icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Lifelong learning is the only way to live

On the plane to Warsaw, I sat next to a young woman who was leaving Marietta, Georgia for her hometown in the former Soviet republic of Georgia (which they pronounce so differently than I could not begin to comprehend). There is a Georgia-to-Georgia exchange, she said, but her scholarship had run out. She was near tears as she told me this, and very unsure about her future. I gave her my card, but I’ve not heard from her and probably never will.

I thought of this in the context of the youngsters coming here from Central America. Paranoid people think this is some sort of plot, but young people always have immigrated, often fleeing from militarism. Your own great-grandparents may have been among them. We think of our “grands” as always being old, but they were young once, and many did not want to be subjected to thugs of the sort that, unfortunately, our CIA has promoted in Central America. To take this risk, it is essential to have the invulnerability of youth; people who are older and have possessions and responsibilities can’t take the chance.

Such teenagers usually grow up to make important economic contributions to America – or if things don’t work out, they go back home where they have a support system. I know that from years of research for my Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930. Later, after the dates that this book covers, we’ve had Jewish refugees in the 1930s, displaced persons in the 1940s and 1950s, and after that, “Pedro Pan” from Cuba. The latter is what gave Marco Rubio and his ilk the opportunity that they now want to deny to others.

It’s Fox News that is the biggest promoter of prejudice on this and other issues. Even my tends-to-Republican brother in Arkansas has figured that out. His cable service also provides Al Jazeera, and he is finding fair and balanced news there, noticing that it covers stories other media ignores. When we were near the Russian border last month, we saw a good deal of news in hotel rooms. Bialystock, Poland’s university town where my conference was, had a dozen TV channels, but none in English. Even in Finnish or Korean or Russian, though, you can figure out by the pictures what is being covered, and it seemed fair to us.

I was surprised to see that Russian channels were as commercial as ours, with ads for everything from Volvo to Subway. Anchors were at least as stylish as ours, but they smiled much less and didn’t seem to view the news as entertainment. One report showed premier Vladmir Putin at a very large conference table, and there was no distinction between him and the other men. Yes, way too many men.

This will be my last column on the Baltic nations, but I do have to tell you this: Except for the capital of Riga, Latvia is the most unfriendly country. I stood and waited for a hot dog – their version has bread dough wrapped around the meat and baked in a microwave – and during the preparation time, the young man spun his spatula and studied the floor rather than make eye contact. The worst experience, though, was its “motorway.”

We twice had to stop for herds of cattle crossing the motorway, but I’ll happily give farmers that break. Whoever is in charge of Latvian transportation, however, makes Florida’s DOT look like saints. We left Tartu, Estonia, headed for Vilnius, Lithuania, about 250 miles away – or as far as from Tampa to Tallahassee. To get there, though, we had to pass through Latvia, and what should have been an eight-hour trip turned into eighteen hours. To be sure, we took some wrong turns (no directional indications with road number signs), but mostly it was caused by an inexcusably autocratic mindset.

The repair guys had torn up the entire road, not just one lane, so that there was no choice but to drive in deep muddy ruts. Worse, in the one lane that was “open,” red lights that accommodated traffic from the other direction were ten minutes long – long enough that we got out our books and read while waiting for the green light. We left at noon, expecting to get to our hotel for dinner, and instead it was breakfast time. But this nightmare was near the summer solstice, and it never did get completely dark. The sun went down about midnight, but the twilight ended just a couple of hours later. By 3:30 AM, it was full daylight.

And I don’t want to complain. A few more good ideas I noticed there: Collapsible seats on picnic tables, so rain doesn’t leave them wet. Big trucks with prominently posted safety awards. Good soups, even in relatively fast-food places. Soup, although made slowly, is fast to serve, and much more healthy than the fried grease we generally get. One middle-level restaurant serving Russian food offered a DVD player disguised in a gilded picture frame, and as we ate, we watched a black-and-white melodrama. This was in Tallinn, Estonia, and the restaurant was very Russian, complete with a taxidermist’s big bears. But back in Poland, when I tried to order caviar at a Bulgarian restaurant, the waitress resisted: “That’s Russian, you know!”

Waiters usually have hand-held computers that print receipts, so that you don’t have to wait for them to go back and forth. At outdoor cafes, an electronic device allows you to tell the waiter exactly what you want, saving another trip. And they don’t expect a tip. There’s no place on the receipt to give tips. Which brings me to the subject of honesty.

If the door in our Riga hotel wasn’t firmly shut, we got an electronic beep to close it. Yet at the same time, Hubby left the keys to our rental car inside it in an unguarded lot overnight, but no one touched it. Well, there was sort of a guard, but he was there primarily to maintain the restroom facilities for the street’s outdoor cafes – and he seemed to consider his primary job to be caring for cats. He had built a wooden apartment house for the area’s strays, each with its own entrance to individually decorated cat homes.

* * *

Some of my friends have asked about the conference itself. Called The American Forum, it is in its eleventh year and is partially sponsored by our State Department. To put this in context, you have to remember that eastern Europeans had very little educational opportunity until the twentieth century – and even then, it was pretty much limited to the brief period between World War I and World War II. Nazi Germany conquered these nations early in WWII, and the Soviet Union took them over on its way west to Hitler. It’s also important to remember that what education there was often came via priests of the Eastern Orthodox church. It lacked grounding in both the physical sciences and the humanities.

This hit me like an epiphany when I talked with a student in an elevator, and he seemed unsure that I would recognize the word “sociology.” The social sciences are in fact newer than many of us assume these days, as fields such as psychology and sociology did not develop until the twentieth century. In places where curriculum was controlled by autocrats, it was much later. In fact, one of the first speakers at the conference said that until recently, almost no historical information about America was available in Poland.

People knew some things on an informal basis, of course, as most Poles and many other Eastern Europeans had kinfolk who went to Chicago or Pittsburgh. Communication was difficult after World War I, though, and families lost touch with each other. Schools, libraries, and other sources of information were strongly discouraged from spreading the word about America. (And our xenophobes probably would have liked that policy, had they been able to get over their anti-Soviet mood.)

I’d given my keynote address to other State Department audiences, so I was comfortable in telling the history of American women from native tribes to the millennium in the 90-minute format prescribed. This audience of professors and graduate students was akin to most foreigners in being much slower than Americans to ask questions or make comments. It took most of the weekend for them to get up the nerve to tell me of their particular interests in American history, but on the Sunday afternoon when the conference closed and they had their last chance, they lined up to give me e-mail addresses.

Their interests were all over the map, as was their knowledge. One of the first speakers was a man who researched the leisure habits of genteel Southern women (he missed the fact that this included horsemanship). One of the later ones – whom I liked personally, especially because he shared child care duties with his wife – was just woefully wrong about the behavior of American men in North Africa and in Italy during World War II. I’ve written two books on that war, and it is a fact that Americans treated women better than any soldiers in history. On the other hand, I had a couple of long talks with a young man who knew our Civil War as well as I do, including Florida’s obscure Battle of Olustee. (Let me know if you want to know more about it.)

A young woman seemed to think that Will Eisner’s “graphic novels” (comic books) are tremendously important, but exactly what his drawings have to do with women or history wasn’t clear. A second young woman, I’m sure, got her scholarly information from the internet: her presentation was on a transgender promoter named Leslie Feinberg, who again seemed to be more male than female. Too many presentations were either too random (Emma Samson, an Alabama Civil War figure) or too trite, as in Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison.

The chief organizer, as might be expected, aimed well with a presentation on women’s emergence as diplomats in the Kennedy administration – but in fact, the first precedents were set earlier by Roosevelt and Truman. No speaker said anything about any woman who has held high electoral office such as governor or senator. Nothing on women in science, nothing on Nobel or Pulitzer winners, nor even women in sports or the arts. So on the whole, their view of American women’s history is not what I would want it to be. They still see women as derivative and as victims, and I was glad to be there to gently point out such points. But I also learned from them, and lifelong learning is the only way to live.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author