Saturday, November 14, 2009


Photo by Laitche

Photo by Paul Lomax

The windows run with rain, though I do not see it falling through the air. Little brown and white birds with slightly pink heads sit on bare branches beaded with rain drops, flapping their wings and hopping to dry themselves, their little tails twitching in and out for balance. Then they flit in the direction of the bird feeder on our front balcony, but I see them stop on the railing, perched on the cold metal in a row, waiting.

Another flock is arriving from the sky and settling near the feeder, big, speckled fellows with long, sharp beaks. I can't see the feeder from this angle, but I imagine they leap at it, their weight causing it to sway so they fall off, knocking seed down onto the wet ground for a group of them to grab at. When they are done, the little birds are allowed to take over, perching gingerly or picking with care at leftover seed on the ground.

I look back out the window after my imaginings. Both kinds of birds rest in the dripping tree now; sometimes a big bird shares a branch with a little bird. The little ones still fluff and flap, and the big ones do, too, their greater weight shaking the water from the branches and making them sway. One big bird alternately flaps his wings and pokes his long beak at the branches that surround him, as if to distract himself from the cold and wet.

Will they sit until the rain is over? What if it rains for days? Do they enjoy the bath or resent it?

Now only one little bird and one big bird are left in the tree. More flocks fly overhead.

The grey clouds press low, and it feels wet even in our warm, dry home, and I feel happy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hungry Hungry Katie

Picture by RecoveryMinded

I'm fasting today. And I'm hungry. Hungry for what?

Last year, after Ramadan, I decided to start consistently doing a voluntary fast of 3 days per month. I think it was because I had such a good experience during last year's month of fasting that I wanted to continue it throughout the year. Thank God, I was able to do it, though I stopped during our summer travels.

Well, this year, after Ramadan, I wondered if I really wanted to continue this. This Ramadan I focused more on inner qualities than outer: instead of aiming to pray the extra tarawih prayers at night, for example, my goal this year was to work on thinking more positively. Is there a point to the monthly voluntary fast, I wondered, or should I focus on something else?

I missed the fast during the month of Shawwal, the Islamic lunar month that comes right after Ramadan, and I continued to wonder whether I should do it this month.

Then I started to feel full. I was overwhelmed, full of things and thoughts, like I was drowning in one of those bins of plastic balls that kids play in. "Think positively!" I shouted to myself, but my thinking muscles weren't enough to pry away the things that encrusted themselves around me like barnacles.

What would make me feel empty? What would de-gunk me and clear me and help me focus again on what was important?

Aha! Fasting.

When I first began fasting a few years ago, it mostly gave me a splitting headache. But as I've gotten used to it, I find that fasting allows me to trust in God more and dedicate myself to Him, focusing not just on what gives my body pleasure but on Who really provides everything.

Today is the second day that I've fasted this month, and I hope to complete three and continue with my voluntary fasts in the coming months, God willing.

Today as I fast, I can feel the plastic balls and the barnacles breaking up and flowing out of me as I breathe out, and a clear stream takes their place, flowing through me and cooling and cleaning me. Maybe I just don't have the energy to hold on to all the things that overwhelm me; maybe I'm losing it from hunger; maybe there is some scientific explanation.

I don't need to know exactly how it works, though it is interesting.

Fasting helps me shed the clutter and fullness and makes me hungry for God. Then, when I do work during the day or when I break my fast at night, I feel like I have been given a precious gift and I appreciate it with fresh eyes and a clean heart.

So, tonight I'm hungry for our leftover Tofurky roast, but I'm also hungry for meaning, and God willing, because I denied myself while fasting and de-cluttered myself a bit, I'll have room for both!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Knowing or Unknowing?

Photo by a4gpa

I am reading Karen Armstrong's book, The Case for God. In it, she surveys people's understanding of and relationship to God over the ages and across different religious--and atheistic--traditions. Throughout the book runs the author's warning that we should not confuse God with idols of our own making. Going beyond what many monotheists would consider idols--lesser gods or statues of them, for example--and even beyond other insights as to what constitutes idols--money, power, fame, Armstrong illustrates how concepts of God can become idols.

She seems to criticize modern, literal readings of scriptures and the modern believer's impulse to prove the existence of God using science or argument (making the title of her book tongue-in-cheek, perhaps?). She calls into question the notion that we "know" God is good, great, exists, is on our side, etc. In what way do we know this? Does God exist like we exist; is God limited, then, by the same natural laws? If we can know all about God, does that diminish God?

Many religious people take classes to learn more about their faith and about God. I've taken classes that feel oddly empty, like I was getting information, but something spiritual was missing. I've taken other classes where I feel spiritually uplifted as I learn. Often, what I've found, is that if the attitude of the teacher and students is humble and open to surprises and wonder, then this Other something spiritual is there. If the teacher and students are arrogant and congratulate themselves on knowing everything while others know nothing, then I feel empty.

Can we only reach towards God in "the cloud of unknowing," as the 14th-century Christian book of that name suggests?

I have often felt that when I empty myself of anxieties and thoughts and assumptions, when I make a vacuum inside, then Something comes to fill it. But when I try to construct my own ideas, hanging thoughts and theories and creeds onto the framework, I end up with a tacky, overdone Christmas tree that falls over.

And yet, these frameworks are important; learning is important. I have a desire to know God, not just to unknow God.

I come to no final conclusion, just to the experience that beliefs and practices are a roadmap to follow, but we have to walk. And we can walk humbly, we can skip, we can listen to the birds singing; or we can torch the trees and pillage the houses and salt the earth we pass.

What happens if our fellow believers who walk the same path are the bad kind? Do we give up? Can we find another path? Maybe. Do we need to walk together or can we do it on our own?

All of these questions frustrate me. But maybe if I let them go, take a deep breath, and unknow, the answer will come to me. Or not. I'm not sure which is best.

Back in Montreal

We have been back in Montreal for quite a while, and after the summer's travels, I have forgotten how to write my usual posts. I'll try to start again now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Train in Early Morning

After a short trip to Greece, we took the night train back to Istanbul. We finished with the border crossing at 5 am, and I had a hard time going back to sleep. After a night full of stars (I could lie in my sleeper bunk and look up through the open window), dawn brought more beauty to the trip. Fields of sunflowers inched their droopy heads toward the rising sun. The occasional shepherd led his flock to grassy pastures. Black and white cranes rested in a huge nest at the top of some tall poles.

We arrived in Istanbul at 8:30 am and took our last tram ride across the Golden Horn, the water sparkling in the morning sun.

Now it's 1:30 am, and we're leaving for the airport in half an hour for our plane back to Montreal.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dogs of Istanbul...Unite!

I have spent much of my time in Turkey suffering from a heat-addled brain.

The only solution I can find is to stay inside at all times, stationed next to the window to catch the breeze. I feel guilty because I am supposed to be sightseeing, absorbing the local culture and history. But all our sightseeing trips so far have resulted in headaches, dehydration, and eventually such irrational crabbiness that Rashed is forced to bundle me home, give me a rehydration drink (a Bangladeshi specialty--a tablespoon of sugar, a pinch of salt, a glass of water--electrolytes, hurrah!), and send me off to a cold shower, at which point I suddenly come to my senses and wonder if the last few hours really happened.

So...when friends and family ask how I'm liking Turkey...I haven't really known what to say.

But I do now.


Leave it to dogs to raise my spirits. They didn't at first, though.

When we first got to Turkey, we stayed with a friend of a relative, in her guest room, which had one window, and was fairly quiet, if stuffy. Now, that friend has been so unprecedented-ly gracious as to let us rent her apartment when our apartment plans fell through--and to leave and go live with a friend herself! So, we moved into her cooler bedroom, which has more windows, one of which looks out on some fairly busy streets.

The first night, we were appreciating the cool breeze when it started. One dog began to bark. Then another joined in. Then a whole gang of them in chorus. We wondered where they were--it was all apartment buildings around here, who has a yard full of dogs?

It was annoying, but I love dogs, so I didn't mind too much. Now we enjoy our concert every night, though it's never been as loud as the first time.

But that's not all. Today, I was writing by the window, when an ambulance siren rang out on one of the streets below. It sounded strange, with extra notes. Then I realized what those notes were. Dogs, several of them, howling along with the siren, periodically adjusting their pitch to get it just right. Another ambulance followed the first, and the dogs continued. Then I spotted one in the park across the street behind our building. Do the dogs sit in the park at night, serenading us? Maybe so.

The dogs of Bursa, a city a few hours from Istanbul, have a different manner of warming up their vocal chords. We spent some time there, visiting the parents of the girl whose apartment we're staying in. There, when the Muslim call to prayer started up at the nearby mosques, it was joined by some unexpected harmony. The family dogs howled in unison, warbling away with the prayer caller.

Unexpectedly, as I write this back in Istanbul, the call for the evening prayer starts. A few dogs start barking, then raise their voices and join in. I go to the window and look out into the darkness dotted by window lights. The howling wafts back to me, entwined with the religious words, from what seem like dogs stationed in different parts of the neighborhood, just as callers at several different mosques broadcast their words from different areas of the city.

So perhaps dogs everywhere enjoy lifting their voices in unity, just like humans.

The dogs of Turkey make me smile.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us--in Turkey

Today is our (religious) wedding anniversary, and yesterday was the anniversary of our civil marriage ceremony. We celebrated yesterday by going to the Grand Bazaar in an old area of Istanbul (yes, we're in Turkey, now!). Rashed bought me a beautiful antique-y-looking necklace of silver and blue stones, and I got him a striped cotton shirt, cool for summer.

The market itself is sprawling and covered, with painted designs on its arched ceilings. You can easily get lost wandering its streets among shops selling carpets, clothing, soaps, and jewelry. One passage we followed led out into the shaded courtyard of an old caravanserai which now contains jewelry-making workshops. Another led to a large public drinking fountain, complete with dented metal cups hanging from chains.

After the market, I walked around Istanbul University, and Rashed went for an evening scrub in the hammam (bath)! He sweated in the hot room, was soaped clean by an attendant, cooled off in the cool room, and got an oil massage. He emerged glowing, a shade lighter (a layer of tan had been removed), with rosy pink cheeks.

We had a quick supper of döner (a meat plate for Rashed) and pide (bread with melted cheese for me). Then in the cool of the evening, we headed back, crossing the Golden Horn by tram, climbing one of the city's many hills by funicular, and finishing our trip with an air-conditioned metro ride and then a long walk downhill to the apartment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Beware: Wild Boars!

Rashed and I got back last night from our trip to Belavezhskaya Pushcha, a mouthful to say and a national park featuring old European forests and rare wildlife--such as the European bison--that have disappeared in Western Europe.

Belarusians love to do things in groups, and it was hard to break away from the hotel complex, with its hotel restaurant, its zoo full of forest animals behind fences, its bus tour packages through the forest, and its official stamps on everything from restaurant bills to zoo tickets: this piece of paper has been authorized to exist in its paperness by the Office of the President of the Republic of Belarus. But we finally managed to rent bikes and get away on our own, following a map to various sites in the forest.

We saw centuries-old oaks and pines, stopped to have pancakes at a cafe at the house of Dzied Maroz (Grandfather Frost--kind of like Santa Claus), and were alternately rained on and chased by swarms of mosquitoes and flies. But we had other, scarier adventures, too.

When we had only gone about 5 kilometers (the whole circle route was 29 km), I was pedaling fast on a straitaway to gain speed to help me up a small hill (the bike I was on was a one-speed) when suddenly I heard a clink and there was no more resistance in the pedals. I wobbled, then coasted to a stop. The chain had come off the back gear. I thought our day (and our whole trip) was ruined and we would have to walk back to the rental place and demand our money back, but Rashed said this used to happen to his bike all the time when he was a kid, and it wasn't too hard to fix. Twenty minutes later, after almost getting blown from the side of the rode into the forest by one of those giant tour buses, Rashed's hands were covered in grease, and I had a working bike once again. I was determined to ride slowly and walk up hills from now on. It wouldn't do to get stuck with no bike if we got any farther from the hotel complex.

We got back on the narrow road, the dense foliage pressing in on either side. We had ridden, slowly, for less than a minute, when we heard a loud snuffle-grunt, then a crash, on our right, and jerked our heads back in time to see the ferns and lower branches of the trees swaying in the spot I had just ridden by. We rode forward as we craned our necks back, trying to see the animal (we never did), hearts pounding.

From then on we sang off and on, and I rang my bike bell every once in a while to warn any scary creatures. I couldn't even count on riding away from them anymore because my chain might break.

We went for several hours and were on the home stretch, having seen bogs and a reservoir, birches and birds, when I spotted something in the forest, ahead and on the left. We were passing through a marshy area, and we could see out into the forest, though the day was cloudy, and the trees overhead added to the the gloom and shadow. As we got closer, the thing moved, and I recognized one, then two wild boars, rooting around in the mud of the marsh. They were pretty far from the road, but there might be more nearer to us. I hoped they didn't have babies on the other side of the road. I started ringing the bell to warn them of our approach. I've been told to scare bears in this way, but I never had to try it, and I was never trained in defense against wild boars. In historical novels I had read about the Middle Ages, someone would always get gored by one... As we got closer and they heard the bell, more shadows in the forest came alive, and we saw more adults running away from us, deeper into the forest. Then, in the mud nearer to the road, we saw a flash of light brown stripes, and a group of piglets began squealing and darting after their parents--wait for me!!! As they fled and we passed by, still ringing the bell in case there were stragglers, I estimated that there were almost ten babies and about as many adults. I felt bad for scaring them; I hoped they would settle down again soon.

We rode on, getting jumpy at every sound and shadow, passing by a border post protecting the area between Belarus and Poland, until we reached a two-lane road, and, feeling safer, coasted home, the rain and bugs gone, the wind in our hair.

The chain stayed on until we turned the bikes in and headed back to our hotel room, saddle-sore but exhilarated. We had had the forest adventure we wanted.

That night, we took a final walk in the woods. Rashed called me his wood elf because I like the trees so much.

The next day, we ate our enormous hotel breakfast (authorized by the President, mind you) and headed to Brest, a nearby city in western Belarus. We explored the city a bit, including the Brest Fortress, a site of World War II fighting. Then we got on the painfully slow, five-hour bus to Minsk, arriving back at the house at 9:00 pm, where family friend Ira gave us an enormous supper, including borsch and 6% milk.

From My Journal

Based on my journal, Sunday, June 14, 2009:

I'm sitting on a mattress stuffed with sweet-smelling hay, in a room decorated with wildflowers, in the eastern Belarusian village of Belaya. Uncle Kolya calls this his barn (there are cobwebs everywhere), but it is really a delightful country house. The town consists mostly of nice brick houses with indoor bathrooms (brick and indoor plumbing are still luxuries in some villages) because it is a planned community for evacuees of the Chernobyl region. Little kids walk their baby sister in a stroller on the road outside. Cows are led down the street in late afternoon. A friendly gray cat stalks the big overgrown backyard that also hides strawberries and potato plants.

I can't remember when I last wrote. Did I mention Vilnius in Lithuania (June 8-10)? Many churches, winding stone streets? The Virgin Mary gazing down out of a painting in a chapel high in the Dawn Gate, protecting the entrance to the old city?

Hrodna (June 6), where we visited more churches and an old, abandoned synagogue, where the curved streets were a bit wider and more recent, where the ruins of a castle perched on a steep, protective hillside overlooking the river. On a big screen in the main square, people gathered to watch a soccer game--Belarus versus Andorra--and I bought the fluffiest cotton candy I've ever eaten.

In Mahilyow on Thursday, the 11th, Rashed gave a speech and was honored by a Belarusian journal he writes for. People kept coming up to me and telling me how excellent his speech was, that he is a genius, that only a couple of other people in the whole country have such a wide base of knowledge and the skill to articulate it. One of the journal's editors says that there is a contingent among the other editors that doesn't believe that Rashed himself writes his articles in Belarusian--he must be getting them translated: look at his South Asian name! It's nice to see other people's opinions of the man I berate for sleeping in too late and procrastinating. He's going to be mad when he reads my bragging...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Nature in Belarus

In Belarus, too, I've been so grateful for those moments of closeness to nature that allow me to relax and be myself. I feel naive, in a way, for craving forests and complaining of pit toilets. Am I in love with a sanitized, cartoon version of the wild? Am I separating civilization and the wild in an artificial way? I've decided to appreciate what I can and admit some of my limitations.

Several times in this country I've been able to have a little excursion into nature.

First, Rashed's aunt took us from her apartment building in Mahilyow to a trail through a forest near a housing development and to a sacred spring with an Orthodox church next to it. I was hot and annoyed with the sun in my eyes as we walked on the sidewalk and then on a path in a field. But as soon as we stepped into the cool shade of the forest, I felt myself relax. A smile crept onto my lips and stayed there, reminding me of when I was a kid at Disneyland and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. The forest made me feel safe and competent and distracted me from the yammering in my head. The spring was interesting, but there were many people there, and I preferred the peace of the forest. I was sad when we went back another route, through the housing development.

For most of our time in Mahilyow, we were staying in the apartment of Rashed's aunt and uncle. On Sunday, May 31st, though, we visited Rashed's great aunt and another aunt and uncle at their house. They live in an old, wooden, village-style house that is reached by descending a long, steep staircase down from the modern part of Mahilyow. In their front yard is a dog chained and barking. Next to it is a stable that they used to use for pigs. Stretching back behind the house is a huge garden, water pump, sheds, small pond, rabbit hutch, and beyond that is a meadow in which they've begun to plant trees and more crops. The meadow stretches far away to a river, on the other side of which are more giant apartment blocks. But this side is peaceful. After a lunch of salad and cheese and sausage and bread, Rashed and I go on a walk with two sets of uncles and aunts. Again, I have that feeling of finally! we're doing something. We walk past goats grazing, people tending the gardens they have created in square plots in the meadow. There are unknown birds and white and yellow flowers. The uncles and aunts point them out and discuss what they are like it is a very important and enjoyable matter. I breathe another sigh of relief at this welcome change from many of the modern city-dwellers, who scorn the old country ways. We reach the river and watch the water flow. Young people are fishing and lighting bonfires. The sun is warm, and the air is fresh. We pause to watch a motorboat hum by (a rare occurrence), then continue walking along next to the water. Someone points out a ditch and old cement blocks, saying they are remains of a World War II trench and pontoon bridge foundations, whether German or Soviet they're not sure. We try to imagine battles in this peaceful place. Rashed hands me a sprig of pink flowers, which I tuck behind my ear. I feel like skipping and running. I can't understand everything people are discussing, but there is goodwill in the air, and the birds are singing. We have the whole field to cross to get back to the house, and I'm happy.

Somehow at Home in Nature

Though I'm visiting alien lands, if I focus on nature, I feel at home. Though I can't communicate with people around me, somehow I can commune with nature. I feel the space around my body extend and flow into the trees and fields and clouds. They receive my energy, breathe it in and then, softly, whisper back to me, and the perfume of their breath is so sweet.

In Wales, riding in the back of the car on our way to Snowdon, I ceased to focus on the conversation of my companions and my personal worries, and became still, my gaze and my concentration resting lightly on the passing countryside. I felt the border between me and nature open, and, like kids playing in the schoolyard, teasingly jumping over the marked line and then running back, some of my team chanced a walk on the other side and some of nature ventured towards me. I felt a humming that, to my delight, turned into a song. It sounded like a folk song, though it was new to me; and I couldn't make out the lyrics, though perhaps, again like a child, I molded some of the unfamiliar sounds into English words. Nature sang the song to me, with melody and chorus and beautiful changes in harmony until it had played out and I was brimming with feeling.

I sang the chorus to myself until we were climbing Snowdon, and I tried to keep myself open to more, though I realized I also had to interact with humans once in a while. I haven't figured out how to combine the two, though I know they must be combined somehow. During a difficult section of the climb, surrounded by steep hillsides and big, open sky, I felt the aliveness of nature again, and I tried to listen using that part of me that had heard the song. This time I saw, though, rather than heard. I saw a trail other than the one in front of me, flowing upwards, and when I focused on it, I could climb much more easily. I felt more of these presences in the surrounding countryside, glimmerings of something magical. But when I talked to Rashed, I lost my focus, and went back to huffing and puffing up the path; walking then felt like lifting legs of concrete rather than dancing with the fleet feet I had felt for those few long seconds on the shimmering escalator.

The Land of Ice Cream

We've been in Belarus for a week and a half. It's a land of paradoxes: modern, super-dressy women coming out of old two-room houses with no indoor plumbing; these same houses with backyard livestock and small farm plots nestled next to concrete high rises and the mansions of the nouveau riche; cows and goats grazing next to the bus stop; headscarves and miniskirts; giant bronze Lenins looming over massive squares bedecked with hammers and sickles and red stars in a no longer communist land. I'm tempted to complain about the irritable van driver whose head looked like it would explode as he yelled at passengers and swore at his van when it tried to stall, but he is cancelled out by the busload of helpful ladies who spent 20 minutes discussing with one another what stop Rashed and I should get off at. One minute I'm enjoying the amusement park rides in the many wooded parks, and the next I'm wishing I had stayed home so I don't have to use the questionable public bathrooms. One day Rashed's relatives praise the free dental care, and the next they laugh at the fact that they are eating food that might contain low-level radiation. But instead of complaining, I'll try to focus mostly on the good, including one unanticipated discovery.

Belarus is the land of ice cream.

At every newstand, at almost every bus stop, at every train station, in carts along the sidewalk, ice cream is waiting. In bars and cones and sandwiches. In the hands of passersby. It can be yours for the equivalent of about 35 American cents. What are you waiting for? The ice cream here is less sweet than its North American cousin. It's creamy but doesn't melt and drip out of the cone. Top it with homemade berry jam for a special treat. Look out the 8th-floor window of your Soviet-style apartment block in a major Belarusian city and you might just see, in the untouched field across the street, a cow, oblivious to the concrete towers, ignorant of whether it is a communist or a capitalist, munching tall, green grass diligently until evening, when a bent babushka will lead it back home to the village house in the middle of the city, and the cow will give the lady cream, and maybe she will eat ice cream, too.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The English and Welsh Countryside

We finally DID something! We climbed Snowdon!

Rashed likes to tell people that he's interested in history and I'm interested in nature. He'll be reading the inscription of a World War II monument when I say, "Look! pansies!" or "Look! a dog!" and skitter away. I'm not a fan of big cities. So I was very excited on Sunday when, after a brief stop in the Lake District Saturday night, Rashed's relatives drove us to the trailhead of the highest peak in Wales and left us there to climb while they went off to find less strenuous enjoyment.

The peak is only 3,000-something feet, and the countryside seemed to feature only gentle hills, so I was skeptical. You could even take a train almost to the top, but I refused. As we started out, it did seem like an easy journey, but we were wary of the fact that we could never see the top, no matter how many hills we rounded. As the climb got steeper, with breathtaking views of valleys and lakes behind and higher hills rising up in front of us, the bleating of grazing sheep became less cute and more taunting, as they defied gravity, dotting the bare sides of the mountains far above us. The trail got steeper and steeper. And the mountains around there used to be mined for shale, so the path was little better than a slippery rockslide at times. We trudged and wheezed, and I decided it wasn't just a little hill. When we finally caught sight of the top, the sea was visible and the hills we'd already climbed stretched back into the distance. The peak looked like a little needle point from where we stood, with antlike people clustered on top of it, looking like they might push each other off and fall down the steep drops into the valleys below. We kept going, one foot in front of the other and reached the top, touched it, took a couple of pictures, and happily turned around, our soaked shirts drying and chilling us in the wind. We ate a sandwich and prayed and made it down in two hours instead of the three it had taken to go up.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tower Travails

On Thursday (21 May 2009) we were very disciplined tourists. We got up early, and, after an a phone interview in Belarusian Rashed had to give with Radio Liberty out of Prague, we rode the rails to London and took a Beefeater tour of the Tower. It is strange how easy it is to laugh at Henry VIII and his wives and various traitors who were tortured and murdered (those crazy, old-fashioned kids!), as if they were fictional characters and not real people. The ravens in the yards grunt and pick at unidentifiable bloody scraps, and it only improves our mood. I'm glad, though, that Rashed warned me of the tour guides' offensive humor. When ours makes a reference to Heart of Darkness, then comments that no one reads anymore, I surprise him by saying that I've read it, impressing him because I am 'blond, and a woman!' Later, he glares at me when a cell phone beeps, and I explain to him after the tour that I don't carry a cell phone. Maybe I've ruined his theories of young women; maybe I'm doing something to avenge those murdered wives?

The rest of the day, we zip from one place to another: an ice cream stand that charges £2.50 for an ice cream bar, a pretty boardwalk along the Thames (Tower Bridge is beautiful--London Bridge looks like the plain cement crossing between Maumee and Perrysburg, Ohio), the Monument (to the fire of 1666 and the rebuilding of London), Subway sandwiches, St. Paul's Cathedral (kind of sterile and too incense-y for me, but the views from the high galleries both inside and outside are magnificent), the Museum of London (free and fun!), the outside of Westminster Cathedral (with the bells pealing away like in the end of an old movie where the characters get married), Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

We take the train back at 8:00, and we go to sleep feeling pretty good.

Travel Notes

For the rest of the summer, my blog will feature notes from our travels. My husband, Rashed, and I are in England until May 25; then we will be in Belarus from May 25 until June 22; then we will be in Turkey from June 22 until July 27.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Yesterday (19 May 2009) Rashed and I did a walking tour of the West End of London from our Lonely Planet guide. We had made our way from Luton by train almost without mishap--we had the wrong underground tickets, and we couldn't get out of the gates as we left, but a kind, Dr. Who-like official took pity on us and (after telling us that our tickets were wrong and the penalty for that was death) let us loose in London. The streets were extremely crowded, though the buildings were beautiful. All the public bathrooms we came across were astoundingly clean! We had fish and chips in a restaurant near Leicester Square. The best part, though, was when we ducked off the streets into the shining expanses of Green Park. Taking a relieved breath, I coughed and was reminded of my allergy to European plane trees (the American sycamores don't bother me). But it was worth it. The clouds massed in the sky, covering the sun, then breaking away; the enormous trees stood guard over the long, straight, pebbled paths. As we reached the street at the other end, the gates near Buckingham Palace rose, gold and black, but I didn't want to leave. We circled back into the park, took some more pictures, rested on a bench, and finally moved on.

Buckingham Palace is not that pretty, for a palace. If I had a palace, it would be less square and more graceful. But I discovered something great about the fountain in front of it. The wide, granite ledge surrounding it has a curve that is perfect for sitting. Though you are sitting on rock, it feels like a cushion, and you can relax and look down on the swimming pool-like moat around the statue, at what looks to be the entire high command of all the branches of the Ukrainian armed forces, stout and dapper in Soviet-style uniforms, smiling jovially and taking pictures of one another (if they are there when you are there, too). A gasp. The drive in front of the palace is cleared, and a car comes out, but it is no one I recognize. And it is not the royalty here who are the attraction, it is the wide, fresh feeling, the escape from the crowded city streets where the locals in smart suits practically run to their destinations.

We leave the fountain and make our way to St. James's Park. It is a good strolling park; along the path is a waterway, travelled by ducks and geese with exotic stripes and colors. I love to see the common animals of Britain. The are so like the American ones but slightly different. The pigeons are greyer, the squirrels a bit thinner, the magpies are less shiny, and the crows are huge and menacing. The animals in this park aren't quite as common, though, and along the walkways beautiful flowering bushes attract bumble bees and locals.

As we leave the park, I feel sicker and sicker. I hardly slept on the airplane, and I feel like the atmosphere is crushing me, like I need to sink to the ground. We turn down a street still bordered by the park, and though we see some black swans, and another bird I can't identify with a mouthful of leaves to add to his nest, we also hear the rush of cars, and the cell phone that Rashed's cousin gave him goes off. The peace is broken. It's time to go "home".

We asked for the correct underground tickets this time and got to the train station to see that we still had an hour to wait for our train. We sat perched on a low railing, but I kept falling asleep as I tried to read so we wandered a bit in the giant, vaulted St. Pancras station. Rashed later said that my eyes were so weird and dilated that I looked like a monster. Once on the train, I tried not to sleep so we wouldn't miss the stop. The ride only took about 20 minutes, and we found our way home without getting lost (unlike the morning when we wandered forever looking for the station and getting directions like "it's around the back" from harried locals). Back at the flat, we ordered pizza and fell into a deep, 12-hour sleep.

We got up late this morning, but not too late. I think staying up yesterday was worth it to reduce our jet lag. It looks like we might just wander around Luton today--part of which looks like the South Asian strip of our Parc Extension neighborhood of Montreal and part of which looks like a fishing village, with small, attached houses squeezing together down hills that I imagine should lead to the sea but which appear to lead to more roads and parks and houses. The weather is warmer today, still intermittently cloudy and sunny, and there is a friendly little calico cat named Hadia ("Guide" in Arabic) waiting for us back at the apartment.

Happy Trails!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Balancing Act

Have you ever watched a cat tiptoe along the top of a fence? The calico cat I had growing up did this all the time. Her delicate paws pattered along the edges of the wooden boards like she was walking on air. She even patrolled the railing of our second-story balcony. Once we saw her use her position to launch an attack, snatching a bird from flight in mid-air. Another time my mom saw her fall. She rushed outside and peered down into the yard, to see the cat miffed but composed, walking daintily away from her crash-landing site in the yard.

My husband and I got a cat a few years ago. She had the worst balance of any cat I'd seen or heard of. She fell off the wide rim of the bathtub--good thing she loves water. She tottered on the backs of chairs until they crashed and she ran away, tail puffed. We refused to let her out on the third-floor balcony.

Miraculously, though, she got better. She no longer falls into the bathtub. She knows to not put all her weight on the back of a folding chair. We still don't let her out, but I wouldn't fear for her life as much if we did.

Sometime, obstacles are thrown in her path. She recently had to wear a cone around her neck because of self-inflicted licking wounds on her belly. After we put the enormous collar on, she would slink away, ears back, head bobbing, front legs lifting in an exaggerated manner as she took one step after another, her head catching on every bump in the carpet. When she had mastered that, and she wanted to get on with her normal routine, she would fling herself at the kitchen table, conk the heavy cone on the edge, and fall, scrabbling, back to the floor. We felt so sorry for her we eventually took the cone off and just watched to make sure she didn't overlick herself.

The wounds have healed, and her balance is back better than ever. She careens around the house, banking off of walls and sliding across the wood floor before darting under a bag or bookcase. She leaps to the top of the bookcase next to my desk so she can scare me by crashing down on my notebook right when I'm most absorbed in my work. She now scales the back of one of our new chairs with her bare claws and hides under the fabric cover I put on it. She's only fallen off once, that I know of, and it didn't spoil her fun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Angry" E-Mails

Is that idealistic "yes we can" attitude floating up to Canada? Or have I gone crazy? Perhaps I have fallen sick not with the flu this winter, but with a type of Obama fever.

Timid person that I am, I have begun writing letters of protest and letters of support. I argued that a popular e-mail forward should be changed because it unfairly characterized a certain religion. I congratulated a news program on a balanced report. I railed against a local mosque that provides women with a separate, small, and less-than-clean space to pray.

Something in me has either snapped or blossomed. I am either so fed up that I don't care if people don't like me, or I have finally grown into a healthy sense of my own importance.

I thought I would be ignored--or criticized. But no.

The mosque--the first recipient of my "angry e-mails"--reacted to my descriptions with shock and sadness. The mosque board said they had no idea that Muslim women experienced the problems I had listed; they always try, they said, to accommodate everyone to the best of their ability. Please contact the imam, they urged, to discuss your concerns further.

Soon after I argued with the sender of the prejudiced e-mail forward, it was reworded. The sender hadn't realized the old wording was untrue.

My next project is to write to an imam whose sermon I didn't agree with. If I could only find his e-mail address...

Because, you see, I am afraid to talk to people in person. I would turn red, forget to breathe, and nod in agreement to anything in order to sit down rather than pass out or start shaking.

Still, the reactions to my angry e-mails have been encouraging. Maybe I do have something to tell people that they didn't know before. In fact, I don't quite know what to do when an e-mail is so successful that I am asked to meet with someone to discuss my concerns further. I want to remain blissfully anonymous.

I have received some negative responses that make me want to give up and quiet down. But not yet. I am still in awe that some things that I thought were obvious had never been considered by some people--the board of the local mosque, for example. None of my Muslim friends go there because of the problems I brought up, but because they don't go, no one at the mosque knows that anyone has a problem with the situation there. Imagine if everyone who agreed with me wrote e-mails.

I know from experience that especially when challenging a religious institution, I need to take care to spend time with people who are caring and nurture my relationship with God. Otherwise, I could feel too alone and discouraged.

I also know that I am not always right, and that there are some who will always disagree with me. However, when I am called to protest and it rises up in me; when I can point out the good that the person I'm arguing with is doing and encourage them to do even more good, rather than saying they are useless and evil; when I stand up for myself and others who don't have a voice--then I should do it.

Maybe we can make a difference.