Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Hope Quilt Disappears aka My Luggage Gets Stolen at a Train Station

When I travel in other countries I like to use public transportation as much as possible. However, if I'm in a new country where English isn't spoken much, and I don't know my way around, it can be difficult. In these situations a friend usually picks me up or my host sends a driver. This simplifies the first stage of "being" in a new place. But when I am somewhat familiar with a city, as I am with Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Brussels, and I have the time to work things out, I kind of like having to fend for myself. The trains, metros, trams, and busses in each of these cities are quite user friendly when the user knows where he/she is going and knows what to do. Therein lies the catch in this story.
On Tuesday I landed at Brussels airport late in the morning and had ample time to get to my hotel and relax a bit. I decided to take the train to Centraal Station and then take the Metro and Tram to the hotel. I boarded the first car of the train and settled into my seat with my two rolling bags, guitar and shoulder bag. As the train headed for the city I became immersed writing in my notebook, working on a new song idea. After a couple of stops I expected to see Centraal Station. When that didn't happen and a few more stops came and went I realized I had missed it. I was enjoying the train ride and viewing some of the Belgian countryside so I decided to ride on a little, get off in one of the villages and take the train back to Centraal station. I went past Waterloo and on to Braine 'L Alleud where I disembarked, walked around some and had lunch. I enjoy the unexpected twists and turns of travel and I was having a rather pleasant time of it.
While walking back to the train station I saw a bus parked out front. The destination sign said "Brussels Midi Station / City Center" which I knew would be near Centraal Station. I could figure it out from there so I boarded the bus to give another means of transport a try. The bags and guitar were more cumbersome on the narrower bus and the ride was less comfortable than the train. The last bus stop turned out to be at Midi Station. I learned that Midi (or Zuid) Station connects to Centraal Station via the Metro. After studying the map a bit I realized I didn't need to go to Centraal Station. I could take the #6 train to the #5 train which would put me close to the hotel. It was now mid afternoon and I was beginning to feel tired. Lugging (maybe that's why they call it luggage) my bags and guitar around was taking it's toll.
Sluggishly, I crossed the street and descended the escalator into the poorly lit train station. I was at a lesser used end of the station and there weren't many people around. I studied the map and then proceeded to the ticket machine to figure out how to buy a ticket. I had to set my rolling bags down to free my hands. I kept touching screens and pushing buttons until I persuaded the machine to give me instructions in English but when I went to insert the requested Euro coins nothing happened. It seemed like the coin slot was jammed but it could've been my misunderstanding the directions. It was frustrating. My patience was waning.

At this point a man walked up and spoke to me in English asking a question. Both these acts were unexpected. Most travelers keep to themselves and I hadn't heard hardly any english spoken that day. I answered him somewhat curtly and turned back to the machine in hopes of getting my ticket. Less than thirty seconds later I reached for my bags and realized they were gone. I hadn't seen or heard anyone else in the few minutes I was there, just the man who spoke to me. I recalled that after I answered him he left quickly. Now I knew why. His partner or partners came behind me when he came from my left. I didn't hear or see anyone else but later recalled that seconds after the man spoke to me I hear the rumbling sound of a train arriving or leaving.

My mind raced and I raced (as much as possible with a guitar on my back and the second rolling bag in hand) around the station. The bags were nowhere. I went up the escalator, over to the bus stop, down the escalator, to the train platforms -- nothing -- the bags and the man were gone.
I did a quick mental inventory, what was in the rolling bag? All of my clothes, except some Bridges of Peace tee shirts, a box of 30 CD's, about 10 books, my notebooks, the novel I was reading, a library book I borrowed from the American School in Barcelona, and my video camera. The green shoulder bag contained my notebooks and assorted other tings, and that was gone too. My heart sank momentarily when I realized that's where my I usually kept my laptop computer. Upon inspection of the remaining bag I remembered I had transfered the laptop to the other rolling bag that morning because it was lighter to carry that way. At least that wasn't gone. The power chord was in the big bag though along with assorted other chords and harmonicas, toothbrush, razor etc.

On the plus side I still had my passport, wallet, cash, digital camera and guitar. I looked for authorities to report the theft to but couldn't find any and really didn't have much to report. I hadn't seen anyone with my bags and I hadn't studied the man who spoke to me at all. I would never be able to identify him and if I did I couldn't prove he was involved. All he had done was ask me a question.

I made my way to the hotel and began to accept that I had just been taught a lesson by some slick, professional thieves. I have to be more diligent in handling my "things." Since it could've been much worse I didn't remain upset. I was more perplexed and curious than angry, and disappointed in myself. After all I bore some of the blame. I should've been more careful, but sometimes things just happen and there was nothing to be gained by staying "down" about it.

It wasn't until hours later while riding in the car with my friend Jill that I realized that there had been one precious and irreplaceable item I overlooked. As I talked with Jill, I began to tell her about the new "Brdiges" website design. As I spoke I said, "On the homepage there will be a map of the world and under the map of the world will be a photo of the......." Before the word quilt came out of my mouth it dawned on me that the Bridges of Peace and Hope Quilt was also in the bag, and now, just like that, it was gone. This made me both sad and angry. So many people from so many places had spent dozens of hours and many months making the quilt. Packages had been mailed back and forth to South Africa, India, Spain, UK, Ukraine, Belgium, Hungary and around the USA. Teachers and artists had drawn, painted and stitched for hours, and Mary Jain and Darlene had worked for weeks to sew it all together, and now, just like that, it was gone.
Jill spent a long time on the phone that evening trying to get help from people at the station. I spent much of the next day retracing my steps and talking to various agents. I went to two lost and founds and three stations and the best I could do was leave Jill's name and contact information and hope it turned up. One helpful security agent held his thumb and index finger about 1/16th of an inch apart to show me what he thought the chances were that it would be returned. Jeffrey Brewster, the Teacher Librarian at the International School of Brussels emailed today to tell me that a friend of his had her bag stolen at the same station and later found the bag for sale at a flea market. Jeffrey went to the flea market this past weekend with a hopeful eye but didn't find the quilt.
I believe that everyone and everything that happens is connected to everything else and that there will be some good that will come of this. Perhaps the quilt will be returned, or maybe one of our friends in Brussels will see someone who needs a quilt using it to keep warm on the street. At the very least the photographic images Ray Flanigan so skillfully captured will endure, and like the used up jacket in the folktale "the Tailor," the story of the quilt will be told for a long time to come.
My sincere apologies to all who contributed to the quilt. I should have been more careful.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Ups and Downs of Traveling

I'm on my last two days in Europe on a "short" eight day visit. I had a great time at the International School of Brussels where I did two days of workshops and an evening concert for families. The students, teachers, parents, and staff were all wonderful to work with and the work we did has set the stage for some marvelous "Bridges" collaborations next year and well into the future. Fourth garde teacher Cheryl Terry, Media Specialist Jeffrey Brewster, and guidance conselor Jill Tulonen have all been helping with Bridges projects for a couple of years now but this visit was a terrific leap forward. Cheryl will be moving on to another ISB, the International School of Bangkok in Thailand, and she hopes to continue building Bridges there, and BOPH is well established now at the Inernational School of Brussels, thanks to Cheryl, Jill, Jeffrey and the other teachers there.
In our culminating BOPH assembly at ISB Brussels we sang "We Are Walking a Bridge of Peace" in 9 languages including new translations in Swedish, Hebrew, French and Japanese. ISB is a very diverse population and the grade 4 students whoe came from the countries where these languages are spoken came up and sang "their language" with me for the rest of the audience. It was wonderful to see how much each "group" supported the others. When each group sang the rest of the audience exploded with applause. We also sang a rousing version of "Hear My Story," during which the students sang, moved and smiled from the tips of their toes to the ceiling in the theatre. It was exciting.
Earlier in the week I had a great visit to ASB, the American School of Barcelona, where I am returning this afternoon to sing at their International Day Celebration. Lower School principal Nancy Boyd and all the ASB staff always make me feel completely welcome whenever I visit. This was my 3rd or 4th time at the school and they too are active BOPH members.
The attached photos are some of the "ups" of this trip. They show me "volunteering" to assist a street performer. The caption of the photo should probably be "Know what you're volunteering for before you raise your hand." When no one offered to volunteer I went up because as a presenter I know how that feels. What I didn't know was that I was volunteering to have him balance "me" on top of his shoulders. My dismount was a little shaky but all's well that ends well and the experience left no permanent scars.
The "downs" of travel on this trip will be detailed in a future post in which I'll tell of how my luggage was stolen in a train station by some very clever thieves. That's all for now.