Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aesthetics 101

We'd been relaxing on the island of Samos for some days, after our whirlwind tour of the Turkish Aegean coast. Samos is inexpressibly beautiful - mountainous and, for a Greek island, botanically luxuriant. We'd hired a little Fiat, and I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road (although the TP malevolently reminded me that I've done that on more than one occasion in Australia.) Driving a left-hand drive vehicle is a doddle, really - the only thing of importance to remember is that the gear-stick is operated by one's right hand. Several times I'd fumbled for it with my left, succeeding only in opening the driver's door and almost casting myself out of the car. One benefit of this is that I managed to elicit screams of horror from the usually unflappable Titanium Princess, and one should always be thankful for small mercies.

Our hosts at the Emily Hotel in Vathy, the island's major town, were Emily herself and her ex-husband Kari (don't ask.) They were most gracious in their welcome, although Kari resembled a more genial Basil Fawlty, and seemed unconcerned that there weren't too many guests in his establishment. He would prepare wonderful breakfasts, then sit us down in a garden patio, where bougainvillia competed with orange trees and other flowering shrubs planted by our hosts many years before, and regale us with stories of ancient Samos and its obvious importance to the evolution of civilisation as we know it. It was, after all, the birthplace of Pythagoras and Aristarchus the astronomer - for Kari, the two most important figures in history. He and Emily were two old troopers - funny, charming and knowledgeable, and would bring us glasses of wine or beer without suggestion after we'd arrived back from a hard day's slogging around the island. 

We'd used the tiny Fiat to thoroughly explore the island, and what a treat Samos was. The little port town, eponymously named Pythagoreia, combined tradition and ancient history; the ruins of the Ionian acropolis at Herion, and the temple of Hera, with its fifty-five marble columns, all in ruins now, out-doing the Athens Parthenon in size, scope and astonishing gravitas; the tiny mountain villages, with cultures and traditions all their own - yes, Samos was a place the traveller would immediately choose as a return destination.

We were booked on a fast ferry to Paros, but as it was the day when the European Parliamentary elections were on, the entire island, including the shipping companies, decided to close down for the day with the Greek equivalent of "Fuck it - let's party." Any excuse, and I could readily understand why so many citizens of the oldest democracy in the world had decided to relocate to one of the newest, and good for them. Talk about cross-cultural equivalencies - I can just imagine Theo jumping off the ship in Sydney in the middle of January, looking around at people deliberately doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and shouting "Effie! This is the place for us!"

And so, the following day, we trooped into the shipping-company's office at the port, where a very friendly and very out-there gay guy organised a re-booking for us. He was a lovely man, who, looking at my reasonably drab green t-shirt said "I love your blouse. You must come back later and sell it to me." Hey - it was the first pick-up line I'd had directed at me in about thirty years - don't knock it.

The ferry-master must have decided that a "fast" ferry meant exactly that, and we were no more than five centimetres out of the harbour when he put his foot to the floor. Our first stop was another port on Samos, Ag. Dimitrios, and we came barrelling into the harbour at top speed. Fuck, I thought, standing up on the top deck, this is a several-thousand tonne vehicle. I hope he knows what he's doing. It seemed that the ferry was on a course designed to stop us, eventually, about two hundred yards up the main street of the town, but at the last moment our captain executed a perfect handbrake turn and reversed up to the dock with just the gentlest thud of metal against concrete. I knew I was in good hands, and returned to the bar to consume about thirty retsinas in a row, just to be on the safe side.

About four hours later we arrived in Paros. Somehow I managed to man-handle our bags off the ship, and stagger about four hundred metres along the quay-side, the Titanium Princess keeping up a constant monologue on the dangers of drinking at sea, or drinking, period, until we arrived at the Hotel Paros.

We got to the desk, and I stood there, swaying slightly (well, I was still to re-acquire my land-legs; after all, I'd been at sea for four and a half hours), while the manager of the hotel eyed us up and down, then rushed around from behind the desk, grabbed the Titanium Princess in a bear hug, and shouted enthusiastically in a distinctly American accent "Christine, Christine! Where have you been, darling? I was expecting you yesterday! What's happened, my poor love!"

Well, it was news to me that the TP had visited Paros on her last solo European excursion, and further news that she'd been conducting an affair with a hotel manager, and an American one, to boot. I was just about to offer some advice like "Hey Chuck, or Brad, whoever you are, I don't mind you groping my wife, but could you carry these bags up to my room and get me a beer, first?", but then realised that Dimitrisgouros (or something like that - he was of Greek parentage, and his name was utterly unpronounceable) was simply one of those hoteliers who had been to a hospitality school where the idea of "service" included acting as though he and any guest of the opposite sex had been sharing intimacies for twenty years.

Meanwhile, a slightly discombobulated, and thoroughly flattered, Titanium Princess was breathlessly explaining the reasons for our delay. With Dimitri's help we got to our room, and I explored a well-stocked refrigerator while the TP, for some inexplicable reason, adorned herself for the first time since I'd met her with face-paint and bright red lipstick. (Just kidding - she flopped on the bed and resumed reading Pride and Prejudice.)

The Parians are the world's greatest, and most enthusiastic, stone wall builders. It is only a small island, but Paros simply teems with the things. Big ones, little ones, walls of houses, churches, taberna; walls to delineate paddocks, to retain banks of earth, to terrace olive groves, and walls for no discernible purpose at all, that wind for hundreds of metres over hills, along ridge-lines, and parade right down to the sea. Dry-stone walls, mortared ones, capped walls, walls decorated with icons, inlaid with equilateral triangles; walls made of quartz, shale, sandstone, volcanic rocks of every variety - the Greeks of Paros simply adore the very word "wall". 

I'm convinced the natives of Paros build walls for fun. In fact, I'll bet they knock down perfectly good ones just so they can get a kick out of replacing them with something even more beautiful to look at. Every field, paddock, house-lot and road is perimetered by one, and each one is not just a utilitiarian division, but a work of art in itself. And, where you find an open area which, unbelievably, has seemingly been forgotten by these muralistic obsessives, you will almost certainly find several huge piles of stone, just waiting to be skilfully manipulated into place. "Hey, Nick - there's a fuckin' paddock here without a wall!" "Shit, Con, ring the cops. Then get a few truckloads of rock in - this is a disgrace!"

I jest, but the Parian walls provided an intimation of something else that was going on in this part of the world. It crystallised for me as we sat at the taberna at the front of our hotel one night (traveller's tip: the Hotel Paros is fronted by one of the best restaurants in all of Greece - to say the food is merely delicious is tantamount to defamation), and, as we were waiting for our meal, and looking across the bay at an idyllic Paroikia sunset, I noticed the manager's son, a bloke in his late twenties, fussing about to my left. I looked over to find him hanging a glass bowl of rose water by some delicate chains to one of the lintels; when that was done, he gently placed half a dozen floating candles within and lit them. The whole time his friend, who seemed to spend most of the day drinking coffee at the restaurant, but who had no apparent employment status there apart from resident philosopher, was encouraging him with words of advice about the orientation of the bowl, etc. Eventually, they both walked out onto the road, turned around, and had a lengthy conversation about their masterpiece. Satisfied that it was just right, they came back in, sat down, and gazed appreciatively at this newest addition to the restaurant's already extensive range of decorative ornamentation.

I realised, suddenly, that the Parians are just aesthetes - for them, life is not about competition, accumulation, or consumption; it is about beauty. They love living within a beautiful environment, and they abide no distinction between craftwork and high art. It is all the same to them - their wonderful natural surroundings are simply enhanced and highlighted by their stone walls, their blue and whitewashed buildings, and their humble frescoes and decorations. These are enough for life to be complete.

Armed with this epiphany, I turned to the man to congratulate him. Waxing lyrical, I explained how refreshing it was to come to a place where capitalism was yet to pervert the souls of men; where art was the province of the people, and finished by pointing to the rose-bowl and saying "And I see now why you get so much enjoyment out of the construction of such a simple, yet beautiful, little thing."

He listened impassively to this somewhat tipsy monologue, and when I'd finished, leant over and said conspiratorially, "And it sucks in stupid fucking tourists like buggery."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three jewels of the Bosphorus

The Topkapi Palace was, for centuries, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. When Constantinople was taken by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, the Ottoman Turks used the site of the old Byzantine Acropolis, on the peninsula leading from the old city to the Bosphorus, as the place where a palace of dreams would be built.

Topkapi is huge - the complex is twice the size of the Vatican, and, to give you an idea of how vast it is, at the height of its grandiosity it boasted a kitchen complex that employed two thousand cooks. That's a serious gastronomic facility, folks.

There are four enormous courtyards on the palace site, each one hosting palaces and pavilions, dormitories, stables, liveries, armaments rooms, and, of course, housing for the ladies of the harem. One particular Sultan of the sixteenth century had some 1500 such women in his harem. During the course of his Sultanate the Ottoman Empire went into a temporary, but nevertheless serious decline. Apparently, the old boy was so hard at work servicing these fair maidens that the affairs of state were left a distant second on his list of priorities - a state of affairs which boggles the mind, as well as the gonads, one might think. When the TP read of his horizontal exploits, she gave me one of those looks that says Men are such fuckwits. You know that look, gentlemen?

To say that the Topkapi beggars belief is an understatement. Here is a place where you will find ceilings adorned in beaten gold leaf; where there are palaces literally studded with gemstones, where even the ceremonial knife used in the "Circumcision Room" is made of gold and diamonds. I'll bet that attention to detail comforted the fourteen year-old princes as they were about to get the chop. "Ooh, what a lovely looking knife. What did you say you were going to do with it, Father?"

Reeling from the heady delights of the Topkapi, we headed off to the Karpali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar at the top end of Sultanamet. This promising little shopping-centre was established in 1461, and has grown considerably in the ensuing five and a half centuries. I gave up counting the number of individual retail outlets when I got to about four thousand, the TP seemingly having made a purchase in every one of them. Pashmena scarves, silver and gold jewellery - she even bought a belly-dancer's outfit, and I'll be writing about that in a later instalment. I bought a cap. It cost two dollars.

The Karpali Carsi is as psychedelic place as you would ever see. An interior decorater's nightmare, each shop tries to outdo the next in gaudiness and cosmetic hubris. And at every little palace of bargains, a tout will accost the shopper with a well-practised sales-pitch. My two favourite lines were "Sir, madam - how can I relieve you of your money today?" and "These goods are almost free."

Thus substantially burdened with exotica, and considerably lighter in the pocket, we returned to the "Cordial House Hotel", our lodgings, where I had to consume about six bottles of cordial to assuage the morbid prospect of re-financing Casa Laurie, yet again.

I must say I really like the Turks. They have a nice, laid-back attitude about them, and a great sense of humour. Friendly and helpful, they made us feel welcome everywhere - and that's not something you can say all the time about cities and countries chock-a-block full of tourists, and German and American ones, to boot. (Sorry, I know, I know, I'll stop now.)

To give you an example of Turkish generosity (jumping a few days ahead), the TP and I were walking along a road in Kusadasi, late at night, searching for a hotel where we were intending to meet some of our touring friends for drinks. We were totally, utterly, hopelessly lost. I had spurned the Princess's advice to get firm directions and take a street map, relying on my inherently good sense of direction instead. As I said, we were completely lost. It was pitch black, dogs were barking at us from doorways, and I was just a little unsure about even finding our way back to our hotel. We'd been walking for an hour, and had found ourselves on the outskirts of the town, instead of the intended destination, its centre.

Presently, a bloke scootered past us and disappeared over the hill. The TP was exhausted, sat on a low stone wall by the side of the road, and declared "You and your fucking sense of direction. I'm not moving until you get a taxi."

Just then, a car came towards us from the top of the hill. It was the same guy who, a few minutes before, had driven past us on his little motorbike. He leant out of the window and said, in passable English, "Are you good people a little lost? Where are you going?" 

I mentioned the name of the hotel, and he shook his head. "I don't know that name, but I will find out. Please, get in."

Now normally, when travelling, it might be inadvisable to accept lifts from perfect strangers in the middle of the night. I think there are warnings about such things on travel advice websites, under the general heading "How to avoid being mugged, raped and shot in foreign countries", but the Titanium Princess was ensconced in the back seat of his car before you could say "grievous bodily harm." With just a slight feeling of misgiving in the bowel region, I clambered in behind her.

But the bloke turned out to be a delight. He stopped at another hotel nearby, left us in the car with the motor running, and disappeared inside, only to emerge in a couple of minutes with a big grin on his face, and promptly drove us another couple of kilometres and stopped at the door of our destination. "There you are, good people, the hotel you were looking for."

We were flabbergasted. "Can we buy you a drink, sir?" I offered.

"No, thank you very much, I must get home to my children. It was very nice meeting you, and I hope you have a pleasant stay in my country."

With effusive handshaking all round, we thanked him for his generosity, and he sailed happily off into the night. He had done this simply because he was a good bloke who had seen a couple of travellers out of their depth. And that's the sort of treatment we got from the Turks wherever we went. What a great country.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The ugly professor

I knew there would be trouble. It often comes in small packages, and this particular packet of it announced itself in no uncertain terms as ugly, loud and American.

It was early morning, and we had boarded a bus that was to take us on a guided tour of the Aegean coast of Turkey, a most remarkable part of the world that simply leaches ancient history, and was to provide us with a moving example of the utter stupidity of the modern variety, at a place called Gallipoli.

Our tour guide was a lovely young woman named Jen; she had fallen in love with Turkey several years ago, and was now working for a travel company with the singular name of "Fez", but never mind. The bus was a twenty-seat Mercedes driven by a young Turk (this is about my one and only chance in life to use that expression literally) called Ali. Ali's English was just slightly better than my Turkish, which is to say hopeless. (Although, by the end of the trip, I'd got him to nail "No worries, mate", accent and all.) From the moment we shook hands, I knew I was going to like him. You can tell with people, sometimes. Ali was friendly, funny, and a terrific driver. The Turks, generally, are very good drivers - they have to be, in a city as big (20 million or so) as Istanbul. They quite properly regard the road rules as advisory only, to the extent where even the police will happily ignore infractions that would have me locked in a police cell for several days in Australia. Anything to assist the flow of traffic is encouraged. And they are good enough to drive really fast, only inches from each other, all with good humour and a repertoire of horn blasts which are, by and large, courtesy calls.

Ali was one of these. As safe a driver in whose hands I've ever put my life, Ali wheeled the bus through the crowded, narrow, twisting streets of the old city, and onto the main highway out of town with nary a hint of imminent catastrophe. I was impressed, as he performed this entire operation with one hand, the other holding a mobile phone into which he poured a non-stop stream of Turkish. (I learnt later it was his mum on the other end.)

Now, there were three Americans on the bus, whose complement consisted of mainly Australians and our dowdy feathered friends the Kiwis. (Sorry, but it's sacreligious for an Aussie not to have a go at a New Zealander whenever the opportunity arises.) One of these Yanks was a 40-ish woman named Barbara - tall, slim, polite and quietly-spoken. She was on her way to Kusadasi, a southern port and resort town which was, coincidentally, our drop-off point too. Barbara and her partner were sailing their yacht around the world, and she'd just been to Prague for some shopping, and was on her way to rejoin the boat in Athens, via Turkey. She was a remarkably intelligent and warm woman with whom we, especially the Titanium Princess, became fast friends.

If Barbara epitomised all of the qualities I'd like to think are the talents of the best Americans, then, dear reader, just think what her opposite might look like. Because that's what clambered aboard the bus next.

A woman (and I use the word advisorily) of about sixty winters of discontent - large and ugly in a way only a lifetime of self-centredness and an inflamed ego can etch ugliness into a face that resembled a smashed crab - climbed up the stairs, huffing and puffing as if the exertion of not being carried onto the bus on a feathered golden bier supported by four eunuchs was too much ignominy for her station, and immediately demanded in a high, piercing voice that she be awarded the front seat, as she was "prone to travel-sickness." She had in tow a bizarre-looking man of about seventy, for whom the descriptor "gaunt" was probably flattering; it turned out he was her husband, and from the tiny squeaks he occasionally emitted I figured out that he must have done some fast-track evolving from the mouse species, as he was clearly terrified of the behemoth that had evidently been ruining his life for forty-odd years.

Barbara, who was sitting across the aisle from us, immediately offered her seat to Her Ugliness, who, without a word of thanks, bustled her hubby into the window seat, all the while whining that she must also have the aisle seat, being prone to panic attacks. Eventually, after going through a couple of volumes of Webster's Dictionary, she got herself settled, did a couple of Linda Blair-like pirouettes of the head to check out the assembled throng, and finally rested her gaze on me.

Now, if you're anything like me, you're probably adept at meeting people and breaking the ice. You smile, say hello, and offer a few inconsequentialities like "Where are you heading?", "Had a goood trip so far?", and "How could you have possibly voted for that idiotic, war-mongering Bush TWICE, you dumb American cunt?" (To be honest, I haven't exactly used that one myself...yet.)

The Thing gave me the once-over, and said "I'm a college professor, you know. Accountancy." I was about to say something innocuous like "Good for you", when I noticed her eyes. I could tell, right away, that she was stark, staring mad. One of her eyes betrayed her as delusional; the other had the steely glint of the psychopath. It was easy to see why the Mouse lived in terror. (Don't ask how I can be so certain of this diagnosis - suffice it to say, I've worked in gaols for twenty years, and one gets to know the look.) This one had a double dose. Oh boy, I thought, this trip is going to be fun - this lunatic probably thinks "ice-breaking" is best accomplished with the aid of an ice-pick; maybe the Titanium Princess should sit in the aisle seat - at least she's armoured.

Without taking a breath, she began to complain vociferously about the poor state of education in the world. Apparently (and I hadn't realised that this was still a thesis going around, what with trepanning being almost a lost art), the decline of general educational standards throughout the world has a lot to do with the appearance of black people at universities. She leant across the aisle and confidentially lowered her voice to about 140 decibels: "They're all dumb and lazy, the lot of 'em, you know."

"What," I replied, "as distinct from fat and ugly, you mean?" Fortunately, that one went straight through to the 'keeper, as she remained unfazed, replying "Well, that too, often enough, but I suppose the poor bastards can't help their genes. Their trouble is they've got no entrepreneurial flair. Just like the Turks. I had to have a word with my hotel manager yesterday. Told him to clean his hotel up. There was dirt in the corners of my room. They just don't realise that if they want to get more trade from the U.S. they'd better damn well clean up their act." I was comforted by the image of the Thing's hotel manager ordering a truckload of street sweepings to sprinkle around his rooms after her departure. Like garlic and vampires, perhaps.

"My husband's a professor, too, you know. Yale. Math." I looked at hubby, and he looked at me, and I saw a resigned helplessness, as if had he had the courage to take to the drink his liver would now be a prized specimen at the Museum of Medical Oddities in Denver, Colorado. He was a man shattered, and if he had once been a prized professor of mathematics, it was plain that he was now only three ticks above village idiot.

"My first husband died, you know," she continued. "I was twenty-eight, so what do you think was the first thing I did?" I remarked that I couldn't possibly imagine, although my mind was going through a list that included Watergate burglar, assassin, cannibal, etc., when she replied for me. "I got another one - this one!"

"Well," I said, "it looks like this one's lasted pretty well - you haven't managed to kill him yet." She gave me the look for a few seconds, then broke into an hysterical cackle.

"No, you silly boy," she slapped me on the knee, "I didn't kill the last one. He fell off a very tall building." No wonder, I mused - if I was married to you, madam, they couldn't build skyscrapers fast enough for me to climb up and throw myself off.

As we ran along the motorway, through vast suburbs of teeming and towering housing developments, and noticed hundreds and hundreds of people lining the road, perhaps to be picked up for work, perhaps hoping for work, the Thing kept up her manic autobiography. She wasn't the slightest bit interested in Turkey, she said (without realising the sheer, vapid stupidity of such a remark), and was only there because of a conference in Istanbul.

"What a coincidence," I remarked, "I, too, am attending a conference soon. In Dublin."

She needled me with the psychopathic eye. "What's it on? Accountancy?"

"No," I replied. "The psychopathology of economists."

"So you're a professor, too?" she said with an enlarged bonhomme that was starting to scare me just a bit. "I like associating with professors. Well, the white ones, at least. By the way, you speak remarkably good English."

"Why thank you, madam," I responded, "it's so nice to be complimented on one's proficiency in one's native language." I was beginning to realise that it didn't matter what I said to this drongo - she enjoyed nothing more than the sound of her own voice.

We arrived at Gallipoli, where lunch at a local restaurant was served. I was feeling slightly under the weather at this stage. No matter how careful you are, you'll always cop the wrong end of a microbe or two whilst travelling. It was nothing serious, I was just a bit queasy, and I forced a rather lovely meal of fish down before we set out for the battlefields.

We drove to Anzac Cove, and alighted from the bus. And here it was - this tiny strip of sand whereupon one of history's greatest military follies began. It was blindingly obvious, looking up at the towering cliffs and impenetrable canyons, and just the sheer exposure of the place, that storming the Gallipoli Peninsula was always going to be a mug's game. Our guide, a Turkish bloke called Bill, took us through the campaign step by step and month by hideous month. We saw the places where the major battles had been fought, where so many young men died, the front-line trenches only ten metres apart, where the soldiers of both sides would throw food to each other during lulls in the fighting. This epic series of battles lasted eight months and achieved precisely nothing. That's right, nothing at all - the Dardanelles remained in the hands of the Turks. The British and French had wanted to wrest control of the straits, and Istanbul itself, and the Black Sea ports - partly to take these mechanisms away from the Hun, and partly, of course, because they were insane, murdering, greedy bastards themselves whose objectives in Europe had less to do with peace, civilisation and development, and more with the insanity of weirdos like Winston Churchill and his coterie of alcoholic cut-throats.

The piece-de-resistance was a shrine at the Turkish memorial, upon which were inscribed these words, in Turkish and English:

In the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful. The martyrs requested of Allah the following: For the sake of you, oh Allah, send us back to the world so that we may be martyred once more.

On reading this my gore began to rise. I was composing what I thought might be a more fitting epitaph to the dead children buried here, something along the lines of "Dear Allah, you ignorant, malicious, psychopathic prick - if you really exist, please raise us from the dead so that we can live in peace with our Anzac brothers, who killed us, and whom we killed, for no good reason at all, just the insanity of our deluded fathers who thought it was dulce et decorum, but who should have known better."

Her Ugliness was, at this stage, reading the inscription too. She looked at me and said "That's so lovely, so righteous, so noble, don't you think?"

I opened my mouth, and a stream of Gallipoli lunch cascaded onto her stupid purple trousers, gently dribbling into her shoes.

"I'm so sorry, ma'am," I managed to blurt out. "I had no idea travel-sickness was contagious."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I'm back!

Just a note to inform regulars that I'm home, and preparing a vast collection of highly risible anecdotes from our recent grand tour of Europe. I hope you enjoy them as they appear!

Just one short one for now:

The Titanium Princess and I were walking along a road in Dublin. We came to an intersection where, painted on the roadway itself, was a sign that said "Look Right", with an arrow pointing in that direction.

"That's considerate," I remarked, "It's a good idea considering the number of European and American tourists who come here."

The TP eyed me, with a mischievous glint in her eye.

"They're for the locals," she grinned.

"You're not the woman I married," I replied.