Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life is a Map


My Summer of the Islands has been non-stop fun, but I am currently in the downtime between travels. Right smack dap in the middle of my Roman Holiday and the return of Julie in Japanland, is where I find myself right now. Thinking and putting together the threads of my life that blow in the wind.

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In 2006, I traveled with several other exchange students to the island of Okinawa. For most people, Okinawa means vacation, basking in the sun, admiring the harmony of island life with the American servicemen. For me, it was a journey of discovery. My Grandfather, Mart J. Garner, an American Merchant Marine and boat captain during World War II, fought on this very island. He never spoke about the war to me or my father before his death, so my imagination ran wild trying envision the ghosts of history on this island. The ghosts of my grandfather, as well as the ghost of my Japanese host father’s father, as they fought against each other on this island in the Pacific Ocean. Not ghosts in the literal sense, my Grandfather, nor Katou Otasan’s father died in Okinawa, but the ghosts that all great history leaves behind. So while Okinawa, to me, was not a island paradise or hoping vacation, Okinawa registered itself as an important place on the map of my life. 

And maybe that is what life is all about. Creating ourselves while we our creating our own maps. Sure, Okinawa is a 7-letter island found in most travel books about Japan as well as the majority of history text books concerning World War II, but what does it really mean if one does not have the personal history, the stories, the experience of actually going to Okinawa and walking in the footsteps of all those great people who have walked, and probably fought, there before us.

I live in Verona, NJ, a small suburban town just a few miles outside of New York City, and I have deep family roots to the entire area, as in Essex County, not just little Verona. Because although I grew up in Verona, the majority of the rest of Garner’s call North Caldwell home. My mother’s side of the family, although having relocated to Fairfield in the early 70’s, still proudly proclaims themselves to be Newark people. The bottom line is that New Jersey, and more specifically, Esssex County, runs in my blood and is the stage of my most history.

I am a runner, and this has given me opportunity to get up-close and personal with some of the sights of the area; the parks, the winding streets that no one knows about except residents, and the old Victorians homes that hold secrets and memories all to themselves. On my favorite running route, I climb Bloomfield Avenue, running past Verona Park and on to the old shops that have changed little except in ownership. I will always pass by the Henry’s Grocery Store, and think of the story my Dad told me once about how the old original owner, Henry, called my Belgian-born Grandmother, a “dirty foreigner.” It must have been over 50 years ago, and still no Garner will frequent that store. I run by and I look in and I imagine a young Belgian women with very-little English trying to communicate with the sales clerk. Even the things that have long gone from this area of New Jersey; cleanliness of Verona Park lake, the Awful Awful ice cream sundaes, and the old Hilltop Sanitarium, they leave behind ghosts for us to see if we truly look for them.

That’s how we see places: they are our histories in bricks and mortar. And you can’t redraw them. You can understand why some people flee and some people are drawn back to the same places again and again. It’s because the best places offer us places not just to work, play, and sleep but for our lives to unfold in unexpected and colorful ways.

One of my recent interests to study is Subways, or Metros, or Undergrounds, or U-Bahns, or whatever else they are termed in one’s country. The London Underground, the world’s deepest underground, is by my far favorite to study, with all the abandoned Tube stations and World War II history. But I certainly have the most memory attached to the Paris Metro: St. Germain-en-Laye where Alex and I celebrated my 18th birthday. Pigalle, where my sister and I sprinted through the station in an effort not to be caught in some real-life version of the movie Taken. Trocadero, where I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, and remembered that dreams really do come true. Gare de Nord, where I fought with a train station operator to get a seat on a Belgian bound train after my original ticket was nullified because of the country-wide strike. Gare de Lyon, where I spent the entire night alone by myself because I had missed the last train. Perhaps a simple ride on the Metro might be jolting journey for me in some ways but these flashbacks are what makes the place and my memory bank fuse together.
 
These stations are merely little dots on a Metro map of Paris. But I have personified these stations, and given them memories. Like most people who find their veins entwining with their city’s streets, my map of Paris looks nothing like the little map one might find in a book. My Paris map is personal; a map made up of places where things happened to me – or people important to me. It is not just Paris either. It is my map of the world, different than most maps with little villages like Fixin, France or medium-sized cities, like Kochi, Japan, having larger font that great big cities like Beijing or Chicago. My map is disproportionate; Europe, America, and Japan are huge. South America and Africa are very small. But that will change one day.

I am headed back to Japan in 17 days. I fully expect to see my ghosts wandering along the streets of Kochi in a school uniform. Just as I fully expect 30 years from now, my children or my sister's children to go to Paris and see our ghosts peering out at the top of Sacre-Coeur. 

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