A global view of community on my travels from New York to Prague and in between
Read your daily newspaper or turn on the nightly news and you’ll be hard-pressed not to come across a mention of community.
The intensification of racism, partisan volatility and battles between gun-rights and gun-reform advocates consistently spur oft-heated conversations surrounding divided and united communities.
While discussing with my one of my clients an excursion I planned to take to a book conference in New York that lead to a 10-city trip around Europe, he asked, how people around the world define community?
Clearly, I hadn’t given it much thought because, for my part, community was easily definable: It was family, friends, neighbors and fellow church congregants.
But we came up with a plan, I would ask people at our myriad destinations what community meant to them and return with fascinating stories to tell.
That’s what happened. Only they weren’t the stories I thought I would tell.
Meeting my people: New York
Every spring, BookExpo America provides publishers, distributors, printers, booksellers, bloggers, librarians, authors and others in the book world an opportunity to connect with new people and learn more about the craft.
After standing in line at book signings and sitting in ballrooms listening to cherished authors (Stephen King!), I began to appreciate something. Everyone in the room, in the lines, snagging free books and sitting on floors sorting through them—old and young, blue haired and tattooed— spoke the same language. We shared a common love of the written word. These people were my people. They were part of my community.
Though BookExpo was a work-related trip, there was an added benefit. I was meeting Tracy Cox, a long-time friend, an artist and writer living in Oakland, Calif., whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. As we traipsed off for breakfast, a familiar, pleasant feeling washed over me. It wasn’t safety exactly but something akin.
Tracy successfully explained my feeling:
“Community keeps you grounded and gives you a sense that you’re not alone in life. It’s a source of strength when the chips are down. Those people (in your community) are your beacons of hope when life hits you hard. For me, community is a group of people who like and support each other and share ideals. My community are those people who I feel I can talk and share stories, fun and good times with. They are people who I’ve worked with, played ball with, or sometimes just happened upon.”
Tracy picked up individuals in his community one-by-one as he grew older and lived his life. He still has great friends in Detroit, where he grew up; and newer friends here on the West Coast, where he now lives; along with others spread all around the country.
Keeping calm during terror in London
After a seven-hour flight, with a 5-year-old kicking me in his slumber, I arrived sleepless at London Gatwick airport on June 3, 2017, a day many Brits will remember.
My niece and I dropped our bags at our hotel and quickly made our way to Westminster where we saw Big Ben and the famous Abby in the cursory way hungry, tired people view things.
Once we found seating at The Red Lion Pub, though, everything seemed alright. We dined on fish and chips and a gravy, beef-and cabbage-filled meat pie in a delightful crust.
When finished, Dannielle asked the manager about his accent.
“What do you think?” he asked, speaking at the nearly indecipherable speed young people often employ.
Turns out, he is from Latvia and left home at age 15 to pursue theater. He lived in France and Germany and numerous other countries before landing in the United Kingdom. Then he volunteered: Life is about making your own way in the world, working hard and about experiencing new things, not about staying at home with family — like his shortsighted younger brother. Then, before we could ask him more, he was gone.
From there, we hopped on a London-by-night bus tour where our lively guide pointed out the famous Harrods department store, illuminated by seemingly millions of glittering lights; Buckingham Palace, though from a great distance; and London Bridge, which he said we would cross never could.
When we stopped for what we thought was a short break, our guide, a charming young man with a perfectly regal accent, took off down the street. When he returned after several minutes his light, friendly manner had gone.
“I apologize for interrupting your tour with bad news, but we regret to announce there has been a terror attack on the London Bridge and we will have to take an alternate route,” he said stoically before adding that someone drove over pedestrians with a vehicle and yet another culprit stabbed several people.
We did take another route. We carried on, quietly.
By the time Dannielle and I disembarked at Westminster Bridge, the River Thames had lost its allure. Emergency vehicle after emergency vehicle whizzed by us some on two wheels. Opportunistic gawkers took pictures. Panicky tourists, like us, focused on finding a cab.
The competition was fierce, but we were diligent. A young couple ran in front of us, but a driver backed up and congenially drove us to our lodgings. Though the seriousness of the situation weighed on us, our cab driver calmly fretted at great length about America’s new president and the United Kingdom’s own prime minister. The drive back was long and, for our part, quiet.
The next morning, as we walked through a still, tree- and hibiscus-lined neighborhood to breakfast overlooking a canal, we didn’t ask anyone about community. Though it likely was paranoia, every glance my way felt like an indictment that shouted, “Leave, Strangers! You don’t belong here!”
And we didn’t. Not really.
Dannielle was unfamiliar with the fear that accompanied terror. She was only 7 in 2001, and we hadn’t experienced a foreign terror attack of great magnitude on American soil since. Besides, we were moving on after our one-day visit, while the Brits would still be there wondering when the next attack would come. (They didn’t have to wait long.)
Train Lodge Hostel: Amsterdam
As advertised, the Train Lodge is a hostel in an old Swiss locomotive on tracks a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk station. Our three-bunk compartment was clean, though confining; the hosts were friendly; and, based on the many languages we heard, the patrons traveled from all over.
Like thousands of other sightseers, we took a canal boat tour; shot photos at the “I Am Amsterdam” sign; zipped through the Rijks Museum, which houses stunning works by Dutch artist Rembrandt; and toured Anne Frank’s house.
There, audio narrators illustrated how a community of Jews shrank because Nazis were shipping them off to concentration camps. Photos, videos and a promenade up the gradually narrowing stairs and through the rooms where the Frank family “lived” made the retelling increasingly painful and tiring. This family was in hiding because they shared a faith, an ideal and a way of life. Holding my breath at every concentration camp photo, every video reminding how the Franks could not allow the Nazi’s to find them, made me hurt for these people.
Back at the quiet hostel, I met Anthony Bouldet, an Angers, France, native who arrived in Amsterdam less than a year prior to learn English. After staying a while at the Train Lodge, the owner offered him a job as a host. Now Bouldet works not only on his English but also on a few side jobs to make ends meet.
He doesn’t picture friends or ideals when he thinks of community. Nor does he believe he has a personal community.
Communities, he argued, exist only in minority groups in America — among people who can point to immigration and monumentally significant or historic events and remark on the resulting changes in their lives.
“I am just a random French guy. In France, the culture is all the same. When you talk to U.S. black guys, they can say our parents or grandparents come from Africa or were slaves. Like when Obama was president: We make a big deal about the ‘First Black President of U.S.A.’ You can notice this was community. Because this was something huge! This was something like ‘yeah, I come from here.’ Something bigger than my friends, my school.”
For 24-year-old Bouldet, community is in your blood.
“It’s a strong link to your past or your family, your history or history in general. If you are a U.S. guy with Spanish or African roots, because you have a different history, the future is way different. He might say I’m American, but I’m from this part or I am from Mexico. They can say, ‘We have a history. We can mark something.’ That’s what I think community is.”
A Grand Place: Brussels
Our arrival the next day in Brussels was anxiety inducing. The Airbnb host provided only the street name and not the number, which we didn’t realize until after we got in our cab. As the driver, barked at us, impatient with our inability to reach the host by phone, my chest began to hurt.
Was I having a heart attack? There was no time for that, I thought, my job was to entertain my niece, and the last place I wanted to be was in hospital thousands of miles from home.
I gripped my chest and prayed silently as Dannielle reached our host, and I held it still as the driver pulled up at our destination on an industrial-looking street in a Middle Eastern neighborhood. The host pulled open a warehouse door and guided us into another building. We dragged our bags up two flights of stairs as I tried to catch my breath and will away the pain that was searing, gripping my heart. We crossed a make-shift terrace, covered in what looked to be something mildly sturdier than aluminum foil, into another building and I thought of one of the “Bourne” movies.
Would Jason Bourne chase an assassin through these halls and up the many stairwells?
Soon, we trudged up yet another flight of stairs to reach the gloomiest lodgings ever. I bristled, likely dampening any pleasant feelings my niece had left.
There was no time to for me to catch my breath, we had only one day in Brussels. So, we swiftly made our way onto a thoroughfare housing several small African-owned shops and restaurants until we reached what felt like an old village where Belgian, Chinese and Italian restaurants, stores, waffle vendors and the like long with shoe stores (!) and others dotted narrow cobblestone streets.
A few more turns between alternating rain showers and blasts of sunshine, and we found the appropriately named Grand Place. Opulent and stunning, city hall, guild houses and Maison du Roi enclose this Brussels’ central square where, in the 16th century, the government burned martyrs and beheaded counts.
It was amidst the crowds at Grand Place that we met Ayan and Nelle.
We were taking photos when the African immigrants called out asking what language we were speaking. When I said, “English,” Ayan put on a British accent and asked why we didn’t sound like that.
“I speak American English,” I said.
Ayan was delighted. We chatted a bit about the inanities of the day — Nelle speaks little English while Ayan is nearly conversational — before I asked that all-important question about community.
The pair looked confused.
So, I used a bit of college-learned French mixed with American English to explain that friends, family, neighbors, church, might define their community. Turned out, though, the problem wasn’t language; the problem was my definition.
“My race is my community,” said Nelle in a flurry of French and with a few words of English.
Certain that people in America would accept her, the 20-year-old added, raising her hands, wrists noticeably wrapped in wide white bandages, high above her head:
“In America, African-American, Afro-American, Black people get together. They have power. In America, they have light skin and dark skin, curly hair, hair like this. The people are so different (in America). It’s OK there. In Brussels, in Europe, they don’t care if you are part white. They just see black. You are not accepted.”
Ayan, also 20, was far from her community: “Somalia is my community even though they have problems. My people in Somalia are very hungry. But I like my people.
“It’s trouble for me to be Somali in Europe. People don’t understand the people in Somalia are very tired. They don’t have food, water. You don’t have nothing there. My people have dictators. They are oppressed. They are very poor. They don’t speak up because they are scared. If they speak, they don’t get anything to eat. But they have children and that’s their family. That’s my community.”
A more powerful wall: Berlin
Before the thunder, lightning and umbrella-annihilating winds, my niece and I snapped photos of a few historic-looking sites; though I had no clear understanding as to their place in history. We ate street-side bratwursts—probably not a good idea—and read the horrifying stories and viewed the concrete slabs at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe before setting out to see the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
In the early 1960s, after the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a 12-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide, 27-mile-long concrete and barbed wire monstrosity between East and West Berlin to prohibit the Western mindset from making its mark. The government succeeded in separating both ideas and loved ones. Nearly 30 years later, in November 1989, a new decree came down allowing residents to cross the border freely.
I remember watching the scenes on television: Throngs of people climbing and clamoring and pulling at pieces of the seemingly impenetrable wall until there was one hole and then two and then finally the wall and an old ideal toppled.
Ten months later, the East Side Gallery opened. That’s where 118 artists from 21 countries united to create murals on the longest remaining portion (less than a mile long) of the wall.
Along with lovers and friends and families with baby carriages, we viewed a few of the paintings, sometimes in awe, before the rain began. This wall, these works — big and bold and daring — now unite people from all over the world.
Astronomically striking: Prague
From dessert favorite trdelnik to Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, across the artist’s haven on the Charles Bridge and up the many steps to the Castle (to all the things we didn’t get to see), there is beauty all over Prague.
It’s no wonder then that artist Jacob Thomas wants to move there. An immigrant from India, Jacob grew up in Montclair, N.J., and is living and working as a sociologist in Texas. When asked about community Jacob’s eyes lit up. He needed no prodding, it’s a hot topic for him.
“You can’t do anything alone. I grew up in metropolitan, urban areas and came from a dysfunctional family growing up, and so I needed the community. I needed my football coach, I needed teachers, I needed members of the church and the random homeless community. Anyone. My soccer teams. That was my family too.”
Now, Thomas, 29, says the community he built growing up is with him in spirit wherever he goes.
“I identify them with myself, so it’s like I kind of transformed into that community. I believe it’s about who you are as an individual. If you’re seeking a community outside yourself without knowing yourself then it’s kind of a win-lose situation.
Living in Texas… everybody relies on every single person, whether it’s one person or five or 10 people, to — in some kind of mustard-seed kind of way — prepare and nourish a child or young adult so they can build community even more and send them out into the world to nourish and prepare others.”
To help make the Lufkin, Texas, community better, Thomas did an art project with high school students.
“I asked the kids — whether they can paint, whether they can write poetry, whether they can do a drawing however simplistic or advanced — to point out issues in the community that need developing. For instance, I asked them to illustrate abuse, domestic abuse, drug abuse, no streetlights, no sidewalks. I asked, ‘Are there oppressed groups within the community that have a fear right now of what’s going on politically?’
“These are areas that they might not talk about verbally with elders or teachers; but through art work, they will subconsciously speak it out no matter what. So, the truth comes out. That’s a good way to gain access to the minds and hearts and stories of rural communities and find out what you want to do to influence positive change.”
Communication is key: Lisbon
With Dannielle on her flight back to Miami, I waited a couple of hours at the Lisbon airport for the second leg of my three flight-journey back to Detroit. Waiting happily at the gate — I was ready to go home after our whirlwind trip —is where I met another Texan.
Sam Davenport, owner of SD. Aviation Maintenance Services in Dallas, ensures airplanes meet safety requirements. Although family, church and coworkers in Dallas are part of his community, he says he travels to Portugal so frequently that he has another “family” there.
“We’ve grown over the years where we act just like family,” he laughed. Despite the diversity of race and religion, Sam says Portuguese people are one community. “They come together for a common purpose: They all love the flag.”
But Davenport also believed a strong community requires devotion.
“The best way to make community stronger is to first of all have faith, trust and belief in God.”
Then, he said, you need communication.
“You look around now and everybody is on their phone. Even family members don’t communicate. You can’t be a community if you don’t communicate.”
Community, the 63-year-old said, is working together for a common goal in a certain area, whether it be for the betterment of one’s kids, schools or for fighting crime.
“Whatever it is, that’s your community, and you come together and embrace what you do and just enjoy life.”
Community in action
I considered what I saw not only in the cities mentioned but in Venice, Rome, Zaragoza and Madrid and what I overheard and discussed during my long-haul flight back to the U.S.
However, my experience at Newark Airport revealed community in action.
During a quick late afternoon meal, two men, sitting on each side of me, engaged me in conversation for a while before one the them suddenly left. Though his abruptness seemed odd for a moment, I shook it off, finished my meal and then headed to the bookstore to find something to occupy my six-hour-long layover. I reached into my purse for a credit card and found nothing. No credit cards, no debit card, no cash, no driver’s license.
Sometime between my meal and walking to the bookstore, someone robbed me. Only my ticket and passport remained. After stumbling to a row of seats and sobbing, I pulled myself together and tried calling my bank to cancel my debit card. The scene seemed to be taken from a primetime comedy.
The recorded instructions said “push 2 for a lost or stolen credit card.” I did. But the line disconnected. Each time I called, the results were the same. By the time I gave up, I realized the bank would be closed.
I contacted Duane, a lifelong friend, who stopped what he was doing to find a working number. Next, I needed to report the theft to police. But, despite the high terror alert levels, no one in the Newark airport could direct me to the proper authorities. TSA directed me to the United Airlines gate agent; the United gate agent directed me to Customer Service; the customer service agents said they didn’t know how to contact police.
So, I went back to security screening and waited until I encountered two officers who suggested I not bother making a report because “they will never be found.” I ignored their suggestion.
Humorless and tired — at this point, I had been awake for more 24 hours — I went to the gate and called Duane hoping he could take my mind off the trouble. As he reminded me that I would be home soon and everything would be OK, United delayed the flight another two hours. Children cried, businessmen called their offices.
But then something odd happened: Our two gate agents bolted up the escalator and out of sight as weary, would-be passengers called after them. Looking at his mobile phone, one frustrated passenger yelled: “The flight is canceled!”
Forty minutes later, I was at the front of the ticket counter line; but when asked easily answerable questions, I replied in a blubber of tears. The ticket agent booked me on a 6 a.m. flight and gave me a ticket voucher to a hotel along with a voucher for a cab to get to said hotel. Still, I blubbered.
A U.S. military servicewoman, who hadn’t been home to the U.S. in 16 years, approached and said,
“I’m a firm believer in the power of hugs.”
Then she wrapped her arms around me and gave me a squeeze only a mother could give.
Shortly after midnight, I was in a cab asking the driver to take me to the hotel. “I don’t know this place,” he said, his African accent thick with irritation. “Can you look it up for me?”
Apple Maps marked our time of arrival at 1:30 a.m. How could I go to a hotel more than an hour away with a 6 a.m. flight? Undoubtedly, by the time I got there and checked in, it would be time to return. Still, it was a place to sleep and shower, for an hour or so.
“What time is your flight?” the cab driver asked.
I told him.
“You should not go there,” he said. “You will not be able to get back on time.”
I agreed. I would either not sleep for fear of missing my flight or I would oversleep and miss my flight.
The driver added, “I can find you another hotel.”
I had no money and, without thinking, told this stranger my story. He gasped:
“My sister! That is awful! How can I help you? Can I give you money?”
He wasn’t soliciting me. He was reaching in his pocket while driving back to Newark airport and railing about the “barbarity” of man.
Taken aback by his abrupt turn from obvious disdain for his job to vehement concern for my welfare, I said “No, thank you. I will be OK.” As I got out of his vehicle, he admonished me to stay safe and wished me a better evening.
My evening did turn out better, but not in the way I expected.
Just inside the door, A black man who was drowsily keeping watch over his pregnant wife and young child mouthed “thank you” to an elderly white woman in a wheelchair. He draped the woman’s sweater over his little boy sleeping with his mother on a stack of clothing behind a wall of wheelchairs. It was in their enclave that I first took refuge.
Soon, though, the old woman, who could no more sleep in her wheelchair than I could in the airport terminal chair, became unsettled and began walking shakily, dragging her heavy bag on the floor behind her. I asked if she needed help. She fretted about her gate, how she would get there, if she could find it. Together, we figured out where we each needed to be before she told me with pride about her schoolteacher daughter and I told her my story. Laying a fragile hand on my arm, she prayed over me, and then an airport worker wheeled her away.
As I waited to board my 6 a.m. flight, a maintenance worker saw me shivering and offered to retrieve a blanket from an airplane.
I learned of more horrific new out of London. There was a devastating apartment just 10 days after the attack on their bridge. How heart-wrenching it was to hear that some only survived the fire because neighbors and strangers caught them and/or their children as they jumped (or were thrown) to safety.
Encounters like those I experienced in my 15-hour airport stay revealed that community is far more nuanced than my original assumption.
Sure, community might be friends who drop they they’re doing to help, family who comfort from the distance, teammates, fellow church members, minority groups and those we carry with us in spirit.
Yet isn’t community also the stranger who offers money out of pure generosity, whisks a child away from a fire, sincerely calls you sister, provides a warm hug, or says a gentle prayer? Isn’t community about providing access to something another person or group needs?
I learned community is all these things or just one of them at the right time — a spontaneous alliance with friend or foreigner working together for a common goal even if the future outcome is unknown.