by | Apr 11, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

My sister lives on a rock.

I am not being cute. I am being geographically — and geologically — correct.

She lives on a rock.

It is a big rock, sticking out of the ocean. Actually two oceans. Actually, one is an ocean, and one is a sea. It is also between two continents. One continent is attached. The other is just across the water. One is Europe. The other is Africa. My sister is American.

This explains her slightly confused personality.

The rock, by the way, is called Gibraltar. Perhaps you have heard of it. It was, for much of history, of no interest to anyone. It stood there, in between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, until 711 AD, when a former slave claimed it for his own. I imagine there wasn’t much resistance, seeing as former slaves don’t usually have much to work with.

Anyhow, the guy’s name was Tariq, and he named the place after himself. According to history, eventually, people began pronouncing it “Gibraltar.” This, you notice, sounds nothing like “Tariq.” Then again, it’s a rock. What’s it gonna do? Sue?

A runway or a street?

You might ask, “Why is your sister living on a rock?” I asked the same thing during my visit last week — but only after I reached my sister’s house, which is located near the runway.

Yes, the runway! As in planes! Planes land on the rock. Two planes a day. They both come in from London and land around the same time. Why they don’t put everyone on one plane and wave “Ta ta!” is beyond me.

But this is no more confusing than the runway itself, which, when it is not actually, you know, having planes land on it, is pretty much a street. People go back and forth on it. Kids ride bicycles. Then, when planes come in, a red light flashes and one of those mechanical arms comes down, and the people yawn and watch the plane land in front of them as if watching a cat run across the floor.

Then the arm lifts, and they continue on their way.

My sister lives underneath these planes, at the base of the rock, a stone’s throw from Spain and a healthy swim from Africa. Of course, living in Gibraltar, she is neither in Spain nor in Africa. She is in England. That’s because in 1704, the British captured the rock. Never mind that the closest fish ‘n’ chips place was 1,000 miles away. Gibraltar is British. Its people speak Spanish. And my sister is American.

You can see why I am concerned for her children.

It’s better than nothing

By the way, while I was there, I asked a tour guide, who was British, how her ancestors claimed the place. She explained — and I am paraphrasing here —
“They sailed over to attack Spain, and they tried to take Barcelona, but they failed. On their way home, they said, ‘We shouldn’t go back empty-handed.’ So they saw Gibraltar and decided, ‘Blimey, let’s lob a few cannonballs at that thing and see what happens.’ “

This stuff never makes it into the history books.

Anyhow, the handful of Spaniards then living in Gibraltar heard the explosions and figured, “Good Lord. Can’t a guy get some peace and quiet on a rock?” Then the building next door blew up and they said, “Whoops. Gotta go!”

And Gibraltar became British.

It has been that way for 300 years now, which doesn’t make the Spanish very happy. They want Gibraltar back. But England says no. I figure the Brits want to own at least one piece of land where the sun actually shines. Even if it is a rock.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating place, and I haven’t even told you about the apes that roam freely and eat your ice cream cones. As for my sister, well, she has a good life, as do her husband and their kids, as long as they remember that important lesson Mom always taught us: Never walk across the runway when the light is red.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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