Tag Archives: in transit

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

I’m Feeling Those Good Migrations

10 Jul

At approximately 9pm on Thursday, Ashley and I learned that we were trapped in Genova. Genova, the city of Colombus, of explorers, of port-induced wanderlust, became our captor just as quickly as it had been our vacation destination.

More specifically, we learned that all of Italy’s transportation workers had gone on strike. For a full 24 hours, from 9pm on Thursday to 9pm on Friday, not a single train ran through Genova Brignole station…including the train that we had planned on taking to Bologna, our next destination, where we had pre-booked and paid for a hotel for that night.

For a moment, we allowed ourselves to worry and to descend into a flurry of “this could never happen in the U.S.” thoughts. Then, we laughed, long and hard. Sure, a national train strike would be much more unlikely in America, but so would the three hours of lingering each morning over our caffe lattes, and the full day of hiking between mountains and sea that we had done the day before. Italy has its quirks (strikes, the lack of breakfast food beyond cornettos and coffee, the fact that each business closes whenever the owners deem it necessary without regard to its scheduled hours…), but it also has a magnificence of presence that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

That being said, we still had to deal with the strike. And we had to deal with it without Italian skills other than food words (knowing how to ask for extra extra EXTRA parmesan cheese doesn’t get you very far at the ticket counter) and without access to Internet, because we did not bring our computers along for the trip. So, we decided to take the first train to Bologna after the 9pm reopening of the station, and, after a brief layover and four hours of traveling, arrived at our hotel at 3am in the morning instead of noon the day before. In the meantime, we used our unanticipated (and, honestly, given the city, a bit unnecessary) time in Genova to do the things that most people don’t make enough time for on vacations: have a two-hour lunch (of PESTO), window shop, wander the streets, buy lingerie (I kid you not…we surprised even ourselves with that purchase, but we had been seeing stores everywhere for six weeks, and we decided that it was time to invest in a different type of Italian luxury), drink glasses of prosecco with aperitivi outside on sunny tables, purchase new books (we are both on our second one in a week; I have finished a total of 1135 pages since Sunday), and read for four hours with our empty glasses in front of us. It was a day of surprising vigor, and one that worked out in our favor, as I write this now in the morning from our hotel in Bologna.

I also write this in the middle of the trip that Ashley and I are on through the north of Italy. It is the first trip I have ever planned alone, and the first with such little contact and great independence. All we have are our backpacks for these ten days — that, and a determination that we will take these moments, paid for in part by money that we have been saving since we were ten and had our first change in a piggy bank, and out of them mold experiences that we can return to again and again for the rest of our lives. We have been grateful, adventurous, and scared. And we have been doing, every moment we have been doing: climbing the dome in Florence, renting bikes and cycling through tiny hill towns in Tuscany, hopping trains up the coast, wine and olive oil tasting in medieval fortresses, hiking between all five towns of Cinque Terre, deciphering statues in Genova, taking goofy pictures at every opportunity, feasting on local fish and wines or having our own quiet picnics of fruit and peanut butter, devouring recommended books each night before bed, swimming in desolate rocky coves along cliffsides, and, in just a few moments, exploring Bologna.

We still have this city and one more, Venice, before we return to Rome and then to the place and people that we miss dearly back in America, and I promise to write the entries that this trip (and the end of our Rome course) deserve when we get home. Until then, kisses from the road; go have some adventures of your own.

In Flight

31 May

(Though I am already in Roma – or, as Lady Gaga would say, “Roma, Roma-ma-a” – I am catching up on posting after two days without Internet access, so this post is one that was written in my journal on May 29 while I was midflight. Stay tuned for more from our abode in Trastevere! Hint and non-spoiler: Rome is AMAZING. I’m still trying to find the right words.)

There is something about this trip that makes me feel as though I am in decisive forward motion all the time, shedding layers of weighty thoughts with each mile of my approach. But, as I sit here on AlItalia’s plane, whizzing through space towards this country, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the mental magic comes from.

What are you, Italy? What are you that makes me want to open my whole heart to you, and my ears to your language, and my mouth to your nourishment, and my eyes to your sun, without hesitation? I am back in childlike mode, accepting and appreciating based purely on sensory experiences, in the face of this mother of all locales. What are you that your native tongue reverberates so full in my diaphragm and eases off of my curling tongue? What are you, Italy, that makes so many of us sigh and draw the earth into our lungs with deep nods of recognition when your name comes up, even if we have never visited you? What are you, that your politics are falling apart and your rough leaders allow even rougher rings to lead some of your cities, and yet we still lend you our support and black out that section of history involving Il Duce? What are you, that makes me sit here like the crazy protagonist of a quirky romantic comedy, listening to blaring Italian opera through my headphones and insisting on requesting things from the stewardesses in phrasebook Italian rather than English, just to feel myself further embedded in your culture? (For the record, “acqua” means water, and stewardesses are incredibly patient people.)

I really have been trying to absorb the sounds of Italy as much as possible, if not the entire language. For the past two days I have listened to more than 20 Italian language podcasts, tried to sing through my old Italian sheet music again (Che Bella Cosa from Treble Choir Days being my favorite shower tune – sorry, housemates), and walked around the room with my phrasebook glued to my hand. The language is so immediate to me, so unadulterated  by rules or odd vocal contortions, that speaking even the simplest phrases out loud gives me that sense of forward movement again. This is different than French – with French I feel more regal, perhaps, or as if I am part of some sophisticated secret, but never boundless.

I realize as I write this now that perhaps this is the reason Italians are known for gesticulating so wildly: their language removes the bounds and bonds between emotion and tongue, makes words fly, and loosens their thoughts so thoroughly that their joints loosen, too. It leaves them flapping their nerve endings at the sky, this feeling, and signals, “I am raw and open and tumbling with things to say — world, come meet me, cheek to cheek.”

…Okay, so I get overly poetic about Italy. Even I’ll admit that I descend into prose usually reserved for Hallmark anniversary cards. But what so much of this journey is about is finding out why I react this way – what makes these phrases pour out of me with no regard to traveling propriety (i.e. being realistic instead of overwrought about my destination.) This is just another place, after all. So why does it keep so many of us under its spell?

Even the idea makes us giddy. Mixed in among the interpretive gestures of the past few days have been some hilarious turns of phrase, fueled purely by the pleasure of trills on the tongue. A few days ago, I learned (thanks to the Dating and Socializing section of my phrasebook) that I could proposition an Italian with the simple phrase, “L’accompagno a casa?” or “May I take you home?” (My father, upon hearing this, promptly requested that I learn to translate “My father is from Texas and owns a large shotgun;” I’m still working on that one.)

And my mother – well, my mom has spent her past few days stringing together the only three Italian words she knows (“Ciao!” “Bella!” “Mangia!”) into exclamatory phrases, despite the fact that she has no idea what she is saying. “Prego!” I yelled to her from upstairs as I was packing. “Buon giorno!”

“Ciao!” she yelled back. “Ciao, bella! Ciao…bella, ciao, MANGIA!”

And on that note, now that the in-flight meal has arrived, I must say ciao, my bella readers, so that I can, indeed, mangia.