I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.
I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?
I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.
You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.
The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.
I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…
But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…
Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—
Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.
Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.
The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:
Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.
Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.
I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.
Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:
I am here
if I err
if I fall.
From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.
Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.
I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.
There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.
We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:
Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).
And then there was Troy…
(To be continued)
“I think continually of those who were truly great–
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.”
I don’t have heroes any more. Not really. When I was growing up there were certain sports stars I revered and as a six year old I looked on in wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gamboled about on the pitted, ancient surface of the moon.
Now I’m a man in my mid-forties and my views on the subject of heroes have been jaundiced by decades of lies and evasions from leaders of all political persuasions. Athletes these days are remote, rich and juiced on any performance enhancing drug they can get their hands on. And it turns out that Neil Armstrong is a rather cold, undemonstrative man and Buzz Aldrin spent the entire Apollo mission sulking because he wasn’t going to be the first one out the hatch once they set down in the Sea of Tranquility.
Heroes nowadays are at a disadvantage—Caesar and Alexander and Boadicea never had to put up with celebrity biographers (just malicious gossip), the Andrew Mortons and Kitty Kelleys of the world peeping in keyholes and tracking down anyone with a bit of tittle to tattle. It’s hard to rally the citizenry and inspire high minded ideals while trying to cover up or defend some transgression or moral lapse. The optics are really awful.
When I’m looking for a bit of inspiration, a true tale to remind me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, I look to the past, often the very distant past. Seeking those individuals who seized control of their own fates, who were determined, regardless of the cost “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson). These men and women didn’t employ spin doctors or commission polls before determining policies and tactics.
Take a look at the head of state of your country. Would you follow that person to the ends of the earth, serve them without question, suffer extreme deprivation, enter the very depths of Hell itself at their behest?
I rest my case.
Do the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq feel heroic, like latter-day versions of Achilles and Agamemnon, laying siege to the fortresses of terrorism? Or are they just guys and gals who have a job to do, a family to support, hoping and praying each and every night before they bed down that they’ll survive their tours of duty?
We’ve become a smaller people, soft and pliant; hedonistic narcissists, indifferent to the world around us. We don’t dare dream and rarely does our gaze stray to the horizon line (for the most part we keep our heads down and try not to meet anyone’s eyes).
Historical narratives presented by the likes of Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robert Graves and Michael Curtis Ford evoke past ages with thrilling vigor and elan. These authors devote incredible time and energy researching the great and near great, presenting us with gorgeous, vibrant, utterly convincing portrayals that are documentary-like in their realism, provoking a constant sense of you are there. In the process, we are reminded of what frail and timid things we are in comparison, how addicted to creature comforts, how far removed from suffering and strife. We were a much sturdier, hardier breed in days of yore.
In America, it was the pioneers who came closest to the kind of heroic courage that is the making of myths and legends. Unfortunately, they soon gave way to the lawyers and bankers, mercantilism replacing true grit. From Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Lewis & Clark and Davey Crockett to being a “nation of shopkeepers”.
I grieve for what has been lost—the price of “progress”, which seems to instill a desire for stability, comfort…and mediocrity. I crave heroes, the visions and dreams they inspire. We’re poorer as a species without such men and women. They show us what might be possible if we exert ourselves for a higher purpose and deny or withhold from us the bright attractions of commonplace things.