Welcome to my new blog. Normally, posts will be much shorter but this is a special post.
For the last several years, I’ve been compiling research for a book I’m writing about the life-altering effect of movement- exercise, sports, and physical activity- on the mind. This effort led me through the annals of history and culminated in a 3 month trip to Europe at the end of 2013 to better understand our past as Americans and the health challenges we face in the modern world. In my work I’ve always taken the long view and the historical view because ultimately a healthy life requires it.
The following post represents some of the most meaningful experiences of my trip.
My book, Movement & Meaning, is being edited and should be out soon.
Just like my fitness and wellness business, the purpose of my writing is to help people live better, play better, and feel better inside and out through movement. I hope it inspires you.
I ‘d already been to most of Western Europe so I wanted to head East. I didn’t have a plan, I had a checklist: 1) Germany 2) Greece 3) Italy 4) Russia 5) FSU- Former Soviet Union.
Local is better– Switzerland is one of the most successful countries in the world. It’s organized into 26 Cantons, self-governing districts with a high amount of autonomous local control and authority, which promotes a high degree of social cohesion and civic responsibility.
Zurich is considered one of the best cities to live in all of Europe. It’s easy to see why when you consider the view and opportunities for physical activity. I took this picture at the top of one of the 100s of miles of hiking trails around the city.
The Alps- The Swiss love to hike, which is one reason they tend to be so fit. It’s customary to take a long walk in the mountains or around the city after lunch and you see people of all ages out and about.
This picture was taken in Lucerne, Switzerland just an hour by train outside of Zurich in the Alps.
John Calvin- One of the more interesting figures in Western History is the Reformation theologian, John Calvin, who though French by birth spent much of his sanctimonious life in Switzerland. Calvin had an antagonist relationship with the Catholic Church to say the least and he was famously responsible for having Michael Servetus, another theologian with whom he feuded, burned at the stake.
To my surprise, he spent a good part of his life in Geneva, Switzerland where he found sanctuary from violent French Catholic uprisings against protestants and where he emerged as a hugely influential church leader.
Pictured is one of the many protestant churches dotting the skyline of Zurich. Switzerland still serves as a sort of political, financial, and economic sanctuary of sorts.
The actual story of The Berlin Wall is quite the opposite. Less than 25years ago, this wall separated East from West, Communism from Capitalism, and oftentimes family members from each other. Walking along the path of the wall, and taking in exactly what it meant was one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced. It’s an incredible story of sadness, hope, courage, and liberty.
Oompah- An Oompah band is a Bavarian style band of brass instruments , drums, and an accordion. Oompah bands like the house band at the Hofbräuhaus beer hall in Munich entertain the tourists and locals 7 nights a week.
Based on the 100s of glasses clinking, the smiles and laughing all around, and the dancing, you would have a hard time imagining beer halls like this were where an infamous dictator first began his ascent to political power. This is one of the most fun places I’ve ever been. Prost!
Austria- If I had to pick somewhere to live in Europe, surprisingly it might be Austria. I felt at home there. It’s a beautiful country with plenty to do outdoors and culturally. Vienna is famous for its food, music, and coffeehouses and in the countryside there are countless small villages to visit.
It’s economy has fared quite well during recent years compared to the rest of Europe and the Germanic work ethic is strong. This scene near Salzburg reminds me of my Mom’s favorite movie: The Sound of Music, which was filmed there and which I never had the slightest interest in watching!
Budapest: Beautiful City, Bloody Past
Europe’s history is dominated by the tribal conflicts which predate the emergence of the large nation-states like the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Russia. Celts, Magyars, Welsh, Normans, Franks, Moors, Saxons, Angles, Danes, Mongols, and Goths among many other tribes fought for resources and land for generations. Later on, after feudal kingdoms and later nation-states emerged as the most common form of government, tribal conflicts faded but never went away completely.
Hungarians, or Magyars, make up the dominant ethnic group in Hungary where Budapest is the capital. It’s a beautiful city, if a little rough around the edges. One of the best sites of the city is the “House of Terror” museum (entrance photo top right) which is dedicated to those who suffered under the totalitarian regimes of Nazism & Communism in the country. The picture on the left is the bridge between Buda and Pest, which were actually two separate cities until 1873.
One common theme emerged in every country I visited. Governments- feudal, tribal, communist, capitalist, socialist, fascist –were responsible for the majority of the evil which has taken place throughout the history of mankind. Some would argue religion has led to more strife but from what I’ve learned and experienced governments have predominately co-opted ethnic, religious, or tribal prejudices in order to consolidate power. They brought us slavery, serfdom, Feudalism, pollution, Crusades (the Vatican was effectively a political entity at that point in history), Holy Wars, wars of conquest, genocide, fascism, Nazism, Colonialism, nuclear proliferation, and Communism which have been responsible for the deaths of millions of people.
Rome: City, Empire- The myth of Rome’s founding tells of Romulus and Remus, two abandoned –at-birth twin brothers, who in mythical tradition were raised by a She-Wolf and brought up along the banks of the Tiber River and eventually founded a city there. Later they feuded, Romulus killed his brother and the city was named after him. The myth of the feuding brothers represents the political strife which characterizes the empire’s long history.
At one point the Roman empire reached from Scotland to North Africa and the Middle East. It’s influence looms large even now in our literature, philosophy, religion, alphabet, language, and laws. Roman cities were very advanced with running water, gymnasiums, baths and other modern amenities. I took this photo one morning amidst the surreal ruins of the Roman Forum, the site of several important government buildings.
We took this picture at sunrise as we were on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Amazing.
The Greeks created an advanced civilization in a world ruled largely by superstition and ignorance. They were masters of metaphorical language, using mythic symbols such as the wreath to represent immortality or the owl to represent wisdom. I photographed these moving sculptures (my favorite type of art) representing virtuous feminine grace, tenderness, and humility in the National Archeological Museum in Athens.
Central to Greek philosophy was the idea man should strive to improve himself and prove worthy in his life of high ideals. The ancient Greeks believed every man and woman had the potential for genius, as a writer, a soldier, a mother, a farmer, an orator, or any other role in which a person found themselves.
The Blank Slate- In The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature, an award winning book by popular science writer Stephen Pinker, the author effectively argues against the intellectual fad of our day-Blank Slate Theory. In the book Pinker points out efforts by politically correct academia to explain away without valid evidence, or in some cases ignore, the mere existence of a human nature- in intelligence, attraction to art, or in predilection to good and evil.
Implications of this massively complex work are far-reaching but can best be summarized this way: by denying human nature through Blank Slate theory we are denying by and large what we normally value as inherently moral, virtuous, and beautiful. Collectively, this could potentially constitute the destruction of the entirety of western civilization. Blank slate theorists deny any sort of human nature, including conceptions of what art is, and effectively believe a person is born and thinks as a “blank slate.” This is the old case of nature vs. nurture which Pinker argues has swung too far into the camp of the nurturers.
Luckily, the Greeks had no such second-guessing when it came to their natural instincts about art and what constituted beauty. They created some of the most impressive and astonishingly beautiful works of art and architecture in history. These photos were taken on the island of Crete and in Athens.
Istanbul, Crossroads of Civilization- Istanbul, Turkey is one of the largest cities in Europe with over 13 million residents. It’s a bustling, vibrant, fascinating place, sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and quite possibly the most interesting place I’ve ever visited. The city was known as Constantinople until 1453 when the then capital of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire finally fell to the Islamic Ottomans. It has a complicated past but is now trying to balance it’s secular and democratic constitution and government and European ambitions with rising Islamic fundamentalism within the country and region.
The Mediterranean diet is quite simply the best tasting and best for you in the world and Turkey doesn’t disappoint. I loved the rice and spinach dishes, fresh yogurt, hummus, fish, and nuts, washed down with fresh Pomegranate juice. Delicious. I hope to go back.
Pictured are the Hagia Sophia, formerly a patriarchal Greek Orthodox basilica and later a mosque and now a museum, and a view of the Bosphorus River from the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans.
Tragically Beautiful- The nations surrounding the Balkans in central and southeastern Europe provide a microcosm of the larger conflicts, alliances, and political battles which have shaped the history of Europe. This specific part of the world has been part of the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, the Latin and Eastern Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the “Iron Curtain” of Communist Europe. The first shots of the first of the two world wars of the last century were fired in nearby Sarajevo and led to a violent chain reaction from alliance and counter-alliance member nations and still reverberate today.
Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia, is pictured here. Belgrade is an enigma, a bit like trying to describe the color blue to someone who’s never seen it, its strangely beautiful. Its seen its share of turmoil and has been practically destroyed on more than one occasion.
“There are places in Belgrade where picket fences still exist, with weeds of a strong and bitter smell growing right next to them… a turtledove is cooing upon the wild pear branch and the lost field mouse is running in terror or hunger… All these things still exist, in a street with no name and a house with no number… Stuck like thistle to the pants of the metropolis, travelling across a time and space they do not belong to.” -Dušan Radović, poet and writer
“Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world in the most beautiful place in the world.”
-Le Corbusier, architect
This remarkable photo is of two Romanian flags from the Revolution Museum in Timisoara, Romania. The flag on the left is the pre -1989 version with the communist emblem intact. To the right is a flag on which Romanian patriots removed the communist emblem after helping remove the innately corrupt and brutal communist regime. Thousands of Romanians died in violent protests and riots in 1989 in order to gain freedom. I asked myself when I was there….would I have had the courage to do what they did? Inspirational.
Russian Delights- Yes, Russian women are all they’re cracked up to be. Stereotypes in this case are true, as they often can be. I met the lovely Nadiausha (pictured) at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg and she was hospitable enough to show me around her famously historic city.
Catherine the Great, Russia’s most famous and successful female leader, helped usher in the age of Russian enlightenment in the 1700s which benefited the city greatly. St. Petersburg has served as the capital of Russia in the past, is still considered the cultural capital of the country, and was where the Russian Revolution began in 1905 and ended in 1917 with the abdication of Nicholas II, the last of the 300 plus year Romanov dynasty to rule the country.
Pictured are two of the can’t miss sites in St. Petersburg: 1) the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood (Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ) and 2) One of the city’s many romantic canals.
Propaganda- Every government relies on propaganda to motivate the masses. Take for example in recent times, President Bush’s questionable case for war in Iraq, or President Obama’s lofty but unsubstantiated rhetoric about hope and change.
Frankly, politics aside, the most shockingly impressive sights of a 3 month jaunt across Europe were the propaganda –laden but extravagantly decorated subway stations of the Moscow Metro. A combination of jaw-dropping surrealist proletariat art, outright Soviet-nationalist art, and intricately ornate walls, paintings, corridors, halls, and chandeliers could be found at practically every one of the 190+ stations in the subway system of one of the world’s premier cities.
If you ever go to Moscow, the metro is something you simply must see. It’s always on time (every 3 minutes), retro-cool, and each station is like walking in to a new museum with millions of dollars worth of imposing but beautiful pieces of art.
Emerging Market- The last country I visited was Poland. Poland and the US enjoy a close relationship through both NATO and through a long history of Polish immigration to the US. The people are very hospitable and though the city was damaged badly during the second World War, many of the impressively historic squares, such as this one in Wroclaw, the second largest in Europe, make it practically impossible not to stroll around town every evening.
Poland is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and fared much better than most other European countries during the recent recession.
Religion & Commerce, Mutually Exclusive?- In it’s best form religion promotes discipline, honesty, morality, and perhaps most importantly, meaning and health. In its worst form ethnocentrism and intolerance. Commerce, on the other hand, tends to promote social cooperation, freedom, prosperity, and cultural understanding and tolerance. On the downside, if not done right, commerce could breed political corruption, immorality, and a breakdown of social trust.
By most accounts, religion, specifically Christianity, is on the decline in Europe. One of the most thought-provoking moments of my trip came late one evening while strolling to my B&B in Poland. On one side of me I saw a grand old cathedral, impressive but sadly empty and unkempt. On the other side of the road to my left was a huge shopping mall, 3 levels high, with bright lights and hordes of shoppers.
Have we replaced one cathedral for the other, I thought? Is there room in our future to save the best of both traditions? If we get rid of our religion completely where will we look for our virtues and values?
What did I learn in Europe?
•Italians love Italy, Greeks love Greece, Germans love Germany, the Polish love Poland, Russian love Russia and so on.
•Some things are better about Europe, while some things are not.
•Most Europeans like Americans, but dislike America’s politics and view our politicians as arrogant. •The US is night and day wealthier than any country in Europe.
•Europe is much safer than the US.
•Though Europe underwent an experiment in economic Marxism and is now trying to recover, for some reason it never underwent social and cultural Marxism like we are enduring now in the US. This is obvious in social interactions and customs.
•Obesity is extremely rare in Europe.
•The Mediterranean diet tastes great in all of its variations (Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, etc.) and is the healthiest in the world.
•Physical activity, mainly walking, is part of the daily life of most Europeans.
•Governments have caused most of the world’s misery.
•Democratic institutions take many years to develop and political stability only happens with a transparent government consisting of checks and balances.
•Europeans love to smoke.
•Europe is a big place, and is impossible to describe as a whole because there are dozens of countries and even more ethnic groups, tribes, and political philosophies and histories.
•America offers more economic opportunity than any country I visited.
•Nationalist and anti-globalist sentiment is on the rise in Europe, which I believe has positive and negative effects.
•The overwhelmingly large majority of the people in the world are hospitable, warm, and want the same things you do: a say in the political process, to be able to work, freedom, and stability for their family
It was a pleasure sharing my experience with you.