Sunday, March 18, 2007

Home Again

Our travels seem to be at an end for a while, so things should be picking up here again soon. Unlike some people, perhaps, I find it takes me a while to get back into the blogging rhythm. But it’ll come back. (Take that as a threat or a promise, as you choose.)

I’ve been catching up on some things I missed while being away from the internet for a while. I’m happy to find there are a lot of interesting and well-written things that have appeared, which I still need to work through before I can recommend and discuss them.

There is, of course, also the usual torrent of stupidity out there, and I’m wading through some of that as well.

But, trenchant social commentary aside, being on the road for a while—to the US and to Greece—did bring a couple of things to mind that I thought were worth mentioning.

The first was the reminder of how unrelentingly grim domestic air-travel in America has become. (Getting to an international flight is no easier, but at least in those cases—at least with Lufthansa—there’s some free booze awaiting you once airborne.) It begins with our friends in the Transport Security Administration. Now, I am well aware that the threat of terrorism is hardly a figment in the mind of George Bush, and I don’t even object so much to all the various little indignities which go along with the more intensive searching of bags and bodies (even if there is part of me that wonders how effective all that really is).

No, what I cannot figure out is how the American version of all this (since there is tight security within Europe as well) turns out to be such a cacophonous, zoo-like nightmare. Whether at O’Hare (which has long been a less than enjoyable place for various reasons) or even at BWI, hitherto one of my favourite airports (because it is relatively small and easy to navigate), there seemed to be a level of chaos and stress involved in simply getting to the gate that I’ve never experienced before.

Take dozens of uniformed people who, when they’re not chatting and joking amongst themselves are barking some not-very-well-enunciated commands; throw in a dozen or so different signs—in a dozen different typefaces and some of them handwritten, while others, I swear, included clip art taken from Microsoft Word and were printed on some crazily out-of-date colour printer—posted willy nilly in the ‘security zone’; finally, add a hefty amount of jostling from all directions by people who only realise at the last minute – despite all those shouted commands and confusing signs - that they have to remove their coats, shoes, laptops and little plastic baggie containing all their on-board liquids. This is a recipe for misery. (Not to mention the risk of serious burns among all those people I witnessed scarfing down the coffee they bought immediately before trying to go through security. Here lurks a future lawsuit….)

Since we were delayed by weather at O'Hare, we had several hours of listening to a voice intoning at regular intervals that our security alert level was ‘orange’; this was, simultaneously, unsettling, ridiculous and useless, a rare combination. We also had CNN running constantly on monitors strategically placed throughout the terminal so that you could hardly avoid them, and CNN on that day seemed to consist solely of a concerned (but strangely exhilarated) weatherman standing in front of a very nifty computer-generated map full of blobby looking green and orange shapes that, to be honest, told me nothing.

Or, at least, his frantic efforts and expensive technical wizardry aimed at expressing the horrendous severity of it all told us no more than the four words uttered by a helpful airlines employee earlier that morning: "We got weather comin'." Indeed. We did.

As I related this tale to someone at the crime conference we attended, he suggested that perhaps this would be a great opportunity for Americans to discover the joys of high-speed rail. It seems like a great idea to me. But I’m not holding my breath. (Perhaps America could buy some trains from France.)

In happier news, the conference in Crete was excellent. There were many thought-provoking and very informative papers, some good discussion and my own contribution seems to have been well received, which was nice. More importantly, though, the food and wine provided by the organisers was top-notch. Greek food, I discovered, is not only delicious but also comes in portions which I could barely comprehend. At the dinners we attended, new dishes just seemed to keep coming from all directions, and they were all great. From a culinary perspective, I can wholeheartedly recommend the place.

From the point of view of traffic, however…let’s just say there’s room for improvement.

It’s not so much that there is an enormous amount of traffic on Crete. No, it’s not that. It’s more an issue of quality rather than quantity.

As a historian at the conference with an insider’s perspective put it to me, Greeks see things like red lights and stop signs as ‘suggestions’ rather than imperatives. (The same is true, I noticed on the highways while travelling to and from Heraklion airport to the conference venue in Rethymnon, of ‘no-passing’ zones.) Likewise, parking is something that one does wherever an inviting space seems to present itself, regardless of what signs, double yellow lines or the safety of others might, um, suggest. The conference featured several papers about the figure of the ‘bandit’ in Greek history. In countless small ways, perhaps, his spirit lives on.

Finally, I had the delightful opportunity to meet for the first time several people whose academic work I have long appreciated. As ever, I was struck by the fact that authors never end up looking the way I expect them to. It’s not a question of better or worse: they're simply…different. I notice the same things with voices, and I have always been mystified as to why there is not some kind of greater match between people’s appearance and their voices (whether literal or literary). Maybe this doesn’t strike anyone else as strange. Maybe I'm just not good at putting face to voice.

Of course, then I get to thinking about whether others have thought something similar about me.


Well, onward we go…

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