“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?”
We took a lot of photos on our trip this summer. That’s the curse of digital photography: you can just keeping snapping away, deleting the duds later. Much later…
I won’t be posting many pictures of our trip, but there are bound to be a few, marking the high points of our thirty memorable days in Greece-Turkey-Czech Republic.
Here I am, touching the stones of Homeric-era Troy. Can’t put into words how powerful it felt visiting a place I’d read about since childhood. Glorious!
I also got the opportunity to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the grave of one of my literary heroes, Franz Kafka. Sherron snapped this one, then discreetly wandered off, letting me have a few private words with my old Master. No touristas about, no unwelcome intrusions. Special, special moment…
Over the past couple of years, I’ve increased my readings of history, economics and politics, and I think that comes from my determination to better understand the world as it is unfolding, and gain at least a few hints into what the future might hold for those of us who are left vulnerable to larger forces because of our class/caste, income, race, etc.
I’ve kept track of relevant quotes, statistics and observations by jotting them down in a black notebook, filling it to the margins. Recently I came to the last few pages of the notebook and decided to try and distill what I had gleaned from my readings into a mini-essay.
I’ve polished it some, clarified my thoughts in a few places, but tried to retain the surge of inspiration and anger that provoked its composition:
“Now and then I see the truth above the lies…”
Paul Banks, “The Base”
The uneasy truce between capitalism and democracy is breaking down.
At some point—if it hasn’t happened already—we’re going to have to choose between those two opposing ideologies and that choice will define (and haunt) our species for generations to come. Which will it be: a smoothly running corporate machine or our personal freedom?
Slavoj Zizek (among others) insists we’re living in a “late capitalist” world.
Capitalism is in the process of transforming into a more autocratic version of itself—something like China or Singapore, where individual rights, many of the privileges we enjoy as a western society, either do not exist or are drastically scaled back. Doled out in increments by an unholy alliance between state and industry.
It has gotten to the point where capitalism can no longer tolerate the constraints of democracy. Anything that slows or inhibits growth/profit, must be neutered, rendered harmless. And that can be accomplished, for example, through trade pacts that supersede or nullify a country’s legal codes and charters, fatally undermining national social institutions and standards.
Environmental laws, legislation restricting monopolies or policing the financial industry, are anathema to the one-percenters and business elite. They still exist in a magical land where growth is limitless, the stock market their personal Ponzi scheme and there are sufficient resources to sustain their extravagant lifestyles indefinitely.
Their narrative simply does not allow for maintaining a more modest standard of living, conservation, thrift, environmental stewardship…
All their talk of GNP and GDP and TTIP, but they persist in refusing to factor in the short and long term consequences of ruinous, wasteful industrial practices, mindsets that more properly belong to the notorious robber barons of the 19th Century, rather than enlightened and highly educated men and women (okay, mainly men) of today. And the toll continues to mount: pollution and ecological devastation on an unimaginable scale, with all the attendant health problems; a growing disparity between rich and poor; human populations becoming more fearful and anxiety-wracked as they face a future that no longer guarantees food security, let alone the safety and sanctity of their homes and persons.
Clean air, safe food, pure water, human dignity and basic, inalienable rights…these things are non-negotiable. In fact, they are the basis for life itself.
Why would we cede responsibility over such crucial issues to petty bureaucrats and corrupt apparatchiks?
Have we become so lazy and stupid, such sheep, that we would willingly hand the keys of liberty to our warders and bare our throats to ravenous wolves?
Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.
So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.
I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.
To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it). That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.
I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.
We shall see.
I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.
Not for everyone.
Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.
Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.
Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?
Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.
I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.
We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.
Music? The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.
Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.
All the best in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.
When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of “professional” actors would stage and perform it.
I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.
I wish I’d kept a copy.
And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.
The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—
He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.
Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.
My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.
My first submission and my first rejection.
But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a poem paying tribute to the river valleys that have been home and sanctuary to our species for many millennia. We’re blessed with a particularly lovely one here and I’ve often driven or walked through these hills and imagined this place when it was younger, wilder, populated by an entirely different kind of people.
Happy birthday, North Battleford.
Irresistibly drawn to these green
descending hills, natural cradle
for a squalling, nascent civilization
offering the allure of water, game
shelter from on-rushing tempests &
killing winter winds that seek
but fail to penetrate the draws
& shallow, dipping coulees
grudgingly retreating only when
the first crocus, purple with apoplexy
sends them packing back to their
Rocky Mountain redoubt
Summer settlements along the
sandy riverbanks, for trade &
contact after another hard winter:
fishing & hunting & sport
rough games to occupy the young men—
old feuds recalled, raids re-enacted
blood alliances forged between families
& lodges, only the occasional grass fire,
torrential hailstorm or inevitable drowning
dispelling the illusion of idyll
& so it was & remained until one day
(overcast, with a promise of rain)
on the horizon, no attempt to hide
(there! there! see?)
strangers & from the look of them
they’d come a long way…
Rounding the big curve, topping the hill
the familiar sight of the river valley
spread out below us & then crossing the
newly repaired bridge, gazing down at the
olive-colored water, suddenly realizing
Heraclitus was wrong, this is that same river, we
are merely the latest arrivals, on our way to
supper with friends in Old Town, who will
excitedly tell us about the moose spotted on
the island, offer to show us the nest of the
Great Horned owl so that we, too, can
endure her cool, dispassionate regard, whispering
so we don’t spoil the moment
© Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
In the spring, when the snows subside, dissolve away. Sometimes a careless farmer will plough up the wrong field. Or children will make a grisly discovery in the woods.
We have been condemned, collectively, for those dark times. You would think we all owned Kalashnikovs and a cluster of hand grenades.
They will not forgive the desecration of the churches. Those pictures. Awful, awful. Though some of us insist they were faked…
Listen, we can’t keep apologizing for the past. What’s done is done. It could happen in any modern, civilized state.
They want to call it genocide but we reject that.
It was war and terrible things occurred.
We won’t be treated as pariahs.
We have sinned but are answerable only to God.
Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)