Even before the war in Ukraine erupted, I was always grateful to live in a country that has not seen war on its own soil for a long time. I feel we take our nation’s basic infrastructure for granted in a major way on a daily basis. In contrast to what is happening in Ukraine, most of us never have to worry about accessibility to clean water and electricity, ease of transportation, the sheer existence of medical care, rights to education, and for most people, the security to leave one’s own home each day and go about your life.
During my junior year of college, I lived in France and Spain. Granted, that was a far cry from living in war-torn countries, but even living in Western Europe taught me to appreciate the US way of life. To a teenager who was used to daily full-blasting hot water showers, having to wait several days in Europe for each bathing experience was quite a shock. Shock #2 was discovering that the showers where I lived were mere trickles of water you huddled under in a not-quite-fully-enclosed shower stall (read: wet walls and floors until I gained showering skills). During weekend jaunts around the continent, bathing was even more difficult, either due to not wanting to use the community shower rooms in hostels or having a room with a tub (no shower or curtain, mind you). Smack dab in the middle of the room. Just out there in the open when you were sharing a room with 3 other people. Like I’m going to take a bath with all the roommates watching, some of which were people I had just met a few weeks prior. As a result, we made a game of tallying up the number of consecutive hours we wore the same clothes. Long weekends could achieve the “76 hours in jeans” status. I realize this isn’t major suffering by any means, but just the sheer difference of it was enough to cause me to reflect upon how convenient and expected things are here.
Speaking of freedoms, one experience I had in Spain has stuck with me for over thirty years. And I am reminded of it every time I hear stories about war and military conflict in other parts of the world, which has been plentiful lately. It was 1992. I was out with some Spanish and American friends one night. A slightly tipsy Spaniard came up to us and questioned our nationalities. Once he knew we were from the US, he proceeded with a soapbox-like tirade about how we have no idea what it’s like to live in your home country and have another country’s military living with you. “How would you feel if you had a Spanish military base in your hometown?” (There was an American base outside the city of Sevilla, where I was living.) “You Americans have no idea. Your military just plops itself down all over the planet in the name of protecting the world, and we just have to accept it.” It was something I had NEVER thought of, have you? And the US wasn’t even at war with Spain at that time. Can you imagine having foreign military personnel walking around our towns and cities? How can we possibly relate to that as Americans? Day-to-day life with another country “occupying” your town is just not in the realm of any of our imaginations.
I recently met a college student named Joel who recently moved here from Cameroon. His parents have lived in the US since he was a baby; however, he grew up without them in Africa. He explained to me that education is a priority for all people in Cameroon, male or female. One of the reasons he came to the US was because his education had been cut short at home. A few years prior, an internal conflict in his country had shut down much of the nation’s infrastructure, including schools. While it was fun not having school at first, after a while, he knew he was being denied something he deserved. He and his friends protested in the not-so-safe streets for the right to go back to school. How many of us can say we would risk your life to be able to go to school? It has never come up, right? Due to the global pandemic for the past few years, American kids were prevented from going to school for the past few years due to COVID, but how many of them were protesting in public for the right to go back? I know mine were happily curled up with a screen. Waiting for the world to change.
When reading this, I hope to make you stop and think about how extremely safe, comfortable, and convenient life is here (despite the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and soaring gas prices). Lately, I have taken a few extra deep breaths of gratitude each time I walk into a “fully” stocked grocery store, drive freely across town and state borders, send my kids to school/out to play, or jump into a well-lit hot shower at any hour of the day. Not everyone on this planet is so lucky.