An Agoraphobic Abroad

Part I

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.

Tsk, tsk.

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.

Parthenon (Athens)

Parthenon (Athens)

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:

Stargazer

Stargazer

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.

Meteora (Greece)

Meteora (Greece)

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:

Varnavas

I am here
Lord
find me
on my
lofty perch
do not
deny me
your presence
forgive me
if I err
catch me
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.

Istanbul (back street)

Istanbul (back street)

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

Aya Sofia

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)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

“Where’s Jeeves?”

jeevesAh, what I wouldn’t give to have someone like the redoubtable Jeeves in my life.

An individual endowed with almost supernatural competence, intelligence and aplomb. Absolutely unflappable. Capable of quickly and expertly assessing any situation, offering the most expedient and logical course of action, which is all but guaranteed to achieve the desired result.

But it’s more than that. A true Jeeves is able to anticipate setbacks and complications, avoiding them like a poorly disguised tiger trap. His abilities are practically psychic—how else do you explain how he materializes even before he is summoned, showing up the instant his services are required?

P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and his impetuous, dim-witted employer, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, has the perfect word for Jeeves’ sudden, timely appearances: he simply “shimmers” into a room.

Wonderful.

Bertie is excitable, craven, shallow, gullible, naïve, inept; if it wasn’t for his phlegmatic, faithful manservant, he’d be in a pickle literally every waking moment of his life.

For Jeeves is the ultimate fixer—perhaps Bertie is right and it’s all the fish he eats. Whatever the source of his genius, Jeeves never fails to provide unstinting, courteous service and when compelled to suggest some subtle stratagem or artifice, you can count on Jeeves to save the day.

No impasse is so hopeless, no cause so lost that Jeeves can’t provide a ready remedy.

A Jeeves would organize my affairs, ensure the bills are paid, prevent our household finances from creeping into the red. He could fend off lovelorn friends, bossy aunts, irate foes and deal with those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses that keep ruining my quiet, peaceful Saturday mornings.

Bearing in a pot of strong tea and my daily newspaper as soon as he hears me stirring. Reminding me of an appointment or birthday I’ve forgotten. Drawing my bath, making sure it’s exactly the right temperature. Purring words of comfort and consideration while laying out my clothes for the day.

My man, Jeeves.

Truly, he stands alone!

* In my view the best way to experience “Jeeves and Wooster” is to listen to the BBC Radio dramatizations of Wodehouse’s stories. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers are stellar—the productions are first rate, the supporting players well-cast, the end result always hilarious.

hordern

I have “Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder”

whiteheadAutumn has arrived, which means my reading tastes are in the process of changing.

During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.

John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.

Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.

Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Poetry (Autumn-Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)

Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).

There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.

It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.

Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.

Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.

Wouldn’t you know it?

You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.

le-carre

The Enigma of Trump

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?

Never.

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.

trump

Two memorable photos

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.

Me 'n Troy VI

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!

Me and Franz

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…

“Live! From Epidaurus…”

EpidaurusiOne of the high points of our time in Greece was visiting the ancient amphitheater of Epidaurus.

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, Live at Epidaurus”

Epidaurusii

 

Letter From Istanbul

TaksimRecently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:

 

The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.

We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.

That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.

For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.

We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.

We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.

All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.

Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.

President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).

And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?

After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?

As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.

He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.

 

August 1, 2016