Friday, July 12, 2013

Ten Hours at JFK - The World Was Too Much With Us

My sister and I were having a long discussion on the telephone last night about mean people. She works in a particularly toxic office environment that's almost impossible to fathom when one has been as fortunate as I have been. Thank you Lee County Library System! Her anecdotes are simply appalling and seem to grow worse the longer she stays there. The situation is comparable to bullying in schools.

That conversation led to our talking about the saving graces, the people we meet along life's way and with whom we have an immediate rapport. You know, the way we seek out the kindness of strangers and glom onto them. This observation, in turn, led me to reflect on our last three weeks traveling the rails, buses and planes from London to Brussels to various spots in Italy and the kindred spirits that we interacted with along the way.

Don and I almost always lean toward bed and breakfast accommodations. We thoroughly enjoy the personal attention, the familiarity that one can quickly gain by talking to locals, asking questions, and seeking advice. Don's facility with languages and his brilliant smile can break down barriers in a heartbeat. Though not as adept as he, my enthusiasm for new experiences in other lands can also go a long way toward making inroads. To learn about another culture from other than a history book is why we travel, isn't it?

I've already mentioned the two gentlemen in Tibenham, England, who didn't bat an eyelash when Don, his grandson and I pulled up in our little rent-a-car to the nearly abandoned airfield that was once headquarters for an RAF bomb group where my dad was stationed during World War II. I'm so sad about the loss of my laptop, while fully realizing that it's just a "thing," because it held all my photos and videos of our experiences with these welcoming, everyday people who made our day.

When we arrived at the Villa Romantica in Lucca, we were greeted by Adolfo, the 75 year old owner of the inn where a friend of mine had stayed fourteen years ago. I had a photo of Adolfo and his wife Daniela, that I shared with them and we were fast friends from then on. We asked him where to eat that the tourists didn't go and he obliged us with several ideas, each one perfect. We met his grandson, Federico, who didn't exist fourteen years ago ( though we now have him on film). We learned that his daughter teaches at the University of Siena, that he owns a vacation retreat on the island of Sardinia, a place that Don has wanted to visit for as long as I've known him, and that he might even be amenable to leasing it out.

In Siena it was Giacomo at the Palazzo di Valli who loaned us his well loved wine glasses for our first exhausted evening on the terrace when we didn't think we could move too far from the view. We spoke with him of the olive trees on the property, a working grove that produces that lusted over extra virgin Tuscan oil. He gave Don a lesson in wine varietals speaking in excellent but studied English until the two found common ground in their shared love of French. We visited a museum in town filled with amazing iconography, sculpture and painting by Sienese artists and found only one other couple enjoying it. We commiserated with Giacomo about the lack of interest in the history of his beloved city.

An Italian cab driver originally from Algeria decided that we were the people he could share his life story with. In the ten minute drive to the bus station at Piazza Gramschi we learned of his anger and desolation when his wife left him after ten years of marriage, of his struggles, working two jobs and going to school, to keep it together until he met another woman and is now happily awaiting the birth of his first child. We spoke of his home country, how it's fared since the French left, whether or not the people are better off now, how the Muslim faith is misconstrued in the press and misunderstood by the general public. We then bonded over my knowledge of the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, a man using a woman's name to hide his identity from the military authorities, whose books we've discussed at the library.

In Florence it was the young Senegalese man whose prime position at the exit door of the Galleria de Academia allowed him to interact with us as we left the museum. He was hawking a restaurant, we were hungry for lunch, and Don, who lived in Senegal for many years, asked the young man in his own language if he'd like to walk us to the restaurant. Over the course of a few blocks we learned of his pride in his country, his pleasure in knowing that the Obama family had recently visited, covering the same trail that Don and I had taken only two years ago, his migration to Italy in hopes of making "l'argent." He made our day and I'd like to think that we did the same for him.

But then, the ugly return to earth began. A 4 a.m. wake up call, a testy 5 a.m. cabbie to take us to the airport, a two-hour delay on the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle which would invariably have us late for our connection in New York. I generally make it a point to never fly Delta, having had other less than satisfactory experiences on that airline, and I never go through JFK if I can help it, so what was I thinking?? Well, we flew Air France but it seems that they have an agreement with Delta for the local connections.  Delta was totally immune to complaints, connections to Maryland were few, the only one available would have us sitting in a terminal of chaotic humanity for 6 hours but we were simply too tired to object.

But then the 8:30 departure time loomed and we heard nothing. Thousands of people lay on the filthy floor, sleeping on their luggage, some wired to the Internet ports watching films, others glued to a CNN that couldn't be heard over the din. Totally unable to concentrate or read, we dozed and watched the departure time move to 9, then 9:20, then to a different gate, then to 10 and on into the wee hours.

Why, I wondered, couldn't we engage as easily with a fellow stranded traveler here in New York? Why did I deliberately avoid eye contact with anyone who looked even remotely interesting? Was I simply too tired, too lazy, or was it a deeper problem? Has the political climate in our country affected our willingness to look for a common humanity among our own countrymen?

As my sister and I finished up our conversation of lament for the U.S. and the unhealthy path it seems to be taking, she reminded me of the wonderful young people she meets through Kiwanis scholarship programs and her high hopes for the future. I really want to have her idealism. Perhaps my next trip should be a cross country, Travels with Charley-type odyssey, but for now, I'm ready to stay put and read.

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