Saturday, August 30, 2014


I have been thinking a lot about power of late.
We have a team coordinator who is very new to all of this. I recommended her for the position, as I did not want the hassle. She is, shall we say, evolving.
We talked one day about what leaders do. In her mind, she wants our middle school team to all go in the same direction, which actually is her job. She also wants us in the same boat. Introvert that I am, I objected.
She is young, and the first in her family with a college degree.
Being new to this power idea, she feels she had to be in charge. She is new. She wants to be a boss, but at our school coordinators are not administration, so she has no real power over any of us. It is not an easy job.
I, on the other hand, lead from behind, if that makes any kind of sense. While she is busy with meetings and PowerPoints, I am in the back, coming up with ideas, getting things done. Being free from the mundane allows my rather unique brain to roam free, unencumbered by minutia.
I realized that power is tricky stuff. The people who appear to be in power may not be. Those who do not have the job title may, in reality, have power beyond measure. The job title is meaningless.
I have also realized that real power is subtle, quiet, dangerous. They say the president of the United States is the most powerful person on the planet. Sadly, in this case, we know that not to be true. He appears to be powerful but we know better.
Schools are the same way. We work at a small school. I love this school. I love the staff, the kids, the admin - all of it. The real power lies in the people who have been there the longest. Some of them are teachers, many of them are not. Few, a very few, have actual titles indicating some sort of leadership or coordinator, or whatever you want to call them.
I may not have a title, but a curious thing happened just the other day, Our director dropped into my room the other day, for a few seconds. I asked her, in a 30 second conversation, if we could tweek the way kids move around the halls. This has been bugging me for years. I have been getting resistance from many of my team mates, two of whom are now gone. So, for months I practiced going to the director and asking for "clarification on the policy." When the director stopped by for a totally different matter, I saw my chance. I took it. Guess what. The very next day we were informed that the hall policy had changed. Coincidence? Maybe. Our director is quite wonderful. Still, this is how power actually works. It is not meeting after meeting after meeting. It is men with cigars in back rooms, people on the golf course or tennis courts. Power is a phone call to the right person.
There is an old saying - when you have really arrived, you don't have to shout about it. Power is like that. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


The new teachers are slowly coming to Kuwait. You can tell the newbies. They are the ones with the"deer in the headlights" looks. They are jet-lagged, they are hot, hot, hot and they are on sensory overload.

We have all been there.

Lucky for them our apartments have been decked out with brand new furniture and appliances. Everything is shiny and new, the flat-screen TV's are hooked up. there is food in the fridge and they have been to a mall. Malls are an important part of Kuwait. Newbies are taken there to minimize culture shock. Malls are very Western. Malls help transition the newbies from the very Western world from which they come to the Arab world in which they now live. One of them has already complained. He wants to go to the real Kuwait. Lucky for him I know where this is. I will take him there.

It is exciting to be a newbie. Everything is new, everything is different and even the ordinary becomes an adventure. I remember my first walk to McDonald's. It was my first walk by myself in a foreign land. Okay, it was only a quarter of a mile, most of which was a straight line, but it was still a first. While I was headed to a restaurant I knew well, the path was vastly different. I walked past stores with signs I could not read. I hears a language I had never heard,. I felt heat like nowhere else I had ever been. Once I got there, I paid with money I had only recently just seen. I felt like I was conquering Everest.

I learned something very important that day. I learned that if you just want to see the sights of a place, you can do that on Google. That little walk to McDonald's is really why I travel at all. I remember the walk from my cousin's house in Greece to the local newspaper stand. Again, an ordinary walk, an extraordinary adventure. I remember shopping in Guam, how the stores there have vastly different foods. With travel, even shopping can be fun. Mostly on Guam, I remember the rice,  bags and bags of it piled high in front of the store. I also remember how hard it was to find pasta. Thanks forever to Mom for sending it to us through the mail.

No problem with that here in Kuwait. Now that I think about it, there are more Western foods here than they were there. Considering Guam is an American territory and Kuwait is an Arab country, Hmm.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


My son woke me at 2 AM to share the sad, sad news of the passing of Robin Williams. Jordan knew for me there were only comic geniuses - the other was  George Carlin.

In this world of social media, word travels incredibly fast. Within an hour of the news it was everywhere. We reacted on Facebook, we watched youtube videos of old performances, we read Twiiter feeds. we heard his Wiki page had crashed. We grieved for his family, we were sad for his friends, we knew, even in those early hours, there would never be any one like him. Ever.

In our own family we also lost one of our own, similarly in treatment, similarly deciding the pain was too much to live even for us. Science has cured so many illnesses. This is one science has yet to figure out, but one day I know will. I also know this. Suicide is not a selfish act. Many say it is. Mr. Williams, and my own beloved uncle, got to the point where the pain was so bad they had had enough. As much as I am sure they both wanted to live for those who loved them they simply could not. Do I feel cheated? Yes. My uncle would have loved to see his nieces and nephews grow up and raise their own children. My own son is like him in so many ways. They would have loved each other, and I miss that.

In the end, though, we must respect their choices, the right choices for them even if not right for the rest of us. My uncle was in pain. Mr. Williams was in pain. The pain is over now. For that I am glad. We have, and will always have, our memories.

Today I will pop popcorn, curl up on my couch with my blanket and watch "The Birdcage" and old Mork and Mindy reruns.

Nanu, Nanu.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


14 August 2008 – the day I first set foot in the Middle East. I am about to begin my seventh, yes, seventh, year in Kuwait. I have never lived anywhere this long in my entire life. If you had told me I would spend seven years in the desert, an area once, in pre-Invasion Kuwait, dominated by Palestinians, I would have thought you insane. Here I am.

What have I learned?

First, I have learned Arabic is a very, very hard language to learn. As hard as I try, the basic sounds are foreign to me. Yet, during Prayer Call the entire nation is awash with chanting, beautiful chanting that reverberates around this desert landscape. Each mosque must have a real person doing the calls, so they all begin at slightly different times, the voices differing from mosque to mosque. No other sounds are heard. Especially on cloudy days the whole country has an ethereal quality about it. Some would call it holy, some even magical. I just think it is cool. Kuwait is largely a western nation. Prayer call reminds all we are in the Arab world. Even as I enter my seventh year, I still find this amazing.

Even now, with all the craziness going on in Iraq, and Syria and other places, I have those moments of wonder. Kuwait is largely a cocoon, a safe harbor in the midst of the tragedies going on near us. Kuwait is western. It has about every western restaurant and shopping chain store you can imagine. You can order complete meals delivered to your house from your computer. You can order groceries, electronics, clothes, and anything else you want – also delivered. Most people speak English and the private hospitals are first-rate. The public hospitals look like they are stuck in the 1950’s but the medical care is also first-rate. You can shop in malls that rival anything you see in the west, the private schools are good. Kuwait has fully embraced the Western cultures.


Restaurants shut down during the day for the holy month of Ramadan. No food, no drink, no nothing during the daylight hours. If you are caught in public doing any of these things you can go to jail. This includes cab drivers, construction workers – everyone. This does not mean people do not work. They do, except for those in food service. The idea of the fast is to feel what it is like to go without, and working during a fast is part of that, In the evenings, there is food, lots of food, and drink of the non-alcoholic variety. Eating and drinking are allowed everywhere once the sun goes down.

In most countries Muslims keep the fast because it is part of the faith. Here it is also part of the law.

Alcohol – forbidden. Pork – forbidden. Public displays of affection – seriously frowned upon, as are sleeveless shirts for women, short shorts, and any cleavage. I have become so used to dressing modestly that when I go to Europe people wonder where I come from.

Political protests happen, but we expats are told to stay away from any act that might remotely be construed as divisive. It is not our country, so laying low is a good thing.

Freedom of the press does not apply to any criticism of the Royal Family but criticizing others in government, though best left to the natives, is permitted.

Kuwait has a complicated history with the land they call “Occupied Palestine,” known to the rest of the world as Israel. The Qu’ran recognizes three religions. The other two are Christianity and Judaism, their followers known as “people of the book.” The problem here is Judaism is tied up in the politics of Occupied Palestine. Thus it is frowned upon here in Kuwait for political, not religious, reasons.

On the other hand, Christianity thrives. There is a large Catholic population whose existence is backed by the government. There are other Christian groups as well. The country starts selling fully decorated Christmas trees in the stores in October, ornaments, ribbons, gift wrap, lights,  home decorations – all of it seemingly everywhere, They even play Christmas carols on the radio and in shopping malls, which are themselves fully decorated. This happens in other places in the Middle East as well. I went to Dubai last holiday season. For a moment there I thought I was in the US – a very pricey mall in the US.

Westerners are needed, and largely appreciated, here. Just as in many other countries, rules are applied differently to different groups, with Kuwaitis at the top and Westerners next in line. That seems only fair, it is their country. We all have maids, many of the teachers have cab drivers they use on a regular basis. Some teachers even have personal chefs. Thus there is a third tier of people in the country – those that serve the rest of us. The Kuwaiti families have many staff, the teachers one or two.

Many Kuwaiti families have a nanny for each of their children, and at least one driver along with staff for their homes. It is not unusual for the staff in a home to vastly outnumber the non-staff in it. Staff comes from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Egypt, India and Pakistan. How they are treated depends on the family that hires them. Many of them are treated like family,or not. I have been lucky. The families I know are good to their staff.

So what have I learned in my years here? I have learned how very, very big America is. In the time it takes me to fly to Athens from here I would still be flying across the USA. In the time it takes me to drive to Iraq I would still be crossing Pennsylvania. The borders are much closer in the rest of the world. Even though my parents took us across the country by car when I was 12 it was not until I came here that I fully grasped how big is the USA.

Another thing I have come to understand is the US is not just one country, as countries here think of themselves.

The students I teach have a hard time with that one. They think of America as one big place, like Kuwait only bigger. If they have spent a lot of time in Florida – Disney is big here – they think all of America is like Florida. If they spend lots of time in California, they think all of the US is like LA. The idea of regional differences is foreign to them. When I try to explain the differences between, say, Georgia and Massachusetts, in their minds these should be two different countries. I see their point.

In my classroom I have a map. I point out the state of New Jersey, which is the approximate size of Kuwait. Then I show them on the map – the rest of this one country. Jaws drop, eyes bulge, students are stunned into silence. Most nations are not like that. Seeing the US through their eyes has made me think – was this large nation, with so many different viewpoints and visions – a great triumph of enduring human development, or a sociological experiment that after 250 years has finally gone wrong. My Greek ancestors who created democracy were a smaller and more homogeneous bunch. They could not have imagined this.

Yet another thing I have noticed in my travels is how the same we all are. There seems to be a consensus about how to lay out cities – big buildings, mass transit of sorts, sidewalks, fast food places, zones for commerce interspersed with residential housing, etc. The common threads between London and Paris and Athens and New York are striking. If you can get around one major city, you can get around most of them. All underground systems - the metro, the “T,” the “L” – they go by many names – are basically the same. Bus systems, railroads, water taxis all run pretty much the same as well. The views and the languages may change but they systems vary but a little. 

To global thinkers like myself, even walking the streets has a certain rhythm to it. Some are more green than others, some have more statues or fountains and many have one or two landmarks around which you can navigate, but there are common threads. You can read a map, you can ask a native, you can get around. The biggest challenges I have found so far is knowing who drives on the left, and who drives on the right. Conveniently, in London they warn you, on the road, to look before you cross. Me, I walked until I saw a crowd, then walked with it. In the five days I spent in London, I only crossed sans crowd three times. I remember them all – it was the only scary part of the entire summer.

The big differences I see between the cities of Europe and America are ones of history. European cities have history all around them. If New York City had Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tower of London, homes of 18th century composers and a 300 year old palace, it would be London. If Chicago had a 1000 year old cathedral it could be Paris. Boston has history, but it is small buildings and boats and the Old North Church. Europe is so much older than the US. Its history is reflected in the cities that evolved there. We think of America as old, but in the international scheme of things it is not.
As a Greek American I have always known America was young, but it was that middle ground I never thought of. There is ancient, like the Greeks and modern, like the Americas. A whole lot of history happened in between, history reflected in the cities of Europe.

So, as I soon embark on year seven, what do I savor? I work with people who are a lot like me. They love adventure, they are not afraid of risk, airports are like second homes.

They come from almost all over the US and Canada. Most of the people I know come from the American north and Canada. They come from the Bahamas, and Suriname and the Philippines, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan. Some even come from Bolivia and Russia. Few come from the American southeast. I know no teachers who identify themselves as true American Southerners.

They have a wide range of ages and interests. Some throw themselves into the local cultures while others keep to all things Western. Still others observe from the sidelines and write about our travels on our blogs.
Some are here for the money, others to travel, others yet because of a stale job market back home, wherever they feel home to be.
Me, DNA tests reveal me to be half Arab – color me shocked and awed. I came for the adventure and the travel. I stay because a part of me, literally, is home.

There is dust, there is heat, there is little rain and winters are short. Iraq is close, Saudi Arabia closer but here I sit, in my safe little world living a dream I never in a million years could possibly have imagined.

When you spend your life climbing mountains, it is important to know when you have reached the top. Six years on, here I sit, grateful, proud – and looking for another mountain to climb.