Friday, July 22, 2011

David Johnston, Communities Editor of the Montreal Gazette, seeks stories about how travel has transformed you

Jerusalem, a city of ruwach - wind & spirit
Transformed by Travel: A sense of the divine in ancient Jerusalem
by David Johnson, Montreal Gazette

Although the word “tourism” didn’t enter the Oxford English Dictionary until 1811, people have been travelling for business and for pleasure since the beginning of time.

I got a sense of this long history of travel when I visited Jerusalem in May 2009. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christian faith holds that Jesus was crucified, I noticed a piece of graffiti on one of the front columns of the church, which was built in 324 and has been rebuilt and renovated many times since. It said: “Piero 1389.”

Hundreds of years ago, pilgrims who went to Jerusalem would typically walk or travel by horse to Venice or Rome, take a boat from there to Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv), and then go eastward by donkey up into the hills to Jerusalem. The trip would take months. Today, you can fly to Tel Aviv direct non-stop overnight from Toronto.

I visited as part of an ordinary tour group composed of Canadians, Americans and Australians. It was the spring after the 2008 economic downturn, so tourism to Israel had slowed down somewhat. We were about a dozen people, and fit into a large minivan. We spent nine days touring the country, including four nights in Jerusalem.

There’s a municipal building code in Jerusalem that requires construction to be carried out exclusively with Jerusalem limestone, which is blond in colour – unlike Montreal limestone, which is medium grey, or Quebec City limestone, which is light grey. The colour uniformity gives Jerusalem an overall look of unity, despite ongoing uncertainty over the future political status of east Jerusalem, where the city’s Arab population is concentrated.

At night, the blond limestone is transformed into a more brilliant golden shine by light from the city’s street lights, floodlights shining up at buildings from lawns, and pot lights that have been designed into the buildings. A lot of careful attention has been paid to night lighting, and as a result the holy city has a heavenly aura after dark.

I was completely unprepared for this powerful sensorial aspect of Jerusalem.

But there’s something else about the city: the wind.

Jerusalem is a city that sits on the very top of a mountain range that slopes down to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and to the Dead Sea in the east. And so it is a city that tends to catch a lot of the prevailing winds. I will never forget walking up from the walled Old City on my first night in Jerusalem, past the King David Hotel to trendy Ben Yehuda St., and noticing how there was a steady, gentle rustling of the leaves in the trees, no matter what street I was on.

Listening to that sound against the city’s golden backdrop, I thought how easy it is to imagine that there is a divine force behind the wind.

This thought came back to me last month when I attended a mass in LaSalle at which a prayer was said in memory of Mike King, a friend and colleague who died suddenly in June last year at age 51. Mike, a reporter in the business department, had worked at The Gazette for 22 years.

During that mass, Father Mike Shaw talked about the power of the Holy Spirit, and pointed out how there was one word in Hebrew to signify both “wind” and “spirit.”

To be sure, other spiritual and religious traditions have interpreted divine meaning in wind. But the Holy Spirit, as a proper noun, is something that exists only in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

Father Shaw led us in prayer. He asked God to “breathe” the Holy Spirit into us so that our thoughts and our actions can remain faithful to His will.

Had I never walked the streets of Jerusalem at night and experienced wind as I did in the holy city, I’m not sure if Father Shaw’s words would have resonated with me. But because of travel, because of Jerusalem, and because of the memory of Mike King, I am starting to see wind now as a companion.

How have you been transformed by travel?

Vacations are good for us – everyone knows that. In Quebec, vacations have official calendar status, with the provincial government mandating an annual two-week “construction holiday,” a period when industry and commerce slow down.

This summer, the Opinion page will be publishing personal stories about vacation travel – stories that show the power of travel to provoke new insights into the way we look at life, or the lives we lead the rest of the year.

If you have a story to share about how travel and/or vacations have affected your life, please send it to me at

Submissions should be 600 to 800 words long. You are welcome to submit photos as well; please make sure to include caption information for them, as well as some details about yourself (for example, where you live and what you do), and your daytime contact information.

We will choose the best submissions for publication along with stories from our own writers.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Peterborough, Kingston, Orangeville, Barrie, Sudbury, Gravenhurst, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Traveling is good because you get to see how you act outside of your usual environment. You also get to see the bigger picture. It can be stressful but it can also be life changing.


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