June 26, 2008

Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem has the energy of a plug being stuck into an outlet with water inside; the co-worhip-tation of three powerful religions living side by side in such a small radius is electric. I arrived on a weekend, which can pose quite a challenge for the time crunched sightseer – Muslims take holiday on Friday, Jews take holiday on Saturday and Christians take holiday on Sunday – and working the schedule of religious sights and museums can make one feel as though they have been let loose on the page of a crossword puzzle.
Staying in Old City, with it’s cobblestone markets and small alley streets, can throw you back in time and passing easily through the Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters can get linguistically confusing; I am sure I said hello to many Jewish vendors in Arabic and, for sure, I directed a few Shalom’s to some Arabs – oops. And with all the traditional religious garb going on I couldn’t decide which outfit I wanted to wear out on Friday night – the Hassidic Russian with a fabulous round mink looking hat and embroidered silk smoking jacket or the Greek Orthodox priest with the cone like hat and draping black robe accessorized with a heavy gold cross necklace or the Franciscan monk with the brown hooded tunic dress and groovy rope belt? So many options, so little time.
There is so much incredible history in Jerusalem that it takes a minute to process. I started juggling the schedule and managed a trip to the Museum of Israel, which not only houses the Dead Sea Scrolls in a super-impressive architectural display, but also had a fantastic exhibit of current Israeli artists whose work was rich with political and historical references. I ventured on to the Holy Church of the Holy Sepulcher where you can mark off three items on the checklist in one building (fabulous); this is where Jesus was supposedly whipped, crucified and buried. Then it was off to the Wailing Wall where, yes, I wrote down my Christmas wish-list and stuck it in the cracks (wait, is that right?) while watching the uber-faithful gyrate in front of a lot of old stone. I barely made it to the Dome of the Rock, the place where Mohammed allegedly ascended, in the allotted time slot, and I am happy I did because it was truly a magnificent building from the outside.
On the last day, exhausted from all the history and education, I decided to make my own religious pilgrimage to the mall to update some of the I-have-been-wearing-this-every-other-day-for-the-last-three-months wardrobe. Having to sift through the racks of clothes and do Sheckel to US dollar mathematical equations in my head had me on the verge of signing up to become a monk where wearing the same thing everyday is not only fashionable but required, leaving plenty of time for other things – and to that I say Hellelujah!

June 25, 2008

Jericho, Palestine

Always interested in the full picture, I had originally planned to visit the West Bank, but after my four hour airport interrogation, I decided that my passport was too unfavorably loaded to make the attempt. Without an understanding of all the territories actually involved, I was passing the sign for Jericho on my way to Jerusalem and decided to make the right turn to see what this very old city was about. Before long I approached a checkpoint, now knowing I was entering Palestine, and decided to try my luck and get through which was surprisingly very easy. The police asked me where I came from, if I was Jewish and never once checked any documents to see if I was telling the truth. Once inside, I immediately had the feeling of being pulled in the direction of something mysterious and at the same time safe. The drive to the center of town, which was brimming with the Arabic culture I was missing so much, was on a wide, underdeveloped road with non-functioning traffic lights and the financial discrepancy from before the checkpoint to after became instantly apparent.
There was a calm in the air and I felt comfortable walking the streets with my camera, taking photographs in the waning light, happy to be saying “Marhaba” instead of “Shalom” once again. I started talking easily with people whose hospitality was tangible and I parked myself in a cafĂ© with locals who were curious to hear of my travels and history. I spent the early evening chatting away, filling up on the free falafel sandwiches they offered and taking my caffeine buzz to new levels with the amount of tea and coffee being brought out. I went to make a phone call on the street and started speaking with an older man who was thrilled to use his pretty-good English and he invited me back to his home around the corner to meet his wife and children and continue filling me with caffeine. The simple home and courtyard in which we sat was full of life and activity of a family very much in tune with each other and we all spent hours talking in the open air of the hot night. Realizing the time was getting late, Abu Shakar asked where I was spending the night and I confessed I was just riding the coattails of the day and had not planned for such a stop. Without hesitation he invited me to spend the night with them as a guest and I certainly couldn’t resist the opportunity to have myself a Palestinian Slumber Party.
Eight of us packed onto mats in the same room sharing a late night snack of yogurt and pita, watching as the family flipped channels on the T.V, folded laundry, laughed, and changed from Arabic robes into pajamas with sheep printed on them was an experience that made it’s way into the very fabric of my DNA and I awoke in the morning in quiet tears amazed by the warmth and generosity of the people I had just met. I was the one who rolled up in a rental car, obviously flush with enough cash to get a hotel room, but they were the ones who only saw another human spirit to connect with and treated me as if I was a member of the family. On the way out of town I started thinking why it was always the people who had the least that gave the most and the people who had the most usually gave the least. But then I started remembering the events of the last day and chuckled when I realized this thinking was backwards. These people were truly the ones with the most and they gave just as much as they had.

Dead Sea / Masada, Israel

With the time constraints of a plane ticket I decided to head out of Tel Aviv in a rented car so I could make the most of my time exploring the country. Longing for the opportunity to get back into desert landscape I decided to make my way through the coast of the Dead Sea to the ruins of Masada, the architecturally elaborate city built by King Herod on the top of a high mountain. Born without a functioning internal GPS, my latitudes and longitudes sometimes dissect each other brilliantly or terribly. I almost had both on the winding road down to the sea when I noticed a mosque sitting like a mirage among nothing but desert hills; the sight was so interesting I pulled off the highway and headed into this beautiful and barren landscape to see what I could discover. The mosque, which I later found out was the old stop off for people making their pilgrimage to Mecca, was broadcasting a late afternoon call to prayer and the sight and sound put me in a kind of post 4 pm melodic trance and I sat on the sandy hills listening to the Arabic words swirl through the cloudless sky. Wanting more I started driving further on this road and came to the tomb of a Muslim leader and stopped to take pictures. It was just me, the hills and the tomb until I heard and saw a military jeep come out of nowhere and approach my car as if it were about to blow. I came running down the hill and was thrust into another impromptu interrogation whereby the soldiers looked at me with a startled look when I said I was there alone. They informed me that this arid land was used as target practice for the military and I better turn my cute, white Volkswagon rental around and get back on the main road. I obliged, not quite in the mood to get whacked by a stray bullet.
Descending to the lowest point on earth blaring Arabic music with the windows rolled down reminded me of my earlier visit to the Dead Sea from the Jordan side. I had made that visit in the high heat of the afternoon two months ago when the haze from the salt diffuses the sight of the mountain range on the other side of the water, but on this day I was approaching the Ein Gedi Quibbutz, where I would spend the night, in the early evening when the setting sun was highlighting the atmosphere in soft shades of pink and blue. I parked the car on the side of the road and started walking on the dead earth toward the sea line, hearing dirt, sticks and salt crunch under my sandals, excited for a solitary sunset float in the buoyant water; the colors, the coolness and the calm of the moment made me feel like a little plastic figurine in one of those souvenir water globes you shake and watch as the pieces inside fall gently into place.
My Dead Sea Sunset Moment put me to sleep soundly and I awoke feeling ready to channel a dusty, old Roman and make the climb on foot, in the heat, up the big mountain to the ruins of Masada. The architecturally savvy Jewish King, Herod, under Roman rule, had built himself a hedonistic little fortress city in the middle of the desert complete with store houses for imported Italian wine, cheese and delicacies such as fish (you ain’t finding any of those in the Dead Sea), a sophisticated aqueduct system able to supply water for survival and steam baths in the Hammam, and palaces nestled into the shady side of the mountain. It certainly had me in awe of a man after my own heart, one who put importance to the pleasures in life no matter how inhospitable the landscape.

June 24, 2008

Tel Aviv, Israel

Having my passport filled with stamps and visas from my Middle East Adventure, I fully expected a security delay at the Tel Aviv airport, but what I did not expect, though, was a four hour interrogation that had me second guessing myself if I really was moving arms or terrorist information through the borders; I scanned my memory and all I could come up with was a few sundresses, a pair of jeans and a book or two in my backpack. After surviving the intimidating Israeli police I can now look back on the experience with a little humor, but at the time I knew that the pressing questions for all my contacts in the region while being told “we know everything, so you better start talking” was not a joke. A young American boy in the airport security pen with me didn’t quite understand this and during the first round of interrogation started to cockily express his political views to which it took the police no more than five minutes to reduce him to a shaking pile of tears. Welcome to Israel!
I arrived safely at my friend Yuval’s apartment next to Jaffa, where he lives with his lovely wife Lorraine and young son Gavriel. Spending time with them in the apartment, being involved in the beautiful rotation of domestic life was a welcome feeling after three months on the road. At last, I was in a place where dinners were cooked at home while the muted sounds of children’s learning videos played on in the background and conversations included updates about mutual friends and of the days that were spent together living in the same neighborhood in New York rather than the constant travel talk of where you have been, where you are going next and how you got from one place to the other.
Tel Aviv, like many other parts of Israel, is a strange mix of rich cultures that has produced a city whose architecture and vibe is as layered and confusing as it’s political history. Walking the streets in the Arabic influenced Jaffa, eating a falafel sandwich while shopping the afternoon markets, then heading to the beach where, if you are lucky to survive the many flying paddle game balls, you will see kids in skimpy bathing suits, smoking cigarettes on their phones probably making plans for the evening. And there is plenty to do; bars, clubs, nice restaurants and music festivals line the streets of the city.
We chose to take more quiet time and while there I was included in the celebration of Shavuot, similar to a Jewish thanksgiving, with Yuval and his family. It was a lovely evening where I was able to show off my new 2 year old Hebrew skills after spending time learning the language with Gavriel. I made an intellectual impression rattling off the words for “bottle”, “good job” ,“red man”, “green man”, and “where is monkey?”. Another visit and I might even learn my A, B, C’s.

Kythira, Greece (Roots Found!)

It’s official – I am Greek! Other than the sure proof of a sign with my name on it (albeit spelled with two N’s), I now have the birth records of my Grandparent’s which places my early bloodline on the beautiful island of kythira. And I couldn’t have asked for a better origin. The island, which is South of the Peloponnese, has all the elements of a fully functioning paradise; waterfalls which flow into blue lagoons, mountains covered in fragrant wild flowers that command spectacular views of the clear, blue sea, valleys and gorges scattered with the remainders of earlier inhabitants, small picturesque towns with cafes and fishing boats, beaches that could win “The Best Of” award, and the relaxed pace of the locals who are not frazzled by hoards of boisterous tourists frequented by so many other islands.
I arrived fully connected thanks to my Uncle Andreas who made sure I was set-up with transport, a local place to stay and a list of places to visit. After renting a car and whipping around the picturesque, curving roads with no sense of direction I landed in the good company of a nice Greek boy who luckily had two weeks knowledge of the island tucked in his swim trunks and was kind enough to accept the position of tour guide and with my superior driving skills and his superior navigational skills, the exploration had begun. Covering the up’s and down’s, in’s and out’s of Kythira’s diverse landscape was all it took to fall completely in love with the place from which I come.
Beyond the beauty though, there was a sense of belonging and pride. Walking the only street of my Grandmother’s small village and seeing the house in which she was born made my life feel powerfully connected to her spirit and visions of her pinching my cheeks and calling me “koukla”, the smell of her cooking, the way that her lap felt when she used to place me on it while she mended my Grandfather’s torn socks and the sound of her voice muttering Greek curse words while chasing John and I with a broom when we were misbehaving seemed to float in the sweet air around me. I bathed in the memories and felt truly at peace.
I had found the side of family connected with my Grandmother. Now it was time to move on to my Grandfather. Armed with his birth certificate and a photo I drove to the five house village where he was born and flagged down the first person I saw who guided me with language-barrier-hand-signals up the hill to the home of Koula Kassimatis. She invited me in for coffee and we started reviewing information, convinced we were somehow related, until she took another look at the photo and burst out “Angeliki and Yannis! Of course I remember them now. Your Grandmother was very clever (now I know where I get it from) and we used to call your Grandfather “Gatos” (or cat in Greek)”. Her 92 year old Mother came to sit down and nearly cried upon looking at the photo and started telling stories of my Great Grandparent’s, my Grandparents and my Father. Koula told me we were from different lines of Kassimatis but she proceeded to get her phone book and write down the name of an Uncle living in Athens. Mission Accomplished.
Earlier on my travels I thought I could retire in Dahab, Egypt spending my days gazing at the Red Sea but waking in the morning and looking out from my balcony over the hills which my Grandmother used to roam put a break on that fantasy and it became clear that I was being led back to the place where it all started for me.

June 11, 2008

Athens, Greece (Finding the Roots)

Renee and I boarded the overnight train from Sofia, Bulgaria headed for Athens, Greece and sharing our cabin was a woman from Crete who made me feel as though I were traveling inside a black lung racked with emphysema but hearing her wheeze Greek words through her cigarette breaks and phlegm coughs brought me back to the happy days of my childhood when my parents and grandparents were still alive and I would hear this language at family gatherings and on church Sundays. Renee noticed the immediate shift in attitude at the border crossing and came back after handling our passports saying that these were the friendliest guards she had come across yet to which I replied, “Welcome to Greece!”
After a depressing month last October when I didn’t get out of my pajamas, eat much food or leave the house, I hatched an idea that I would start looking for new family members to add to the roster since the list in the States was slimming down. With genealogy invading my thoughts, I drove from New Jersey to Florida to visit with my Father’s sister, my Aunt Toni, who had the most knowledge about our family tree and possible contacts in Greece. We spent days traveling back in time, piecing together information of births, marriages, baptisms, transatlantic voyages, and Ellis Island entrances and in the end we came up with a solid outline and retrieved the telephone number of an Uncle whom we called at some very early forgot-the-time-difference hour and successfully made contact after over twenty years of lost correspondence. Toni informed him in Greek that I would be coming to Athens and when I arrived in the city I called Andreas and we made plans to meet in the hotel lobby. As I rode the elevator down, I was struck by the thought of why it had to take the death of both my parents to initiate such a meaningful homecoming but as I rounded the corner and embraced my Uncle my focus shifted from sadness about the lost years to excitement for a future of new memories with people who share a connected history with me.
The new memories started right away with a whirlwind tour of Athens, engagements to meet the other members of my family and time spent getting to know one another over lunches, dinners and dips in the Mediterranean. I could feel similarities between us and it was as if a closed door of my life swung wide open and by stepping through I would be able to start navigating a new path; one which felt exciting, comfortable and welcoming. Sitting on a hilltop at night with Andreas overlooking the Acropolis, bathed in gold lights against the black sky, I recognized the power of an idea; if you think positively about the things you want, keep yourself open and let life guide the way then you might just be surprised when you actually reach the intended destination. This was a destination that was late in coming but a true gift that it finally arrived.

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