All posts by sobsey

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

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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

Azerbaijan 2: Baku, the Incomprehensible

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On the promenade by the Caspian, everything seems to be made of marble, even the underground passageway that leads to it from underneath the boulevard. Once you emerge, Russian ballet music is coming from somewhere: speakers mounted in light posts, it turns out. A sparkling white fountain is populated by statues of swans. All along the promenade runs a grassy park shaded with trees and lined with benches. One section of the promenade is called “Little Venice”: you go up and down over more marble steps above a network of canals where gondoliers row visitors in the twilight. At the far end of the promenade is an enormous, flower-shaped architectural wonder known as the pearl. Beyond that, around a bend, is a giant, glittering ferris wheel.

At nightfall, around nine o’clock, the promenade is at its most crowded, especially around the fountain of swans. The open plaza yields a good view up and away from the Caspian toward the “Flame Towers.” Once it’s dark, these three high-rises light up in undulations of red-orange, then sea-blue. (Or is it gas-flame blue? This is oil-rich Azerbaijan, after all.) Now each tower takes on its own color: one blue, one red, one green, the colors of Azerbaijan’s flag. After another minute, the image changes to a giant white-on-black silhouette of a heroic figure waving that flag. All around the fountain of swans, people are taking selfies with these images as backdrop, the music as soundtrack.

It’s something else (really, check it out), which I mean not as a figure of speech but as literally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Baku might be the city of the future, yet perhaps the future it’s the city of will never come to be; if it does, it will have no America in it, because no American city has even begun to remake itself in the twenty-first-century image that cities like Baku are shaping. More and more, America seems to me a place caught between two eras: detached from the traditionalism that gives durable cultures the lifeblood that sustains them through epochal change (for example, in the part of Georgia we’re in now, they’ve been making wine the same semi-primitive way for hundreds if not thousands of years); but lagging way behind the innovation and reimagining that mark the vanguard of civilization. It sometimes seems plausible that the US is so stuck on and in itself, so paralyzed by its divisions and addictions, and still so pitiably longing for the late twentieth century (i.e. the time before 9/11 that we will wake up one day to find that the world we thought we were leading has taken an alternate and faster route to some completely different destination and left us still driving our cars to nowhere while civilization is soaring up and away to heights undreamt.

Meanwhile, as Baku leaps, probably too quickly, toward the future, there are so many metaphors for/symbols of its paradoxes of simultaneous obviousness and indecipherability, of novelty and backwardness, of stylishness and awkwardness, authenticity and counterfeit, wealth and poverty, that you’d have to be asleep not to notice them. Here are a few:

Continue reading Azerbaijan 2: Baku, the Incomprehensible

Azerbaijan 1: The Caspian Sea

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I’ve gotten way ahead of myself: between Albania and Baku, I was reunited with Heather (my wife, if you should happen to be reading this and somehow not know me); we spent time in Greece, traveling all the way across its northern stretch, and then Istanbul, where we met up with a couple of her best friends, big-time jet-setters. From there we flew to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For now, my travelogue is flying over Greece and Turkey. This is mainly because there has been no time to write until now—Heather and I were first telling stories to each other of our independent experiences (she was in Ireland while I was in Albania), and then we were on the move from Paxos to Ioannina to Meteora to Thessaloniki to Istanbul to Azerbaijan. In fact, we’re not even in Azerbaijan anymore but actually Georgia, so I’m both ahead and behind.

Continue reading Azerbaijan 1: The Caspian Sea

Albania 8: Apollonia

IMG_1964My determination to see Apollonia was a bit like my attraction to Përmet when I read about it in my guidebook. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but simply gazing at a single picture convinced me. A week ago Friday morning, I went to the Berat bus station with my daypack, filled with a surprise bag of snacks courtesy of my guesthouse hostess, Theodhora, whose generosity and thoughtfulness never failed to catch me off guard. I caught a minibus to Fier, a rather drab slab of urbanity that would seem to be utterly skippable; Gillian Gloyer’s Albania guidebook completely omits it except in very occasional mentions as a place from which to connect to other buses elsewhere: it’s a place you go in order to get out of it. (Part of me can’t help suspecting that guidebook authors will sometimes omit a country’s less obvious gems out of protectiveness or possessiveness, concealing them from overuse by tourists, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fier.) From Fier it’s a short ride to a village called Pojan, and from Pojan you can walk to Apollonia in less than half an hour.

I arrived in Fier and quickly found the bus stop for Pojan/Apollonia. It was at a busy street corner, with a sign listing departure and arrival times, instead of the usual gas station lot with its motley assortment of conveyances and impatient men selling tickets to them. I was glad for the forthrightness of the sign and schedule, but not for the discovery that the next bus to Pojan wasn’t due for nearly an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw no appealing options for plunking myself down for a coffee and waiting for the customary sixty-three-year-old to start talking to me and pouring me raki. Nor was I in the mood or market for that, to tell the truth, fun as it can be. I had only Apollonia in mind—and in body: I decided to walk. Keep moving! Never change!

Continue reading Albania 8: Apollonia

Albania 7: Berat

It occurred to me that I was really in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished […] But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before.

I came across the above lines quoted in a piece of writing I’m revising. They’re from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. No question there’s a fundamental part of the sentiment I can’t connect to, since Coates is describing what it feels like to be African-American and, for the first time in his life, not in America: the “garden” is the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. But when I came to those lines today, I instantly recalled the feeling I had when I arrived in Albania three weeks ago: landless, disconnected, alien.

How much longer than three weeks ago it seems! I feel quite at home in Albania now. Most of the initial uncertainty and anxiety are gone. It’s not to say I know much of anything at all about this country, but the condition of not-knowing has changed. I’ve settled into my ignorance and I’m fine with it. I just am who I am here: a gentle, clueless hippie.

Continue reading Albania 7: Berat

Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

Continue reading Albania 6: Gjirokastra

Albania 5: Përmet, or Corrections

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Some corrections:

First, I don’t know anything about religious icons, or the schools that painted them. I went to another icon gallery yesterday, in Berat (to get a little ahead of myself), and there were those same long noses and bulging foreheads. What struck me as unique in Ohrid may not have been at all. Clueless! I shouldn’t have been so sure of what I was seeing, and remembered Stasiuk’s observation that unfamiliar objects can be perceived as no more than what they are in fact. (But I do think the Ohrid pieces, which were older than those housed in the Onufri Museum in Berat, were technically superior and more full of feeling. And none of the other saints look as sad as poor St. Clement, except perhaps for Onufri’s rendering of St. John the Baptist, into which it seems he poured most of his tears.)

Second, returning to Nell Zink’s line in The Wallcreeper about Albania, “Single mothers there dress and live as men”: I called Zink inclined to glibness, and she sometimes is, but this line is not an example! After reading the post, my sister sent me a link to pictures of Albanian women who really do dress and live as men. According to the artist Jill Peters’ statement:

“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha,” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name.  Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.

Continue reading Albania 5: Përmet, or Corrections