|In Barcelona - a unique Nativity interpretation|
- Airlines: U.S. based airlines, in my experience, are not the best. Lufthansa is a solid quality aircraft with consistent comfort & amenities; Aeroflot is definitely on the low end unless you want to go all the way to Carbint-air, a small airline in Haiti (I actually think they were shut down for drug smuggling) but they too fly an old Russian prop plane. The locals called is “Cari-bin-terror.” Qatar Airways took the prize on this trip. Comfortable, all the latest gadgets, “tinted” windows I’m pretty sure that can be “dimmed,” USB ports, etc….
- Airports: Doha definitely takes the cake - it’s new, it’s expansive. The Tallinn airport is nice, quaint, clean. Munich was nice. Frankfurt - it’s big, old and ok. Chicago is Chicago. Stockholm was a very nice place. Everyone I spoke with was courteous and helpful no matter where I was. Regardless of the airport the prices are the same - ridiculous!
- Food: There was lots of lamb in the places I visited. In Doha, Lebanese food is very popular and it was very good. The long, loaf of flat bread and the spreads were delicious! The Swedish meatballs and potatoes in the Stockholm airport were delicious - and way too expensive, but….
- Tea: I drank a lot of tea, steering clear of sodas. The red tea in Doha was very nice, especially flavored with honey. I missed my usual Earl Grey until getting to Tallinn. My most expensive cup of tea was in Tallinn when I spilled the nicely prepared cup and so paid for another one! Oops!
- Water: There are few if any drinking fountains in airports outside of the U.S. I was all prepared to fill up a water bottle but instead had to pay those exorbitant prices.
People: This is the topic that actually began my
writing. I’ve traveled enough to know that we human beings are the same in more ways than we are different. This trip, perhaps because of the more extreme differences in cultures, I was struck even more by the similarities more than the differences that exist. People across the globe are in need of relationships. We want people to laugh with, cry with and spend time with. We want to know that someone else cares about us and that we can care about others.
At the Short Course Swimming World Championships in Doha, the similarities were paraded before our eyes. Women have to hug everyone after a medal ceremony. It takes twice as long for a women’s relay than a men’s ceremony. If your tradition is the cheek touch with the kiss in the air - some twice and a few three times - it adds to the length. But that’s the way it is everywhere. Women are more relational than men and that touch helps their connection to the world in which they live. Men are satisfied with a handshake or slap on the shoulder or butt and off they go. It’s the same around the world, with few cultural exceptions.
The divide is clearly visible for those who pay attention but I find it’s a political divide, not a human one. In Frankfurt (where I spent far more time than intended due to a generator failure on the first plane) I met a young lady from Vancouver. I was able to purchase her coffee and croissant at the Traditional German Bakery because her credit card wouldn’t work. She came over to me to say thank you, again, after eating her “most delicious” croissant ever! Her husband runs the Samsung Middle East operations from Tehran, where he lives most of the time and she is with him most months during the past 2 years. She feels welcomed. Most mistake her for a U.S. American and are excited to meet her. We agreed she just needed to insert more “eh’s” into her conversations to move that geographical identification to the north.
Politics and politicians divide us. They certainly have a job to do. The safety and economic prosperity of their respective nations, along with the posturing that often goes with it, creates divisions and difficulties that mean little to the average citizen of the world.
|Frankfurt Christmas Market|
We live in different cultures and follow different customs. Our societies are structured differently. Some of our values differ. In the U.S. we are more individualistic - although I’m told that Australia is the same and perhaps more by those who have visited. Most cities and towns lack the public transportation and tradition of walking that serves to isolate us. My sister-in-law and her husband live in a section of Portland that is more of a community - lots of walking, outdoor cafes, local shops. But most of our society isn't built that way.
In Barcelona or Tallinn I could walk to a grocery store in 5 minutes or to a bus, tram or metro station that would take me to where I wanted to go. Qatar was a bit different, being a society in which about 15% of the population is native Qatari. It was my observation, and I was also told, there is not much interaction between the populations. You have a working class from outside the country and then the leaders of businesses and the country. To run events, such as World Championships; or to manage construction projects for the 2022 World Cup, outside individuals and companies bring the expertise.
|The American in-between my new Qatari friends|
The Middle East thinks more about “us" than “me" - I think. Everything is about name and tribe, which is why we in the U.S. can’t quite comprehend all that is going on. My conversations in Qatar informed me there is always an ISIS here or there, gaining notoriety only because of the press. While this present insurrection appears to be particularly brutal, it’s not new, but seems to be part of the fabric. Our U.S. lenses bring a distortion to the reality. One Qatari said to me: “The U.S. is always in the middle of things and it never gets any better.”
The clothes are different, many times because the need is different, or from tradition. The food is different. Different drinks are available, barring some of those global brands. The cars are different but in Qatar the concentration of luxury vehicles is astounding. Never before had I seen a Rolls Royce dealer next to a Lamborghini store nearby a Ferrari place.
The similarities are more than the differences, I believe. In each place, people work to provide for a family. Couples walk the decorated streets hand in hand or gaze at one another over a meal. Business meetings take place in a hotel lobby, in a restaurant or office and cell phones are ubiquitous. We all want the same things: meaningful relationships, someone to love and to love us and to make our way in this world.
Even Christmas connected us, although in Qatar it was quite different, save for the Egyptian glass-blower who made ornaments to cater to the tourists. Both Barcelona and Tallinn, in Helsinki as well as the airports, Christmas was in the air. Carols played, lights displayed, decorated trees all called to a season. Even in Qatar I received a magazine in my hotel room whose cover said I could find directions to the festive nature of this time of year inside.
I found a significant difference in the displays. Nativities are my favorite part of Christmas decorations. To the chagrin of my family, I like to place the wise men “afar” from the manger, often intruding upon my wife’s decoration schemes. So I was on the search for those unique ones in this part of the world. My first stop was easy. I knew I would find one in the Christmas market of Barcelona. Big figures and little ones, made from all different kinds of materials. I was disappointed in Helsinki, finding only the few church windows displaying a scene. Not one was to be found in the market or in a store. Tallinn, I thought, would not be an issue but I was surprised. A beautiful Christmas market and there was one booth with figures made in a Nordic style - and there was one Nativity displayed ‘neath the covered walk on one side of the old Town Hall.
|Evangelical Free Church - Helsinki|
|Swedish speaking Methodist Church - Helsinki|
|Town Hall Display - Tallinn|
|Barcelona Nativity interpretation|
Christmas around the world seems to be a commercial holiday more than anything else. It’s an opportunity to make a sale, to fill the emptiness of our hearts with the overflow in our storage units, closets and garages. I’ve been on a crusade for the past 11 years to do something about it with the Live Simply Project: live more simply so that others might simply live. Christmas is not about the presents as much as being present as Jesus to the least, lost and left-behind. It is my hope and prayer that this year you might find a way to reduce your consumption and increase your compassion. Merry Christmas!