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September 11 Recollections #2

History is about people. It is the avalanche of moments and experiences and decisions. History does not charge or race in times of crisis. History is everything. It is the world moving unstoppable to the future a moment, an hour, a day, and epoch at a time. Only perception and emotion defines the importance of that unending march. It is the emotion and the impact events have upon individual souls that brings humanity to the cold analysis of our shared past. It was those moments and individual faces that defined the true impact of September 11, at least for me. One particular face stands out from all others.

I went upstairs into the terminal, into the chaos and stunned silence after the announcement that flights nationwide had come to a complete stop.. There was a crowd around the customer service desk at the gate. Folks were struggling to get their minds around the incredible concept that nothing was moving anywhere in the United States. One young woman pressed through to the counter. She had long straight hair, her crisp blue eyes were distraught, bordering on panicked.

“Nothing is moving anywhere?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, sympathetic.

“For how long?”

“Indefinitely, they’re telling us.”

“I have to get to Hartford(Connecticut) by tomorrow for my father’s funeral.”

“The best advice I can give you is to get down stairs as fast as you can and rent a car before they’re all…”

She cut me off, her eyes threatening tears. “All I have is this ticket and ten Dollars. I don’t have a credit card.”

She looked at me for the longest time before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Steadily the terminal emptied. I was wandering, soaking up conversations and moments. A middle-aged business woman rushed up to me and, with a look of utter terror in her eyes said that she’d heard another hijacked plane was headed for the terminal.

“Haven’t heard that,” I told her, though at that moment most anything seemed possible.

“Then why is everyone leaving the airport?” her voice rose almost to hysteria.

“Because there is no reason to be here any more,” I replied, feeling fully the implication inherent in the words.

By noon the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, then the busiest airport in the world, was a ghost town. The silence was unnerving. The lights had been turned off and all the vendors had gone home, the  shadows and darkness adding a gloom to this wholly unnatural scene.  I was walking through the terminal with a buddy when a Mexican woman appeared with a small child. She spoke no English, but with my simple understanding of Spanish, she revealed she had no money and no means of feeding her child. Her return flight to Mexico was obviously cancelled. In a scene no doubt repeated thousands of times throughout the nation and world, she was trapped. 

She sort of followed us through the terminal for a while until we found a manager who held some vouchers for  a local hotel, offering to take the woman there, as she obviously could not afford a taxi, if she could have found one. We gave her what money we had, hoping that the flights would begin before the vouchers and that meager bit of cash ran out.

I left work early that day. There was no reason to remain. The airline had hired a lot of good people that summer. A number fit in quickly, proving themselves as reliable and hardworking. It had been a dream job. Despite the dangers, the pay was excellent, with great benefits, the travel benefit notwithstanding. One of the new guys I found in the employee parking lot. He was looking back across the empty runway at the silent terminal with a hopeless and far away look.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

He sighed and shook his head, forcing an ironic grin. “Lost my job today. Now I’m just waiting until they make it official.”

By October he was gone, with hundreds of others. It is these faces that define September 11th to me.

Rightwing Talk Show hosts show solidarity with Unions and Socialists

Glenn beck, Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and other prominent Rightwing talk show hosts broke from their anti-Union diatribes in their annual show of solidarity to social and labor causes by taking the day off!  Pioneered by noted Unionist and foreigner, Peter McGuire, and signed into law by Grover Cleveland, Labor Day remains an enduring remembrance of Union workers who gave us the 8 hour work day.

Railing day in and day out on America’s airwaves about the evils of Unions, today’s show of complete solidarity by Rightwing show hosts is either an indication of their absolute hypocrisy over the issue or an admission of support for Union causes. Observers doubt that it could not be hypocrisy on their part and must be purely coincidental that all of them took Labor Day off as a holiday, otherwise the action could be viewed as pro-union and anti-corporation. It remains to be seen if they will all report to work next Labor Day.

Strangely nearly all the Tea Party members, the 70% that actually work, also celebrated the holiday. That’s celebrated, as leaching off the hard-fought Union benefits by taking the day off would seem unacceptable to the stalwart bunch.

It almost seems hypocritical when one looks closer st the Tea Party members and Talk Show hosts. 55% make 55 thousand Dollars and above, according to a Gallup poll. Nearly all the Talk Show hosts are multi-millionaires. Curiously, nearly all Tea Partiers and all of the Talk hosts are white males. More than 70% of Tea Party Members have little or no education beyond High School, which could explain their aversion to such things as books and facts and science and knowing stuff. The poll, unfortunately did not reveal how many believe that cowboys and dinosaurs lived at the same time, but no doubt they were off today as well, perhaps grilling Brontosaurus steaks. indeed, the lack of book-learning might explain why they didn’t know a damn thing about what Labor Day stands for, who fought and died and bled for it, and what it has meant to the working people of this country. Guess they didn’t need to know, but I bet they sure enjoyed the long weekend.

Travels in Tuscany: Two Churches

Ana was falling in love. She walked ahead of me, down hill along Via Roma. She was celebrating the moment, strolling along a European street, and redefining her European identity in the context of her American reality. I paused at an artist’s studio, lamenting that the artist was gone for the way, and so wishing I could get closer to the naive but vibrant paintings I could only see askance through dust-streaked windows. Along Via Giovanni XXIII I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the previous 22 Giovannis, and thought I had some catching up to do on my Giovannis!

I caught up with her near a small church at the bottom of the hill, where three roads met in an iconic way, the town bending through narrow lanes and rustic buildings, or dissolving among sun-drenched fields. It seemed the perfect place for the unassuming little church, a  place of coming together. This place was a poem, the beginning of a novel or the end of a story.

Santuario Della SS Anunziata was indeed a sanctuary, at least from the growing midday heat.. It was cool, with a soft earthy scent, dust and warm wax from votives near the altar. It was a curiosity to me, exploring it like it was some sort of  forgotten and simple museum. Ana took a seat in a pew, a pillar of light falling across her hair and upturned face. Near one wall, set back out of reach,  a beautiful old sketch book filled with pen and ink studies.The place appeared well cared for, if gently succumbing to the centuries.

Outside of town, among the orchards and poppy fields, where Via Amerini meets Via di Sant Ansanto, sits a small forgotten church. It stands upon a hill in sight of Vinci, waded in deepening weeds. The name has long been erased, with only part of an inscription still visible.

A metal cross beside the narrow door rusts, throwing a shadow across the crack and pitted wall, and offering a bit of shade for a pair of lizards, which scramble away as I near. Inside, the air smells forgotten. The door is locked, but the window is broken enough to see clearly inside. On the back wall, no doubt once a part of a small and simple alter, a painting of the Madonna still adorns the wall, offering a surprise of color that almost feels miraculous in its own right. It would have been crowded with a half dozen worshipers.

I wonder about the place. I wonder about its history. There is no date to be found, but late Eighteenth Century is  easily possible. I want to imagine simple peasant weddings, stormy funerals, sheltering American soldiers or lovers stealing a moment. Empty and uncared for as it is I find a closer connections to god or the spirit or something here than at the tourist besieged cathedrals in Venice or Florence. I am endeared to its forgotten nature, creating a symbiosis with the land, as if the church was not an amendment to the land, but an organic outgrowth of it, beyond men’s holy words and assertions. There is a threat, a river that runs through this place deeper and more resonant than any religion, and yet informing that religion and all religions about something truer and more universal to the Human soul.

Travels in Tuscany: Vinci and the meaning of place

The old town and church steeple of Vinci straddles a hillside on the slopes of Monte Albano, the brown ochre buildings clustered tightly, the southern approach protected by high ivy covered walls. The rest of town pours into the valley, spreading out fan-like among small shops, local eateries, small businesses galleries and artist workshops.

Ana and I, both artists by training and passion, are enthralled and silent, mostly, absorbing the sights and smells and essence of the place as if it was water over parched earth of our hearts. Without a doubt, this, this place for all of its history and namesake is religion for us. In it we are focused for some insight into the brilliance this very place inspired. Buildings have come and gone. It’s easy to imagine the countryside is little changed, but the landscape, the ebb and flow of the land, the rise and fall of the hills and valleys, the wind distant off the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the light above are unchanged. And to understand a man like Leonardo d’Vinci it is imperative to be here and to imagine how all of this must have informed his inspiration.

The approach to the

Vinci in the heart of Tuscany

 town is  simple. It might be said, in an often used cliché that in these parts all roads do indeed lead to Vinci. Following the Via Ripalla, a soccer pitch hidden among a line of trees beside the road, we cross a shallow canal over a small bridge hardly wide enough for a single vehicle. There are tourist busses parked along the Via Guisseppe Rossi, beneath the high walls shielding a strengthening morning sun.

Turning a corner, a blue and white caribinieri patrol car slipped in behind us. Instantly Ana stiffened in her seat and announced in an alarmed whisper, “There’s police behind us.”

With equal anxiousness she pushed a bag of potato chips under her seat, as though she was hiding contraband. I couldn’t help but laugh, especially as she breathed a sigh of relief when the patrol car turned down a small street.

“Are you wanted by Interpol or something?” I teased. “Something you need to confess.”

“No,” she smiled, “I just get nervous sometimes.”

Finding a place to park beneath the old church, Ana and I got out to stretch. We were not discovering this place. If there is a road or a trail or path somewhere it has been discovered. No, we were coming to a place. We were coming to someone’s home, and not giving that place value, but rather finding value in being there, which is a fundamental difference. Any discovery on our part was surely in the way we came to each place we visited We had made Vinci a destination to enrich our souls, to re-affirm our good hearts, to deepen our knowledge of things that only previously existed for us in books and to make the world a small community. We’d come for our own humanity with the  hopes that it might be reaffirmed and our natural hubris deflated just enough. That, I believe, is what the meaning of place is.

Travels in Tuscany: Time as the greatest distance

Time is a thief. It robs us clarity and the perspectives of history It lulls us to complacency with mundane assertions, then rushes away towards the end of the day, and of our lives. Time steals from us, and we are its very willing accomplices.

That was all too apparent as Shevko stepped from his  little black sedan across from the hotel. We had both changed since the war, our lives carried upon their separate courses, but always bending back to this moment. I couldn’t contain a smile. A part of me felt like coming home. A part of me, the part always lost in the war, at last believed that something good had come from all that, besides Ana and I of course. Friendship, real honest friendship had outlasted and prevailed against 20 years of tumultuous history. Perhaps most of all, we had transcended a decade of animosities between religions, both of us wise and strong enough to parcel the foolishness and ignorance of the world to a proper place.

UNPROFOR Peacekeepers on patrol in Mostar, October 1994

Shev had grown a thick but well-trimmed beard, obscuring that boyish grin I’d recalled from our first meeting. Despite a recent divorce, he seemed happy and settled, no doubt the consequence of two young sons that he loved deeply. The last I’d  seen Shev was shortly after the war. He was still in Mostar, Bosnia. He seemed deeply hurt and unsettled then, which was absolutely a consequence of all he, his family and community had survived. Crossing Via Salvador Allende that evening in Montelupo I wasn’t embracing a long-lost acquaintance, but a brother.

He was a bit heavier now. Tuscan food and wine…and girls…had been generous to him. There were hints of gray at his temples. But for that he was the same. He held the same smirk, the same whimsy and devil-may-care attitude, the same swagger, and the same inability to keep from falling instantly in love with every beautiful woman who passed. It wasn’t as potent as when we were both younger, but the spirit was just as I recalled.

Ana joined us a moment later. She’d not seen him since the war when she arrived in the dead of night with her mother and baby brother, having escaped Sarajevo during a brief ceasefire in the summer of 1995. Detained at a Bosnian Army checkpoint on  a desolate stretch of road skirting the frontline. With a Serbian last name (she was from a mixed marriage) things might have turned out tragically if not for Shevko. His name was enough for her to pass through the checkpoint.

Ana, Shevko and his son, Leonardo in Florence

They hugged warmly. The quality of a life is in the moments that come as rare and valuable as a jewel. This was certainly a  moment I would put away and keep in a safe place, saving it for darker days for perspective. I was savoring the moment, holding fully to it, and cataloguing every detail. Time would not steal this moment from me this time. And though the moment past, swept among the torrents of time, this one I would never relinquish, now nor forever.

Travels in Tuscany:Best laid plans…

I like to think of myself as the consummate traveller. I watched the opening scene in “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney as if it was a documentary or a How-to film. If you haven’t seen it, he swiftly navigates an airport security line, deftly avoiding parents wrestling with toddlers in strollers, hapless once-a-year tourists, saps with alarm inducing piercings and hidden metal and mopes who think their ten pound Keep-on-Truckin’ belt buckle won’t attract a cloud of rubber gloved spiteful TSA workers hoping to give redneck joe something to blather about how they  should be worrying about the real terrorists(personally, stupid is just as terrifying to me).

I want to be through that line as quick and quiet as possible. When I get to the table, my shoes  are off, laptop out, belt off, change, pens and sunglasses out of my pockets. On the otherside I am dressed and gone while others are still trying to recall for a squad of miffed screeners what is in, on or around their body that is setting off the alarm for the 7th time.

I can live for a week in one garment bag and a small tote, or a laptop bag. From that I have a suit, something for a club or dinner, something casual and something for working out with clean socks and undies for everyday. Files and paper are strategically place in specific pockets for car rental, important documents, hotel reservations, contact information, maps, miscellaneous notes, a journal, charging cords, MP-3,  sundries and a camera. I even have a little pocket for salt and pepper and various little condiments-that’s CONDI-MENTS. I have it all down to a science. Ana thinks I’m nuts.

When we arrived in Italy I’d done my homework in researching every aspect of the trip. Notice I didn’t say plan, as the essence of any good adventure is in the unexpected. I knew the vaporetto schedules in Venice, the highway numbers between Mestre and Ravenna, and had even made a trial run on the Autostrada between Bologna and Florence using Google Maps Street View, but there was one thing I’d forgotten. There was one thing I’d left behind that threatened to sink the entire trip. Standing in the lobby of the Hotel L’Fiorino, having crossed two continents and ocean to see a de ar old friend and war buddy, I realized I’d left his telephone number at home.

The lobby was cooler than the  busy street outside. It was small and modern, but with an intimate feel. There were comfortable chairs near the front window. Beside the small but  cozy dining room was a table brimming with colorful maps, pamphlets and menus from local establishments. Greeting us was a lovely young woman who seemed politely dismayed over the two guests that arrived like something of a storm, babbling in a foreign tongue about this sudden and unexpected crisis. Her name was Elena, the daughter of the owner.

“What are we going to do?” asked Ana, looking every bit as exhausted from the day’s journey as I felt. She sighed and swept a lock of auburn hair from her face. Her emerald-green eyes still sparkled as perfect and brilliant as the day we’d met in Sarajevo 18 years earlier.

Discouraged and aggravated I only shrugged and remarked, “Walk the  streets calling his name.”

“Is your friend on Facebook?” asked Elena. “You are welcome to use my computer to send a message.”

It seems like such a simple thing, but we were just coming to discover true Tuscan hospitality.  In an instant Ana was tapping out a quick Facebook message to Shevko. The only question was whether he would see it in time.

Ana and I were barely in our second floor room when my phone rang. It came up  as his picture.  Though he’d changed(who hasn’t) somewhat over the years there was no mistaking that mug.

“Shevko!” I exclaimed. “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” he replied.

“The Hotel L’Fiorino.”

“I’m just down the street. I’ll be right there!”

Travels in Tuscany: A thousand years at war

It feels like a thousand years since the war. It never feels as if it actually ended. Wars never end, really. It is only peace that ends, and with the last bullet or shell is forever transformed, like the innocence of childhood. It never escapes memory, and though the burdens of today take precedent, it is always there, like a cold shadow haunting the soul, awaiting a smell or some odd trigger that will pull it from its dark hiding place.

I had gone to Bosnia as a witness. I was an artist, not a journalist who was raised during the 1960’s on Martin Luther King’s message, inspired by the anti-establishment Woodstock generations belief in standing for a better world, and by the post-Holocaust never again idea, whether it was Jews, Bosnian Muslims or Tribal Tutsis in Rwanda. I prided myself on seeing a very different war than Western Journalists in Bosnia. Travelling as an Artist, I could go places on  every side of the civil war few journalists could go. Dangerous as independence often was, the true character and potential of humanity revealed itself each time I stumbled alone and forlorn through the war. Good souls revealed themselves everywhere, whether Serb, Muslim or Croat. Without them I could never have travelled through the war, not once or twice, but three times. It was one of those good souls that would carry me to Tuscany 18 years later.

To say that Shevko Jakirovich and I ran into one another on the frontline in the besieged Bosnian city of Mostar in October 1994 is an understatment. He was hardly 18 then, and already a two-year veteran of a brutal urban war against former Catholic Croat neighbors. His dishwater blond hair was uncombed, a  ready smirk on his unshaven face. He and his cousin, in threadbare khaki uniforms, rifles laying casually over their shoulders, had every right to arrest me that close to the frontline. Who was to say I wasn’t a spy for the besieging Croats, or a journalist who might foolishly blab details about defenses on the Muslim side,  but that ignores the intangible nature of human relationships. Something about my  story endeared me to Shev, and I found reason enough trust this swaggering ad hoc soldier.  

 Shevko was my key to the true Mostar under siege, a meeting so inexplicably fortuitous that I wrote a book attempting to understand just what it was. After a few days I pressed on to besieged Sarajevo. And contact with Shevko might have ended there. He might have remained a memory from the war, a face in a picture that hangs upon a wall or is forgotten in an album on a shelf, but fate is a very curious thing.

You see, I was married in Sarajevo to a Bosnian artist. Forced to escape the city separately, my new wife arrived one night with her mother and baby brother as refugees, Catholic Croats saved and sheltered by a Muslim kid. The story brought tears to my eyes when my wife finally reached relatives in neighboring Croatia. How does one ever repay that favor?

And so, after 18 years Ana an I had come 5000 miles to Montelupo Fiorentino, not to repay that favor, but to reaffirm a friendship. Looking along Via Salvador Allende, the setting sun painting warm colors upon the walls of homes clustered at the edge of the two lane street it felt much less as a thousand years at war than a thousand years from war.

Travels in Tuscany: (Part Three)Why we travel

Travel is less about the places than the people we meet

It isn’t about pretty buildings or breathtaking views. Those  are window dressings to the real reasons we travel. They are stage props to the purpose of leaving the safety and security of our own lives in favor of the opportunity for growth. It is that fundamental principle that separates “tourists” from true travellers. Indeed, the tourist, by definition, stumbles from place to place as if they were in a zoo, arrogant in the belief they  are “discovering” something new. Practically no place the tourist goes on Earth is undiscovered. If there is a hotel or a gas station or a windowless hovel there it was already discovered. The tourist is simply following a trail already forged. The traveller, well, that is something altogether different.

It seems at first a little cynical. We all proclaim the desire for discovery, but here’s the rub. What is it we wish to discover truly? All that is left for any of us not employed as an Astronaut or a researcher on the frontiers of science are journeys of discovery at least as important as reaching outer space, or diving to the darkest depths of the oceans. That is the journey of self-discovery, and by that I mean a truly critical analysis of the heart and soul.

For Ana and I, the most precious discovery on any journey are in the people we meet. And when we  are lucky, truly lucky, it is in the lasting friendships and renewed awareness of the complexity and immensity of humanity that we come away with. And in that complex world the traveller must develop skills that opens the prospects for growth and self discovery.

I’m terrible with languages,  but I’ve learned valuable skills over the years to overcome that. The first lesson is that context is everything. That is, by paying attention, being humble, and above all patient, overcoming most any language barrier is a minor impediment. It comes down to this: we  are all human from the same ancestors. Languages are historical, cultural and customary, but  buried within all of them is the desire to communicate and to be valued as a person. Make the effort and pay attention and language barriers become less a canyon between people as a bridge to be forded.

The second lesson I’ve learned is that a little goes a long way. You  are in someone else’s home. Respect it. Understand that they love that home as much as you love yours. 9 words in any language will carry you a long way. That’s all, just 9 words-Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Sorry, I don’t speak…People appreciate the effort, and by virtue of simple human nature, will bend over backwards to help, or at the very least, bridge the gap.

And so, when Ana and I travel, it is  as pertinent to the trip that we step outside our lives back home, and step outside ourselves as purchasing plane tickets or having a passort. More treasured is when we meet someone new, whom we can keep with us forever. Well, not literally of course. That would be illegal, but the memory and friendship, which can only be forged between people who are equal, whose lives and history and experiences are equal in one another’s eyes. That i the greatest blessing for the true traveller. 

As we pulled into the unassuming little Hotel L’Fiorino in the heart of Tuscany that warm May evening  we could hardly have imagined the blessings that lay before us.

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