Fleet Week Feelings

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Most people have a pretty shallow view of my hometown’s political stripes and may have no idea how pro-military the history of San Francisco is. In the era of first European contact, the Presidio of San Francisco, the Spanish army’s garrison, was the city’s very first establishment (1776). Once California was admitted to the Union in 1850, San Francisco’s presidio served as the headquarters of America’s western army and was the headquarters of the 6th Army until the base was decommissioned in 1994. The city also served as a primary station of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet and the US Coast Guard. There are 3 Air Force bases in the greater Bay Area as well.

Many of the region’s past and current residents were first introduced to San Francisco as servicepeople, shipping to or from deployments overseas. There is genuine and heartfelt pride in the armed forces here, which have the San Francisco Bay Area as an area of particular recruitment focus.

My dad also served in the Navy as a ship’s engineer, during two wars. So, I have a more personal connection to those seafarers.

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People who don’t know that history of connection might be surprised at the size and enthusiasm of crowds for San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week celebrations. This year’s event, just concluded, was no exception.

Each Fleet Week, in addition to public tours and the parade of ships from the navies of many countries including our own, we San Franciscans have become accustomed to the roar of the Blue Angels swooping and buzzing our city. Thousands turn out to line the waterfront for a glimpse of the F/A-18s in performance.

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We had a couple of special guests in from out of town this past weekend, so we took them down to the Ferry Building for some good eats and a chance to see the Blue Angels up close. The show, of course, didn’t disappoint. It never does. The embarcadero was packed with folks trying to find the blue and gold air machines as they whizzed by, the roaring sound trailing them by several seconds. If you like crazy-fast speed and the sound of loud engines, this particular show cannot be beat.

But life sometimes reaches out in unanticipated ways to remind you of the importance of perspective, of the difference between entertainment and more important things.

I noticed the sound at first, in between the teeth-chattering roar of the jets; it was the whine of an old stringed instrument; a sound both familiar and foreign. I turned to see an old man in a old suit jacket hunched over an oud, playing something that reminded me more than a little of the old Greek and Turkish music that filled my grandmothers’ homes. The coffee can at his feet had a few scattered tips from passers by.

At that moment, the jets overhead became the distractions, this man the center of my attention. I walked nearer, listened more closely. And it was beautiful and moving. When he took a short break, I offered him a little cash and asked him,

“Turkish? From Turkey?”

“Syria,” he replied. He began to say a bit more when the Angels roared by again, causing him to wince a bit. When the noise diminished somewhat, he looked down and started to play another song.

I’d always loved watching the Blue Angels, been excited by their skill, thrilled by the speed and the roar of their engines. At that moment, though, I wondered what Fleet Week looked like through the eyes of this Syrian man playing the oud far from home. What feelings did he have looking at the parade of warships passing by his perch on my hometown’s waterfront? As the Blue Angels zoomed by, would he be thinking of loved ones being bombed back home? Did he know that half a world away, the Kurds in his homeland were at that very moment being betrayed by the American president, even as thousands wearing American flag t-shirts and baseball caps walked by him?

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Terma (or τέρμα)

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Note dear reader: I will not come close to capturing the real essence of the subject of this post but I promise to do my absolute best. Simply, he is too large to get right on paper.

He was a force, that much is certain. He was with us often, always it seemed, on that trip to Greece several years ago. He filled the room with his sheer presence. Not overbearing exactly, like some boulder rolling down a hillside; he was more like a professional entertainer that was always on. Amusing but exhausting.

He was my uncle Taiki, now recently departed.

When we arrived in Athens after a very long day of flying and connecting, he whisked us to the family house in the city, where we settled in for a multi-hour feast. He sat, as I remember, between Erika and me and served as more or less constant, which is to say non-stop, translator.

He told me stories about the family and gave Erika a crash course in must-know Greek. The word for fork. The word for knife. The word for glass. And on. And on. And on, throughout dinner.

He told me how superior the Greek language was to the vulgarity of English. In English, we have one word for rock, he said; in Greek, there’s rock, and pebble, and stone, and boulder. And on. And on.

He called me something that sounded like “Brunt.”

One day, a few days later, he loaded us into the back of his van and took us all to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio, which turned out to be, as promised, among the most beautiful places I have seen on this earth.

When I pulled out my camera to get some photos, Taiki seemed genuinely offended. “Rocks,” he said. “You came all this way to take pictures of rocks?” I tried to laugh it off but he had none of it. “You like rocks?” he asked. I said I found the temple magnificent, or whatever word I had to express that feeling in Greek.

With that, he vaulted the barrier, walked to a column and broke a piece of marble off in his thick hand. He came back, jumped the chain again, shoved the piece of the ancient and glorious temple into my hand and said, “There. Now you’ve got your rock.”

Taiki looked much like his aunt, my grandmother. The fair hair, the piercing blue eyes, the rolling walk that so many have who’ve grown up in an agricultural life. We visited the family farm, on the Gulf of Corinth. Taiki showed me the family’s olive press, the fields where my grandmother played as a little girl, the boat the family used to catch the calamari we had for lunch that day.

And there were the stories. Some, frankly, just too good to be true, even when washed down with liberal amounts of the family’s homemade retsina. He was a general in the Greek army, politically connected, a lemon farmer, a raconteur, a lover of life and his family.

When, during our visit, he would get to be too much, Erika would tell him to stop by saying a word Taiki himself had taught her, terma. And, like the gentleman he was, he would smile and stop (for a few minutes, at any rate).

According to the Urban Dictionary, a Taiki is “…a male who is an oddball combination of an artist, a gentleman, and a ninja.” How very accurate.

And, as Erika can still tell you, the Greek word for fork is πιρούνι. Thank you for that, Taiki. 

Terma.

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My Dog Speaks French

What do we know about dogs and the way they communicate with human beings?

Scientific American concludes they don’t, at least not really.

Numerous times in fiction, especially in films, dogs can give voice to very complex ideas.

In his wildly popular comic, The Far Side, artist and lunatic Gary Larson hypothesized a very low level of canine understanding (or is it interest in?) of our spoken commands, much less ability to respond verbally.

But human propensity to dress dogs up, babble at them endlessly, and make them into little playthings leads me to conclude that we humans believe dogs can indeed understand, if not communicate in response. Given my long experience living closely in the familiar company of “man’s best friend,” I have come to believe that (1) dogs do talk, but (2) they don’t speak all languages equally well.

Evidence?

There’s a professional dog walker I’ve observed speaking to his pack in a sort of pidgin Gaelic; and they never listen to him. He’s constantly repeating commands again and again, to no apparent result.

 On the other hand, here’s my dog, DeeDee.
I speak to DeeDee, most often in English, but sometimes in Greek and every so often in French. Why? Just to see if she notices any difference and, probably most of all, just because I find it funny.
Does she respond any differently to “Let’s go!” than she would to, say, “Allez!”? (Or should that properly be “Allons!”?) Not that I’ve noticed. She also responds to French and English, and only sometimes Greek, in a soft verbal response that is not barking. I would classify this as speaking.
Therefore, from my scientific – albeit not exhaustive – study, I can conclude that DeeDee’s understanding of French is equal her understanding of English.
What can we conclude? Dogs understand English and French, and some Greek, but not Gaelic.

I know just what DeeDee would say: “Ca ne fait rien.”