11/9. Stranger in a Strange Land

travel
Chaos in Athens
20120610-dscn1891
Istanbul market

The Morning After…

When I decided to call these efforts at writing “The Weekly Packet,” I wanted to capture the idea that a general slowing of communication would be desirable. The name indicated that a piece of writing should have some time to mellow, while it was transported by sail for a few hundred miles from its origin to its readers. I wish this post could have that time.

When the imaginary packet left port on the afternoon tide yesterday, I left a familiar country for the land of Nod after a couple of glasses of a nice California red wine. (I admit to a fondness for Mendocino wines). On Tuesday morning, The New York Times polls had blessed Mrs. Clinton as overwhelmingly likely to become the next chief executive of our country; the stock market was comfortable with the prediction, and all the stars for navigation into the next four years seemed to be aligned.

When rosy-fingered dawn pulled back the curtains of the night this very morning, we had arrived in a different country. This is always the shock of travelling: the earth remains under one’s feet and the sky over one’s head, but the stars by which we find our way have played a game of musical chairs. Despite being in a different country, creatures and things follow their same basic rules. Water runs downhill. A dropped pencil falls to the floor. Trees remain rooted; they do not shake off their roots and walk about. But as a traveler, I can’t understand the clamor, the din of daily life. Is there a fire truck coming, or are we all hurrying to see a parade?

How does one cope? It will take time to learn the language, the values, and the customs of this new land. I may be too old, too inflexible. I remember having similar thoughts when we visited Istanbul. Then, one morning, our guide arranged a very special trip for a limited number of interested individuals. We would go to one of the academic archives in the city to see some very old medical books. As a fellow, I had loved the stacks of the Countway at Harvard, and just the sight of the yellowing texts, in illegible fonts and an unfamiliar language, sounded a common chord that re-oriented me. This city had included people who studied medicine and wrote down their ideas, and they had done it long before Peter Bent Brigham sold fish in Boston, or Benjamin Rush bled the Philadelphia elite.

So this morning, in this strange land where I woke up, I hear the words of the Londoner Thomas Tryon from 1689; “The world has become a great Bedlam, where those who are more mad lock up those who are less.” But Thomas, these are my neighbors. I had an English professor at Amherst, Theodore Baird, who insisted that we memorize at least a few lines of Shakespeare and few lines of Frost, so I say to myself, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

We are not in Istanbul, nor are we in Bedlam. We are all at home, and we need to find some common threads, as fragile as yellowed pages in books we cannot read, and try to meet the strangers who we thought we knew.

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