Warning: this post is not terribly serious, and it gets a bit bawdy at the end. So if this is not to your taste, there is no need to read further.
This all started with an odd remark by my son Francisco. Sitting at the dinner table with my wife, Gabrielle, and I, he made some comment about “a picture of Jesus riding a dinosaur.” Now I had never heard of such a thing, but a quick Google search yielded several, including the following one:
Now we could have stopped and looked at the genesis (if you will pardon the pun) of such pictures, and perhaps even engaged in a bit of pop cultural analysis, as my son did before with his discussion of Dragon Ball Jesus. But the conversation didn’t go that way.
That yesterday, November 15, marked the start of the open enrollment period for the health insurance marketplace is a well-known fact at my current place of work, which may be about the only place in America where terms like “health insurance marketplace” or even “Obamacare” have little or no political connotations. They may elicit groans, but not for the reasons you might expect: for me and my coworkers as telephonic interpreters, what these terms primarily bring to mind is long and often tedious phone calls. Yet if I am to approach my work in any way as a ministry, I would do well to remember the larger principle at stake in the provision of language services, namely that of access to essential services for minority-language populations.
Health insurance is of course only one part of this picture, and I’ve written about the same general principle from another angle once before. Now as then, a couple of news items via the American Translators Association caught my attention for their intersection of linguistic and social concerns.
The first of these indirectly demonstrates how the question of access is particularly prone to get lost in the politically charged and often knee-jerk debates between Obamacare supporters who are so preoccupied with defending it at all costs that they are frequently tempted to gloss over its flaws, and its detractors who have made the impassioned and unequivocal fight against it a cause célèbre for its own sake. The debate often rages over the heads of people who fall through the cracks in the system – and from what I’ve observed, the system is indeed pretty cracked.
After my post a few weeks ago about a Suor Cristina, the singing nun from Italy, I want to follow up with skateboarding friar. Hat tip to Brandon Vogt, who posted a remarkable video about Friar Gabriel, an Australian Franciscan who is a serious skateboarder whose superiors asked him to use his skills to evangelize. The post provides more details about the friar, but here is the video. Friar Gabriel, besides skating, also provided the music.
This is not for everyone (and skateboarders are quick to detect posers) but I think this kind of evangelization is an excellent way to engage with modern culture.
ON THE MORNING of our last full day in France, we took an intercity train from Paris out to Normandy. For this journey, we were not on the TGV, France’s futuristic high-speed train system. We were on an intercity express train, which, despite not being a proper bullet train, still moved with dispatch out of Paris and into the sylvan and achingly beautiful French countryside.
We arrived in Caen about two hours after we started, and rented a car for the day. We drove out to the site of Omaha Beach, and parked in a little town called Vierville-sur-Mer situated on the bluffs directly above the sector of the beach portrayed in the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan.”
We walked out onto the sand, and after examining a few remnant bunkers and other structures, we walked out to the edge of the surf. Then I turned around and looked up at what the first waves of men ashore saw on that terrible June morning just over 70 years ago.
Stunned by what I saw, I turned to my travel companion and said, “My God — those poor men.”
I recently returned from a trip to Europe – Italy, Swizerland and France. I’ll be posting a series of posts about what I saw there.
Rome, the Eternal City, has me bewitched. Our first full day there, we awoke early and started at St. Peter’s Square, basically getting the lay of the land before we went there for real on Sunday for Mass. Then we took a walk in the general direction of the Pantheon, stopping practically every other block as a result of a recurring conversation that went like this:
“That place looks interesting — should we take a look inside?”
We walk in the door only to gasp in awe at some Baroque masterpiece-filled jewel-box of a Church.
“Holy … I mean, wow!”
We saw the Pantheon, the Forum, the Coliseum. The crowning glory of the day was the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. I was looking forward to seeing it, and I was not disappointed. It was built in the 300s, has been expanded and enlarged several time through the centuries, it is in excellent repair, and it gave me an appreciation of just how good the imperial Romans were at monumental architecture.
But rather than a travelogue, dear readers, I thought I’d talk this time about what I’ve learned so far about America since I’ve been here. I’ve mentioned in this space that I’ve visited almost all the U.S. states, so I believe I have a pretty good sense of what America is like. One good reason for traveling abroad is to gain a deeper understanding of your own country by seeing how other nations do things, and comparing it to how your own country works.
Someone from Africa once remarked to New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges that “Americans must be the loneliest people in the world.” My time in Rome has shown me the poignant truth of that remark.
Almost from our first moments in Rome, taking the train from the airport to Roma Termini, the city’s main train station, there was something about the train that seemed essentially different than the American train rides I’ve taken. The feeling stayed with me when we transferred to the Metro, Rome’s subway system, that took us to our hotel.
At first I could not quite put my finger on what exactly was different. While European public transportation has been uniformly excellent in my experience — their trains and subways are quieter, run at far faster speeds and are a vastly more convenient way of getting around than comparable systems in America — in terms of design and function, Italy’s train systems are not hugely different from American systems, so that wasn’t what I was noticing.
I finally realized that it wasn’t what I was seeing but what I was hearing that struck me as unusual: While Americans on trains tend these days to travel in a kind of electronic fog, surfing the Web on a variety of devices, checking email, updating Facebook statuses and so on, people on Italian trains and subways talk to one another. It’s a subtle thing, but it illustrates an essential difference in how Americans and Italians relate to one another.
Once we left the trains and made our way to our hotel, I saw more evidence all around that Italians structure their society differently than Americans. The streets were teeming with people, but the character of the crowds was not like the purposeful, mission-focused rush of the crowds in Midtown New York or Downtown San Francisco. The streets and neighborhoods of Rome are where the inhabitants of this city not only conduct commerce or go to and from destinations, it is where they live their lives. Walking the leafy streets north of Vatican City, I saw parents out for a stroll with young children in tow, elderly couples greeting friends and family with affection, lovers walking arm in arm and enjoying gelato, groups of priests walking slowly to and from the Vatican, discussing the finer points of theology.
Americans, by contrast, seem almost to go out of their way to avoid each other’s company. While Europeans commute to work together on trains, Americans much more commonly commute to work alone in their cars. Where Europeans get coffee at a local café where they probably know the owner, then consume it on the premises, Americans grab a cup at Starbucks and put it in the cup holder in their car and consume it on the way to work.
Where Americans fill their homes with electronic entertainment systems, and thus in a sense turn inward for entertainment and diversion, Romans seem far more likely to seek entertainment in the real world of cafes, restaurants, theaters and the many and varied public squares and parks that enrich the public realm here.
The public realm in America has always been impoverished relative to Europe and Asia. Land has always been relatively cheap in America, so Americans are far more likely than Europeans to have a backyard, and perhaps a pool, which serve more or less the same function as public squares and parks do in Europe, except for being entirely private.
While American streets are treated as means — that is, places where people get from one place to another — for the citizens of Rome the streets are treated as ends, as places where they can mix it up with their fellow citizens. They take joy in one another’s company.
For them, the joy is not just in the destination but also in the journey. We Americans would do well to remember that.