Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When you're a stranger

When I first moved to Israel I was enamored of the produce here-tomatoes that taste like tomatoes! Cucumbers that taste like cucumbers! And most of all- seasons: artichoke season that comes along with fresh garlic and broad beans in the spring; two weeks of cherries and apricots in early summer; four months of strawberries and chestnuts in the winter. Then I went to Italy and bit into a piece of arugula and was spoiled forever.
I traveled to Italy in late July to meet my sister in law at the Jewish Studies conference she was speaking at in Ravenna. Theoretically, it would have been a good idea for me to attend the conference as well, but the idea of sitting and listening to people talk, even about subjects I care about quite a bit, just seemed like all kinds of wrong. So, instead, I did a lot of wandering, mostly without a map. I wandered through Ravenna, drifting into vegetable gardens and being gifted with a tomato straight off the vine. I ambled through Byzantine churches and Baptisteries, eyes upward to behold the most spectacular mosaics, shot through with color and detail and emotion. I spent a day at the beach (named, rather hilariously- Big Mama Beach- no, really.) and dipped my foot into the Adriatic, which I found to be disappointingly similar to the Mediterranean. (My Lake Michigan bred limbs are always bracing themselves for the shock of cold water. And I'm always slightly disappointed when it doesn't come.). I trekked into the heart of Pisa for a quick glance at that leaning tower and, when, after dozing off on the train ride from Pisa to Rome, I opened my eyes to such riot of bright colors and sea, I thought I had mistakenly wandered into a Monet painting. In Rome, having parted with my sister-in-law I met friends, and ate and walked and ate and walked and read and walked and ate and talked and walked and laughed and ate. Because, really, what else does one do in Rome?
I found myself, during all this wandering in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language, with a lot of space for my own thoughts. I did a lot of thinking. I thought about art. I thought about Moses's hand reaching down to stroke a lamb in the great mosaic at the church of San Vitale. I thought about how, in all of the mosaics Jesus' birth and death belonged to the women, and his return and kingship belonged to the men. And in the Galleria Borghese, I thought about Mary herself, the look in her eyes as she looked down at her son-full of surprise and joy and sadness- as if she knew from the outset what life held in store for her child. I thought about how moving I find religious art, despite the fact that I am not a Christian. And standing in front of Bernini's David, I could not help but smile, because I thought I recognized this David, with his concentrated poise and cocky frown, all drawn back and in mid-motion. This is the Goliath slaying David Michal fell in love with in the Bible. I thought about religion and power and exile.
I thought about myself away from myself. I thought, in a gray dress on the seashore, laughing with a sheepish, brown skinned boy as we tried to communicate with only a few words and our hands, that here I might be beautiful to someone, and more importantly, I might be beautiful to myself. I thought, running through the streets of Pisa with my sister-in-law, getting soaked to the bone by a summer storm, not wanting to say goodbye, that family is all the more precious when you are in a strange place. And, at the outset of our shabbat in Rome, during which we sat and read and ate and were quiet, watching the clouds and dusk gather over the rooftops, as my friends chatted in the dark room behind me, I thought, there is nothing more sweet than friendship. I thought that there is nothing more important than discovering who you are when you're not where you're from.
Last week, I traveled to Tel Aviv to take advantage of the mandatory vacation time that comes with the high holiday season in this country. I had planned on visiting the Museum of Art, which, to my great shame, I have yet to see, hit the beach and hang out with some friends. Instead, I ended up primarily seeing friends. It was lovely, in all the ways seeing friends are lovely, but by the end of the day I found myself slightly anxious and irritated and I realized that I had needed some time by myself, in an art museum; at the beach. I needed to be away from my life and all those familiar things. I needed to be in a foreign country for a bit and have that first sharp bite of arugula again.
On my way to Tel Aviv I ran into a guy that up until that point I only knew in the virtual world. I introduced myself to him and we laughed about the fact that despite the fact that we both live in Jerusalem and have many friends in common, we were meeting for the first time on a random bus in Tel Aviv. I asked him what he was doing in the city, and he said he was trying to find the beach. I told him that it's pretty easy- you just walk West- and we laughed about that too. Then I got off the bus and as I turned around, trying to orient myself, I thought, well, aren't we all? Aren't we all trying to find our way to that great, wide, open space?

Thesis Watch: Almost there, really

Book Rec: Beach Music by Tim Winton

Cubbie Watch: T. Colvin's scary vampire impersonation is pretty much symbolic of the whole season


Jess said...

You've captured so much here, Tiki. I actually read this post a while ago, and returned tonight to read it again on a little break from my own writing. (I needed a little inspiration, or a kick in the pants, or one in the form of the other, tonight.) I know what you mean about how being in a country where you don't speak the language sometimes amplifies your own voice, or makes more space for it, or something. All of the words, words, words, written, spoken, plastered on billboards, blaring from radios and television, become a kind of calming white noise when you don't understand what they mean. I've experienced that, too.

Yehuda said...

This is really a very beautiful piece. I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and re-reading it.


Rogue Unicorn said...

Jess-isn't weird indeed how all that white noise just makes your own thoughts so much clearer? I wonder why that is.

Yehuda- Thanks! I keep on meaning to email you guys and then I don't because I'm flighty that way. You are greatly missed. How's NOLA treating you?