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2019 in Relief Reviewed: In the Rain-In a Taxi, On a Rough Rough Road To Peace

Publication date: 02.03.2020
Author: Jeffrey Levett

Dragon dancers celebrate in Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 25. Photo: Jes Aznar/Getty Images

2019, was a vintage year of incredible tastes, colors and bouquets. However, the vintner did not manage to get it all right. While personal and uncomfortable images fade from memory, one prevails, strong, vibrant and persistent. It registered towards the year's end from events in Kuala Lumpur and Manila.  A new Euro Asian bridge opened that must not fail, while the privilege to become an International Gusi Peace Laureate was a cherished cherry on the bitter sweet 2019.

Eurasian Bridges became our metaphor for bilateral communication between two continents, Asia and Europe based on peace and philosophy. It is our re-conceptualization in Athens and in Belgrade of the historic Silk Road without plague or cholera or SARS, working their way down it and is infinitely more modest from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which visualizes a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and more efficient border crossings. Both are conceptualized as processes in global interconnectivity.  

The hospitality we received was indeed gracious and memorable. Thank you Dato in Kuala Lumpur for having Nizar and his wife escort my daughter and I to Manila. Thank you to the Gusi Foundation, Bary Gusi and family. We left the Philippines just ahead of a typhoon that closed down the country one day after a most relaxing and spectacular evening overlooking a volcano that erupted several days later. Hopefully we are ahead in philosophy with Confucius and Socrates and in peace.

Julia, thank you for the message now added to my CV. Fame at last in the flame of pretty woman. I'm just kidding!  Who would believe me anyway in the era of the faked fable? Someone may say I trumped it up. In any case, in 2019, I also enjoyed a jubilant note dated 2060, from another Julia to her relative of today. You, Julia Roberts were in your element as you took to the stage at the Obama Foundation's Leaders: Asia-Pacific gathering. And in Indonesia who could have predicted that the price of garlic would sky rocket as Chinese consumers buy up the folk cure in bulk as coronavirus threatens.  

New Year’s Eve was different to what went before, much quieter and intensively reflective. I read a short story that unfolded one Christmas Eve with dramatic imagination and curious twists and turns, resolved exactly one year later at enormous emotional cost to the tales’ family. Mirella did the festive cooking; Jeffakos set the table and was prepared to serve. I would collect and wash. Melissa came late to the celebration having had to work on a project. Not wanting to compromise Tina, wife, mother and grandmother convalescing after a week of hospitalization, our small guest list dwindled down to one, a result of thoughtful cancelations because of influenza. The weather though bad, was an improvement on the fast and furious rain of previous days. Our last meal of 2019 became the first meal of 2020, by decision. We truncated supper to a delicate yet feisty salad, cheeses and one glass of wine each. As midnight came we cut the traditional Vasilopita with church bells chiming above on Lycavitas Hill and from below, ringing out the last breath of the old year while ringing in the new, 2020. The Athens sky was alight with exploding fireworks. The lucky flouri in the pitta, once a gold florin or sovereign, fell to the Gusi Laureate as a crowning jewel coming on the cusp between years. We take this as a positive portent.

The Year 2019 was one of global unrest, driving heart wrenching refugee trails and unrelenting climate change from Siberia, to the Yorkshire Moors to the Amazon as well as tremendous photography currently from Bing and nostalgic memories from Pinterest, examples being shots of the the Siberian tiger and Chicago from the Lake as well as Sophia Loren stepping down from the Acropolis. In 2019, our lifeline eco-system was further degraded by fire; Greece, Africa, the Arctic, Indonesia, West China, Ukraine and fires down below, Australia; dissatisfaction with democracy runs at an all-time high, dementia depleted consciousness endangers humane society, nuclear weapons are an immediate threat to the existence of life on earth while to many climate change incredibly, is a trumped up hoax. 

50% of Arctic ice has melted over the past 50 years and the miracle of whiteness of snow has changed gradually to a hue that absorbs more radiation from the heavens to warm the ice. The icebreaker Polarstern cleaves through an Arctic ice floe on an important scientific expedition collecting information on disastrous changes from manmade climate change. At the end of 2019 a new strain of coronavirus emerged in China, which will surpass SARS in levels of sickness as it threatens to become endemic and return annually like influenza. Autoimmune systems are being stressed. Smallpox a past leading killer of millions can be re-introduced through negligence or by design. This underscores our collective obligation to upcoming generations to invest in prevention and public health.

In spite of all calamities and despair we are hopeful that our New Year’s wish for 2020 will resonate with global vibrancy to ring in a world of peace and propagate the thought that we are on the threshold of world peace instead of the brink of wars.  Challengingly though, there is much left to do in 2020 and beyond to find new ways to pick up the gauntlet to solve daunting existential issues. Davos and its impressive report do not even touch the issue of global inequality. Politicians, economists and profiteers still live in the 19th century world of, where there is muck there’s money. Space is next in line to pollute while the brain is being mined not for its altruistic properties but for those that correlate with violent behavior, promote support free market mechanisms and promote geopolitics. One hopeful European voice is that of Sanna Marin, Finland’s new head of government, who says equality not celebrity.

On approach to Palermo, the Alitalia pilot informed the passengers that the severe buffeting was a result of sudden wind direction changes, mainly vertical at all altitudes, over Italy. The pilot brought us down nicely to enter a dismal January day at the end of what should have been the merry merry month of May. On that day I spoke frequently to Antonio as weather conditions condemned me to spend most of my hours in the hotel Elimo in Erice. Intermittent rain, slanting, sometimes almost horizontal, dismal drizzle and mist clouded streets. Unfriendly to umbrella winds continually flipped mine in such a way as to give me no protection. Daytime with no sun, mists approaching pea soup that lasted several days. Change for the better came on my final day.

I came totally unprepared and the arrangements were not so good contrary to the Ettore Majorana Foundation’s incredible and inspirational work. Erice is about one hour outside of Palermo   and lies above Trepani.  I walked up and up to the Foundation and arrived drenched. My shoes and feet were water logged and cold as I sat through the General Assembly of ASPHER. As drizzle descended from the dark sky I asked for a taxi but there were none. I found myself with Dominique and his wife who were waiting for transportation to some hotel. Briefly, the sun came through when he told me to be patient and Franco would take us by car. As we waited there were raised voices, activity, goings and comings, cases of lost rooms and no rooms, confirmations and reconfirmations all being orchestrated from a cubbyhole office manned by Giuseppe with papers spread all over the desk. It was there where I found my name next to the name Hotel Elimo.

No one knew where Franco was but from the cubbyhole I was told that he knew and would soon come. Waiting, I also learned that G had assigned me to a hotel even though I had asked for a room in the Foundation. I also learned later that the information on room allocation by ASPHER had been reshuffled. Finally, F arrived in a spacious van. Alas its seats had been ripped out and could only take driver and one passenger with three of us going to the Elimo. My suggestion of three journeys irritated F. Finally, I told our impatient driver to take D since he was in pain from a recent injury while his wife and I would walk. Through the mist and rain we stumbled down cobbled streets to the hotel. We also stumbled on the helpful Antonio in person and his backup, La Mama via telephone.  What seemed a catastrophe had a silver lining. Mama suggested hot baths while A arranged our night out. It was one of four in good eating places picked up and returned sometimes by the chef. During the dismal days tea was provided as we looked out into the rain. The one disappointment was not to take breakfast in the charming but then rain drenched garden and not to dine on the then windswept Terrace overlooking the Mezzara del Vello.

Wherever I went or turned I was in the company of Romanized Greek mythology, Venus and Neptune, Aphrodite and Poseidon. When Troy fell, some Trojans escaped to Sicily settling close to the Sicanians. Two groups referred to as the Elymi inhabited the towns of Erice and Segeista. Today Erice is a mixture of ancient and medieval architecture, which includes the Hotel Elimo a 16th century residence where I stayed and redolent of mythology. Picasso’s Guernica hangs there portraying extreme violence and the depth of the artist’s knowledge of Greek mythology. The Erice statement written by Paul Dirac also hangs there.[1]

It took me almost 2 days to reach Chicago from Athens in August a result of an amusing now, stopover in Philadelphia. I was sent to one of my favorite cities from Belgrade to participate in. My Chicago stay  became a kind of where's Wally? Finding the older boy David, international Bernadetta and several other members of the Obama Foundation staffers proved impossible. Indeed communication was at least asymmetrical and at most like pulling teeth. As an octogenarian, I concentrated on what’s new; Wally and Greta. One of Barack’s protégés finds comfort in the fact that he will always be older than him.  I did wish the President a happy birthday and asked   for   the celebration be put back so that I could make it.  The Donald seems certain that he will occupy the White House for ever. When Barack was born 58 years ago Kennedy, King and Kennedy were still alive, Donald was a teenager and I was contemplating going to the States.  

I did come across an unknown musician called Kester who could make a difference if he would come forward. I was on the first lap of my way home namely, to Ohare, disappointed in not finding Wally. I was in Kester's No One Taxi. We chatted through a traffic snarl after a bizarre start to our short journey [that’s a brief story in itself]. I knew I was with someone who truly had rhythm and then I heard his music; one piece was no more guns. Still searching for an ending to an article on societal dementia I asked him to forward me the lyrics. Kester has a younger twin sister Ester born at Easter in Nigeria. They have been in Chicago for a couple of decades. Find him and hear his music. I am sure Kester can write a song related to leadership. Given the opportunity, which he may not want, given his joyful countenance he could make a difference because of his unheard music, African rhythm and humor. As yet I have not received the lyrics.

Wrapped in symptoms of climate change the 10th anniversary of the World Philosophical Forum took place in the eternal city of Athens in October. The two Bills did not make it. Short downpours of torrential rain did, one of hale stones as big as blood diamonds loudly drumming the ground to accompany the dialectical symposium, a total of three monsoon-like downpours all in the middle of the day. Such sudden torrential downpours, with ice, followed by flooding are taking place worldwide, as well as hotter summers conducive to forest fires, carbon dioxide accumulation and planetary warming. In my struggle to reach my venue and wary of its chaotic traffic, I decided to go slowly  taking in the newer and ancient landmarks; from the hill of Lycavitos and its small impressive church, the Maria Callas music hall where in my mind’s-ear I heard the strains of the sleepwalker a pleasant replacement to the traffic’s cacophony, a magnificent Byzantine church close to Omonia, several other welcoming churches with beckoning open doors and flickering votive candles, through Plaka, the Roman Agora with tourists and the Tower of the Winds. As I walked I thought of poetry… oh what of this life so full of care we have no time to stand and stare but stare I did! I am not yet born forgive them and I thought of unborn babies on hard refugee trails. On my walk it passed through my mind that perhaps it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Catching my breath I talked to a lady sitting outside her home where on the morrow we drank a Turkish coffee together.

2020 should build global confidence and place relations between United States-Russian on a safer track to avoid a senseless and dangerous return to nuclear brinksmanship. It would be a great start!

Jeffrey Levett is a regular contributor to Wall Street International Magazine. Read his articles here.

[1]  A statement by Paul Dirac, Piotr Kapitza, and Antonino Zichichi calling for nuclear disarmament, signed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping and other world leaders as well as more than 90,000 scientists.

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