A journey around the world … but not far from home


We were visiting our daughter’s family in Silver Spring, Maryland, to explore their new home and to hug our granddaughters, Noa and Selma. We don’t like to crowd them, so we stayed at a nearby hotel called The Courtyard. 

Right there in the lobby, my wife saw a familiar face: Eddie Muller, the Turner Classic Movies host known as “The Czar of Noir.” We joined their troupe from Hollywood in the garden patio to discuss the concept of “noir” – you know, movies made on low budgets,  shown as “B” fare to fill the bill, and which often give foreign or young directors a chance to strut their stuff for studio producers.   

So, I could combine pleasure with business on this trip.  That is, family fun plus “research” into the film-industry’s historical output, which TCM has renewed, restored and celebrated on television.    

Our lodging at this inn overlooked the public library, which also holds an Ethiopian coffeehouse named Fema and has a teeny-tiny garden at the entrance with an odd bronze statue of a lion standing up in an uncomfortable pose and – look closely at the base – a mouse, of all things!

I knew at once what this was all about. It was a reminder of the Aesop’s Fable about the mouse that befriends a lion that is suffering from a thorn in its paw.  The mouse saves the King of Beasts, which customarily dines on wee rodents – but not this time.   

What does it all mean?  I like Aesop’s Fables best when their meaning is mysterious, vague or about fate, not hope. Otherwise, they are too preachy for my taste. But this one is about unlikely rescuers, and the fragility of power. Plus, I had a chance to show off my lifelong interest in Aesop, the slave who mocked his masters and who was killed – thrown from a cliff into the Aegean Sea – for his writings.   

Now, I believe that “Aesop” means “Ethiopian.” And that he was sold into slavery for being a Jew – a Falasha from the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia, where Jews had retreated after long-ago religious wars. (I can find Jewish meaning everywhere and in all things and events.)  

I told the driver of The Courtyard tour bus this interpretation, and asked my wife to snap a shot of the dramatic storytelling sculpture. The driver,  Alexander, escorted me to and from our daughter Lily’s nearby home, and we became friends. 

“I want to thank you in print as well as in person,” I told him, which is partly why I’m tapping out this tale.

I somehow believe that if you are a proper traveler, you can sometimes wait for the culture that you seek in far-off lands to come to you, instead of going by air or sea to see the sights.  Right here in the nation’s capital, I visited the region and the realm of the Solomonic-era Queen of Sheba. 

Decades ago, in 1985, I greeted new immigrants arriving from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at absorption centers in Israel. Now they are creating a community right here in our heartland, a mere hour’s flight from Providence.

Similarly, Hollywood’s Silver Screen has come to Silver Spring, just blocks from the White House. Not via a DVD, but in a huge palace that shows original 35-mm films.

When the reels malfunctioned, forcing a break while the film was being taped together, I made conversation with the elderly couple ensconced a few seats from me. They turned out to be Holocaust survivors from Hungary.

What were the movies being shown? One was “I Wake Up Screaming,” starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis and the villainous Laird Cregar, and Ed Muller explained the background of each actor, all new stars in 1941. (My granddaughter Selma thought I was talking about a kids’ movie, like the way her baby sister wakes up screaming for “Nana.”)

So, I had a grand nostalgic time everywhere I went, even unto the final hour of our visit, when my friend and former student Gib, who married my wife’s friend and former classmate Carol, drove us from Silver Spring to the Baltimore airport. 

Thanks, dear readers, for letting me go on and on about how you bump into yourself everywhere you roam, in delightful and surprising ways.  Coffee helps along the way, and a glass of wine, and the smile of a granddaughter. And a local Israeli/Yemenite bourbon sales rep, Jonathan Shair, “Distiller Ambassador” of Twin Valley, who poured sips of rum and bourbon at 11 a.m., at the farmer’s market next door to our Courtyard – and who earned my grin of gratitude. 

This was a journey around the world, which spun in my head with every footstep.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.