Travels With Grandma . . . Winter 2019-20 Edition

New Normal

In 2003, I left my home, my marriage, my comfortable suburban life and set out to work hard, to experience setbacks, and to carve out a modicum of comfort that included the freedom to roam the world. Predictably, it took a while for me to achieve mobility. For the first seven years, I did all my roaming in the city of New York, guiding bus tours around the city I loved. The job nearly killed me.

I daydreamed my escape.

I’d envision myself venturing out to places I knew from my mother’s childhood stories – her birthplace in Austria and home in Croatia, her parents’ hometowns in Ukraine – and those I’d imagined my father’s people left behind in the 1600s.  Places like Utrecht, The Netherlands, Somerset, UK, Scotland.

But when my daughter relocated abroad, she coopted my travel plans.

In 2012, I reached the age my generation had targeted for retirement, and my child invited me to visit her world. At the time she was living in Thailand, a place I had never even considered for my bucket list. But it’s where she was, and I was keen to see what it was that held her there.  So off I went. First to Bangkok, a side trip to Bali, and then to Samui, the Edenic island where she lived and worked. In the intervening years since then, I have visited her three times in Thailand, once in Hong Kong, twice in Taiwan, and most recently twice in Turkey.

None of these were places I’d have sought. But each has mesmerized me in one way or another. Each has equally repelled me.

The people of Thailand are the gentlest, most personable people I’ve ever met, and the scenery in most of the places I’ve been is breathtaking. But the climate is far too hot far too much of the time for my taste. Poisonous snakes and soi dogs are never far from my consciousness. And the cities are antithetical to my desire to walk in that they have obstructed or nonexistent sidewalks and street vendors that impede all movement.

 

Hong Kong is – and I speak here as a New Yorker! – far too crowded, too overrun with teeming flesh and filthy refuse. Conversely, I find Taiwan too orderly, too polluted, too rules-driven; finding food there is a challenge, as it is expensive as well as often inedible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Turkey, well Turkey . . .

Is a confusing assortment of dichotomies and paradoxes.  I find myself excited to go there and aching to leave the minute I arrive. The people are warm, friendly. Or they are aggressive, willing to shove your car off the road in order to gain a few seconds of driving time or to avoid braking.  The food is delicious, but the spices can be shockingly voracious. Islam is the primary religion of the country, but stores, especially pharmacies, are closed on Sundays, and the liquor is as destructive to weekend calm as it is anywhere else. Gorgeous landscapes abound, punctuated by spectacular sunrises and sunsets. But they lie in the omnipresent, foreboding shadow of Musa Dagh.

Since my daughter and her family live in Turkey much of the year, and because I am absolutely addicted to the pleasure of my grandson’s company, I shall continue to return often.  I’ll learn to love being there.  Especially if I can learn more of the language.

Does it matter that I doubt I will ever feel entirely at home?

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Fear Displacement

I get a real kick out of watching people’s faces when I say I’m off to Turkey. Again. Brows wrinkle, cheeks migrate upward, eyes show their pain by squinting.

“Well, then,” they’ll say in husky tones of genuine concern, “You be safe now.  Be careful.”

It’s never clear to me of what they feel the need to warn me. The same people, should I bid farewell and head to the subway or embark on a cross-park sojourn, would smile and wave without a moment’s dismay. Yet multiple dangers like armed druggies, hungry coyotes, angry raccoons lurk in the city’s parks and construction sites. These same folk would simply wish me a lovely good time were I to tell them I was heading for Walmart or the movies or, say, Houston or Orlando. Is it not true that mass murderers lie in wait in such hinterlands?

I have no fear of Turkey. I do admit to holding a bit of a grudge – I want the country to own up to the Armenian genocide. And there are cultural norms that I don’t understand. Yet I feel far safer in greater Istanbul or in the coastal villages near Izmir or Antalya I have visited than I do anywhere in America these days.

Well-armed, vigilant police patrol the cities, parks, public places. I’m a savvy city kid, and I know enough to be conscious of my surroundings to keep my valuables close. At least in Turkey, it is unlikely that suddenly, without warning, some enraged young man will jump from the shadows and aim an AK-47 at those of us unlucky enough to be in his line of fire.  Turkish roads are scary because drivers are impatient, reckless. But the kind of violent road rage I see on the streets and roadways of my country every day doesn’t exist in Turkey.  No guns sit on racks over windshields there. The military and the police are the only ones who can get away with packing.

When I go to the Istanbul Airport, I know that everyone who enters the huge open space must go through a metal detector, must withstand the scrutiny of a no-nonsense security check before they enter. When I’m at JFK or LaGuardia or Newark, I am always struck by how vastly unprotected the areas are, how easily the myriad people wandering in and out could get away with annihilations.

Ironically, the officials maintaining my safety in Turkey are far less intimidating than those at the gates in the US.  My prosthetic hip inevitably sets off the alarms, and the TSA folk at JFK and Newark too often treat me as though I purposely require that they pat me down, and they pat me down with a vengeance. It’s humiliating and often painful. I have never once been assaulted by a security person in Turkey. They apologize. They treat me respectfully. They are gentle.

A friend recently marveled at my willingness to travel to Turkey.  “It’s so far,” he said. “So foreign.”

“You’re going on an equally distant journey,” I posited. “I mean, Alaska . . . it’s far, and it can be pretty creepy, no?” I was thinking about the high crime rate in Anchorage, the recent shootings in Seattle, where my friend must catch a connecting flight. I envisioned airports open and vulnerable.

“Nah,” he said.  “It’s in the US.”

My point exactly.

 

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Yemek (Eat)!               

In December, when I had booked my flight, I told my students that I would be flying to Istanbul the day after our final exam.  I expected them to be shocked or fearful. College freshmen are singularly self-concerned, and I thought they would worry that I might not get their grades in on time. Instead, they surprised me.

“That’s so rad,” said one boy.

“Lucky,” said another.

“Omigod.  You’re gonna get fat,” exclaimed a girl in the back row who had not spoken once all semester.  Everyone stared at her,  “I mean,” she stammered, “The Food.  It’s so incredible. You’ll be eating nonstop.”

Her mother, it turned out, is Turkish, and she visits her babaanne (grandmother) every year.

I smiled. Having summered there already, I was well familiar. The food is exceptionally delicious. At the same time, it can be a culinary adventure.

In the first place, the food is ipso-facto organic. Turkey is one of the few remaining countries in the world that is entirely self-sufficient when it comes to food production – if Turkey allows a foreign label to distribute food in Turkey, the product must be grown and processed in Turkey; farming is a major occupation country-wide, the life’s blood in more ways than one.

Industrial farming does not exist. Farms are owned, operated, maintained by close-knit extended families, who share clusters of multi-story living quarters at the farms. They eschew the use of pesticides and appearance enhancers, and they are opposed to genetic engineering.

As a longtime vegetarian –a vegan but for the use of honey and an occasional eggwhite – I especially appreciate the multivarious textures of flavor in the vegetables, flavors that titillate my taste buds. The distinctiveness in every bite is singularly unmistakable. Cucumbers are melony, tomatoes have a robust richness I remember from my mother’s long-ago garden. At the same time, however, I am constantly aware that there is likely to be a kick delivered from some sector of any given dish. Spices insist on surprising the palate. Eating is like riding in a car behind a seemingly mild-mannered hanim (woman) in a delicate hijab. Watch out lest she suddenly swerve or stop or make a turn in front of you. Likewise, peppercorns or a dried biber (pepper) show up on the tongue without warning to remind you not to be fooled by the prevailing air of relative calm.

While no restaurant has any dearth of vegetarian options in Turkey, it is clear that the people here love their meats, and I am told their meats are delicious. Like the vegetables, the animal protein sources are nurtured and maintained with loving pride. Farmers take care to provide humane and uncrowded conditions for the animals that sacrifice their lives. No chemical enhancements or antibiotics spoil the purity of the flesh or the integrity of the dairy products.

What saves me from the fate of which my student forewarned is that I am essentially not a sweets lover. If I were, then Turkey would indeed be dangerous. Especially at the sumptuous buffets that are laid out for brunches every weekend.  So many desserts, so little room to spread them out. Puddings and pies, Baklava, Tavuk gögsü (chicken breast pudding, which is often made without the chicken breast), cakes and sugary fruits, chocolate pistachios, Turkish delight (enormously popular rose- or orange-infused jellied candies),and the one thing I can be a sucker for: halvah(a thick, honeyed sesame paste), et al., present themselves for over-indulgence.

Luckily for me, I’m not easily seduced.  Even halvah repels when I remember the discomfort of the sugar rush it inevitably delivers. I am not fooled by the melt-in-my-mouth sweetness.  I know it will never really like me.

Then, too, too much of a good thing can be disenchanting. One week during my stay in Turkey, we went to a resort in Antalya, a hotel that operates like a giant, stationary cruise ship. Once checked in, a visitor need not want for anything.  Snacks and light foods are served 24/7 at various stations about the massive place. Drinks of all kinds flow endlessly. And three times a day, double doors swing open to a ballroom bursting with tables laden with food.

There are stations for every kind of culinary experience.  Hot foods – stews, casseroles, roasts, fried foods, side dishes – sequestered from the cold foods such as bean pastes, salads, myriad pickle options, olives, dolma, a panoply of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the endless tables of colorful desserts.  The first day we arrived, we marveled. We ate. We enjoyed. But the array never changed. And we found that the food was likely to be recycled, reused the next day; there was a staleness about it that made even the fresh rocket seem dull and tasteless by the time we’d been there a while.

It was a relief to get back to Istanbul, to the fresh produce in the markets, to our own home cooking, to the brunch buffets in the restaurants along the shore.

 

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Toddler in Ephesus

Late December

My little grandson cannot wait to go to Kusadasi. He’s not terribly impressed by the fact that it’s the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing ancient Greece or with the notion of seeing the Aegean Sea or remnants of archaic worlds.  He loves to fly.  Airport? We’re going to the airport? “Let’s go!”

And a taxi.  We’ll ride to the airport in a taxi. “C’mon, Mommy.  Are you ready?  Hurry up, Gran’maw.”

In the taxi, he watches the road. His father is a pilot, and he has flown more often in his three years than most people fly in a fifty. Traveling to an airport in a taxi is as natural as breathing.

“Look out,” he warns our non-English speaking driver, who is blissfully unaware. “Red light.  You have to S T O P. . . . Oh, no, do you go that way, or that way?”

I remind him that the driver knows what he’s doing and deserves to be trusted.  He settles back and contents himself with counting buses, assessing cranes, watching for airplanes in the sky.  Then he falls asleep.  It’s an hour-long ride. His nap will serve us well.

At the airport, he climbs dutifully into his stroller.  “I can have a squeezie (a squeezable fruit treat he favors over candy) while we check in?”

At the gate, he counts the airplanes taking off, landing.  When our plane arrives at our gate, he jumps up and down.  “That’s our airplane.  We can get on.”

The flight reaches Izmir in forty-five minutes flat, and another cab takes us the remaining 80 km to our hotel, a lovely inn nestled in a tightly knit complex of shops, restaurants, hotels, fish markets, and bazaars on the Aegean Sea. The windmills and trucks, stoplights and birds along the way have kept the boy busy, and when we arrive at the hotel, he proclaims, “Here’s my home.”

The name Kusadasi means Pidgeon Island in English, and it’s not clear whether the name derives from the shape of the island on which its protective fortress lies or from the flocks of foraging birds that dominate the sandy beaches.  It hardly matters.

The town sits on a sandy lip of a beach that smiles wanly at the lapping waves shimmering teal-to-turquoise as the sun ambles along.  Fishing boats and yachts, kayaks and sailboats bob about beyond the breakers, and tourists meander the streets with no apparent imperative except soak in the warmth. It’s a peaceful place. Like a fantasy. For me, the perfect respite from current events that perseverate.  For my little buddy, it’s the perfect place to explore.

Each morning we set out on a mini-constitutional. Glee overcomes him the minute he sees a slide in one of the several playgrounds that dot the sea walk, and he dashes up the stairs chanting “Up the stairs. Down the slide” and makes himself giggle as his tush hits the ground.

Sailing insouciantly through the air in a swing, he makes up songs about flying and sailing that he combines with those he’s learned.  “Sing a song of sixpence pocket full of rye, I zoom to Bangkok (or Singapore or Timbuktu) on a bicycle built for two. . . “

Innumerable feral cats amuse him endlessly as they strut about the streets.  He crouches to touch each one that comes close enough, and he squeals with delight at the softness of their fur, the strength in their tails. The cats are remarkably well fed, with shiny, fluffy, healthy-looking coats. He offers the possibility of affection with the back of his unopened hand, and they oblige him by purring contentedly as he strokes the tops of their heads, tickles them beneath their lower jaws.

At an amphitheater on the main street, we watch as a bevy of homeless felines cavorts about, eating the food local people have left them, napping in the make-shift shelters someone’s built them. My boy is delighted but refuses to walk with me when I say we must back to the hotel. He wants to stay and watch his “friends.”

“Remember?” I prod him. “We saw a few cats living at the Chinese restaurant.  Let’s go say hello to them.”

“Stop for a muffin?” He asks.

“Of course.”

At Starbuck’s (Yes, Starbucks.  Sorry!) I lift him so his head is higher than the counter, and he tells the barrista that he’d like a chocolate muffin.  We sit while he eats it, and we discuss our plans for the day.

“First the cats at the Chinese Restaurant! Second my home!”

At first, he is testy. Why is the promised land not right ahead of us. I tell him to be patient, and he slyly invents a game. At every building, at every street sign his eyes dance with mischief. “Is this the Chinese Restaurant?” He laughs at his own cleverness, sufficiently amused until we reach the restaurant. It does not disappoint. Several large cats and a trio of kittens are there to entertain him, and he breaks into a symphony of laughter that takes us all the way “home”

After we return to Istanbul, he insists on visiting and revisiting the photographs. “Look at me – I following a duck. Hear me, Gran’maw? ‘Quack, quack.’” The video of at him riding a carousel dolphin in the indoor playground makes him thoughtful after his fifth viewing. “It was raining. Remember, Gran’maw?”

And then, “Oh, and look at this, Grandmaw. . . The cannon!” He is standing guard at the Kusadasi fortress. “ Look at me. A pirate – Hear me? ‘Ahoy, mateys, fire in the hole!’“ Gales of guffaws telegraph his pleasure.

His favorite photos are the ones we took the day we walked through centuries-old ruins. “Look ‘t grandmaw. ‘s Ephesus,” he crows. I wonder if he’ll remember that day when he’s my age. How we climbed stairways built by the Greeks in the 10th Century BC. How delighted he was to sit, giggling,  on a stone toilet in a communal outhouse dug first by the Romans and then modernized by the Roman Christians. As I marveled at the thought that Constantine might have defecated there, my grandson exclaimed, “Look!! People made poopie here!!!”

As though for his personal pleasure, regal cats adorn the remains of the 2nd C Library of Celsus. In the photos, they perch on pedestals like Egyptian gods, silky felines deigning to allow human contact. Power resides in their graciousness.

Clearly, that little boy in the photos is aware of his own potency as they respond to his touch by gently pressing their heads against his hand.”Haha. That tickles, gran’maw.”

In the photos, I am clearly breathless in the great amphitheater.

Imagining Dionysian competitions, Plautus comedies, Roman Olympic games. My grandboy cares only that I hold his hand so he can use the narrow stone walls as his balance beam. In my head there’s a joke about finding a seat – nearly 40,000 await here – but he distracts me, so enthralled he is by the colors in the masonry. Someday perhaps he’ll be impressed that he visited a theater that drew audiences from all over Europe and Asia for over 2,000 years. But at this moment he has his sights set on a hillside nearby, where a herd of sheep descends. Their collar bells clang in unison with their guide dogs’ barking. “I can barely see them,” he says, mimicking a phrase he’s heard far too often in his favorite video. “I hear them.  Hear them, Gran’maw?”

Just before he falls asleep in the taxi headed back to Kusadasi, he snuggles close and exclaims, “I like Ephesus. We have fun there!”

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Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained

Do people in the States go to private doctors these days? I mean, do the majority of the population, who are minimally insured at best, have a personal pediatrician on speed dial or a family GP at beck and call? I wonder if people more often look to Urgent Care facilities and HMO Clinics for sage advice.

I was fortunate as a young mom. I raised my little ones in two very different communities, and in each I relied on a wise pediatrician for counsel and guidance.  Each of those physicians was level-headed. Neither proclaimed a diagnosis without asking my opinion, and both were thorough and sensitive to the children’s concerns and fears. We all endured some harrowing health moments, through which these gentle heroes held my trembling hands and steered us out of danger.

In Turkey last month, I found myself wondering what most Turkish parents do when their children are ill  As outsiders, my daughter and I found ourselves in a position to wish either one or both those medical angels was alive. We most assuredly would have called him the second night we were in Antalya.

Let me backtrack and say that going to Antalya turned out to be a great choice.  But not for the reasons we expected it would be.  My daughter had booked a week in a luxury hotel, a kind of stationary cruise ship on the Mediterranean coast.  Though their massive water park and beach activities were shut down for the winter, the hotel offered a week of total relaxation, replete with three meals a day and a perpetually stocked minibar, for less than I might have paid for a room in the Tulsa, OK, Motel 6.

From our balcony, we had a spectacular view of the dormant water slides and the graygreenroyalblue Mediterranean just beyond them. If we looked left, beyond the hotel flanking ours, we could watch the snow accumulate on the tops of the several the Taurus Mountain peaks that tower over the region. On the first floor of the hotel, there was a children’s playroom with a small garden of colorful balls and a fast wooden slide designed to entertain a child if there should be rain. At the bar, wine, beer, and whiskey flowed freely . . . and at no extra charge.  An on-site spa with Thai masseuses stood at the ready from early morning till well after the dinner rush, and a footbath stocked with flesh-eating, skin smoothing garra rufa fish required no reservation. There were even family films screened nightly in the hotel cinema. Theoretically, a heavenly place for a true vacation.

What it turned out to be was the perfect place to wait out the flu.

On our second day in Antalya, my grandson seemed listless.  He wasn’t hungry.  The multiple tables spread with enticing confections that he’d found irresistible the day before were entirely uninteresting. All he wanted to do was lie in his mother’s or grandmother’s protective arms and watch videos or sleep.  Clearly not himself.

Overnight, he spiked a fever.  I knew it was not a dangerous fever, but it was high enough to send a clear signal that he was ill. The hotel, aware of its responsibility to be the compleat home away from home, advertised a doctor on board, in an office that opened at 9AM. We called at 9:01.

There was no doctor.  There was, however, a matronly nurse, who arrived in our room with the English-speaking guest relations representative(a person to whom we owe enormous gratitude). The “nurse” was very sweet, but I doubted immediately that she had any real medical training.  She took his temperature and immediately told us through our interpreter not to panic. She would, she assured us, prevent his having convulsions by wrapping him in cold, wet towels to reduce his temperature.  His temperature was not quite 103. He was in no danger. We eschewed the towel treatment and asked to be directed to a doctor.

They gave us the address of a private hospital that would accept my daughter’s ex-pat insurance plan, and we called a cab to take us there.  The hospital was nearly a half-hour away, and much to our relief, the cab driver waited to take us back.  A valiant gesture that turned out to be!

In the hospital, we waited endlessly in an open area, where coughing, vomiting  and the injured hordes came and waited or were directed to the triage room.  It was a cold day, and there was no heat in the building; attendants, nurses, doctors, and maintenance people were indistinguishable from one another as they all wore their outdoor street clothes.

When we were finally taken into a treatment room, our little boy was prodded and poked by several people, none of whom washed their hands or wore gloves.  I was embarrassed by my inability to speak Turkish and worried that we would know nothing about what ailed him.

Fortunately, the Attending Physician, who came to have a look, spoke English. She suggested we admit him for an overnight stay. In his room, she told us, they would strap him down, take his blood, and take him to a lab for a series of x-rays.

I know that, as adults, my kids are invariably embarrassed by my forthrightness, my unwillingness to do as I am told, my reluctance to accept advice I do not trust. But I wasn’t about to worry about whether I’d make my daughter blush.  I was unconvinced. “Why not do a culture first?” I inquired.

The doctor moved closer to examine my face before she replied. “Oh, yes, we could do a swab. But blood and x-ray would tell us more.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Let’s find out whether he’s got something bacterial or viral, and then you can prescribe medication. If, after a day or two he is no better, we’ll think about blood tests and x-rays and overnight stays in hospital.”

She agreed.  Reluctantly.  She wrote of my impudence in her report. Then we waited.

And waited. While we waited, we defended our screaming child from an attendant intent on forcing alcohol rubs on him. His fever was already responding to the ibuprofen we’d administered earlier and had dipped to below 101. There was no possible reason for any such treatment.

Another doctor entered. She repeated every step of the exam performed earlier. She, too, suggested a hospital stay, x-rays, blood.  Again I opened my NY Jewish mouth and said no, explained our agreement with the previous doctor. This doctor, a very young woman, was less skeptical. She smiled and nodded.

And sent us back to the outer corridor to the reception desk to pay for the swab. Then we waited and waited until a teenager – well, he looked like a teenager – wearing hat, coat, and mucklucks suddenly materialized in front of us.

Before we could ask who he was or what he wanted, the youngster timidly and awkwardly thrust a q-tip into the baby’s nose, pulled it out and smeared the wet cotton across a petri dish.  Then, in a scene that seemed ripped from my own 1960s childhood, he closed the dish, placed it in a plastic bag, put the culture into a glass cylinder, and popped it into a pneumatic tube. Off it went to some diagnostic lab in the sky, and off we went to find a warmer, less exposed place to wait.

Again we waited. An hour passed while we sat on a narrow bench in another wing of the hospital that was no less public but was slightly less crowded. We saw the doctor returning from her lunch break and asked her if she had the results yet. She promised to get them and, good to her word, brought them to us almost immediately.

“It’s flu,” she said.  “Influenza A.  I’ll prescribe an anti-viral. If he does not improve or if he has trouble breathing or if he does not get his appetite back in 48 hours, please bring him back.”

“Thank you,” my daughter said. “We’ll be sure to have him see a doctor if he’s not better by then.” She is very tactful. She never said what we were both thinking, that we would NEVER bring him back here.

We thanked the doctor, and then she warned that we still had a problem.  It was Sunday. The pharmacies – eczanes – were closed. Nationwide, in this predominantly Muslim country, for reasons we were unable to ascertain, pharmacies are closed on Sundays, even though most businesses operate as usual. “The receptionist will give you a list of those that are open,” our resident explained. “There you might fill the prescription.”

“You mean,” I asked, well aware that anti-virals only work if they are ingested in the earliest stages of the virus. “That there is no pharmacy here at the hospital, no dispensary where we might get a day’s supply to tide us over?”

“Unfortunately, no. Only in the stores on our list.”

The list lied. Not one was open. We returned to the hotel, and because our guest relations Godsend-of-a-staff-member was still there, she was able to pinpoint two eczanes that were possibilities. She called them. Only one was actually open, and they did not have the anti-viral in stock. Another pharmacy, closer to our hotel, opened early the next morning, and there we found the magical elixir.

Shortly after taking his first dose, our little patient was fever-free and hungry albeit still listless and weak. That’s when his mommy fell ill.

The rest of our week in Antalya was all about convalescence for everyone but me. I had a flu shot back in NYC.

[I later learned that people don’t tend to get flu shots in Turkey. Doctors don’t prescribe them. To have a vaccination, it is necessary to buy the inoculation from a pharmacist – not on a Sunday! – and take it back to a hospital, where a doctor administers it.  The H1N1 virus has made a decided comeback in Turkey, and there are myriad strains of flu circulating the country, but prevention seems undesirable.]

As the designated well person, I was truly able to appreciate our Antalya retreat. Being in that hotel made life easy for all of us.  The minibar attendant delivered water, juice, and seltzer every morning. The wait staff carried trays of food to our room three times a day. The maids kept our sheets clean, our towels fresh, our room spotless. The sunrises and sunsets enthralled us, relieved us of any reluctance to stay put in the room. Each day we opened the balcony door, and in rushed the wintergorgeous smell of the sea, the delicious reminder that we were on vacation.

On the Seventh Day, renewed and re-energized, we flew back to Istanbul.

 

 

 

 

 

Were that it Were

As a fan of the New York Times “Modern Love” feature, I eagerly binged through the eponymous new series on Amazon Prime. I wish I could say my fandom has extended itself. I cannot. Turns out to be just one more proof of how willingly pop culture aggrandizes schmaltz.

Schmaltz , in the colorful, metaphor-laden Yiddish language, means poultry fat and also hyper-emotion. Bathos.

I imagine the proliferation of melodramatic sentimentality is a reaction to the seething anger that surrounds us. Ugly racism on the Alt-Right and pandering on the Alt-Left leave no one safe from vitriolic accusations and slurs, physical jostling, social discomfiture out in the world. Whoever we are, wherever we go, we are assaulted in one way or another. Soppy, mindless nostalgia is a reasonable soporific. I wish it helped me. I guess I’m too cynical.

I’ve never been good at soporifics. They trigger anxiety. For me, hyper-emotional dramas are like post-op pain pills. They briefly soothe the symptoms, but when they wear off, everything hurts more than before the medication. Escapist entertainment reminds me how much work life requires, how much more pain there is when you expect none. Then too, it comes dangerously close to inspiring resentment.  Why can’t I find what these phenomenally lucky folks have found? What a colossal loser I must be.

I don’t enjoy being jaded. I am by nature an optimistic pragmatist. When at first I don’t succeed, I plod on. I want to believe I’ll discover gold in one of the veins I’m exploring, but if I don’t, well, the work’s its own reward.  That’s a lot harder to pull off when prevailing media offerings constantly suggest that everyone else can easily find what remains for me elusive.

Every episode of Modern Love tantalizes with elements of truth. The actors in the series are wonderful – not a bad one in the bunch – but the writing is shallow. Okay, the stories are based on essays that are 1500 words or less. But a screenwriter should be able to create fleshy characters, who talk like people talk. And am I the only one who notices that there is not one episode that follows someone who lives in a middle- or working-class world? That poverty is nonexistent here? Every one of the lovers here has a fabulous apartment that is fabulously decorated. They all have amazing jobs and work among titans. More reasons I should feel unworthy.

In the episode entitled “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist,” Katherine Keener plays an almost-believable character . . . an older woman giving advice to a thoroughly make-believe young genius (Dev Patel) millionaire (of course) about the pursuit of happiness. The characters in “At the Hospital” are so hopelessly hip their love seems fake and contrived. The heroine of “So He Looked Just Like Dad, etc . . . “ is boringly stupid. Is any young woman working in NYC (and living in such upscale digs) really naïve enough to think a leering, sex-starved older man would moon so unabashedly over a girl for whom he has only paternal affection?

Jane Alexander, an actor I deeply admire, plays a character who serves cheap baloney in “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap.” Up to a point, women might possibly imagine that being over 70 is romantic in some way, but we who have passed that Rubicon know better. And the actual probability of finding the kind of love Alexander’s character discovers is as likely as finding a clean spot on the subway floor.

Or is this just one more way of telling me how inadequate I am?

Older men who seek older women invariably look for someone to mother them, someone to listen to their monologues, someone to call 911. I would love to believe there is a man like James Saito’s character for each of us out there, a gentle man who listens enthusiastically, who shares interests but revels in each of the couple’s individualities. Forgive me if my experience makes me skeptical.

My most recent disappointment happened last month. I met a man who enticed me with what seemed to be a real interest in me and in my work. But the moment I ventured to get to know him – first by electronic messaging, then telephone, and finally on an actual date with him – he became a lecturer. He took to telling me what I like, what I look for, what I am. Assuming I knew nothing, he regaled me endlessly with his erudition. He asked me what I’m writing about, and before I got to sentence number two about the project I am struggling with, he was off on a tale of how he saved a woman writer he had been hired to edit.

On our date, when the monologue turned personal, and he was discussing his marriages or children or something, I made a comment about the complexities of motherhood, how women are easily eclipsed by childbirth and child-rearing. He interrupted with a story about how lucky his first wife was to have had him in the delivery room because he was able to relieve all her pain because he knew the right place to touch. That was immediately followed – without so much as a breath – by the story of how he sailed up the coast of Spain to save a woman who would have bled to death had he not liberated her and applied his EMT skills.

I took the advice of the Madagascar penguin. “Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.” I smiled – and nodded – and waved goodbye.

Every day for the following week, I received endless incoherent soliloquies or solipsistic PM messages on Facebook. Each time I replied and asked questions, he rejoined with yet another harangue. None of my questions or comments was acknowledged. I finally asked him point-blank if he had any interest in me. If so, I said, please demonstrate it. Call me, write me a question you allow me to answer, engage with me. Interact. I haven’t heard a word from him since I made that request.

If I were to judge myself by Modern Love standards, I would have to assume I am a ragtag reject.

If only life were so winnable as it is in the series. Would that playing tennis might have volleyed my marriage back to life as it did for Tina Fey and John Slattery’s characters in “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” written by Dennis Leary’s real-life wife Ann. Would that any one of the few boyfriends I have had since I divorced twelve years ago had been so quick to acknowledge their role in our absence of communication. At least this episode was honest in its depiction of the separate worlds we build when we are supposedly fused to one another. That was something.

The one episode I really liked was the one I expected to hate. I am not an Ann Hathaway fan, and I was put off at first by the specter of Hollywood glitz. But in “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I am,”  I was won over by the sensitive, detailed glimpse into the bi-polar world it provides. Hathaway, with no little assistance from the script, nailed both the manic hyper-high and the paralyzing despondency, the need for a truly accepting ear, the struggle to maintain the most basic of human relationships. Let alone love. Finally, a protagonist who doesn’t miraculously get everything she ever wished for in 50 minutes flat. Finally, an episode that ends realistically.  Hathaway’s character vows to stay on her meds and talk often to her physician. That is all. She is content.

And that is the best kind of happily ever after I can imagine.

 

Once More to the Lake … Again

Deep in the winter of 1957, my father moved our family to Saranac Lake, NY. A remote village burrowed snugly into the heart of the high peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains. The town turned out to be the first place where we actually stayed for more than two years. We had spent the previous nine years zigzagging the country, and somehow this was the place where my dad accepted my mother’s ultimatum: “Move again, and you move without me.”

I was miserable. Nine years old, a misfit newcomer in a closed environment, I felt stuck there. As soon Paul Simon’s voice found its way to my staticky radio, I adopted his song as my private theme. I was a rock. The granite mountains that stood steadfast on the periphery of my town were my fortress steep and mighty. Misery was the tomb in which I hid. Melancholy became me.

Saranac Lake, NY “The Little City in the Adirondacks.”

Except in the autumn.

One Sunday of every Fall, my parents would trundle their expanding brood off on a leaf-sighting tour. It was an increasingly ambitious endeavor as the family grew. I identify each of the passing years by the car we drove and the name of the youngest child.

When we arrived in Saranac Lake, my mother led our mini-caravan in our Pontiac Star Chief. That had been comfortable enough when Helen was the baby, and I was oldest of three. But by the time we got stuck at the bottom of Rockledge Road in the blizzard that welcomed us to town, the car was bulging at the seams. Mom was 8 ½ months pregnant with my fifth sibling Sarah, whose birth inspired my grandfather to give us his used Buick Roadmaster. Our autumnal jaunts were increasingly trying – crowded together in the frigate-like automobile, we fought with one another for a view out of the thickening fog on the windows that were simultaneously cooled on the outside by the early pre-winter fridigity and warmed on the inside by our multiple breaths. The ever-expanding brood acted out their frustration, showed their disdain for destination-less vehicle trips by crawling all over the adults and older kids. Someone inevitably suffered a bump on the head falling against the metal panels, diving headfirst from the backseat into the metal console in the front. Screaming and whining provided the soundtrack until, by the grace of Heaven, one or more fell asleep. Anyone seeking to escape the fray by finding a position on top of coatwear and picnic food between the parents in the front seat was likely to be frequently pummeled by dad’s fist as he shifted gears.

Ampersand Bay, Saranac Lake, NY

Rain or shine, Mom chose the Sunday that the colors had reached their peak and designated it as our day of exploration. Dad drove, and she navigated. Out the Forest Home road, under a canopy of rich golds and browns, the playful gray clouds darting among the rays of mottled sunshine. Twisting along Bayside Street or Pinehurst Road, he’d stop at Ampersand Bay. Everyone – even my hyperactive middle brother – was awed to silence by the dancing redgoldpurpleblue branches,bending gracefully over the lake then bowing back to the evergreens with whom they partnered.

“Go to Tupper, Daddy. Take us to Tupper,” we inevitably begged. And he headed back to town then west on the Lapan Highway to follow Route 3, past Crescent Bay and over the bridge with Lower Saranac on both sides of us. How is it possible this is the same lake we were just admiring in Ampersand Bay. It seemed so very far from where we rode now.

I loved those rides. To escape the noise, the presence of the crowd on my lap and at my feet, I opened my window. Oldest child privilege – I always had a window. So long as no one commanded me to close it, I sat with my arm across the wet base, my head on my arm, the wind and rain and/or dew falling into my thick blonde hair now streaming wildly behind. I imagined myself in a kinetoscope, the light and dark flickers of color dancing across my eyelids.

The arrival in close succession of Elizabeth and John, Numbers 6 and 7, necessitated buying something bigger, and we spread out in our Volkswagen van. The adventure changed abruptly – it became a sedate, customary pilgrimage. Beautiful but not so challenging.

By then I was in high school, and my escape was imminent. College. New York City. Freedom. I savored the final family forays. The Fall of my senior year, as we dutifully took our places in the roomy van, I put my head against the glass of my window and cried silently. I was sure this would be our last trip.

I felt a sting of nostalgia. Unwelcomed. After all, I wanted to believe, as teenagers do, that leaving home meant leaving my woes. Putting this closely knotted community behind was liberation from a kind of incarceration I wanted to remember as torture for the rest of my life.

But what had happened was something I was only beginning to understand. Over the years, as the color and cool of my birthday season washed away my summer anxieties and prepared me for the thrill of winter, they also smoothed my edges. I found a way to fit in, to make friends, to be a part of the place we inhabited. To love my neighbors. I would miss it.

Not long after, my uncle died in Arizona, and his widow, my mother’s beloved older sister, begged my parents to move west. They did. I flitted about the country feeding my youthful wanderlust, the product of my father’s years before. New Mexico, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe. A few months here, a year there. I couldn’t settle in. I missed my Adirondack autumns.

Finally, New York City. Close enough. I loved the thrum of the air, the electricity in the sidewalk, and the proximity to Saranac Lake. In eight hours or less, I could be rocked in the bosom of the gentle slopes and dangle my feet in the invigorating cold of the glacial lakes. Then, in eight hours or less, I could be far away, immersed in a life I chose to pursue. I was happy. And then I got married.

Though I felt ancient by then from the multiple displacements, I was still young. My husband was even younger, and he had California Dreamin’ in his soul. We tried living there, hated it, and then, when I became pregnant with our first child, we migrated to Arizona to be close to my family. Far too far from the East.

What saved me from languishing in the West was that I loved to drive. Every summer from the time my first-born was two, I would trundle my kids into our car and drive east. My husband hated long road trips, which freed me to stay away as long as I wanted, without the pressure to be back for his work. He would fly and meet us somewhere along the way, visit our friends and family, see the eastern seaboard historical sites for a week, then fly back and leave the driving to me. Until the children’s calendars were regulated by their school year, I planned it so that we could be in Saranac Lake when the leaves began to turn.

Those years, too, I remember by the succession of cars I drove.

We made our first trip in an old Chevy Nova. Black interior, no air conditioning, but a fuel efficient engine and remarkable staying power. Two years later, Pregnant with child #3, barely fitting behind the wheel, I planned my trip in the same car. My mother, however, insisted that if I were hell bent on making the pilgrimmage, I should at least take her Honda, half the size of my Nova, and my youngest sister. “You’ll have a/c, and you won’t be alone.”

All the way across the country, my sister and I could not stop talking about getting back to the journey through the leaves. I wondered if my incredibly well-behaved son and daughter, then aged four and two and a half, seated contentedly in their carseats rarely complaining about anything, would appreciate the ride as my rambunctious siblings did.

Olf Forest Home Road, Saranac Lake, NY

I needn’t have worried. A few minutes along the Forest Home Road, my son warbled, “Mommy, I never saw anything so beautiful in all my life.” I had to stop the car so my sister and I could sob in one another’s arms. Lord we’d missed this place.

The next time we made the trip, I drove a Chevy Impala Wagon. Each of my daughters in their infant-toddler car seats occupied half of the second seat, while my son luxuriated across the “way back.” This time, my middle child, herself nearly 4, taunted her brother, and they sparred vocally then physically across the barrier between them. My baby wailed inconsolably until they stopped. I watched them in the rear view mirror.

How strange, I thought. This is more déjà vu than I’d anticipated. My children were my siblings, and I was my mother. Young and confused by the dichotomy of my emotions. Loving them wholly, craving some freedom. Wishing for time alone but never wanting them out of my sight. Seeking the relief of familiarity in the North Country and wondering how I could have survived such a closed system.

As I pulled over, stopped the car and took in the panorama of color, I felt bolted to the ground. I did not want to move. What was this feeling? I shook the confusion out of my head and breathed deeply. Ah, brisk autumn air. The sensation passed, and a few days later we were back in Arizona.

Each year, we repeated the scenario with less fighting, more talking. The confusion never passed.

Until last month. For my birthday, my son and his wife took their daughters and me to Saranac Lake. Autumn had just begun to tease the green leaves to shy hints of reds and oranges, browns and gold. The air was cold, wet, clean. The eight-year-old, fascinated by the concept of healing woods, breathed deeper and deeper, vowing to heal anything that might ail her. The ten-year-old was impatient to get out of the car and get on a paddle board. I, of course, insisted on a leaf tour.

Driving on the Forest Home Road, with rain threatening overhead, the muted colors waving at us from behind the cloud shadows, I leaned back and listened as my older granddaughter admonished her little sister in a tone that was decidedly authoritarian. The younger girl rejoined with a statement so venomous I laughed thinking how lucky we all are she’s a kid and not a snake. But as we came to a stop overlooking Ampersand Bay, they both hushed. Everyone in the car sat in quiet contemplation. The beauty of the lake, the sylvan panoply took our breaths away.

The old emotions crept up my spine and found their way to my stomach. The old conflict in a new skin. So many words to write. So little time. I want to get back to my desk. But I never want this moment to end.

It’s different now. The confusion has lifted. I’ll be leaving again. This time, I’ll have no choice. I sigh and feel a rustle of leaves flutter into the lake. I’d prefer to stay here with them.  

Here at home.

 

Sliding Back to America from the Marmara Sea

Last week, at a playground on the banks of the Marmara Sea, I stood with a stranger and watched his daughter and my grandson chase one another up and down the slide. They were laughing, enjoying the game. We were encouraged by their easy palship to attempt a conversation.

“Where you are from?” the man asked me. I faltered a moment, embarrassed.

“From the U.S., “ I finally replied.

“Ah. I am from Syria. I came here five years ago.”

Unsure what to say next, I stammered, “You are kind to speak English with me.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I am a teacher of English. I love to have the opportunity to speak!”

“Ah.” I could have been quiet. A socially adept person might have stood there simply enjoying the mirth of our children and the sparkle of the sea. Instead, I pressed on.

“It must be difficult to be from Syria. What’s happening in your homeland must be painful for you.”

He nodded solemnly for a moment then looked me in the eye. “Well,” he ventured, with a new twinkle of mirth emerging from his own, “No more painful than being from America, I’ll bet.”

Déjà-vu.

In 1970, when I first ventured to Europe, a sweet Italian boy asked me if I were an Ugly American. I spent the next 9 weeks of my trek across the continent proving in every way could that I was not. My encounter with the Syrian English teacher was not the first time I realized I was experiencing a resurgence of what I felt about my country in my profligate youth.

“Speak to me in German,” I begged an Iranian neighbor in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I was staying one morning. I couldn’t bear to hear American English coming from my mouth as I spoke to her.

Being an American, especially being an American abroad, is indeed excruciating. Every day of the two months I stayed in Turkey I faced news from my beloved country that made me shudder. Child abuse by US officials. Refugee incarcerations. Racist slurs against respected politicians. Rallies inciting brainwashed multitudes to chant hateful slogans. Ostensible newscasters spewing toxic lies to widen the chasms that divide citizens. Threats of war both civil and foreign.

Early in the morning three days before my flight home to the States, I received an email from my airline instructing me that because of heightened security in the US, all passengers leaving high-risk areas must undergo extreme scrutiny by security personnel. I was therefore instructed to be at Istanbul Airport at least three hours prior to flight time.

I closed the email, shuddering at the thought of having to leave the apartment at 2 AM for a 6 AM flight. Shivering with resentment that my prosthetic hip would set off the metal sensors and force me to endure inevitable pat-down humiliation.

Before I could shut down my email server and go brew a cup of coffee, my news feed blasted pictures from El Paso. Twenty people killed less than a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival massacre. I sat and wept. Before my tears abated, news of Dayton. I remain inconsolable.

I am hyper-aware of irony. It underscores the absurdity of life around me and ordinarily gives me a healthy perspective on what I observe in the world. While irony often makes me laugh, it is equally capable of reducing my soul to painful shards that impair my vision, alter my hearing, infuse me with the bitter taste of helplessness.

By the time I read those three notices, my toddler grandson and I had spent 60 days frolicking in various playgrounds in our Istanbul suburb, interacting with people from all over the Middle East. I didn’t like everyone, and I am sure there were those who disliked me. Human interaction is like that. I’m not historically ignorant, and I know there have been times when I would have had a very different experience in Turkey. But this time, now, there was no threat inherent in not being friends with everyone. I never felt unsafe. No one ever threatened me with a gun. No one shouted at me that I must conform to any single notion of right/wrong. Not one person posed any kind of a threat to me or my family.

So sad. My misinformed, misguided, brain-washed fellow Americans believe that the people outside our country threaten us with terrorism. When I said I was traveling to a country that is 97% Muslim, I was overwhelmingly warned, even by my more enlightened acquaintances, to “Be careful.” It should have been I issuing the warnings. The real threat to all of us comes from our fellow Americans.

Mass shootings continue to increase. Congress continues to allow the money-wielding gun lobby to control them. The so-called president continues to sow seeds of fear and resentment that foster bigotry and violence. Politicians and our so-called liberal leadership continue to insist on radical stances instead of seeking ways to re-group and ameliorate. The mainstream press continues to whitewash the awful truth about the evil in our midst.

And we continue to allow ourselves to be bamboozled.

You are right, my Syrian acquaintance. What’s happening in America is painful.

 

A Thorn By Any Other Name . . . .

The nightmare never changed. It recurred as a terror that began just after I began Kindergarten, at age four. In each bad dream, the ominous wailing of European sirens would wake me from a sound sleep in my grandmother’s Bayside, Queens attic. As the sound of metal soles and heels marching on the suburban pavement reverberated around me, I would scream for my sisters and brothers and cousins to follow me. In German, a voice shouted from the street below. “You cannot escape a second time. We have found you. You will come with us to the camp.” I would wrest myself sweating and crying from the torture of sleep just as the uniformed robots were about to grab my youngest brother and throw him into the tank that followed their march.

Every detail of the dream was the figment of my imagination or of some phantom reminiscence. We had no television, and the only films my parents took me to see were Disney films. I search my memory for some clue as to how the sound of the jackboots and police cars found their way to my subconscious, and I find none. I do know why I was afraid of the camps.

I was born two years after WWII ended. Members of my mother’s large extended family, dispersed across the world, were just beginning to find one another. We received intermittent letters from sources I could not identify that provided cryptic updates. The word “camps” was omnipresent. So much so that when my parents sent me to Girl Scout Camp at age seven, I was sure they were sending me away forever.

The soto voce conversations about the correspondences were always dire. Like the members of my mother’s nuclear family, most of the mispacha had barely escaped. A few to the US, others to Brazil, Israel, Australia, Argentina, the UK. The displaced were the lucky ones. There were telegrams and official notifications bearing the saddest news – two uncles and an aunt gassed in a death camp with a garbled name. What a relief to learn that another aunt and uncle never suffered the same fate but were shot defending their clinic in the Stanislaw ghetto uprising. My mother would huddle with her sisters and parents in secluded corners of our communal home to read each missive aloud. I was not invited to hear, but I was an expert eavesdropper, and while I could not have told you what or who or why, I felt the effect of the camps that my mother and her sisters had narrowly avoided. Even the bits and pieces I surmised were enough to convince me I would never want to go to that place where the evil whose name was Nazi lived.

The pain, the fear, the agony of the camps bored a hole in my consciousness. As did the guilt my mother and her sisters, who never forgave themselves for running away, brought to America. I grew up wondering, as they did every day, if I might have made a difference if I had only been there.

Of course, the notion is absurd. Still, though they said – and genuinely believed – that no such horror could happen in America, they passed to me a sacred responsibility. Never again. Make sure. Never again. Be on your guard. Tolerate no persecutions.

That was the banner I carried in my heart when my cousin and I joined the marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge, when I sang my freedom songs in coffee shops, when I advocated for the end of the War in Viet Nam. Reading history made me cry. How could we enemies of oppression have perpetrated annihilation of the Natives, perpetuated slavery? The more I learned about how this country came to be, the more my inner voice chanted “Never again.”

No one in my circle of intimates ever suggested that there might be anything like comparative suffering. The internment camps that held native Americans all over the Southwest were no less horrific than those that held Japanese Americans during WWII. Inhumanity is inhumanity, Suffering is not a competition sport.

Genocide is genocide.

It follows then that a concentration camp is a concentration camp. Just because there are no gas chambers does not give a vile detention area, where children are tortured, a right to be called anything less brutal. Though the inmates of these camps are not in imminent jeopardy of extermination, ten children have died of their maltreatment.

How many deaths does it take to constitute a death camp?

Children forced to sleep on floors, left unclean, given no soap or water, encouraged to drink from toilets. Worst, children growing every day with no affection, no comfort, ripped from their parents’ love. . . .

 

 

Theresienstadt was a concentration camp. It was a showplace – a beard intended to prove to the Red Cross that the Nazis were humane. Here, like in the border camps, children died. Maltreatment, malnutrition, squalor are killers as lethal as gas and guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My people suffered great losses, yes. But we have no right to be precious about our pain. To be honest, I abhor the fact that we refer to our destruction as The Holocaust. There have been so many holocausts, murder and mayhem inflicted on human beings by fellow humans. Our losses are of no more significance than the losses incurred by our contemporary refugee counterparts.

We don’t own the torment. But we do own the imperative to fight to end our government’s insistence on perpetrating more of it. We will carry the sad karma wrought by the deplorable savagery being enacted under our flag. We must somehow take action, real action, to send this siege of evil.

The great challenge here is to stop the bickering among the converted. We must put our level heads together to figure out what that action is. We must have a unified plan, and we must cry out in a single voice.

Never Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Road With Grandma – Part II – View from the Courtyard. . . It Seems So Simple Really

From my window, I have a world view I wish I could share with my fellow Americans.

I am currently in an apartment complex in Istanbul. On the European side. Four separate entrances to four connected but independent buildings comprise the 12-story structure that wraps itself around a large courtyard, a recreational close.

In the center of the courtyard is a very large gazebo.

With ample seating for at least 20 adults and floor space for at least as many children. Much of the day, it is occupied by mothers and a few fathers, who chat amongst themselves while their many children run exuberantly about. They are often there until well after 10 PM.

No one in any of the flats that face the courtyard fears missing the opportunity to be part of the communal scene. Each apartment faces the square, and curtains on the sliding doors leading to a small balcony are invariably open. By placing a couch set at the sliding door, inhabitants extend the indoor living space out into the world of the square. Sound carries easily. From the comfort of home, they intermittently call to one another, supervise unruly children, and engage with the flow of life below.

I imagine our neighbors wonder what is wrong with us that we are so anti-social as to keep our windows covered, our doors closed.

Solitude, then, is not the ideal here. Personal space is meant to be shared. It extends beyond our courtyard into the activity that bustles about us. On the street, in stores, at the local market one is likely to feel crowded even when there are no more than a few people nearby. Walking close to one another seems a requirement on the walkways. Driving far too close is common practice on the roads.

Life here is on a clock set for summer hours. Revels extend late into the night, and nearly nothing stirs before 9 AM, even on workdays. This is lucky for me. My need for alone time, for the wide berth of privacy, is satisfied by my early-morning sessions in the exercise room or by eschewing the sun-drenched outdoor pool in favor of the dimly lit indoor equivalent.

I adjust to what might feel like perpetual invasiveness, even when people are staring at me with great curiosity. The ultra-communal atmosphere fascinates me. It instructs me about the world to which I will soon return.

In my neighborhood in Harlem, apartments are built to ensure the most privacy one can hope for in a crowded city. They are built with an American sense of individuality. Bolted doors, barred windows help to reinforce the notion that boundaries matter.

It is a notion that is just as foreign to many of my neighbors in Harlem as it is to those here in Istanbul. Like my neighbors in this courtyard world, my fellow Manhattanville residents are from places where the house is the place to sleep. In the warm climes – in places like this part of Turkey, the Caribbean Islands, large sections of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Asian subcontinent — the cultures encourage and even require communalism. Folks often and comfortably congregate in courtyards, on the beaches, in the marketplace. In Harlem, they replace the familiar sharing places with city sidewalks, local parks, even the local grocery stores.

I have been known to grouse about the way the habits of the collective affect me, interfere with my limits. Though I crave diversity and delight in the culinary benefits these strangers have brought to my city, I also complain about the things that niggle.

Watching the courtyard below me in this very foreign place is a kind of revelation, a reminder of how fortunate I am to experience this perspective changer.

I pledge to remind myself often — at night, when I wish the noise on the street would just stop, on my block, when I am having trouble walking quickly because of the lawn chairs and hibachis blocking my way, in Whole Foods when another shopper’s cart refuses to move more than an inch from me, on my way to work when the tourists walking four abreast slow my progress from point A to B, in my own apartment building, when it is abuzz with folks iding together – that my way of living is not universally the best. Awareness and perhaps a set of earplugs should enable me to adjust my point of view.

We white Americans have made a history of co-opting, usurping, and/or obliterating all traces of Others’ cultures. Our national beginnings are fraught with murder, enslavement, criminalization of anything un-white. We have stolen food, customs, traditions, language, and culture and have forcibly replaced what belongs to others, requiring that they embrace what is ours. We have taken this imperialistic attitude to the world, earning us the moniker of Ugly Americans. And in the time of Trump, we are doubling down on our insistence that the Other be like us or get out.

I don’t like what we’ve become, we white Americans. We are a fearful, suspicious, hateful lot with little understanding of these others settling on our shores. They are not here to take anything away from us. Yet we treat them as though it is a bad thing that their difference threatens our blandness. Every American should spend a week looking out of my Istanbul window and see that there is no harm in retaining individuality if that is what we want. We might be irritated by a handful of inconveniences, but in the end, our lives are enriched by allowing ourselves to observe and grin.

Perhaps a week at my window would engender a sorely-needed American attitude adjustment. Liberals need to see that while the people of the heartland have lacked exposure, they can watch, smile and accept with the rest of us. And so-called Conservatives need to shut up and listen, taste, touch the joy that happens in this courtyard. We can all adjust.

It’s so simple. Really. You may love your hamburgers, sandwiches, and wraps, but once you’ve tasted kofta or börek, you’ll know something more delicious. Preserving tradition is fine and dandy, but it’s always a sure bet that adding something new can give your life a whole new dimension.

Back on the Road With Grandma

This summer, it’s Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been here before.

Once upon a time I dreamed of seeing Istanbul-not-Constantinople and taking in Ephensus, the Topkapi Museum, et al. My imagination conjured encounters with all manner of exotic people, places, ideas. Even in my old age, I fantasized about meeting interesting people, perhaps a man? Preparing for my trip, I made a hypothetical list: The Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia, a ride atop a double-decker tour of the city and the ancient ruins of Iconium, a cruise down the Bosphorus alongside the remains of the wall that protected Turchia. I figured that since I’d be in the city for three months, I’d have ample opportunity to learn some of the local language, soak up the essence of the culture.

Now entering my third week, I have adjusted my expectations. Mine is not the sojourn of a freewheeling youngster or a liberated retiree. I am here in the official capacity of Toddler’s Grandmother. Consequently, though I have happily partaken of the pide bread and acquired a craving for muhammara salad and vegan boreks, I remain more familiar with home-heated frozen French fries and chicken nuggets. While I’ve managed to board the ferry and visit the Isle of Heybellada, My experiences are filtered through a skewed lens with minimal focus. I see the world through the eyes of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is fixated on construction vehicles with three doors that open and shut or on dogs sleeping in the shade or birds resting on low-hanging branches. Nothing else in Turkey matters nearly as much. A museum would be excruciating, and the Blue Mosque might shudder at the thought of my grand child running through.

I have yet to see the city by night. Bedtime is early in the world of a toddler.

None of this is in any way disappointing. I believe I will love the memory of this Turkish sojourn all the more for having shared it with my little miracle boy. A walk on the Bosphorus is as satisfying as any cruise when you’re throwing rocks to watch the ripples disrupt the calm and laughing at the boats seeming to race with one another, singing about wheels going ‘round and ‘round as a big green bus zooms behind.

Back in New York, I’ll hear in my dreams the five calls to prayer outside our window, but I will remember a sleeping boy rather than the responses of the faithful. Here I’ll content myself with vicarious visits to storied places. The beauty of Haga Sophia and Rumeli Castle resonates adequately from the page, and neither will age any less sublimely for want of my presence.

Much to my amazement, I have no need to further enrich my senses. Things that once seemed intensely important have lost their luster. The glories of the past are singularly unenticing because the future is in my arms.

My future has become irrelevant. Who knows what time I have left? Nothing is promised,. I have had already a long life that has given me much to be grateful for. I gladly turn my attention to what I will leave behind. Memories matter.

No matter what time is left, I will be a presence in this boy’s heart, even if only as half-seen a shadow casting stones on the water of the Bosphorus.

——————

Next up: How America looks from here . . . . Spoiler alert. It’s not pretty.