“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.
During 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 the 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.
The 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.
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?
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.