Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Concurrent Journey, part 1: A Homecoming, of Sorts

On May 28th, around 8am CET (2am EDT), Erin and I landed at Rome Fiumicino Airport (FCO), where we kicked off a nine day vacation. Itinerary: Rome to Chiusi, Chiusi to Naples, Naples to Ischia and finally back to Rome. The primary destination was Ischia, to which we've never been, and where we passed the majority of our time.

Erin has been back twice since we moved back to Saint Augustine from Florence: once merely passing through and the other actually visiting friends. It was for me, however, the first return in just a solitary day short of 2 years.

My excitement was ever-present, yet quelled by the exhaustion of a red-eye flight in excess of 8 hours, exacerbated by the fact that I don't sleep on airplanes. Although it was my third trip to Italy, FCO is not a familiar place to me. Both previous times I entered by train; once from France, the other from Switzerland. Nevertheless, it seemed familiar: bustling, noisy with emphatic spoken Italian, rooms teeming with people trying get through customs without the slightest trace of a line... perfectly Italian!

We got through quickly enough, and then made our way to the connected train station. The first stop on our itinerary was Chiusi, to see our friends Amanda and Julian (and family). They moved to Chiusi in late 2006, and have fantastically restored a villa in the Umbrian countryside where they host painting holidays. If you're at all interested in an Italian sojourn, especially one with an art workshop, I highly recommend it. The setting is breathtakingly beautiful and serene, Julian is a both a gifted artist and an insightful teacher, and Amanda is an incredible cook. But I digress...

We had a problem with our train tickets, and so needed to speak with the cassiera at the ticketing booth. If you've ever had to deal with one of these workers, then you may have had an unfortunate first impression of Italians. They are almost unfailingly dry, unhelpful, and sometimes downright rude. If you've had a contrary experience, consider it anomalous. While living in Florence my Italian had reached a modest level of fluency and, in restrained conversation, was passable as native. This made such dealings much less painful. Naturally, my Italian suffered from being back in an all-English routine, but I have kept core parts in check. My reading and comprehension skills are about as good as they were, as is my thorough understanding of the grammar. My vocabulary has suffered more, and more still has my understanding of and ability to wield common idiomatic expressions. My accent remains mostly intact, while my spoken emphasis and mannerisms have regressed. As such, I was a bit nervous about my first encounter, especially since my conversation partner would be flatly unforgiving. In spite of all this, the exchange went surprisingly well. The cassiera was rude and unhelpful, and there were times when my nerves rendered my speech too soft, but it was an effective and satisfying reintroduction. To clarify, by "effective" I mean the Italian conversation. The actual goal - to change the interim station from Tiburtina to Termini - was met met with "Dovrai comprare un biglietto nuovo" ("You'll have to buy a new ticket"). Interspersed with sighs and rolling eyes, the result was as expected.

From that point the language returned rather quickly to me, in spite of my waning confidence. On the hop to Tiburtina, an Italian woman asked us if she was on the right train (for Ostia, if memory serves). This led to a conversation about why we were in Italy, why we could speak, where she likes to travel, and other light topics about which strangers on a train might chat. It was a thrilling conversation, ending when she bid us good travels as she got off at her stop. Again, it wasn't the subject of the conversation that was so thrilling, but the realization that I could still speak.

This began to evoke and conjure powerful feelings and images from two years ago; a time that feels to me so much more distant. It's this amalgam of memories from that time and experiences on this trip that I wish to explore and share; a new journey in and of itself.

Aspettate che c'è ancora da scrivere.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Extremely Unlikely Encounter

On Saturday, August 1st, Erin and I flew from Merida to Mexico City. Apart from being a tad bumpy, it was a completely normal, two or so hour flight... until we landed.

When our plane docked at the terminal and everyone stood up, I began my compulsory scanning of the people around me. After about a minute or two, someone several yards in front of me caught my eye. The profile looked extremely familiar, and then he turned to look at me. Our eyes locked in a confused stance for a period of time that, while short, would normally have been well over the awkward stranger stare. Then he smiled, snapped his head up in a quick, salutatory nod, and lightly yelled "Como estas!?". I couldn't respond as I had started laughing, returned the nod, and then turned to Erin to tell her who was on the plane. It was Ricardo, a Mexican classmate of ours for several levels in our Italian study in Florence!

When we deplaned, we met in the terminal, all completely stunned smiles and laughs. I had forgotten that Ricardo lives in Merida, and it just so happened that he was on the same flight as us to visit his family in Mexico City. I'm not much of a believer in destiny, but Mexico City is either the second or third most populated city in the world; home to some 22,000,000+ inhabitants.

I sorely regret that we didn't think to get a picture with him in the rush and haze, but we exchanged emails and will be in contact. This leaves me with two concrete goals: reestablish contact with some of the other classmates from Italy, and strengthen my Spanish to a respectable level.

Friday, July 31, 2009

I Could Live (almost) Anywhere

Earlier this evening, Erin and I were sitting in Cafeteria Pop, a small coffee shop in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Erin had a rich coconut ice cream doused with Kahlua, and I a simple espresso. It was a fantastic pair. Merida is an active city; much more alive than the places we had come from, and this is a welcome change. I gazed out the window in sheer satisfaction as the setting sun cast dancing shadows on the brilliantly colored facades of the adjacent buildings (a staple of Merida's external decor). During these seconds of bliss, a thought that recurs to me frequently, especially while traveling, paid a not-so-unexpected visit to my thought stream: I could live anywhere.

Let me declare two excepting rules:

1) Anywhere outside of the United States. I am not anti-american, and this rule has nothing to do with political views or socioeconomic factors. It has everything to do with cultural, linguistic, and general anthropological factors. In the U.S. there is for me, very little in the way of mystery. Yes, there are many adventures to be had, but the adventures I seek extend beyond camping in the forest or hiking in mountains. The thrill comes for me in the coalescence of and assimilation into a culture not my own.

2) Anywhere in which my health or general safety would not be at significant risk. These would include primarily states I perceive as hostile towards foreigners, and Americans in particular. A few current examples would be Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and probably Iran. It does pain me to name so many Middle Eastern countries as they tend to possess such drastically opposing world views, and it is being in the presence of such views that make the experience so deeply satisfying. There are specific ones that do not fall in this list however, including Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, possibly Egypt and possibly Morocco.

As expected, our time in Mexico has reinforced my simple fascination with language, with every street sign, advertisement, billboard, passerby, hotel worker and street performer now objects of my close observation. My command of Italian has served me here, but more so in understanding the grammatical structure of sentences. The vocabularies, expressions, and of course, vocalizations are very different. I've committed a few grammatical pieces to memory, including the auxiliary verb conjugations (haber/ser), formation of the present, simple past, imperfect tenses, and the progressive mood. With these I've increased my conversational Spanish a good bit on this trip, and have been convicted to study the language a bit more formally (at the risk of wreaking utter havoc on my Italian). Don't get me wrong, I can say I speak Italian, but my Spanish is only a hair above abysmal. It is time to remedy this.

In a few minutes, Erin and I will be off to the Universidad de Yucatan for a local cultural show, and after that it will be dinner at Amaro, acclaimed for its vegetarian dishes. This should be a fantastic evening.

Hasta luego!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYC: A Prayer for the Afflicted

Last Saturday afternoon, December 6th, I descended the stairs into a subway station in midtown Manhattan. I wasn't on the platform for more than 10 minutes when I saw a man hobbled down the stairs, struggling a little with each step. I watched as he walked over to one of the posts where he propped himself up and waited with the rest of us for the next train. I don't know how commuter traffic normally is, but I imagine it is much like it was that day every day. Not too crowded, but enough so that from time to time you would need turn your body a bit to let others by.

Apart from his obvious impairments, there wasn't anything at all assuming about this man's appearance. He seemed somewhat disabled and that seemed to be that. One wouldn't feel an overbearing sense of pity for him because, at a glance, he carried himself as if it had been his condition his entire life.

It must have been about noon when the train pulled up to the platform. The doors opened and a steady diffusion of people getting off and getting on ensued. With a polite chime, the doors closed and we were off. I looked around at the bodies and faces around me, as I, like many I suppose, are prone to doing. I studied each one only for a moment, guessing where they might live, from which country they originated, and wondering whether or not English was their first language, assuming they spoke it at all. And then, quite by chance, my eyes landed on the same man who had struggled down the stairs.

As the train got up to traveling speed, he rose and made his way to a pole in the center where propped himself up again. In a deliberately loud voice, loud enough to surpass the murmur of conversation and the clanging of the train, but not loud enough to startle, he began to speak. There's little of what he said that I remember verbatim, but I remember clearly his introduction:

"Excuse me everyone! Can I have your attention please? I'm a little embarrassed to do this ..."

He spoke slowly. One could hear some manner of impairment in his speech, but it was clearly not a substance-induced slur. In this moment that seemed about 10 times as long as it was, I studied his face. The left side seemed disfigured; something I hadn't noticed on the platform. It looked almost like the gradual tug of time and gravity on a man of 70 years, yet there was hardly a trace of a wrinkle. In that same instant I also realized that it was the left side that slouched. His right side seemed to carry his weight and direct his awkwardly propelled momentum.

He carried on, explaining how he had recently suffered a stroke which had attacked primarily the left side of his body, rendering him partially disabled and disfigured. His face was not marred by time, gravity, or some corrosive material. It was wrenched and twisted by involuntary muscular distress. In his thick New York accent, he explained that he had been going to physical therapy for several months now, and that it had been going pretty well.

The train stopped and the diffusion of crowds commenced again. Just before the stop, he began to struggle with completing his thought. The stop didn't seem to be the trigger as he had started struggling just prior. It wasn't until after the train had started moving again that he was able to get back on track. He finished by saying that his union had said he should be able to return to some light lifting in several months time, and he was encouraged by that. Then he proceeded with how his condition had affected his family, saying that they were doing pretty badly. He had two children, both in school, and was unable to provide them with sufficient clothing.

He could have been lying for all I know. Call it naivety, but he did not seem to be of deceitful character and he certainly wasn't faking the marring on his face. He was clearly uncomfortable about asking for help, but he did it because he felt he had to. It was difficult to watch, not just because of the social awkwardness, but because for some reason I felt this sense of embarrassment for him. I'm not sure why; perhaps because it was a pitiful display of how unable he was to take care of himself. It was sheer vulnerability. I don't know if that's why I felt that way, but as much as I'd like to think it wasn't, I can't think of a better explanation. For him and for others afflicted with incapacitating illness, a prayer:

God you are good. We can only hope to understand even a fraction of your love, and strive to love faithfully as you do, even when we see things that we feel are too cruel to be. To those of us with means God, give us the compassion and willingness to reach out to those encumbered by debilitating health conditions. It's not the ability we lack, it's the softness of heart. Open the eyes, and more importantly the hearts of the people of New York City, so that they are compelled to extend their hands in love to the afflicted. Your love is endless God, and you love the vulnerable. Give us the strength and character to love those struck down; to look past our doubts and our fleeting self-reliance. It could have just as easily been me, Donald Trump, or anyone else in the city that suffered a stroke. Give us the the strength so accept this, and the compassion to live as if the victim had been someone precious to us.

NYC: A Prayer for the Homeless

Somewhere in Manhattan, not too far off from Times Square, Erin and I were walking. It was in the afternoon on Friday, and we were indulging in our exploration just a couple of hours or so before heading to the MoMA. We turned a crowded corner and something caught my eye. It looked like a garbage bag tossed against the side of the building, and we stepped to our right to dodge it. I looked a bit closer as a I passed and realized, to my horror, it was a woman in a tattered blanket.

She was partially lying on the sidewalk, and partially leaning against the wall. It was a strange, contorted position and I can't imagine how it was at all comfortable. Her face was distraught. She looked genuinely afraid and almost as if she were crying. In her hands was a paper cup, which she was clutching with effort and yet failing to hold straight up.

I've never seen a homeless person seem so miserable in this country. Perhaps that sounds naive, but generally when I pass such people they in no way resemble what I saw in her. Sometimes they appear half sane. Sometimes they appear drunk. Sometimes they seem carefree and almost blissful, and other times they seem quite unhappy. However, never before had I seen one of them looking utterly miserable, unhappy, and afraid. It wrenched my heart and I stopped in my tracks, feeling completely helpless.

I regret not doing something, though I can't imagine what I could have done. I could have put my arm around her, I could have sat with her. However, nothing I was capable of doing could have sustained her in any way for more than a few minutes. I thought of the Salvation Army bell-ringers standing at practically every corner, putting on a sideshow to collect the change from passers-by. I thought of the almost theatrical members of the homeless coalition that were as frequently distributed. I was angered at these thoughts. No, it wasn't their fault and yes, they probably did serve the homeless. Nonetheless, something seemed unjust, and my conscience demanded a perpetrator. And so out of helplessness, faith and hope, I offer a prayer for the homeless:

God, have mercy on the downtrodden in New York City. Have mercy on the mentally ill and grace on the irresponsible. To the downtrodden: stretch out your hand over them as members of organizations like the Salvation Army, but also, and perhaps more importantly, through the hands and hearts of the city's inhabitants. May it be placed heavily on them that these people are their brothers and their sisters. That taxation or progressive administrative infrastructure do not remove a shred of the responsibility that each of us share in loving and caring for them with our own hands. They are your children as much as we are. They are as undeserving of your compassion as we are. I pray that we know this, and that we reach out to them in love twice as hard because of this knowledge.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Joyful Noise

Monday, November 24, 2008

Job 3:20-26

I've been reading the book of Job, and even though this passage is about sheer suffering, there is so much more than that in this book. For now:

"Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
And whom God has hedged in?
For my groaning comes at the sight of my food,
And my cries pour out like water.
For what I fear comes upon me,
And what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet,
And I am not at rest, but turmoil comes."