Earth Etude for Elul 8 –A Year of Travel, A Year of Wonder
by Susie Davidson
Photos (from top left clockwise): Louisiana Bayou from Amtrak; Maine foliage; Hills of Mexico, Del Rio Texas; Susie Davidson at El Paso Crossing; Banyan tree, Miami, FL.
~ Over the past year, I’ve had many unforgettable experiences in different countries and regions, within amazing, varied landscapes. There is nothing like discovering and living in a new environment. The languages, cultures, geography, and people are so different. However, it is within these strange surroundings that I have conversely noticed what is similar. There are common themes of humanity. There is kindness and graciousness. There is joie de vivre.
And there is G-d’s physical world. In Europe, I have noticed that natural areas are lovingly maintained and preserved. Like the great works of art so treasured abroad, parks, fields, gardens, mountains, rivers and waterways are equally revered. The Danube, the Alps, the Mediterranean hold the same importance as each country’s museums and cultural centers.
Perhaps it is the majestic places of worship rising over public squares that remind visitors and residents of the gifts they have been given. Perhaps it is the relatively smaller amount of land in each country. But you will always see completely clean streets and well-tended green spaces.
I returned to Boston with the wish that this environmental devotion could be the case here.
Last August, I flew to Brussels a few days before the start of “W-Fest,” a 4-day new wave and electropop 1980s music festival. I arrived early so that I could travel to the Port of Rotterdam, from which my great-grandmother and her four children escaped the firing squads and devastating pogroms of their Russian shtetl. They walked all the way there, and ultimately arrived in Boston, where my great-grandfather had established a grocery business.
Along the way, I saw beautiful fields and quaint towns. As I said Kaddish for my ancestors and placed rocks along the pier in the beautifully memorialized immigrant port, a white swan appeared under me in the waters.
In November, I flew to West Palm Beach to attend a Holocaust convention. As always, I was struck by the beauty of the harbor and coastline, all the way down to Miami. The water is sparkling, the sunsets exquisite. Tropical trees like the incredible banyan abound, and Florida has many nature preserves with paths lined with lizards, palmetto and palm trees.
My boyfriend and I visited Florida twice more over the winter. We stayed in Ft. Lauderdale and in Hollywood while exploring Miami, Key West (talk about sunsets!), and Sanibel Island.
In January of this year, I took a two-week Amtrak trip around the U.S. In Chicago, I walked through Lincoln Park and along the shore of Lake Michigan. Outside of New Orleans, I observed abject poverty in the stark, humble Mississippi gulf plains communities.
I admired Lake Pontchartrain as we approached New Orleans, and after a stay there, beheld the swampy, Louisiana bayou from the train’s observation lounge. The prairies, with cacti and tumbleweeds galore, and the distant mountains of Mexico then became my vista.
In El Paso I was awestruck by the adjacent hills of Juarez. Walking along the separation fence, crossing the border, mingling with Mexican residents, and visiting the El Paso Holocaust Museum was a provocative, and somehow, life-affirming personal journey.
In March, we attended the famed SXSW music, film and art confluence in hip and friendly Austin. In Dallas, we somberly toured Dealey Plaza and the adjacent Holocaust Museum.
This May, while attending a rock festival near Dusseldorf, I experienced the beauty of Paris, the remnants of the industrial past of Oberhausen, the timelessness of Antwerp. I compared the Rhine waterfronts of Dusseldorf and then Cologne, where the city is rebuilding and reconstructing its ancient Jewish quarter. One month before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I toured the Normandy beaches and Allied landing sites. I then spent two days in Keflavik and Reykjavik, the breathtaking land of glaciers, waterfalls, lagoons, volcanoes — and Icelandic chocolate and smoked salmon.
I also traveled to Montreal and Toronto twice, in September and again this May. And next week, it is back to Brussels for W-Fest 2019, and a long layover in Copenhagen.
Travel is an opportunity for excitement, discovery and wonder, and for making universal connections to nature and humanity. By seeing our beautiful world and interacting with its inhabitants, we appreciate the gifts of Creation, and reaffirm the need to preserve them.
Susie Davidson, a Boston-based journalist, has contributed to HuffPost, the Houston Chronicle, the Jewish Daily Forward, JewishBoston.com, Shalom Magazine, WickedLocal.com and other national and international media. She authored a 2005 book and documentary film, “I Refused to Die,” about local Holocaust survivors and liberating WWII soldiers.