Far away, but yet so close

On Phoenix’ first ozone pollution alert of the season -- which happened to be Earth Day -- I arrived at Barry M. Goldwater Terminal for a Passover Seder with some Michigan relatives, most of whom couldn’t have settled further from the glove-shaped state.

This is what I learned. There are nearly 5,000 Bulgarians in Phoenix. And half the men, according to one taxi driver, are named Dilyan, “after some czar.”

Javelins -- or wild pigs -- forced from

their habitat by burgeoning development, will and do attack small dogs. But I was not to mention this at the Seder since one of the guests and her dog had been attacked.

People living in communities off

thoroughfares such as Jack Rabbit Road, Black Canyon Freeway and Drinkwater Boulevard like to landscape their backyards with orange trees that produce robust, healthy looking fruit.

Only one problem: the oranges are inedible. All show, no go; nothing is as it seems.

And finally, I learned you do a lot less sightseeing when you’re with family. And that’s OK.

The landscape was a nice change from the Lowcountry, if a bit more thorny and brown. With all the recent rain the cactus were winking, the blue flowers on the hedges of rosemary twinkling, the yucca blooming, the feathery yellow trees seductive, the surrounding Superstitious Mountains inviting.

Then there was architect Paolo Soleri’s intriguing Arcosanti project a stone’s throw away. Now over 20 years old, this city within a city purports to combine architecture and ecology, with

greenhouses, solar collectors and lots of philosophy abut how crowded societies (like Phoenix) can coexist with nature.

At least that’s what I read because the closest I got to experience the Sonoran Desert up close and personal was a walk through the manicured and landscaped Desert Botanical Garden at the Hyatt Regency, where a night goes for $440.

Instead of smelling some fragrant cactus under a full moon, I walked by a woman at the Hyatt’s Waterfall Juice Bar and caught a whiff of “Knowing” by Estee Lauder. Very nice.

And I saw a great euphorbia -- what we call pencil plants -- some dramatic and towering saguaro and a very large amethyst crystal mounted for display.

The nearest I got to Soleri’s planned utopian community was the very toney, very cool “urban village” of the Kierland Commons shopping mall, a trip my cousin and I shoehorned in while going out for a roasted shank bone and a horseradish root, both necessary items for the Passover Seder.

It was very nice to be able to drive a car into the mall and to park in front of a store, but I didn’t see any solar batteries or dome-shaped buildings.

And that was all fine because as with most family get-togethers we spent most of our time in my uncle’s very pleasant, very comfortable extended kitchen. Instead of hiking trails, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West or spending more than an hour at the Scottsdale

Museum of Contemporary Art, we hunkered down preparing for the Seder, talking about where to eat our next meal, napping, reading the paper, looking at photographs of then and now.

I learned that a splash of scotch can really wake up a martini, that as cousins we share strong and opposing views on eating braised tripe and how to make a terrific dip from parsley, garlic, capers, anchovies, cayenne, lemon and olive oil.

We all learned a little bit more of the people we had become.

At the Seder table, which my 89-year-old uncle gamely led us through, I learned from my cousin Andy how he and a friend “escaped” from a summer camp I also attended in Michigan by “stealing” a horse, jumping the fence, riding into town, and calling my aunt and uncle to be “sprung free.”

I met Sue and Bob Karatz, a couple from Scottsdale who in 1975 helped

start the Israel Tennis Centers, a way for young, less-than-privileged Israelis and Arabs to play tennis and meet on common ground. My uncle had met Bob, a Minnesotan and 1942 Carlton College graduate, in 1934. He had been his counselor at Camp Strongheart.

Together we ate gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup that my cousin Margaret made from scratch. We dipped parsley into salt water to symbolize springtime and bitterness, both. We spread haroset on matzoh, the haroset representing the mortar used during Pharaoh’s time, the matzoh denoting unleavened bread that the Israelites did not have time to bake as they fled the desert.

At the end, we sang, “Behold, It Is the Springtime of the Year.” And like the rest of the Seder, no one laughed the way we did earlier in the day when Margaret practiced singing. No one kibitzed.

“That was nice, wasn’t it?” said my Uncle Harry afterwards, suddenly serious, “the way everyone kept their comments to themselves.”

That surprised me coming from him, the chief comic, the chief kibitzer. But like I said, we were there to learn more about the people we had become, not the people we had been. And that takes time. That takes time together.

E-mail Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net

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