Archive for October, 2013

Only Connnect

October 23, 2013

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We didn’t plan to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona. But there we were on Sunday afternoon, needing to sit down after a long walk around the old city, when they started closing the doors for 5:00 mass. So we stayed, and watched the ancient building we had come to visit as a museum turn into a living spiritual home.

The spoken parts of the service were in Catalan, the singing in Latin. I don’t know either language. But by picking out a word here and there –sacrificat, kyrie – and remembering my years as a Catholic school librarian, I could more or less follow. It was satisfying to suss out the meaning of what I was seeing. And it helped me feel less foreign.

Feeling less foreign is my underlying goal whenever I travel. It’s not that I want to take home with me – strolling around Barcelona, the last thing I wanted to see was another Starbucks, Subway, or the franchise known in Spain as Dunkin’ Coffee. It’s more that I crave a sense of belonging – of feeling connected to my surroundings.

This isn’t a conscious goal, but trying to achieve it can be deliberate. Why else – if not to find my place in the city – did I spend so long, that Sunday afternoon, searching the twisting cobblestone passageways of the old city for traces of El Call – a once-flourishing Jewish quarter that was purged of Jews, demolished and rebuilt as a Christian neighborhood 600 years ago?

That night at dinner, something about our server seemed vaguely familiar. She spoke perfect English, but with a heavy Spanish accent. More than that, though, she got us – our little jokes, the fact that we intended to taste each other’s dishes, why I wanted to hold onto my empty plate until David had finished. While she refilled our water, she asked how we liked the city, and David asked if she was from here. No, she said. Buenos Aires.  That’s when it hit me.

“Buenos Aires,” I whispered to David after she’d left. “She’s Jewish.”

The more I watched her, the more certain I became. I kept waiting for her to return to our table so we could talk more, and trying to figure out a tactful way to test my theory. But a different server took over, so I’ll never know if I guessed right.

I was sorry I couldn’t verify our common background. But the most satisfying moments of connection are the ones that happen on their own. The trick is to recognize them when they do.

Take, for example, our dinner the next night, at a different restaurant. First, as we settled into our seats in the tree-lined sidewalk square, the server suggested I put my purse under the table, rather than on the chair beside me (Barcelona being known for its vibrant pick-pocket culture). Then, before we had even opened our menus, one of the birds in one of the aforementioned trees dropped two bright white spots of shit on our table (convincing us to move inside). Finally, just as we were tucking into our appetizers, a very sickly mouse staggered across the dining room floor (whereupon a man hurried out of the kitchen with a dustpan and broom and swept the creature up).

You might read this as a traveler’s nightmare. But it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt welcomed and at home, buoyed by the bond that was forged as the mouse was swept away. That’s when David commented to our hostess, “That’s not good for business.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, it’s not good for business,” she agreed.

That good-natured acknowledgement made us – if only for as long as dinner lasted – family. And that made all the difference.

We had five breakfasts in Barcelona. We ate the first two at the “gastro-pub” across the street from our hotel – faux-distressed walls and leather club chairs, Odetta on the sound system, menus in four languages, tourists and local hipsters studying their smartphones while sipping their coffee.

On our third morning, we decided to try the Patisserie around the corner. There were no tourists or hipsters here, just housewives buying desserts from the glass cases out front, and in back a handful of Formica tables and plastic chairs where people on their way to work were eating breakfast rolls and ham sandwiches. The woman behind the counter smiled warmly, but called over her English-speaking co-worker – a young man with curly brown hair and half-inch plugs in his earlobes – to negotiate our order.

We returned to the patisserie two days later – our last morning in Barcelona. It was early, and the only employee in evidence was the woman with the warm smile who didn’t speak any English. But between our fractured Catalan and with much pointing and pantomiming and laughing good will all around, we managed to convey our order. Half an hour later, as we were settling our bill (with more gestures and pointing), the young man with the ear-plugs arrived. As we were leaving, he called after us what sounded like, “Ah-vey-o!”

We hadn’t heard the word before, but understood that he was saying, “Adieu,” and read into his greeting so much more – that he remembered us happily from the other day, that most of the people they served were regulars, and if we came back another time or two, we could become regulars, too.

“Ah-vey-o!” We called back, sorry that we wouldn’t have a chance to use our newly learned word with him again.

The cabbie who drove us to the airport was eager to practice his English. He was very good at it, and where he lacked the vocabulary, he compensated with eloquent sound effects and skits. Speeding along the highway, shifting lanes and dodging traffic, he kissed his steering wheel to help convey how glad he was to have a job in this economic climate, and thumbed through the screens on his phone to show us a photo of a newspaper story about the 100-kilo wild boars that recently come down out of the mountains to forage through the trash in a local suburb.

As we neared the airport, he discussed the travesty of building it on the river delta, a “water land” where countless species of birds once stopped as they migrated from Africa to northern Europe.

“Now a different kind of bird stops here,” I said. “Big ones!”

It took a moment, but then he got it. “Yes!” he said, laughing triumphantly. “There is a 747! I can tell by the shape of its bill!”

After he’d unloaded our luggage at the curb and we’d paid our fare, he shook our hands and said he was to have met us.

Inside the airport, the atmosphere wasn’t nearly so friendly. The security line was a mess, with minimal signage and no people to tell anyone what to do. We tried to figure out the local rules by watching the passengers ahead of us. But there wasn’t any pattern. A few people took their shoes off, but most didn’t. Some people removed their laptops from their bags, but others didn’t. We took off our shoes but left our laptops in our bags.

David passed through the metal detector and collected his bag from the conveyor belt without incident, but when I tried to collect my bags, the woman in the uniform called out to me in a scolding voice. “Lady! Computer!” and pointed to the back of the line. I took my computer out and walked back through security area, where I had to squeeze back in among the crush of passengers.

I ended up behind an elderly man. As he stood inside the metal detector, a second security agent, this one a burly man, planted himself in directly in front of him and made a series of faces at him. After what felt like a painfully long time, the agent asked, “Why are you waiting?” and the humiliated passenger hurried on his way.

Both agents were making themselves perfectly clear, in a universal language. They were saying, “We have all the power here, and take great pleasure in exercising it for its own sake. Our goal isn’t to keep the skies safe, but to keep you in your place.”

That was also a form of connection.

Turning a Page

October 7, 2013

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Towards the beginning of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Dissident Gardens, Miriam, a teenager in the 1960s, considers how reverentially her mother handles vinyl records – easing the disk from the sleeve, balancing the disk between thumb and index finger, making sure not to touch the grooves. Her attitude evokes Jewish ritual actions:

…the slipping of scrolls from a cabinet, her grandfather’s tender sheathing of the afikomen within its napkin at Passover, really anywhere Miriam had ever witnessed a Jew handling papers of importance or turning the pages of a book as if unworthy, grateful, ennobled… 

The passage jumped out at me because it brings together three motifs — old records, books, and the handling of Torah scrolls — that figure prominently in the novel I just finished revising. It also perfectly describes my own attitude.

I liked the passage so much that I did something I never do. I highlighted it.

Big deal, you might be thinking. But the thing is, I never write in books, for the same reason that I also never dog-ear pages, use books to prop open windows (although a character in my book does just that, and with a book that turns out to be very important), or leave books lying open on their stomachs, lest their spines break. If I want to remember a passage, I either copy it down somewhere or mark the page with a scrap of paper. Like Lethem’s generic Jew, I treat books with reverence.

And by books, I mean the physical thing made from dead trees, with paper pages stitched and glued between covers. The designed artifact, in which the style of the letters is called a typeface, rather than a font. The analog medium that lets you gauge your progress by watching your bookmark migrate through the strata of pages. That elegant object that looks so promising in wrapping paper, so welcoming on your bedtime table, so satisfying standing on your shelf with all the other books you have read. Or maybe started. Or at least meant to get to. And if not that, might one day consider reading.

Needless to say, I wasn’t much interested when the first electronic reading gadgets came out.  It’s not bad enough that I have long abandoned spiral notebooks and a typewriter and do all my writing at the computer – I should also forego the tactile intimacy of my beloved books to stare at yet another screen? No way.

But then we gave our son-in-law a Kindle for Christmas, and I realized that I felt a little jealous.

And then I started spending a lot of time sitting around in doctors’ offices, and I got sick of always doing crossword puzzles while I waited, and started looking for books I could easily carry in my purse.

And then we took a couple of trips, and when I shopped for books to take along, I realized I would only have room in my carry-on for two paperbacks, each of which was no more than one inch thick.

And then I visited the main branch of my town library, and discovered that e-books are available for borrowing. And if you don’t have an e-reader, you can borrow that, too.

So I did. They come pre-loaded with titles. I thought I was borrowing one with Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on it, but I was wrong. In fact, there wasn’t a single book on the machine that I had the slightest interest in reading. Even so, playing with the machine for a few weeks, I realized that reading a Kindle was just as easy on the eyes as reading a dead-tree book, and a lot easier on the wrists, because the thing is just so small and light.

I also realized that I really, really, really wanted one. Now. Because we’re about to take another trip, and I want bring along a whole library. Just in case the first and second and third books I choose turn out not to interest me.

My Kindle arrived three days ago. The first book I downloaded was Dissident Gardens. I was thinking of it as a book to read on the plane. But I also thought I’d better start it now, so I could iron out any kinks with the machine while I was still home. So I did, and discovered no kinks. Also, this book is awesome. So awesome that I can’t put it down. I would call it a page-turner, except there are no pages. Last time I looked, I was 28% into it.

I’ve been reading it in bed, and I don’t have to balance my smart phone under my chin and use the flashlight app to see the words. I had two doctor’s appointments today plus one stop at a pharmacy. All told, that meant about an hour of waiting. But I hardly cared, because it gave me more time to read.

And that passage I mentioned when I began this post? The one that speaks so eloquently to the reverence some of us have for the physical artifacts through which we experience stories and music? No paper was damaged when I highlighted those words. I did it electronically.