An Agoraphobic Abroad (Part 2)
“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?”
Letter From Istanbul
Recently, 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
The drawbacks of the “examined life”
I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.
Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.
But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.
However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.
First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?
Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?
Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.
The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.
I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.
I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.
This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.
Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.
Rome. Athens. Constantinople.
Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.
Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.
My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.
What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?
Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?
Against the Shadows
Excuse me if I speak out of a sense of wonder.
I know the news is bad (as usual), another horror unfolding right before our eyes, brought to us in real time, boasting pools of real blood. Shouts and screams; pandemonium. The gruesome footage first exploited, then preserved for posterity. There are cameras everywhere these days and not much escapes their notice. The best bits make it on to the nightly news. The ninety year-old grandma fending off two burly robbers with a replica .38. Looters smashing windows and emptying storefronts with the ferocious glee of rampaging Mongols. The fat kid facing down his tormentors in the school foyer, finally fighting back after years of taking it on the chin. Drawing on reservoirs of rage as he batters his opponent. We gape, we weep, we applaud, we shake our heads.
What a world.
But that isn’t all there is to it. There is sanity and normality out there. The crazy shit, it exists, no denying it. Usually the setting is some big city, concentrations of people leading to explosions and meltdowns with tragic consequences. But not always. Small towns and remote farm houses are just as prone to evil thoughts, the cruelties equally inventive.
I repeat: that isn’t all there is to it.
This month I’ve done more traveling than I have in ages. Usually, it’s my wife and kids who take off, leaving me alone in my office, grinding away on a big summer project. At it for eighteen hours at a time, no need to socialize or pretend to be human. It’s a ritual that’s been reprised almost every summer I can remember. But this year it was different. I had a couple of projects nearing completion and discovered a desire, an urge, an imperative, to enjoy my summer, seek out company, visit unexplored places, drink in experience. First, it was off to northern Manitoba, visiting Sherron’s brother and family. They live on the shores of a gorgeous lake and we spent several lovely evenings trolling around on their pontoon boat, our hooks dragging in the water. Snagged two lovely pickerels—no, really, here’s the proof:
Er, that’s me in the hat. My brother-in-law would never forgive me if I didn’t clarify that. And he’s a big guy, as you can tell. I caught those two babies literally our last morning there and the relief on both our faces is palpable. Finally...
Returning home, a long, ten-hour drive, barely catching our breath (it seemed) and then heading off to Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan. Stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast that used to be an old Convent (hey, Mette, Robert & Christine!), driving and hiking around the park, astonished by the diversity of the eco-system, having an unsettling encounter with a bison (no fences, folks) and constantly scanning the ground for rattlesnakes. Glorious, just glorious. Visually striking region and perhaps that explains the many artists who make their home in the vicinity. Judging by the work on exhibit at the Grasslands Gallery (hey, Laureen!) in Val Marie, there are some very talented folks in that neck of the woods. Er, bush, actually. Not many trees in those parts. Scrub, rolling ground and vast fields of wild plants and flowers.
It’s semi-arid, hilly and wind-scoured; cowboy country. This ol’ western nut felt right at home there. Wrote that poem you’ll find in the preceding post. Met a lot of really nice people who didn’t give the impression they were about to embark on an axe-murdering spree or intended to poison their neighbor in retaliation for an incident that occurred decades ago. We walked in the hills and stood on some tall bluffs and buttes that looked out over a land that was beautiful and light-filled and right. Between the sky, the universe and that modest height, there was an unspoken concord, a sense that, whatever else may be going on on the vast, spreading universe, Sherron and I had been granted a short but memorable glimpse of the goodness and majesty no dark cloud can entirely conceal.