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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 11 of 18: 10/2/06 Trains and Planes, Life and Death, and the Island of Kos

photo by

in Manarola

I am so in awe of people who can switch easily from one language to another. Daniel and Sofia were speaking flawlessly English with us on the veranda overlooking the nighttime garden when two Norwegian ladies arrived at the convent. Without skipping a beat they switched out of their impeccable English into this flood of words that didn’t even sound like words to my ears. (They told me later that they were able to speak to the Norwegians in Swedish because the two languages are related in roughly the same way American English is related to British English.) I asked what languages they spoke between them and I think it topped out at about six or seven and those were only the languages they were good at. Sheesh. Multilingual people live in a much larger world than do we poor saps who struggle to have one native language and consider ourselves worldly if we can parrot out occasional phrases from a guidebook. And that’s not just a cliché. Their world really is bigger and richer. The connection between what goes on inside our head and the size of the world we live in is not nearly so simple as one would like to believe.

And yet, fluency is no guarantee of a broad worldview either. They told us about the French lady who was sharing their breakfast table before we arrived. She had some sort of argument with Suor Bianca regarding the morality of being a nun. I guess that can sound strange, but there are some deeply wounded people who are perpetually angry and hurt, not only by the normal stresses and strains of life, but also by the very fact of their own existence. I once had a boss in complete honesty tell me that the only truly immoral action anyone could make was to have children. This, unfortunately, was just about the time we started turning out children like hotcakes. (During the height of the flapjack-frenzy I worked in “modular buildings” with tissue-thin walls and overheard two co-workers planning yet another baby shower on my behalf: One asked the other what the office should get me as another gift and the suggestion was that they should get me something really useful, like a vasectomy!)

Anyway, where do you go when you want to complain about your own existence? God staffs the obvious complaint-window but trying to shoot arrows at Him often means hitting the deeply religious people He surrounds Himself with. But Sister was so self-contained and strong that her very lack of defensiveness offended this woman. Her tranquility was a reproach. Daniel and Sofia said she spent her last morning sobbing at the breakfast table then abruptly checked out.

But if bringing more children into the world is the only truly immoral action we can perform then would taking people out of this world be the only truly moral one? I’m afraid I was too unsophisticated at the time to pursue this line of questioning, and the man was, after all, my boss. The issue, though, has stayed with me all these years. One of the things I found most intriguing about the matter was that what was going on inside his head was so very central to the kind of world he lived in. You would like to think that the world is a given, unconcerned and independent of our perceptions, but this man, being philosophically consistent, of course, never had children and always left as small a footprint as possible.

One of the existentialists (I forget which) was obsessed with being “in the way.” No matter what he did he would always be thwarting someone else’s wants and needs, like the man who held up our train from Sarzana to Santa Margherita for two hours by inconsiderately falling off the platform into the path of one of the high speed intercity trains. Our companion at the time, a lady police officer from Canada said that she once had to work such an accident scene. Except for a red smear and one shoe it was as though the man had simply disappeared. He had checked out very abruptly, only the inconvenience to others remained.

My boss was like that. He saw his very existence as an accident, and his every move as thwarting the aspirations of others, where both “others” and “aspirations” were very broad categories that included manatees, sperm whales, un-dammed rivers, prairie dogs, and pine trees. How does one live day to day if their very existence is an affront to all creation? To whom does one apologize? But “creation” necessarily implies a creator. What if everything else is just as accidental as I am? Is it then still immoral to thwart their aspirations? Do I need to apologize to anyone at all? I can see how one might find it distasteful removing the obstacles to your own private goals if they don’t wish to be removed, but it’s hard to see how it would be “immoral.” If you cut down trees or wipe out the manatees or pave over the Grand Canyon, and only thereby remove one of the world’s other accidents what have you done wrong? In such a world how is anything, let alone having children, immoral.

And what was Sister’s faith beyond something going on in her head? She did not feel that she was an accident. She did not feel like the rest of the world was just in her way, nor did she feel that she was in the world’s way. She did not feel that paving the Grand Canyon or wiping out the manatees would be morally neutral, and she certainly did not spend her morning sobbing at the breakfast table. I’m afraid some people live in Hell, and some people live in Heaven, and odd as it may seem I think we all are fundamentally responsible for which place we inhabit. But then I guess, one could say that’s just something going on in my head.

Gentle reader, if you don’t mind a suggestion: If you live in a world mainly populated by fools, knaves, poltroons, and people who are “in the way” during your morning commute, you really should take time for a head-check. Back away from yourself for a bit. Sister’s world is not like that. She lives in a world of amazing people on pilgrimage who pass through her tranquil space for a time. She sees her purpose as easing their journey as much as she is able. She gives them a safe and clean place to refresh themselves while they perform a head-check. Her charism of hospitality is one we can all adopt—you don’t have to be a Benedictine.

We were going to be traveling to Linate Aeroporto, outside Milan, on the same train with Daniel and Sofia though not, unfortunately, in the same car. Sister volunteered to get up early to have breakfast ready for us at 6:30. It was delicious as usual and we wrapped up the leftovers in a napkin to take with us. Taking leave of her without being able to speak fluently was very touching. It was that “Knight of Faith” thing again. She talked to me at length in Italian and I replied at length in English. The rough translation for both of us was “I love you.” We recognized in each other kindred spirits but Kierkegaard had warned us that recognition still would not allow us to speak directly to each other. I don’t think he had my limited Italian vocabulary in mind, and I am determined to learn more languages and enlarge my world before I check out.

The lights were off in our train compartment as the commuters were dozing through the glorious Italian bread basket. I missed the wonderful red springtime poppies, but the fields of grain, tobacco, olives, and corn were still very lovely in the early morning light. Even the graffiti was becoming familiar. I was beginning to see different “degrees:” from crude tagging to surreptitious “public” art. I was beginning to appreciate what an investment in time and money these artists were willing to undergo to leave electric versions of some of their dreams and nightmares.

We rode on the shuttle bus with Daniel and Sofia from Milano Centrale to Linate and had a second sad farewell at their gate. I hope we can stay in touch. There is something about meeting fellow pilgrims that creates a bond out of all proportion to the length of time spent together. We did hear that they arrived home safely and that the trip was very eventful for them: little Ossian is going to have a new brother or sister. That Italian hospitality is just amazing.

The flight from Linate to Athens was interminable. The spectacular Greek stewardess was the only saving grace. Jet black hair, olive complexion, one huge eyebrow, and two enormous . . . hands. No matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to accidentally get a picture of her, though we did later see a gorgeous 2500-year-old statue of her on the Acropolis. Her name had to be Helen. Poor Georgia, it wasn’t a terribly smooth ride and they didn’t serve wine. She suffered manfully but kept checking out the window to chart our progress. Looking down from the air it was surprising just how narrow the heel of Italy’s boot really is. Looked like you could hop, skip, and jump across it easily. What an amazing world.

Lunch on the plane was also horrible, a crepe filled with potted meat and covered with congealed Velveeta. If there hadn’t also been a small honey-flavored brick I would have starved. In Athens we only had time to marvel at yet another language to not understand, this time with an alphabet we didn’t recognize, before we were whisked onto our flight for the Island of Kos. Thank God for the honey-roasted peanuts otherwise I would have eaten my pillow. We landed on Kos at about sunset.

The entire day had been taken up with traveling. It was very comforting to have reservations, but we had no idea how we were going to get to the Hotel Koala. We could tell from the approach that the airport was in the middle of nowhere. There was no information booth in the airport. The lady at the tobacco shop spoke enough English to tell me there was no bus at this time of night that we needed to hire a taxi. Heresy! Get thee behind me! €45, I’d rather walk!

We pulled our little carry-ons outside to see the sunset and think over the situation and saw a bus over to the side of the little terminal. There were a few exhausted tourist-like people sprawled on board, so we sprawled on board too. I mean, it’s an island. How many places can a bus go on an island? Eventually the bus driver came over to see why we were sprawled on his bus. I asked if he was going to Kos town. He admitted that he was. I told him we’d like to ride along. He said that would be fine but I’d have to reimburse him €4 each. Actually, he just stood in the bus aisle gave me a quizzical look, I handed him a bill and he gave me change.

The drive itself let me vicariously live the life of a pinball. We caromed at a high rate of speed along a highway the width and straightness of a cooked spaghetti noodle. As we pulled into Kos Town I asked the driver if he could drop us off in front of the Hotel Koala. I’m not sure of his exact reply but I’m pretty sure it was something to the effect that the filament in my light bulb must be sputtering if I thought I was sitting in a taxi. When we de-bussed I asked him where the hotel was. He waved vaguely in a westerly direction and said something that (I think) roughly translates “Good luck, chump.” I handed him a one euro tip and thanked him for the ride. He underwent a radical demeanor transplant. Unfortunately he had also learned how to give directions in Santa Margherita: “Go straight, sir, then left, then right.” As we toddled off into the dark I thought I heard him mutter “And good luck, chump."

(to be continued)

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