university.  What do you think, huh?”

The boy blushed and gazed at the ground.

His mother looked even more nervous. “I don’t know about that, mister,”  she said.  “I listen to the radio news and they’ve explained all about World United.  It might not be so good for him.”

He should’ve known. He had heard this so many times before. “Surely he won’t be able to get any real music training here, is he?”

“If we work hard and we save our money up, we might be able to get there,”  the woman said.  “At least here in Merka, we have the freedom to try.  My child isn’t going to be oppressed by a one world socialist government.”

“He wouldn’t have to live there forever,”  Henrik explained.  “And he would be free to make his own choices…”

“Yeah, if he chooses to be a gay snowflake,”  the woman shot back. “Look, his teacher wanted him to perform for you today, so I let him perform.  But I’m not letting you take him anywhere. We’re still the best country in the world.  I don’t care what anybody else says.”

The professor suspected that he was getting at least some of this hostility courtesy of his dark skin. The white Merkan natives always seemed to have an issue with that.

“That’s right.”  An older man standing nearby nodded vigorously.  Henrik couldn’t tell if he was a father or a grandfather. Most of his teeth were missing, his body bent from a lifetime of grueling labor.  “That’s right.  I thank God every day that I was lucky enough to be born in Merka.”

“Living in the rest of the world is not quite the nightmare you imagine it to be,”  Henrik said.  “We lead very normal lives.”

“Nope.  Nice try, but you can’t fool us,”  the woman said. “I listen to the Han Stannity show every day.  Good man.  He gives us all the information about what really goes on over there–how they tax you to death, how the only way you can get medical care is through the government…”

Her son stared at her, wide-eyed.

“We know the truth!”  the woman finished triumphantly.

Henrik bowed to her and her son.  “I suppose if you’ve found out the truth about us, there’s not much I can do to persuade you otherwise.  I wish you all the best for your future, young man.”  For a moment, his mask of politeness slipped.  “With all due respect, though, Han Stannity is a complete moron.”

He turned and slowly walked away.

“You can go fuck yourself!  You and your country!”  He could hear the woman screaming after him. “We will bomb the shit out of you!”

That would have been a scary threat, Henrik thought. A scary threat…about fifty years or so ago.

Naomi was waiting for him, her face drawn, her hands folded together.  “That was so disappointing, Henrik. I’ll have one of the event organizers speak to them.”

The professor waved his arms. “No, no, don’t.  It’s not necessary.”

He sat down and went back to sipping his beer. Now that the woman was done screaming, she and her family began making their way to the World United food and medicine distribution point.  There would also be doctors available there to give them free medical and dental exams.

He didn’t feel any anger as he watched these fiery warriors for liberty rushing to claim assistance from the institution they so hated.  He realized their fist shaking fury was a symptom of their total powerlessness.

He smiled at Naomi across the table.  “Please, don’t look so anxious, my dear.  I have never lost faith in the value of our mission.”

“It just breaks my heart that a man like you, who only wants to help others, gets treated like this.”

This would be the perfect time to hop on his return flight back to Stockholm.  In fact, it was way overdue.  He was done with this place.

“Naomi, this isn’t all about me helping them.  The truth is, these people help me.  They help me find gratitude–gratitude for what we’ve got in the rest of the world.”

And as she waved a tearful goodbye to him and he climbed back up to his flying ship, he added to himself:

“Where else could I go to feel this superior?”

 

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I really do hope everyone is having a great holiday season, actually.  But as we get ready for 2016, another terror warning has gone out, with ISIS expected to strike again somewhere in Europe before New Year’s Eve.

We are being advised–by security experts, naturally–that it will not be safe to join any large gatherings.  But really, who knows?  It might not be safe to join any small gatherings, either.  In fact, it might be safest not to go out at all.

So don’t mind me.  I’ll be celebrating New Year’s Eve in the blanket fort in my bedroom.  I’ll barricade myself in and will play Donald Trump speeches on a loop, the ones in which he assures us that when he becomes President, he will ban anyone who looks different and scary.  That should solve the problem.  What’s that…what if I end up being too different and have to go?  Who said I was thinking that far ahead?

Or…that’s what I would be doing if I wanted to live in fear.  But I can’t give up celebrating my favorite holiday, even if the world is about to end.  In case Daesh cares, my friends and I are going to be at some Portland bar tomorrow night, doing decadent, impure things.  As one does on New Year’s Eve.  Have an amazing 2016, everyone!

I was in the back of the car, perched on a pile of bedding and blankets. My parents were sitting in front, glancing about anxiously. We were crossing the border.

We had left Poland a couple days before. Our visa to Holland was good for a vacation visit of a few weeks, but my parents–although I didn’t know it yet at the time–were planning to overstay it. They actively opposed the Communist government in Poland, and this was causing us more and more problems. So off we went, with a little bit of money in our pocket, our black cocker spaniel at my mother’s feet on the passenger side, and our green VW bug packed to the brim with our possessions. Funny thing is, at the time our Volkswagen seemed like a giant car compared to the little Fiats many Poles were driving.

And here we were, crossing from East Germany into the West, and it was scary. Our car was so overloaded that it crawled along, and we feared that it would overheat and die at the border crossing, which would have gotten us in serious trouble. It didn’t help that there were guard towers at the side of the road with armed soldiers inside of them. Our baggage was thoroughly searched, and then–with a huge sigh of relief–we were through.

Europe has come such a long way since then. I still remember how excited we were when Poland became a member nation of the European Union. Now it really felt like we would be a part of Europe, and hopefully wouldn’t go back to being one of Russia’s satellites. It was also a moment of pride for us when Donald Tusk, an ex-Prime Minister of Poland, was chosen to be President of the European Council.

The internal borders of Europe are now a different place. There is free movement between countries. The younger generation of Poland can live in Spain or Scotland if they so choose (and if they can find a job there). My uncle now lives and works in London. I would not want to go back to the severe restrictions of the past.

Yet the tragic events in Paris this week have sparked a conversation about precisely that. Some countries are discussing the possibility of changing the rules of the Schengen Treaty–which established freedom of movement in the European Union–and bringing back border checkpoints. I’ve also heard American journalists express surprise over the lack of border searches between, say, France and Belgium. I’m not sure those reporters understand how the concept of the EU is supposed to work. Europe is trying to be a united community–although this process has come with many problems–so what they are suggesting would be a bit like having checkpoints between American states. Sure, it might make things safer if we were searched when entering California from Oregon, but I suspect it would also change the way the people in different states view each other.

So will the terrorist attacks in France lead to a tightening of controls in Europe, much like the 9/11 attacks did in America? I would be sad to see this happen, especially if the European continent regressed to being a more divided place. Let’s hope we can find less drastic solutions to the terrorism question.

Here’s how a workplace conversation went for me a few months ago:

“Hey, what’s that? Oh…a book about the Warsaw Ghetto?”

“Um…yeah. You know, just a little light summer reading.”

“Why? Is it because you broke up with your boyfriend? Are you depressed?”

Lately, I’ve been on a reading binge about the history of my native country, Poland. I was only eleven when I left, so I’ve never examined Polish history with adult eyes. Yes, that means reading about World War II and the Holocaust. Yes, these are dark subjects. But life can be dark. Part of understanding myself is understanding where I come from, and my psyche comes from the sick and twisted European continent of the twentieth century, with its totalitarian regimes and its spilled blood. There’s no getting away from that.

However, I find myself becoming self-conscious about how everyone else might view me as I lug around these stories of doom. Will they indeed think I’m depressed? Crazy? Emotionally unstable? Now I only pull my books out of my backpack when the lunchroom is relatively empty, and I don’t spot anyone I know nearby. To my dismay, I’ve realized that I would be a lot less embarrassed if I was caught reading a cheesy romance novel, because at least that would be considered normal. A romance novel wouldn’t get me suspicious looks.

Or worse. On a recent train ride to work, I was reading Architects of Annihilation by Gotz Aly, a truly chilling work which examines how Nazi technocrats decided that killing millions of people was justified, based on perfectly “rational” economic policy. The cover design of the book includes a swastika–and this prompted the guy across from me to lean in and enthusiastically explain to me how much he admired Hitler. I literally wanted to crawl under my seat. He finished his tribute with: “And you know what I really love about him? His brutality. He knew that sometimes you have to resolve things in an ugly way, man.”

At this point, his girlfriend hastily shushed him and pulled him off the train. The girlfriend was comical in her own right. She was clearly mortified that he was saying all these things in public, yet had no problem being with a guy who gets a hard-on from the Fuhrer’s brutality in the first place. All of a sudden, the fact that Charles Manson is getting married was no longer such a mystery to me.

Anyway, I’ve come up with a solution to help me continue my history studies with minimum trouble. I’m going to make a fake cover to wrap my library books in, preferably one with a picture of a buff Fabio on it. That way, everyone can breathe easy and assume that I’m having happy fantasies about my future boyfriend. And with not a single serious thought in my head, as it should be.

My Dutch friend is coming to visit and I am so very excited.  We haven’t seen each other in many years–we went to high school together.  I suppose we will now see just how much of an obnoxious American I’ve turned into, in spite of my blog name.  We have had a few long conversations on the phone, and there were some predictable cultural differences which popped up, but also some things which surprised me…

That my friend is a big environmentalist *didn’t* surprise me, as this is pretty standard in Europe.  In fact, her work in Holland is as a sort of environmental/sustainability coach.  When her family and she visit the States, they almost always use Amtrak and they bicycled around New York City.  Have I mentioned that they visit the States a lot?  Yep, the Dutch get a lot more vacation time…grrrr.  My friend has seen a lot more of America than I have.  I have warned her ahead of time that we are living the typical suburban American lifestyle, with a giant carbon footprint.  She confided in me that she secretly loves cars.

Like most Europeans, my friend is weirded out by how many guns there are in this country.  However, we also discussed the other extreme.  Not only is it illegal in Holland to carry a gun or a knife with you for self-defense, there is apparently a law there which makes it illegal to help defend anyone who is being attacked, even if it’s only with your fists.  As a bystander, you are only allowed to call the emergency number–their equivalent of 911–and watch.  Anything beyond that makes you legally responsible for what is considered another assault!  My friend and I agreed that this was ridiculous, and that by the time the police get there, the victim will likely be dead.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear that my friend and her husband sometimes think that the Dutch should be more like Americans.  They like how practical and realistic Americans are, and how hard they work.  So America is still loved and respected by at least some people in the world.  This gave me pause, and reminded me that it’s all too easy to bitch about the place where you live.  Although my friend did mention that as far as income inequity, she wishes things would be “more equal” here.

Well, she arrives tonight, so there is plenty to be done.  I don’t know how much time I will have to blog over the next week–I only have a short week to show off all of the fabulous Portland area to her!  But if there are anymore interesting political and social observations I get out of this culture clash, I will be sure to post them here.

As we continue to grapple with the dilemma of Prism and the NSA observing our lives (or perhaps not–I haven’t heard too much discussion of this lately), the problem of privacy vs. security continues world-wide.  Great Britain has now announced that it will opt out of over a hundred EU regulations, at least for the time being.  One of those new laws has to do with creating a single European DNA database.  On the surface, this sounds good–it will make chasing after criminals across the borders of EU countries easier.  On the other hand, here is yet more opportunity for possible abuse of power, and a single institution having access to a lot of information about its citizens.  Also–and this is what Britain is balking at–it means additional chipping away at the sovereignty of individual countries within the EU.  Especially in connection with something called the European Arrest Warrant, which would allow any EU country to demand the deportation of an accused criminal from a different member country.

Britain says it wants to consider its options before agreeing to these regulations, and I’m thinking it is probably wise to do so.

Once in a while I overhear something on Glenn Beck’s show that leaves me slightly befuddled.  A few weeks ago, Glenn was enthusing over the Avengers and how much he loved the movie.  How Captain America kicked ass, how this was an example of America’s greatness.  And then he said that when he left the movie theater, he thought “Take that, Europe!”

Ummm…so, I hope Glenn realizes that the Avengers is a fictional story?  Yeah, Europe is having a lot of problems right now…but I kind of doubt that Captain America is at the top of their list of issues, unless he is involved in the Greek debt crisis in some way that I’m not aware of.  Economic growth, a stronger military—these are all ways that we can show the world what we’re made of, so to speak.  Imaginary superheroes?  Not so much.  Unless he’s applauding our ability to make superior movie entertainment, in which case, great—but I doubt an entertaining movie will convince the Europeans that we have a better system than they do.

Anyway, just another instance of Glenn unhinging himself from reality just a bit.  Maybe that’s why I like listening to his show, because I can relate to having a delusional side.  Cheers from one lunatic to another….