Nightmarish Realities

Our better angels here!


It has been some time since I last wrote a blog. Part of it is due to simply being busy with leading the study a broad program here in Greece at the moment with 24 American students.

Yet, at the same time, I confess that it’s been hard to really know how to respond to the events taking place all around us.

We are in Athens at the moment.  It is hot, although not as hot as in previous summers when the mercury reached 40 Celsius or 115 Fahrenheit.

It is presently in the low to mid 30s.

To the northwest of us, the conflict in Ukraine draws Europe and the United States closer to actual war against the Russians.

The downing of the Malaysian jet earlier this month set into motion a quickening pace of angst against the leaderships of Russian President Vladimir Putin and exposed his use of thugs in his efforts to whiplash the helpless Ukrainian government.

It is the kind of low-level fighting that can quickly get out of hand and it seems this is happening.

To the south of Athens, the nightmare deaths in Palestine and Israel continue unabated.  East from that tortured land in Syria and Iraq, the extreme militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) consolidates its hold on vast swaths of formerly Iraqi and Syrian territory.

The world is no stranger to war and conflict, as this past century has shown, but we enter now a strange phase of permanent misery in areas that show no efforts to sustaining peace.

Here in Greece, I am stunned by both how the country has dealt with its devastating economic meltdown and yet somehow survived, but also by a myopia that prevents it from seeing darkening clouds.

It’s hard to face the truth sometimes, particularly when I have spent so much energy trying to be upbeat and optimistic in the face of harsh truth.

When Greece entered its economic depression in late 2009, it embarked on a road of both self-abnegation and self-cleansing.

It was forced to confront its ills built over decades, if not centuries, in a way that came close to being a civil war.  Somehow, with the help of Europeans and Americans, in the form of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, Greece managed to squeeze through.

Five or so years later, its economy has stopped shrinking, tourists have returned in droves and there are fleeting signs of revival.

Our study group attended a performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Herodion Theater.  It was packed.  All levels of society attended.  From the wealthy and the famous, to a gentleman who sat next to us that reaked of foul body odor.

Last night we dined with a member of Greek parliament from New Democracy. He warned us of impending doom as the political process is about to unravel.

He told us of his ND government not being able to handle the populism of Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA who will no doubt form the next government where elections to be called.

Tsipras’s first act will be to rip up the memorandum that sustains Greece’s economic lifeline.  How will the Europeans react to this?

Probably walk away from Greece and leave it to rot.

I ask myself if I am being pessimistic, yet the nightmare persists.

How do you explain life in such circumstances?  And how do you live it?  We smile, as we always do, trying to make the best of harsh reality, but at times it feels deceptive and false.

We play-act that all will simply get better when we know in our hearts that the world’s mad phase is nothing to sneeze at, nor play with.

We have to dig deep to find something meaningful at a time when meaning seems to have left the world.  Drugs.  Alcohol.  Sex.  These are not the way out of our curse.

But we can take some note of the suffering and try to heal it as best as we can.  Not with escapist laughter but with hard work and determination.

That is the only way that the nightmare can end.


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World at War

Good time for war, if you like this(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s not hard to pick up a newspaper or watch a TV news broadcast and wonder if we have entered a new round of fighting that echoes those of World Wars I and II.

The downing of the Malaysian jet over Ukraine, immediately killing nearly 300 passengers and crew, allegedly by pro-Russian rebel fighters reflects how such small conflagrations rise to the level of insane criminality.

If it is somehow shown that it was the pro-Russian fighters who downed the commercial jet, then Russian President Vladimir Putin will  have a lot to answer for to the international community.

Russian tourists everywhere will face new poisoned wrath. Russian products and services will be scorned and Putin will become an international pariah.

Whatever legitimacy Putin had in the world will be immediately shredded.  This is a crime against humanity and it deserves full prosecution.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian-Israel conflict took on new elements of horror. First, Palestinians kidnapped and brutally murdered three Israel teenagers.

Then Israelis did the same with a teenage Palestinian boy.

As a result, we are seeing a new offensive launched by both sides of the conflict there – Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and Israel responding with missiles and a limited ground offensive.

And let us not forget the fighting in Iraq by pro-government forces and separatists murdering under the umbrella of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Behind the scenes, there is another war that is less discussed and less visible to all.

It’s the diplomatic war between Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. The two men don’t like each other.

Perhaps despise might be a better word.

It is not lost on insiders that Islamic Jihad, supported by Iran, launches missiles into Israel, that Obama currently negotiates with the Iranians over their nuclear missile program.

Israelis wonder how Obama can rightly denounce the shooting down of the Malaysian passenger plane yet negotiate with the Iranians even as they shell Israel at the same time.

At the moment these three battle zones remain separate but have the potential to become bigger and suck in many other nations in between.

Did we forget the other war in Syria?

It would be tempting to simply disregard the emerging World War III (how many times have we read that phrase?!), but the world entered the first one quite by accident too.

Just as we’re doing now.


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The Athens of Memory

Finding the past in today's Athens(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

You cannot step into the same river twice.  And so I was not about to go back into memory as we arrived last Thursday for our next study abroad program.

But I could try to see how different Athens seems after being here a year ago.

The shuttered storefronts still remain, quiet and sad and lonely as always.

The heat, it was in the mid 30s Celsius or in the 90s Fahrenheit, but it felt hotter.

Our taxi took us to the Athinais Hotel, a clean and efficient place with a decent breakfast.  We would stay there a couple of days as we got our bearings before moving into our flat.

The first chance we had my wife and I decided to take a trip to downtown.  It was late afternoon and we moved at a slow speed.

Partly due to the heat, partly to her pregnancy, partly out of just taking in Athens as much as possible.

Syntagma Square looked better than last year; broken tiles were repaired and the place reeked of its former glory (the 2004 Olympics period).

But the traffic seemed lighter and the crowds around the Square’s fountain smaller.  Had Athenians already vanished to the islands rather than wait until the more traditional August?

Trodding down Ermou Street with its small but elegant shoe stores, I realized that whatever economic crisis may befall Greeks, shopping still remains sacrosanct.

As we moved down the street past the Byzantine church, we heard some music in an alleyway.  Four musicians played rembetiko.

Suddenly we felt as if being in Constantinople in the 1920s.  We sashayed towards the dulcet sounds, like bees to nectar, and parked ourselves at a table to listen.

This is why we come to Athens, we told ourselves, for just these experiences.


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And It Comes Down to This…

Messi to lead the way?(Photo, Lionel Messi and Argentina, Wikimedia Commons)

It comes down to this.

Thirty-two teams.  Thirty-nine matches.  Hundreds of thousands of fans.  Some memorable moments.  Missed goal chances.  Goals that should not have counted.  Plenty of commercials and always, always, throughout all this, an inflated ball spinning and moving and blasting and floating through air.

Football.  Bloody hell.

In the fortieth match it’s the final between Germany and Argentina.

Germany has been solid throughout the tournament, not really stellar until that blow-out against Brazil, 7-1.  For many, that unusual result was not that, well, unusual.

Cognoscenti knew that Brazil was overrated. Germany proved it so.

So does that make Germany the favorite?  For many, yes, bettors included.

I have a different feeling. There seems to be a strange destiny about Argentina that I can’t seem to shake off.  They look rather plodding and insecure at times, certainly no barn-burning team throughout the tournament yet they always found a way to win.


In such regal matches, it comes down to a moment or two, when someone does something unusual, out of brilliance or sheer desperation that produces a splendid goal. Think of Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) in the final against Sweden.

Think of Diego Maradona against England in 1986.

Now it’s Lionel Messi‘s turn.  It’s his match to lose.  It will not be a high-scoring affair, unless Germany suddenly get cocky and lose their composure.

But it only takes one goal.

And I think it will come from Messi.

And then, there will be silence in football until the English Premiere League starts.

Until then, it’s Argentina.

(Final Score:  Germany 1 – Argentina 0)

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Brazil to Save Face?

Netherlands vs. Brazil(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

In Saturday’s match for third place, a wounded Holland fights against a completely humiliated, some even say, traumatized Brazil.

It’s in Brazil’s interest to at least make a game of it and not go out in complete embarrassment.  So it seems the logical choice is to go with Brazil.

The only hesitation comes in the sad truth, noted in previous blogs here, that Brazil is simply not that good.  Their star Neymar took them as far as they could, as did the home crowd, but those sails are now flat.

So what will happen on Saturday?

Brazil will start the game smartly and with clear anger in their playing.  They will score a couple of goals, then watch as Holland regains its footing for a thoroughly entertaining end.

And in the end, it’ll be Holland.  Not by much, a goal, but enough to leave Brazil with the knowledge that their game against Argentina could have been different.

So, there is is.  After three weeks of playing, it comes down to one weekend.

And it will be orange. But not the Brazilian kind.

Sorry, Brazil.

(Final Score:  Netherlands 3 – Brazil 0)


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Messi on the Move

Dutch to go home - Sorry, Lou!(Photo, Lionel Messi, Wikimedia Commons)

He looks so innocent and even cute. Small, rather fragile looking, even saintly innocent, Lionel Messi is the world’s greatest player.

Yes, even better than Cristiano RonaldoThomas MullerNeymar.

He has never done well in the World Cup, but somehow in this tournament he’s shining. What made the difference?

He’s surrounded by good players and he’s aged, making him more maturer and better able to handle the pressure.

The match against the Netherlands promised to be a real whippersnapper.

Unlike the brutal humiliation inflicted on Brazil by Germany in the other semi-final, this match promises to be tighter, defensive minded, with few chances coming.

But when they do, look for Messi to convert them into goals.

In the end, I predict an Argentinian victory, not because I like the team better (I actually prefer Louis van Gaal‘s Dutch team) but the reality is that with a Messi in the game, you have to give his team the nod.

There’s simply no other way to put it.

He could have a horrible game and eradicate all that I’ve just said, but he can also have a brilliant one.  With a great player, you never know until the game is underway.

And even then until the final whistle is blown, don’t count him out.

So as much as I would like to see a rematch of the 1974 World Cup final between (West) Germany and Netherlands, this one will go down to Germany and Argentina.

Wow.  What a game that will be!

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Germany’s Bismarck Spirit Lives

Prediction:  Germany to win against Brazil(Photo, Danie Alves of Brazil, Wikimedia Commons)

The seminal match between Brazil and Germany on paper looks like a real cracker.  In reality, it may fizz into boredom until the end, when both teams may have to perk up and make an effort to win.

I expect Germany to win.

This goes against the grain of many pundits who see a Brazil victory. I don’t.  I think the team is vastly overrated and now with the loss of star Neymar due to a cracked vertebrae, its chances just fell considerably.

Brazil has been living off the fumes of his home fans and it has gotten them far. It helps that they have some good players  – besides, Neymar, Hulk, Fred and Dani Alves come to mind.

But they are not a spectacular team, nor one that necessarily captures the imagination.  For many, that’s precisely the point.

It is a team of few egos and more workaholics.  Good for them.  But that can only take the team so far.  When up against a well-organized and drilled German team, they will find themselves at a loss.

Brazil may score a goal or even two, but I expect Germany to score more and to win.  With the talents of Thomas Muller and Mats Hummel, it is a quality team worthy of a championship.

This seems to be Germany’s year.

(Final Score:  Germany 7 – Brazil 1)

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