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August 17, 2011
 by Steven Hill

THE DEBATE OF THE CENTURY IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT...I recall the time I sat in the public gallery of the European Parliament in Brussels, observing a heated debate among hundreds of members of the European Parliament (or MEPs, as they are called). It was October 2005, and the MEPs had come from all across the European continent, representing a half billion people. In typical European fashion the debate was being translated simultaneously into twenty-two different languages, including the usual English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, and Dutch, but also Magyar, Romani, Maiti, Latvian, and Czech, among others.

The MEPs sat with their headsets on, listening intently to the translations, as one by one they sparred over pressing political and economic issues that, at the time, you would have heard only faint echoes of in the halls of the United States Congress. Yet, once the American economy collapsed three years later in the fall of 2008, dragging the rest of the world into its vortex, these issues suddenly were center stage all across the globe. The challenges being debated by the MEPs boiled down to the following: To what extent should a capitalist economy and its core institutions—the banks, the financial institutions, the corporations—be regulated to maintain stability as well as sufficient economic growth? How do you harness global capitalism so that it not only produces wealth but also contributes to a broadly shared prosperity? How does an economy ensure that employers provide high enough wages and sufficient workfare security so that families and individuals can live a good life, but without squashing entrepreneurship and damaging the competitiveness of the economy itself? Finally, how do you make that kind of dynamism ecologically sustainable in a world staring into the face of global climate change, burgeoning populations, and finite natural resources? These and other questions weighed heavily on the minds of the MEPs.

To an unfamiliar American, this debate would have sounded like the age-old one of socialism versus capitalism, but nothing was further from the truth. All of the various European nations have capitalist economies and vibrant, competitive businesses; in fact Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China combined, and more small businesses creating a far higher percentage of jobs. But while it’s true that free market forces and global trade have made America and Europe’s high quality of life the envy of the world and also lifted millions of people in developing economies out of poverty, it also is true that in the short term the “creative destruction” of global capitalism produces both winners and losers.

So Europe’s parliamentarians knew a lot was at stake; it was as if they were anticipating the economic crash to come. MEP after MEP stood and delivered with passion, each followed by ripples of applause. This was no idle conversation; the future of Social Europe was wavering in the balance. In fact, the post-World War II consensus—the social contract itself—was in play. I listened to the English translation through my headset, marveling that this continent which had fought two horrific wars in the previous century now was leading the world in debating the best way to enact a peace founded on the three pillars of broadly shared prosperity, economic security, and ecological sustainability. Disagreements abounded, but even the “conservative” MEPs were less conservative than the Democratic Party in the United States, which remained too timid after retaking Congress in the 2006 elections to raise substantive debate about rampant inequality in the United States, a speculative housing bubble, global climate change, or a failing health care system (and, as it turned out, President Obama was not to be the transformative, FDR-like “game changer” that many had hoped he would be, failing to substantially change the American narrative around these issues).

The MEPs’ intense debate, which now is occurring all around the world, sheds important light on one of the preeminent challenges of the 21st century. The overarching task today is to fashion institutions and practices that are capable of fostering a desirable quality of life for a burgeoning global population of over 6.5 billion people. The addition of resource depletion and global climate change—the prospect of an overheating atmosphere, tumultuous weather patterns, rising sea levels and subsequent mass dislocation—to the usual mix of geopolitical tensions has resulted in an even greater sense of urgency. If we don’t succeed, the future of our world is in jeopardy. We are living in a make or break century.

Unfortunately this sophisticated level of discussion was quite beyond the American conversation during the George W. Bush years, and regrettably has been disappointing under the Obama administration as well. America seems stuck in gear. But Europeans have been confronting these issues head on for some time now. The various nations of Europe and their unique adaptations and institutions have much to offer as we attempt to chart a steady course during an anxious and insecure 21st century. Our transatlantic cousins are showing the world a new face, a new way of structuring the economy, work, health care, family values, energy, transportation, democracy, foreign policy, and other crucial sectors that, on balance, augur the best future for the world.

Steven Hill 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
August 15, 2011
 by Steven Hill

MEDITATION OVER ROMAN RUINS...Gazing over the ruins of the Roman Forum, eye-scanning the archeological levels of the grandeur that once was, I am gripped by a melancholy that provides a moment to reflect on the wonder as well as the horror of the human experience. It’s chilling to think that Julius Caesar was assassinated here, no more than a few steps from where I am standing, a dictator ambushed by other men of ambition. Victorious Roman legions marched through the ornately-carved arches of triumph and empire, their conquered victims in tow, entire towns in chains (women, men, children, livestock). But Rome itself eventually fell, the sites of empire abandoned, weeds growing between the cracks, the marble from its magnificence eventually pilfered by the Catholic popes to adorn St. Peter’s basilica. Oh, the stories that marble could tell if it could talk…or if we could listen.

I reflect on the tragedies and crimes that humans have inflicted upon each other, rotating with saner moments in which we have fostered the laws, institutions and policies to protect ourselves…from ourselves. I experience a moment of extreme sadness as I realize how long these struggles have been going on, and that we have not yet succeeded in our task. Perhaps we never will. No wonder religion has such a hold over so many humans; it offers a gossamer veil of relief from the storm. Humans long have appealed to a higher power to protect us from ourselves. But god never arrived, not with sufficient presence anyway, to settle this tragic wandering in the desert. Either that or, as Woody Allen once observed, God is a drastic underachiever. No, g(G)od(s) has not saved us, not from ourselves or the invading hordes or the empires of ambition or anyone else.

Instead, all we have is this frail human attempt at political and economic governance, with all its faults. The European Union is only the latest chapter in a centuries’ long trek, one that passed through America in 1776 and galloped its way through subsequent centuries. Political and economic governance are the twin mechanisms for grappling with the challenges of our times. And we have only to look at the Roman Forum, and the crumbs of empire littered across its acreage spread beneath the Palatine Hill and its buried secrets, to understand the steep price of failure. The mighty can and have been laid low. The small and meek can and have become almighty. Whether you are religious or not, you are on your knees before the giant demigods who pull the strings of the human story, dangling us from Mount Olympus, sometimes crushing us like ants beneath their steps. The mystery of human history humbles us all.

Steven Hill 7:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
August 10, 2011
 by Steven Hill

SAUNAS, AUF GUS, AND THE CULTURE OF HEALTH…When I think about health and health care in Europe, I don’t think immediately about hospitals, doctors, and insurance premiums.

Instead, I picture bike paths and walking trails crisscrossing the cities and countryside, and Europeans of all ages, including seniors, pedaling from town to home with their daily bread in their handlebar baskets. I picture fields of organic grains and grasses tossing in the breeze, and European gourmands with their “slow food” philosophy. I picture cheese, bread, and wine makers using the same time-tested formulas for their savory products that have been developed over centuries, and I picture Europeans strolling leisurely and lingering for hours over food and drink in outdoor cafes, hobnobbing like hobbits at an unhurried pace. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, and those values are reflected in many aspects of their lives.

One aspect where it is reflected is in their bads. No, not ‘bad,’ opposite of ‘good,’ bads -- pronounced ‘bods’ -- which is the German word for sauna or health spa. Bads, which are where people of all ages soak their limbs in warm healing waters, steam baths and swimming pools, have been common in Europe for over two thousand years, dating back to Roman times. Today, all across Germany you can see dozens of towns with names like Bad Mergentheim, Bad Reichenhall, Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden; in France, instead of ‘bad’ they use the term ‘bain’ and you can see dozens of towns with names like Aix-les-Bains, Evian-les-Bains and Digne-les-Bains. These places are ones where the entire town, historically, has been a magnet frequented by local denizens as well as distant travelers looking to "take the waters," that is the hydrothermal springs that leak from the earth in those parts and that were claimed to have medicinal properties. Most European nations are dotted by numerous spa towns, from Scandinavia in the north to Hungary in the east.

Visiting a bad in Germany today is a wonderfully rejuvenating experience. My favorite bad is in Fussen near the Austrian and Swiss borders. In the downstairs of the large yet elegant gymnasium-sized structure there are several swimming pools and hot tubs where children as well as adults cavort, and there is also a few water slides providing great fun for the ‘kinder’ (like the Fussen bad, all the ones I have visited have been very family-oriented environments). There is also an outdoor current pool, where an artificially produced undercurrent pulls you around an island in the center upon which are piles of sparkling quartz crystals, football-sized, refracting the daylight. The stunning view across the valley is of the nearby Alps, as well as the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, which is the real-life model for the fairy tale Disneyland Castle. Also on the bottom floor of the bad there is a crystal meditation room where you can lie on cots quietly in a twilight-like environment, and the entire ceiling and front wall are covered in large quartz crystals that glow dimly with soft pastel backlight.

But the real health treat is upstairs, which is for adults only. That's where the bads -- saunas -- are located. There are a half-dozen different bads, each stoked to a different temperature. There also are cooling-off pools, hot tubs, another small swimming pool, a bar with health drinks, beer and snacks, and a rooftop where you can relax in a lounge chair and enjoy the alpine view. According to the sauna experts, sweating is as essential to our health as eating and breathing. Sweating rids the body of wastes and helps keep the skin clean and pliant. Other health benefits supposedly result from the heat producing an artificial "fever" which coaxes every organ of the body into action. While outwardly relaxed, your inner organs are as active as though you were jogging or mowing the lawn. At the same time, you are being cleansed from inside out by the skin -- your body's largest organ -- and its excretion, sweat. In this sedentary age, many people simply don't sweat enough, and antiperspirants, cosmetics, synthetic clothing, smog, and a physically idle lifestyle all conspire to clog skin pores and inhibit the healthy flow of sweat. One way to counteract this is by some serious sweating in a bad.

And Germans are serious about their bads. It is very frowned upon to wear clothes of any kind, even a bathing suit, in the saunas. So be forewarned, the parts of our bodies known as “private” are in visible abundance. For this American, seeing so many naked adult bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes was at first a disorienting experience. Most Americans are not used to taking their clothes off in front of each other, but after 15 minutes or so of teenage-like reticence, skulking embarrassment and furtive glances in all directions, it feels pretty natural. Outside the sauna itself, many people mingle au natural while others step in and out of white terrycloth bathrobes or wrap their bodies in towels. Yet the real highlight of the bad is what is known as the auf gus.

The first time I experienced the auf gus was wildly memorable. I was sitting inside one particular bad with a few others, when suddenly a whole swarm of naked bodies filed in. There was hardly enough room for us all, these bads are low-ceilinged chambers, almost like a cave. But about 30 people squeezed in, sitting on benches on three different tiers. Suddenly the door flew open, cool air rushing in. A tall strapping German with a Leroy Neiman handlebar mustache strode in carrying two buckets, one with a ladle and the other filled with ice. This man was the auf gus.

He began speaking in German in a friendly but lecturing tone, talking briefly about the history of the bads in Germany. While the cool air still poured in, he talked about the traditions and practices, the types of herbs used, and more. He went on for a couple of minutes, and then he shut the door. The excitement and drama among the Germans huddled in the cramped space was palpable. And infectious, by now I was wondering what the heck was going on. The auf gus picked up the bucket with the ladle, dramatically scooped out the liquid inside and began pouring it over the hot rocks in the center. Immediately a hissing steam emitted from the volcanic hot core, with the fragrances of citrus, lavender and other sensual herbs perking our nostrils. He did that again, and then a third time. Each time the chamber filled with more and more fragrant steam, making it hotter and stuffier inside. I can only take my saunas so hot, and I didn’t know if I could stand much more of the intensity, yet the vapors kept building, sating our nostrils and pores.

Then, the auf gus did something that really blew us all away. He took a white towel and rolled it up lengthwise until it was long like a snake. And then he began rotating that above his head like it was the blade of a helicopter. As he rotated it you could feel the billows of fragrant heat rolling about the chamber, increasing still more in intensity, surrounding and enveloping you. At this point the sweat began screaming from my pores and orifices. At first it was a bit unnerving, the acrid heat almost unbearable. I could feel myself losing my left-brainedness and entering a stream of consciousness. Amongst other things, my feverish brain couldn't help but reflect upon all these Germans sitting inside this modern-day gas chamber, but with a completely different goal, this time one of health. By then my body had begun to acclimate and I felt a moment of exhilaration. I had a sense that the toxins were crawling forth from my skin and looking for someplace cooler to hide, but they weren’t finding it.

But the auf gus was not finished, oh no. He unrolled his towel so that now it was spread full, and this time he stood in front of the row of huddled naked bodies in which I sat. With a swift motion he snapped his towel -- hard -- in our direction. He did that two more times, and after each snap we felt a blast of heat, like a volcano rush, roaring toward us and hitting us full-on, scorching my face, my nostrils, ears, groin, everything. It was nearly unbearable. I felt an urge to bolt from the bad. Sweat was pouring from me, it seemed like all my skin was one big pore just gushing rivers of sweat. I put my head down and tried to hold on. I saw others doing the same. I could think of nothing, my internal dialogue was stopped, any rambling thoughts had wilted away and what remained was an incredible lightness of being, holding on in survival mode from the riveting furnace blast. The auf gus snapped his towel in front of each row of bodies, round and round the chamber, several times per row. And then he mumbled something in German, gave a slight bow, dumped his bucket of ice over the still-steaming rocks, and exited the bad. Everyone clapped, exhaled, stretched. The ritual was over. People hung around for a few more minutes, and then slowly one by one the rosy-cheeked devotees trickled out.

I was limp, the effect was stunning. I tingled all over, my pores felt scoured and cleansed. The herbs, the citrus, the sweat, the inhalation and exhalation of steam, I walked out of there feeling like I was transparent, light as a feather, walking on air, to greet an amazing view of the Alps, Neuschwanstein, the fresh air and the sunshine.

Whew, yes, the Germans, take their bads very seriously. That afternoon I returned twice more for the auf gus treatment, and now I find a local bad or thermal bath whenever I am in Germany. Also in France, Scandinavia, Budapest and elsewhere (in Budapest, highly recommended are the large communal thermal baths at Hotel Gellert and Szechenyi). This dedication to such an elaborate ritual of sweating and soaking is an indication of the high prioritization that many Europeans give to the body and to health. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, reflected in their hobbit-like love of leisure, nature, relaxation, good food, a stimulating glass of wine or dark, earthy beer, and steeped in the values of health, family, and quality of life. It is this outlook that they bring to their social capitalism and its well-defined family-based support system, instilled into them in both intent and design. It’s also the values they inject into their formal health care system, where the non-profit nature of it prioritizes “people before profits,” unlike the U.S. healthcare system which is run as a for-profit commercial enterprise and dominated by corporations and CEOs making tens of millions of dollars in annual salary and bonuses. As the French are fond of saying, la sante d'abord, “health comes first,” and that principle is reflected in so many ways throughout European society.

Steven Hill 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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