“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”
The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)
It almost didn’t happen.
I mean, it was that close.
I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.
As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.
I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.
The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.
Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.
Then, a sudden breakthrough.
A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?
The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.
And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…
A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?
Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.
Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.
Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.
As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.
End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.
We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.
We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.
Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.
One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.
Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.
For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:
We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.
While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.
I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.
Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…
A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).
What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.
That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—
But how do they tolerate the tourists?
Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.
Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…
I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.
Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.
Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.
Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…
Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.
That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.
Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.
Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.
“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”
Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.
Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.
The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:
“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”
Watching Donald Trump lurch from erratic to downright despicable behavior, I find myself shaking my head in dismay, but am I surprised? By the Donald?
The man is the very picture of consistency. No matter what the circumstances or stakes, when the chips are down, Donald will be, well, Donald.
His demeanor reminds me of Orson Welles’ favourite parable, the one about the scorpion and the frog. I’m sure you’re familiar with it but, just in case, here it is, recited by the Master himself:
The allusion, methinks, is fairly obvious.
Whether it’s shaming an ex-beauty queen or sparring with the bereaved parents of a dead American serviceman, the Donald constantly gives the impression that he just can’t help himself.
Stung by his poor performance in the first presidential debate, the alleged billionaire had to lash out at somebody. What was the name of that gal Hillary referenced in one of her tiresome talking points? Bingo! It’s three in the morning, can’t sleep, guts are acting up, I’ll have a go at her…
That such a mindset is hardly, er, presidential, doesn’t really enter into it. Cultivating a statesmanlike persona is difficult when you’re continually resorting to groin shots and head butts, biting in the clinches. Not sporting, you say? F**k you, pal! You don’t like it, grow thicker skin. Where’s your sense of humour?
This is America, after all: brash, disrespectful, rude. The bad boy of the international scene. USA, dude. Love it or leave it.
Other commentators have described the current poisonous state of American politics, the toxic effect money and the access to power it buys has had on democratic institutions.
The mere fact that a man with the history and background of Donald Trump is one of the last two individuals contesting for the highest office in the land says a lot about the “state of the union”—bad, very bad indeed.
The notion that somehow, through some distortion of reality I cannot comprehend, there are millions of salt of the earth, working class citizens out there actually rooting for the Donald, intending to (God spare their immortal souls) vote for the man, come November 8th, bespeaks of a spirit of profound helplessness and despair present in the American psyche. A drowning man grasping the point of a sword and all that.
But, maybe, and this is just a thought, there’s a method to Trump’s madness. I’m not talking about some bizarre strategy to get himself elected and never mind what the pundits and spin doctors say. I’m proposing that his frequent lapses in judgement, the many times he’s gone “off reservation”, picked fights when he didn’t have to, are actually part of a careful campaign of self-sabotage.
Hear me out.
I believe that as far as the Donald’s concerned, the race is everything and the thought of taking the oath of office, assuming the burdens of being the President of the United States, bores the living hell out of him. Can you imagine D.T. enduring an endless state dinner on behalf of a potentate from some African “republic” or South American kleptocracy, trying to make small talk, grinning through the ordeal?
The mind reels.
No, the Donald has had his fun, his ego boost, but the game is starting to lose his interest. He’s done wonders for the Trump trademark, of course, and maybe that was part of his clever plan all along. When he loses, he goes back to his business empire (its true worth still very much in doubt), cashing in on his heightened media profile. Thanks to his Fox-fuelled campaign, he has successfully climbed and blustered and elbowed his way to the top of the celebrity food chain, assuring himself a place on the “A” list for years to come. Trump Hotels, Trump Casinos filled to capacity with punters hoping to catch a glimpse of that famous orange swatch of hair, ringed by bodyguards, bound for the penthouse, deigning to look neither right nor left.
“That man could have been president,” they’ll whisper among themselves.
As if it would have been a good thing.
Alec Guinness called it the “greatest theater in the world” and ol’ Alec likely knew a thing or two about such matters.
I took along a handheld digital recorder to capture snippets of sound along the way and decided that a live reading at Epidaurus was just too fantastic an opportunity to miss.
I selected a few of my recent poems, ran through them a few times, then had Sherron hold the recorder while I did my thing. I was reluctant to place myself anywhere near stage centre, where the uncanny acoustics would carry every single syllable up to the cheap seats. Instead I stood at the very front, right against the first row of seats.
We were lucky enough that most of the tourists had left by then, chased away by the scorching sun. But you can still hear a few morons, clapping to confirm that, yes, indeed, the acoustics are phenomenal, as the last person demonstrated…and the person before that. Everyone lining up to take their turn.
During this trip I learned to really loathe tourists. There’ll likely be a post on that later.
For now, join me at Epidaurus, right around noon, this past July, the temperature hovering in the mid-30s.
Get the picture?
Great…now click on the MP3, sit back, close your eyes and listen…
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Trent Wotherspoon has been appointed interim leader of the NDP here in Saskatchewan. I decided to write him a note, reflecting on the disastrous recent provincial election results and the future direction of the party.
Here’s what I said:
Never mind, if we are to believe the Buddhists, “life is suffering” and there ain’t a whole helluva lot we can do about it. Just pop plenty of Tylenol, drink green tea and hope for the best.
A philosophy perfectly in synch with our do-nothing times.
A lovely bit of news this morning, Hollywood North has posted (in two parts) my critical essay on the films of Canadian auteur and enfant terrible, Alain Marchant. You can find the article here–Hollywood North is an on-line site devoted to Canadian film-making and thus I was pleased that they recognized the merits of “The Toxic Cinema of Alain Marchant”.
I’ve followed Marchant’s career with a kind of sickened fascination for the past 8-10 years and in terms of sheer hubris and poor taste, only Danish director Lars von Trier can compare with Marchant. Have a look at my feature, you’ll see what I mean.
Great weather of late, which helps pick up the spirits. Hard to stay inside, slaving over a desk, with the sun shining and birds singing.
But such is my lot.
Back to work…