Tags: my journeys among the heathens


About 2,120 words, give or take a dozen

Gemstones 2

Outside the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin there’s a small gumball dispenser, the kind you see everywhere, only this one wasn’t filled with gumballs, but with gemstones. The charm of this method of delivery is kind of ruined when they had to put this sticker on, to avoid broken teeth and potential lawsuits. For those who can’t make it out, the label says “Warning: These are not sweets. They are gemstones.”





InvalidPortMeanwhile, in O’Neill’s bar, an old advertising sign sells “Invalid Port – Specially Selected for the use of invalids”. We had a hard time deciding what constitutes valid port.


Mediterranean Sunset

I can see why all those authors, poets and painters found themselves in the Greek isles some times. There’s something very peaceful about the Mediterranean. I found myself this week in Matala, a tiny little village in the south of Crete. The place isn’t much more than a handful of houses, hotels and restaurants around a beach and a cliff face, and in the summer is overrun by busloads of tourists, but somehow it still manages to retain a lot of charm. From the stony beach to the Roman grave-caves dug into the rock (overrun, in turn, by hippies in the 60’s), there is a peaceful charm to it.

We avoided the hotels and found a couple of rooms to rent, as is the custom there – a couple have a tiny apartment on the cliff-face, and slowly add another floor, another wing, until they have a 5-room complex connected by metals stairs and bougainvillea. It’s off the main village square, overlooking restaurants, cliffs and the sea, and the view from our veranda combined with the chill September winds at sunset made for a place I can see Hemingway returning to, summer after summer, to sit and write. Start the morning with a dip in the sea followed by several hours at a makeshift desk overlooking the water, then lunch of seafood and retsina, back to some writing, and in the evening sitting in the taverna with German families and British backpackers over wine and olives.

It is not a bad life.
And some of the tavernas have wifi.

The view from the veranda over the cave-studded cliff-face.Sea and Cliff 
Bougainvillea-studded staircase.Staircase with Flowers
  Matala at sunsetSea at Sunset  

Font of Wisdom, or It’s All Greek To Me

The Greek typefaces are lovely. Symbols familiar from mathematical contexts and college fraternity movies suddenly given life as meaningful words. Deltas and omegas do thetas and mu, and deciphering signs becomes an algebraic equation with infinite variables. One sign results in “Exodus” and the biblical reference strikes before you realize it is nothing, in fact, but an exit.

Bonus tidbit #1: The letters Omega and Omicron, both pronounced pretty much identically these days, were originally a “Large O” and a “Small O” – “O mega” and “O micron”. Never noticed that until my brother pointed it out.

Bonus tidbit #2: The word for street is ODOS, and can be seen on all street signs as ΟΔΟΣ. You can’t help but feel, at first, that it’s a Playstation key combination. Noticed how three of the four playstation keys are Greek letters?


Not in Kansas

This is a reworked version of a recent entry of mine. I had brought it over to my creative writing workshop for review, and revised it according to the (excellent) comments I received. Now I wanted to have this version up as well, for comparison.


I cross the Golden Horn to Galata,  escaping Sultanahmed's twisting alleys and tourist traps. First thing that greets me is the underground shopping mall, filthy corridors strewn with last night's garbage, crammed tight with consumer electronics and handguns, one shop next to the other, each proclaiming new sales and new models, just for you. Outside, two young men hawk their services - a shiny new photocopier and laminator, hooked up to a belching gasoline generator and mounted on an old, rusty cart. Further up the street the electronics shops come thick and heavy, one next to the other, with identical signs showing identical products for identical prices. The gunshops are slowly replaced by banks (which are the continuation of violence through economic means, when you think about it) while the consumer electronics make way to to industrial: engines and wires and giant rolls of PVC; green, blue, purple. The streets are very dirty here, flaking concrete houses drab and featureless. One grey beast of a building suddenly sports a wooden extension, like a closed off balcony reaching down all along the side, all built of dark wood. It probably has a name, this structure, but I lack the architectural jargon. The wooden beams are capped by pretty pointy bits that, again, refuse to name themselves. I sit on a concrete block to write this down and a minivan going 40 on the sidewalk nearly takes my laptop and my foot along with it while a passing Frenchman asks me if I got a wireless signal, which I do not.

I need a better way to stream down my consciousness.


Letter to the Galatians

Galata is across the Golden Horn, very different from Sultanahmed's twisting alleys and tourist traps. First thing that greets me is the underground shopping mall, crammed tight with consumer electronics and handguns, one shop next to the other, each proclaiming new sales, new models, just for you. Outside two young men push their cart and hawk their services - a photocopier and laminator, hooked up to a gasoline generator. Further up the street the electronics shops come thick as heavy, like a dirtier Tottenham Court Road, while the gunshops make way to banks, which are really the continuation of violence through economic means when you think about it. Consumer electronics make way to industrial, engines and wires and giant rolls of PVC, green, blue, purple. The streets are dirty here, flaking concrete houses. One grey beast suddenly sports a wooden extension, like a closed off balcony reaching down all along the side, all build of dark wood. It probably has a name, this structure, but I lack the architectural jargon. The wooden beams are capped by pretty pointy bits that, again, refuse to name themselves. I sit on a concrete block to write this down and a minivan going 40 on the sidewalk nearly takes my laptop and my foot with it, and a passing Frenchman asks me if I have a wireless connection, which I don't. I need a better way to write down my stream of consciousness.


Fire in the deeps

In recent years there have been many discussions of the place of art in everyday life. Should a tool that's functional also be beautiful? Is there place for art in the workplace? Once we've gotten something working well, how much more should we invest in making it pretty?
More and more, in the 21st century, people recognize the importance of beauty, even in the most utilitarian of applications. People work better when they're happier. 
Beauty soothes the beast.

In the 6th century, Justinian I built the Basilica Cistern, the largest water reservoir in Constantinople, capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. Justinian, however, already knew what industrial designers of today are finding out. The huge, dark hall is held up by 336 marble columns. with ionic and corinthian capitals. When lit, it is a forest of pillars and bridges, with the two corner pillars standing on top of giant, inverted medusa heads. Even though it is just a dark, underground water reservoir, Justinian knew it also had to be beautiful.
Justinian didn't do it for the well-being of his workers or for the flavor of the water.
Justinian knew what lurked beneath the placid surface of the dark, underground water.
Beauty soothes the beast.


Fragments of a Hologram Tulip

In William Gibson's Neuromancer, the protagonists take a detour through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. I can see why. It meshes it wonderfully with Gibson's claustrophobic oldnew dystopia. Narrow streets, winding, rising, falling, interlocking. Old shops selling leather goods, silversmiths, hookahs. Children's clothing, leather goods, Turkish delight. Spices, doner-kebabs, leather goods. Vendors outside storefronts playing backgammon tossing cigarettes out on the cobbled streets. Above them, hanging from the domed ceiling, LCD screens air commercials while earnest young men in ties hawk cellular accessories and foreign exchange booths flash updated exchange rates.

The place has potential to be breathtaking, but instead it's just tiring.


Istanbul has street food figured out. Doner-kebab booths will sell you a decent bite for 2 Turkish liras, with a cup of cold Ayran on the side. Children pull carts of pistachios and sunflower seeds while others offer boiled corncobs and roasted chestnuts. I had a chicken shishlik on a corner with Said from Morocco last night, and a kid with a large kettle offered tea. Up near the Bosphorus they'll sell you a mussel, cooked in its own shell with rice inside, for only half a lira - less than 2 shekels.

Istanbul smells of kebab during the day, chestnuts at night. It's lovely.


Got to hand it to the tourist cafes. The coffee is crap and the beer is overpriced, but they have free wifi.


Outside, looking in

Japanese tour guides are in something of a pickle in this Mediterranean weather. It's too hot an dry for rain, but what will they raise up in the air to lead their group but an umbrella?

Well, they find a way. Sometimes they carry an umbrella anyway. Sometimes they find substitutes. Long sticks with something eye-catching at the end, like a flag, or a styrofoam finger, or a flashing light. They manage.

I would have liked their umbrella-substitutes to be umbrella-shaped styrofoam blobs just so I can have a nice signifier/signified intertextual insight here, but it seems that semiotics is not a part of the curriculum for Japanese tour guides.


Istanbul of is full of Byzantine churches-turned-mosques, and outside the bigger ones you can find the usual bustle of street vendors selling food, T-shirts, and souvenirs. Nothing seems out of place with tiles, postcards and shirts depicting Christian saints, like you can find in Greece and Cyprus, until you remember that you're in a Muslim country.


The salesmen in Istanbul are shameless, as befits a city overrun by tourists for over a thousand years. They call to you from storefronts and stalls. They shake your hand unannounced to pull you in. Tour guides mix in with the crowds, offering their services to a captive audience. A man yells out his ice-cream wares, another walks around the market with three shoe-boxes of brand new Reeboks, felloffthebackofatruck. In the tulip gardens in front of the Blue Mosque, a man sits and smokes behind an upturned crate on top of which he sells batteries, film and SD memory cards from inside an old suitcase. The city sells. The city buys.


At the Hagia Sophia

They are a humble people, the Christians. A cheek-turning, brother-loving, genuflecting lot. How appropriate, then, that in order to share their humility with all and sundry they would build gigantic, overwhelming, towering edifices to honor their modest carpenter.

Oh, but they sure knew how to build, those Christians of old. Vaulted archways 15 stories high so that your neck just bends back more and more to see it, and then your eyes descend once more, sliding down the chandeliers that hang down all the way to the level of your head. Marble pillars and gilded archways and the main basilica so huge that you cannot encompass it all, and find yourself rotating, panoramic, 360 degrees again and again just to absorb it all into your eyes.

Mosaics of saints line the walls, reconstructed. Icons of Christ remain as plaques on the wall, explaining their absence. The altar once contained a crucifix, I'm sure, now golden letters signal the power changing hands, Christians - OUT. Muslims - IN.


The muslims came in and made it their own. An illustration near the entrance shows how it was during the reign on Mehmet the Conqueror. The entire hallway, open, huge, carpeted entirely with, well, carpets. Red and green and all the weaves and woofs. Blue and yellow, interlocking flowers, the vaulted domes. Gigantic arabesques like rebuses and riddles. The lights shine in through windows and skylights and the whole place is full of people, getting ready for prayer. The size of the hall, the colorful carpets - it looks more like a bazaar than a church. If you let your imagination push back the walls, you can see plants and flowers growing along the sides. Maybe a small deer jumping through an archway. There is a magical quality to that painting, straight from Arabian Nights. I must find it, somewhere.


The place goes on. Zebra-striped marble walls. Pillars, marble, black or white, capped with doric, ionic, corinthian. Streaked walls, marble, horizontal, vertical, diagonal - the patterns change the higher you look, like geological formations revealed in cross-section.

And the stained glass windows, hallmarks of Christendom, long since shattered and replaced; the vivid blues and yellows shine arabesque sunbeams down on the altar, facing towards Mecca.

Above all, the place is overwhelming. It is not like Europe's dark, stony cathedrals, nor the shiny white marble churches. It is unashamedly, unabashedly huge, something only a Roman emperor at the peak of their decadence could build.


They bring schoolchildren here. You can tell. On the upper gallery, a low-hanging chandelier bears pen-marks of many schooltrips on its ceramic tip. Names and dates and exclamations of eternal friendship. What were they thinking?


Another strange moment. On the upper gallery there is a photo gallery. You walk through it, admiring the aspects of the place, and then it hits you: I'm in the Hagia Sophia, looking at photographs of the Hagia Sophia. Why?


I have no camera. I have no pictures.


Coherent in Copenhagen

I do apologize for my last entry, written while stone drunk in the middle of the night. I will try to make this better. I make no promises.

As may have been gathered from my last post, I am not in Röskilde after all. The city is full of refugees like us. You can see them everywhere. You sit at the bar and see a hint of mud on a shoe, a bracelet flashing underneath a sleeve, a sad haunted look. So you start talking. Everyone had their own personal tragedy. A hole in the tent turning it into a huge water baloon overnight. Friends in Denmark coming to save your soggy ass. 4 hours waiting in line for the buses.

Oh, there is still a hard core remaining there, I am sure. Out of the 100,000 (!) who came to festival, I'm sure there are still enough left to dwarf any concert seen in Israel, save perhaps the Roger Waters extravagance. But for us it was just too much. So for the past two days we've been doing the standard tourist gig. Churches and tourist-traps and Christiania and the sights of Copenhagen. It's a hell of a lot more expensive than we planned, but it beats drowning in the mud.

There's a jazz festival in town, so we're going to look for some music tonight. Returning flight is as planned, on Tuesday morning. Today we managed to get some laundry done, so I'm back in decent clothing. 
We're considering making a t-shirt, but I can't decide between "I Survived Röskilde 2007" and "I went to Röskilde 2007 and all I got was this lousy pneumonia".