not really here
June, 2015, Nowhere -
Something woke me - I think just to see this: I looked down upon a massive supermoon sinking into the Mediterranean Sea, pulling the stars down with it. At the horizon, the moon mirrored itself on the black water, and parallel ranks of phosphorescent waves broke against the North African beach. Streetlamps traced the coastal road as far as I could see. It was ten after three in the morning and I watched until it was gone - one of the most engaging, captivating, and beautiful things I have ever seen, and I wasn’t really there.
. . .
“Sir, would you like a little more room?”
I’m not sure why the flight attendant targeted me, but when you’re packed into the 5-across center section of a widebody, and you get an invitation to move, you don’t ask why - you simply accept the offer with profound gratitude.
She moved me a little further to the rear, where I had one of the “outside” blocks of seats all to myself: I had a window, an aisle, and a seat in between. I could look out, stretch out, and was as comfortable as I could ever hope to be on an overnight flight in economy class.
I slipped in and out of that not-quite-conscious / not-quite-asleep state that is the best I can do on an airplane, and something woke me at precisely the right moment to slide open the window shade, and see that scene with the moon and the sea.
. . .
I’ve had this discussion with my friend Jim over what counts as “being there.” Jim reached his goal of visiting all 50 US states by the time he turned 50 years old, but to do so, he had to have a criterion for what counts as “being there”. There had to be a standard.
Being there doesn’t require a prolonged stay, but it does require enough time to get a feel, a sense, a smell of a place. Feet have to hit the ground. Outdoor air must be inhaled. There must be the possibility of some contact with a local person.
So, was I there, just off the north coast of Africa, when I saw that supermoon sink into the water? No, not really. Airplanes don’t count. I can’t say that I’ve been to Tunisia or Algeria, even though that’s where I saw one of the most arresting sights of my life.
. . .
2011 North Dakota. My only experience there has been to cross it by train. It took an eternity. North Dakota was experiencing some of the worst flooding on record, and the train crept along at a walking pace with water threatening to overtop the rails for miles and miles and miles. But, we had opportunities to get off and walk around and even step outside the stations during stops for fuel and crew changes, so it counts. I was there. I’ve been to North Dakota.
. . .
Airports, train stations and bus depots all have a feeling of connectedness, and I love them for that reason. There’s always a sense that from these places, I could go anywhere. Those transit stations are like gateways to the rest of the world and I find them to be exciting and full of adventure and possibility. But there’s also an element of entering a closed system, so the stations themselves don’t count as being there.
. . .
2012 & 2015 Germany. Flying into Frankfurt, depending upon the direction of approach, one may see a large urban area, or one may see fields and forests. I disembark the aircraft and enter airport-land. There are duty-free shops and restaurants and long corridors. There’s a tram and buses which connect to other terminals. There’s the rotunda with the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. One time I found a men’s restroom that was so futuristic with its stainless steel and automatic sliding doors that I wondered if it was a Star Trek set. I’ve been in that airport four times, but I can’t say I’ve been present in Frankfurt. I haven’t ventured outside the airport perimeter, I haven’t inhaled a breath that didn’t include a whiff of jet fuel, and so even after four visits, I haven’t been there, I haven't been to Frankfurt.
. . .
2018 Turkey. The list of places I’d love to visit is not a short one, and Turkey is on it. I hear the mountain biking in Cappadocia is amazing, and I’d love to re-trace Paul’s missionary journeys. The food scene looks rich - not in a fatty, filling way - but in the way of long-standing tradition, local sourcing, and beautiful use of simple, fresh ingredients. I feel called to go.
As our airplane descends toward Istanbul, I crane my neck from my aisle seat for glimpses of the city. Before I even arrive, I know I want to see the Blue Mosque and the Bosporus, and to get one of those sandwiches from a street vendor that they’re famous for, and to taste, first-hand, what the big deal is about Turkish coffee.
But it’s all wishful thinking. I’ll only be on the ground two hours. Won’t even leave the airport before connecting on to Tel Aviv. I’m so close, but Istanbul will have to wait for another time. All those things to see and smell and taste might as well still be half a world away, because I’m not really here at all.