Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I'm at Starbucks. OK, it's in Istanbul. I swore I wouldn't go, but I couldn't stand it any longer. As we were wandering around Taksim Square, lost and in need of a a fix of caffeine we noticed no less than two Starbucks. After we had passed the umpteenth Doner Kebab shop and not really being all that hungry, the dark and familiar doorway of Starbucks literally sucked us in. So now I'm sitting here with my tall Americano and Craig with his Chai trying to orient ourselves to a new part of town. Starbucks is Starbucks, no matter where you go.

Another thing I've noticed no matter where we've gone (and I've said this before) is that when you strip away the environment and material of the world, people everywhere are pretty much the same. There are kookie whistle blowing street people in every city. There are kind people everywhere. A good sales man or woman is good in Turkey, Greece, or New York. People everywhere have to work for a living, doing the best they can. People everywhere agree that prayer is important as every tolling bell and call to prayer attests, but most people don't pray as they should or could. I don't see any more people running to the mosque when the call to prayer comes than I do to church when the bells toll. No matter how long I live, I will never see the whole world, but the more I do see of it, the more hopeful I am that if we could learn from one another rather than try to convince one another that our way is better, that the world would thrive.

Staying in the Sultanahmet, in the midst of religious and secular monuments like Hagia Sophia jealously plundered by both Christian and Muslim forces in their turn reminds me of the cost we bear for living in competition rather than companionship. I'm not talking about the kind of competition found in sport which involves the heart and soul of the competitors, but the kind of competition that cares nothing for the other person except to take away a prize. Competition based on covetousness depends on ignorance. In competition based on covetousness, to know the "other" is to be weakened. Companionship on the other hand, implies knowledge of the "other." Even the word implies a sustained period of togetherness which permits one person to know another and even to share with another. In our world, distance and language separate us from one another and don't easily permit companionship, but the world is shrinking, so both the opportunity and need for companionship must increase. If distance and language are the problem, then in every opportunity I have on this trip to bridge distance and language I find hope. And I hope for more.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Everywhere we go I seem to notice the sheep. Driving over the Yorkshire Dales, over the mountains of Greece, and even in the stone carvings of early Christian Churches in Turkey, I see sheep. I don't know what it is about the furry little creatures, but I love them. Maybe it's because we had sheep when I was a child. Well, first we had pigs. My parents' first house was a farm in western Pennsylvania 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The house, barns, corn crib, fields and woods were our playground and they figured prominently among my first memories. I'm not sure why we got the pigs. My dad worked in the city. Maybe it was a little like the television show "Green Acres", except our pigs were confined to the barn and one of ours was named Twinkle Toes. After the pigs disappeared, (my brother and I wouldn't eat pork chops for a while) we tried sheep. Patrick and Matilda were the Adam and Eve of our little flock. After that came Joshua and Jericho, then not in any particular order and not necessarily of the tribe of Patrick came Granny, Mary, and several others. The Ewes tried to nibble our leather shoelaces when we came down the stairs into their pen from the upper barn, but Patrick tried to board us into the wall like a 250 pound hockey player with a grudge. We steered clear of Patrick. When possible.

Sheep figure into early Christian decoration of churches, too. We went to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - a soaring monument to power, it has served as a the "center of the universe," the imperial church, the first church in Christendom where the Byzantine Emperors were crowned and a great mosque after the fall of Constantinople. Now a museum, the building overtakes my senses with its scale. Easy to miss after all that grandeur was a small area off to the side dedicated to the fallen arches, columns, and decoration surrounding a drawing of the earlier Hagia Sophia. (The first St. Sophia was destroyed and the current church built over and around the site of the older church.) There on the grass were two long carved stone lintels decorated with sheep following one another nose to tail along the line of the carved molding. I noticed them immediately and thought, in the midst of all this imperial architecture and grandeur, in the vacuum created by the prohibition of figural art, the sheep were so welcome and familiar looking that they became at once one of my favorite things about the day.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Craig and I have decided that airline food has reached a new low. As if that were possible. When Olympic Airlines says there will be dinner service on a plane, eat before you go. We think there was a film of tuna salad in the dry hot dog roll wrapped in saran. We're still not for sure it was tuna. I did however have a split of red wine with it. Followed by something like a frosted twinkie which cracked when you bit it. I kept thinking we hadn't had dinner, but we had. Just unsatisfying.

However things looked up when we arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and were met by a welcoming man who helped us with our luggage and drove us to the hotel in the Sultanamet overlooking the Blue Mosque. Craig found this hotel from our guidebook. It said it was in the center of the old city. That sounded good to us. The picture of the hotel, a yellow wooden Ottoman looking house with a warm wooden front door, was charming. They had internet and breakfast and a reasonable rate. We arrived tired and a little anxious. The man at the desk took us up to a small classic looking room with a comfortable looking bed. So far so good. I went over to the window and, seeing a door, decided to open it. It led out onto a small balcony. Looking out into the night, I saw the spires and domes of the Blue Mosque filling the entire skyline, lit from below like a fantastic castle. This made me completely forget about the crummy tuna sandwich.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


The muscles of my legs are tender. I didn't realize how mountainous Greece was. For the last 4 days we have visited late Byzantine sites in Greece. Mystras in the Peloponnese and Meteora at the foot of the Pindhus Mountains were both built on mountaintops. In both places the only way up is on foot. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs allowed us to thread our way up and down the narrow roads and passageways of Mystras and scale the towering rocks of the Meteora. Stairs of weathered marble, worn and dark with age, stairs of brick hollowed by the feet of generations, stairs cut out of the rock face of the cliff, reconstructed stairs, stairs of earth and wood, you name it, we did it. Remember the scene in the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only" where the Bebe the ice skater and her lecherous patron (the bad guy) along with the blond haired thug who wants the nuclear triggering device are hiding out on top of one of the monasteries? We were there. It turns out that they won't bring you up in those little nets and I don't rock climb. So the stairs were it. I don't care if I ever see another stair.

Mystras, cleared of its last inhabitants in the middle of the 1950s, is now a World Heritage site. The mountainside once inhabited by kings and princes and 45,000 inhabitants is abandoned. Only the bricks and stones, stairs and empty buildings are left. Some are ruins, visible only by the outline of their foundation peeping out of the early summer (by our standards) grass. Some of the brick and stone buildings have been preserved or renovated, terra cotta tiles banding the building, their barrel vaults and domes creating an intricate skyline. Inside the churches, frescos and stone carving tell of a church closely allied with power, its angels clothed as soldiers, the , finial on the bishop's throne the family crest of the ruling Paliologos. Walking between the ruined walls and narrow cobbled streets overgrown with wildflowers and red poppies made me wonder what life must have been like for her inhabitants.

A fortified city, Mystras was the last capitol of the the Byzantine Empire. Built on a mountainside near Sparta, its 3 defensive city walls circled the hillside like curtains. The population, made up of skilled artisans and craftspeople came to Mystras to seek the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful. Although the frescos and stone workmanship, the architecture and artifacts tell the story of Mystras, they are at the same time a ghostly reminder. Walking the same streets that thrived with life 700 years ago called a culture to the imagination.

Unlike Mystras and 6 hours north by car, Meteora is a collection of monasteries built on top of towering islands of rock. Built about the same time as Mystras, many of the monasteries are close together, each one on top of its own rock island. Viewed from the road approaching the mountains, one monastery looks as if it is about to slide off its precarious perch into the valley below.

Unlike Mystras, the churches are still in use by the monks and sisters. The architecture is similar but adapted for the unforgiving environment. Meteora's frescos are beautiful, but most lack the surprising beauty of Mystras'. The tour buses have found Meteora, so it's kind of hard to feel like anything other than a tourist unless you watch for an opportunity when there are no tour groups in the churches. One thing about the tour groups, though -- as I watched other people huff and puff up the stairways, I didn't feel so bad for huffing and puffing myself. ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter in Athens

I wish I could tell you that we went to lots of Easter services in Athens, but I can't - exactly. We had some travel delays that made our plans go up in smoke. But the fact is that no matter what you do, Easter in Athens surrounds you.

On our way home from Piraeus after a long and unexpected delay at the gate where we got off our boat, we took the metro back to our flat. By the time we got off the metro, it was fully dark. We knew we had missed the local Easter service when we followed a woman walking up the dark street, pocketbook hanging from her elbow, holding her long candle whose flame she carefully protected with her cupped hand. As we walked down the sidewalk every door was shuttered and every shop closed with three notable exceptions. The confectioners. Each of the three brightly lit stores stood with their doors open to the night like welcoming beacons in an ocean of darkness. Their plate glass front walls were polished, the delicious Galatoboureko and baklava, Easter breads baked with a red egg in the center and short delicate cookies displayed with pride. They seemed like little jewel boxes. Exhausted and hungry, we made a bee line for our doorway and a quick dinner of pasta and the leftover cheese we had bought on one of the islands for a snack. We were just wondering if we had the energy to stay awake and try to go out or give up and go to sleep when the city exploded with the sounds of ringing bells near and far and the furious popping and banging of firecrackers. It was midnight. Easter was here.

The next morning we turned on the television to see how the holiday played out in the media. The first thing we saw was an Greek airforce jet on the tarmac. We waited expectantly, wondering what political piece of news would follow. (Craig can follow the modern Greek a little, so we get a general idea) The door of the jet opened and out of the darkness of the doorway came a monk clothed in his black habit holding a large lantern. Holding the light slightly aloft, he carefully descended the stairs to the runway crowded by excited people. After making a statement to the waiting crowd, and deferring to another politician for another statement, the monk and the politician got into a waiting limosine and were wisked off.

What followed were pictures of the lighting of the first fire in Jerusalem, from which this fire had come, A picture of a man having just lit his torch from the first fire running through the gathered crowd. His mouth open with an unheard cry, he catapulted away from the fire, holding his brightly blazing torch high above his head less like a prize than a banner of victory at the head of an unseen army. The teasers for the news were excerpts of speeches by 3 Patriarchs and 3 Archbishops of the Orthodox Church from all over the world. What followed was the full coverage of the Patriarchs of Contantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. This was followed by the full coverage of 3 more speeches from the Archbishops of Albania, Athens and all Greece, and the Americas. The rest of the news of the world took about 5 minutes. That pretty much says it all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Athens and everyday life

Well, we've been in Athens since Tuesday. The first day was characterized by the now familiar disorientation. The second day, Craig was raring to go, but I was nervous about venturing forth, so we went to the Byzantine Museum on our newly minted weekly Metro pass - what a deal! Since then we have ridden around the metro all day long just for the heck of it, taking in the Plaka and Acropolis, Pireus, and the Kolonaki neighborhood. Today we went to the Archeological Museum near Victoria Station. Tomorrow we head off to Pireus at an early hour to take a side trip to Aegina and Hydra, two of the Greek Islands near the Athens coast.

Sunday is the Greek Orthodox Easter, so tonight (Friday) was Good Friday. Crowds spilled out of the doorway of the church on the Plaka, which amplified the chant so it could be heard outside the door and throughout the neighborhood. Street peddlers were selling candles for the service. They were long honey colored tapers with a red or clear plastic wax guard. We walked over the dark cobbles in the dark of evening looking up at the Acropolis which Athens lights up like Las Vegas. You can pick out every pit of every stone from a long way away. It really is beautiful.

I've had so many thoughts and ideas about things to write, but I find that things are moving too fast. We don't have the long periods of time in one place that afforded me the time to think. I also think that being a little nervous about plans for the future, like where you stay next, makes it hard to think past the necessities. Some of my musings have centered around silly things like, "How come there are so many kinds of toilets in the world?" or similarly, "Why are there so many kinds of door knobs in the world?" These are the things that keep me up at night. But really. not to be too indelicate, it's important to know the mechanical capabilities of various conveniences. I never worked up enough courage to ask my friend Fiona why there were two levers on some bathroom devices. On the single ones do you keep holding the lever down or pump the lever? Or in Greece, I'm happy to just find the lever.

The doorknob question is another thing. Some turn, but some doorknobs have spring loaded buttons which you push and voila, the door opens. Some are just window dressing. Some doors need two hands to open, like the gates in Cambridge. You had to turn a large wrought iron hoop above while pushing down on a modern lever below. 3 times on 3 different doors before you could reach your goal (room). The reason the doorknob thing concerns me is not so much a deeply rooted psychological problem as an experience I had in Italy at a conference in 1996. It was late on the night before I was supposed to give a talk in front of a group of international doctors and nurses. I was a little nervous and couldn't sleep. I snuck into the bathroom to read for a little, thinking it would calm me down. When I felt sleepy enough to try to rest again, I couldn't open the bathroom door. I tried everything I could think of, even getting a little panicky when I couldn't wake up Craig. It turns out that even though these doorknobs look like the standard bedroom doorknob with a push button lock in the center, they are not. The little button which on our doors, locks the door, on the Italian doors, opens the door. Hmmm.

Since my humiliation of that night, I have never trusted doorknobs to be the predictable mundane household items we all know. Indeed, they are capable of causing more than a little problem! So when I have a moment of failure trying to open unfamiliar doors as one would reasonably expect, I move quickly from puzzlement to panic.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Three White Chimneys

After we saw the Mappa Mundi (and the library of course) and had walked around Hereford for a bit, the temptation to cross the border into Wales overcame us. (We were 10 miles away) On the way from Cuddesdon to Hereford the sweeping low folds of the Cotswold hills had given way to the deeper vales and higher hills of the west. This is the landscape that inspired The Shire for Tolkein. There is a roundness about the hills. As we drove closer to the Welsh border, the hills became dotted with farmsteads and sheep.

“Can't you see it? The three white chimneys!” Craig pointed with one hand as he drove with the other. He had spied a collection of white buildings on a facing hillside. The house had three white chimneys.

“That sounds like the name of a house or a book title,” I said. The words, simple and each clear and descriptive, were so catchy together. Had I been a traveler needing to discriminate one farmstead from another I might well have been told to look for the house with three white chimneys. It was visual shorthand. Where the land is mostly pasture, the farms look similar. But a traveler could have picked out a house with three white chimneys. Plus, it sounds good. I wouldn't mind if my house were called Three White Chimneys. In the car, scenery like this passes like a movie, but on foot or horseback, this walk must have seemed long and lonely. I wonder how much the car has changed life for the people here.

As the sun was fading we tried to pack in as much looking as we could. Stopping here and there, we saw the ruins of an old priory, Abbey Dore, that we had to approach by walking down a farmer's driveway, his cows sheltered in a barn constructed on the foundation wall. As time ran out, we noted a British Heritage site called Skenfrith Castle and decided to head there. The signs to the site and our trusty TomTom led us along a narrow twisting river valley first on one side and then the other. We came upon it suddenly. The huge hulk of the castle was unattended and surrounded by spring grass. We parked across from the row of cottages that faced the castle. The daylight quickly fading, the first thing I noticed when I opened the car door were the shouts of 3 or 4 boys and an equal number of girls of various ages as they carried on a rather free form but spirited game of soccer. Their bicycles had been dropped where they stopped. The air had the moist feel of early evenings in the spring when the warmth of the day falls precipitously to the coldness of night, the dew forming on grass almost as we watched. As we made our way around the castle wall to the entrance, the children noticed our presence, but quickly returned to their attention to the game. As walked up the stone stairs, the ball bounced near us on the castle wall and back into play. There were no motion sensors or ropes and guards, no admission booth. No one paid any attention to the 2 strangers wandering through the soccer game and into the roofless castle and keep.

Mappa Mundi

April 1, 2009, Cuddesdon

On one of the last days we were in the south of England, we decided to venture to the west to see the Mappa Mundi, the oldest complete map of the world in Europe if not the world. Created by a medieval monk in Lincolnshire, it is now housed behind thick glass in a special fire and earthquake proof safe beside Hereford Cathedral. As we entered the dimly lit room we saw the pale trapezoidal shape of the skin filled with a great dark circle. The circle itself was filled with all kinds of cartography – oceans were dark, the land masses pale, the islands in the Aegean filling most of the lower half of the map whose center was Jerusalem. Surrounding the busy circle was the realm of the heavens, and at the apex of the piece of vellum was Jesus on his throne. In the bottom left corner the maker of the map pictured himself kneeling. Next to his own figure, he wrote the words, “pray for me.”

From a distance the Mappa Mundi reminded me of a page in an old biology book I saw at an antiquarian bookseller. In this biology book the pages had turned creamy with age like the vellum. The black and white circle in the book illustration stood in contrast to the surrounding text not only because of its size and shape, but also because it looked like a pen and ink drawing where the typeface had a more mechanically produced appearance. The contrast between the type and the picture was jarring. The words themselves seemed like a kind of code on the page, rigid and methodical. The drawing seemed more visceral.

The cell was a doorway to understanding life itself. The cell was not completely understood, but the attempt to make what was known understood was made by using a drawing because the precision and abstractness of words were inadequate to describe this understanding. The Mappa Mundi was a similar attempt to describe what the map maker knew about something not completely understood – the world. Like the cell illustrator, the maker of the map located the known lands and people within the dark circle of his world. In drawing the space the map maker ordered the universe – like a single cell. The nucleus Jerusalem, the walls surrounded by the forces that ruled its world. The perfect circle declared the border of this world as if to say, “This is where human understanding ceases and the understanding of God begins.

The attempt of the author to organize his world into some kind of order is something I look on with a certain amount of wonder. Unitary constructs are so neat - like the lady we overheard in the tea shop trying to organize all the "isms" of the world along a continuum for her daughter. It is tempting to rationalize the world into a line or a “circle.” I also feel a certain amount of affection for the author. I try to order my little world every day and ,with some rare exceptions, it never “turns out like the drawing”. So I feel I understand the urge of the map maker as I think we all can. Granted, the scale of the project - ordering the universe and placing God in his heaven does seem rather a tall order. No wonder the map maker asked us to pray for him. Craig and I miss all who normally inhabit our world, a world that doesn't even make it into the map maker's imagination. I wonder what he would think?