Notes for My Father on Returning from Europe and North Africa

New Orleans       Continuing a tradition, when my father was alive, he would ask me what I learned that might interest him from my travels, so here are quick notes that would have intrigued him, and perhaps you.

  • In Tunis, we ate a something that tasted delicately like a peach, but was flat. One of our delegation called it a “flat peach,” and claimed they also ate this near Boston and upstate New York.  We also ate plums that were green and pale yellow.
  • In central and southern Netherlands, I was introduced to a working-class staple, a narrow, six-inch sausage made of mysterious meat parts, called frikandel. One of my colleagues was a huge fan and reported that near Heerlen there was a restaurant that specializes in various types of frikandel.  I tasted it, and it was alright.  Getting on a train from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf, I did a doubletake to see that Burger King was trying to start a frikandel craze with a special offering.
  • Staying near the center of Dusseldorf, Germany, I seemed to be living in an Asian neighborhood. As we ate lunch in a nearby Korean restaurant, I asked a colleague what was the story on this neighborhood.  It turned out that there was a special treaty between Japan and several other countries and Germany that brought workers in to the city as part of an exchange, and it ended up with many staying and creating the neighborhood and a significant population.
  • In Catania, Sicily, staying with a colleague on the third floor of a seven-story apartment complex, early one morning I was standing on the balcony looking down at the street and noticed a moving truck double-parked in front of the building next door where two workers were trying to wrangle a large bureau into the truck and off of a suspended platform. At first, I couldn’t figure out whether it was a curious truck lift or something else.  Turned out it was something else.  A closer look revealed that the platform was attached to a metal ladder that went all the way up to the unit and was an elevator of sorts that moved hydraulically up to the unit, similar to a hook-and-ladder firetruck.  A table came down next.  It was a two-truck, three man moving operation.  Perhaps this is common for complexes in Europe with small elevators and no freight elevators, but it was new to me in Sicily.
  • Tunisia still allows smoking in restaurants everywhere.
  • In Amsterdam to keep tourists from scamming on the trams, there is a worker behind a desk next to the entrance to both answer questions and check that all customers came on and off by swiping their tickets.
  • Parking in Catania, Sicily is privatized. Parking is highly prized on public streets. Residents pay to park between blue lines, and the private parking company works the streets to determine that only payers are parking. They can’t give tickets but send a notice and fine for nonpayment or overstaying in company controlled spaces.  Cars park everywhere in crosswalks and curbs where parking is illegal, because in the bankrupt city, police are not assigned to parking issues, even though the private companies meter maids and men are everywhere.

I could go on, but you get the message, it’s an amazing world out there, full of constant surprise and wonder, in things both large and small.

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First Steps to Building Community-Labor-Political Alliances without Shortcuts

Amsterdam      It was just a first step.  ACORN had joined Ron Meyer and Lieke Smits, the principal officers of the Socialist Party Netherlands, in calling together a small group of twenty or so in the late summer who might be able to come together for a conversation on a Saturday in Amsterdam to share their experiences in trying to build a working alliance or partnership between community organizations, labor unions, and political formations or parties.  Interest was huge.  The only real obstacle was the European holiday schedule where many were already committed or unavailable, as we sent out inquires of interest.  Nonetheless, we had representatives from various organizations including France, United Kingdom, Brussels, and Holland that joined us for what turned out to be a very fruitful and intense initial conversation.

Almost like a neighborhood first organizing committee meeting, the morning introductions when groups reported on their work were peppered with questions and the excitement that comes from people realizing that others are sharing the same experiences with similar issues, and therefore are not alone.  The party representatives from France were thrilled to discover the depths of the experiences of the SP/N with community organizing.  The unions from the Netherlands and Brussels found common cause on issues from organizing – or the lack of it – to institutional and traditional restraints in the way their large organizations of were facing the challenges of declining membership and new work formations and expectations.  The community organizers with ACORN were intrigued at the similarity of methods and issues they were hearing.

Everywhere there were “learning” moments, rather than “teachable” moments.  There was no effort at consensus, but a refreshing frankness served in solidarity.  Different views on the integration of movements and organizations looked for light, rather than heat.  Explanations about cultures of compromise tried to grapple with organizing models based on conflict.  Advice given about quietly fighting within were listened to closely even as others argued for storming the barricades.

One union organizer cautioned others that “assumptions are the mother of all mess-ups,” though he used a different word.  An SP organizer critiqued a former methodology as doing “actions FOR people, rather than actions WITH people,” noting that they had moved their interactions from 90% talking to 80% listening instead.  These were organizers of course so opinions were often challenged with questions about the underlying numbers, whether there was accountability, and how tactics and methodology responded to the numbers.

The evaluations were unanimously positive.  No decisions were made.  No officers were elected.  There was only consensus on one item:  meeting again in January with everyone here and all that could not make it on such short notice.

That was enough, and it was important.

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