Dance Could Change the World Too

A commentary on the value of dancing.

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled, Music can change the world suggesting that music is a way to unite the world. I personally believe this to be true. A few days ago a link to the following video landed in my inbox.

Dance has always been a part of my world. I grew up in a small town where there were dances, often wedding dances, many weekends of the year. It was at those small town dances that I learned to dance. When I was in college and university I joined the dance club where we learned to do such dances as the Rumba, Samba, the Foxtrot, old-time waltz, swing and even square dance. My wife tells me that one of the things that attracted her to me was the fact that I could dance. She also tells me that now I don’t dance with her enough. Our daughters danced for years with the local dance association doing Hip Hop, Ballet, Modern, Jazz and Lyrical dance. My wife and I also volunteered when our club held their dance festivals. So when I watched this video I was immediately enlivened and inspired. What a great video! Watching it put a smile on my face. The video raises one’s spirits. Dance, even just watching it, has the ability to put us in a better mood.

I wanted to learn more about what kind of person would make such a video and why they would make it, so, like I typically do, I did some research.   Can dancing unite the world? is an article I found on the Pocket Cultures site, a website which aims to increase connections, awareness and understanding between different cultures.  According the article, the video was created by Matt Harding who became an Internet celebrity by creating a series of videos of himself doing silly dances in numerous countries around the world. The video above is his latest and was made in 2012. If you go to Mr. Harding’s website, where the heck is Matt, you will find other videos he has created. Matt says he started dancing with locals because he thought it looked like fun but some people have argued that he is actually improving world relations by connecting people around the world. clapping-hands-transparent-b-g-mdI applaud Mr. Harding for his diplomatic projects and for showing us that everyone in this world just wants to dance and enjoy life.

Dancing is a great way to connect people around the world, just as music is. Really, when you think about it, the two are connected. You can’t have dance without music and probably visa versa. It’s difficult to dance without music and I suspect music is what inspired dancing to arise in the first place. So I wondered, are there organizations or movements that share this vision of connecting through dance to unite the world? Using Google, this is what I discovered. United Dance is an organization with the purpose to unite and train dancers all over the world. They desire to show the heart of God in unity through creative expressions of worship and dance to the world. Another is Movement Exchange, a community of dance diplomats, who aim to unite the world through dance and service. This movement believes that sharing movement creates more joy in our world. That is so true! If you watch the above video carefully, you will notice that no matter what country Matt is in, the people dancing with him are smiling and joyful. I’m sure there are other movements as well.

Even the United Nations acknowledges dance music as a positive global force. According to this article, United Nations Secretary General Bam Ki-Moon praised Belgium’s Tomorrowland music festival, one of the most noteworthy global music festivals; a festival that began in 2005.

The Secretary General commented on the true power of global dance music, and its positioning within a wider cultural dialogue; one meant for a world of togetherness and universal acceptance. Now even though the festival isn’t specifically a dance festival, you can bet that the “dance music” had people dancing. In my view, dance and music go hand in hand.

Not only does music and dance unite people of different races and cultures, but dance is good for you.  According to the Better Health Channel’s article, Dance-Health Benefits, the health benefits of dancing are:

  • improved condition of your heart and lungs
  • increased muscular strength, endurance and motor fitness
  • increased aerobic fitness
  • improved muscle tone and strength
  • weight management
  • stronger bones and reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • better coordination, agility and flexibility
  • improved balance and spatial awareness
  • increased physical confidence
  • improved mental functioning
  • improved general and psychological well being
  • greater self-confidence and self-esteem
  • better social skills.

Time’s article, The Hidden Health Benefits of Dance, says:

“People who took dance class improved their fitness three times more than non-dancers”.

The Toronto Star reports in the article, Toronto researchers test benefits of dance for dementia patients, that a few studies suggest dancing programs in care homes appear to decrease problematic behaviour and increase social interaction and enjoyment.

Psychology Today’s article, Why Should We Dance?  says,

Studies have shown that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets

So the bottom line is dance has value in this world. We live in a world that needs unity. All one has to do is watch the news to come to that conclusion. So the more ways there are to unite the world, the better this world will be. I think dance, like music, is another way to do this. So, I encourage you to celebrate the different forms of dance in the world. I especially enjoy watching people from Africa dance. The African people know how to move and express themselves.

dancingSo let loose and dance. To quote Satchel Paige, an African-American Major League Baseball pitcher,

“Dance like nobody’s watching.”

It’s a good way to get fit. It makes you feel better. It unites the world because every country has their own unique dance forms. What more can I say?

So now I’m curious. Tell me what you think?

Namaste, a Reverent Gesture

A_yoga_namaste_Hindu_culture_religion_rites_rituals_sights.jpgOver the years I have been periodically greeted with a greeting known as “Namaste”. This is a gesture that entails a slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards in front of the chest. I have witnessed speakers and performers greet their audiences with this sign. Many years ago our school hosted an exchange student from Thailand who when she first arrived would greet her teachers and fellow students with the Namaste gesture. Some of my yoga instructors concluded every practice by uttering “Namaste” while bowing with hands pressed together. Even in Taekwondo we bowed to our opponents although not with our hands together. A bow in Taekwondo was a sign of respect which is its meaning in all martial arts. We even bowed when we entered the dojang or gym as a sign of respect for it.

Whenever someone greets me with the Namaste gesture, and especially when saying the word “Namaste”, I feel very honoured. I feel respected and accepted. It truly is a wonderful feeling when acknowledged with a gesture of Namaste. So what does this form of salutation mean? Where does it come from as it is not a common form of greeting in my part of the world?

In my part of the world, the handshake is the popular form of greeting. A handshake is a ritual in which two people grasp one of each other’s like hands and give a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands. The origins of the handshake are unknown as historians say that the handshake predates written history, and therefore is somewhat difficult to track down. What I find fascinating is there are some historians who claim the ritual dates to the Romans who would approach each other and grab the forearm to make sure the other man was not carrying a weapon. If that is true, then the handshake has a very different connotation than Namaste does.

The  Namaste gesture is widely used throughout India, Nepal, and parts of Asia.  Namaste or namaskar is used as a respectful form of greeting, acknowledging and welcoming a relative, guest or stranger as well as with goodbyes. It is also used when a person expresses gratitude for assistance offered or given, and to thank the other person for his or her benevolence.

The gesture (or mudra) of Namaste is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart (sometimes the forehead), and lightly bowing the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting straight from the heart and reciprocated accordingly. But does it have a deeper meaning? Being a teacher who taught Religious Education, I knew it did. So here is a lesson.

From the great religion of Hinduism, the sign of Namaste is an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India and especially on the trail in the Nepal Himalaya. Translated roughly, it means, “I bow to the God within you,” or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you,” a Hindu knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness. More specifically, nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means, “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”

Now this can be thought of in many ways. These are some of the ways the meaning of Namaste has been explained to me.

  • The Divine light in me acknowledges the Divine light in you.
  • The God in me greets the God in you.
  • I honor the spirit in you that is also in me.
  • The Divine wisdom in me recognizes and acknowledges the Divine wisdom in you.

Hinduism Today says the Namaste gesture

“bespeaks our inner valuing of the sacredness of 216px-An_Oberoi_Hotel_employee_doing_Namaste,_New_Delhiall. It betokens our intuition that all souls are divine. It reminds us in quite a graphic manner, and with insistent repetition, that we can see God everywhere and in every human being we meet. It is saying, silently, ‘I see the Deity in us both, and bow before It. I acknowledge the holiness of even this mundane meeting. I cannot separate that which is spiritual in us from that which is human and ordinary.’”

One practicing Hindu put it this way.

“I’ve heard it means, ‘I salute God within you.’ The true Namaste gesture is accompanied by bowing the head and shoulders slightly. This is a gesture that lessens our sense of ego and self-centeredness, requiring some humility to do it well–whereas shaking hands can be quite an arrogant event.”

According to Buddha Weekly, it is not just a salutation. For Buddhists the gesture is called Anjali and it serves many purposes. In spiritual activities, the mudra Anjali (offering with both hands), indicates we are making a “divine offering.” In a Buddhist context, it is the “cure” for pride, one of the great obstacles in their practice. In day-to-day life it indicates respect, literally meaning “I bow to you.”  Also, in acupuncture terms, the tips of the fingers activate certain energies.

Now I was raised a Christian, so how might this fit into a Christian context. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 it says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (NRSV) To me that aligns with the Hindu claim that the divine is within us. Christians just call it the Holy Spirit. I was taught that at baptism or confirmation, depending on the religious tradition, that the Holy Spirit entered and from then on resided in us.

In Galatians 5:22-23 it is written, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (NRSV) So Christians believe that if a person allows the spirit to be active in them, then that person should express love, joy, peace, and so on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians supported this belief with the Namaste gesture, a slight bow made with hands pressed together.

namaste-2No matter how Namaste is interpreted, it invokes a sense of sharing a spiritual connection and creates a sense and feeling of oneness. It is a way to feel connected. It conjures up feelings of respect. It is a sign of universal oneness. Maybe this world would be in a better place if all humans practiced this simple gesture. As the Buddhists believe, it just may be a “remedy” for pride that is the cause of many problems. I’m convinced this simple gesture brings about more feelings of reverence and honour for others. Mohandas K. Gandhi allegedly said once, “Namaste. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. A place of light, of love, of truth, of peace, of wisdom. I honor the place in you where when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there is only one of us.” Such a simple sign, a bow with hands together, with the intended meaning as Gandhi explained, just might make all the difference in this world.

A New Beginning!

As a now retired school teacher who taught high school social studies, I have taught about the indigenous (First Nations or aboriginal) people for about 30 years. I have always been drawn to the indigenous people especially to their spirituality and their tremendous respect for Mother Earth before contact with the European explorers. For several years I had the privilege of working with aboriginal people when I taught courses to adults a few weekends during the year. I have always been sympathetic to the plight of the aboriginal people in North America. From the moment the Europeans landed on this continent to the present day, aboriginal people have been exploited and treated unjustly, so when I read about improved relations between our leaders and indigenous people, I cheer.

According to a CBC article, Aboriginal’s top newsmakers of 2015, it was an exceptional year for indigenous people in Canada, a year that included truth and reconciliation, a year when ten indigenous Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to Canada’s parliament and the year the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was announced.

In case you are not familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), here is a little history lesson. The Commission’s five-year mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).  The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal people and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.  After travelling about the country for six years, the committee collected 6,740 statements from survivors of the Residential Schools and recorded 1,355 hours of testimony.  The Commission completed its task on June 2, 2015.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report makes 94 recommendations for change in policies, programs and the “way we talk to, and about, each other.” These recommendations include the creation of a National Centre and Council for Truth and Reconciliation and the drafting of new and revised legislation for education, child welfare, aboriginal languages, and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.

ch-3-p40-41-old-sun-classroom-p7538-1005If you don’t know much about the legacies of Residential Schools, here is another lesson. (It’s the teacher in me. I just have to teach). After the closing of the schools, which operated from the 1870s to 1996, and held some 150,000 aboriginal children over the decades, many former students made allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, plus accusations of neglect. The sole aim of residential schools was to assimilate First Nations children into the European culture. There were also student deaths at these institutions as well as burials of numerous deceased students in unmarked graves without the notification or consent of the parents. I personally have heard residential school survivors tell their stories and break down weeping when doing so. It is a very painful topic for many of them. This is not a part of our history that I am proud of. I have also taught about the atrocities that have occurred in these schools and witnessed students distraught because of it. Students instinctively know, as all of us do, that the way the indigenous people were treated was unjust.

CBC reports that on December 14,2015, the completed Truth and Reconciliation report was released in an emotional ceremony that had commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair choked with emotion and newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wiping away tears. Kudos to our leaders who recognize the wrongs done to the aboriginal people.

missing-and-murdered-aboriginal-womenThen there is the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, an issue that First Nations people have been lobbying our government to conduct an inquiry on for at least a decade. The following statistics are from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) fact sheet based on March 2010 statistics. The association gathered information on about 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Of these:

  • 67% are murder cases (death as the result of homicide or negligence);

  • 20% are cases of missing women or girls;

  • 4% are cases of suspicious death—deaths regarded as natural or accidental by police, but considered suspicious by family or community members; and

  • 9% are cases where the nature of the case is unknown—it is unclear whether the woman was murdered, is missing or died in suspicious circumstances.

The number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada is disproportionately high. NWAC’s research indicates that, between 2000 and 2008, Aboriginal women and girls represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada. However, Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the female population. What is interesting is the NWAC has found that only 53% of murder cases involving Aboriginal women and girls have led to charges of homicide. This is dramatically different from other homicide cases in Canada, which was last reported as 84% solved cases according to Statistics Canada.

On December 8th, 2015, Canada’s new Liberal government announced that the first phase of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls would begin. This is great news for those grieving families who lost their children. They have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.

liberal-cabinet-20151104The October 2015 federal election saw  54 indigenous candidates enter the race, and a groundbreaking push to have First Nation, Inuit and Métis people head to the polls. When it was over, ten indigenous MPs were elected to Canada’s House of Commons; the most ever. Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations, “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations people. One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”  This is great news for Canada. I cannot say it any better than Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde who said, “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.” A new kind of relationship with our First Nations people has been long overdue. Kudos to Canada’s new PM for initiating a new kind of relationship; a relationship that can only make this a better country.

Now I know many people do not feel the same as I do about these events. There has been, and still is, much racism between our people. Having said that, racism stems from ignorance, and so much of that racism is due to misinformation and misunderstanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. I am hopeful that the TRC and the National Inquiry will educate and eradicate that ignorance, bringing about a new relationship. They were the first people on this continent and rightfully deserve to be treated with the same respect and privileges as non-aboriginal Canadians. It has been a long time coming! 

Interesting reads: 

Source: The Two-Sentence View of History                                                                  SourceDEAR MEDIA, I AM MORE THAN JUST VIOLENCE

Christmas Controversies

Every year as the Christmas season approaches controversies erupt around political correctness and tolerance. This year there was the Starbucks controversy (see Red Cup Controversy) , which monopolized imageheadlines in November. The company typically has its red holiday cups decorated with snowflakes, Christmas ornaments or reindeer, but chose for a minimalist design this year with cups that are red with nothing but its green logo. Starbucks executives said they wanted to embrace “simplicity and quietness.” However some Christian conservatives saw these new cups as an attempt to diminish the importance of Christmas.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 10.50.33 AMAnother controversy occurred in Oakville, Washington, a town of 700 people who typically celebrates Christmas without controversy (see Christmas Message Sparks Controversy).  This year volunteer firefighters at Grays Harbor Fire District No.1 put a biblical message on their sign. The sign outside the fire station read, “Unto us a savior is born. Merry Christmas.” So when someone complained the fire commissioner ordered the sign to come down and their Christmas tree turned off.

I understand some of the thinking around these controversies. After all we live in a multicultural country and it is important to be sensitive to the different cultures around us. In fact, Canada celebrates multiculturalism and has officially made multiculturalism it’s policy. In 1971, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s present prime minister, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged its commitment to the principle of multiculturalism and formalized a policy to protect and promote diversity. Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. This policy affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.

In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was enacted by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This Act has two fundamental principles:

  1. All citizens are equal and have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.
  2. Multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in all aspects of Canadian society.

The United States does not have any kind of act recognizing its multicultural diversity that I am aware of, but nonetheless, like Canada, it is a country made up of immigrants and therefore it’s society encompasses many cultures.

So I get it (I think). I understand the need to be sensitive to other religious traditions and cultures. After all, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act states, “Citizens…have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.” So the way I see it, Christmas is a time for Christians to share their religious heritage.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Yeshua or Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is regarded by most Christians as the Son of God and the savior of humanity. It seems every year there are some people who take offense to Christians expressing this belief.  Christians should not feel stifled in any way when celebrating one of their biggest festivals!

250px-Menorah_0307The Jewish tradition celebrates Hanukkah or the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as the “Festival of Lights”.  This festival is celebrated on the 8th day of December and it is a time when Jewish people recall a miracle in the Jerusalem temple during a war fought by the Maccabees for the cause of religious freedom. Temple candles only had enough oil to burn for a single day. Yet they burned for eight days. Jews light candles on a menorah, two on the first day, three on the second, to nine on the eighth day. Jews should not feel restricted in any way when celebrating Hanukkah. In fact, this celebration should be encouraged. Perhaps in addition to Starbucks having cups with Christmas decorations on it, the company should also include cups with the menorah on it.

Also on December 8th, or on the Sunday immediately preceding it, the Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day. This day recalls the day in 596 BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha (meaning enlightened one) sat beneath a Bodhi tree and is believed to have achieved enlightenment, thus escaping the repeating cycle of reincarnation: involving birth, life, death and rebirth. Being this is an important day for the Buddhists, why not have some Starbucks cups with Bodhi trees on them in December as well. This would be a great way to educate people about the various religious traditions among us and maybe even build religious tolerance, which is so badly needed in our world.

For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is a significant annual Islamic observance for many Muslims around the world. It is also known as the Feast of Sacrifice or Festival of Sacrifice or Day of Sacrifice as it commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Eid al-Adha is a happy occasion that many Muslims celebrate. It is around the 10th to the 13th days of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah (or Dhul Hijja). This is the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar. It is a very sacred month in the Islamic calendar, one in which Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) takes place. It is a time marked by special prayers and many Muslims gather for special prayer services. Many people also visit family and friends, exchange greetings and gifts, and make donations to the poor. It is also a time for forgiveness and compassion. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Christians at Christmas? At Christmas don’t people gather for special prayer services, visit family and friends, and exchange greetings and gifts?

In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Eid al-Adha was celebrated in December. These holy days have left December, but will return in about three decades. Why not have some Starbucks cups commemorating this Islamic festival during the month when it is celebrated. This would be a great way to educate people about Islam especially during a time in history when Islamophobia is rampant. Why not?

We can get so caught up in political correctness or the mentality that we might offend non-Christians if we celebrate Christmas publicly. These festivals should be celebrated publicly and acclaimed with pride. I am not referring to just the Christian festivals but all religious festivals. Instead of being afraid to offend someone, companies such as Starbucks, should be willing to acknowledge these festivals when they occur and their cups should acknowledge the festival of whichever religious celebration is occurring. Maybe I’m being naive, I don’t know. Maybe this is easier said than done, but it seems to me that this would be a way to educate people about the various religions of the world and a way to build religious tolerance rather than contributing to fear and resentment of other religious traditions.

Europe Then and Now

Since returning from our trip abroad, my wife and I have been asked numerous times what we found different in Europe compared to our first time over there which was 26 years ago. Our gut response is always to say, “It pretty much looks the same as it did last time we were there.”  Now that is the truth.  It still looks pretty much as it did in the 1980s.  Most of the buildings still look very old and the majority of the streets are still very narrow. However, if there is one thing that was noticeably different was the amount of English around.

When I taught Social Studies, we used to discuss the  question, Is English becoming a universal language? when teaching about how globalization is changing the world.  For me, it was interesting to see if what I taught was indeed truth.  According to the article, 10 Reasons why English is the World’s Language, some of  the reasons why English is considered by some to be, or at least on its way to being, a universal language are:

  1. English is the language of business & finance
  2. Hollywood is the capital of film-making and many foreign actors have had to learn to speak English to work in Hollywood.
  3. If you want to make in the international music arena, you must be able to sing in English.
  4. English is the language of travel. English is the language used when the local hotel, restaurant or retail staff members communicate with foreigners and visitors.
  5. English is the unofficial language of the internet. There are billions upon billions of websites on the Internet nowadays, and it’s estimated that more than half of the entire online material is published in English.
  6. The influence of the United States and the United Kingdom, two very influential English-speaking world players.

Kevin & Marilyn - 1557 of 2668Now this all makes sense to me, but I know when I was teaching this stuff I wondered if it really was that way.  Well I can tell you after returning from Europe, I have to say that I believe there is truth in these arguments.  Allow me to share some of my observations.  When we were in the airports and train stations I noticed the signage would have the language of the country we were in written first, with English written underneath. We were in airports in Athens (Greece), Rome (Italy), Paris (France) Istanbul (Turkey) and Warsaw (Poland).  This was the case in every one of those airports.  I don’t recall that being the case 26 years ago.  Announcements in the airports were also in both the language of the country and in English.  This was also the case for most train stations and we were in many, many train stations throughout Italy and France.

Before leaving for Europe, we prepared by downloading a translator app, and then we inputted and saved numerous phrases that we thought would be necessary when over in Italy, France and Greece.  We did not need to use this app once when talking to people.  Almost everyone we talked to in France, Italy, the Turkish airport, the Polish airport and in Greece spoke fluent English, although with an accent. We were most surprised when we found an English speaking waitress in the Warsaw airport.The only time we used the translator app was when looking at ingredients in a supermarket.

IMG_2491As for the restaurants, no matter what country we were in, most of the staff spoke English.  Not only that, almost every restaurant we ate at had menus in English.  Often they would have the Greek or Italian or French first with the English written underneath.

My wife and I drove in northern France. One day we decided to see what was on the radio, so we turned on the radio only to be pleasantly surprised to hear a song we recognized; a pop song in English.  As soon as the song was finished, we were astonished to hear the disk jockey speak in French.  It struck me as odd; as “out of sink”; as not fitting.  This certainly does suggest that much of the world’s popular music is indeed sung in English.

IMG_2857Another noticeable difference from the 1980s was the number of signs you see in English.  In all three of the countries we visited; France, Italy and Greece, you would see store or company signage in both the language of the country we were in and in English. Often it would be Greek (or Italian or French) on some businesses and English on others. Many of the directions for toilets, exits, or tourist sites would also have English on them.

Another topic I often discussed with my students was; Was the world  becoming more homogenized  (more the same) because of globalization?  I certainly saw evidence of this as well.  The youth in Europe for the most part wore blue jeans just as the youth in North America do.  This was not only true of the youth. The hair styles of the youth were the same styles you would see on North American youth. Then there is the cell phones.  Everyone appears to have one and be on it just like in North America. Whether we were on the Metro, on a bus, in a museum or walking down a street, you would see people texting or talking on their cell phones.This certainly suggests homogenization to me.

It was not unusual to see stores or products from the same corporations in European cities that you would see in North American cities.  I noticed many MacDonald’s restaurants, Burger King, Shell gas stations, Esso gas stations, and clothing stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap.  I also noticed Apple Stores, Starbucks coffee, and Disneyland Paris.  There were Coca Cola and/or Pepsi signs every where. I’m sure I missed a few companies that operate in the European Union. This also advocates for the homogenization argument.  We went into one store in Greece only to discover that much of clothing they sold had American cities written on them or some  saying written in English.

IMG_3061I have mixed feelings about these changes that I’ve observed.  Regarding English as perhaps a universal language, that is great for those of us that English is our first language, or in my case the only language.  I guess I should be grateful that the language I was born into is being spoken in most parts of the world. After all, it makes travelling much less stressful.  What bothers me is the possibility that the world is becoming more and more the same culturally.  This saddens me because the point of travel for me at least is to experience the cultural diversity in the world.  I fear that as globalization continues to take hold, diversity will be lost.  The fact that youth in Europe and North America dress the same is evidence of this.  The truth that you see many of the same companies in the European Union as you do in North America suggests the world is indeed becoming more and more alike.  Like anything else there are always pros and cons.  I do hope that the various cultures of the world will be able to resist globalization enough so that they will continue to exist as a unique culture of the world. Variety makes the world more interesting.  If all countries of the world become more and more alike, then won’t that make for a boring world?

Those Crazy European Drivers

On our flight over to Europe, I watched the recently released movie called Spy whereby the main character, Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy. is a desk bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent a global disaster. The movie has a very funny driving scene where an Italian agent named Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law, picks Cooper up and drives her to her hotel. During that scene the Italian agent, driving a sporty convertible speeds through the narrow streets of Rome, paying more attention to the girls he is passing by than to his driving. The scene is very funny and typifies the way Europeans drive. Anytime I’ve watched scenes like this, I’ve always thought that the movies must be majorly exaggerating drivers in Europe. After returning home, I no longer think that.

IMG_1172Based on our experiences in Europe, it would seem that the stereotype, perpetrated by Hollywood movies,  that European drivers are crazy is true. Have you ever seen an intersection packed with cars at all different angles, none of them moving, many of them tooting angrily like it will possibly help? Well, we did in Paris when our shuttle driver entered the very large round about that encircles the Arc of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe).  There were no clear lanes and cars were everywhere and numerous horns were tooting. This is just one of the many driving experiences my wife and I, along with our friends, experienced when we visited Continental Europe. Even though I was aware of the stereotype, I was still “shell shocked when witnessing it”.

Our first taxi ride was on the island of Santorini, one of the Greek islands.  After a nice dinner at our hotel, we decided to visit the nearby village of Kamair, so we had the hotel call a taxi for us.  When the taxi arrived, My wife and our friends got in the back seat, and I got into the front with the driver.  No word of a lie, the driver put the “petal to the metal” and the car accelerated quickly.  Now in Greece, there are no side walks so pedestrians walk on the narrow roads.  There was a group walking down the road as the taxi driver sped toward them, showing no signs of slowing down.  The pedestrians scattered very quickly, as you might imagine.  The village was two kilometres from our hotel. and our taxi driver speeded the entire way there.  Thank God, we made it to the village alive.  We all were so shocked that all we could do was laugh. I would label this taxi driver as one of those stereotypical crazy European drivers.

IMG_1166Like the driver in Santorini, the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Athens “floored it” at every opportunity.  At one point he narrowly missed a car door that was opening. What made the situation even more humorous was the fact that just before the taxi arrived, a huge thundercloud moved over the city and a torrential rainstorm occurred as we were driving off.  Now as in many cities, Athens does not have the infrastructure to handle torrential downpours, so needless to say the streets of Athens were semi flooding, or in some case fully flooded.  That didn’t slow down our taxi driver.  He just sped through the water sending water everywhere.  Now we were nervous to say the least and I suspect our driver must have sensed that since he put in a CD of Greek music and “cranked” it up.  It worked, as we did relax and started swaying to the music. This driver fit the stereotype.

IMG_1738Being a pedestrian in Europe is truly an adventure.  Really you take your own life into your hands every time you step out onto the street as there was no other choice since sidewalks are rare in Europe.  There were many, many times when our friends and us would be walking in what we assumed was a pedestrian zone only to be shocked when a vehicle would drive through scattering all the pedestrians.  That happened in Florence and Sorrento in Italy, Mykonos town in Greece, and Bayeux in France, to name some places we experienced this.  In fact, at our vacation rental in Sorrento, the gate opened right onto the road, and I’m not kidding when I say the vehicles did not slow down on that road.  Numerous times we literally ran to cross the road for fear of getting hit by a car.  It was most entertaining when you watched some else doing so.

In places like Rome, Paris and Athens it is common to see the narrow streets jammed with unruly drivers, streetcars, buses, mopeds, and double-parked trucks.  It is also common in these cities to see massive horn-honking traffic jams.  The mopeds and motorbikes were plentiful on the streets and would weave in and out of the vehicles, and often would drive between two vehicles to get ahead.  There didn’t seem to be any sense of abiding by rules and such.

IMG_2752Then there is the parking.  In Rome and Paris, for example, you would see vehicles parked in every which direction.  There would be trucks parked in lanes with their flashers on.  We saw this often in Paris on the shuttle.   Vehicles would be parked up on sidewalks, if there was one, and it was not uncommon to see cars double parked.  Vehicles would just park beside other parked vehicles and turn on their flashers.  It just seemed liked chaos to me.

Now I realize that the reason drivers are so aggressive in Europe and why people park in any available space they can find in cities is because Europe does not have the space that North America has. Most of the cities in Europe are ancient.  To give you some perspective, parts of Rome are truly ancient.  If you look at the famous Roman Colosseum and inquire when it was built you would learn that it was commissioned around A.D. (CE) 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian. Paris existed long before Notre Dame Cathedral was built and the cathedral began its construction  in 1163 AD (CE). The site of Athens has been inhabited since before 3000 BC (BCE). The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1200 BC (BCE), when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel (fortress) located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient Greek Temples.  So as you can see, these cities are truly ancient thus explaining why the city streets are narrow.  They were built in times before vehicles were around.  These cities were never intended to have modern vehicles on them.  In fact, many of these streets are still cobblestone. Space is at a premium over in Europe.

Then there is the population factor. Italy, for example, has 60,808,000 inhabitants and is 33 times smaller than Canada and the United States. Canada’s population is about 35 million and the population of the United States is approximately 319 million. Now that doesn’t mean much until you compare the number of people to the land area, otherwise known as their population density.  According to the World Bank Data Website Italy has a population density of 209 people per sq. kilometre (km) of land area.  Canada, on the other hand, has a density of 4 people per sq. km of land area and the United States has 35 people per sq. km of land area.  So as you can see, Italy is much more densely populated than either Canada or the United States. In light of these statistics, it is easy to understand that Italy has much less space to handle its vehicles and pedestrians.

After returning home, I have come to appreciate  the amount of space we have in North America.  Our wide streets, our sidewalks for pedestrians our large, straight highways, our open space in rural areas  are so refreshing after being in Europe.  All the while we were in Europe we heard about the refugee crisis.  It was on the news.  It was in their news papers.  We even witnessed a demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees in Athens. North America has so much more space and fewer people when compared to the European nations, therefore we should not be afraid to take in more of the Syrian refugees, especially in light of the fact that Europe is experiencing a refuge crisis right now. North America can easily encompass more inhabitants.  We have the space!

What is with the Stereotypes?

Well, I’m back from my European adventure and I have many stories to share with you in this and future blogs.  This is the third time I’ve been over to Europe and every time I come back amazed by the ancient historical buildings there and how different the culture is from North America.  I can never get enough of that wonderful continent.

A common stereotype of the French people is they’re rude and snobby.  Articles such as Common French Stereotypes and French Stereotypes allude to this stereotype, I would like to share some of my thoughts on France.  I have just visited this country for the third time and I cannot say enough good about this beautiful country and its citizens.

Over the years, and not long before leaving on this trip, I had many people tell me how rude they found the French people, especially the Parisians.  People often would tell me to expect the French people, especially in Paris, to be rude and snobby.  Well, I can tell you in all honesty that I have never experienced this during any of my three visits to France, and yes I was in Paris all three times.  In fact, I found French people to be most kind, welcoming, and always helpful.  Let me give you some examples from our most recent trip.

IMG_1207While still trying to “get our bearings” on the first day in Paris, we stopped in a wine shop to ask for some directions to the Metro.  Since neither my wife or myself speak the French language, the first words we would articulate would be, “Parlez-vous anglais?” that is, do you speak English?  Almost everyone we asked this question, replied, “Qui”, and then proceeded to speak to us in English.  We were always very grateful for this.  Anyway, this particularly kind man in the wine shop told us where to find the Metro, how to use the Metro, and where to purchase tickets.  Now that doesn’t fit the stereotype.

On another occasion, while making our way to the Palace of Versailles, we were helped by a very nice young man.  To get to Versailles you take the RER, which are the Paris commuter trains as the palace is about 28 kilometres away. Commuter trains are like the Metros in the sense that they make numerous stops along the way. Anyway, the stop to get off at is a stop called Versailles Rive Gauche, Chateau de Versailles. Knowing that the stop was Rive Gauche, when we arrived at the Viroflay Rive Gauche stop,  we panicked and got off;  two stops too soon.  Standing there wondering if we were at the right place, likely looking like confused tourists, a very nice young man came up to us and asked us something in French.  My wife responds with, “Parlez-vous anglais?” and the nice young man responds in English, “Can I help you?”  We explained our dilemma and he quickly got us straightened out.  We got on the next train, and were in Versailles in no time. This young French citizen didn’t fit the French stereotype.

The previous evening, while in the Paris Metro, my wife and I were discussing how to get to the Palace of Versailles. My wife is very meticulous and has a need to know exactly where she is going before embarking on an adventure.  While we were standing there, looking at a Metro map on the wall, some random older lady walks up to us and says something in French.  We gave our usual response and then speaking in English she explained to us how to get to the palace.  Keep in mind that her actions were of concern for us as we did not ask for help.  She explained to us to take line C of the RER to Versailles, and to get off at Rive Gauche.  We thanked her and started walking to our exit.  A minute later this kind lady comes running up to us and asked us if we wanted to go to the castle or the city of Versailles.  We clarified and she explained that she wanted to make sure she gave us the right stop.  This Parisian lady took time out of her I’m sure busy day to run and catch us so that we would not get lost the next day.  That was an action of kindness, not snobbishness.  We were very thankful for this lady did not fit the Parisian stereotype.

Outside of Paris was no different.  We were always greeted with kindness and friendliness.  Allow me to share some examples, again from our recent trip. When we arrived in Bayeux, France, a city near the Normandy D-Day Beaches, we were tired and hungry. We ventured out on foot to find a restaurant.  Using a map to navigate to the city centre, as was often the case we got confused and therefore lost.  A man, obviously a local, along with his daughter and dog were walking towards us.  We stopped him and asked if he spoke English.  Thankfully, he did and he directed us in the right direction.  He was most kind and most friendly.  He didn’t fit the stereotype.

IMG_3359While driving from Bayeux to Lievin, France, we stopped in the French village of Aumale as  my wife liked the town.  We parked and walked toward the huge church, which every village has.  As we turned the corner around the church, we discovered a market.  Walking about the market we came across a table with croissants on it so my wife asked if she could have one.  The lady at the table spoke no English, but understanding what my wife was asking, answered, “Oui”.  Then the lady points to the coffee urn, says something in French,  and looks at me.  Understanding that she was offering me coffee I said, “Oui”. This pleasant, friendly lady then pours my wife a juice.  The people of Aumale were most gracious and hospitable to us, the strangers in town.  The people of this French village certainly did not fit the French stereotype.

Just before arriving in the wonderful village of Aumale, we were stopped at an intersection.  Drivers around us were pointing at our vehicle and we immediately presumed that we had done something illegal or that something was wrong with our vehicle.  Then one man gets out of his car, comes running up to our vehicle and says something in French, while pointing down by the car door.  My wife, driving at the time, rolls down the window and looks out the window and to her horror discovers that her coat was hanging out the car door. This kind man had made the effort to alert us to our carelessness.  We were truly thankful for this man who was not stereotypically French.

While coming into Lievin, France, where our Bed and Breakfast (B&B) was located we drove to where our GPS said was our B&B, yet we couldn’t see it.  We walked down to the intersection and spotted a lady working in her yard.  Unfortunately, she didn’t speak English but we showed her the address and she pointed us in the right direction which was up the street.  It turned out that we had not walked far enough up the street.  She didn’t hesitate to help us lost tourists.

Our B&B lady was most welcoming and helpful.  She did speak English although with a strong French accent.  In fact, she kept apologizing for her accent.  We assured her that we could understand her.  She went out of her way to make us feel welcome and to help us plan our days.  She would even put addresses into our GPS of sites she recommended we see, such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.  Any time we tried to put in an address, our GPS could not find it.  It seems there is a certain way to put in French addresses. This lady was a fantastic hostess; not stereotypical at all.

IMG_3744While walking to a recommended restaurant our B&B person told us about, our GPS took us to a residential area.  The GPS said we were there, but there was nothing that looked anything like a food establishment. So we started walking back.  We first asked a random stranger standing at a street corner who also could not speak English where the restaurant was, and using gestures he pointed us down the street.  We kept walking, unsure of where we were going.  Seeing a lady in her yard, we asked her if she spoke our native tongue.  She did not so we showed her the name of the food place.  She rambled on in French and pointed us down the street.  We walked further down the road and lo and behold, there it was.  Those kind, non stereotypical people helped us move in the right direction.

Now I could go on and on with many more stories of experiences with friendly, kind and hospitable French citizens, but I’m sure you get the picture. The bottom line is the French people we encountered definitely did not fit the stereotypical mould of being rude and snobby.  Quite the opposite really. Ed Koch, an American lawyer, politician, political commentator, movie critic and reality television arbitrator once said, Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart”. That is so true. When you’ve been to France and see that their population is so diverse, you realize that not all citizens of France fit the stereotypical mould, although I’m sure they have some that do.

It just isn’t right to stereotype all French people as being rude and snobby, just as it isn’t right to stereotype all Americans as being arrogant and boastful, even though we did meet a couple of Americans who were.  Having said that, we met far more Americans who did not fit that stereotype. It’s equally as wrong to stereotype all Canadians as being extremely polite.  I have met my fair share of Canadians who are not stereotypically polite.