What the Media Doesn't Show; or, Kimchi Is Not Actually Bad

Syria, 2003. No signs of fear--bad media day.
At a Korean luncheon for international women last week, I sat with a Singaporean and a Hungarian. Madam Hungary (who has sweated out a coup in Kenya and two Gulf wars in Saudi Arabia) had been musing on how the media skews our perception of peril. That, of course, brought up my standby story about how I first learned the power of the media:

We lived in Syria a dozen years ago. When we first set out for Damascus, my dad had grown uncharacteristically emotional, and I don’t think it was just because he was going to miss us. I think he was genuinely afraid that we were going to have our throats slit or fall victim to a suicide bomber.

To be honest, I didn’t think those scenarios were entirely unlikely. But for both of us the biggest fear was not so much for my husband and me but for the seven-month-old baby we were bringing along. She was 50 percent of my dad’s grandbabies back then.

Our experience in Syria was unforgettable, in good ways and bad. On the good days we spent time with friends and explored the country. On the bad days we holed up in our sweltering apartment and watched Al-Jazeera on television, trying (usually ineffectively) to follow the Arabic but getting the gist of world news mostly from the images.

After months passed and the time for our departure approached, our Syrian friends expressed their dismay at our decision to return to the U.S. “Why don’t you stay here?” they asked. “You have a baby to consider, after all. . . . Aren’t you afraid to raise her in a dangerous country like the U.S.?”

If this question had been posed to me at the beginning of our time in Syria, I would have laughed. Or, if I were in a more polite mood, I’d have logged it in my mental list of party stories—right next to the one where I describe my home state of Idaho as being “near California.”

But I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach spun. They were right, I worried. I did have a baby to consider. Syria was eerily safe (that's the upside of repressive dictatorships), and the U.S. honestly was so full of guns and fighting, immorality, law breaking, and deceit. Hadn’t I seen dozens of news spots showing real footage—indisputable evidence—of the hazards inherent in living in the U.S.? The thought of taking my baby there honestly did make me think twice about leaving Syria.

This is the part in my story where I stop and laugh incredulously, because of course the U.S. isn’t as dangerous as Al-Jazeera made it appear. Although news footage of America's dangers abound, as an American I have never seen such dangers. It’s only certain places that are dangerous, and certain activities that are fraught with peril. Obviously! But I had been completely taken in by what the media had portrayed as day-to-day life in the States, even as an American whose experience had proved that U.S. can indeed be a very safe place to grow up.

I realized at that moment, while sucking the kimchi from my teeth, that I’ve told this story only to Americans before. Otherwise, I would have been prepared for Madam Singapore’s sober response: “But the U.S. is dangerous! Everyone has guns. I would NOT want to live there.” I coughed.

Okay, so, cultural miscommunication on my part. My story obviously didn’t convey my intent. Madam Hungary stepped in graciously here to reaffirm that the media really does play tricks on our perceptions. The truth is that the places that the media makes out to be dangerous are often more regular than irregular. Outside of the pockets of unrest or disaster, people are getting on with their lives—buying groceries, having birthday parties, attending college classes, going to work. The media doesn’t show us the stuff that would give us a balanced view of reality; it shows us the stuff that will keep us tuned in.

I'd never eaten kimchi before that Korean luncheon, perhaps partially because whenever I'd heard the word it was always wrapped up in the phrase "bad kimchi." But you know what? It wasn't bad at all.  

Hidden Secrets in Plain Sight

In honor of road trips, today I’m going to recall a trip Joey and I took to Palmyra—Palmyra, Syria, that is. Palmyra was an ancient oasis in the windswept Syrian desert, an essential stop for merchant caravans that brought both wealth and war to the city in the centuries preceding and following the birth of Christ. Not many people seem to know about it, which is one of the many reasons why it was so cool.

By bus, you can really take in the vast, tedious emptiness of the desert. And, taking all that in, when the driver finally pulls into a rest area, you can surprise yourself by actually feeling eager to brave the restrooms and willing to pay for any sort of toilet paper. 

Weeeel, this isn't actually Palmyra--it's Busra. But Busra was under Palmyra's control during the reign of Queen Zenobia (in the wee new centuries after the birth of Christ). And also, we didn't have a digital camera way back when we went to Syria, so this is the closest image I've got in my photo library. That's Ibraheem next to us. He's in all of our photos of Busra; he's what Halen would have been like had he been born to a family that lived on the edge of a tourist site.
The driver was smoking outside when Joey and I emerged from the restrooms. Surveying the barren landscape, Joey pointed at a giant satellite dish about a mile out on the horizon. Aside from the gas station, it was the only thing within eyeshot that you could point at. In Arabic Joey asked, “What’s that?” 

Joey, of course, was just making conversation in a place where there’s not much conversation to be made. But the driver, although an amicable guy, didn’t take the bait. He gazed out in the direction Joey had pointed, shook his head, and said, “I don’t see anything.”

I looked again at the satellite and the wire fences and the important-looking buildings. Then, considering the baby in my arms, I cautiously leaned over to ask Joey what the bus driver was smoking. Joey confirmed that the guy’s Camels were legit and then explained that we must be looking at a hidden facility.

It’s funny how a country can manage to create a hidden facility along a main road to a tourist site, across from a gas station, with the biggest structural profile for miles around. 

Syria Series: Accidents of Youth

Taxi drivers can tell you a lot about a country. It says something, for example, that all taxi drivers in Syria are Syrian. And a good number of them are also engineers. I wondered on occasion whether an engineering degree was a requirement for the job. The degree surely would not have been wasted, what with all of the tight squeezes to manage, the daredevil pedestrians to avoid, and the labyrinthine streets to navigate.

But they get cocky sometimes, these engineers. After a late party one night, we chanced upon a taxi driver with a really nice ride. It was the best-looking Syrian taxi I had ever seen. Unmarred, it gleamed like a ceremonial weapon—the kind that never actually goes into battle. The kind that stays home in a clean-swept garage while other cars sacrifice their life and loveliness for their patrons. The driver also seemed a little like the kind of man that would never go into battle.

But like all Syrian men, he acted as though my baby was pretty much the most scrumptious thing he had seen all day. Twisting around to look at her from his seat, he coochie-cooed her for quite a while before he was willing to put the car into gear. Even then, he couldn’t bear to watch the road for more than a few moments between glances back at the baby. We were moving slowly down a hill when he reached back to squeeze the baby’s cheeks and accidentally crashed into a parked car. 

We all piled out of the driver’s formerly pristine vehicle to inspect the damage. He seemed to be sweating a little as he bent over the dent in the front right bumper, rubbing it firmly with his hand, as if to take away the sting. 

Syria Series: Shining Stars

It’s a little-known fact that babies make excellent traveling companions. At least in the Middle East. 

Syrians are among the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world. But when you are walking around with a baby on your hip, you are no less than royalty. It's possible that they might even like George Bush if he walked around with a baby. 

Once, when we were walking to the bakery, a guy stopped to tell us how cute our baby was and how afraid he was that the wind might blow sand into her eyes and make her feet cold (even though the temperature was in the high 90s) and maybe give her some terrible disease. He asked where we were from. “Ah, Amrika,” he said. “Welcome to our country! I am a member of Hezbollah.” We nodded and smiled.

Perhaps sensing he might have said something wrong, this Hezbollah guy added, “My family is eating pizza tonight. Please come to my house and eat with us.” 

We nodded and smiled again and somehow didn’t end up going to his house for pizza. I can’t remember why just now, but it might have had something to do with fear of terrorists. We did, on other occasions, take up a few invitations to dine in Syrian homes.

One such invitation was from a guard at a museum in the Old City. I had been wandering around the front of the museum, waiting for Joey to arrive, when the guard noticed I had a baby. He immediately set about making tea for us. A half hour later, the three of us were chatting about our families. The guard had a baby named Maysoon, which means “shining star.” He thought it was funny that in English, “Maysoon” sounds like “my son.” 

This man made it quite clear that Maysoon was the shining star of his life. He pressed us to agree to come to dinner at his house so we could meet Maysoon. And although to this point, Abu Halen had been a little squeamish about accepting such invitations, this time he committed.

The guard’s house was at the edge of the city, in a building that a construction crew had apparently forgotten. It was little more than a three-story box of unfinished cement. A staircase, void of banisters and ugly with rebar sticking out the sides, switched back and forth through the center of the building, ending in the starry sky above us. We ascended the stairs behind our pleased-as-pie guard as he led us to his tiny apartment on the top floor. 

Inside the apartment, the guard’s wife seemed as thrilled to welcome us as her husband was. Baby Maysoon too was delighted. I was suddenly a little embarrassed that we were only students—and not even rich or famous students. 

As his sweet-faced wife disappeared around the corner into a closet-sized kitchen, the guard started laying newspapers down on the floor. It seemed strange to me that he would arrange them as he did around the burning oil heater. Only later did it become apparent that these would be our table top. 

The guard made fun of the humble arrangement, pretending to read humorous articles from the newspaper has he laid it out. He leapt like an acrobat across the spread, setting down the paper as if they were exclamation points, seeming to genuinely enjoy himself as he entertained us. He pulled faces and chanted rhymes to make the babies laugh. We all laughed.

The wife returned minutes later, apologizing that she would be serving no meat dishes—she was vegetarian. I wouldn’t have minded being a vegetarian for the rest of my life if I had someone like her to cook for me. She had made dishes of fist-sized radishes, spinach, parsley, hummus, salads, soup, and bread. I was in heaven.

We talked far into the night, oblivious to the stars spinning onward in the cold night outside. The babies had fallen asleep as the guard told us about being a child in Hama, after the government had massacred so many Syrians there. His father had been killed, and he and his mother had been left alone. 

The guard gestured gratefully at the oil heater in the center of the room, saying how dearly he and his mother suffered for want of warmth, winter after winter. His mother would cup his hands inside her own and blow on them to take the chill from his fingers. 

I was a child in America when he was a child in Syria. 

I glanced over at Savannah and Maysoon, now sleeping on pillows at the corner of the room. I said a quick prayer of gratitude that my baby had never had to suffer from cold. That I had never had so little to offer as the warmth of my breath. I prayed for Maysoon too, this shining star orbited by adoring parents. And I prayed for his parents, who seemed no less heavenly on that cold, beautiful night. 

Syria Series: Wasta

Don't let looks deceive you--those blondes are only mannequins made up to look oh-so-Arab for the museum.

The Syrians were big on appeals to authority even though many recognized the inherent fallacies. Most individuals we associated with had bachelor’s or master’s degrees—education was free at the University of Damascus. Taxi drivers and housewives were proud to say they were engineers and doctors. 

At first I thought this was pretty cool. But when I started talking with students about their university experience, I realized it didn’t mean much. Students would typically buy books for their classes, but few actually read the books, and fewer still attended classes. Most of the people I spoke with would simply sign up for a class, shoot the breeze with their friends all semester at the coffee shop, cram for the final exam, and mostly cheat to get the grade they wanted. 

So in a country that abounded in well-educated professionals, sound municipal infrastructure, well-designed buildings, and good medical care were exceedingly scarce. Domestically produced goods generally had the veneer but not the substance of quality. 

Although culture was to blame for the cheating, you couldn’t really be mad about it. It was kind of an admirable fault: people valued their friendships so highly that the smart students would much rather share an answer sheet than turn down a friend’s request during a test. For them, honesty was not the best policy; loyalty to friends and family was the best policy. 

I think Westerners find this concept of tribe loyalty very difficult to understand. But we see it all over our dear Old Testament. Abraham and many after him didn’t hesitate to lie to their neighbors to protect their families’ interests. To God they would not lie, but they were under no illusions that their neighbors would reward them for their honesty. Trickery was the name of the game for them—you were loyal to those who would be loyal to you. 

To a starry-eyed, idealistic girl from on-my-honor Brigham Young University, ubiquitous cheating was bewildering. The ninth-grade English class I taught was filled with children of the elite. They were, on the whole, wonderful kids, and I honestly liked them. But their cheating killed me. 

One particular literature quiz (which was obviously not intended for non-native English speakers) asked, “What desires did the main character have after hearing the orchestra.” Heba, who spoke English like a native, quickly scribbled a correct answer: “desire to be a famous person.” Heba’s handwriting was not the best, so the kids who sat next to her copied various versions of her answer: “desipe to be famous” and, worse, “obstile fobe.”

“Sara,” I said, “Obstile fobe? What does that even mean?” Sara’s face went white. She stuttered. I gave her a zero. 

But not to worry—Sara’s mom just had a little talk with the principal, and the principal saw to it that Sara’s grade was raised to a level more befitting someone who has connections. That’s what Syrians call “wasta.” Now you know.

Seria Series: Shutta ya Butta

Here's Plump Abu Halen, before we departed for Syria.
One of the great joys of traveling is sampling a new palate of food choices . . . that is, unless you happen to be Abu Halen. Raised on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, Abu’s food preferences never developed properly. He has the taste buds of a four-year-old. 

As a spouse, I have spent years trying to work new flavors and textures into his diet, hoping that somehow he can learn to enjoy adult foods. Although over the course of a decade I’ve had some success--truly. He has come a long way. Now he eats all sorts of things, like onions (in soup), salads (sometimes), fruit shakes, and even Mexican food. But my efforts were still in their inchoate stages when we departed for Syria. Abu Halen was almost completely unprepared to survive in a foreign country long term.

While I was reveling in spinach pies, grape-leaf rolls, tabbouleh, baklava, cinnamon-rice and peas with lamb, and the most divine watermelon and peaches and pears on this side of heaven, Abu Halen had managed to countenance only hummus, bread, and schawarmas.

Abu Halen consumed so many schawarmas within our first few weeks in our neighborhood in Damascus that he became fast friends with the schawarma guy. The schawarma guy often ran to hug Abu Halen when he saw him round the corner. They were tight. 

Sometimes I felt a little jealous, so I would accompany Abu Halen on schawarma stops. We’d stand, sweating, near the spit of chicken that sizzled while it rotated near an electric heating element. Abu Halen would grab a cold bottle of Pepsi (pronounced “beebsie” in Arabic) from the cooler as he fielded friendly questions from the schawarma guy, who was now shaving paper-thin slices of savory chicken from the spit and piling them into a huge piece of flatbread. 

This is what is face looked like whenever he ate food that I made for him.
The first few times at the schawarma stand, the guy asked whether we wanted hiyar and shutta ya butta. I didn’t catch all of the conversation, because I knew almost no Arabic, but I’m pretty sure Abu Halen was like, “Shutta ya what?” It took weeks of careful observation for us to discover that shutta ya butta was pomegranate sauce, and hiyar was pickle. But it took mere moments to discover that the schawarma was best with neither of those options.

We’ve never had better schawarmas than we had in Damascus. They were for Abu Halen a merciful bright spot amid my own dark attempts at making meals with unfamiliar ingredients. One day I made a garbonzo bean soup I had learned on my mission in Portugal. It was lovely—full of veggies and spices, offering loads of fiber and protein without requiring meat, and all at very low cost. Abu Halen wasn’t impressed. In fact, the soup actually elicited the same reaction I got when I first served him bacon made from turkey rather than pork.

During those nine months, I never could bring myself to buy much meat, although it was all Abu Halen wanted. It seemed too expensive, too left out in the sun all day, too imported from who knows where, and too maybe full of growth hormones or something else that would make me grow whiskers or something. It was at mealtimes at home that Abu Halen most wished he were married to the Rays (who ate hamburgers quite a lot) instead of to me.

But no matter: I knew he loved me. And I always bought hummus for him, so that was something.

Here's Abu Halen near the end of our nine-month stay in Syria, completely emaciated. Here he's pleading with someone to hold his child, because he has no strength remaining.

Syria Series: Cool Water from a Christian

I consider myself relatively easy to get along with—unless you live with me, that is. (Yes, pity the Rays, who were our roommates in Damascus.) So when I meet someone I don’t get along with, it’s kind of a big deal. I think about it a lot. It worries me. It challenges me. It makes me think harder about what it means to be Christian. So really, it’s pretty good for me. 

One of our acquaintances in Damascus was particularly good for me in this regard. He called one day, and I was the one who answered the phone. I was sick and could muster only a weak hello, but that was all it took to get ole’ Brother C to start jabbering. Brother C boasted that he could jabber like this in nine languages. This day’s jabbering went like this:

“Oh, good, Shannon, I can tell you’re healthy and happy today! I have a sort of mental telepathy, so I can tell by the voice how someone is feeling.” I nodded into the telephone receiver—that was the only encouragement he needed to continue. 

Don’t get me wrong—I often do like jabberers. Some of my favorite people are jabberers. I just have a hard time when they talk only of themselves. Or when I get the feeling they’re jabbering down at me. Brother C. had both tendencies. 

Just a few weeks before I fell ill, we had gathered with some friends one Friday afternoon, and Brother C. was there jabbering away with another man. The day was warm, and I had—after much struggle—finally gotten my baby to fall asleep in my arms. I looked up in surprise when Brother C. suddenly stopped talking. Looking at me, he said, “Uh, Shannon, water?”

I stared at him uncomprehendingly. “What about water, Brother C?” 

Attempting to assist my understanding, he made a drinking motion with his hand and said, “I am thirsty!”

In my mind, I was like, “What the crap? You’re thirsty? Do you not see the sleeping baby in my arms? You’re the one who should be getting water for me! How ‘bout I show you what a woman like me can do?” 

Fortunately, while I was having this passive-aggressive mental throw-down, a sweet elderly woman in the group was telepathically reading me, and she sprang to her feet and fetched Brother C some water. That woman was a Christian.

Syria Series: Cornflakes

In 2003, you could find Snickers and Lucky Charms in only one location in all of Syria. Stocked quantities would lead you to conclude that the products were imported in a suitcase or two. These were luxuries reserved for non-Syrians suffering from serious home-sickness, because only such desperate individuals could justify spending $8 for a box of cereal and $6 for a candy bar.

Joey and I couldn’t afford such desperation, so instead of Lucky Charms, we sprang for Lebanese cornflakes that were marketed as “Poppins Flick Flakes.” As far as cornflakes go, Flick Flakes were pretty tasty, as long as you could consume them before they got soggy. Their best aspect was, arguably, the sales spiel on the back of the box, which was conveniently provided in both English and Arabic. It went like this:

“Do you know that a bowl of Poppins cereals with milk is the best way to start the day? Research shows that a cereal breakfast is the most nutritious breakfast for you and your kids. Kids who eat Poppins with milk every morning have better results in school because they have more energy, more concentration and a better attitude. Cereals provide more vitamins and minerals than any other breakfast.”

The unsubstantiated claims and vague references to research always made me chuckle. It was only fair that I got a daily healthy laugh out of Flick Flakes, considering how many empty calories I consumed with each bowl. 

Syria Series: A Syrian Welcome--Ahlan wa Sahlan

This journal entry is from our first week in Damascus, September 2003:

This is the barber's buddy; their shops were on opposite sides of the alley. This guy couldn't actually stand up straight but perpetually bowed to all around him, because he ironed all day, every day of the year. He is one of the coolest people I've never known.

Last week, Joey and I met an old barber who owned a tiny shop down the narrow alley near our hostel. Pleased to meet Westerners who could carry on a conversation in Arabic, he invited us into his shop and began chattering the slurred, jovial talk of cheerful old men. 

Although I understood nothing of what he said, I found him nonetheless entertaining with his coffee-darkened teeth, sparkling eyes, and stooped shoulders. As he spoke, the old man casually reached for a bottle of oil on the shelf behind him and began fumbling with its rubber stopper. When his trembling fingers finally managed to pry the stopper free, he wetted it with the bottle’s contents and touched it to the back of Joey’s hand and then to the back of mine. The man smiled briefly but gave no explanation; the scent of perfume spoke its own reason. We had just been anointed. 

Today I read accounts in the Bible where oils and perfumes were offered as gestures of hospitality. The fragrance lingered on my skin that night and for much of the next day, cheering me as it reminded me of the old man’s kindness. The Bible also mentions that the Holy Ghost can also be a kind of anointing, comforting and cheering us when we notice it with us. 

Syria Series: Orient Express 4

It was on the Orient Express that I first discerned that adult Arabs (especially old men) seem to think it’s okay for all children to consume gobs and gobs of sugar. It’s okay even for children who have no molars and are unaccustomed but having anything but milk or mush in their mouths. It’s okay even for the offspring of mothers who have sworn their children will never be tainted with sugar.

A mommy sees this baby and wants to hug it and kiss it and all it hers. An old Arab man sees this baby and wants to make silly noises at it and stuff it with candy.

What was perhaps equally perplexing was how these men almost always seemed to have candy to pass out. It was like Halloween all year round, except, instead of holding out a bag, I held out my baby, and old men would come offering goodies of all sorts: Toblerone chocolate bars, bags of rich confections, peppermints, even cough drops. 

I would smile politely and accept the candy. Then, in hiding, I would savor each chocolate bar as I pondered on whether that guy really thought I was going to feed this to my seven-month-old baby. Or was this candy intended more as a prize for my having reproduced? I finally settled on the latter answer. I was a total winner.

Syria Series: Orient Express 3

Here's our traveling group, including our dear Melanie and Marshall. As you can see, we're all really in touch with our natural selves. We're so organic.
At one of the stops in eastern Turkey, we got acquainted with a Libyan passenger on the train. He had a pretty wife who looked out the window at us from inside the train. He said she never cared to stretch her legs, so we never met her. 

Perhaps it was just as well, though, considering how her husband tended to dominate conversation. I don’t imagine she’d ever have had the chance to say anything. Maybe the respite of silence was one of the reasons she preferred to stay in her cabin rather than stretch her legs.

The Libyan man talked about a recent trip to Spain, laughing that no Westerners knew anything about Libya except that Gadhafi lived there.  “Ghadafi! Bwa-ha-ha!” he bellowed, “Ghadafi!” 

He seemed to be laughing at us, actually. But the joke was on him: Westerner though I was, my concept of Libya now involved not only Ghadafi but also the “Bwa-ha-ha Ghadafi!” guy. My worldview was suddenly broader.

Syria Series: Orient Express 2

At this train station you get a good view of the lady on the right judging me for not putting socks on my baby even when it's 98 degrees outside. The guy on the roof is also clucking his tongue (in Turkish). 
Once we figured out how to get food, the Orient Express became much more exciting. It’s unknown to pretty much all Westerners that eastern Turkey is breathtakingly beautiful. Our train ride let us in on the secret, winding through small villages and towns, high mountain passes, and mile after mile of bucolic farmland. Fig trees leaned over the track as the train rushed past. 

It was only after changing a few diapers that I realized how remarkable it was that any vegetation was growing alongside the railroad tracks. You kind of assume that when you throw things in the waste bin, they eventually get taken to a nice, sanitary landfill somewhere. That would be a Western assumption, however. Waste bins on this stretch of the Orient Express actually get emptied out the window. But it gets better—the toilets also empty right onto the track. So you’re essentially traveling through a sewage landfill on this exotic adventure. 

Syria Series: Orient Express 1

In honor of the upcoming ten-year anniversary of our field study in Syria, Abu Halen and I have decided to write a series of Syria blog posts. Here’s the first installment.

Chillin' in Istanbul, not Constantinople
This story, like most stories of our life, began with a problem: Abu Halen's major required him to do a field study in an Arab-speaking country. But we didn’t have enough money to fly our little family from the U.S. to Damascus. We did, however, have enough to get from the U.S. to Istanbul. 

You might be surprised how little information the Internet offers on ways to get from Turkey to Syria. All I could find was a single website that mentioned that a train still ran the Orient Express route between Istanbul and Damascus once a week.

So we set off to Istanbul, hoping that the website was correct. We packed insect repellent too, because the CDC website said that malaria still appears in eastern Turkey. 

Holy cow, I can’t believe we just took off like that—and with our seven-month-old baby, no less! . . . Our parents couldn’t believe it either. We did what we could to comfort them, assuring them, “If we die, we die!” . . . I’m not sure how we thought that was going to comfort them.

In Istanbul we stayed in a little hostel run by a Turk named Bobby. Bobby loved babies. And he was the first of many Middle Easterners to scare the tar out of my child. He’d take her from my arms while we were eating so he could dance her around the room. He’d carry her outside to show her off to his friends hanging out on the stoop. He’d utter all sorts of unmasculine noises in an effort to make her smile. Savannah would scream, and I would assure Bobby that she was just tired. I think this was the beginning of Savannah’s antisocialism.

Bobby said we could check the train station to see if we could find anything that ran to Damascus. That was our project on day two in Istanbul. We took a ferry across the Bosphorus to reach the station. The guy sitting next to us smoked all the way across, kindly offering to let the baby play with his lighter. 

Having spent a cumulative three years in the Middle East, I now consider it little less than a miracle that the train station was open when we arrived and that Joey managed to secure tickets for the destination we wanted. The trip would take two days, and the train would even offer a food car!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after we had boarded the train that we realized the food car was not in fact stocked with food. We had bought only a little bread for breakfast, and although the train stopped every few hours, it didn’t stop long. Joey wasn’t keen on risking going out to buy food and then being left behind. He tried asking the train conductor how to get food, but it turned out that Turkish was really hard to understand.

So the two of us fasted for the first day, and I crossed my fingers that my milk supply would last long enough to keep the baby happy until we could get food. Driven by hunger, Joey finally left the train at a village buried in the mountain greenery of eastern Turkey. Ages seemed to pass while I stared out the window, hoping he’d return before the train started again. I tried to think what would be worse—going without food or going without Joey. Then I realized that if he didn’t make it back in time, I’d be going without both. My head hurt, and I was starting to sweat. 

When Joey finally returned a few minutes later, he was sweating too. We tore into the cookies, goat cheese, and bread he had bought, as the train pulled away from the village.