Friday, November 27, 2009

Setting a place for a stranger

For the past three Thanksgivings we have hosted foreign students from the Illinois Institute of Technology who don't have any place convenient or special to go on the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It's always delightful to share experiences and lots of American food with our intrepid visitors so far from their comfort zones. Yesterday our guest was Long from Wuhan, China, who had never visited an American home before. Welcome to ours, which was clean, about the size he was used to, and filled with food and a lot of laughter that we sometimes had to explain to our guest. (We tried to explain what a pun was.) He wasn't used to turkey, and his mother had lost her job in China when she violated China's one-child policy and had his little brother. I've been a stranger myself in strange lands, and know that a lot can be learned over a plate of food.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Riding on the City of New Orleans

The trains do run on time these days, give or take 15 minutes, which is a lot better than most airlines can say about themselves. I took Amtrak's City of New Orleans from Chicago to the Big Easy for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. What a trip. Big windows, legroom (a lot better than most airlines can say...), space and time to work, space to walk. Easy access: I walked into the New Orleans train station less than half and hour before my train left and was aboard the train 10 minutes later, no security lines, no overpriced remote parking, no quarter-mile walk to the departure gate.

Then there's the view (when I'm not working, of course): the weird big waterbirds of the Louisiana bayous, pelicans and egrets standing stock-still or flapping their big wings aloft. Knobby-kneed cypress forest that looks a little primeval to my Midwestern eye. Shack dwellings made of corrugated metal and tar-papered roofs, landscaped with old cars and really old dead appliances. Little towns, big cities: Memphis, Jackson.

Then there's the company: my dinner companion was a woman returning from her class reunion at Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically black Catholic institution of higher ed in the western hemisphere. We talked about her growing up years in pre-civil rights Selma, Ala. In the morning I met a couple from Atlanta. She had come from England in the 1960s and her interest in religions had led her to try Sufi dervish dancing. He was a vertical caver with a keen interest in Robert E. Lee (who founded a journalism school, which this journalist did not know) who ran a county dial-a-ride program for old folks. I can't remember having these kinds of conversations on airplanes or in airports.

I love the scale and I love going this slowly; I'll get there when I get there, pretty much on time. Hooray for public transportation and the train and the tune the City of New Orleans, the folk song made famous by Arlo Guthrie, but written by a Chicago folksinger, the late great Steve Goodman. I actually did say to the scenery: Good morning America, how are you?