Thursday, July 28, 2011

Karim Karim

“Track 2. Let’s go. RUN!!!”

So, we ran. And we made it onto the train as the doors closed. It had been a long day in Venice and we just wanted to get back to our hotel in Treviso—16 miles away by train and bus. We had used one of the self-service kiosks and purchased our tickets just moments before, tore them out of the tray, and scrambled through the crowds at Santa Lucia Station, elbowing our way onto the train to Treviso.

Only, it turned out to be the train to Verona, instead. Thankfully, we realized we were on the wrong train just a few stops into the trip and got off as soon as we could. And found ourselves alone on a Sunday evening at the Dolo train station. There were no travelers and no employees at the locked station. Just three tired and frustrated Americans.

The immediate vicinity of the station in Dolo did not have much happening on that particular Sunday night, so Isabel and I walked off toward an open shop a block away. We were going to try to call a taxi or get whatever information we could about the next train back to where we started. On our way we passed two men standing outside their car parked on the roadside. We asked them if they spoke English, assuming they were Italian. They did not, but as we walked away I heard one say something to the other in Arabic.

I stopped in my tracks and asked them, “tatakelum Arabi?” They said yes and then called their friend, Karim, over. Using a mixture of English and Arabic, I explained to Karim that we were stuck and needed a taxi or some help finding our way back to Treviso. Karim took care of a few loose ends with his friends, made a quick phone call, and then gave us his complete focus and attention.

He spent almost an hour with us, first helping us call a taxi dispatcher to find out it would cost the ridiculous sum of 50 euros to get a cab from Dolo to Treviso, and then helping us sort through the train schedule to ascertain that a train would be coming through Dolo in an hour and it would take us back to where we needed to be.

As we settled in to wait for the train Karim started asking questions—“What is your name?” “What is your wife’s name?” “Your daughter?” “How old is your wife?” “Where are you from?” “Where do you live?” “What is your phone number?” “Where is your hotel?” He wrote his number for us and said we must call him if we needed anything. He left before the train came and took us away. But not before both Erica and I started to feel a little bit nervous—just a little bit suspicious about Karim from Morocco. He seemed maybe just a bit too helpful.

That all happened Sunday night. A day and a half later—Tuesday afternoon—we were in Padua, having taken a train from Treviso so that we could spend our last day in Italy roaming agenda-less around an interesting town. After a bit of clothes shopping we followed our feet to Bar Fuji for some sushi. It was on Via Roma, a pedestrian street with umbrella-ed tables set where the cars used to drive, and it came highly rated by our guidebook. We took a table and sat back to wait for our food.

And just then Isabel saw Karim walking by. She and Erica recognized him and called out and Karim came over to join us at our table. We were all a bit surprised to see Karim again. And again, a bit suspicious. We talked as we waited for our food. Karim told us he is a plasterer who has worked all over the Arab world and Italy. He has a wife and two daughters of his own in Morocco. His family lives near Marrakesh and he wrote their phone number and told us we could stay with them any time we were in Morocco. He told us about his cat falling asleep on his wife and purring like an engine.

I am not sure exactly what he said or when he said it, but at some point in our 30-minute conversation with Karim at lunch that day it became clear to both me and Erica that our suspicions about his motives were entirely off-base.

We managed to talk for a while in a mix of English, Italian, and Arabic and became convinced that Karim was simply a generous man who had been trying to help some travelers in need far from home. Once we parted ways, Erica and I had a chance to talk about our reactions to Karim and our earlier lack of trust. Was it because we were lost and far from home and feeling vulnerable? Was it because he was so insistent? Was it because he was Moroccan?

Mostly, I think it was because we just didn’t have enough information. If an Italian man or a British man or an American man had been just as helpful and insistent, I would have been just as suspicious of his motives. Sad to say, but true. Most people simply don’t go so far out of their way to help strangers without any gain for themselves. We assumed Karim was like most people we have met. But he wasn’t.

I don’t feel like I owe Karim an apology—that’s not what this is about. Actually, it was not clear to me at all why I was even writing about this encounter until just now. I am writing and posting this small story about Karim to share a bit of good news. There are people in the world who are generous and kind and helpful. It can be hard to know who they are and I am very happy Erica and I had a second chance with Karim so we could see him for who he is.

When I lived in Yemen I learned an Arabic phrase, “Allah karim.” It means “God is generous” and it was used to comment on the quirky nature of the Universe and its penchant for sometimes providing just what a person needs. It is fitting that the man who reminded me that not all people are driven purely by self-interest is named Karim.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jet Lag Medicine

I have been away from home a lot this month. I was in Montana for 10 days and I am spending a week in Italy right now. Being gone so long, especially with so many time zones in between for a person to get used to, can be hard. Personally, I try to get on the local clock immediately. When I land I commit to not going to sleep until it is dark wherever I am. I make myself not think about what time it is in Connecticut, because that only reminds my body of what time it thinks it is.

I also try to spend as much time outside as I can to let my eyes, brain, and body receive all the clues the sun and its angle give as to time of day.

Even with these measures, jet lag can still hit hard, leaving me tired, grouchy, and “off” a bit.

This is where I find running comes in handy. I have been a runner since 2002, when Erica and I decided we were going to run a marathon. We made the decision in the winter and by October we each actually made it 26.2 miles through the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, NY. Running that marathon was, for me, like going from zero to 120 MPH in 6 seconds flat. (Okay, maybe not 120. After all, it did take me four and a half hours to finish.)

I went from not running at all to running way, way too much. In fact, I almost killed my running habit in its infancy. I took a month off after that race and then started back again, slowly. A few years later I had to take another long break because of some herniated disks in my lower back. Now I am much smarter about my running. Mostly because I listen to my body much better than I used to.

I have settled nicely into a rhythm where I run three times a week—generally Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each of these runs is four miles. Then I run again on Sunday, anywhere from 6 to 14 miles. These long Sunday runs are the anchor for my week and they keep me feeling grounded and regular. They also keep me within striking distance of being able to run a half marathon whenever I find a good one that fits my goal of running one in every state. So far, I have run half marathons in 8 states and I am signed up for 2 more this year—Vermont and Delaware.

When I travel, often all of this regularity gets thrown out the window. But I make sure my running shoes get thrown in suitcase and as soon as I can, I put them on and try to keep to my pattern.

In Venice the past few days it was hard. In fact, I didn’t run there. The streets are narrow and full of people and I just didn’t make it happen. Now we are 18 miles from Venice in a town called Treviso and yesterday I finally made it out for a run. As soon as I did I could feel my body saying “YES! THIS is what we needed.” There is a familiarity to the process of getting dressed for a run, heading outside, picking a direction and then starting. Moving through the world that way is as natural and comforting a thing as I can do when I am far from home and way off schedule. It settles me right away. Running is medicine and meditation and magic and I love that I can do it anywhere.

Today my daughter and I are getting on a train to go back to Venice and see a few things we didn’t get to see earlier in the week. But tomorrow—tomorrow starts with a run.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Spoonful of Gelato

When I was about ten, my parents put all of us in a station wagon and drove to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The drive was long, the weather was hot, and I was bored silly. To be honest, if I were to go there now I would probably find it somewhat less boring then I did then, but not much so. Which is why I have all sorts of sympathy for my daughter, Isabel, as we tromp through the narrow alleys of Venice this week.

The buildings and canals here are fascinating to me because of the stories behind them. Isabel doesn’t have a lot of time or interest to care about the stories, so the things themselves are just things. The mere fact that people would put in the time and endless effort and resources it takes to maintain their city and their lives here in the middle of a lagoon makes me want to look at what they have and learn its history.

Isabel does not really care so much.

What she DOES care about is gelato. In fact, she cares deeply about gelato. So, my strategy to help the many hours of walking around the narrow alleys of Venice in the hot sun with no real sense of where we are and how to get where we are headed go down a little less bitterly is to provide daily infusions of gelato.

We just got here two days ago, so we are all still on a Connecticut time and a little bit jet-lagged. It is late afternoon now and I think Erica has fallen asleep. Looks like it just might be time to quietly head out the door and grab today’s fix.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Montana Time Travel

During a flight from Billings, Montana to Minneapolis, Minnesota today I traveled about 850 miles and about 36 years (round trip). We were in Montana this week to visit family and friends and to spend time at a cabin up the Stillwater River in South-Central Montana. The trip was great, as you can see from some of our pictures posted here.

It was clear as we left Billings at one in the afternoon and I had a window seat. We took off west—into the wind—and then made a wide arcing turn to the north and then came around 90 more degrees to begin our flight east to Minneapolis. Looking down, it didn’t take long before I identified the Yellowstone River and I-90. I absolutely LOVE looking out the window on flights—it hits the same sweet spot in me that looking through an atlas does when I am on the ground. I play a game with myself and try to identify every city and obvious natural feature we fly over.

Because it was clear today and because I have spent a lot of time in the stretch of country between Laurel and Lame Deer, Montana, I was able to pinpoint our location as we passed over Pryor Creek, the Bighorn River, Hardin, the Little Bighorn River, Crow Agency, and the Little Big Horn Battlefield, all of which were laid out below me like on an atlas with a scale of one-to-one.

The plane followed Highway 212 as it took off east from the Little Big Horn Battlefield and pretty soon we were directly over Busby, Montana and it was 1993 in my head. Eighteen years ago I spent a month living in the basketball gym of the Busby High School as the teenagers in the program I was running built a playground on some public land in the small town. Busby is the westernmost town on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and it is a stiflingly poor place. The kids there did what they could to entertain themselves, but there was no playground for them use.

The program I worked for, Visions International, linked with Northern Cheyenne Children’s Services, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, and several other local groups to secure use of a plot of land and the rights to build a playground on it. The labor was supplied by 16 teenage volunteers, who were led by me and 4 other staffers. My time in Busby came after three summer programs doing similar work in another Northern Cheyenne town, called Birney.

Today, when I looked down at Busby I could actually SEE the playground we had made all those years ago. It was still there. It looked as if the fence had been scavenged for firewood long ago, but the swing set, slide, and merry-go-round were still there.

Less than five minutes later my eyes followed a particular road south out of Lame Deer until the road intersected with the Tongue River, clearly visible from 30,000 feet. That is where Birney is. Birney is a town with no stores or shops of any kind, no post office, no gas station, and no school. There are about 20 families that live in Birney and even the other Northern Cheyenne who live on the sparsely populated reservation think of it as a backwater. We were too high for me to actually see the playground and powwow arbor we built in Birney, but I didn’t need to. By then, my mind was replaying a particular memory that still has the power to make me smile whenever I allow myself to really inhabit it.

I spent several summers in Indian Birney, sleeping either on the floor of an old doublewide trailer or in the desanctified nave of an old Catholic Church. During my second summer in Birney, the group of teens I was with helped build a traditional powwow arbor on an unused patch of land just off the main drag. As we built it, I knew that my kids were getting an experience few of their peers back East would be able to understand.

They got to go up into the pine forests on the rocky hillsides of the reservation and help choose which trees to fell for use as support posts for the double ring of the arbor. Then they helped strip the branches, dig the post holes, plant the posts, tamp the dirt, tack chicken wire overhead, and lay the pine boughs across the top for shade. It was backbreaking labor and my sixteen wealthy teenagers from the East Coast could not get enough of it. One of my favorite pictures from that summer is of a sixteen year-old girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is holding a worn and dirty work glove in her teeth, examining the bloody blisters on her hand, and smiling from ear to ear.

It rained a lot that summer, forcing us to delay and cancel many workdays. As the final day of our program approached, we began to seriously think the arbor would not be finished in time for us to participate in the first powwow held in Birney in many years. Our penultimate day on the reservation was a fifteen-hour work marathon that left us all simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. As the last of the long lingering twilight drained from the sky to the west, we got it done. The arbor was complete.

Some of the tribal members who were working with us had spread the word that there would be a powwow in Indian Birney the next day.

Saturday morning dawned grey, cold, and wet and a feeling of depressed anti-climax settled over us all as we began to pack and get ready for the following day’s drive to the airport in Sheridan, Wyoming and the ensuing flights to points East. We all kept one eye to the sky, but the sky just kept raining on our arbor.

My friend Mike, who lived in Birney, just kept telling me and the kids not to worry. He said the sky would clear, the sun would shine, and the powwow would happen. As morning turned past twelve and into afternoon, the rain kept falling steady as a drum on the church roof. The atmosphere grew more and more disappointed inside as kids played Hearts, took pictures, and copied down each other’s phone numbers for when they got home.

At three o’clock the rain stopped falling. By three-fifteen the clouds were breaking up. And by four we were practically dancing as we set up tables, brewed coffee, and changed into our fancy clothes for the powwow. By five o’clock more than one hundred cars had arrived and there were hundreds of Cheyenne tribal members there to christen the new Birney Powwow Arbor. Elders showed up and thanked my kids in the Cheyenne language, people brought out tons of food from their trunks likes clowns from a circus car. When the buffet tables were all set, we had enough food to feed everyone twice.

My kids participated in giveaways, grass dances, and circle dances set to traditional drumming circles pounding out the heartbeat of a culture determined to survive. Everything stopped at one point and my kids were asked to line up in the center of the arbor. Each of them was then presented with a beautiful hand-beaded gift from the tribe as a way to say “thank you” for all their hard work.

So today, as we flew on east into South Dakota the sky clouded up and I came back into the present, glad as could be to have gotten a window seat.