Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lisbon: lost luggage, mummies, and cigars - oh my!

So I bid goodbye to our coordinator and travelmates in Copenhagen and made my way to Lisbon, Portugal, by way of Milan to hook up with a new crop of GMF fellows. It was a tight connection, but I arrived in Lisbon without incident. Almost.

After my flight, I walked the gauntlet of smokers IN THE AIRPORT (!) to stand alone at the baggage claim in a foreign country where I could not speak the language and watched as everyone from my flight retrieved their bags and took off. As the number of bags and passengers dwindled, I tried to reassure myself: "At least the belt is still moving. I'm sure mine will be out soon." Then the belt stopped. And I suddenly started sweating. I had nothing but the clothes on my back, a laptop, and a small carryon bag of reading material and must-have toiletries.

I looked around trudged towards a pictogram that seemed to indicate lost luggage. I think it was an airline employee-shaped stick figure kicking a luggage-like object into an abyss. Okay, I made that up in my frustration, but it wasn't far off. I found a line of people in a chair-less waiting area also having luggage problems and took a number: 194. The sign indicated they were now serving number 178. I kid you not.

Nearly an hour later, after growing so tired I grabbed and sprawled out on a luggage rack, I filed a missing luggage report and made my way to a taxi and on to the hotel.

It would be three days before I had my luggage in hand again. Three days of handwashing my clothes, blowing them dry each night with a hair dryer, and calling Portugal Airlines every few hours for updates. And I use that term loosely, since their "update" consisted of telling me the bag had made it to Milan, but they "could not confirm that it was on its way to Lisbon."

They couldn't confirm this because they had no phone contact with the airport authorities: they only worked by Telex. Not e-mail. Not fax. Telex, which is a computer networking system first used in the late 1930s and which is the same system used for TELEGRAMS. No [STOP] stinkin'[STOP] way [STOP].

On day three, I'd had enough. I showered, put on my slightly damp clothes, and took a taxi to the airport. At the lost and found, a woman looked up my missing bag report and led me down a hallway to a secure area that looked like the dingy evidence locker on old police shows: a warehouse-like room accessed through a chainlink gate with a surly uniformed guy out front checking people in and out.

After being security wanded, the airline lady took me inside a room that had literally HUNDREDS of missing luggage lined up. On carts, on the floor, piled in pyramids, and lined up in rows that stretched out for yards on the cement floor. "Do you see your bag anywhere?" she asked. Uh, I'll need a minute, I thought.

So I dived in. Stepping over luggage, poking my head under the cart shelves, pulling bags aside, searching for MY black suitcase among the hundreds gathering dust in the room. Growing discourage and rounding my third large pile, I spotted it, sitting there with the others. I snagged the handle, double checked the tags, signed the release form and headed out. But first I snapped this shot with my cell phone.

I think my thumb got in the way but you get the gist. Imagine these bags times 30 to get an idea of the scope. Unbelievable.

I loaded my bag into a cab and settled back for the ride to the hotel (and cleaner clothes) reassured in my belief that ultimately, I know I can always depend on myself to get stuff done right. Take that TAP Airlines. I'd insert a 'flipping the bird' symbol if I could find one. ;-)

So despite the bag snafu, at least we had great rooms at the Hotel Tivoli Lisbon. This doesn't quite do it justice but it was big, with a king size bed, fresh fruit and bottled water awaiting us on arrival, and this great view.
The picture below is our first night in Lisbon.

Jeff from NC, Carrie from Chicago, Shyam from Atlanta, Tracy from Cleveland, and me, rounding out the Lisbon Crew.
Our first night, we were invited to visit a pharmacy museum after hours, which seemed quirky but turned out to be fascinating.

We learned that French royals took mummies from Egypt and crushed them to make face cream because the oils used in the mummification process were beneficial to the skin. At one point, they commissioned Napolean to handle this task and he brought back 30,000! It's a wonder there were any left for archeologists.
Ancient medical texts.
Our group with the museum director, who was a wonderful host and who had staff prepare a sumptuous dinner in the museum dining room. I think I ate too fast to get pix.
The streets of Lisbon at night.
An amazing and informative lunch during out stay with the president of the Portuguese Parliament and several political party leaders. That's Carrie to the right of the President of the Parliament.

Check out the waiters in tuxes serving us delicious food off silver trays. Tracy, a vegetarian, is being stoic about the rack of lamb on display before her.One thing that took a lot of getting used to for us Americans was the amount of smoking in Europe. There were ashtrays on the tables in meetings and restaurants. At this lunch, after plying guests with food, wine, cognac and brandy, cigars were offered to finish of the meal.
As you can see, the president of the Parliament puffed away, as Tracy and Carrie tried to find pockets of fresh air to either side. I was lucky: only one of my lunch companions lit up and it was just a cigarette. See: I can find the bright side. :-)

But I went through a lot of Febreze in Lisbon trying to rid my clothes and coat of smoke after meals and even some meetings. Europe is apparently changing, but smoking is still alive and well in most cities.

Last night in Copenhagen: what’s with the gravy?

On our last night in Copenhagen, we had dinner at the home of a TV news anchor from one of the two national stations in Denmark. He invited several of his friends who are also in the news business. They were all incredibly fun, smart and welcoming and provided a perfect end to our visit.

One of them had studied at an Ivy League schools in the U.S. for undergrad and when asked what he remembered most about living in the U.S. compared to Denmark, he said, “The food commercials. In America, commercials never had a simple picture of food, it was always an incredible amount of it.”

I completely agreed. The next time you're watching food commercials, check out the proportion of the screen filled with closeups and oversized portions. They don’t just show a small trickle of gravy; there’s a wave of it washing over mountains of mashed potatoes big enough to ski down.

Saturday Night Live did a great parody of this phenomenon with a skit called "Taco Town", which featured a trio of hungry guys raving about their "awesome" favorite order, which grew more awesome every minute with additional ingredients until it was comprised of:

a crunchy all beef taco smothered in nacho cheese, lettuce, tomato, and special Southwestern sauce; wrapped in a soft flour tortilla with a layer of re-fried beans in between; wrapped in a savory corn tortilla with a middle layer of Monterrey jack cheese; wrapped in a deep fried gordita shell smeared with a layer of special 'guacomolito' sauce; wrapped in a corn husk filled with pico de gallo; wrapped in an authentic Parisian crepe filled with egg, gruyere, sausage and portobello mushrooms; wrapped in a Chicago-style, deep-dish, meat lover's pizza; rolled up in a blueberry pancake; dipped in batter and deep fried until it's golden brown; and served in a commemorative tote bag filled with spicy vegetarian chili.

It was ridiculously hilarious, because we're already subjected to fast food items that are not far off from this fictitious gut buster. Case in point: the KFC Famous Bowl. Ingredients, copied from the KFC website: a generous serving of our creamy mashed potatoes, layered with sweet corn and loaded with bite-sized pieces of crispy chicken. Then we drizzle it all with our signature home-style gravy and top it off with a shredded three-cheese blend.
Mmmm. Pass the defibrillator...

Freedom of speech, cartoons and media

On our last day, we met with the editor whose paper sparked the Mohammed cartoon crisis that landed Denmark among the small group of countries to have its flag burned and reviled by international protestors. BBC overview available here.

Given its small size and relatively innocuous activities around the world, many Danes were shocked by the response from Islamic communities around the world to its printing of cartoons considered blasphemous to many Muslims. We sat down with the editor to get the back story, which involved a discussion of increasing censorship pressures and even self-censoring related to Islamic issues in the press. Meaning people choosing not to run articles, images or artwork about or critical of Islam out of fear of repercussions. The response to the cartoons and accompanying/edifying article (which was given short shrift in most coverage) seemed to validate these concerns.

Although the editor, paper and cartoonists did receive support from some Muslims, most of the response was negative, fanned apparently in some cases by activists who used the controversy to raise the profile of their organization or themselves: guess that happens worldwide.

Now, more than a year later, some of the cartoonists whose art accompanied the censorship article still live under protective measures (!) and threats continue to come to the newspaper periodically.

In addition to the obvious questions this issue raised about censorship and media coverage of religious issues, it also again pointed up the shortcomings in U.S. media coverage. While this was a HUGE issue for Denmark and the Muslim community worldwide, the coverage it received in the U.S. focused almost exclusively on the protests that erupted across the Muslim world. There was very little analysis of the issue or explanation of the backstory on the matter.

The lack of U.S. media coverage of international news came up for discussion in each city we visited. Thus, many of us will be returning home with an vow for more diverse news consumption from international media outlets, such as, which is pretty universally praised in Europe for its in-depth, balanced coverage of world events.

Danish immigration debate from the other side

In each city, the German Marshall Foundation provides us with a city coordinator who plans our schedule and group meetings, sets up personal appointments with people in our areas of interest, helps us get to and from each appointment and generally serves as our cultural guide and point of contact. In Copenhagen, our coordinator Kristina did a great job of connecting us with interesting people, taking or pointing us to notable local sites, and generally making our visit productive, informative and useful.

Our last two days, she set up meetings for us on the topics of immigration and freedom of speech. The same day as the embassy protest, we met with Danish Red Cross officials and representatives of several other organizations working with immigrants and refugees to improve integration through access to services such as job training and community involvement. Interestingly, the overall numbers of people immigrating to Denmark hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years, but where they’re coming from has.
  • 1995 – 37,879 - mostly refugees and asylum seekers
  • 2005 – 40,392 – mostly EU transplants and people coming for employment from Eastern Europe.

These are a couple of the speakers, who both came to Denmark in the last 25 years. They provided wonderful insight on the issue from an insider's point of view.

Currently, the largest group of immigrants comes from Turkey (18%). The next largest group influx to Denmark came from Iraq (8%) and Lebanon (7%). Despite this growth, the country still has just 3.7% unemployment.

There were lots of factoids flying during this discussion, but the main takeaways for me were that many Danes and government officials feel they’re already doing a lot to integrate newcomers and that the immigrants are somewhat “ungrateful.”

But the newcomers feel that for those who are really trying to integrate and become full-fledge residents/citizens, Danes still hold them at arms-length and lump all immigrants together, whether they’re productive contributing residents or not. As an outsider, it’s clear both sides are talking past each other on many levels and simply have different views of the same situation. Clearly the U.S. is not alone in trying to find a better solution to the complex issues surrounding immigration.

For these last Copenhagen meetings, we especially appreciated the speakers' time since they met with us for a few hours on a Saturday. Also, it was much more edifying than our discussions on the same topic in Paris because we heard directly from people who had come to the country from elsewhere. This would be taken a step further (and to even greater effect) in Lisbon.

On a completely unrelated note, after several sunny but nearly warm days, we got a taste of Denmark's true weather on this last day: cold temperatures, some snow/rain mix, and winds so strong they blew one of my gloves away as I rushed to capture the embassy protestors. Although it seems counterintuitive, it turns out that one glove is not almost as warm as two. One is like having none, a problem I would need to rectify in Lisbon, Portugal.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

You call this a vacation? Long days, no weekends, but great sights, people and food

I’ve already heard from some folks back home about what a great “vacation” this is. Let me clarify: vacations involve downtime, relaxation, no schedules, and hopefully, fruity drinks. Using those criteria, this experience does not qualify.

We have very full daily schedules and our days typically begin at 9am for a group meeting and travel to the first of several lengthy group meetings and discussions with local officials, personal appointments with local leaders and activists in our areas of interest, more meetings/discussions with officials and Marshall Fund contacts over lunch, followed by more meetings or tours of historical sites or political institutions until 5 or 6pm.

Barring travel time, we may have a short break before heading out at 7 or 8pm for dinner meetings that often last until midnight or 1am. In every European city we’ve visited thus far, lunch and dinner are long meals (2-4 hours) and dinner especially begins and ends much later than most of us are used to at home.

For this reason, breakfast is critical, and fortunately, it’s been included with our room stay in every city. So here’s an example of a power-up breakfast to get me through the day in Copenhagen. Tasty, yes? :-)

The Danes typically start meals (including breakfast) with fish, such as pickled herring, as evidenced by this herring “bar” at one restaurant. I tried it and enjoyed it, but one of my lessons of the day in Copenhagen was that pickled herring on an empty stomach does not really agree with me. Another fellow suggested I start with a bread buffer layer on future attempts. Note to self.

We usually spend 4-5 days in each city, with at least a day, sometimes more, spent traveling in or out. The remaining 3-4 full days, weekends included, are packed with meetings and activities. So I’m often up until 2am or 3 am just handling other daily duties, such as checking in by e-mail or phone with family and friends, and most importantly, doing laundry in my room.

Dry cleaning is exorbitant everywhere in Europe, so I took the advice of previous fellows and brought lots of stretchy but business-appropriate cotton/lycra shirts and sweaters (not to mention underclothes and even one pair of suit pants), which can be washed by hand and dried over a night or two. This would come in handy when my luggage took off on a side trip of its own partway through our travels. Twice.

So while this trip is providing unparalleled access to international locales, leaders, sights, sounds, and cuisine, it is not a vacation. Although I did finagle one fruity, non-alcoholic drink in Paris. ;-) Bottoms up!

Copenhagen days 2 and 3: Immigration, politics, police and cake

The theme of many of our meetings in each country has been the challenges European countries are facing in dealing with integration of immigrants. Denmark is struggling with integration of its growing immigrant population, which includes 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who were born in the country. Unlike in the U.S., being born there does not automatically bestow citizenship. After nine years, residents must apply to become a citizen.

To close out our second and third full days in Copenhagen, we met with:
  • Mehmet Necef, an associate professor at the University of southern Denmark’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • European GMF fellow Christopher Arzrouni, personal advisor to the minister for Social Affairs and Ministter for Gender Equality.

They each provided great insights about the Danish approach to immigration, which really only began in earnest in the 1960s (!). Before that, Denmark was even more homogenous than it is today.

In fact, I only saw a handful of other people of color when we walked the pedestrian shopping area in Copenhagen, and they appeared to be of African descent. Everyone else was white or tall or blonde, or all three. At one point, our small group of fellows became separated as we perused the shops. We all then stopped to scan the crowd for each other and reconvene.

“I thought we’d lost each other,” someone said.

“Well I know you can find me in the crowd,” I replied, “But I don’t know about the rest of you.” :-)

Non-homogenous me, in the crowd

Over the next few days, we learned that there is great concern among Danes and the Danish government about the viability of their current system of providing generous social benefits to its residents, including immigrants; benefits such as free schools, healthcare, and elderly care, and subsidized housing costs. Unemployed people also get 80%-90% salary (slightly less for unskilled workers) until they return to work. The system is funded by the extremely high taxes working Danes pay: about 45% personal income tax, 25% sales tax on goods, and an eye-popping 300% tax on cars. Still, the country had its lowest unemployment level ever this year: 3.8%.

Still, there’s resentment from some native Danes that the generous benefits are extended to immigrants who, in some cases, don’t speak the language and thus can’t work, and thus can’t pay taxes to contribute to funding the benefits. There is also resentment from some immigrants who feel that even when they do go to Danish schools, learn the language, and become productive citizens, they are still seen as outsiders, even after years or generations of Danish residency. For example, one person we met described himself as “not a full Dane” because his grandparents on one side of the family had immigrated there decades ago. Very different from America where many 2nd generation immigrants describe themselves as American or a hyphenated American even if they arrived very recently.

The government officials we met with are approaching the problem by trying to revamp the benefit system to reduce its cost in the coming years by raising the retirement age, and reducing some benefits, but there is obvious opposition in some quarters to that approach.

We also had the opportunity to meet with Brian Mikkelsen, the Danish Minister for Culture who is with the Conservative Peoples’ Party, and Jesper Gronenberg, the Secretary General of the Social Liberal Party. They each gave us an overview of the Danish political system and how it has worked over the past few years.

Jesper and our coordinator Kristina

Interestingly, the conservatives have been in power there for six or seven years after narrowly losing the prior election to candidates who espoused a very nationalistic, anti-immigration, ultra-conservative agenda. Their leaders, vowing to never again be out-done on conservative issues, allegedly followed the playbook of Newt Gingrich’s successful, conservative Contract With America approach in the late 1990’s and took power the next time. Since then, the conservative leadership of the Danish government has continued to be a strong ally of the Bush administration – a contrast to sentiments we heard from most other European officials and residents we heard from, who are quite vocally anti-Bush.

In fact, we would see this in action a day later on the 4th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War when we passed a crowd of chanting, sign-waving Danes headed to the American Embassy to protest Bush and the war.

Coincidentally, we’d learned a lot about how Danish law enforcement handles unruly crowds the day before when we spent the morning with the National police and the Copenhagen police learning about innovations in riot policing and crime prevention.

Just two weeks earlier, the police had put their refined tactics to use to end several nights of rioting by people angered after being evicted from a youth house they'd been given by the Danish government nearly 25 years ago. According to CNN here, the house had been used as a popular hangout and cultural event site by anarchists, punk rockers and left-wing groups.

Despite more than 600 arrests, only one person was reported injured - facts which seem to point to the success of the police officers' approach, which they refined more than a decade ago after a protest turned violent and resulted in more than 100 severe injuries to participants and a similar number for officers. We visited the site the next day.

The Copenhagen Crew

House had already been bulldozed, but many people were still gathered there, placing flowers on a small memorial and yelling at officers finishing cleanup work.

I asked whether they had studied the WTO riots in Seattle a few years ago and not surprisingly, they had. Their new approach is based on best practices (and lessons learned) from riot situations and police agencies around Europe and U.S.

One thing we found so endearing about the Danish police we met was that, on the surface, they had that cop demeanor we’ve all seen at home in the U.S. or on TV: imposing, businesslike, straight to the point, and clearly able to handle any situation that might arise. This was true of the women we saw too. They comprise 25% of the police force. We felt very secure in their presence.

At the same time, they were very friendly and welcomed us with delicious chocolate cake, pastries, coffee, tea and soda, all while outlining the intricacies of police work and crime prevention challenges in their country, and giving us a tour of their riot police equipment and vehicles. It was like: “This is how we subdue and remove a violent protestor so others in the crowd don’t get hurt. Can we get you more cookies?” Gotta love that. :-)

Me in the circular internal courtyard of Danish Police headquarters, built in the 1920s.

My favorite moment was when a burly, 6’3”, bald, riot police officer escorted me through the circular, cavernous police headquarters to the bathroom and along the way told me about the building’s history, takeover by the Nazis during WWII, subsequent return to Danish control, and the meaning of the decorative scrollwork lining the corridors. He then waited patiently outside and delivered me back to our group’s meeting with a noggin full of interesting historical info. I’ve loved the numerous, slightly surreal moments like that on this trip.

Later that day, we met with the Deputy U.S. Ambassador and several of her colleagues from the FBI, DEA, and the Embassy staff at her residence in the suburbs of Copenhagen. We had more sweets, treats and snacks there, coupled with interesting conversation about historical connections between the U.S. and Denmark and the state of U.S.-Danish relations today (very strong).

There is so much information to process from each day’s meetings, but we are all so busy that time for introspection and journaling time are scarce. When possible, we meet over drinks or breakfast, or during walks/taxi rides between meetings to compare notes and impressions. These moments provide an additional benefit of this experience.

Everyone is so smart and insightful and brings such a range of knowledge and experience to our interactions that we all learn and discover even more by sharing our individual impressions of group meetings, along with lessons learned from personal appointments. I feel very fortunate to now be part of the GMF network.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Copenhagen - Day 1

Every day in Copenhagen was chock-full of meetings and interactions with interesting and influential Danish leaders. First up: a meetng at the Ministry of Environment with Thomas Becker, Denmark's lead negotiator in climate change of the Subsidiary Body of Implementation under the UN Climate Change Convention.

Mr. Becker provided a great overview of Denmark's efforts to reduce global warming by changing personal habits and industrial energy use, in addition to increasing the country's output of green energy, like wind power. In fact, one of the global leaders in the field is a Danish wind turbine company called Vestas Wind Systems. This article talks about Denmark's plans forn using offshore windpower to reduce global warming and reduce the country's dependence on coal, oil and gas.

Next up was a visit with Michael Ulveman, also a German Marshall Fellow, and the Spokesperson for the Danish Prime Minister, which was a real treat for me since we do similar jobs and both have a background as a reporter. He gave us a great overview of the Danish political system, the challenges their country is facing with immigration and the burden on citizens for supporting their very generous benefit system. He outlined options the administration is evaluating and talked about Denmark's role in the EU and on the world stage.

A theme we would here many times is that "(insert country here) is so small compared to the U.S. but we are taking action to deal with (insert regional or global issue) so that we can create a better future for our country and for the world." I felt bad sometimes because it was so clear that the U.S., in contrast, was not being as proactive, despite its astronomically greater size and political power.

It was stated implicitly in some cases, explicitly in others, that part of the reason there is such animosity towards the current U.S. administration from many Europeans, is that we have all this power and influence but we squander it and don't use it positively or productively to compel others to do what's best for the global community. Instead, we sit navel-gazing and getting worked up about purely selfish interests and ostracize other countries, instead of building coalitions to affect greater change and more positive outcomes for people and countries around the globe. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Afterwards we toured the Prime Minister's offices, including coercing Chad and Michael to sneak a seat at the PM's desk. That's our group below in the Prime Minister's very cool media briefing room.And we saw just h0w committed the Danes are to reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil. Men and women (often with kids in tow) bike all over the place, rain or shine or snow in Copenhagen. Bikes littered the sidewalks in many parts of the city and there are bike lanes all over. Granted, Copenhagen is almost completely flat, which makes this much more feasible than in say... Seattle.

Still, even their leaders are in on the action. Down below is a shot of the Prime Minister's car. Notice the bike on back. He apparently is driven to meetings that are far away, but sometimes bikes to them and back, or gets a ride home. How cool is that?

That afternoon, we talked Danish Integration with a professor and another GMF fellow who is the advisor to the Minister for Social Affairs and the Minister for Gender Equality. That one was chock full of info too. But that's later. You can see why we are beat by the end of each day: it's a lot of back-to-back meetings on very thought-provoking topics, followed by discussions of the same over dinner. It's a real treat though to spend all day on such interesting issues. More later!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Closing out Paris

This trip has been nearly non-stop with activities and meetings. It's been fun, illuminating, enlightening and draining. But I'm meeting such interesting people and learning so much that I fall into bed happily exhausted each night.

Our last night in Paris, I met with Marie-Claude Peyrache, President of European Professional Women's Network-Paris (PWN) and former director of Communication at France Telecom. Their mission is to work women's progress in the business world.

I'm very interested in professional and leadership development for women and communities of color, so I found PWN online before I left and asked to meet Ms. Peyrache or someone from the organization. The group began as a way for professional women in Europe to build the kind of networks that can help them blossom professionally, develop leadership skills, and build confidence in their ability to join and succeed in the executive ranks.

Ms. Peyrache said women in Europe have only started to really move up into the professional ranks in large numbers in the past 10 years. The organization has chapters in most of the major cities in Europe, except in Germany: there is still more pressure on women there to stay home with young children rather than entering the job market outside the home. I would later learn this is very different from Denmark, where 80% of women work! But the Danes also have a very strong benefit system that provides a year of paid maternity leave, similar availability for men, and low-cost, subsidized childcare. The result is a society with strong support for families and work/life balance, plus very low unemployment among native Danes. Hear that U.S. lawmakers?

We had a very good meeting and she provided some good tips for growing your membership, providing networking opportunities, and assisting with professional development and mentoring that I'll be taking back to the Seattle Urban League Young Professionals, a professional development and social service organization with which I've been involved for the past couple years.

The highlight of the Paris stay came that evening when I joined GMF fellows Chad from DC and Carrie, a museum administrator from Chicago at the home of Cyril, a former European German Marshall Fellow for dinner.

He and his family lived in the suburbs of Paris, which are much more diverse than the area around our hotel. His wife would later explain that she'd intentionally moved to that area because she felt their former neighborhood had been too homogenous and she really wanted to be aroundm, and have her kids experience life with, a variety of people.

They welcomed us into their home and plied us with delicious appetizers, food and drink for several hours. On a work/school night, no less! Cultural lesson of the day: Europeans generally entertain for several hours. This would be echoed in Copenhagen where our coordinator explained that people usually come for appetizers, drinks and dinner around 7 or 8pm and don't leave until after 11pm but before 12am on weeknights. On weekends, there's no set ending time. I loved it!

At Cyril and Caroline's, we met their sons (who were adorable and smart), and listened to great jazz music while getting acquainted over wine (juice for me, as usual), bread, cheese and olives. We eventually moved over to the dining room where they ramped up the gastronomic pleasure level even more with scallops and oysters in a delicious butter sauce (perfect for sopping up with the bread), followed by roasted lamb and fingerling potatoes. Then there was a cheese course, and we wrapped up with ice cream and sorbet.

As if that weren't enough for a wonderful evening, they were all very interesting individuals and talked very candidly about French life, politics, the issue of immigration and integration of ethnic minorities (Caroline volunteers as a tutor for immigrant women to help them learn French and become more self-sufficient), and work/life challenges and options.

It was simply a wonderful evening and made me long to do more entertaining back home in Seattle. Rather than just waiting for the mega-holiday dinners, I plan to host more small dinner gatherings. With our fast-paced lives in the U.S., it's the only way I'm going to get to enjoy friends on a more regular basis.

Additional take-away from this experience: entertaining is not about volume or intricacy of food or whether everything is Martha Stewart-perfect, it's about spending time, building relationship and sharing time, food and home with someone simply because being in their presence is enjoyable. I'll try to keep that in mind as I return to the busy life back home.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

French National Assembly

Tuesday, we visited the French National Assembly, which is its parliamentary body. We'd planned to meet with a member who is a leading figure in the conservative caucus of the assembly, but election duties had called him away. So one of his staffers gave us a tour of the facility, which was very regal and impressive, as legislative buildings are wont to be,
especially French ones that go back hundreds of years.

Inside, they had these great gifts for political junkies: dinnerware to let the world know just what side of the political spectrum you (and your food) are on. Droit is right, gauche is left. They'd work just as well in the U.S., given our red/blue state divide after the last election.

Also inside, this cool bronze sculpture of a painter working by Louis Mitelberg entitled "Daumier creant Ratapoil." I just liked it for some reason.

...and this Versailles-esque dining room being set up for an official function. Get a load of the gilt, chandeliers, and ceiling frescoes. Why do I get the feeling that were this room in the states, it would cause a stir for being too ostentatious for elected officials?

Here's the chamber where the members meet to make decisions. GMF Fellow Michael from Austin, served as a spokesmodel for this shot after showing me how to adjust my flash for the lighting conditions in the room. Camera mechanics, energy policy, knowledge of obscure political facts and research, and cracking the rest of us up with his asides are just some of his many talents.

We also passed through the members' library, which is an almost perfect replica of what heaven looks like in my brain, except that in addition to floor to ceiling books, my version has dogs underfoot and hot chocolate on tap. Guilty confession: I've been drinking almost one hot chocolate a day on the trip(!). They've been exquisite in both Paris and Copenhagen. Good thing we're walking a lot.

Over in the mail room, which was where members of parliament used to come to read and respond (by hand) to constituent letters, they have these great chairs. They were built oversized so that members could read a wide open newspaper without disturbing or encroaching on each other's space. How's that for form following function? I love it! And I want one. Note to Jason.
PS - you'll notice the functional hair I'm sporting. That's what happens when your flat iron falls victim to the quirks of international voltage changes. To do list for the evening: find a store with hair appliances.

Copenhagen preview, Paris politics and educational inequities

I'm in Copenhagen, Denmark now and it's continued to be a whirlwind trip. I'm way behind in posting. Every day is so jam packed with meetings and activities, I can barely stay awake when we return to our rooms each night. Plus, Copenhagen is REALLY expensive and there's no free wireless in the hotel, but it's great awesome otherwise.
I'll be traveling with a smaller group of GMF fellows in each of the next few cities, until we rejoin everyone in Brussels at the end. For now, the Copenhagen crew left to right below is Michael the professor from Texas, BryAnn the Exec. Director of a non-profit for immigrant women in Atlanta, Chad, the think tank guy from DC, me, and Cal, the attorney from North Carolina.
We spend each day together being briefed in meetings, absorbing info, asking questions, cracking each other up as we debrief during walks and cab rides to each venue, deciding where to eat each night if there's no dinner meeting (a surprisingly easy process), and tallying up who owes who how many kroner, euros and dollars for shared taxi rides, meals and host gifts. I don't know if the GMF staff chose potential fellows for having great senses of humor and being easy going, but they certainly succeeded with this bunch.
Here's a shot of my cool Danish room...which overlooks a bay and the opera house across the water. Motel 6 it ain't. This place is great.

One adjustment we had to make upon arrival is that although Denmark is part of the European Union, it's not on the Euro. Their monetary unit is the Kroner and currently it's about $1 USD = 6 Kroner. So the 300 Kroner I took out of the ATM was only about $50. Note to self.
But back to Paris. Here's a speed round summary of some of the activities during our last couple days there, which were wonderful. On Monday, we gathered in the hotel lobby for the continental breakfast included with our room, which was great. Buttery, flaky, mini croissants, muesli, dried apricots, prunes and figs, fresh fruit, yogurt, juices, coffee and hot chocolate. For the remainder of the stay, breakfast became a great way to power up for the day and catch up with folks who'd gone to personal appointments or other activities the night before.

Our first stop that day was a meeting with a reporter from L'Express and a Research Director from the Center for International Studies who talked with us about the French perspective on the European Union. Their general take was that the French political class had slowly allowed their influence
and stature on the world stage to erode as the UK seized leadership in Europe.

As examples, they pointed to the lack of interest in the French socialist approach to global issues, and the increased interest by Europeans and young people in how to adapt to the Anglo-Saxon/UK way of operating a country, with high growth, free markets, and the like, rather than the French way. They also pointed to the brain drain from France to other EU
countries and the U.S. Apparently, recent research indicates there are about 400,000 French people living in London, a number that would make it the 7th largest city if it were in France.These sentiments would be echoed and validated later that day when we met with students at a public high school.

But first, we had a a fantastic lunch and primer on immigration and access to education in France. We learned that education is fully funded by the state and students begin school with a rigorous pre-school program from ages 2.5 to 6 years. The rest of school up through the equivalent of our
high school is similar to ours, except that at age 16 or so, French students' GPA and test scores are used to funnel them onto either a vocational or classical/professional track. Once on that track, it is nearly impossible to change. Essentially, they must decide at 16 what they will be doing for the rest of their life! We would hear the students' worry and angst about this later.

However, it appeared to that they are funneled into a path much sooner, because social class has a lot to do with what schools kids go to, how good the schools are, and thus how well prepared they are for the testing to come later. The school principal there also told us kids who do the classical
track must also do two 8 week internships in their last two years of school, but because of France's class system, it's often hard for students whose parents don't have connections to find internships. Knowing this, they opt for the vocational track.

In fact, 60% of kids from poorer neighborhoods go the vocational track, likely because of these systemic roadblocks. But when asked about how this puts poor and immigrant kids at an automatic disadvantage, the response was that although some reforms were being considered, they told us, "It works pretty well and this is the way it's been set up." Basically the classic: this is how we've always done it, a phrase which irks me to no end, no matter the context, because it's a cop out for not trying to change things or look for ways to do them better. Yet we would repeatedly hear discontent with the status quo: very frustrating.

We take turns presenting gifts from our home state or city to our hosts. This is me presenting our speaker with a gift pack depicting beautiful pictures of the Pacific Northwest and a cool, hand carved bookmark from the Seattle Public Library.

That afternoon, we met with high school students to learn about their lives and interests. These students had been chosen to meet with us because they had very good English skills and were clearly tops among the student body. They were very smart, mature, and very knowledgable about some things in the U.S. But they also had some misconceptions, which was no
surprise since they said they'd perfected their near-flawless language skills by watching American TV and movies.
As students in their last year of school, they expressed concerns about having to choose their life's path in the next few months. Yet overall, they felt the French education system was much better than those in the U.S. because they saw it as a meritocracy, where smart kids could go to college for free, while it cost way too much to go to college in the U.S.
"Your parents shouldn't have to pay for an education," one girl said. While we agreed their system was better in that respect, and in its apparent rigorousness, we also pointed out that there are lots of ways to fund an education here and that our system provided the flexibility they craved to decide their life's path later, or change it altogether. "It's possible to succeed in our system without connections and without a degree at all," I pointed out. "A test at 16 or 18 does not set your life's course."

I also begged to differ with the meritocracy suggestion. Although public schools are free, just as in America (and even private schools are subsidized by the government) they are not all created equal. Getting into the good ones in Paris depends on where you live (also similar to the U.S.). But Paris is naturally segregated, with white and more affluent families in the center, and poorer and immigrant families typically farther out in the suburbs, where, not so coincidentally, the schools are not as strong.
So I pointed out, it was not just good grades and test scores that brought them together in that class, it was the social class of their parents, who presumably, could afford to live closer in. Smart kids who were not fortunate enough to born into the right family or neighborhood were out of luck. They didn't really respond and really, it was a rhetorical remark, because I could tell by looking around the room and the courtyard filled with students that it was a pretty homogenous place.

This topic obviously hits home for me because I feel fortunate to have had a teacher who looked beyond my skin color and saw my academic potential, and who recommended me to a school that nurtured, celebrated and developed that potential; A school that has made part of its mission finding today's talented kids, regardless of their background or family status and providing them the same opportunity to excel in a rigorous, academic program.

So it bothers me to hear French educators and students acting as if they operate in an egalitarian meritocracy when there are no doubt many, many kids out there who could be attending these more rigorous schools and using them as stepping stone to a better future, just as better connected students do, if not for their family name, religion, income level, and address.

But the discussion was not as much of a downer as that last paragraph might indicate. I shared the discussion with two other fellows, so we also
discussed the regional differences in education and other attitudes in the U.S. since I'm from Washington State, Jeff is from North Carolina, and Hussein is from Minnesota. It was an informative discussion all the way around and we enjoyed the students immensely. They were very forthcoming and amazed us with their near-flawless English, which they apologized for(!). Uh, it's WAY better than our French, we told them.

Some fellows headed off to personal appointments, but since I had none, I trekked back to the hotel by wandering through several neighborhoods and shopping districts in search of fountain pen and stationary stores before hoping the Metro for my temporary home. With all the walking to and from our meetings, I was beat! So I opted out of the small group dinner and settled for a simple teriyaki dinner from Tokyorama down the block before turning in. I love this city, but it wears you out!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

French politics: countdown to the election

Sunday night, we had our first briefing on the political structure in France. French voters will head to the polls in May to elect a new president, replacing Jacques Chirac, who has been the country's leader for 12 years, and in politics in France for 40 years.
There are three leading contenders (and at least three lesser known ones who pollsters believe have little chance of actually impacting the race). The forerunners are Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkosy, 52, Socialist Segolene Royal, 53 and Francois Bayrou, 55. Royal has drawn the most media attention because she's believed to be the first woman with a real shot at being elected president of France. Obvious comparisons are also being drawn to Hillary Clinton in the U.S. race.
In doing research for this trip, it was easy to see that media coverage of France's elections have intensified in just the past few months, with the election just a couple months away. We Americans (and the candidates)have to endure (and fund) nearly 18 months of media ads and campaigning. That's largely due to France's "tight limits on campaign spending and a ban on political advertising on commercial hoardings in the three months preceding an election." (Reuters: Advertising big guns out for French poll.)

We had the pleasure of learning more about the elections during a fabulous dinner with:
  • Stephane Rozes, Director of Opinion Polls and Institutional Studies for CSA, an independent administrative authority that was created to guarantee broadcasting freedom in France, which is somewhat like our FCC, and

  • Harold Hyman, a journalist with BFM-TV, a new information outlet using TV, cable, satellite and internet. That's me and Harold below.

They gave us a great overview of the upcoming election and the candidates, however when it came time for questions, one of the GMF fellows remarked that it all seemed to be more about the personal histories, personalities, and positive or negative relations between the candidates and/or Chirac than about issues of importance to the average voter. Yes, I know this sounds similar to the U.S., but it seemed magnified. Where they stood on the issues was not mentioned until we asked.
Our hosts explained that in France's party-run system, issues are set by the parties, not so much the candidates, so issues are not discussed much during the campaign.

I asked about the role of women and minorities in politics since Segolene Royal's ascendency was being so trumpeted. Are there others in the pipeline behind her? The answer is no, again, due to the party structure, which our hosts said makes it very tough for them to rise through the ranks from the local level to national prominence, and even then, it is a very long process, like decades.
I found that discouraging, and was reminded that it was only in mid-2006 (!) that France's national TV channel hired Harry Roselmack, its first black anchor and what an uproar that caused. And that came a year after Chirac urged the media to hire more ethnic minority journalists, and even that tepid boost only came in reaction to riots by Arab youths.

Another GMF fellow asked about the integration of religious and ethnic minorities in France and how that was being handled by the presidential candidates. The ensuing discussion veered off into the headscarf issue that had been hotly debated in France recently: whether to allow the growing number of Muslim girls in school wear traditional headscarfs. A panel was convened to discuss the issue and came up with 25 rules governing religious symbols in schools.
Coming from the Pacific Northwest, one of the least churched areas of the country on a per capita basis, I admitted that I found this amazing because none of the issues being mentioned as the root of the hubbub were at all related to the actual education the kids receive. It was all about perceptions by others and the messages it might send.
When I was in school, I played basketball with a girl whose religion did not allow her to wear pants, and certainly not our uniform shorts. Rather than convene a panel and go the French route, school administrators simply let other schools in the league know that she would be playing in a uniform top with a floor-length skirt for religious reasons. No one really batted an eye and life went on.
Our hosted reminded me that it was a much bigger impact in France, with hundreds of girls taking to wearing the scarves. Also, the panel approach came out of centuries of distrust of mixing church and state/religion and education because the church in France had supported the monarchy and its oppression of the masses before the masses revolted.
"So our feeling is we do not want religion in schools, we do not want religious symbols in schools," said Stephane. "Our view is 'keep the priests off our kids'."

"That statement has a whole different connotation in the U.S.," I said, "But I understand your point."

Our well-fed, better-informed, little group at the end of the night.
The whole evening was filled with questions and discussions like this, comparing and contrasting the French and U.S. approach. Coming in to this trip, I was an avowed lover of all things French, except for the whole absolute monarchy bits mentioned in my previous post. Now, I'm starting to get a more rounded and complete view of the country's complexities, and even its negative aspects, which was inevitable given my overly-rosy view coming in. That's not a bad thing. I see the shift as a result of a more informed view. And being more informed is almost always good.