Wednesday Night Supper: Observations on Being Stranded

Normally people pull carry-on luggage through the airport, talking on their Bluetooth devices, faces closed from their fellow travelers as they move through this liminal space. Sometimes there’s a group traveling together but they turn inward, laughing together and sharing food. Occasionally people get chatting if there’s a slight delay or a slight attraction. People browse through magazines, do one last check of their cellphones or laptops, repack their stuff and then board their planes where they do everything they can to ignore the physical proximity of their neighbouring passengers.

This all begins to break down when there is a significant delay, a flight cancellation, a long stay in the airport. Then a sort of community is formed, with different people taking on different roles. There are those who wail, those who complain, those who make jokes. Some wait in line stoically. Some still keep themselves apart from the rest. Some seek answers. Some push to the head of the line.

Me, the other night, I darted around watching all this. Because maybe that’s the role I play, observing. That was what I did on 9/11 fourteen years ago: watch for all the stories. And that’s what I did when our flight was held over so that we arrived home 22 hours late after a Sunday night on the cold concrete floor of the Las Vegas airport departure area.

I’ve already sent my complaint to AIr Canada about how the situation was handled, but there’s another more side to the story too. It’s the part where passengers became human and personalities emerged. During the initial fiasco when no one–including the staff–knew what was going on, people slipped into roles. I watched one woman began to shriek threats and thought to myself, “So that’s who will be playing that part.”

Eventually once the dust settled and we made our way back through security and to the same boarding gate, people began to settle for the night. The woman behind me pulled out her iPad and began Skyping with her sister, explaining the problems. I brushed my teeth at a bathroom sink next to others who were doing the same thing. Rituals that we each perform daily in the quiet of our own apartments and houses we managed to do side by side with strangers in a bright public place.

My very favourite part of the delay was walking around at 3 am, after I woke up from my makeshift bed behind a bench near the windows, and walked around. Many people had fallen asleep by that o’clock despite the bright lights, constant Muzak and occasional bells from the omnipresent slot machines. There were couples spooning on the floor, or leaning into one another, tilted back on their uncomfortable chairs. There was one woman sounding asleep with her body curled around the metal tube that divided both one seat from another and comfort from passengers. The very act of sleeping in the open on an airport floor was an entirely vulnerable one. The man who slept nearest me had plugged in his electronics beside him, ten feet from his body. I’m certain nothing was stolen from anyone because although people did what they could to find small places of privacy, we were at the same time in it together. When the man with the electronics didn’t hear the pre-boarding call, my daughter had me wake him up. I tried with words first but he didn’t stir in the least. It took three gentle touches to his back–which was slightly damp with sweat after more than a dozen hours in the airport–for him to awaken. But we weren’t going to leave anyone behind.

On the plane, there was much more courtesy than usual–people helping one another take bags in and out of overhead compartments, passing a camera bag over to someone who needed it, sympathetic in-it-together smiles replacing the impassive traveler face. Small conversations across shoulder-rests sprang up.

When we finally made it to our destination, we cheered and disembarked. My son was still wearing shorts so he went to the bathroom to change. As we waited, we saw among the now-larger crowd many of our fellow passengers. We hadn’t exchanged names but we knew that one couple still needed to get to the East coast which was still slowed by a massive snowstorm–we wished them luck. A woman smiled at me and waved goodbye. My seatmate on one leg was headed home to the funeral of a child in her community–I expressed my sympathies. A gray-haired couple who had stayed awake the whole time and pressed the flight attendant for details of how they could fastest get home now walked in a leisurely way through the terminal–they nodded at us.

Even after we were home, this community persisted–on social media–as different passengers shared horror stories and sympathy on Air Canada’s Twitter feed.

But it’s the beauty of the vulnerability of the people curled up on the floor of the airport that stays with me, that gives a sense of common humanity and that at least somewhat transforms the memories of our otherwise unpleasant journey

Wednesday Night Supper: The End of Country

When I was reading from Ithaca (the book) in Ithaca (the city), a woman who was there told me about a book she thought I would enjoy. It was the memoir of a man named Seamus McGraw whose family farm had been near Ground Zero for the new wave of fracking. She told me McGraw had come to Ithaca to speak about fracking and had been stopped along the way by police. When he told them what he would be talking about, they asked him: “Are you for or against?” “Yes,” was his reply.

And that is the way he tells the story in The End of Country. It’s a powerful, lyrical book that completely defies simplistic or even simple answers. It shows the massive upheaval caused by fracking–some of which is honestly wonderful and some of which is terrifying. It shows the painful ambivalence and uncertainty over fracking, over if–and when–to sell fracking rights. It shows neighbours who can no longer talk openly because of the inequities introduced by different financial offers. It shows unlikely allies and offers a sympathetic view of some of the salesmen that other books might vilify.

The End of Country has a bit of a mournful tone to it–like a train whistle in the country in the middle of the night–but it’s beautiful for that same elegiac quality. McGraw can write too. This book was a pleasure from beginning to end and it is the fracking book I recommend the most to date as the most readable and challenging.

Wednesday Night Supper: Ithaca Farmers Market

Farmers markets have always been a weakness of mine. There’s something very grounding about visiting a foreign place and finding out how people live in the most elemental of ways. What do they eat? What don’t they eat? What do they eat that’s new to me? What can I eat now and what can I bring home with me? I’m not sure everyone does this but when I know I will be visiting a new place–even for a day or two–I always check whether there is a farmers market on while I’m there.

Now that I think about it, I’ve really always done this– as a teenager, I learned to barter at a market in Mexico City. A few years later, newly married, Dave and I visited the riotous colours of a farmer’s market in Melbourne, Australia. We saw Very Unusual cuts of meat in a market in Florence. Those all sound–and were–exotic, but those places become less exotic and more accessible simply by the fact of visiting and eating the market. (It just occurs to me now to look up farmers markets for our upcoming trip to Las Vegas–the page has flashing lights but there are, indeed, several genuine farmers markets each week.) And markets don’t have to be exotic in the least–often the best food is the simplest, and often that food can be found with dirt still clinging to it at a farmers market.

The Ithaca Farmers Market has been ranked as #9 on the list of the 101 Best Farmers Markets in America. It began in 1973 and has always been intensely local: its 160 vendors all live within 30 miles of Ithaca, and work as a cooperative. They have a central market location but also offer smaller farmers markets throughout the city and area, five days a week during the summer.

I first visited the farmers market on our second trip to Ithaca. By that point, I was partway through writing Ithaca and I knew that Daisy–like so many other Ithaca residents–was a foodie who bought her produce for her soups at the market.

Like almost all markets, the Ithaca Farmers Market reflects its surroundings and its people. It is smaller than the farmers markets in our city despite its reputation. It’s quirky and communal and artistic. The displays at the market are works of art in themselves. The bulletin boards at the market are fascinating reading, layered with passionate and energetic announcements of all sorts. The market folks do great events–my favourite is the annual Rutabaga Curl which takes place on the last Saturday market before Christmas, the last outdoor market until spring. Legend has it that the Curl started out of cold and boredom–vendors decided to toss their half-frozen root vegetables down the empty wooden aisle of the market, and by the next year it was a tradition. I was disappointed that our December 2014 visit to Ithaca meant we would miss the Rutabaga Curl by only a week–but then was delighted when the market folks told me they would be giving away a copy of my book as one of the prizes at the Curl. It really was the next best thing to being there.

I didn’t take video at the market but I did take some pictures. The first few are from December, and then there are a few vibrant pictures of the market at the height of summer. I hope you enjoy them.

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