Imagine a world without melancholy

My time in Istanbul was drawing to a close and I was feeling sad. I’d been wandering through the streets of the old town trying to find a Syrian family I’d seen begging earlier. I’d walked right past them – then, riddled with guilt – asked LSB to help me find the way back so I could give them some Turkish Lira. When we got there, they’d gone.

Two Syrian refugees sleeping in Istanbul's old town.

Two Syrian refugees sleeping in Istanbul’s old town.

We bought some tea and brought it to a bench. From there we had a view of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which seemed to be competing for magnificence. Above us, a sea gull was being tormented by a man selling laser pointers. The light followed the swooping bird relentlessly, bathing its feathers in a red glow, until the vendor got bored and turned it off.

“I think I have hüzün,” I said, referring to Orhan Pamuk’s description of a particular form of Turkish melancholy, which he ascribes to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

“Except,” I continued, “I feel sad about the whole world – not just the demise of Turkey’s greatness.”

It is not rational to feel the combined weight of the world’s woes on your shoulders.  As benign as the trigger for your despair might be, this kind of melancholy does not redeem itself by serving as a call to action. Instead, as I sat there, watching men shuffle around trying to sell packets of tissues and stray dogs sleeping under the street lamps, the feeling that coursed through me could best be described as inertia.

Some of Istanbul's many stray dogs

Some of Istanbul’s many stray dogs

LSB and I agree that I probably experience melancholy more often and more acutely than most. The experience encompasses both the general and the particular. While I may begin by grieving the decline of a particular friendship in my life, I am likely to end up lamenting the inevitable death of all relationships. My melancholy is not discerning. Sometimes I cry at a song that sounds sad but whose lyrics I am unable to decipher.

LSB and I share a deep admiration for a friend of mine who I believe distinguishes herself by her ability to – if this is the technical term – “just get on with it.” Her interests are practical – she loves her car, her exercise regime and ticking things off lists. She is not somebody to talk to about ideas or sensations. Her conversations cover familiar ground – they are uncomplicated and comforting – focussing more on mechanical processes, like car washes and the practical details of her work, than on overarching themes – like interrogating the status quo.

The Blue Mosque at night

The Blue Mosque at night

I enjoy her company; our conversations remind me that by focussing on life’s more trivial obstacles, we can regain some control. Even if that simply means knowing the best place to fill up a tank.

“Would you like to be like that?” LSB asked me, his eyes now following a drone which was circling the Blue Mosque.

“Sometimes I really would,” I said.

“But would you really?” he asked, knowing he might provoke me into contradicting myself.

“I guess you wouldn’t know what you were missing,” I said.  “I mean, melancholy bears gifts – without encountering it, you’d never recognize its cousin: poignancy and other relatives: beauty, transience and awe.”

“Life would lose its richness,” said LSB.

“I guess it would,” I said smiling, reluctantly.

Advertisements

Istanbul’s beautiful fragility

In his memoir Istanbul, Turkey’s most famous writer Orhan Pamuk describes the particular kind of beauty strangers encounter in his city:

“A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke – condemned, abandoned and now fallen into neglect – a fountain from whose spouts no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews … none of these things look beautiful to the people who live amongst them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless, hopeless neglect. Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins – invariably, we’re people who come from the outside.”

Last week I had the pleasure of being an outsider in Istanbul. The beauty I encountered there was unlike any I’ve experienced before.

20150905_211716

Sunset in Istanbul

There is the obvious beauty of the city’s magnificent skyline – particularly at sunset, when the silhouettes of mosques and ancient towers merge with the starker contours of the skyscrapers and cranes– and everything , including the glittering Bosphorus, is bathed in an orange glow.

But there is a different kind of beauty too – a fragile kind, which makes you feel that the entire city is held together by the most delicate of threads and that, if you were to tread too hard or in the wrong place, the entire metropolis could crumble before you.

20150904_215149

Istanbul at dusk

This fragility is everywhere. It is in the wooden houses, with their crooked windows and shabby fronts and the chipped paint on the doors. It is in the young waiters outside restaurants, who – having failed to lure you in with a flashy smile and cheeky soundbite, return with resignation to the car-racing games on their mobile phones.

It was in the way our taxi driver whizzed through the city without a seat belt – getting lost in the old town and shouting at other drivers for directions yet saying nothing to us. It was in the way young boys wove through the heavy traffic selling bottles of water in the searing heat.

It is in the chaos at the Grand Bazaar, where the individual spiels of hundreds of vendors selling you the same wares are at once farcical and endearing. It is in the way they make you feel special though you know you are not.

At the waterfront, the cries of men selling Hugo Boss perfume, corn-on-the-cobs, selfie-sticks and even, apparently, Viagra,  compete with the blare of the ships’ horns on the Bosphorus.  It is a clamour suggestive of both hope and despair.

Pamuk ascribes Istanbul’s peculiar melancholy to the decline of the Ottoman Empire – to a collective mourning for what was and never again will be.

If the source of Istanbul’s  beautiful fragility lies in its history – it is nevertheless in the scramble of every-day life on the streets where it is best preserved.

Fragility can take many forms.

Before I went to Istanbul, I consulted the websites of several countries’ embassies to read their advice for travellers. In the days before my trip, there had been violence in the south of the country and gunfire outside a palace in Istanbul. There was also, apparently, a specific terror threat to the city’s public transport network.

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

As so often happens, my fears dissipated as soon as I set foot in the city and became distracted by its magnificence.

But as I approached Taksim Square for the first time, my unease returned. The area had been cordoned off and was encircled by police vans. Crowds had gathered to watch a man in a bomb suit make his way towards the towering statue of Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The man carried out a controlled explosion – terrifying a flock of pigeons into flight. Its power sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

Moments later, the police were gone

and the square was once again teeming with people. It was if nothing had happened.

Buckthorn. Nothing but buckthorn.

We arrived in Rambin famished so as soon as we’d parked our bikes and dumped our bags, we set out in search of food.

Our holiday cottage was located on Hauptstrasse, or “Main Road.”

Such terms are, of course, relative.

The street did boast a bakery, which was shut when we arrived and appeared to sell little more than herring sandwiches anyway.

The other option was the farmers’ market a few doors down.  LSB and I had been hoping for a hearty meal to round off our day of travel misadventure with Deutsche Bahn.

Housed in an expansive building with traditional roofbeams, and featuring several aisles of attractively packaged products, it would surely satisfy our needs.

But the more we browsed, the more we encountered the same word: Sanddorn.

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

It was printed on jam jars,  bottles, tins and boxes.

“What is Sanddorn?” I asked.

LSB wasn’t sure either but we agreed that we recognised it from a health-food context and that its properties were generally considered benign.

We didn’t have an Internet connection, so it wasn’t until the next day that we learnt that Sanddorn was in fact: buckthorn – a regional specialty which grows on chalk cliffs and promises to cure all kinds of bodily ailments.

We didn’t exactly fancy a meal of over-priced condiments and sauces  anyway so  we decided to find an alternative eatery.

We’d passed a few signs advertising a “Pirate Restaurant” on the way to Rambin.

We weren’t sure whether it served anything vegetarian but figured it’d be a safe bet for a plate of chips.

The signs led us through a  little row of houses somewhat off the beaten track.

Every few hundred meters we’d encounter another large arrow pointing in the direction of the pirate restaurant.

After walking for about 20 minutes though, we began to suspect we’d gone wrong somewhere.

Then, finally, we spotted another sign.

Nailed to a fence it read: “PIRATE RESTAURANT – 6 KILOMETERS.”

Displeased and with our stomachs growling, we made our way back to the farmers’ market.

That evening, safely ensconced in our cottage on Hauptstrasse, we feasted on a meal of bread and buckthorn mustard.

Calling the bicycle hotline: the truth about Ersatzverkehr

A few weeks ago I decided to treat LSB to a weekend away on Rügen (Germany’s largest island) for his birthday. I did a quick Google of accommodation and stumbled upon a nice holiday apartment at an attractive price.

I booked it immediately and told LSB not to worry about a thing; I had this whole trip under control.

Shortly before we were due to leave by train on Friday morning, it occurred to me to bring our bikes.

LSB looked out the rain-splattered window at the black clouds and reminded me that SNOW had been forecast for the weekend.

I told him not to believe everything he saw on TV. (I’m an insider, so he had to listen.)

Next,  he expressed concern about the regulations governing bicycles on trains.

(As you can see, LSB has integrated very well into German society).

Defiant (because I wanted to bring the bikes) and grumpy (because it was morning) I grabbed the phone and called Deutsche Bahn’s Fahrrad (bicycle) hotline.

What – you haven’t heard of it? Rest assured; it exists. An entire service dedicated to urgent enquires about bringing bicycles on German trains.

After waiting on hold for several minutes (evidently they are very busy) I got through to Bicycle Hotline Lady (BHL).

“Where would you like to travel with your bikes?” she asked.20150323_102144[1]

“Rambin.”

“I’m sorry. Where?”

“Rambin.”

“Could you spell that?”

“Sure… R-A-M-B-I-N.”

“Um, okay. I haven’t heard of it. Give me a moment please.”                                                                                                                                                                                                At this point, it may be worth pointing out that I do not have a reputation for consulting maps very carefully.

I chose to stay in this town (“town” is, in fact, a  remarkably generous description) because, unlike Bergen (Rügen’s so-called capital) Rambin is by the sea. Also, the charming holiday apartment there may have been one of the first on the list of Google search results.

Anyway, the BHL told me that although she had not heard of my destination, she was sure the same rules applied as to all other places on the island. Taking the bikes on the train would be no problem though we would have to purchase tickets for them.

Feeling considerably more gruntled, I told LSB the bikes were coming with us.

Several hours later, the four of us were safely installed in a  train compartment. Like a model Deutsche Bahn couple, we cast our glances away from our bicycles only to admire the passing northern German scenery.

We were nearing Stralsund, a few stops away from our destination, when an announcement on the intercom told us that we must get out and avail of Ersatzverkehr (replacement transport) for our onward journey.

We disembarked awkwardly and followed the signs pointing to the Ersatzverkehr.

They led us to a bus outside, where a line of passengers from our train had already formed. Seeing us approach with our bikes, a woman in front of us said: “Boah! Are you going to be let on with those?”
“I’d better be!” I reply. “I have a Fahrrad ticket!”

“My best advice is to flirt with the driver,” she said ruefully, living up to the German reputation for practicality.

I approached him tentatively.

“No bikes,” he said.

“Really?”

“Yes. The plans for Ersatzverkehr have been well publicised in the last few weeks.”

“But what about my Fahrrad ticket?” I asked.

“It does not cover Ersatzverkehr. If you would like to complain to Deutsche Bahn for providing insufficient information, you can contact them via these channels,” he said, slipping me a card.

This flirting thing was not going well.

“There is nothing we can do. This is company policy,” he continued, climbing into the driver’s seat and shutting the door.

It was only when the bus drove off and the wind began to howl that it really hit us.

We were stranded.

And headed for a place no one seemed to have heard of.

To be continued 

Gambling on the American Dream

Newark train station, New Jersey.

Homeless men rush to open the door for you. Then, looking you right in the eye, say: “Do you think you could help me out, Ma’m? Spare a few cent?”

Inside, unfortunate people sleep with their belongings on the grand benches in the waiting hall. Some stay  seated – their chins slumped against their chests, while others curl up in a fetal position.

But one woman, more than any other, captured my attention. She was old; seventy at least, with thin lips and narrow-set eyes.

She was very slight and unlike most people at the station, white. Her hands were gnarled; her fingers protruded at all the wrong angles.

She slept for an hour, her disjoined hand resting on the brown carrier bag beside her.

When she woke up, she hooked her hand under the bag and shuffled away, agonizingly slowly.

I watched her empty spot until she returned.  She had bought a packet of Doritos at the station shop. She formed a cup with her hand and dug deep inside the bag.

That’s how I left her as I eventually got up to catch a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia.

"20060627 Trump Taj Mahal from Pacific Avenue" by Original uploader was TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia(Original text : en:User:TonyTheTiger) - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : own picture). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg#mediaviewer/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg User: TonyTheTiger

Trump’s Taj Mahal Creative Commons (c)User TheCatalyst31 originally uploaded by TonyTheTiger source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_City,_New_Jersey

A few days later, after my sister’s wedding, we decide to take a day trip to Atlantic City. Known as the “Las Vegas” of the retired, it is exactly as horrifying as it sounds.

Casinos, gaudy and gigantic, dominate the shoreline. Along the seaside promenade, you can see obese electronic wheelchair users stopping to charge up at designated points. It is a Monday afternoon in July and the casinos are full of elderly people, their eyes glazed over recurring pictures of fruit on the slot machines.

If you turn your back to the promenade though, you can take in the beautiful horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.

A handful of children are in the choppy water, jumping to catch the waves of a faraway ferry.

Every now and then a speedboat glides past. It’s got a large digital display board advertising a restaurant in a nearby casino.

On the way back to the station, I see from a distance a small hunched figure on a bench nursing an enormous soft drink. She has on a headscarf. Beside her is a brown carrier bag.

As I get closer, I recognize the gnarled hands and sunken face.

Maybe she has a pensioners’ travel pass. Or perhaps the ticket inspectors turn a blind eye because of her age. Maybe she does the commute between Newark and Atlantic City every day, just for something to do, or somewhere to go.

The American dream, I think to myself, has been one giant gamble.

The place that out-Catholics Ireland

As soon as the “Berlin-Warsaw Express” chugged across the border, the Virgin Marys began to appear. Some of them stood scarecrow-like and alone in their shrines at the edge of wheat fields, while others guarded the entrances to farm houses. Rosy-cheeked and smiling demurely beneath their blue shawls, they reminded me of home.

It was the first indication that I was on my way to a country with the potential to out-Catholic Ireland.

While the Virgin Mary may be rural Poland’s icon of choice, the late Pope John II reigns supreme in Warsaw. The former pontiff is carved into statues, pasted onto posters and a favourite among street artists, who sell paintings of his face alongside still-lifes of fruit bowls and flowers.priest

The adulation isn’t limited to the capital either. Last year, the Daily Mail reported that a businessman in the southern city of Czestochowa had erected a 45-foot statue of John Paul II, whom he believes intervened to save his son from drowning.

LSB and I soon got used to meeting some version of John Paul II at every street corner. We even began greeting him with a “Howeyeah JPII.” But it didn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not the only Roman Catholic actively revered in Warsaw.

In hindsight, I should have known better than to meander towards a park bench occupied by a life-size bronze statue reading a book. In my defence though, it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh statue by the canal in Dublin, a place where I have never been accosted.

LSB and I were basking in the sunshine beside the statue when we were approached by an elderly lady, who stood before us, staring. I smiled at her and she began speaking in Polish.

Warsaw skyline -- view from the Palace of Science and Culture

Warsaw skyline — view from the Palace of Science and Culture

“Erm… No… Polski,” I responded apologetically.

She gestured excitedly at the statue. I shrugged my shoulders as politely as I could.

She talked some more, then motioned at us to stay put while she went away.

A few moments later, she came back with an elderly man.

He had a pleasant tanned and wrinkled face and was wearing a Nike sweatshirt.

“English?” he said and we nodded enthusiastically. “I have… um. little English,” he said, laughing.

“This man,” he said, pointing at the statue. “Jan Twardowski. He… um…” he cupped his hands around his neck to indicate a collar and the word came to him. “Priest. Yes. Priest!”

“Oh!” I said. “Thank you! I didn’t know who he was.”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “Priest… important priest… and also poet!”
“Priest,” the lady repeated, delighted. “Yes, priest!”
“Ah,” I said. “What a beautiful place for him!”
“Yes, yes, beautiful!” they agreed.

They left happily.

A few moments later, another party comprising two women and a man in a wheelchair arrived and stopped in front of us. They stayed there for quite some time and I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Though there were several vacant benches elsewhere, I thought they were perhaps trying to covet our spot. “Would you like to…?” I said, motioning to get up.

“No, no,” the lady pushing the wheelchair said, waving her hand.
Suddenly I noticed a presence to my left. When I turned I discovered a third woman on her knees by my feet, praying.

This, I thought, is one step away from Pope-shaped perogies.

The Devil you don’t know

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

I thought LSB might be missing Edinburgh’s hills, so I decided to take him up “Teufelsberg,” or “The Devil’s Mountain,” to see a Cold War spy station that is crumbling to pieces.

The station is surrounded by a fence. Last time I was there, I clambered through a hole in it. Inside there was a vast spy column and a huge building, both falling apart. And graffiti, everywhere. And gaping holes in the concrete floors. Yellow felt lining and rusty bicycles lay strewn on the ground.

This time, all the holes in the fence were closed up. We walked around and around and thought about making our own.

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

Suddenly we encountered a commotion.

There’s nothing I like more than a commotion.

A man dressed in camouflage gear and a green beret was standing by steel gates, barring entry to the facility. He had his chest puffed out.

A group of tourists were standing by the fence, fretting. Their friend was inside the facility and he was not answering his phone.

“Oh my God, we need to get him out,” said one.

“Dude, don’t worry, he’s out of battery,” said another.

“Hi,” I said, “what’s going on?”

“These guys won’t let us in unless we pay €7,” one of them told me. “But we think they’re dodgy.”

I took a closer look. Three men were stationed in a triangle outside the gates.

Apart from the one with the green beret, there was a lad of about nineteen. He was wearing baggy jeans and a cap. Another man in a brown jacket was standing very still and watching us from a tree.

Our conversation took place in English.

“This is complete bullshit,” said one of the tourists. “These guys are just trying to make money.”

“I like the guy’s beret,” said another. “He’s sure playing the part.”

The man in the green beret kept his chest puffed out and gazed ahead with steely resolve. When he was asked why we couldn’t enter without paying he said “It’s patented.”

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

I’ve never been in a fight but something in the air felt like one was brewing.

I caught the eye of the youngster in the cap. He had a harmless, roguish face. I took a liking to him though I suspected he was a criminal. He didn’t speak much English. He struggled to explain that the facility was now managed by a really cool dude and that it wasn’t safe to go inside, but for €7, we could take a tour.

I startled him by breaking into German.

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “Why can’t we go in like before?”

“Dude,” he said. “I know it kind of blows but you see, it’s not really safe to go in.”

“Really?” I said. “But it’s safe if you pay?”

He looked sheepish.

“No you see, you go in for a tour,” he said finally.

“I see,” I said. “How did you get this ‘job’?”

“I’m friends with these guys you see. I used to come here all the time and I loved it. And now I’m training to be a gardener and this cool guy is doing up the place and that’s how I got involved.”

“Who is this guy?”

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

“Shalmon Abraham.”

“And he is your boss?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Can I Google him?”

“Oh, I never said that,” he said, looking at my feet. “By the way, I really love your shoes.”

“Thanks,” I said. (I got them in a vintage store in Rathmines.)

We chatted some more. My new criminal friend had been to Ireland. He said he liked the sheep and had visited Belfast.

Meanwhile, there was more commotion. The group of tourists said they were calling the police but the man in the green beret said he would call them first.

Police arrive and speak to man in green beret

Police arrive and speak to man in green beret

So he did.

LSB and I stayed on scene, chatting to the tourists and to the youngster from the other camp who had admired my shoes.

“You know, I really did use to like coming here to hang out too,” he said. “I’m just kind of on the other side now.”

It was like Romeo and Juliet.

Suddenly a man and a little girl walked out of the facility, accompanied by a petite, gamine French girl.

'Shalmon Abraham' speaks to two film-makers and French 'tour guide'

‘Shalmon Abraham’ speaks to two film-makers and French ‘tour guide’

“Hey man,” my possibly-criminal friend said to the man. “How’d you enjoy the tour?”

“She didn’t say a word,” the man said, motioning to the girl. “Barely even when I asked her a question!”

A little while later, a police car drove up the hill.

I decided this was a breaking news situation so I retreated close to a hedge to take some pictures.

A policewoman got out of the car and had a talk with Mr Green Beret. A policeman talked to the tourists, whose friend had meanwhile emerged unharmed from the facility.

Then a man in a white body suit appeared.

“That’s Shalmon Abraham,” said my new friend.

Shalmon Abraham did not take off his mask when talking to the police.

Police talk to tourists

Police talk to tourists

I asked the policewoman if the facility was really “patented.” She said it was.

I asked her when. She told me years ago.

I said I had been here a year ago and had encountered no unofficial looking men dressed in military gear barring my entrance.

She said that was strange.

I took some more pictures. Then LSB and I climbed another hill.

When we got to the top, he said “Let’s charge €6.50. We’ll undercut them!”

At home, we Googled Shalam Abraham. He exists (under is nuclear power suit). He’s a 28 year-old artist. And evidently, he has friends in high places.