THE BLOG
09/09/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Truth or Pravda

The beach can be a wonderful place if it's vacation and if the sea is beautiful, soothing and invigorating. For me, the sea in Italy is a place to meet people of all ages, backgrounds and countries; in fact those who know me well in this context refer to me as an "attacca bottone," literally one who attaches buttons, figuratively someone who connects easily when meeting new people.

Besides sharing both weather and particular experiences on the Calabrian coast, this week has included meeting some people from both Russia and Poland, at a particularly interesting and even loaded time. With a young woman from Russia who was educated and a professional within economics, we spoke about her dislike of Barack Obama and her perception that Russians don't like him because they don't understand the West's policies of sanctions when it regards the Ukraine; why don't we mind our business instead of trying to be the world's policeman, in other words. I understand the concept, I tell her and then I move on, to ask her about Russia's policies regarding media coverage of gays in Russia. She perks up and says she feels it's fine if someone "chooses" a lifestyle, but she feels good about the newer formula of limiting media coverage regarding gay people, which she refers to as "propaganda." She explains that there should not be exposure to anything promoting a gay lifestyle and this includes movies. Also she is fine with ban on profanity in journalistic coverage and magazines and she laughs as she says Russians in general curse too much as it is.

I'm interested in her pointing out the U.S. position of policing too often in general, but she loses me with the word "propaganda." I move on, realizing my company wants to leave and the time is limited. So I ask her about Putin, the Russian leader I for one find alarming for his "going back to the glory of Russia" approach, and particularly for his campaign to get back to the brighter side of Stalin, a dictator who killed so many millions of Russians he is ranked with the worst of the worst. She tells me that for Russians, most Russians, Putin is not only very popular but he is something of a hero (I do realize this is one person talking but I also read elsewhere about the extent of his popularity). Stalin, she says, was in fact "'cruel' but then again he did some very good things, like he did win the war." I know she is talking about World War II and I don't have time to tell her that he couldn't have won the war by himself. That, I see now, has to be a copout, but then again my aim was not to convince this young woman, it was rather to hear her out to see what I could see in such a conversation.

The next day I was in the water with a family of cousins from Poland and from northern Italy. The older man, about 50, remembered the former Soviet Union and spoke with alarm as he said that for so many Russians Putin is a god. He brought up the issue of Putin "resurrecting Stalin and his status", and we continued speaking -- clarifying some English and Polish expressions as we went along. I told him I noticed that it was novel for me to be outside America seeing how many Europeans seem to question the way the United States perceives itself, as both exceptional and has having a central role in just about everything all over the world. I told him it was striking to me that for some people some information that is presented is perceived as factual -- the truth -- whereas for others it is perceived as propaganda.

Finished saying the word "propaganda", which he clearly understood, I asked him for the Polish word for truth. He said it was "pravda" (spelled "prawda" in Polish), and that one thing I found riveting, since for those years of the pervasive power of the Soviet Union during my lifetime, their central news agency was known as Pravda. Not only that, but often enough in our news reports, truth or propaganda (no longer so very sure at all), news from the Soviet Union was brought to us with the words "Pravda says", or "According to Pravda." For me it was a wow moment. We in the U.S. assumed that what Pravda said was propaganda, but the word for whatever it was, was "truth", both in Russian and Polish. My expression showed my being taken aback, my grasping the irony which he too seemed to appreciate.

This is the seaside in Italy and not a center of accepted political debate; nor was my purpose to win a point, it was much more to express my own curiosity and to allow that curiosity to exist. And even though on the surface nothing profound happened, for me it was a chance to have -- not exactly an epiphany -- but something close enough. It was to think and feel on a visceral level about just how often any of us can get caught up in our own stories, our own perceptions or the information we are being fed, either by news agencies, the government, educators, religious leaders, our peers who tell us there is only one right way to be honorable, acceptable or cool -- in one way or another.

And as much as I was curious on the beach and in the water, I do wonder what would happen if we permitted ourselves and each other to question more than we do how we think about things, what are assumptions are. I know this already but it brought it home--while far away. That we assume our way of seeing is the way. My "lesson" of my vacation has turned out to be that, that perhaps I too can question more of my own assumptions than I sometimes do.