Listening to the World

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  — Ralph Nichols

My dad was fond of saying, “You don’t learn much with your mouth flapping,” by which I always suspected he meant “Shut up and listen to me.” But his point was valid.

One of the great perks of traveling is the opportunity to discover what people around the globe are really thinking and experiencing. Our 24-hour news cycle favors angry pundits and eye-popping footage. It’s geared to win ratings, not enhance understanding.

CRETE BLOG 20160522_221527During the last five weeks, as I traveled through Greece and London with my husband Ed, we talked to hundreds of people: waiters, cashiers, pub staff, shop owners, chefs, fellow theatre goers, strangers in the park, and even a British civil servant who works on humanitarian issues for the Home Office. We asked them about their lives, their homelands, their hopes, and the world as they see it.

On Their Minds

Our travels coincided with several big moments: the upcoming Brexit referendum (June 23) on whether the UK should remain in the EU, and the Greek parliament vote on a new round of taxes and austerity measures under pressure from Germany and the IMF.

No one had to be coaxed to talk.

Individually, opinions ranged widely about the best way to address these issues. Some Greeks we spoke to (especially the Athenians) felt Greece should have taken a cue from the UK, and kept its own currency when they joined the EU. They told us the purchasing power of real wages has fallen with theDSCN6418 euro, and despite 12- to 16-hour workdays, they cannot keep up with the cost of living.

Others wanted out of the EU entirely, citing the sharp inequality of power among nations in the union. They resented the pressure to buy weapons from Germany when that country was insisting Greece cut healthcare and raise the already steep 23% VAT (value-added tax). Many expressed deep disappointment that the supposedly radical left Syriza party was about to sell them down the river (They did. The day we left Greece, May 22, the Greek parliament approved a raft of new taxes and austerity measures to appease their creditors.)

The View From London

Leaving the EU was a less popular idea among the Londoners we spoke with (although ours was a random sample, and decidedly not skewed towards bankers and big-business Tories). While some Londoners shared the Greeks’ view that Germany was lording it over everyone, most people favored EU membership for the rich cultural exchange it has fostered (in London alone, we conversed with people from Albania, Italy, Hungary, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Poland, Finland, Iran, Romania, the Ukraine, Turkey, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Austria). Their views were reflected in a recent letter of support for continued EU membership (signed by Benedict Cumberbatch and 250 other British entertainers): “Britain is not just stronger in Europe, it is more imaginative and more creative, and our global creative success would be severely weakened by walking away.” Many people saw in the EU a hope for unity and peace.

LONDON CROP BLOG 20160529_011953The EU also permits people from all member countries to live and work anywhere within its nations’ borders. This allows people to move to areas of opportunity, and young people from all over Europe have converged on London. (About 80% of all EU immigrants in the UK are working. Others come to study or join family members.) Many under-30s told us there were no jobs or hope for advancement in their homeland. They were drawn to London’s cosmopolitan culture and generally progressive values.

What Unites Us

Collectively, the people who shared their thoughts with us demonstrated an impressive knowledge of political history and current issues. Even when they had differing ideas on how best it might be achieved, their hopes were always centered on building a more peaceful and just world for everyone. We heard no words of hatred or bigotry. No hotheaded rants. Just the desire for global unity, mutual respect, educational and economic opportunities for the many, not just a few.LONDON BLOG 20160528_010813

One final collective note: Everyone we spoke to expressed dismay and alarm about Trump. The question we were asked most often was: How can the U.S., being such a powerful country in the world, even consider Trump as a presidential candidate?

Good question.

Listening has its own rewards. I was moved by the generosity of spirit of the people we met. Many times, I was reminded that those who have the least often give the most.

So, I want to say a big thank-you to everyone who took the time to talk to us, to express and explain their opinions and thinking, who greeted us warmly and treated us well. You all give me great hope. We share this world. We share this fight. When I look into your faces, I see my own.

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4 thoughts on “Listening to the World

  1. When I read your article, the first thing that popped into my head was — How did you get folks to talk about political issues? Did you ask them questions to turn the conversation in political directions? The second thing I thought was — If you were traveling in the USA these days, it might be very difficult to have a sane conversation about political issues. We are so divided. The third thing I thought about was — My own awakening many years ago to the fact that what happens in the US is heavily scrutinized by the world, whether we like it or not. I was in a Parisian apartment, and one of the French folk said, “I like Americans.” I thought, “Why wouldn’t you like Americans?” And then it dawned on me that all Europeans have an opinion about Americans, but Americans know much less about Europeans. Now, with the rise of Trump and his followers, Europeans must be totally flummoxed and perhaps afraid.

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    1. You know, it’s odd, but I really can’t say how we got people talking. Sometimes, I asked someone how they were enjoying the play, or (in London) where they came from if I could tell they weren’t native to the UK. I think I always sort of start talking to people. I remember a restaurant in Crete that we loved and so visited several times. The staff was very warm and talkative, but one waiter was always quiet. I finally asked him where he came from and when he said Albania, I got excited because he was the first Albanian I had met. I asked him what had happened in his country since the days of Enver Hoxha. He was so amazed that I knew who Hoxha was that he started telling me all about the current situation and then how much he loved studying history, and wound up showing me photos of his 2-year-old son. I guess I have “the gift of gab.” About Trump, everyone we met was very much worried.

      Thanks for sharing your Paris “awakening.” I think our geographical isolation often keeps Americans unaware of how much others in the world are looking at what we do and considering the impact it will have worldwide. The Greeks, btw, toasted “The Americans” one night in that restaurant I mentioned. Lovely, generous people, the Greeks.

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    1. I’m glad you’re inspired to talk to people on your trip. No one is a stranger once you start talking. Happy and safe travels, Tom!

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