Adopting a sighted guide on the train... or the ethics of helping strangers avoid corporate traps

What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.

As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness. 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.

The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.

But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.

I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.

It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.

"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--" 

But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.

The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"

I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.

That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.

But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.

I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.

"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."

It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.

I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.

The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off. 

I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine. 

I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes. 

"Welcome to Canada" unless you have a disability

Canada's appalling discrimination against immigrants with disabilities threatens to derail the country's enlightened track record. The long-standing ban impacts professionals, children and anyone subjectively believed to be a potential "burden," causing families to be denied reunion and stunned individuals to be subjected to significant hardship. 

My husband and I both love a spirited political discussion, so it's good that we agree on a lot of things or home life could become contentious. But there is one place where sparks fly. That's--amazingly--Canada. 

My husband's argument is by his own admission emotional and irrational. Sixteen years ago, he went to the Canadian embassy to apply for a visa as a Czech citizen because we were traveling to the US--in part to get married--and he wanted to go look at the beautiful mountains near Calgary on a road trip. He already had a year-long visa to the US (no small feat) and was confident that the Canadians would give him one as well. 

Now, I'd like to point out that my husband has never been known to put out an arrogant or abrasive vibe. Everyone who knows him will vouch that he is--unlike me--well versed in diplomatic behavior and expression. But I wasn't there, so I can only take his word for it.

The Canadian consul took hum in for an interview and at some point asked--rather acidly, he says--if my husband simply assumed Canada would issue him a visa, because the US did. My husband replied "Yes, I think you will." And his visa was denied. 

I was shocked. This is simply not the Canada I know as a friendly and overly polite northern neighbor. But George W. Bush had just been elected and I was fairly sure that the complaints of an American fiancée could only hurt his case under the circumstances. 

So, we didn't go to Canada for the road trip and my husband has never forgiven them. Any time Canada comes up in political discussion he is uncharacteristically sarcastic and negative.

And Canada comes up a fair amount because we are both very critical of most US imperial and corporate-welfare policies. I was brought to tears of gratitude when Canada refused to forcibly return a few American soldiers who fled there to escape being deployed in the ridiculous and often marginally legal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have also heard plenty of stories of Americans going to Canada to buy desperately needed medicine at reasonable prices. And watching the actions of Canada's marvelously diverse cabinet--particularly when they announced that they would take in thoroughly vetted Syrian refugees rejected by Donald Trump--is a delight and a rare breath of fresh, piney air in these stifling times. 

I've always vehemently stuck up for Canada in discussions with my husband or anyone else, which is why the news that Canadian immigration policy flagrantly discriminates against the most vulnerable possible group--children with disabilities--hits me like a sucker punch. 

An article in The Washington Post explains that Canadian policy means in practical terms: "Families can be rejected for having deaf children and spouses can be denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system." And this long-standing policy calls into question precisely how honest the Canadian boast of welcoming refugees from war-torn Syria, where many will have been injured, really is.

The article goes on to list horrifying case studies of families denied reunion or exposed to extreme hardship, due to a member with fairly minor disabilities. A German woman, with multiple sclerosis--a condition that can be fairly mild and is certainly not contagious--who married a Canadian man was denied a residency permit. A family was even stopped at the airport in 2008 after their immigration from Britain had been approved because their daughter had an apparently visible genetic difference. The family of a Costa Rican professor hired by Toronto University was denied residency because of a child with Down Syndrome.

I have to say, flat out, that in the year 2017 this list--and it goes on in The Washington Post--leaves me breathless and gagging. And it makes me look back again at that moment when my husband was denied a visa and wonder if behind the humanitarian and progressive face presented by Canada there actually lies a smug, entitled and ultimately self-serving heart, as he has always maintained. 

Photo by Larry Dickerson  No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

Photo by Larry Dickerson

No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

You see, before I was an American (yeah, it took a month for them to file my birth certificate so technically there was a before), I was a child with a disability. My family's house burnt down while my mother was pregnant with me and my family, including my then one-year-old brother lived in the back of a truck through one snowy, mountain winter. I was born in the spring in the loft of what was then a one-room cabin built by hand around that truck, the fresh-cut boards still smelling of sap. 

And my mother, having endured all that and living in physically harsh conditions, then found out that her new baby was blind. 

We weren't immigrants, but given all that had happened, we didn't look much different from your standard refugees. 

And no one could have predicted it then, but I became an immigrant 22 years later--to the Czech Republic, which--soon after I came--joined the European Union. 

And the comparison to Canadian policies could not be more striking. 

As an immigrant in the EU, I was officially classified in the worst of four possible categories of disability, though I technically have some sight. I once ran into overt discrimination because I was an immigrant with a disability and that was from a doctor who refused to issue me legally mandated medical documents, because she did "not believe foreigners should get the benefits of society" even if they pay the same taxes as everyone else. I dumped her in our wonderful European single-payer health-care system and got another doctor. Problem solved.

Many terrible things have been said about the notorious Foreigner's Police in the Czech Republic and yet astoundingly after 20 years of dealing with them I have never felt that they discriminated against me because of my disability. Far from it. While their 12- and 18-hour waiting lines and their occasional collusion with the Ukrainian mafia are egregious, they never seemed to notice my white cane.

Not only did I not face discrimination from Czech or EU authorities, I was given the same benefits of society that a citizen has, as soon as I had the equivalent of a Green Card as the spouse of a Czech and EU citizen. And I was even given disability accommodations when I took a citizenship test after fifteen years as a permanent resident to assess knowledge of the language and culture, because--surprise surprise--Czech officials actually cared more about whether or not I, as a prospective citizen, had truly integrated into their country and become one of them than they did about my physical difference.

Having seen a thing or two in my time in many parts of the world, I was always waiting for the discrimination shoe to drop. But it never did. 

I'm not a big tax payer, but it's hard to say whether that has more to do with my disability or with my profession as a writer. My husband pays a full share and I make a lot of his work possible. I am an exceedingly good bet for the Czech single-payer health-care system, being extraordinarily healthy. My disability has only once required medical attention and that was for cataract surgery, which eventually affects more than half of all adults. 

Oh, and then there are the savings the state has gained since I adopted two infants from an orphanage that the Czech state would have otherwise had to support for 18 years--given that they were considered "unadoptable" due to local ethnic prejudices. I never had to pay a cent for the adotions (for the record) and I also never got a cent for taking that burden off of the Czech state. I did get a family and a country that welcomed me, however. 

And so for once, I stand in awe of my good fortune--the simple luck that I am in the EU and even Eastern Europe, rather than the much admired land of Canada.

And to Canadians I want to say this. You have my heartfelt thanks you for giving sanctuary to American soldiers forced into illegal situations. Thank you for taking in refugees, including refugees from my adopted country the Czech Republic, when ethnic tensions, violence and rampant discrimination here caused thousands of Czech Roma to flee to Canada. You complained and sent some back, but some were able to stay and thus escape a different form of discrimination--racial discrimination--here.

None of us are perfect. But this policy of blatant discrimination against people with disabilities is disgusting, unwise and ultimately self-defeating. You are an enlightened society and can easily absorb the fact that people with disabilities are no more likely to be a "burden"  to your society than any other group of immigrants.

For centuries, uninformed and misguided policies around the world have called immigrants in general a burden. And nation after nation, that opened up to immigrants and enjoyed their energy and industry has shown those exclusionist policies to be simply ignorant. 

The same is true of societies that have opened up to full participation by people with disabilities. Such openness has only ever helped a society and boosted economic growth.

People with disabilities are different. That's true.

But given access to the same rights as other people, we have never been a burden. Just as we are different, our contributions are outside the norm and often therefore in areas others would not have gone to address needs in society that otherwise would have been left wanting--such as my adoption of children considered un-adoptable by locals. 

Canada, this policy is beneath you. Fix it. Please.

Homestead: Why put in the effort?

The deep freeze of winter has loosened and the snow is running down the hill as a glistening, gray sheet of ice. I have to strap little spikes onto my shoes to get up the hill to feed the animals.

No one can yet say that winter is over or that spring has come, but there is a quickening in the light, a tad more gold in the rare sunshine and less icy white.

My ducks know it. They cheerfully peck around their tiny yard and wait at the gate, hoping today will be the day I open it and let them roam. 

We've built a second coop and have reserved three hens and a rooster from a farmer an hour to the south. This year is looking like it could be the year our urban homesteading really takes off. We have two greenhouses, a few good fruit trees and a large, mature herb garden. In just the past week, I've handled three family health crises with just our own resources. 

Creative Commons image by Becks of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Becks of Flickr.com

People ask me why I tie myself down so close to the land. It does make planning our summer trip to raft a river in southern Poland a lot harder. 

And I do wonder about it sometimes. Have I made the right decisions? It certainly isn't that much cheaper to grow your own food and medicine. If work hours were counted, it is ridiculously expensive. And I wonder just how much it lowers our environmental impact--even with our rainwater irrigation system and pest-patrol ducks. 

When my husband whines or the neighbors sneer or my friends question my overworked lifestyle, I remind them of the list-able benefits--pesticide-free food, a healthy diet and environment for kids, kids growing up knowing the value of food, learning basic survival skills and developing connections to plants and animals, physical exercise and something to drag us out of the house no matter the weather, insurance against hard times, and a small internal sense of accomplishment and satisfaction...

Somehow it still doesn't seem to add up. The benefits feel like fringe things, luxuries in a life that is stretched to the breaking point. We try to keep up with jobs, school, social standards, my disability and one child's disability.

It often feels like every day is a battle. I wake up long before dawn, roll my legs out of bed and try to coordinate my movements so my feet slide right into my slippers as they hit the floor. I'm in the kids' room to get them up for their extra-early ride to school before I'm more than half awake. 

At night I fall into bed and lately indulge in one unwise relaxation-a single show on Netflix that keeps me up past 11:00 and results in less sleep than I really need. When spring comes, I know even that will have to go.

So, why then? I could just work more hours and buy the occasional expensive organic produce. 

I ask myself this quietly and my husband asks it out loud sometimes. 

But then somehow we each start planning the garden or the coop for the new chickens. There is something inexorable about it. Once you have close ties to the land, it requires things from you. Maybe it's a kind of homing instinct, like my ducks have. The more unstable the outside world becomes, the stronger the inner need to have a way to make our own food gets.

Then there is the future conversation with my children I imagine. In twenty years, when they have grown to understand history, environmental problems, politics and the world in general, the effects of climate change will be much more apparent. And their generation will ask us what we did when the warnings were clear. They'll ask what we did when 97 percent of scientists were sure and crying for people to change their dependence on oil, coal and factory farms. 

I want to be able to answer those questions without shame.

No matter my doubts, I can't quiet those predictable voices. And growing food is one way I know to do something. It's a way to learn skills and teach them to my kids to be prepared for whatever kind of world they will live in. 

If I had a better way--a job with political or corporate influence or a lot of money which I could use to push for systemic change--then I might well put all these hours of work into that. But for now this is the thing I can do.

And I'm glad for it. When the cost-benefit analysis is all done and there is a pause in the work, I am happy looking at our tiny kingdom, a refuge and a hope that there will be a future.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

No longer a foreigner: identity, loyalty and collective responsibility

My husband takes the kids home, while I stop by city hall to register. I've lived in this country for eighteen years, but I've been on the special list for foreign residents.

No longer.

The sky is gently overcast and the air is so cold it makes my teeth ache if I open my mouth too wide. I walk the back way home, through the trees, along the backs of houses where people keep chickens and ducks in little snowbound coups. It is dusk by the time I reach the hill above our house and all the lights of the town glow golden against electric blue snow. 

It's idyllic: small, gabled Central European houses set along crooked streets with muted lamps. The snow is just deep enough to blanket everything cleanly and the birches creak in the cold. A fast train to Prague whistles by on the tracks at my back, flashing warm light from its windows.. 

It all reminds me of the reasons why I came here in the first place--the simple beauty, the values of frugality and modest comfort, the public transportation, the ancient hills that echo Celto-slavic folk tales and medieval history. I have almost come to take these blessings for granted.

And sure, this place has it's warts--rigid social rules, an impersonal and often harsh norm for interactions and the very mono-culture that allows for such a uniformly pretty view.  But it isn't just familiar to me now. It has become inseparable from who i am.

As of this week, I am no longer a foreigner in the place where I have lived for eighteen years. I've become fluent in the language and culture of the Czech Republic. I have built a family and a house here. I've held various jobs and participated in public life as a moderately well-known anti-war activist for a few years. 

It takes awhile to really become part of another country, It isn't as simple as planting a flag and declaring it yours. But whether or not officialdom recognizes it there comes a time, after many years when a foreigner is no longer a foreigner.

Identity

It's an odd feeling not to be a foreigner anymore. Since I left my home at age sixteen, my identity was that of a foreigner and an American abroad.  Like a traditional marriage, I was caught up in it for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. 

In the course of my travels, I was detained by both Ukrainian and Belarussian soldiers because of how my passport played in international politics, I survived a targeted attack by an anti-American mob, I saw others beaten because they were mistakenly believed to be Americans, I was harangued and insulted over misguided US military policies, and I withstood endless assumptions and false preconceptions. I was also given refuge by American soldiers in a war zone and was occasionally let through a barrier when my equals and peers were not, because I was an American and they were not. 

So, I already know that passports and national acceptance come with strings attached. A year ago, I was asked to swear loyalty to the United States on behalf of my adopted children as they received their US citizenship. That started me thinking about what national identity means these days.

The United States is not a classical nation state. We have no one culture. Not even one language much anymore. If you know only that a stranger is an American, you actually know almost nothing about them. They could be anything from an Islamic fundamentalist living in Chicago to a second-generation Hippie living in Prague and everything and anything beyond those options.

By contrast, the country that has adopted me is fairly homogeneous. Almost everyone speaks Czech, including  naturalized citizens who have to take a pretty tough test. Everyone is steeped in a similar culture and the only way a foreigner can become a citizen is by putting down firm roots in the country for many years. Thus a Czech passport implies a lot about one's identity. 

Loyalty

But what about that loyalty bit? In the United States, we are often chastised as anti-American or disloyal if we criticize our president or military engagements.  In the Czech Republic, no one tends to yell "anti-Czech" at people who disagree on politics and we are never the ones to start wars, so that isn't really an issue. But still a newly minted citizen must swear "loyalty" to the country in addition to swearing to abide by its laws and constitution.

I have never felt disloyal to the United States, although I have protested the policies of several administrations and every military adventure since 1990.

The thing is that to me loyalty isn't exclusive. Loyalty means that I will stand up for my home country. I will speak up when it is in danger, even if that danger comes from a corrupt or inept leader. I will work to make it stronger. And I won't aid those who would harm my country. I have no problem pledging this loyalty to my home country. And I have no problem pledging it to my adopted country either. 

When I graduated from college in linguistics I was asked to apply for a job at the CIA or the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency). I didn't really consider it, not only because I had my heart set on journalism, but more importantly because my research and acquaintances in the intelligence field told me that within these organizations loyalty means a willingness to harm or deceive others in order to advance one's own country.  It means unquestioning allignment, even when temporary policies may be unethical. It also entails a belief that the lives of fellow citizens are of greater value than the lives of foreigners.

I am loyal in that I want the best for my country.  I will take the time to go be politically active and strive for the betterment of my country. I hope Peru does well too, but I'm not loyal to Peru, just because I don't live there and I am not personally invested in that country. I wish them no ill though. 

So, this is the thing. When I pledge loyalty to my adopted country, I mean this. I will stand with you. I tie my fate to the fortunes of this nation. I will sacrifice my time and energy for this country. I will not remain silent when this country is in danger from within or from the outside. I will be active, not passive and my heart is with this country. 

People ask what a person who has two countries does if those countries ever go to war. I certainly hope they never will and see no indication that they might. But if it were to happen, I very much doubt that war would be in the interests of either. If one were the aggressor that regime would be as harmful to the aggressing country as it would to the victim. If neither was the aggressor then it would be a harmful folly for both. By being against such a war and doing all one could to prevent it, one would still be true to the spirit of loyalty. To throw one's country into a war, that would seem the height of disloyalty to me, even if you wrap yourself in a flag while you do it.

Collective Responsibility

My last issue with this quietly momentous change is that of collective responsibility, even guilt by association and the assumptions of others..

Once before 9/11, I landed in Pakistan on a flight to Bangladesh. I sat next to a young Pakistani man whose body hummed with tension. I got him talking but I was savvy enough to say "I'm coming from Prague" and let him assume I was Czech, rather than wave around my American passport. It wasn't ten minutes before the young Pakistani was telling me all the reasons he hated Americans--all of them having to do with what various American politicians had done or ordered our military to do. None of his reasons were actually reasons to hate Americans. There was nothing about loose American values, bad movies or un-Islamic dress codes.

It was far from the only time I encountered the idea of collective responsibility or guilt for the actions of political and military leaders. For a good part of the twenty years I've spent abroad in all, I have seen my fellow Americans wearing Canadian stickers on their backpacks to avoid trouble.

So, now that I have adopted a new country and still claim loyalty to the first, it is likely that I will at times be held to blame for the missteps of both nations. And believe me, the Czech Republic may be small but we still have ways of making ourselves unpopular internationally. For starters, the Czech Republic is known as one of the most racist countries in Europe. It is also known for having a lot of hackers and some dangerous I.P. addresses. As a Czech, 

I have never lied about being an American, except in two cases when I really thought my life might be in danger. Part of loyalty to me is that if we let our leaders go so far astray that it causes this kind of flak, then generally we ought to take it, try to explain and then try to redress things our leaders did that really were against our values. So, I'll take the collective responsibility of my adopted country as well. This is why it is an identity I don't take lightly.

I won't lie about my Czech identity. Instead I'll try to make it an identity to be proud of, just as I do with my American identity.

"I don't have to be friends with everybody!"

It's so common that many people might consider it normal. A group of kids are playing with a soccer ball and one boy--a bit taller than most and with a forceful personality--gives orders. The others follow the orders gladly and one of the orders is that they don't play with "that kid." 

But common isn't necessarily okay.

I was always afraid my kids would be "that kid" because they're different from the other kids in our town, visibly and controversially. But when it happened, it was at a support group for kids like them, kids of a minority background who were supposed to be their best allies. And my kids weren't the one left out. 

Instead it was one of my people. The kid with a significant physical disability. It wasn't due to his behavior or personality. He's a fun kid. Because he was booted out of the boys' fun and he loved card games, I played Uno with him. I could wish my kids were as quick with Uno. 

And no, there is no excuse. This was not one of those situations where the child left out was too timid or too aggressive, didn't ask to be included or just felt offended and left. He was told to leave.

The others chased him with sticks because they wanted to play cops and robbers and he was handy as a robber. If he was near them the game was always everyone against that boy. It was all in fun. They never hurt him physically, but they absolutely would not play WITH him. 

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

I sat my kids down privately to understand the issue. 

"The leader doesn't want him to play," my daughter said

Why does he get to decide?

"We want him to be the leader. He knows how to make fun," she explains.

My son, younger and less verbal, just shrugs. He admits he doesn't feel great about leaving that one boy out, but he wants to play with the boys. He'll go along with whatever, even if it makes him feel a bad sometimes.

Finally, I directly witnessed the ringleader directing kids to gang up on the boy with a disability. So, I told the ringleader he was in time-out. He went to time-out but told me, "You can't make us play with him." 

The mother of the ringleader arrived shortly and took over. She told him, "That's not nice," and let him go. 

I gritted my teeth and started another Uno game. 

It wasn't really a new issue in this group, except before the issue had been me among the grown-ups. We have come to this group for four years now. During the third year, I was extremely frustrated. The same group of people met each time, and I still did not know who was who because people were never introduced again and I couldn't see their faces. When I asked, I was given awkward answers and then avoided.

Other parents formed little groups of friends within the support group and I was left on the outside. Once I was even explicitly told to give up my seat at a lunchroom table because a large group wanted to sit together and I wasn't invited. I was directed to sit outside the lunchroom in an area where there were large tables but also wasps that made the area less desirable. 

It was far from a "support group" for me. I only went for the kids to be with peers like them. But then one of the organizers decided to make the theme of this year's meeting be "the inclusion of people with disabilities," because her friend with the disabled child would be attending for the first time. 

I was asked for ideas for a disability awareness program. They wanted me to develop a blindness simulation, so people could see how rough it is to be blind. But the only ideas I am particularly interested in have to do with the social aspects of disability.

It isn't that rough to be blind. It's occasionally inconvenient. But it is rough to have people react to you being blind. 

The organizers weren't happy. My suggestions were ignored and the theme went ahead with little physical demonstrations of blindness and deafness. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the one thing I could explain in this context--that is the difficulty of recognizing faces when you are visually impaired. And somehow I managed to get through to the adults for the first time. By the end of the week, I knew everyone's name and could identify most by voice, stature or idiosyncrasies. It was a vast relief and I was even included in some conversations after that. 

Still, the child with a disability in our midst was left out and forced to play card games with the grown-ups. 

Toward the end of the week-long workshop, a guest came to give a presentation to our group. He was a man of the same minority background as the children in the group. Most of the guests to such a group are women, people in "caring" professions. So, having a male guest was a big deal.

The little boys were agog at this role model. He was buff, brash and a man. He had grown up in the ghetto and become the first minority city counsel member in his good-sized town.

He quickly noticed the disharmony among the children. As it turned out, once the disabled boy had been fully rejected from the pack of kids, the leader needed another target. And this time it was my son--quiet, not too well coordinated and younger than most. 

He joined me at the Uno table and pretended he didn't care much.

Our male guest gathered all the kids who had been involved in the shunning of the boy with a disability--and most of them were boys in this case--out on the soccer field and talked to them. The dynamics quickly became apparent. 

"I don't have to be friends with everyone," the ringleader said. "My father says I've got to be assertive. It's his problem if he's too weak to be in our club."

The man tried to reason with them and talked about compassion. He asked how they would feel if they were left out.

"I won't be left out," the ringleader said. "I'll make sure of that."

The other kids watched their leader and he did not back down. They learned. The adults were unwilling to lay down a law on this. Shunning may not be nice, but it isn't explicitly against the rules.

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

Creative Commons image by Duane Storey

The session on the soccer field broke up without any resolution. But I held back from leaving because I wanted to get an email address from the guest, who I greatly admired, although he seemed a bit lost being called in to help mediate this conflict among the children.

As the others trailed away, the ringleader among the kids and one of his closest friends stood with the man from the ghetto, their admired role model. I waited patiently for him to finish with them, so I could ask for his contact information.

"My father says there are people called Neo-nazis who might hurt me because I'm not white," the leader of the kids' pack admitted to the man, his voice still strong but his stance clearly seeking some reassurance or support from this strong mirror of himself.

The man told him, "That's true. Some people are like that, but here is the thing you need to remember. Not many people are like that. Only a few. Most people are good."

I have a hard time with my big mouth. The man hesitated. He rocked from foot to foot, obviously struggling for words.

And the words popped out before I could stop them, "And that is a good reason, why you should be friends with as many people as you can. You never know when you'll need them at your back." 

The man jabbed his finger at me. "Yes! That is the thing! That is it!" 

He was clearly grateful to be rescued from an awkward issue of teaching morals to children--particularly a moral concept that adults don't actually observe all that well. We grinned at one another. A pact of the grown-ups with a quick comeback.

I do mean it though. Sure, no one can force you to be friends with the less cool, the ones who take a bit of extra effort--whether it's a kid on the playground who you have to work to communicate with or a grown-up who can't recognize faces. But hard times are coming and you may need just such friends. There is no friend more steadfast than those who have been on the outside.

Still. I acknowledge that mine was an easy answer, given to kids. I think back to my own childhood, when I struggled with social ostracism on a daily basis. There is a part of that memory I don't like to think on. There was a kid in my school for a time who was very strange in appearance due to a physical deformity.

He was smart and nice, but he looked strange even to my weak eyes. He was also not cool. He didn't have the kind of forceful personality that can negate physical difference. And so, even though I said "Hi" to him on the street and in the halls, I was never really friends with him. I yearned always toward the kids who were moving and doing things. Even I, who should have known better. did it. 

Now I swear I'll do better. Instead of looking around for who I want to be with, I'll look around for who is there and ready. 

A thousand years of fishing

Pale, autumn sunlight sifts through the morning mist, a thread of weak yellow in the grayish brown landscape..

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

My hands are nearly frozen, gripping the side of a jolting wagon and a child between my knees. And this is just the beginning.

But there are thermoses of hot water for tea and bottles of rum for grog and if anyone will be warm it will be me. My task is usually tending the small cookfire on the dike.

It's the annual fish harvest in South Bohemia and we're on our way to the ponds, bundled up for several hours of frigid work. There is no snow yet and only a mild layer of frost but everything is wet and will get wetter. The land here used to be a marsh after all.

Each year we are pressed into service by my husband's family on the last weekend in October to help fish out the ponds that hold the winter's supply of carp and pike. It's a tradition a thousand years old. The men dress in hip-high rubber boots and old farm jackets and wade out into the muck of the partly drained ponds with giant nets spread between them. Then at the grandfather's signal, they form a line and heard the fish in to the center. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am always struck by the odd beauty of this ritual. It is all about mud, cold and hard, dirty work. But the fact that the techniques used hundreds of years ago are still the most effective makes it magical. And the realization that the five-hundred-year-old network of fishponds and water channels has made humans an integral part of the ecology of this land make it beautiful. 

When the fish are drawn into a wriggling, silver-flashing mass in the center of their circle, the fishermen lift them with scoop nets, while others sort them into huge drums of water--one for the smallest immature fish, one for those that will be left to grow another year and one for the full-sized fish, which will be kept in clear water for a month to ensure that they don't smell like mud. Then they'll be served for holiday dinners.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Dozens of people come to the fish harvest, many to work for a free fish, many just to watch from the dike. I hand out grog and tea. This used to be my mother-in-law's job and I was only her helper. This is the first year since she passed on. 

My children run wild in the pack of local children, splashing through the shallow black water and spattering themselves with that peculiar stinking black mud of the South Bohemian bogs that is nearly impossible to wash out of clothes and off of skin. But such family traditions are worth more than a set of clothes. 

I warm my reddened hands by the fire and watch as the sun emerges from behind the heavy clouds, briefly setting the autumn trees around the pond ablaze with color. 

Exceedingly clean fun

Firefighters, trucks and hoses fill the village square amid screaming children. And a strange white substance floats on the wind, clinging to bodies and clothes and piling up in a mountain on the cobblestones.

At first glance, it looks a bit like a disaster zone.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But on closer inspection, the screams turn to shrieks of delight. The children run toward the white spray and hurl themselves into the mass of foam.

As a foreigner at this spectacle years ago, I was initially a bit disturbed and concerned for the children's health. However, the foam turns out to be mild bubble bath. And this has become almost an annual event in our small town now.

The volunteer firefighters come to the square during some special occasion and fill it with a huge cushion of foam. Then the children romp in it. 

Is there anything more aptly called "clean fun?"

I stand back against the a railing and watch, though I can't see much with my eyesight, just a white blur and the wriggling shadows of the children. There is a slight distance between me and the other watching parents.

I am a foreigner and that "odd lady who teaches English and grows herbs." I'm a reasonably well-tolerated modern version of the village witch. They even call my house the "Gingerbread house" because it has red-stained wood siding and white window frames. It also stands at the edge of town near abandoned land. 

I have mixed feelings about this community, which has not so much taken me in as allowed me to exist in a foreign land. There are a few people in town--now after 12 years--who might come up to me and talk, if they were here. But most who know me won't and I cannot see them, so I don't even know which of them is present. 

I am not the only one who suffers from the cold edges of this community. Many of the elderly are left alone and when I greet them in the street and stop to talk, they are at times bitter and at times simply astonished to be acknowledged. 

Still I am glad to see that there are those here who struggle to build community. The firefighters are among them. They are volunteers in a country where volunteerism has a bad name--an aftertaste of forced community service under threat from the old Communist regime of a generation ago.

And now the firefighters have started this new tradition--one they care enough about that even though they were called out on a fire and an auto accident this very afternoon, they managed to come to the village fair as promised. We had given up hope and started for home when we heard about the accident. 

We all came running back when the trucks came down main street and the children cheered as the sun touched the horizon. And I know they will remember this all their lives. The children will remember that the firefighters are good, not scary, and that they keep they're promises. 

I have no illusions that this means the community will be healed of all the wounds of the past. There have been many. (It has taken 12 years but finally someone whispered to me that the reason we have no Roma in our town--except in my family--is that there were pogroms against them 20 years ago and they were all forced to flee.) 

Yet community leans back and forth between exclusion and inclusion. This is part of a shift toward inclusion and community strength. It is somewhere to stand.