Street scene in Tbilisi, Georgia by Kathryn Eastburn

The Middle Distance 11.12.10: “Safe”

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photo by Sean Cayton

Be safe. Be smart and safe, I told my kids when they were teenagers, headed out for a night roaming the town in another teenage driver’s car. Be safe, when they were going camping with friends, or touring the country with a band. I still tell them now, all of them adults. Be safe.

Recently, I saw an old friend whose safety I worry about. In his late 70s, he rides a bike, nearly every day, up one of the longest hills on one of the busiest streets in town, to the supermarket. Halfway up, on a dangerous curve, in rush hour traffic, he stops to get his breath. This man survived Nazi Germany as a boy, and thinks little about the risk of a difficult bike ride. When I saw him last week, at church, he smiled at me and said, “Be safe.”

When did I become timid and afraid? I used to crave ventures out of the ordinary; now I seem to seek safety amidst the uncertainty that has become the norm, out here in the middle distance.

Once, not so long ago but in what seems a different lifetime, I took a trip to the Republic of Georgia to report on the situation of refugees from breakaway republics. Hardly a war zone, and I was anything but an intrepid reporter, but this was a place as foreign to me as the Land of Oz. I didn’t speak the language; I couldn’t even read the alphabet, an ancient curling script that looked like a wallpaper pattern.

A Georgian journalist who worked for the BBC set me up with interviews and took me along with her family on a few road trips, breathtaking adventures given the road conditions and the plunging cliffs along crumbling roads traversing the Caucasus mountains. But most days I was on my own, trying to figure out how to catch a bus — a rattling minivan with balding tires — from my apartment to the city center.

One Saturday afternoon, I decided to ride a bus to the end of the line, then back into central Tbilisi, just to see a little more of the city. I sat in the far back seat and enjoyed the view of winding hillsides and ancient churches, sturdy fortresses against time. The view widened as the road settled into a straight flat line across rocky plains. Finally, I realized the bus was headed to Rustavi, the next town over, an industrial power center during the Soviet era, its massive factories dilapidated and rusting. A few kerchiefed ladies clutching bags of produce giggled and talked as we approached the devastated city, the perfect set for a post-apocalypse film. They got off at the edge of a field, and I stayed on until the bus driver stopped in front of a rundown tavern on a main highway, looked back at me and gave me the off signal with his thumb.

“Tbilisi? Bus to Tbilisi?” I stammered to the amused patrons of this darkened bar. They pointed to the road and gestured me across to the other side. A matted dog lay curled in the dirt next to a pile of cement blocks. I waited as dusk grew chilly and darker until, finally, a cockeyed pair of headlights bounced toward me and stopped.

The bus was jammed with men and women decked out in bright, tight-fitting polyester outfits, party clothes. The weekend drinking had already begun, and I squeezed in next to an acne-scarred boy with pointy knees. Laughter and singing seemed to propel the rattly bus forward to Tbilisi as the bus driver stopped every few miles to pour water into the smoking radiator.

Overlooking Tbilisi by Kathryn Eastburn

Finally, in the shining distance, on Tbilisi’s main drag: the golden arches of the McDonald’s at Republic Square, a dropoff point I recognized and from where I could manage to get myself home. The busload of weekend revelers spilled out onto the street and I walked through the underpass to my bus stop.

Just as I reached the stairs, the lights flickered, then went out. I climbed up to the sidewalk and marveled at the beauty of the darkened city, the daily power outage that no one seemed to notice. Candles began to appear in apartment windows. Streams of car lights shot through the night. At the bus stop, young boys crowded around a radio, snapping their fingers and listening to Motown hits. I was safe.

“The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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4 Responses to The Middle Distance 11/12/10: "Safe"

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Safe is so relative. I’ve been in safe places because I believed I was safe. Your piece shows how when we see things as unsafe we reflect it back on our world. Hope you find a safe spot.

  2. Lenore Fleck says:

    We hope our children learn from our mistakes, but they actually learn best from their own mistakes. That is the bravado of youth.

    Recently, I was in Los Angeles without a car and so I ventured onto the bus system. My mother was aghast and almost scared me out of taking the bus. However, I was determined to try. I stood nervously on the side of a wide thoroughfare, waiting along with a few other people who kept to themselves by unspoken agreement. After just a few minutes on the bus, I realized I was completely safe. It was really a great way to sightsee off the freeway corridor and to people watch too. Afterwards, I felt silly having succumbed to the fear of the unknown.

  3. Paul Bowman says:

    Ah, but we do fear for our children. In the middle distance, we know how close we came to disaster on all the adventures we had. I do wish my children the adventures I have enjoyed, but I also know how precious and precarious life is. What a grand adventure life is–I do hope my children stay safe, but I also know many of the great adventures I now look back fondly on weren’t safe at all.

    Kathryn, thank you so much for the perspective you give in these outstanding essays.

  4. Brenda Holmes-Stanciu says:

    …climbing off a broken down train with enormous backpacks next to the slums in Brazil with my 2 teacher companions- none of us spoke Portuguese but we were good at gesturing and talking in broken spanish and italian. I had candy ready to hand out to the curious children. I stood at least a foot taller than anyone in town, and one of the teachers was chinese american. When I took out a map, she commented, “put that away! They will know we are tourists!”. Egads- would the map give us away?? I cried I was laughing so hard…How can I allow myself to give my daughters the freedom to have similar adventures?

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