Monthly Archives: July 2019

Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

While planning this trip, I didn’t notice that its east-west span covered almost the same territory as the former Ottoman Empire. I didn’t notice because I didn’t know. In school, we didn’t learn much about it—some ancient realm, it seemed. But the Ottoman Empire officially dissolved only about a hundred years ago.

Once you’re in this part of the world, you can feel, you can understand. There’s the presence of Islam, of course, the food, the languages, museums, and ruins, but there’s also an absence, a sense of where you’re not: this is someplace else.

But where? A gap remains. We didn’t go to Turkey proper. We spent four days in Istanbul, and none at all in the rest of the vast country, which is bigger than Texas. I imagine that is like going to New York City and nowhere else in America, or Venice/Italy—something like that. I saw the heart and the limbs of the old empire, but not what connects them. And barely the heart. You have not seen New York City after spending four days in it, and Istanbul is bigger than New York. We saw but a sliver.

Continue reading Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

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Isi Brisi, Tbilisi, or, Thanks seems to be the hardest word

First things first: I’ve run into all kinds of time-consuming headaches trying to upload my photos on the blog. Also, Heather’s pictures are far better than mine, and she takes far more of them than I do, so if you’d like to see as well as read about what we’re seeing, check out her Instagram feed.

If, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, “a translation is not the work itself, but a path towards the work,” then the transliteration of the Armenian for “thank you” is not the word itself, only a path toward the word, which is usually rendered shnorhakalutyun. You can use phonetics to sound that out, and after a handful of tries get close enough that an Armenian will correctly understand you rather than reply gesundheit, but you won’t quite have said thank you. That may be partly because the Armenian alphabet contains thirty-nine characters. There are a lot more sounds they can make with their mouths than we can with ours, and a handful of them seem to be required in saying shnorhakalutyun, because when we say it, we don’t sound like them when they say it.

We told our driver of our labors to say “thank you” in Armenian, and he was quick to reply: “It’s hard for us, too!” In fact, it’s so hard that Armenians will frequently say “merci” instead. Meanwhile, everybody twists their tongues around the native word, natives included.

I’ve often gone around thinking English is a difficult language: vexing inconsistencies in the grammatical rules; usage funhouses like there/their/they’re and its/it’s (which are actually really easy); silent e’s and all those other trickster letters and clusters of letters whose pronunciations are often only guessable from without; and by conventional measures the largest vocabulary among all languages—an abundance and variety that make English a wonderful language for writers, of course, but I wouldn’t want to try to learn it.

Except that it must not be that hard to learn, at least not the basics; otherwise, it wouldn’t be the international language. (I have no educated objection to the argument that it’s actually the international language of capital, not convenience, and that its spread owes to colonization, homogenization, etc.; but it would weary me to sit through this argument expounded on at length, as it will likely weary you to read all 4,000+ words of this post.) During our travels, Heather and I were told—by someone, I no longer remember whom; or maybe it was my Korean hiking pal, Lee—that English is actually comparatively easy. Nouns and verbs, we were reminded, are stable, and if you have the ones you need in your corral, you can pretty much get across what you mean in at least some rudimentary way. And for all that some elements of English can be slippery, it doesn’t generally, for example, change a word depending on its context or on who’s saying it, as other languages do; nor do we cram words and senses together to make more, really big words like shnorhakalutyun, thankyouverymuch. Despite its big vocabulary, English tends toward simplification. “They are” shrinks to “they’re,” that sort of thing.

Which takes me back to “thank you,” or even just “thanks.” Continue reading Isi Brisi, Tbilisi, or, Thanks seems to be the hardest word

Northern Greece: what you don’t know can hurt you

Paxos

We were in Ioannina, in northwestern Greece. This was after four nights on Paxos, one of those Greek islands you see in photos that make you roll your eyes: surely nowhere is that beautiful, and if anywhere is, surely no one you know has been there. But Paxos is, and you do.

James Salter is reported to have said that “one of the functions of a writer is to create envy in the reader—envy of the life that the writer is living.” I happen not to agree with that at all, although I do see where he’s coming from at the level of descriptive prose: it should give the reader the feeling of a vicariousness so voluptuous that the reader experiences that delicious expansion of awareness, familiar to anyone who has been captivated by a book, of being here, reading, while also there, where the book is unfolding. Perhaps the reader’s envy, in Salter’s sense, lies in the space perceived between these two worlds, one real and one conjured.

Continue reading Northern Greece: what you don’t know can hurt you

Georgia, or George

Heather and I were observing that we have reached a point in life when we no longer try not to act like tourists. We cheerfully announce it when the circumstances call for disclosure: “Tourist!” It used to be that I’d try to fit in, or simply not to be noticed. Whether this was because I thought it was “cooler” to seem like a “local” or because I was afraid of being ripped off or of missing out on “authentic” experience, or because I just didn’t want to be bothered by touts, I can’t quite say. Probably some of all of the above.

I don’t find any trouble in fending off most touts anymore—they tend to be even more obviously touts than I am a tourist; I can’t keep up with what’s cool and don’t have the energy to try to fake it; I have no illusions about being taken for a local (not even with my fit-in-anywhere complexion); and authentic experience is whatever experience you have, as long as you’re having it with all your senses engaged, whether it’s riding on the funicular in Baku, which is a sort of souvenir-in-motion, or riding a bus that breaks down in 105-degree heat on the road into the Azerbaijani hinterlands two days later.

For the last two days, Heather and I have been in K(Q)azbegi, Georgia, taking hikes of various distances up into the heights that reach toward the eponymous 17,000-foot mountain. We’ve seen hundreds, possibly actual thousands, of other hikers on the trails. Kazbegi might be the most touristy place in Georgia. But that doesn’t detract one bit from the authenticity of the beauty of the mountain, which is rising up spectacularly outside our hotel window as I write this, the Mount Rainier of the Caucasus (I just made that up, don’t Google it) and showing yet another of its personalities in this post-rain, half-clearing, cloud-wisped, late-afternoon light.

Equally authentic is the rashly overbuilt and rather cantankerous, grubby, oddly inhospitable town of Kazbegi, which has found a way to smash one identity into another and find a third; authentic, too, the strange swamp-gassy smell one gets occasional whiffs of, coming from somewhere down on the hotel’s lawn; and, to get us here from Tbilisi, the fraught minibus ride—actually two-minibus ride, because the first minibus broke down and had to be replaced by another (an hourlong roadside delay, our second in our last three bus rides). Authentic tourism is whatever you fully observe and sense. Like George.

Continue reading Georgia, or George