Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From Minefield to Wheat Fields

Sometimes I walk Remi on a path just outside of Kittsee, on the Austria/Slovak border. A few of these signs are posted, which in Slovak read: "WARNING state border." I'm assuming they're left over from the Soviets, since they warn rather than welcome. I'm told the fields here were riddled with mines about 30 years ago, but now hold apricot orchards, and farmers tend crops of corn and wheat.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wall Street Journal/Austrian Finger Wrestling article

Here is my Wall Street Journal article on fingerwrestling, which appeared in early March

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Christiania, Some 40 Years On

My article last month in the Christian Science Monitor on Christiania, the commune in Copenhagen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Newspaper is Born

Last year (October 2007) I was called in as a consultant for the start up of a new English-language daily in Saigon.
In a special local edition for the Lunar New Year a few months later, I was asked by the editor to write about my experience working on the new venture.

It was published in Vietnamese, but here it is in its original English:


January 2008
Copyright Patti McCracken

Inside the cupboard was a half empty box of Choco Pies, chocolate drink mix, cheese-flavored crackers, loose tea bags along with two or three tea-stained glasses, some type of freeze-dried noodles and a rolled-up sleeping mat that I didn't know was there.

Outside the cupboard was a breed of bedlam known only to newsrooms. A mass of untidy papers and wordbooks stacked like piles of poorly-laid bricks, trash cans bloated with empty takeout cartons, journalists shouting commands at each other, a pacing managing editor; and in the midst of it all was Xuan Anh, whom I would come to call my Wunderkind.

A few weeks earlier, I'd stepped off the plane in Saigon and was greeted by two grateful editors who had summoned me from Austria to help them launch a new English-language daily. Thanh Nien publishes a successful weekly magazine, daily newspaper and online journal, so its street cred was already well-established. But the launch of this English newspaper had snuck up on the staff in a hurry. So they hastily cleared a room and fitted it with computers and networks, printers were hooked up, office furniture was hauled in, and a pack of young and mostly untrained newshounds stood at the ready. By the time I arrived, we had 10 days to figure out the rest.

This is my job. I dart and skip across the continents as a journalism trainer, working with reporters who need a leg up to catch up in a world that has been less than fair. I bounce around in economy class, sleep in saggy beds, stay away from the drinking water, eat questionable food, argue with the cleaning ladies, get disgusted with taxi drivers, watch dubbed tv, get lonely for home, and let insomnia finally give way to sleep amid the creaks and strains of a foreign city that has expanded to include me. And every now and then, I'm a witness to kinship celebrating itself in the guise of a would-be stranger. This is my life.

He stood in the back of the empty newsroom on the morning I arrived, waiting for me to approach so he could introduce himself. "I'm Xuan Anh," he said, extending his hand, his syllables blunted by the Vietnamese influence on his English. "Call me Anh."

I learned that he had studied in Ireland for a year, was new to journalism, and had a habit of flexing his fingers back and rubbing his palms on his trouser legs when nervous or happy. He sat and walked and stood as straight as an arrow, his dress shoes tap-tapping on the floor as he raced around. He was eager and efficient and earnest. I would later learn that he was equal parts strong will and soft heart, but for now, it was his eagerness which moved me.

Anh and I were to work together on the design and structure of the newspaper; giving it an identity and a strong forum in which to showcase the articles.

On that first evening, managing editor (Mr.) Thinh walked me over to a calendar that hung on the back wall and circled two dates. The first one was only seven days away.

"This is when we need to have all the pages at the printing house."

"And this," he said, pointing to the second date, less than a week and a half away, "is when we go live with the first issue."

I told him it was impossible. There was no way we could design a newspaper from the ground up, train designers, organize a newsroom hierarchy, structure a copy flow and coach journalists on how to report and write for an English readership in a week's time, with an already understaffed and overstressed newsroom.

"We must," Thinh said, and walked back to his desk, leaving me standing at the calendar. He had many things to do, and little time for disbelief.

So we set to work. While Anh and I toiled at designing the logo, the icons, the column widths, the fonts, the point sizes, the frame sizes,... the rest of the novice design staff huddled in close around the two of us, soaking up information piecemeal, then scuttling back to their computers to come up with additional ideas on their own.

Our working days were stretching into the wee hours, and I was getting bone-tired. My insomnia ramped up, so sleep didn't come until well after the sun came up.
It wasn't long before I overslept, and one of the designers was sent over to the hotel on her motorbike so she could jar me awake and haul me back into the newsroom.

The days were disappearing, our energy dissolving. The editor-in-chief, who also oversaw the other news operations, had lost his voice along with his ability to focus for very long, even with a steady stream of coffee and his beloved cigarillos at hand. He hadn't slept in more than three days.

Section editors were tapped out, fried, re-reading the same sentences over and over again because exhaustion allowed them to do nothing else, except skip like a record needle. There was no life outside the newsroom; no newborns to cuddle, no miscarriages to grieve, no sick parents to comfort. Not this week, not now.

I was averaging three hours of sleep a night back at the hotel, always awakened by an overzealous cleaning crew, if not a journalist on a motorbike and a mission.

But Anh never left. He was fixed there. As were a few others, I later learned. He told me he slept there, rolling out the little mat he kept stored in the cupboard. He told me it was too far to go home, and anyway, he didn't want to wake his relatives.

Doctors will say that the pain is the worst, the most intolerable, just before the fever breaks. Marathon runners say the final two miles are horrifically unbearable.
Two nights before the launch Thinh leaned back in his chair, defeated. "We're not going to make it," he said. The doctor telling the patient's family the grim prognosis.

Launch day was as long and grueling as all of the others, and I felt guilty for slipping out and seeking sleep. Anh had also had trouble staying awake the last few days, and from time to time would place some white noise headphones over his ears (to drown out the shouting journalists), drop his forehead to the desk, and rest himself for 10 minutes or so.

But somehow the page count was dropping. Steadily, each page closed. No major glitches.

As the printing house received the final page of the first edition of Thanh Nien daily in English, those still left in the newsroom erupted in applause. And the endearing Vietnamese smiles emerged, broad and unabashed. There was backslapping and handshaking and relief masked as laughter. The fever had broken, we'd crossed the finish line. We made it.

We celebrated that night, late as it was. We planted ourselves at an outdoor restaurant and drank beer and talked about Hanoi and Thinh's new baby; we talked about boyfriends and girlfriends and who has them and who doesn't; we talked about parents and hometowns, and every now and then we stopped to congratulate ourselves. I watched Anh and the others with their newfound family. And I remember thinking I wasn't so lonely for home just then.

After leaving the restaurant, we stopped at the paper to pick up a copy of the first issue, which was already back from the printer. I was headed to my hotel, and Thinh was going home to his wife and newborn. But Anh and the others were staying on at the newspaper. They would make their way back up to the newsroom, open the cupboards that held all the teas and crackers and mats. After some chatter and exhausted, giddy laughter, sleep would come.

And we would do it all again the next day.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Vietnam Traffic Madness

You can find my article on riding motorbikes in Vietnam in the Christian Science Monitor today.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Austrian Wine Taverns

For the August edition of the Brussels inflight, I wrote about the Heurige tradition in Austria.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pedaling Along....

Here's a link to my latest article for the Brussels in-flight magazine on cycling through Austria, with a WHOLE LOT about Hainburg snuck in!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Coming in from the Cold (War)

Here is a piece on "Ostalgia" that I wrote for a Brussels in-flight magazine.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Austrians and Sex

Here's my latest article, written for The Smart Set

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cleansing the Past in Omarska

www.thiseurope.com


By Patti McCracken

It is an unexceptional and most ordinary place.
There used to be a ceramics factory nearby, and not far from the factory was a shuttered iron ore mine called Omarska, once the biggest producer in all of Europe.
Back in the 1980s, Omarska churned out three million tons of iron a year and its large complex of buildings laid out amidst the ramshackle beauty of this westernmost part of Bosnia was the largest on the continent.
So we already have the ceramics factory and the ore mine. Now let us add to that the school in a neighbouring village, where the workers from the factory and the mine once sent their children. This completes the cluster of buildings that became, in the early days of the Bosnian War, the site of some of the most heinous war crimes to be carried out in the recorded history of Europe.
It is stunning then to note that three years ago, this mine was purchased by steel giant ArcelorMittal. The world's largest steel company bought a former concentration camp and – despite repeated promises – has quietly resumed iron ore mining without erecting a memorial to the lives lost, or bodies and minds tortured.
The concentration camps opened in May 1992 and were shut in August of the same year, when two British reporters - one toting a TV camera - happened upon the living skeletons held captive there. Those that had not yet died by that time were transferred to a prison camp at another location until December of the same year.
Survivors groups gathered in late summer to honour their own on the 15th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. While there, they held funerals for 140 more bodies that have been recently found and identified.
Of the three sites, the Omarska camp was the most monstrous, having been upended by a volcanic wickedness that transformed it from the most prolific iron mine to the most horrific torture facility. And it happened so swiftly that only the darkest of nights and darkest of souls could conspire together to make it happen.
And now Omarska has become a money-making venture between the Republic of Srpska - the Serb-controlled entity within Bosnia - and ArcelorMittal. In fact, it is the largest act of privatization since the war.
In 2006, the Financial Times named Mittal its Man of the Year. And in May of this year, Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People. Mittal is Britain's richest man - net worth $25 billion in 2005 - and has a 51 percent controlling interest in the mine, leaving 49 percent to the Republic of Srpska. Newspaper reports go easy on Mittal, stating it was unclear if he knew he was buying a former concentration camp when he bought the Omarska mine.
Yet, to date, and despite efforts by survivor groups, there is not a single plaque or sign in Omarska to note the horrors that happened during those early days of the war, and a head-strong congress of deniers will say the torture didn't happen. There were no concentration camps here, my friend. There were no radical Serb nationalists who detained, viciously tortured, and killed their ethnically Muslim and Croat neighbors.
Stay on the bus, don't get off here, there is nothing to see.
They would be right, in one sense: there is nothing to see. The rapes, the starvation, the beatings, and the sadistic sexual mutilations that resulted in mass death have been buried by a collective will; buried and ignored like the some 1,700 bodies in the mass grave that is believed by many to lie beneath Omarska. In fact, there is a strong chance the machines from the mine were used to put them there.
It is an Olympian leap to imagine Mittal was unaware of the atrocities when he bought the mine, given the international coverage of the camps. But he knows now. He has met with survivor groups - such as the Dutch-based Optimisti organization - agreeing to keep at least one area of the mine, known as the "White House," as a museum. Yet his promises during the last three years have been so far postponed and frozen, and as yet unfulfilled. In October, ArcelorMittal made yet another promise to the survivors to finally proceed.
No one in the steel company's London office, or its offices in The Netherlands and Luxembourg, returned phone calls or answered emails regarding ArcelorMittal's unfulfilled agreements with survivor groups.
Some of the 60 or so guards at the concentration camp had worked at Omarska when it was in operation as a mine before the war. Having signed an agreement with the Republika Srpska to give priority employment to Serbs, what is the possibility that at least some of his current workers on the payroll put those bodies there?
The Serbs have put up some memorial plaques - honouring Serbs who died elsewhere in Bosnia during the war. There is not a single commemoration or acknowledgment of the thousands of Muslims and Croat Bosnians that were victimized and murdered by those they used to call their neighbors and their friends.
The school is in use again, too, and the end of the academic year has been moved up by city officials - from late June to May 24 - the same date in 1992 the school building was opened as a concentration camp for Muslims and Croats. Even the region's town fair, which was traditionally held in the middle of May, was moved to April 30, the date the Serbs "liberated" the town.
Because of the barbarity of the acts that now define Omarska, a separate war crimes trial was held at the Hague, in which four men were convicted. One ringleader, Milan Kovacevic had, after the war, already confessed during a brandy-filled afternoon with the British reporter who discovered the camp, making comparisons of his misdeeds to Auschwitz. Kovacevic died unexpectedly in prison before the trial started.
When the trial was over, the judges reported this: "Extreme brutality was systematic ... dead bodies were left to fester for days at a time and a terrible stench and fear pervaded the camp....a regular stream of murders, torture and other forms of physical and mental violence ... unbearable conditions appear to have driven the detainees insane ... the corpses were so numerous, they covered some 50 or 70 metres."
The survivor groups are not asking that the mine close, despite the nature of who is profiting from this tainted land; they are requesting that their suffering be acknowledged. It really is that simple.
Man of the year, world's most influential: Please step up.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sweet Georgia

The Guardian
By Patti McCracken
November 8, 2007

The coat check near the front desk had been a gun check not so long ago, where businessmen deposited their machine guns and pistols before heading back to their rooms. The metal detector nearby had been disabled, but still stood upright and ready for duty. The hotel, newish but built in the Soviet style, was - simply by default - a little office centre of sorts for foreigners, since there were scant resources available in the city, including working fax machines.

The world outside had not yet filtered into Georgia, and there was little way to access it once inside the country. But in a small room down the corridor from the hotel reception, international newspapers could be printed out off the Communist-era teletext machines. And that's why I was there - for those precious newspapers.

It was still dark outside when I arrived breathless at the Sheraton, having left my apartment at 4.30 in the morning to flag down a tumbledown taxi with a broken windscreen, a partially broken steering column and questionable brakes.

I had flown into Tbilisi two days earlier for a two-month stay, and my luggage was somewhere else, as were all the materials for the journalism workshop I was set to run, come daylight. The Sheraton and its teletext newspapers were my only shot - there were no international papers sold anywhere in the city, and I was about to face a room full of journalists who wanted to see them.

This was six years ago and the Republic of Georgia was a derelict affair. No running water in the evenings, sporadic electricity, and no gas to provide heat in winter for sometimes weeks at a time. No public services, such as mail delivery, telephone directories, or emergency call centres. No traffic lights, no road repairs. Crumbling facades and decrepit infrastructures. No cops except for the corrupt ones, no jobs except for the connected ones, no medical care except for the elite ones, no end in sight for the two embittered conflict zones, Abkhazia and Ossetia, and no hope for change.

One afternoon I joined my Georgian journalism students to listen to a guest lecturer from the United States. He had been a civil servant, now retired, and stood before them to speak of the great changes he saw in store for their country - proof being the new Marriott under construction downtown.

Nino shot up out of her chair to defy him. Nino was shy, but inestimably strong-minded, and she demanded to know from him just what, exactly, was going so well in her country. She spewed a laundry list of ills, including a 40% unemployment rate, rampant corruption, poverty, and unresolved warring factions in the breakaway republics, of which she was a victim.

Nino, a refugee from Abkhazia, had lived for years with her family in one room of a condemned high-rise tenement. She was furious. His lecture was patronising in its optimism. Her outrage was echoed by her classmates.

But a leg up from the west finally did offer a chance for Georgia to become a junior member of the team. The US government started the ball rolling by sending 150 military experts to whip Georgia's ragtag squad of would-be soldiers - none of whom had uniforms or were paid - into an army. And western investment, in the form of a pipeline pumping oil from Azerbaijan, started to flow into the country. But corruption kept most investors at bay. Everything stagnated.

The Orange revolution in Ukraine taught the people of Georgia that change was possible in the former Soviet republics. ‘Enough is enough,’ cried Georgians in 2002, who took to the streets 100,000-strong to topple crusty, corrupt Eduard Shevardnadze and his posse of politicians. The Rose revolution was born.

Georgia has a history of larger-than-life leaders - Stalin among them - and it reveres tough guys in the top office. So the election of the
US-educated, Russia-hating former lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili as president appeared to give Georgian voters everything they had ever dreamed of.

"I think traditionally, largely because of our Soviet past. Georgians tend to see a president not like Americans or European nations, do, but as a leader who should be worshipped," says Christy, one of my former students who is now a high-level journalist in Tbilisi.

I was back in Georgia after the Rose Revolution, and clearly progress had been made. Electricity was uninterrupted in Tbilisi, roads were paved, traffic lights installed, newer cars were gradually replacing the aged, ramshackle Ladas, facades were being repaired, and businesses were multiplying. And there seemed to be hope.

I had watched the transformation of eastern Europe during the late 1990s, and was relieved to see it finally take hold in neglected, worn-out Georgia, which had generally fared worse than its western neighbours under Soviet rule and had an even steeper climb out of the rubble.

But just four years after the Rose revolution, Georgia has staged an about-face on Saakashvili. The man they elected as a firebrand has slowly morphed into an autocrat and the people have unexpectedly, noisily, risen up once again to give voice to their anger about shady goings-on in high office.

The list of grievances is long, but at the top is the suspicious exit from the country of the former foreign defence minister, allegations of high-level cronyism and corruption and the absence of news about future elections – a poll is supposed to take place in Autumn 2008 but Saakashvili has refused to name a date

So Georgians have taken to the streets again, with over 50,000 protesting against the government on Nov. 3. On Tuesday, the rallies started to turn ugly, with police firing water cannons and tear gas on overnight protesters – over 500 of who were hospitalised.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili remains resolute. He will not concede on any issue and will not step down. On Wednesday night he issued a 15-day state of emergency that includes a clampdown on the independent media and a ban on rallies.

"It's scary," says Christy. "I really could not have imagined things would turn out like this just a couple of years after the revolution."

The plans, such as they are, for what's next are grandiose, unmapped and impractical. Some opposition leaders are rumoured to be scheming to storm parliament, while others are speculating that an entirely new form of government should be inaugurated, although no one can agree on what kind.

If Saakashvili is ousted - and let's hope whatever happens next is as peaceful as possible - who will replace him is a big unknown. If Georgia sticks to its penchant for larger-than-life leaders, then controversial billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, the country's richest man, is said to be preparing to jump into the hot seat.

Whoever emerges victorious from the power struggle is in for a rough ride. Bullied by a Russia it has spurned but with little chance of joining the EU or NATO, Georgia is set to remain in Europe’s limbo land for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Beleaguered Algeria

The Guardian
September 11, 2007

By Patti McCracken

She collected my right hand in hers and held it fast all the way to the mosque. We darted along between parked cars, first on this side of the road, then that, around the front of this person and the back of another. Jasmin was like an impatient and harried mother, and I was the kid stumbling over myself to keep up, and trying to understand the urgency tinged with fear that sprinkled her palm with sweat.

I didn't know then that she had put herself in danger to accommodate me.

I was in Algiers for four months working as a journalism trainer with Jasmin's newspaper, and had asked her to take me to a mosque. I arrived in the newsroom that Friday to prepare. Scarf in hand, I was met by Jasmin and her fellow women reporters, who flitted around me, fitting my headscarf with pins taken from their own; stepping back, from time to time, to appreciate their handiwork.

It was the first time I'd ever been to a mosque, and once inside, Jasmin relaxed. We were in what appeared to be a converted storage room, with a high wall separating the women from the men and, of course, the imam. At Jasmin's urging, I snuck a peak over the wall before I left, at the brilliant blue and white tiles that overlaid the walls and floor of the magnificent prayer room.

Back out on the street, Jasmin's angst returned, this time heightened, stemming from the men mingling at the front of the mosque. "They won't like you being here," she said, her clouds of worry engulfing us both.

The unofficial safety instructions were pretty clear when we arrived in Algiers last year, if scant. Women should avoid going out after dark without a man, daily routines should be altered, and never, under any circumstance, should we get into a taxi.

Algeria is struggling to emerge from more than 15 years of bloodshed. In the early 1990s, an Islamic extremist party was poised to win an election when the military postponed the second round of voting. This spawned an angry, aggressive and all-out horrific campaign of terror that lasted some six years and claimed the lives of about 200,000 Algerians.

Since 2000, when now-ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was all but placed into office by the military (and then more officially elected in 2004), the terrorism has been significantly curbed. And the city of Algiers itself has stood strong, having experienced, until recently, no real threat for years.

It is well-fortified city. During my first few weeks in Algiers, I stayed at the famed hotel St George, which employed policemen with AK-47s on 24-hour watch. On an evening out at the theatre with locals, we encountered nearly as many policemen as citizens out strolling about.

Yet the terrorism began creeping back. While I was there, an extremist group announced a happy marriage with al-Qaida and the honeymoon soon began. A bus carrying US government contractors was machine-gunned and bombed on the outskirts of the city. A police station was bombed and smaller devices went off close to the downtown press centre, near a hospital.

In April, two bombs were detonated inside the capital, including a suicide bomber who blew up 25 people outside the prime minister's office (injuring around 200), officially bringing terrorism back to this north African nation.

Originally formed in the late 1990s from the civil conflict, the terrorist group now calls itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Despite the increase in attacks, most of my Algiers colleagues still felt secure, certain the strikes would wane after the May legislative elections. But the only thing certain is the cynicism that comes with generations of war, and with 200,000 citizens dead at the hands of so-called neighbours, co-workers, bakers, shopkeepers and businessmen.

Each workday morning, my interpreter and I would meet early to review some of the newspapers. Nadir would move swiftly through each article, translating headlines, scanning articles and giving me summaries of the contents. Just days after the attacks targeting foreign workers, he found something that concerned both of us. "This one here quotes a warning to Algerians not to be seen with Americans," Nadir said, "or we risk becoming collateral damage."

I remembered Jasmin's grip on my hand.

But Islamic Maghreb has decided not to limit their attacks to foreigners, or to pre-election mayhem. Last week they struck twice: first in Batna (about 200 miles from Algiers), where a suicide bomber blew himself up among a group gathered to see President Boutiflika. Twenty were killed in that bombing.

And in another deadly blast this Saturday, a suicide bomb struck a coastguard barracks, killing 30 in a town about 60 miles from the capital.

Last night I contacted a colleague still in Algiers, to find out how everyone was doing. She said nothing has changed, except they are making plans to move to a more secure apartment.

When the bombings started again last spring, I got an email from the editor of Jasmin's newspaper. "Don't worry more than necessary," he wrote, "I mean everyone here has a lot of experience with these events. All is 'normal' now."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Far Out on the Right

The Guardian
Sept. 5, 2007
By Patti McCracken

Istvan Csurka is perhaps the most outlandish man in Hungary, or at least in Hungarian politics. As the leader of the far, far, far right MIEP party, he is so anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-roma, anti-capitalism, anti-American, anti-Russian, anti-anything western, anything Eastern, that the only word for him is neo-nazi, which, by the way, does not insult him.

So, by comparison, the far, far right Jobbik party, is not necessarily considered fascist, even though its members carry the Nazi-era Hungarian flag, and the party recently inaugurated its own militia.

In a ceremony at Hungary's prized Buda castle, the Magyar Guard was sworn in as about 1,000 supporters looked on, including members of the clergy. The new paramilitary group claims it will "defend Hungary physically, morally and spiritually".

The merely far right party, the Fidesz, moved slowly to separate itself from the Jobbik party's latest shock stunt. A few days after the militia induction ceremony, Fidesz vice-chairman Zoltan Pokorni asked members to keep their distance from Jobbik: "What was happening under the name of the guard was bad, bad for the country, and bad for the people."

The Fidesz party is the only right wing party with any muscle to speak of. It is the primary opposition party, after prime minister Gyurcsany's Socialist Party ousted it from power in 2002.

Jobbik placed itself at the forefront of last autumn's riots against Gyurcsany, who tumbled from grace when he was caught on tape admitting he had lied to the Hungarian people about the state of the economy.

Thousands upon thousands of people turned up to protest during those dark days for the Socialists, but those waving around and wrapping themselves in the Nazi-era flag - and believed to be instigators of the violence - were taking their cues from the likes of Jobbik.

The Jobbik party is generally thought of as being in the same camp as Austria's Freedom Party. But unpopular. It garnered less than 1% of the vote and has no seat in parliament ("Jobbik" is a play on words, meaning "better than others"), yet its strength is in the towns and villages, where a message of solidarity and national pride are a comfort during what has turned out to be a bruising vault toward capitalism and economic stability.

Gyurcsany's critics suggest he is exaggerating the role of the Jobbik party, casting it as a "bogie man" to deflect attention from his lame duck tenure. But Gyurcsany and the Socialists did not create a fringe-right paramilitary group to protect the morality of the country, as Jobbik said it will.

Hungarian politics has been battling intolerance from all parties. In addition to the extreme right groups and the conservative Fidesz opposition party, even the Socialists voted against citizenship rights for Hungarians living outside the country's current borders (at the close of the second world war, Hungary was carved up by the Allies, leaving the bulk of its countrymen living outside the newly-rawn parameters).

And not even the liberal party is off the hook, considered by many to be anti-Arab.

Yet no other party has created a militia and hoisted the Nazi-era flag in a claim of patriotism. Gyurcsany sent a letter to Hungary's chief prosecutor, asking him to pay special attention to the Jobbik's actions. Maybe this is to move the spotlight away from his own political problems. Or maybe it is to keep a watchful eye on a nationalistic fringe party stirring up trouble.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

All in the Family

Families In Business Magazine
August 2007

By Patti McCracken

It was a stunning and bold concept. To bring together under one roof every piece of metal, every pane of glass, every engine part, every last bit of the undercarriage, and every detail of the interior, right on down to the cushions; and then use hundreds of individuals to assemble the pieces into automobiles on one snaky, layered line. It was a demonstration of breathtaking efficiency.
 Henry Ford paid his workers handsomely for their work on the assembly line, enough so they could afford their own cars after they rolled out of production. High pay equaled high profits, or so went the theory of Fordism.
 But the mass production and muscly labor unions which defined the 20th Century have proven too inflexible and rigid for the far-reaching twenty first; so American Fordism has taken a back seat, and China and India are driving the new model of Capitalism.
 The emergence of Chindia is forcing American companies to redefine the way in which big business operates.
 "The family-owned businesses--along with all businesses-- are being affected dramatically," said Stephen Hochberg, CEO of Mage, a business consulting firm specializing in private companies.
 "Many businesses now find that their customers have moved to China with their operations, which pushes them to start up actual operations in China. Or they find that their customers are traveling there to create direct sourcing arrangements," says Hochberg.

San Francisco-based Bechtel, which was founded around the time of Henry Ford, has been at the forefront of the move toward China and beyond. "For global projects we have to draw more and more on global resources to remain agile and competitive," says Bechtel's Jonathan Marshall. "The aluminum smelter we are building in Iceland was designed in Montreal and New Delhi, uses steel from China, purchased its casting pots in Bahrain and got most of its labor from Poland because of the very small Icelandic population."

While China and other emerging markets are favored locations for plant facilities, India's strength is in back room services: IT resources, call centers, engineering strategies.
 The pull toward India is still primarily from smaller and medium size businesses, according to Hochberg, although that may not be for long. "The expectation is that as the business community becomes more educated, the business landscape within the US will experience major change."

India's economy grew 9.4 percent in 2006, the fastest in nearly 20 years. China's economy grew even faster, at a rate of 10.7 percent. 
 
Stavis Seafoods,Inc., based in Boston, has been relying on imports for about 40 years, starting with Canada in the late 1960s and Taiwan in the 70s. It now imports from China. "In the last 10 years, China really has exploded," says CEO Rich Stavis.

Stavis lauds the Chinese factories his seafood firm uses, saying they are better equipped and better staffed. 
"There are some smaller filets, like parch, which have small bones. If they are processed in Canada, the bones are left in, but if they're processed in China, they pull them out, because they have more people working in the plant."

Another benefit Stavis sees is better physical plants. "Because they've come relatively late to the dance, they have state of the art facilities. This is much better than some that are 20 or 30 years old," says Stavis. " They can make a very high quality product."

Some would disagree, including the US government, which last month banned the import of some seafood from China, declaring the products unsafe for consumers, and forcing Chinese officials to crack down on factories.

Stavis is quick to respond. "We've been proactive in our imported products. We are buying from reputable vendors and have visited a vast majority of the plants that pack our brands."

Carefully choosing partners in China is key, as Stavis has found, as is devoting time and effort into training them, and fostering relationships.

Steel company TWMetals works closely with its international customers to help stay competitive abroad, concentrating on their specific, local needs, and cooperating with them.
 "Our customers want us to be a bigger part of their business and manage portions of their global supply chains," says Bob Mraz, Director of Sales and Marketing. "We identified opportunities early on and deployed in-country teams to assess how best to serve the customer." TWMetals is a subsidiary of O'Neal Steel, a Birmingham, Ala. based corporation. O'Neal's profits jumped from 800 million in 2004, to 1.3 billion the following year, in part because of success abroad.

Capital expenditures by US companies is set to fall dramatically, from 51 percent last year to 45 percent in 2007. This is normally a harbinger of bad news, causing profits to plunge. But economists say that a factor in the decrease is the trend  by US and European firms to work out of facilities in developing countries, such as China and Eastern Europe, where it's cheaper. 

In turn, the relative economic growth in these regions means more opportunities to do business.

Bechtel has already taken advantage of the improving economy in some of these regions. It is a diversified company, able to compete in several sectors, including energy, power, telecommunications, mining, and in the case of its project in Romania, civil infrastructure. Bechtel is building a highway there.
 
"Rising standards of living increase demand for the kinds of infrastructure we build, and make our business less dependent on the United States market," says Marshall.

Chindia is fast becoming an economic superpower, which has many in the US fearful. But analysts are quick to point out that the rise of these emerging markets can be beneficial to American firms. 
 Here is why:
 For US firms, the manufacturing sector has shifted East, but in its place has been born the innovation sector. 
 More importantly, the economic base of second and third world countries, including post-communist regions, is rapidly rising. India's new middle class has reached 300 million people, larger than the entire US population.
With the rise of the middle class in India--heretofore nonexistent-an entirely new market of 300 million consumers is opening up to US companies.

Successful corporations tend to see Chindia, not as a threat to profits, but as an opportunity for growth.
 "We are located in both [India and China] and our business is growing exponentially. Many American companies are opening in these countries and want to keep the benefit of material aggregation, quality and exceptional service for their global vendors," says Mraz. "Globalization is the cornerstone of our strategy." 

Bechtel also views Chindia as positive, not a negative.
"We've worked on major projects in both China and India--we don't lump them together--and we have established engineering offices in each, as a sign of our commitment to them," says Marshall. 

India and China provide many companies with a chance to do what they could not otherwise afford to do domestically. This expansion does not always entail cutting domestic job and and shipping them overseas, but it means expanding services instead, and at a reduced cost.

But, as in the case of the banned goods from China into the US, it pays to be vigilant about finding quality partners abroad.

"We're not necessarily getting the cheapest product at the cheapest price," says Stavis. "We need to get the premium quality for our customer."

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Life Out of the Newsroom--and Into the News

By Patti McCracken
Christian Science Monitor

VIENNA
On a wickedly cold Chicago day eight years ago, I walked to work, made my way through the newsroom cubicles, entered my editor's office, gave her three weeks' notice, and then sat down at my desk.

I had stunned myself.

Less than two years before, I'd moved 1,000 miles to take this job as an assistant editor, and suddenly I was about to move several thousand miles more to get away from it.

Getting that Chicago job was the opportunity I had, for so long, envisioned for myself. The sudden offer to go there, and the money that came with it, seemed to be the "law of attraction" that had come into my life and set itself up as a constitution.

But the same quickened energy that propelled me to Chicago stirred up later to propel me out. My editor showed personal behaviors that were bullying and deceitful. My boyfriend appeared full of angst and pain that I simply could not will away. My resplendent downtown loft was quietly poisoning me with a gas leak that took the life of my joyful dog. And for a final bruising, my landlord's divorce-minded wife was forging my signature on documents, trying her own deceitful means to take my home away from me.

In this typhoon of grief and confusion, I allowed violent forces to slam my life shut and propel me onward. It was time to go.

But where? And how?

Years before, I had taken a leave of absence to be a journalism trainer in Eastern Europe, working alongside local reporters in ramshackle newsrooms, trying to help them help themselves. It was that vivid experience, an awakening to the world around me, that I wanted to hold again.

So I quit my job; quit my cool, downtown loft apartment; quit my cool boyfriend; sold my car; put my furniture in storage; hugged my friends; packed a duffel bag as tight and as full as I could; and moved to Europe with little money and fewer job prospects.

Since then I have wandered through and worked in 20 countries across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, acquiring, along the way, a London Black Cab in England; a Jack Russell terrier in Tbilisi, Georgia; and a home within myself that I cannot explain.

I have walked out of the newsroom and into the news. I am sometimes afraid, overwhelmed, overtired, thrilled, lonely, amazed, inspired, and sometimes a very long way from the familiar. But my days are no longer instantly filed and stored into memory, sorted by years and milestones. Instead, the events in my life are worn like a cloak wrapped around me, the deepening layers swaying with me as I move. The layers are vast and varied, marked by a flirting with lives alien to my own.

I have drunk fermented milk from Kyrgyzstan, eaten congealed fat in Hungary, and witnessed a man stuff every available inch of a Romanian Dacia car with grapes (for homemade wine).

I have seen hillside villages on fire because of civil unrest in Macedonia, been threatened by the Russian mafia in Moldova, and been moved to tears and nightmares by the sadness that calls itself Bosnia. I have been accused of being a Communist by a Croatian taxi driver, screamed at by a Russian veterinarian, and bitten on the arm by a 13-year-old Slovak boy. I have been secreted into a mosque by an Algerian, transported at midnight to a Sarajevo hospital by a hotelier, and comforted on a bus by an elderly Serbian man on Sept. 11.

I have shared an overnight train compartment with a Bosnian soccer team and held my hands over my ears as drunken, lederhosened Germans crooned their way through three countries.

I have had my heart shredded into little pieces by orphaned babies in the Republic of Georgia, and that same heart healed by a hero who doggedly, obsessively, champions their cause.

In Vietnam, I have learned that a man really can transport a six-foot bookcase on the back of a motorbike, that a photo of Ho Chi Minh on the desk never hurts in Hanoi, and that the kindness and warmth of the Vietnamese does a heart good.

And I have learned to take toilet paper with me wherever I go.

I have exchanged the night life of big American cities for sipping tea with babushkas in Eastern European villages.

I have learned, I hope, that words are sometimes no more than weighted obstacles, and that an unspoken language of shared feelings and experiences is as close as I'll ever come to truth.

Ambling along in a train bound for I don't care where, I still feel the same sense of liberation that I get when I have fallen in love. Holding hands and who knows where it will all go. But isn't it lovely? And please don't let it stop. Propel me onward.

• Patti McCracken is a syndicated columnist and freelance journalist based near Vienna. She works as a journalism trainer throughout the developing world.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Long Way From Home and Lovin' It

By Patti McCracken
Spotlight Magazine
May 2007

It was a blue Chevy, and it was the autumn after the summer of love, and they were four girls on an American road trip, far from home, about to walk into a dark and broody bar somewhere in Colorado.
It was intimidating, this bar full of locals craning their necks to see who were the new kids in town swinging through the saloon doors. But the girls warmed the place with their youth, and warmed hearts with their colt-like use of English and their exotic accents.
It wasn't more than a matter of minutes before some of the locals asked these European madchens to attend their Native American ceremonial dance, and decades later the gesture is still tenderly recalled by one of the erstwhile travelers.
"We started a conversation, saying 'we are from Europe,' and the next thing we know we're being invited to this big celebration," says Elisabeth Speiser.
"It was really impressive [at the ceremony] to see these youngsters with these large feathers [headdress] dancing in a circle. It was something to see. And I think the Indians were touched that foreigners had come and were interested in their own way of life."
Speiser, an Austrian, and her three German friends put a whopping 25,000 kilometers on that blue Chevy in 1968, crisscrossing America, and skimming across into Canada and down into Mexico, too. A dizzying pace, considering it was done in a month. They started in New York, and zoomed along to the famed but now faded Route 66, visited Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and as many places as they could pack into such a short trip.
"That was a great experience," says Speiser. "The people were very friendly. And very helpful.
It was the first step out of my country.... and it is still the greatest time in my life."
Speiser is now an investigations specialist for Raiffeisenbank in Vienna, but when she came to New York as a 20-year-old au pair, she was just a small town girl from Tyrol. "I arrived at JFK [airport] and knew how to say 'yes' and 'no' but that was about it."
She learned English during her year and a half in America, and later spent some time working in South Africa. She has continued to travel back and visit America with her family, having been to at least 47 of the 50 states.
Since Speiser's days of ricocheting across the continent in a Chevy, on the pennies she saved working as a nanny, opportunities for Germans who want to work abroad have blossomed.
Websites such as monsters.com post a variety of work opportunities for foreigners. A South African site, jobs.co.za, reports that it currently has 250,000 CVs in its database.
South Africa is suffering a brain drain, so there is a lot of full time work for educated professionals.
"For the past 10 years, the main draw has been for people with engineering skills, whether it be IT, business engineering, or basic mechanical and electrical engineering," says Tertia Calitz, managing director of jobs.co.za.
On the other hand, in countries such as the United States, which has a plethora of white collar workers, but lacks skilled laborers, companies tend to look for temporary employees when considering foreign applicants. Seasonal workers, like farmhands or campsite helpers, are in demand, but the problem of working abroad under these circumstances can be one of logistics. Since green cards are not issued for such work, and visas are temporary, the guest worker must periodically return to their home country to comply with government regulations--not easy or cheap when the home country is several thousand miles and an ocean away.
So for those who are happy with just a short-term gig, spending a summer working as a bartender or groundskeeper might be the way to go. Or do as Speiser did, and sign on as an eau pair.
But if a career of globetrotting strikes a chord, then there are companies and organizations that fit the bill.
Every couple of years the Wirtschaftskammer Oesterreich has an intensive training program in Vienna, in which Austrian university graduates under the age of 28 can participate. There are only 10 spots available for more than 100 applicants, so competition is tough, but for those who succeed, a lifetime of travel is secured.
"Basically, our job is to be like little international gypsies going around the world," says Dr. Gustav Gressel, Regional Manager for North America and Latin America at the Wirtschaftskammer.
Gressel's terms abroad are from 5-7 years. His first international assignment was in New York, followed by Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, back to the US (Houston, TX), a relatively brief stop back in Vienna, and then off to Brussels. He's preparing for his next move, which will be to Thailand, and will come sometime this summer.
"If I had it to do again, I'd probably do it all over again," says Gressel.
"You have to be prepared to learn all your life. A different country means a different background, so you have to adapt every time." says Gressel. "That's the challenge, but that's also the fun of it."
But for every international gypsy happily ambling around the planet, there is a grousing spouse or kids following behind. Or, at least, potentially.
"The only negative thing is the hardship on the family. The partner has to come with and start everything from scratch," says Gressel. "And my children all react differently. I have three kids. One is angry and says she feels rootless. Another is thrilled and thanks me, and the third is in the middle." Note: if you feel this quote emphasizes the age of both of the sources with internat'l experience, it might be best to leave it out.
Gressell credits openmindedness with a successful work experience abroad, and that goes hand-in-hand with cultural sensitivity.
The Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts places native German speakers with firms in the USA, and is very clear about what it looks for in successful candidates.
“[you are often hired because] you are a native German speaker and you are fluent in English. But even more important will be your ability to cooperate and communicate in a highly diverse, multicultural environment, compared to what you are used to," writes Rob Delton in a recent email. Delton is Director of Career Services at Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts, and as in the case of jobs.co.za, Delton's firm also has a high interest in recruiting Germans with technical or engineering backgrounds.
"If you're just starting out, the best way to go would be to get an internship or an academic exchange program," says Delton. "But at any stage of the career we want experience that tells us that this person is open to new or different perspectives."
Calitz of jobs.co.za in South Africa agrees. "Workers just have to get used to the kind of people here. The culture is more diverse and it's a question of mutual respect."
Speiser piled 25,000 kilometers onto that old Chevy, but what she gained in personal experience is immeasurable.
She still keeps in contact with her New York 'family' and with her American Road Trip girls. She has developed a philosophy of life that she credits with her days as a naive au pair, showing up on the doorstep of New York with little English and a lot of hope.
"Changing and learning. That's pretty much what life is."

Friday, April 27, 2007

For Many Algerians, New Violence Feels Tragically "Normal"

By Patti McCracken
www.worldpoliticswatch.com



They are forgettable doors, windowless and pale, unfit for a city with as grand a constitution as Algiers, battered though it is.

Sometimes a peephole is centered in the middle like a cyclops, maybe harboring a burly man winking behind it, but the doors are otherwise faceless, as intended.
They are dotted all over the city, faithfully guarding secrets, and Nadir used to constantly point them out to me when we were out walking.

"See that door?" he'd say, and my eyes would scan for a door. "That's a bar. During the terrorism the extremists liked to bomb bars, so they had to be kept hidden, and the guy would only let in someone he knew."

Nadir would repeat the commentary every time we passed a bar door, assuming I would be fascinated, as maybe some other foreigner he encountered had been. But it only made me sad.

In the early 1990s, an Islamic extremist party was poised to win an election when the military postponed the second round of voting. This spawned an angry, aggressive and all out horrific campaign of terror that lasted some six years and claimed the lives of about 200,000 Algerian citizens.

Nadir's brother was one of them. "I'd been working [as an interpreter] for the UN [in Algiers] when my mother called and told me to come home immediately" he said. "I didn't find out what it was all about until I got there."

His brother was killed by a bomb, he said; his best friend's throat was slit while on a bus at what turned out to be a fake checkpoint. Recounting this, Nadir puffs on his black market cigarette, betraying no emotion.

Since 2000, when now-ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was all but placed into office by the military--and then more officially elected in 2004--the terrorism has curbed significantly. And Algiers itself has stood strong, having experienced no real threat for years.

But last week two bombs were detonated inside the capital, including a suicide bomber who blew up 25 people outside the prime minister's office (injuring around 200), officially bringing terrorism back to this North African nation.

I was in Algiers between October and February working as a journalism consultant for a newspaper, which is where I met Nadir, my interpreter.

One evening I stood alone outside the newspaper building, Nadir and some of the other journalists quick to catch up with me. It was time for them to ask what I thought of Algeria, and they had followed me out there to get the score.

I had already been there a few weeks, so platitudes were discarded, words uncloaked. There is a menace on the streets, I told them, that I hadn't recalled feeling before. And I said I was baffled by communication: I often felt led with both hands down the wrong path. The conversational equivalent of fun house mirrors.

The editor-in-chief explained to me why. "During the terrorism, we had no idea who to trust. This wasn't a real war with real sides. You never knew who the bad guys were, so you learned to say what you thought you should say."

"And we learned to read body language extremely well," added Nadir. "That's how we communicate now instead."

From Europe, the inbound flight into the capital swings across the tip of the Bay of Algiers and glides farther over the city, which stands awash in a chalky white mass of French colonial structures. The plane then sweeps around to bring the full Bay into view, in all of its magnificence.

This city and this nation is as dramatic as its coastline, and its history as tragic as the hearts that behold it.

It is a country that was mostly assembled by occupiers--Romans, Arabs, Turks and then the French, who held onto it for more than 130 years, finally releasing the nation back to its own in 1962, after a hard-fought, decade-long war.

The city has survived, although wears its scars as open wounds. The cafe lifestyle imported by the French was banned during the years of terrorism for safety reasons, and because people rarely trusted each other to sit and have a coffee together.

The Casbah, the older, wiser cousin of an Old Town, is dilapidated and crime-ridden, and foreigners only enter with a guard.

Algeria has been more stable in recent years. But in certain pockets of the country, bombs are still routinely used in the absence of guns to wipe out opponents or threats; traversing the country overland is reckless, at best; and Westerners taking taxis (especially alone) is simply not done.

Standing there outside the paper, as the sun eased its way out of the sky, I asked the handful of reporters if anyone had friends or relatives killed by the terrorists, as Nadir had. All said they had.

But seven years into relative peace, with a fledgling but promising economy, they seemed to feel the worst was behind them.

Yet during the three and a half months I was there, activity began to increase. The extremist group had recently announced a happy marriage with Al Qaeda, and the honeymoon soon began. A bus carrying United States government contractors was machine-gunned and bombed on the outskirts of the city. A police station was bombed, small bombs went off close to the downtown press center, near a hospital.

When the publisher--whose spouse was killed in an act of terrorism 10 years prior--discovered I had donned a hijab and visited a mosque with a local female journalist, a finger was sharply wagged in my face. "You cannot go there, Patricia. It is too dangerous for you and too dangerous for me."

As the publisher retreated back behind an office door, I remained in the corridor, taken aback, the two editors with me also silenced and discomfited by the stern warning. After a short pause, I told one of the editors that I liked to window shop in the mornings. Is that okay? Probably, he said. Except you should alternate your days and times, and never go to the same shop twice.

Despite the increase in attacks last fall, most of my Algiers colleagues still felt somewhat secure, certain the strikes would wane after the May elections. But the only thing certain is the cynicism that comes with generations of war, and with 200,000 citizens dead at the hands of so-called neighbors, coworkers, bakers, shopkeepers, businessmen.

And last week's horrific attack made that clear. As the editor-in-chief wrote me in an email two days later: "Don't worry more than necessary. I mean, everyone here has a lot of experience with these events. All is 'normal' now."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

On Being Virginian

By Patti McCracken
Spotlight Magazine
April 2007

"I'm a Virginian. Virginians are the most conceited people on earth. There's nothing higher you can aspire to."
Lady Nancy Astor

"I love Virginians because Virginians are all snobs and I like snobs. A snob has to spend so much time being a snob that he has little time left to meddle with you."
William Faulkner

The kodachrome has clouded with age, the vivid yellow of my mother's bathing suit refashioned into a soft and muted tone, and the sharp whites of the boat now paled and blended into a once blue sky. But as the custodian of my young yesterdays, this kodachrome has done its primary job of locking in on my mother as a 30-something woman who wears a chic bathing suit and perches her youngest child, her sixth child, upon her hip. The two of us are next to the captain's wheel on Uncle Walter's boat; she holding me, smiling placidly and expertly into the camera, me in my little blue dress, squinting my eyes at the bright sun, unsmiling.
Uncle Walter had a stately home on meadow green land that rolled right down into the Chesapeake Bay, where he docked his boat just to the left of his boathouse. Up the hill was stationed an old tree that held on its branch a yards-long swing, upon which I would stand, knees knocking, hands sweating, heart slamming furiously against the inside of my chest wall as I swung high above the hill, above the boathouse, ready for flight into a bay which seemed to hurry by beneath me, until the swing withdrew and lowered over the grass again.
That old wooden swing is as definitive of my Virginia summers as iced tea sipped on front porches, sand-speckled suntan lotion lathered on, a salty ocean, goober peas (peanuts) eaten from huge burlap sacks, the shade of weeping willows, sweet corn sold from roadside stalls, and bushels of crabs (caught during grand outings on Uncle Walter's boat) dumped live into a porcelain bathtub, soon to be steamed and eaten.
This is the kodachrome of my Virginia youth, yet still unfaded.
The Virginia that colored my childhood was as vivid as the Virginia that vaulted from our elementary school history books, or that beckoned us from the highway with innumerable signposts glorifying battles or heros (both actual and otherwise).
When we studied history as schoolchildren, we were taught about our state in elaborate and dramatic detail, teachers arranging impromptu re-enactments of the first colonial settlement at Roanoke inside the classrooms, desks pushed against the walls to create more room in the "fort." All other history was learned by default or by proxy, since everyone knew that any history of any significance was rooted in Virginia.
What other kid would name their doll Pocahontas, as my sister did, than a Virginia kid? A few years ago, another sister convinced her own five kids to dress up as pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving--the very first of which, incidentally, took place in Virginia. The kids wizened up the next year, nixing the bonnets, three-cornered hats and feathered headdresses, but what other family would have done that even once, except a Virginia family?
In that classroom fort, some nine-year-old boy played the part of Sir Walter Raleigh, an Englishman credited with creating the first settlement in the New World. It was on Roanoke Island that Raleigh pitched his camp, in a land that became known as Virginia, (named for Queen Elizabeth I, the "virgin queen"), and which, at one point, consumed most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, from the southern tip of South Carolina, to the northernmost point of Maine. (Roanoke Island is now part of North Carolina).
Sir Walter Raleigh is as big in Virginia history as is George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, two original native sons. We knew Raleigh as a pre-founding father, a brave explorer, a Virginian even, like ourselves, whose British past was something less than noteworthy.
Raleigh sailed to the New World in the 16th Century, using mostly his own money, hoping to profit from gold that was reported to be abundant along the coast. It turned out to be "Fool's Gold," just fistfulls of pyrite that still blanket that part of the coast.
A second group of colonists followed Raleigh's first team, still determined to reap substantial reward. This group of about 100 people attempted to settle decades before the establishment of Jamestown (considered the first official colony), and before anyone back in England realized the brutal and bare bones existence that would ensue.
In a mystery that remains unsolved more than four hundred years later, the colony that followed Raleigh's vanished within a year. Raleigh conducted a search, and teams of archeologists have searched since, and no one has answered the question of what happened to these people, this lost colony. Several theories are floated, one of which is that the colonists "went native," migrating into the Appalachian mountain range and joining a local tribe. Some experts believe they are the people known today as "melungeons"--often considered a pejorative-- a pseudo- ethnic group residing in the mountains, whose skin tone is darker than that of their Caucasian neighbors, but who bear English surnames.

The first time I remember taking a family trip was to drive about 50 minutes to Manteo, N.C., just across the Virginia border, to see the play "The Lost Colony," staged in an ampitheater by a host of local amateur actors. I was five. Some twenty-odd years later, my sister took her British husband to see the play, still an annual production, and he wept with mirth as the actors glided in and out of their faked British accents.
The original "first family trip"---one taken before I was born, ---was a drive to Jamestown, where my two eldest brothers donned Captain John Smith hats and ran with fake Indian spears around the re-created fort.
Jamestown Settlement was established by Captain John Smith, after 18 earlier attempts at settlement by colonists had failed. But again, conditions were harsh, and archeologists now believe that during the early years, known now as the "starvation years," the region experienced the worst drought it had known in 700 years. Bad relations with the Indians made matters worse. More than half of the settlers died in the first year, and manic letters home to England demonstrated that madness, most likely caused by malnutrition and dissentery, was rampant.
But after a few years, some successful tobacco crops were planted, meaning goods could be shipped back to England; and the inclusion by marriage into the colony of local Indian princess Pocahontas meant better relations with the natives. And later on, continental Europeans began to arrive, including German craftsmen along the likes of glassmakers and carpenters. Things began to prosper.
The Jamestown National Historic site has matured nicely, and is now part of the National Park Service. This spring, Jamestown will host a visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, in honor of Jamestown's 400th anniversary: the beginning of America.
Just a stone's throw away is the famed city of Williamsburg, the former capital of the nation and home to America's first university, the esteemed College of William and Mary. Colonial Williamsburg is a portion of the city marked off for tourists, where streets are filled with faux yet stylish millenary shops, apothecaries, and blacksmiths, and where shopkeepers and craftspeople are dressed in colonial-style garb.
Farther on up the road from Jamestown and Williamsburg, and further into the tangled and darker narrative of the South, lies the city of Richmond. It is the state capital, and during the Civil War served as the capital of the Confederacy.
Along with other southern states, Virginia ceded from the United States over the issue of slavery, but not before a division within its own state, a part of which broke off and stayed with "the union", becoming the state of West Virginia.
To be Virginian is to be baptized into a legacy of not only the birth of a nation, but to be awash in the struggle that nearly shattered it.
Virginia was pro-slavery, full of antebellum homes and plantations built and sustained by the hard labor of Africans brought over in the slave trade. Virginia was in the heart of the rebellion, and as a matter of tradition, still honors as heros what most of America views as traitors.
One of the main thoroughfares through Richmond is Monument Avenue, decorated with statues of what can only be described as treasonous Americans (they did, after all, cede from the nation)--such as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the Confederacy. All monuments allegedly face North, as if in defiance of what many Virginians still call the "War of Northern Aggression."
In parts of Virginia, Robert E. Lee still ranks higher than even George Washington, as he represents a steely pride.
There is a legend about Lee that circulates through some of the state, one that places him after the war, after his defeat, after slaves were freed, after Virginia and the rest of the South was reunited with the country it sought to disband. Lee is seated in church, surrounded by an all-white congregation, when an emancipated slave walks in (a place he was heretofore forbidden to enter), walks past the rows of white people, walks up to the altar to receive Communion, and kneels to pray. After a few moments General Lee cracks the stunned silence of the white parishioners by rising from his seat and shuffling to the altar, where he joins the black man; a man he fought hard to keep bound in chains. The two foes stay alone at the altar, kneeling together in prayer.

The famous sons all Virginians flaunt are the eight presidents it has delivered--more than any other state.
It's worth noting that the only book Thomas Jefferson ever felt moved to write was about his home state ("Notes on Virginia"). Jefferson's home Monticello is exquisite. He designed it, as well as the campus of the elite University of Virginia in Charlottesville (toward the Blue Ridge Mountains), a college he founded.
George Washington's home in Northern Virginia is Mount Vernon, just a few miles beyond Old Town, Alexandria, a charming, revolutionary war-era town center on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
A few years back I was helping my friend Tim look for an apartment in Old Town. We came upon a one-bedroom carriage house, in which we had to constantly duck to keep from hitting our heads on the beamed ceilings. The place was tiny and impractical and he fell in love with it. Only later did he find out that it was built by George Washington's ferryman. He then loved it even more, despite the bumps on his forehead when he forgot to duck.

We have a proverb in America: You bloom where you were planted. One of my brothers now lives in Memphis, and he tells me that he knows he's crossed into Virginia when the hickory gives way to pine.
I know I'm home when I can taste the salt of the ocean in the air.
Before I left the US to live in Europe, I swung back home from Chicago for one last breath of Virginia. On my last night, I tucked a sleeping bag into my car and drove to 76th Street, the north end of Virginia Beach, and where my childhood had been played out in technicolor. Where my sister had taken my small hand into her small hand and gently brought me past the breaking shoreline, day after day, until I was old enough to go it alone. Where the waves arced above our heads before gloriously crashing down, or bringing us gleefully back to shore. Where the sand was golden. Where thunderstorms rolled in like freight trains, making us squeal and run for cover. Where I was planted.
I rolled out the sleeping bag and got inside, cradling myself to get warm and shuddering with the thrill and fear of being alone with the mighty ocean at night. I awoke just before dawn to a softer rhythm of the waves lapping at the shore. Oh, Virginia.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Welcome to the Stalin Museum

By Patti McCracken
Published: Virginian Pilot

The keychain costs about 50 cents. It comes in a little plastic bag with
a staple through the middle, and is sometimes given away free to
visiting foreigners.
 On one side of the keychain is a thumbnail size photo, a scratchy black
and white of the revolutionary when he was in his early 20s.
 On the flip side of this cheap souvenir is an image of the same man
about 30  years later, no longer a revolutionary, but a despot who
commanded one of the most heinous reigns of terror in the history of
mankind.

Welcome to the Stalin Museum.
Actual facts are of little consequence here, much as they were when the
museum opened in 1937, when Stalin was still very busy arranging mass
murders and ethnic cleansings, the tremendous scale of which are still
being felt half a century after his death.
  Josef Stalin is a hero to many here in his hometown of Gori, Georgia,
and most certainly in the halls of this museum--a local boy done good.
He is the man who put Russia on the map and transformed it into a mighty
superpower, the man who liberated Europe from the Nazis and saved it
from Fascism. He is the good son, the poet, the brave freedom fighter,
the diplomat, and even the genius inventor. And in these hallways of
praise, he is Ghandi, DaVinci, Galileo, Martin Luther King and the Dalai
Lama all rolled into one.
 He is, as many Georgians like to say, "the great son of the Georgian
nation."
 The feeling was never mutual, the great son holding such contempt for
his countrymen that he dismissively referred to his homeland as "that
small area of Russia, which calls itself Georgia."
  This sad city of Gori is everything that is wrong with Georgia today,
and what is wrong with Georgia today is rooted in Stalin. It is
wreckage, hopelessness, alcoholism, vandalism, poverty, joblessness,
paranoia, violence, pollution, grime, neglect, despair. But what drives
Georgia's misguided reverence of their fallen hero is the same force
that drove Stalin to become the monster he was: a massive inferiority
complex. To those who feel small, infamy is equal to fame, and without
Stalin, this little country is just "that small area.......which calls
itself Georgia." A nobody.
  He didn't hate himself, but he hated who he was, Josef Jugashvili from
Georgia, a poor cobbler's son.  He was born in the one room, ramshackle
house that sits adjacent to the museum. In America it would be known as
a humble log cabin, Lincolnesque.
A garish, marble, parthenon-style structure has been erected around
Stalin's boyhood home, incongruously dwarfing the tiny house. It hugs
the house tightly, squeezing out whatever charm the tiny house may have
once had, mocking its small size; but Stalin was apparently quite
pleased with the structure built to honor him, proudly comparing it to
the one constructed over the stable in which Jesus was born.
 Stalin was born in Gori, but his mother sent him off to the seminary in
Tbilisi to become a priest. He became a bank robber instead, an
insurgent who stole money for "the cause," and would end up being carted
off to jail or hauled to Siberia for his contributions to the Bolshevik
Revolution. He was the worker bee--the one who handed out leaflets and
helped organize worker strikes.
 He tried out several names during this period, but what truly shed his
skin of Georgia, a land which was an unwilling colony of Russia, was his
decision to name himself Stalin, a Russian word meaning  "man of steel."
  He didn't hate himself for his weaknesses, he hated others for their
strengths. After wrestling power away from influential intellectual
revolutionaries, which he was not, he eventually had them killed and
essentially named himself  supreme leader: or rather, transformed the
once mid-level, clerical post of General Secretary into one of two most
powerful positions in the world.
 The museum guide does not mention this. She also fails to mention the
multiple millions of displaced citizens--entire republics ethnically
cleansed, purportedly for the greater good of Russia. Nor do we learn
about the millions of citizens Stalin had murdered-estimates of the
number killed go as high as 50 million by some scholars, but most agree
he is responsible for the violent deaths of somewhere around 20 million
of his own countrymen.  In his rush to industrialize the USSR and
overhaul the agricultural structure--a process known as
collectivation--the most successful farmers were executed (they were
considered counter-revolutionaries), and those that resisted the
government takeover of their property met the same fate (also
counter-revolutionaries).
 "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic," Stalin
is famous for saying, proving himself to be made of steel.
 The museum is without electricity or proper plumbing, as is much of
Georgia today, so the halls are lit by a flashlight or someone's
lighter, and are cold and drafty some days. The chill is appropriate,
lending itself to the image of what the world has come to understand
Stalin to truly be: a monster.
 But the evidence is not here. Instead, visitors see photos of Stalin
with world leaders , family snapshots of him with his wife and children,
and propaganda about how he nearly single-handedly fought off the
invading Germans and regained Europe's freedom in World War II.
 Visitors are not told that the photos have been airbrushed to place
Stalin with the world leaders, that his wife and son committed suicide
and his daughter sought political asylum in the United States, and that
Stalin's refusal to listen to advisors' stern warnings  about Hitler's
impending invasion, and his subsequent mismanagement of the war cost
millions of innocent lives.
 There are photos of the victories, people celebrating in the street at
the war's end, but no photos of the millions killed by Stalin in his 30
years of terror, no photos of the displaces citizens, no photos of the
intellectual revolutionaries he so despised, including his archrival
Trotsky,exiled to Mexico and later assinated by Stalin's men (they used
an ice pick(.
 And no photos of Georgia before the wreckage of Stalin's reign, when
she was a nation of poets, with traditions steeped in an ancient
language and a mythology that still influences the world; no photos of
when she was a bustling trade center, proudly part of the famed Silk
Road.
 In Kruschev's famous "Secret Speech," in which he forthrightly
addressed the Communist Congress about Stalin's murderous mentality, he
calls him "an absolutely insufferable character....everywhere and in
everything he saw "enemies," "two-facers" and "spies."
 In this museum, the Red Room is the last room visitors see. It is
mostly empty, dramatizing the effect of the single item in the room, the
death mask, which is positioned in the very center and encased in a
large block of glass.
 The excessive size of the empty room, the moody red walls, the thick
block of glass, all make Stalin's face look so diminutive, so small. In
here he looks like a nobody.


Link

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Travellin' Prayer

By Patti McCracken
Copyright Spotlight Magazine
May 2007

It was a blue Chevy, and it was the autumn after the summer of love, and they were four girls on an American road trip, far from home, about to walk into a dark and broody bar somewhere in Colorado.
It was intimidating, this bar full of locals craning their necks to see who were the new kids in town swinging through the saloon doors. But the girls warmed the place with their youth, and warmed hearts with their colt-like use of English and their exotic accents.
It wasn't more than a matter of minutes before some of the locals asked these European madchens to attend their Native American ceremonial dance, and decades later the gesture is still tenderly recalled by one of the erstwhile travelers.
"We started a conversation, saying 'we are from Europe,' and the next thing we know we're being invited to this big celebration," says Elisabeth Speiser.
"It was really impressive [at the ceremony] to see these youngsters with these large feathers [headdress] dancing in a circle. It was something to see. And I think the Indians were touched that foreigners had come and were interested in their own way of life."
Speiser, an Austrian, and her three German friends put a whopping 25,000 kilometers on that blue Chevy in 1968, crisscrossing America, and skimming across into Canada and down into Mexico, too. A dizzying pace, considering it was done in a month.
They started in New York, and zoomed along to the famed but now faded Route 66, visited Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and as many places as they could pack into such a short trip.
"That was a great experience," says Speiser. "The people were very friendly. And very helpful.
It was the first step out of my country.... and it is still the greatest time in my life."
Speiser is now an investigations specialist for Raiffeisenbank in Vienna, but when she came to New York as a 20-year-old au pair, she was just a small town girl from Tyrol. "I arrived at JFK [airport] and knew how to say 'yes' and 'no' but that was about it."
She learned English during her year and a half in America, and later spent some time working in South Africa. She has continued to travel back and visit America with her family, having been to at least 47 of the 50 states.
Since Speiser's days of ricocheting across the continent in a Chevy on the pennies she saved working as a nanny, opportunities for Germans who want to work abroad have blossomed.
Websites such as monsters.com post a variety of work opportunities for foreigners.
And a South African site, jobs.co.za, reports that it currently has 250,000 CVs in its database. South Africa is suffering a brain drain, so there is a lot of full time work for educated professionals.
"For the past 10 years, the main draw has been for people with engineering skills, whether it be IT, business engineering, or basic mechanical and electrical engineering," says Tertia Calitz, managing director of jobs.co.za.
On the other hand, in countries such as the United States, which has a plethora of white collar workers, but lacks skilled laborers, companies tend to look for temporary employees when considering foreign applicants. Seasonal workers, like farmhands or campsite helpers, are in demand, but the problem of working abroad under these circumstances can be one of logistics. Since green cards are not issued for such work, and visas are temporary, the guest worker must periodically return to their home country to comply with government regulations--not easy or cheap when the home country is several thousand miles and an ocean away.
So for those who are content with just a short-term gig, spending a summer working as a bartender or groundskeeper might be the way to go. Or do as Speiser did, and sign on as an au pair.
But if a career of globetrotting strikes a chord, then there are companies and organizations that fit the bill.
Every couple of years the Wirtschaftskammer Oesterreich has an intensive training program in Vienna, in which Austrian university graduates under the age of 28 can participate. There are only 10 spots available for more than 100 applicants, so competition is tough, but for those who succeed, a lifetime of travel is secured.
"Basically, our job is to be like little international gypsies going around the world," says Dr. Gustav Gressel, Regional Manager for North America and Latin America at the Wirtschaftskammer.
Gressel's terms abroad are from 5-7 years. His first international assignment was in New York, followed by Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, back to the US (Houston, TX), a relatively brief stop back in Vienna, and then off to Brussels. He's preparing for his next move, which will be to Thailand, and will come sometime this summer.
"If I had it to do again, I'd probably do it all over again," says Gressel.
"You have to be prepared to learn all your life. A different country means a different background, so you have to adapt every time." says Gressel. "That's the challenge, but that's also the fun of it."
But for every international gypsy happily ambling around the planet, there is a grousing spouse or kids following behind. Or, at least, potentially.
"The only negative thing is the hardship on the family. The partner has to come with and start everything from scratch," says Gressel.
Note: if you feel this next quote emphasizes the age of both of the sources with internat'l experience, it might be best to leave it out. "And my children all react differently. I have three kids. One is angry and says she feels rootless. Another is thrilled and thanks me, and the third is in the middle."
Gressell credits openmindedness with a successful work experience abroad, and that goes hand-in-hand with cultural sensitivity.
The Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts places native German speakers with firms in the USA, and is very clear about what it looks for in successful candidates.
“[you are often hired because] you are a native German speaker and you are fluent in English. But even more important will be your ability to cooperate and communicate in a highly diverse, multicultural environment, compared to what you are used to," writes Rob Delton in a recent email. Delton is Director of Career Services at Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts, and as in the case of jobs.co.za, Delton's firm also has a high interest in recruiting Germans with technical or engineering backgrounds.
"If you're just starting out, the best way to go would be to get an internship or an academic exchange program," says Delton. "But at any stage of the career we want experience that tells us that this person is open to new or different perspectives."
Calitz of jobs.co.za in South Africa agrees. "Workers just have to get used to the kind of people here. The culture is more diverse and it's a question of mutual respect."
Speiser piled 25,000 kilometers onto that old Chevy, but what she gained in personal experience is incalculable.
She still keeps in contact with her New York 'family' and with her American Road Trip girls.
She has developed a philosophy of life that she credits with her days as a naive au pair, showing up on the doorstep of New York with little English and a lot of hope.
"Changing and learning. That's pretty much what life is."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lydia's Life

This was supposed to run in the Chicago Tribune, but it hasn't yet.
--Patti McCracken


She is an old woman now, but she remembers the day her father was taken.
It was the middle of the summer; they had both come back from working in the fields, she says, and she was inside doing housework while he was out in the yard.
Someone from the mayor's office appeared and told her father to come with him, and Lydia never saw her father again.
"I think he knew he was in danger," she says, "because he was trying to teach me everything about the farm, as if he was in a hurry for me to know."
To speed up the "russification" of the Soviet Union states--in this case, the small country of Moldova situated near Ukraine--Stalin turned force labor into an industry, one which played a central role in the Soviet economy. Whether it be the gulag (a vast network of nearly 500 camps throughout the USSR, each containing thousands of prisons) or deportation to colonize the bitter, hostile terrain of Siberia--every non-Communist was at risk.
And successful farmers were especially at risk, considered to be counter-revolutionaries because their notable business skills did not fall into Stalin's concept of collectivization.
Lydia's father was a successful farmer.
Stalin required quotas to be met, x number of people for x number of prison labor camps. So blacklists were compiled at local levels, and anyone crossing the wrong person, well, had someone from the mayor's office come calling.
"Our house was near the town hall, and all the time, especially after the war (WWII), a lot of reconstruction was going on. My father was a good farmer and had all of this equipment, and they always came to him to use his stuff. My father finally got angry and [told them] please don't bother me anymore," says Lydia. "And the mayor's office took revenge in the worst way."
That fall, after her father was taken from his front yard, Lydia started college in Moldova's capital city, Chisinau, not far from her village.
She stepped outside during a break in classes one afternoon. A large, flatbed truck filled with workers rumbled past. Someone shouted at her, a man was shouting from the truck. "Your father is in here! Your father is in here!" shouted the man. "He's in here, but he's too sick to stand up!"
As the truck trundled on out of sight, and as Lydia stood shocked on the sidewalk, she only then recognized the man screaming at her about her father. He was a neighbor, a man from the same village as she, who had disappeared on that same hot summer day her father did.
She learned her father was in a prison in Chisinau and each Saturday she'd try to bring food for him, knowing it would be consumed by prison guards, but bringing it nonetheless. Thousands of prisoners would shuffle past in a thick line, shoulders crouched, heads down, forbidden to look up, click clacking in their handmade, wooden shoes. Lydia is startled by her memory of the click-clacking wooden shoes. Says she can't believe she remembers the click-clack. She utters a "hmm", and gives a little nod of disbelief at what her brain has held onto all these years.
She and the others would stand quietly as the parade of prisoners passed by, making their way from the canteen back to their cells. "If we shouted their names," says Lydia, "guards pointed guns at us to shut us up."
Word got out that winter that her father had died.
In a few years she would also be taken away.
It was dark out. A late night in early July, the same month her father disappeared years before. There was a ruckus unfolding on the street below, and her Russian roommates moved to the window to see what was going on. Lydia stayed put, but strained to hear what the other girls were whispering about at the window in their native tongue. She got up to see for herself. From their second floor window the girls watched as a Russian soldier entered the house across the street.
The night of July 5, 1949, was the largest Siberian deportation that Stalin conducted in Moldova, carrying away nearly 36,000 people overnight--12,000 of them children. The only other one occurred June 12, 1941. Both happened in the dead of night, both were a surprise, both stole lives and livelihoods in a single blink.
But Lydia only saw a single Russian soldier enter a single house. It was not history yet, and she could not yet see her own history reflected in it.
On her lunch break the following day, she went over to her uncle's house for a quick visit. He lived near the food shop where she worked and there were no customers about--eerily quiet, she would later reflect--so she just wanted to nip out for a few minutes to say "hi."
She entered through the front gate. No one at first appeared to be home, but the front door was standing wide open. Unusual. A small dog was in the yard. In the house she noted other things--her cousin's handbag on the table. Inconsequential snapshot memories of small dogs and handbags have inserted themselves like props into Lydia's recall of her life's drama.
She also remembers seeing two women in the kitchen; one was a neighbor she recognized, a communist, who was helping another woman count things, such as spoons and plates, taking an inventory of her uncle's household items. Writing down what could be used, what couldn't.
She slipped unnoticed into another room, but her crying led them to her. Who is this, said the inventory-taker. The niece, said the neighbor. The two of them kicked her out of her uncle's house and resumed tallying up his family's possessions.

Lydia says she wasn't in shock but her actions would indicate otherwise. She didn't go to her family in the village, or return home even to cry, she simply returned to work.
They found her there at the shop. Four people pulled up in a truck--two Russian soldiers, a driver and her sister's husband, a Communist who led the soldiers to her.
Her boss, also a Communist, appeared from the back office and began taking a little salami and cheese from the store shelves and putting them into a bag to give to her.
Why will I need this, asked Lydia. Maybe they will take me out to the woods and shoot me, she said.
You will need the food for your journey, said her boss. You're going to Siberia.
And then suddenly Lydia knew. She knew everyone knew but her. She knew why her Russian roommates were whispering the night before, and she knew why so few people were in the shop (had either been taken already, or knew she would be), and she knew that her communist boss had information about her fate and hadn't warned her. And that her brother-in-law had betrayed her.
"I don't know why he did it," said Lydia. "Maybe because he was frightened of what [his fellow] Communists would do to him if he didn't."

The two guards circled around her with their guns drawn.
You don't need to do that, she told them, I won't escape. We have our orders, they said.
At the train station she was asked if she wanted to travel to Siberia with her mother and younger brother.
"You've taken my mother, too?!?! Of course I want to be with her!" she said.
They were loaded onto cattle cars. Her memory is fussy. Particular. She doesn't remember how many people were in her car--only that it was overcrowded--or if there were young children, but only that she had a watch, and that the train left the station at exactly 1 a.m. And that they had only one layer of clothes.
"My family was lucky because we had a spot near the little window, so it was easier to breathe." said Lydia.
She tilts her head slightly to the left, to demonstrate how she slept, that she slept standing up and rested her head against something. Or someone.
There were a number of Jewish people in her car and one of them was Anna, who became her best friend.
She doesn't recall what was talked about by the others to pass the time. She didn't talk much to them. Kept to herself. Says she wasn't very sociable.
"Anna still teases me about the sash I had that I'd take and put over my eyes to try to sleep." says Lydia, closing her eyes and miming with a make-believe sash.
They were in a cattle car and thus, no toilets. The train stopped periodically--Lydia doesn't recall how often--so they could go outdoors.
After two weeks they were allowed to take a bath.
After two more weeks they arrived in Siberia. When they arrived, they arrived at nowhere. No houses, no roads, no paths; an isolated, uninhabitable forest near a river.
Much can be recorded about Lydia's life in Siberia: chigger bites and mosquito bites so bad faces were swollen beyond recognition; working outdoors in -40C temperatures without adequate clothing; under constant surveillance by guards. Four weeks standing up in an overcrowded cattle car with no toilet facilities.
They are the facts. They are no testament to the indignities and hardships endured by millions of unlucky Soviet citizens.
Nearly every Moldovan has a relative or knows someone who was sent to the gulag or to Siberia. Fathers and grandfathers were taken and put on the front lines without weapons during wartime, an easy and cost-efficient way for Stalin to rid the USSR of dissidents.
Others were taken because of special skills, and still others because they were blacklisted for spite, like Lydia's family.
Memoria, a non-profit in Chisinau, has been set up to memorialize these victims, and to help them psychologically cope with a tragedy that few will speak of.
Molly Lamphear, a peace corps volunteer, is putting together an oral history, so that when this younger generation is ready to hear, they will have something to listen to. Lydia's sash, the click-clacking wooden shoes, her uncle's house, her roommate's hushed tones, her betraying brother-in-law, will not be forgotten.
Lydia and her family spent six and a half years in Siberia, returning home to Moldova only after Stalin died in 1953.
"We heard the news of Stalin's death on the radio. A Russian worker [at the Siberian camp] was crying. She said 'Look at them! Stalin has died and they are laughing!' " she says.
When she came back to Chisinau her former boss (the one who packed salami and cheese for her deportment) asked her why she didn't stay. Didn't you like it there, asked the boss.
Her brother-in-law is still alive, and she shrugs before she stops to talk about him.
"When I came back from Siberia I saw him. The only thing he said to me was 'I'm sure you're upset with me.' "

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

In Algeria

I've not been posting articles for a couple of months--while I'm on assignment for a journalism training project in Algeria. More articles will be posted after the New Year. Meanwhile, my other site is updated regularly:
Link

Friday, October 06, 2006

Gyurscany's Conscience Should Count for Something

Patti McCracken
World Politics Watch Exclusive
As a joke, he once called the Saudi Arabian soccer team "terrorists," something Arab states found not so funny. And as a jab at an older politician he was replacing, he said "every man whose wife grows old has earned a younger woman," something women found not so funny.

And last month an audio tape surfaced that was not a jab and not a joke, but an admission of lies, lies, lies about the economy, something the people of Hungary found not funny at all.


Hungary's hip Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurscany has never been in hotter water, but he has never exactly been out of it, either. And that has as much to do with his character -- which can be egotistical, arrogant and feckless -- as it does with Hungary's troubled Communist past, which is woven tightly and inextricably into the untidy democracy that has emerged today.

The leaked tape recorded Gyurscany in a private meeting last spring with fellow party members saying that he and his government had lied to the electorate "morning, evening and night," about the state of the Hungarian economy, which is in far worse shape than he or his Socialist party led on. "I don't want to do that [lie] anymore," he said. Gyurscany is the first prime minister to win a second term in office during the 15 years of post-communism.

A couple of years ago I was working on a story in a backwater town in Hungary, an interpreter sitting beside me in a restaurant, beers on the table, and a television in front of us showing then-prime minister Peter Medgyessy speaking.

"What's he saying?" I asked.
"He's answering questions. It has come out that he really was a Communist spy for 20 years, [as had been reported]," said my interpreter. "They're all spies."

There is a common problem for post-communist states: After the Wall came down and democracy moved in, the only candidates qualified for the jobs of running the government were the communists that had been overthrown. No one else had any practical experience.

So after a quick makeover, the Communist Party became the Social Democrats, and, voila, communists were repackaged into democrats, ready to serve.

And 45-year-old Gyurscany (pronounced Gore-chaan) followed suit and remade himself. He had been a communist youth leader, having served as a vice president of the Organization of Young Communists, president at the university level, and vice president again of the organization's successor. When Communism fell in Hungary, he left politics and returned to it later as a democrat.

Like many successful ex-communists, he is despised by the have-nots for the money he made during the transition period. Always a man in the right place at the right time, Gyurscany profited from the Communist collapse by forming an investment company that bought up formerly state-owned companies, polished them up, then re-sold them. With a net worth of about €15 million ($19.5 million), he has become the 50th wealthiest man in Hungary.

After the fall of Communism, the middle class and working class Communists were marginalized. I have friends whose parents were fired from their jobs because they had been members of the Party.

But for the jet set -- the communist youth leaders and the spies --opportunity has continued to knock. Not only did being a communist spy not hinder Gyurscany's predecessor's rise to the top position in the country, many believe Gyurscany's (third) marriage to the granddaughter of a powerful Stalin-era communist secured him political favors.

"He is an opportunist who played both sides well," says Dr. Bela Bodo, a Hungarian history lecturer at the University of Missouri. "He was close to the fire, part of the apparatchik, and had info that others didn't have, which helped him in his [investment] business. He became rich because of his political connections. Then he turned around and became a politician because of his business connections."

He reinvented himself by turning from a communist into a wealthy capitalist, and reinvented the Social Democrat party by giving it a modern face, which has upset many within his party. They feel as though he has hijacked it.

And many Hungarians do not like his manner.

"Hungarians are not, in general, happy people, and the prime minister is relaxed and easy going, and it rubs people the wrong way," says Bodo.

But Gyurscany has a strong crop of supporters, those who believe in his abilities, his mission, his commitment; those who believe he is a refreshing change from the graying group of conservatives that weigh down the right. His supporters like his shoot-from-the-hip style, they like that he keeps a blog (filled with personal anecdotes and political opinions), and they like that he is, in their eyes, a self-made man. They don't care so much that he lied because he confessed it, and was repentant.

And prime ministers lie. Presidents lie. George W. Bush and members of his administration lied before Congress and the UN and the people of the world about the premise of war in Iraq. And Tony Blair lied, too.

So when the top democratic leaders of the world are lying, why should the world expect more of young, struggling democracies?

Gyurscany's arrogance surely has led him to say foolish things, this is clear. His arrogance led him to believe that there were not enemies around him, recording his words to later use as a weapon against him. But his strength is that he confessed his lies to his own party. His strength is that he had the conscience to want to right the wrong he had done to his people. How many world leaders will follow him down that path?

Patti McCracken is a writer based near Vienna, Austria.