American Views Abroad

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An impenetrable fog envelops Hamburg today. The lights of neighbors' houses can hardly be seen. Very icy road conditions led to many accidents and warnings even to those just out walking. The Christmas tree, a small one this time bought in another part of town to escape horrendous price gorging, is up decorated not with colored lights but with white fiberglass ones meant to look a bit like doves.

There's an interesting article in this Sunday's Boston Globe on how Christmas is a season of superstition. Among many other tidbits of information the writer informs us 'Whatever you dream on any of the twelve nights between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th) will come to pass within the next year. ' Perhaps it might be best to get to bed early and do lots of serious dreaming, about political candidates, the upcoming primaries and election, the war in Iraq, injustice and intolerance everywhere. Perhaps eggnog or sparkling glasses of wine should be enhanced with a potion to let us dream continuously through these upcoming twelve days of Christmas. To dream what seems to be the impossible dream. But then again, perhaps not?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Reading this weekend's papers gave a very different perspective on Christmas shopping in New York in this season of the fall of the dollar. The IHT was rather brazen with Europeans flaunt their buying power in the US where it proclaimed 'Add a new superlative to New York's long list of titles: world's most fabulous discount mall.' The Sueddeutsche Zeitung had another take on shopping in New York these days. Stress und die City at Christmas Shopping in New York? It's anything other than a winter wonderland, unless, of course, it snows. According to the writer most tourists are flying over to shop, thought they are reluctant to admit it. They are there to take in the museums and to pilgrim to where the World Trade Center once stood and look out over a depressing construction site minus the photos of the victims in a city that is cold and grey. One could book a walking tour that would explain everything about 9/11, but it's cold outside and just across from this site is the number one discount store in New York, Century 21. It seems slightly inappropriate to head immediately over to a shopping highlight after paying one's respects, but that's how things are in New York.

Miracle on 34th Street was on TV last night. New York and the perfect life on the Upper East or West Side during a time when Santa was still allowed to sit pretty little girls on his knee and point out where parents can buy toys at cheaper prices at the competition and, most important, our judicial system was still functioning. The judge might have been bought, but in the end, justice freed Santa. These old films seem from another world these days.

The Island at the Center of the World -- the epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto is delightful to read. 'Sailing silently into the inner harbor, approaching the southern tip of Manhattan Island, the ships glided into a reedy, marshy expanse of tidal wetland, a complicated crossover region of freshwater and marine species........Rising up above the island's reedy shoreline were forested hills: the best guess on the origin of the Indian name that would stick is the Delaware mannahata, 'hilly island', though some have suggested that simply 'the island' or 'the small island' is a more accurate translation. Putting foot to solid ground, the settlers decided they liked what they saw. 'We are much gratified on arriving in this country.' One wrote home. 'Here we found beautiful rivers, bubbling fountains flowing down into the valleys; basins of running waters in the flatlands, agreeable fruits in the woods, such as strawberries, pigeon berries, walnuts, and also .....wild grapes. The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs, and with venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers; good tillage land; here is especially free coming and going, without fear of the naked natives of the country.......'

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The shock came with a too early Christmas card, not sent from North Carolina but from New York City. A very old friend who recently retired from teaching Japanese and history in a good high school in New York chose to move to Boone, North Carolina. He wanted to 'talk the talk and walk the walk' of a real American, whatever that means. An odd choice it seemed for someone born and bred in Manhattan, no less. He seemed happy doing volunteer work, mowing the lawn, getting a huge dog, driving his wife to work. She being another 'real' New Yorker has no driver's license. Imagine living outside a big city in North America and having no driver's license. It sounds politically correct in these days of global warming but it makes life impossible for there is no other way of getting around other than driving. Living in Manhattan where the line for a non-driver's license needed for identification is longer than for those renewing their driver's license is a world away from Boone. In the end a move from NYC to Europe, even considering struggling with another language later in life, is probably easier to adjust to than settling down in what is a truly lovely area but a world away in lifestyle. Sometimes the perspective living abroad divides the world up between those who stay put and those who are willing to venture out, plunge in and learn the talk and the walk. You learn to admire both: those with close connection to their roots and traditions as well as those willing to test the waters of something new and different.

The shock was a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in October. It's often called the silent cancer since symptoms aren't noticed until it is usually rather advanced. He still seemed in shock on the phone from a hospital bed in NYC yesterday. He wasn't expecting something like this now and he was very worried about his wife, who is 12 years younger than he and as he explained when he goes, so goes everyone's health insurance in his family. With all the unforeseen problems that such an illness creates, all the misery and pain, the sorrow and fears, it seems particularly crass and inhumane that in such a situation patients have to worry about their loved ones and how they are going to survive afterwards. Will she at age 50 regain her old teaching job in NYC and get adequate health insurance? Forget North Carolina he said because she can't drive. Thus her job and the life they built up there is gone.

These past three years have been hard ones here with a diagnosis of Parkinson's, one silent stroke, another less silent one that at first caused the left side to go lame, but excellent and immediate health care literally saw the symptoms reverse the lameness within hours, and then months later a major heart attack. With all the life and death issues one is confronted with, here one doesn't have to worry about medical bills or the cost of all the various pills needed. Within a system where everyone who works and earns over 400 euros a month is required by law to have health insurance, it is there when you need it. Everyone is covered. Insurance companies are required by law to make deals with the drug companies and pass savings on to their customers. Thus for Parkinson's two drugs don't even require the normal co-payment of 10 euros and the other medicine which does cost about 400 a month only costs the patient 10. The doctors are required to try out less expensive medications, but if the patient can't cope with it and needs the more expensive one, once this fact has been proven the insurance covers it. There is also an astounding network of rehabilitation that is provided by one's health insurance. Hamburg has an array of heart physical therapy, stress coping exercises and assorted other groups aimed to help the patient cope with lifestyle changes.

All of this comes with a price and perhaps at the end of the month with less money to spend on other things. In our case it's 860 euros a month, but it brings peace of mind and with many other problems on the table, we certainly will not be confronted with concerns about if we can afford medicine or how to pay doctors bills or if the surviving partner is going to have health insurance. All this is included along with a free choice of doctors and excellent hospitals. Of course, it seems only fair that after having paid into the system one's entire working life, it's there for you when needed.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It is tongue-in-cheek, no it's more than that. It's biting. To a certain extent, it's beyond derision, never mind comprehension. Guantanamo --A Great Victory by Sabin Willett.

'No one alleges that Joseph was ever a terrorist, or a soldier, or a criminal. The military told him in 2002 he was innocent. Again in 2003. Again in 2006. Joseph slips with the others down isolation's slope. He stands in the twilight. Beyond, the darkness of insanity beckons. He seems ready to surrender to it. Somewhere in the file drawer in Guantanamo is a copy of the memo that clears Joseph for release. But it was written in 2006, and is as forgotten as he is.'

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