In the middle of our stay in Marseille we decided to check out the Orange Velodrome, where the city’s football team, Olympique de Marseille (OM), plays. Neither of us are huge sports fans, but we’ve both experienced the fan excitement and melee of crowds during the World Cup in various parts of the world. If we couldn’t get to a match, we would at least check out the venue and see what it was all about.
The Orange Velodrome facilitates public tours for a fee. For about 20 Euro, visitors walk through a well-documented visual and audio history of the team, leadership, and physical space that is the velodrome. One part of the tour includes walking through the press room where the owners, coaching staff, and players give interviews and participate in press conferences. Upon walking into the press room, we were amused to find a class of middle-school aged boys, all sitting at the long press table, while their teacher spoke with one at a time. She acted the part of the media; asking questions while each boy took turns pretending to be his favorite player. Despite the fact we don't understand much French, one boy spoke with such passion and enthusiasm that we both remarked it wouldn’t be surprising to see him as a player in a few years.
When I was a kid, I was a huge basketball fan. My hero was a college player named Wayne Tinkle, at the University of Montana. He was a coach at a summer sports camp I attended one summer at the university. During the year, he played center for the Grizzlies, coached by Stew Morrill. I thought Tinkle walked on water. I tried to learn all his moves because being tall too, I also played center. I listened to every game on AM radio and was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to go to home games.
Watching these boys and listening to them talk excitedly about their favorite players reminded me of the excitement of sports and having a hero. As they stared wide-eyed at the locker room with the player’s names on the uniform cubbies, it felt good to reminisce about that kind of exhilaration—a feeling I don’t experience as much as an adult. Their pleasure also reminded me of my son at that age—a time when boys are less closed off, and eager to show their adoration of a role model with less fear of reprisal.
When we walked into the stadium, Rob and I both sucked in our breath. It’s a formidable structure and without all the fans, seems (what I imagine to be) even more spectacular. The boys were beside themselves, running around the dugout and sprinting up the steps to the highest points of seating.
It was thrilling.
At one point, the gathered the boys around for a picture. Before they said cheese, they sang one of the OM chants, led by their lively teacher who clearly loves those kids and her job. I don’t know, maybe it’s coming out of the pandemic where in-person interaction has been minimal, or maybe it’s that I don’t often observe the joy and energy of middle school kids—but when they chanted, knowing all the words by heart and shouting at the top of their lungs, I was moved. So much so, that I asked the teacher if they would mind doing it again so I could take a video. Before she could answer, they all screamed yes, they wanted to do that.
That day, we got to enjoy those boys having the best field trip of their lives to the Orange Velodrome where their home team, OM, plays and inspires their dreams. I think their joie de vivre was right on par with a stadium full of fans. Happy tears leaked out as I took the video. I’ve watched it a hundred times since that day.
There’s a lot in life to feel downtrodden about; what a gift—to have something to shout for.
Aux Armes! Aux Armes!
Recently, my husband and I returned from a two-week trip, spent primarily in Marseille, France and several days in Algiers, Algeria. Like many others, the pandemic kept us both close to home for the last several years, so it felt good to stretch our travel muscles and get back out.
Left: Marseille, France. March 2023 Credit: Laurie Galbraith Right: Algiers, Algeria. March 2023 Credit: Rob Guglielmetti
My husband has spent significant time in Western Europe for work and pleasure; I had never been. My travel has been primarily in the Middle East, Turkey and India—for work, play, and education. I wanted my first foray to Europe to be somewhere less popular and off the beaten path. Having worked in refugee resettlement in the past, I’d always wanted to see Marseille and experience France’s second city with its rich history of refugee and immigrant communities. After a week in Marseille (which I’ll talk more about later), we hopped on a flight to Algiers.
Houari Boumediene International is a no-frills airport. A handful of gift and sweet shops, the same for coffee, and a loudspeaker that rivals noise levels at a hockey game.
After enduring customs, we went out to meet our hotel shuttle which never came. Not to worry, we were descended upon by no less than eight men, offering their taxi services.
I knew my Levantine Arabic wasn’t going to be as helpful as I’d like while we were there and I was right. After realizing the shuttle would not be coming, I brokenly told the fella I would take him up on his offer to drive us to the hotel. After all the other persistent, it was Bilqasim's meek manner that sold me.
We settled on a price and were off.
Algiers has a few large hotels and the rest, well, you try your luck. Our room was indeed non-smoking (which means there was no one presently in the room, smoking) but the enormous window opened and we had a glorious view of the city lights against the North African sky. We went to sleep that night anticipating the next day.
My friend Sarah had agreed to drive us to Draa Essamar, a village in the Medea province, about 90 minutes southwest of Algiers. Aware of the precautions we needed to take while traveling in Algeria, I felt being accompanied by a native Algerian would be prudent. Before Rob and I arrived in Algiers, Sarah confirmed we would need to provide copies of our passports to the local police department, which lined up with the State Department warnings about Americans traveling in Algiers.
Sarah and I met eight years ago in Turkey, when we shared a flat while in the same teaching program in Istanbul. As we sip coffee and await her arrival, I see her head poke around the corner of the hotel restaurant and the long, tight hug she gives floods me with memories of our month spent living together on the European side of the Bosphorus.
We pile into her non-descript, French-made sedan—banged up and missing some trim as well as paint—like all the other cars on the road in Algiers. As she reverses out of the parking space, she hits the curb hard and laughs nervously. “Well, that’s a great way to start the day, isn’t it?” That was just the beginning.
Speeding west out of Algiers, the diesel-choked city gives way to the Atlas foothills and then mountains as we cruise along the motorway through towns like Blida, Chiffa, and then Medea—our final destination and home to the Monastery of Tibhirine. Years ago, my father recommended the film Of Gods and Men; the story of French Cistercian monks who lived and worked in Medea, serving the primarily Muslim community in the early 1990s. The monks integrated deeply and participated significantly in the community; caring for the sick, keeping bees for honey, celebrating births and marriages, and solving day-to-day problems with villagers as they navigated the Algerian Civil War. The film is based off the book, written by John Kiser, and accurately captures the vibe and geographic feel of the monastery. I was so taken with their story and subsequent deaths—reportedly at the hands of a jihadist group—that when our trip to Algeria came up, I knew visiting the monastery was a must.
Arriving in Medea, we stop in town to get copies of our passport, which I absent-mindedly left in our hotel room. The gracious shopkeeper takes pity on us and makes the copies for free. I’m guessing he has a fairly narrow profit margin, what with selling gum, soda, cigarettes, and the random photocopy from time to time. His generosity made a potentially enormous inconvenience much easier. A few minutes later and after asking a handful of strangers for directions, we arrive at the local precinct.
The two officers on duty seem more like a 1980s buddy-cop duo comedy routine than policemen. They are so pleased to see visitors—foreigners and Americans at that. Lots of jokes and questions about Amreeka. After we write nice things in their “guestbook,” they radio ahead and are told to escort us to the monastery. Another 20 minutes passes as we wait in our car for a police van to show up. Up winding streets and in and out of potholes while choking on the diesel of both my friend’s car and that of the police paddy wagon ahead of us. We arrive in one piece, thank the officers, and head into the monastery.
The grounds reflect the work of the monks. Apiaries, gardens, extensive irrigation, and a well—complete with a drinking mug on a string. We join a jovial group of Italian tourists who have arrived before us and take part in the tour provided by the staff. The story of Dom Christian de Cherge and his conversion from military to religious service—sparked by his close friendship with a Muslim man early on, is moving and reminiscent of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s easy to imagine a contemplative life in this beautiful and well-cultivated acreage. Everything is simple. Even the gift shop sells just honey, which is meant to supplement the monastery’s income. Refreshingly, there is no branding or “merch” to speak of.
As we wrap up our visit, we walk back out to the parking spot, only to find a new police officer—a motorcycle cop—waiting for us. He explains he’s been asked to escort us back to the police station. Now, our understanding has been that we provide the passport copies and that's that. This has now changed and over the next hour, we will find out (much to Sarah’s embarrassment and consternation) that the police are requiring that we be escorted all the way back to Algiers—90 minutes away.
This wasn’t my first trip to the Middle East. I know nothing ever goes as planned and everything takes three times as long. I wasn’t upset about the change of plans, but I started to feel a rise internally—not anger at the police or my friend, but just the absurdity of it all; the lengths the police were going to in order to protect us Americans. This kind of effort wouldn’t have been made for anyone else, or even an Algerian for that matter. But because of what happened to the monks and because no one wants an incident involving Americans, this is the special treatment we received. I found this embarrassing. It's frustrating that a passport I’ve done nothing to earn keeps me in a protected and elevated place. Am I grateful? Yes. But why can’t everyone expect the same amount of respect and care? Americans are exceptional alright, but for none of the right reasons, and we sure as hell don’t need to be inviting problems by visiting off-limits places like the southern, eastern, and western borders—known to be rampant with kidnappings. This is why I chose one place outside the capital to visit and asked my friend to be our guide; it felt prudent. And in the spirit of prudence, I’m not posting photos of the police, their vehicles or official buildings as I don’t want to make things difficult for Sarah, who still remains in Algeria.
Two hours later, a police-escorted bathroom break to a public restroom for my husband, and three stops in-between to radio ahead to the next gendarme prefect and change out escorts, we are told while waiting at an underpass that we are finally free to go on ahead to Algiers alone.
Exhausted and thirsty, we breathe a collective sigh of relief and decide how to salvage the rest of our day. At that point, I’m sort of hoping the vote will lean toward a meal in the hotel and then a nap. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, meaning the activities still have hours to go, Sarah suggests eating at a Turkish place we’d discussed earlier in the day which is another hour’s drive north, in the coastal city of Tipaza.
Monk's robes at Monastere de Tibhirine. Medea, Algeria. March 2023 Credit: Laurie Galbraith
Fishing nets in Byblos, Lebanon. July 2010. Credit: Laurie Galbraith
MOST TOURISTS only passively enjoy their destination. They slurp the noodles, take a selfie in front of the sunset, buy the cheap pashmina, and return home with a phone full of photos—seen again only during spells of boredom at the doctor’s office.
General wisdom says that a well-planned trip is the most enjoyable. Maybe, but with too much planning, debacle and spontaneity — the two catalysts of good travel stories — are hard to find. It is in the midst of uncertainty that we meet people and make connections, either because we must, or because we realize the illusion of control is gone temporarily and we might as well enjoy the moment. In The Joys of Travel, Thomas Swick laments the all too familiar feeling of being emotionally flat when traveling, especially alone. “We exit our lives without, usually, entering someone else’s,” he says. “In a void, deprived of company, conversation, connection."
Most of my travels, whether short—volunteering for a month in India, or longer—studying in Lebanon and working in Turkey—rooted themselves most deeply in my heart and mind when I made emotional connections with locals. They solidified my resolve to return again and dig even deeper. More than just a smile and 30-second small talk with the server of my fresh pineapple juice and apple hookah (argileh) at a seaside café; I mean the unexpected occasions which reinforce that notion that we have more in common with the “foreigner” than we think.
Studying Arabic in Lebanon found me wanting when it came to native speakers to practice with. Urban Lebanese are proud of their English skill, using every opportunity to impress English speaking visitors and expats. After day trips to less populated areas, it became apparent that small towns afforded the best chance to polish my colloquial language fluency. Southern Lebanon (junoub) is historically the most volatile, due to its shared border with Israel. UNIFIL workers and UN peacekeeper vehicles dot most of the roadways, keeping travelers aware of the underlying conflict with Lebanon’s southern antagonist. Simmering tensions notwithstanding, larger towns like Sidon, Tyre, and some a bit smaller, such as Qana, are steeped in history, theological importance, and are less congested than Beirut. My three flatmates and I itched to go south, despite warnings to the contrary. So, we headed down to the taxi stand across from our building, hired a car, and made fast friends with our driver Ahmed, as we barreled down the highway in his aged minivan.
ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, but also contested by Israel—which has a second location with the same name—Qana is the place where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine. Following our stop there, one of our friends complains of a headache, likely the beginning of heatstroke. Ahmed—fiery, wiry, and helpful to a fault—quickly volunteers his sister Nura’s home in nearby Qana as a place to cool off and rest. We agree this is a prudent idea and Ahmed coaxes his tired van back into action. Ten minutes before we reach Nura’s apartment, we leave our friend in the feebly air-conditioned car with Ahmed and soberly take in the skeletal UN compound, bombed out by Israeli military during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. Amidst anti-personnel cluster bombs, throngs of people unable to leave the village sought refuge in the building and were left dead or maimed. Broken glass, debris, and bullet holes still remain, painting a vivid picture for visitors who didn’t witness the Qana Massacre. This and similar scenarios have been a part of life for those living in the south, and for many, bitterness simmers under the surface, reinforcing support for groups like Hezbollah.
We arrive at Nura’s house bedraggled and hot, our sick friend now vomiting on the sidewalk. Ahmed’s sister opens the door and greets our motley crew warmly. Noticing our friend’s state, she flies into action, directing us to the side of the apartment, to a large patio shaded by lush bougainvillea. In the Middle East, the guest is king—nothing is overlooked. On large, faux gold and silver trays, Nura brings in cold lemonade, cookies, fruit, and a fan to cool our sweat as we languish on the worn but comfortable furniture. Our friend is treated as if he is family. She lays a long, hallway-type rug down on the cool concrete, grabs throw pillows off the family couch, cool cloths for his head, and a cold 7-UP. After making him comfortable and brushing aside our offers to help, she hurries to the front yard and removes all traces of sick off the front walk. Within minutes, she joins us in conversation while tenderly caring for our friend, removing his socks and shoes, and changing out the cool washcloth regularly. Nura took great care in everything it seemed. Walking to the back of the apartment to use the bathroom, I note the heavy, brocaded but dust-free drapes, and sparkling glass frames around her family pictures.
Shia Muslim like most of her neighbors, Nura fully understands the lingering vitriol caused by the Qana Massacre and other military actions that lead to death in her village. While we utilize our improving Arabic and Nura relies on Ahmed to translate the gaps, she shares earnestly how deeply she cares for people, no matter their religion, or where they’re from. She explains quietly that if another attack were to happen and an Israeli soldier were to come to her doorstep—wounded—she would treat him the same way she was treating our friend. Caring for people is the most important. It does not matter where they are from or what they believe. She looks around slowly at the two of us on chairs, and our friend dozing in and out of sleep—all whom she had never met in her life—and smiles. Her rare and unpopular opinion in this region—marked by pain, bitterness, and hatred—is met with our humbled silence and moist eyes.
THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS from Beirut is about three hours—including a border stop and a falafel sandwich break in Chtoura. This also assumes an average driving speed of 90 mph.
While studying in Lebanon, I arrange to spend a long weekend in Damascus. It’s fairly easy to find a cab and the rate is affordable. Other passengers going the same way will help share the cost, this is called service.
My very caffeinated driver, Khalid, and I settle on a price and then pile into the car with an elderly gentleman intent on complaining when he isn’t sleeping. And there’s Iman, a middle-aged Palestinian woman returning to the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. She hopes to one day leave the camp for good and make use of her PhD in finance.
While Khalid chain smokes and my elderly seat mate snores beside me, Iman tells me of her yearning for a place where she feels moored and stable, wishing her host government would support her community far better than it does. She also describes equal feelings of loss and resentment over not having a country to call her own, and of harboring anger so forceful it sometimes threatens to derail the hope she holds for the future.
The Lebanon-Syria border crossing is a circus. Cars, trucks, passenger buses, and semi-trucks all vie for a spot to park. Clogging the roadway, drivers and their riders leave vehicles unattended in an effort to get inside and ensure stamps, signatures, and documentation are handled. Khalid and my seatmate make a beeline for the building while Iman grabs my hand; we need to stick together, okay? Into the crowded crush of people, we push our way into a line.
A thousand hot, sticky bodies with accompanying pungent aromas threaten my ability to breathe. Iman leans in close and whispers, put your arms around me…don’t let go. We’ll get to the front. I wasn’t scared so much as concerned the process would take too long and Khalid might leave without us. I was glad for a guide and protector. It’s an hour before we simultaneously find our way back to Khalid’s Hyundai Sonata—no small feat, considering the sea of ubiquitous white sedans to comb through; the missing hubcap is helpful. At some point, Khalid has bartered a Titanic soundtrack CD for a watermelon, which he perches on the armrest between himself and Iman. Off we go, slowly navigating the border lanes until we get back up to Khalid’s terrifying but typically Middle Eastern highway speed. He smokes, balances the watermelon, and continues to gesture wildly as he chatters on about the finer points of Lionel Richie and George Michael.
The road to Damascus, Syria from Beirut, Lebanon. A private "service" driver balances a watermelon on the armrest while navigating the highway at breakneck speed. August 2010. Credit: Laurie Galbraith
In the U.S., most processes that handle serving the public are controlled. There is no free-for-all when it comes to DMV, border offices, or social security. You take a number and step up when called. Reflecting on this later, I realized that order and control often keep us from interacting. At the border building, Iman and I needed each other so we could stay standing and not be pushed over, which created a temporary physical bond in addition to our open conversation in the car. Essentially, chaos creates a need for unification, which creates connection. When you travel, there are no shortage of chances to see how people go ‘without’ in their lives; often times tangible needs like regular electricity and access to education, and sometimes intangible and unseen; safety, comfort, and rest. Despite Iman’s everyday need for security and provision, she somehow managed to give me what she desperately hoped for herself: protection.
WISSAN IS THE SECOND WIFE of a wealthy Saudi national. They have three children together in Riyadh and most of her days are spent there, living the existence of a second wife, only interrupted by a shopping trip to Dubai, Beirut, or the occasional holiday to Sharm Al-Sheik in Egypt. This year, they come to Beirut to see what the shopping malls have to offer. ABC in Souq Sassine near Achrafiyeh (sounds like ash-ra-fee-ya) is a large mall in the largely Christian area of east Beirut and in the late summer heat, the air conditioner is struggling and the mall is stifling — too many shoppers desperate to escape the hot weather and high humidity. Family is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern society; large families enjoy most activities together, even shopping trips.
I walk outside, looking for respite from the overwhelming noise and find a shady spot at the edge of a fountain and wait for my movie to begin. Moments later, a woman completely covered by a black robe (abaya) and headscarf with a face covering that only left her eyes visible (niqab), sits next to me while her children play in the shallow water. Always looking for opportunities to improve my Arabic, I say hello and smile: as-salaam wa-alaikum. With an almost indiscernible note of surprise, she responds in kind, wa-alaikum as-salaam. I know she is smiling when her chocolate brown eyes crinkle the tiniest bit. We exchange customary pleasantries, make introductions, and begin to chat. It’s clear she wants to show off her strength in English as much as I want to improve my Arabic. We laugh as we compromise — mixing the two languages together for comical sentences that make perfect sense to us.
After several minutes, we both take a collective breath, drink from our water bottles, and watch shoppers emerge with their hauls. Wissan turns to me quietly and gestures toward her coverings with a hennaed hand. I want to tell you something that may seem strange. I see her shoulders rise as she takes a breath and gestures toward her clothing and head covering; I really am pretty underneath all this.
I am stunned.
I look at her eyes and see her courageous attempt to garner affirmation. At a loss, my own young adulthood flashes before me, years of shattered self-esteem owing to all-too-common childhood trauma. I understand what it means to find solace in being hidden, but also want desperately to uncover and literally and figuratively: be known. It seems like minutes pass. As I look at her, I struggle with what to say, how to ensure my emotion will be understood. Wissan, my friend...I am so honored you shared these words with me and trust me with your thoughts. As a young woman, I had experiences that made me feel as you do now. I know you’re beautiful mostly because of your kind heart, but also because of the beauty in your eyes. We are no longer strangers, because we have shared the same path. You gave me a gift today…mamnoonik (I am indebted).
Her eyes fill. She reaches out and hugs me by the fountain that afternoon, holding me tightly, both of us connected through courage and vulnerability.
When you meet someone who, spurred by a whisper of courage, shares so deeply that they open themselves up to an emotional filleting, you realize that reciprocation is the only appropriate response. In that moment, you are no longer strangers and a tiny piece of that place now belongs to you, and you to it.
As I've immersed myself in Middle Eastern culture for work and study, I have been pulled in deeply—far beyond warm hospitality and a dizzying array of foods to explore—to a place that gave me opportunities to understand people within their contexts and meet them as they are. Repeated chances to see the shared hopes, fears, desires, disappointments, and motivators that bind us together in the human experience are more powerful than the differences we fixate on.
These commonalities cultivate meaningful connections with the places we travel to and endear us to the strangers who become our friends in the process.
Author and an old friend, walking at Tibhirine Monastery, Draa Essamar, Algeria. March 2023. Credit: Rob Guglielmetti
Three travel vignettes are excerpts from my 2015 travel essays.
Equanimity is what I hope for most of the time. An even handling of life—no matter what the universe flings at me.
The Franciscan Renewal Center "the Casa" is the place where I began to learn about how to find peace in the storm of pain, loss, uncertainty, and misinformed choices. I would make the 45-minute drive to Paradise Valley from south Phoenix and spend an afternoon—regardless of weather—walking the labyrinth, napping in the meditation chapel, and sometimes, crying.
It was a rough season; a time Franciscan priest Richard Rohr coined "falling upward" in his book with the same name. In it, he explains the task of the two halves of life and lovingly but pointedly explains that those who have fallen, failed, or "gone down" are the only ones who understand "up."
I'm not sure I completely understand "up" yet, but I believe I have a better grasp than I did in those days. Lately, it looks like realizing that my capacity to forgive others depends a good deal on my willingness to forgive myself.
For privilege of being allowed to enjoy the Casa and for the gift of screwing up, I'm grateful.