Saturday, April 28, 2012

a Word from Our Sponsor

Today's post is not about travel, but wanders around the problem of blogs that carry ads.

Wandering the inner corridors of Blogger I learn that since, as a blogger, I am sharing my passions with the world, and some of those passions might include Brands and Products, and what better way to share that passion but let Blogger place tasteful ads on my site for those brands and products I feel passionate about, or at least indifferent enough that I did not affirmatively object to them.
    Most every site I visit regularly carries ads and they don’t bother me, but for myself I feel somewhat as I might if I were including a display ad in a personal letter or mentioning how much a particular brand’s product added to my heart-felt experience.  It changes things, somehow.
    Of course I also cannot think of any Brand or Product that I happen to feel passionate about at the moment.  Were I more strenuous, I might have some item of gear that had impressed me by its rugged dependability, but I am a slow-moving creature who makes few demands on the things I travel with.  I do not keep my notes in a Moleskine nor write with a Mont Blanc.  In the early days I mostly wore custom-made orthopedic shoes which, comfortable as they were, I would not wish on anyone.  My clothes were once Banana Republic, but this was in its early manifestation, when it stocked the quirky and unusual  --  when it sold shirts made from mattress ticking originally manufactured for Spanish prisons or spiffy Italian Waiters’ Jackets that made us look like Italian waiters  --  not as it is today, when it has become Ralph Laurenish. 

In Greece, I remember loving the taste of Nescafé, but back home it tastes like it always has.  Do they have some special blend they sell overseas, or was it just being in Greece, where even the paper clips and rubber bands seemed more exciting?

When it comes to sitting quietly in the shade, one Brand is pretty much as good as any other.  Most of the little gadgets I have picked up lately seem to have been manufactured in China and probably contain mercury or depleted uranium.

Someday I may carry ads, just as someday I may put up photos or use something other than this stock template.  I appreciate bloggers who have put the effort into making their sites visually interesting, though photographs and design are not enough to keep me coming back.  Think of the great travel books: most don’t have photographs and in those that do, the photos are unremarkable.  Thesiger was an outstanding photographer, but none of the others were.  And even if Thesiger hadn’t been, he would still be one of the great travelers because of the stories that he told.  The important thing is the story.  At least that is what I am trying to do here and I worry that ads might cause me to make changes just to attract readers and we shouldn’t be doing that, now, should we?  For example, a trivial post months ago that mentioned Mayan Vampires continues to attract a regular stream of visitors, but I am mindful of what has happened to History Channel and don’t want to go down that road.  (Though I do have a Greek vampire story that I may get to eventually, but if I do it will be a legitimate part of the incident being described.)

This post has wandered far enough.  Go out and buy something: it will make you feel better.  But take your time and go to obscure shops with dusty shelves and dark corners and buy something that no one else has.  Something beautiful and exotic from long ago and far away.  Something that might even have a curse on it.  Something that will make your life more interesting.  I would carry an ad for something like that, but they don’t advertise because it’s the only one that there is.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

May Day

One sunny Sunday morning a few years back I found myself in the island port of Naxos.

Not being in a churchly mood, I had no plans for the day, but was out for my usual breakfast of Nescafé and toast at an outdoor table under the trees in the small main square that looked out onto the harbor.  Settling in for a normal several-hour breakfast I noticed that they were putting up a stand in the paved area between the square and the harbor and decorating it with a banner that called for the downfall of the King and an end to fascism.  While no foreigner should ever claim to have any particular understanding of Greek politics, I was pretty sure that had nothing to do with anything that was going on at the moment.

Then I realized that it was May Day.

What had once been in the West a time of innocent young girls frolicking around a tall phallic symbol is nowadays in many countries a time to celebrate the international solidarity of the working class, now, as always, writhing under the heel of capitalist oppression.

May Day  --  Protomaia, as the Greeks call it  --  has at times in Athens been a rough thing, with militant red crowds burning cars and harassing Americans to demonstrate their commitment to the brotherhood of man.  And the islands, I knew, were a traditional hotbed of the KKE,  -- the Communist Party of Greece  --  though in the islands I would expect that even the communists would be a nicer sort.

As the signs and scaffolding went up, the loudspeakers played music and, whatever I might think of their politics, I do like their music.  The Greek communists have some fine, rousing tunes and stirring marching songs.  I had once even purchased some of their tapes and today they were playing the good stuff.

As this was happening, tables in the square were filling, first with groups of young girls and then with their families coming from church.

Any fear that I might have had that I might be trod beneath the boot of an aroused proletariat was quickly put to rest by the almost somulent pace of the demonstration.  There was no fire in them.  Speeches were read, and not well.  One need not understand the language to tell from a speaker’s pacing that he has reached the end of his sentence, but still has words left over.  As if realizing that the historical moment was slipping from their grasp, other speakers tried to shout louder as they read their speeches, but it only made things worse.

Almost exactly an hour after the demonstration began, it ended, and the demonstrators began to drift away, leaving the square to families having their after-church lunch, almost all of whom, I had noticed, had ignored the demonstration.

The story is not intended to say anything about the current situation.  It’s just something that once happened and says nothing about what may be happening today, though I suspect that whatever is happening today, things will eventually get back to where they once were, and you will be able to attend a demonstration if you wish, or have a quiet lunch at an outdoor table under the trees in the town square, whether it’s the first of May or not.

Monday, April 23, 2012


I had rented a car in Athens and was driving, in no particular hurry and with no particular destination, through the hills of the Peloponnese.  It was summer and I was driving slowly and stopping often.  In most of the little towns the best shade had already been appropriated by men talking and watching the world go by.  In most cases I seemed to be the only part of the world going by, so I would stop for a soft drink and carry on some sort of conversation to the extent of our mutual language ability.  Since this was usually where-are-you-from and families and news of the day  --  and “yes” was almost always a safe answer  --  I got along fairly well.  At one point I became confused when one fellow started talking about how much he admired Oregon, but I eventually figured out that he was saying “O Reagan”  --  “the Reagan”  --  meaning our President.  Since I had heard that the Peloponnese was a bastion of Royalist sentiment, I was not surprised that they should be well-disposed toward Mr. Reagan.

I had read in the accounts of earlier travelers about the social conservatism of the rural Peloponnese, particularly as it related to concern about family honor and the sexual purity of young women.  According to these sources it had until recently been the custom that if you interfered with the purity of a maiden that her brothers were honor-bound to kill both of you, though even then the practice was said to be in decline.  I haven’t heard anything about it lately, so I suppose it is another of those traditional customs that have passed by the way.  And in any event, I thought I could enjoy Greece quite well without interfering with anyone’s purity.

At one town a young fellow asked if I would like to see something interesting.  I didn’t catch what it was, but I think I should always say “yes” when offered hospitality.

He motioned me to follow him down a path between the houses, all the time busily talking, though I wasn’t getting much of what he was saying.  As we went along he scooped up some water in an old tin and picked up a broom.  He led me to a small field beyond the houses where he swept away some debris and poured out the water and stood back for me to see.  And there, coming out of the dry brown earth, were the beautiful colors of a mosaic floor.

It was a fragment, maybe two square yards; its colors sharp and bright.

I exclaimed how beautiful it was, much to the pleasure of my host.

I asked how old it was.  Very old, he said.  Ancient.

In my honest delight at being shown this little treasure I fear I was not as sensitive to context as I might have been and, pointing to the pattern of the border, I said, “See, there is a cross.  It is Christian.”  I assumed it was possibly the floor of a ruined church.

My host was not pleased at my inference.  His demeanor, formerly garrulous and friendly, stiffened.

“No,” he said sternly.  “It is very ancient.  It is not Christian.”

“True, true,” I said.  “Not Christian.”  But too late.  The damage was done.  I had defamed his antiquity.  I had denigrated the dignity of his village’s ruins.

We returned in silence and no matter how effusive I was in my thanks and compliments to his hospitality, I had plainly botched things up and if I stayed around any longer he would probably bring up American aid to Turkey, so I left town under a cloud.  As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror: he did not even watch me leave.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

the Gentle Pleasure of Being Lost

I am a relic.  I have read the travel blogs and there is no doubt of it.  I do not have a GPS or even a particularly smart phone.  I do not twitter.  When I travel I find my way with a map.  If  I need a room or a place to eat, I do not consult an app or cloudsource or invisible friends on facebook, but use a guidebook or ask people standing around who look like they might know.  (Once, in Athens, I asked the old Greek fellow sitting next to me on a park bench where a barber shop was.  He seemed baffled.  I wondered if I were mispronouncing something.  I eventually realized it might have been because he was bald.)

I like to travel this way.  I enjoy being surprised by what lies around the corner of the street as much as around the next bend of the river.  I enjoy being lost.

the gentle Pleasure of Being Lost

One of the pleasures of being Elsewhere is that I am to some extent lost, cut free from the bonds that sprout up from my familiar, everyday world and curl their restraining tendrils around me, and of course the more unfamiliar the place the greater this sense of freedom, and headiest of all is being completely lost.

I once traveled on business.  Our office was in California and, being a small non-profit and of necessity thrifty, we would try to see as many people as possible on our trips east, which would involve a complicated itinerary with a number of short hops between cities.  And people’s schedules would change and then I would have to make changes in my schedule and the whole thing could become very confusing.

For this reason I was not disturbed when I woke up one morning in a nice hotel room and realized that I had no idea where I was.  (And it was not an alcohol-induced blankness, as I was a sober and business-like traveler.)

This was not the normal confusion you might feel on first awakening, but continued as I shaved and dressed.  The room  --  nicely appointed  --  offered no clues and the view out the window was of a generic small city.

I realized that I liked the feeling.

I could call the front desk, of course.  I was sure that every so often they had guests call down to ask where they were, but I found the whole thing entirely too pleasant to end it so prematurely.  I was sure that if I had an early appointment that I would have set out papers for it, and I was far enough into my trip that my printed itinerary was no longer reliable.

I decided to wander downstairs for breakfast.  The newspaper at my door was the Wall Street Journal, so that was no help, but I knew that in the lobby I would see the local paper and my gentle fog of unknowing would go away.

I walked down the hall looking for an elevator and saw, framed in  a tall window, the stainless steel Arch.  I was in St. Louis.  A nice enough place to re-enter reality.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

the Will of the Gods

Walking back to my hotel at night, down a darkened, unfamiliar street in the old part of Athens.  Far in the distance, the lights and sounds of the square.  Here, the darkness relieved only by the lights of the last shop, now closing, sparkling jewel-like through windowglass rippled with age, while the staff, out of sight in the back, concludes the business of another day,
    Half-illuminated by the light of the shop window appears a machine, vague in the shadows.  A sign on its front in archaic letters, at first unreadable, then seems to shimmer and resolve itself in the dim light:
 “Your Weight & the Will of the Gods, 10 Drachmes”.
    I pause, coin in hand, uncertain.

Except for the sign, the story is all true, and even the sign itself I imagined as I stood there, and thought how wonderful it would be should I come across such a thing, which late at night in the darkened street seemed not wholly beyond the realm of possibility.  Such a state of mind is one of the pleasures of travel.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

another Greek Easter

This year, Greek and Roman Easter fall a week apart: the Western Church celebrating on the 8th of April and the Eastern Church on the 15th.  So the Greek Church is now in the midst of Holy Week, with Palm Sunday just past and Good Friday and Easter yet to come.
    I hadn’t been to a Greek Church for many years, not since I was in Greece, but last Sunday I went.  It was part in Greek and part in English, but I didn’t try to follow the service, instead immersing myself in the sounds and scents and images, which reminded me of a short poem by C. P. Cavafy:

In the Church of the Greeks

I love the Church  --  her images of the six-wingéd Cherubim,
Her silver vessels, her candelabra,
Her lights and icons and pulpit.

There, within the Church of the Greeks,
with her fragrant incense
and chanted liturgy
and in the magnificent presence of her priests
moving in solemn ritual  -- 
garbed in shining vestments  --
my mind runs to the great worth of our race
and the glory of our Byzantine heritage.

On one level, Cavafy has it just right.  In the Eastern Church every sense is engaged in worship  --  sight and sound and touch and smell and movement  --  and to the poet also the associated glories of the thousand years of the Byzantine.  But he seems to see nothing of its mystic faith, of the sacred, timeless space of the liturgy, of the believer drawn up to heaven to the company of the saints and martyrs looking out to him through the window of their icon.  The poet sees only the outward, superficial things, which is, I think, a sad affair, but then Cavafy had a sad life.

He did write a very nice poem about travel, which I may write about sometime.

Friday, April 6, 2012

a Traveler without High Purpose

After reading about people who travel in order to understand other cultures or generally become a better and fuller human being I might hesitate to say that I travel for the fun of it, but that is pretty much what it is.

I grew up with the Saturday movie serials, the adventure stories that Steven Spielberg drew on in fashioning the Indiana Jones stories.  As a little boy with no adult supervision I assumed that was what life was going be like, but it wasn't, until I discovered travel.

It is the common sin of travel writers to self-romanticize, but the wonderful thing about travel is that, if you have done it well, you don't have to make things up.  It really was an adventure.  Not like Indy's perhaps, but good enough for we little boys, now grown up.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

on the overnight boat to Athens

On the island of Crete, during that first Greek Easter, I had met Laurens, a young Swedish fellow who was hitch-hiking through Europe.
    The first thing I  --  and probably anyone else  --  would notice about Laurens is that he looked like a comic book hero. He was blond, square-jawed and well-built.  I am usually not immediately well-disposed toward those so unfairly blessed by nature, but Laurens was open-hearted and utterly likable.  His female traveling companion, whose name I am pleased to forget, was unfortunately a flibbertigibbet.  Pleasant enough when she kept her mouth shut, even Laurens seemed relieved when she disappeared at Iraklio and the two of us caught the overnight boat to Athens.
    As was the custom on inter-island boats, we went directly to the rear deck to stake out a sheltered sleeping space.  And it was there that we saw her.
    Actually, the first thing I saw was her backpack, which hove into view almost a minute before her head appeared over the side of the boat as she climbed aboard.  It was the tallest backpack I had ever seen and was all the more remarkable for belonging to a mere slip of a blond, suntanned young woman.

The Greeks were relatively nice about young women traveling alone, who were able to do so without  --  most of the time  --  becoming the object of unwanted attention.  But this young woman instantly became the focus of a veritable court of young males, both foreign and domestic, whom she commanded with practiced authority.  Laurens, one moment carrying on a perfectly intelligent conversation at my side, was the next moment at her feet in rapt attention.  It was an amazing sight to see.
    Later, during an intermission of court, Laurens wandered back, his eyes glazed, and smiling dopily.  “She writes for a magazine,” he explained.  “She has just come from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and being inducted into some tribal society, and she’s on her way to London to talk to Prince Charles about the Whaling Convention, or something.”  I told him that if he could put that in a bottle he’d have something, but his mind was elsewhere.  Later, Laurens and the young lady moved their sleeping bags close together  --  though, chastely, not quite touching  --  and I saw no more of him until breakfast.