(Not) Reintegrating

I’m doing my best to not reintegrate. I suppose it is easy right now as I am couch-surfing at a friend’s place, until I find something more permanent. (Not that I really want to, but I do need to replenish the bank account before I get on the road again.)

It’s weird being home. Nothing has changed. Nothing. And that is disturbing. People still make the same old arguments in favor of or against just about everything, politics included. Fortunately my friends have accepted the fact that I won’t reintegrate (they actually seem to appreciate it, albeit from a vicarious perspective) and the question they all ask is: “when are you leaving again? And where are you going?” Even my mom is intensely curious to know where I am going next. That’s also weird. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to reconnect with my friends, that there would be a distance between us–but so far (and it has only been a week) they seem not to care. Weird, but wonderful. Of course, they all want to know about Turkey, “travel tips, please?” And they all are fascinated by Lake Toba and ask all kinds of questions about it, but when I tell them how hard it is to get to they lose interest, which suits me fine. I hope the place remains undiscovered.

I can’t help but to notice, however, that as a society America loves to pride itself in ‘individualism’ and ‘personal liberty’ but remains one of the most conformist places in the world. All the cars are the same (SUVs), all the music is the same, all the clothes are the same and all the TV shows are the same. Now, that’s not to say that other places in the world don’t share this society-wide need to conform. (It’s human nature in my opinion.) Many of the places I visited were just like this, especially East Asia (but not India, not by a long shot). Turkey had this to a degree, but in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, it was pretty easy to get lost amidst those in the Turkish counter-culture. Scandinavia had this on one level, but also the level of tolerance and acceptance there of differences was pretty profound too.

It’s also quite expensive to re-integrate, even as little as I have. I got the paperwork for my car up to speed (including insurance) and got a cell phone number (but only a pay as you go, as the telecom companies can go fuck themselves if they think I am going to sign up for a two year plan!). I’ve reintegrated in a few other minor ways, but all in all, my life isn’t so different than it was three weeks ago. And that is good. It leaves me hopeful that I’ll be able to stay put for a while, complete my writing project and then head back off into the world.

Lastly, as much as my friends missed me, it’s obvious that life went on without me. It’s odd, beyond words, really, to sit down and catch up with them and see that their lives didn’t change at all–and in the grand scheme of things mine probably didn’t change so much either–and also to realize I was gone for a full year.

It felt like it was yesterday I was catching that plane to Singapore. Just yesterday I was floating down the Mekong. Just yesterday I was sailing across the Indian Ocean.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow looks as bright as it did six months ago. Full of promise. Full of joy. And full of friends.

That is right and good. As it should be.

Walking Versus Driving

What I miss most about being home is simple. I miss being able to walk out my door, be it in Istanbul, Singapore or India and walk down the street to get what I want, see my neighbors, smile at strangers and stretch my legs. (And I could care less if it is 105* out right now. It was hotter in India and Oman, by an order of magnitude and that never stopped me from walking.)

Here I have to get in a car to drive three miles to the nearest convenience store. What the hell is so convenient about that? No one smiles, no one says, “hello” and no one shares any local gossip. Everyone is a stranger. I felt less lonely and isolated in foreign countries than I do here. That just ain’t right.

The Madhouse

It’s 530am, Tuesday morning. I’m awake. It’s the jetlag. And I’m already asking myself, “how the fuck do I get out of this madhouse?”

I think this will be the hardest lesson of all.

Lunch yesterday in Houston was dreadful. The food tasted like processed cheese. Everyone is attached to blackberries. And I fear, most of all, losing the ability to live in the moment. I worry I won’t be able to snatch all those little moments of beauty and wonder, stick them in my pocket and pull them out when I need them.

It’s strange, out there, in the world, I never felt lost. A stream of images rush past, the fabric of the last year, the warp of memories and the weft of people. Even in the middle of a bewildering ‘India moment’ I knew exactly where I was. But here?

It’s not easy leaving all that magic behind.

Nyborg Journal, June 8 2009: Notes From A Train And Beyond

The Garden HouseFrom the travel journal:

Budapest to Berlin Train: River metaphors seem appropriate right now. Crossed the Danube. Leaving Hungary. Was it from Priene where Heraclitus looked out on the Meander and asked if we can ever really cross the same river twice?

Last night I began reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time For Gifts” to analyze his prose but the tale sucked me in immediately and I was lost, swept away in the reverie of an old man remembering his youth. “Give me whiskey, give me wine, when I recall that my youth was divine,” or so Tennyson wrote. If my youth was divine (and it was) then what is this?

I’ll cross my fiftieth border in a short time. Borders and rivers and time, melted into a whole. Did I ever imagine, that cool June day in 1993 when I first landed in London, on my first journey, that I’d be where I am today? I have finally, in the words of Magris, “left the enigmatical fabric of the universe to look after itself.” What a hard won lesson it has been.

Berlin to Hamburg: Sitting in the middle. Some day I will be old, like the couple sitting to my left and once I was young, like the happy youths to my right. Today I just am.

I’m looking out at the gorgeous rolling farmland on the North European plain and all I can think of is, “I miss the East.” That’s not living in the moment. But I miss the East. I miss the energy, the ‘never-knowing-what’s-going-to-happen-nextness.” The most important leg of the journey began in Istanbul a few nights ago. I realize now. It’s that tale that rarely gets told: the return. Am I ready? Perhaps not, but each journey has its own ineluctable iambic not to be denied.

Hamburg to Copenhagen Train: Three contrails streak across the Baltic sky. Seagulls twirl circles in the salty summer wind. Here I am sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow; two hours ago and dinner this evening; the smoke I just had and the moment when I’ll put my pen down to look out the window and chose my next words. This glorious, eternal, transient now and I smile. I breath in the cool wind over water, smell the octane, sip water and melt.

Denmark looks like a giant IKEA store. Really, it’s fucking IKEA-Legoland here.

Notes from A Nyborg Garden: Sandbox, how many dreams? How much imagination? How much creativity was launched out of that old sand-box in Shavano Park? Staurt’s son is more lucky than he knows to have one.

The family ties here in Denmark are strong. Life centers around friends and family, but it’s not communal. It’s no where near as individualistic and lonely as the American life is, as well.

Stuart says, “we’ve become consumers instead of citizens.” He’s right. Modernity is ripping apart our common Enlightenment values.

I thought before I arrived that it would be strange seeing my best friend as a father. But he’s a natural. Kind. Patient. Firm. Loving. He’s found (and made) his peace with the world. His kids don’t annoy me like other people’s children do. I can’t help but to love them, mostly because they are him. Camilla and Stuart have settled into that deep happiness of young parents. A common purpose and lots of love will do that. He’s tending his garden, unaware I’m writing about him. I can’t help but to find his contentment and happiness infectious.

Half a world away and a lifetime ago, it seems, I made plans to be here for his daughter’s Christening. I’m the Godfather. I’m filled with a sense of well-being today, both looking forward to tomorrow and the day, which will soon come, when I turn my head firmly homeward. It’s almost been a year.

And I sit in his garden. Don would have been proud of me, I worked a full day with my hands. My hands scribble in my travel journal, finches chirp, a dove coos while bees gather pollen from the rasberry bush behind me. Can I spray paint this scene across my memories, this post-modern pastoral?

In the moments between moments, I wait, frustrated, impatient for the next look, the next place, the next destination. But I’ve come half a world to sit in this garden and I’m not interested in my next ride, my next stop, my next fix. This is life, the everlasting moment . . .

Serendipity Lives In Budapest

When it’s good, it’s just good.

So, I’m sitting in a cafe, having a coffee, reading Magris’ book Danube. I usually start books at the beginning but I decided yesterday to read his thoughts on Budapest. Mind you, Magris’ travel book really isn’t a travel book in the conventional English or American sense. It’s very Mitteleuropa. He’s a scholar of German literature, who taught in Trieste, which, although it is in Italy, is a Central European town. It’s much more a survey of the intellectual life of the Danube, and at times although a bit dense, it is excellent and thought provoking reading.

Yesterday I read a passage about Budapest and the author Gyorgy Konrad. I was very fascinated by Magris’ retelling of Konrad’s life and works so I googled him while sitting in this cafe today. And then I noticed an older gentleman having a glass of wine, scribbling away in a smallish Moleskine journal just like mine.

“No fucking way,” I thought to myself. “It can’t be.”

But it was. Sitting before me was the man himself, Gyorgy Konrad.

“Working on my next novel,” he said, when I asked what he was writing.

“And you, young man, I see are a writer,” he asked.

“Nothing special, sir,” I said. “Just thoughts about a very long journey I have undertaken.”

For the next two hours I sat in rapt attention to the tales of a dissident who participated in the Hungarian Uprising of 1958.

Seldom is serendipity so kind.

Budapest Journal, June 5, 2009: Mitteleuropa

Budapest ViewsFrom the travel journal:

Some Euros seem to have this conceit stuck in their head that Hungary is the gateway to the East, although admittedly not as bad as the ‘Wogs begin at Calais’ sort. I imagine if I was heading south from Denmark, through Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into Hungary I might agree. But I’m not. I’m heading north, towards the North European plain and this city is nothing like an Asian or Eastern city. Budapest has much more in common with Trieste, Vienna and Prague than it does with Bucharest, Sophia, Moscow or Athens for that matter. This Mitteleuropa is terra incognita for me.

Met Joao, a young man from Portugal studying in Bucharest with the Erasmus program, on the Bucharest-Budapest train. He talked about the girls in Romania, the nightlife and economics. Needless to say, we had lots in common, economics, that is. He was a nice kid, handsome in the bug-eyed, Latin kind of way.

Budapest photos can be found here.

Don’t have much to write the last few days. Haven’t been in the best of moods. I miss the East. I miss Istanbul most of all. My muse.

Budapest is an architect’s city. Walk one block and you are assaulted by five different schools of art: the Parisian belle epoque, High Austrian fin de siecle, Art Deco, some Gothic, a little neo-Renaissance, Baroque and Hungary’s very own Sezessionistil–facades full of allegorical friezes, arcades of caryatids and Zsolnay tiles, which is a kind of Magyar faience. It is quite lovely.

Claudio Magris, in his book Danube, writes of “the kitsch of Budapest.” (An odd, dense travel book, in that it is really more a long mediation and survey of Central European lit-crit than anything else.) From where I sit he is correct, in an architectural sense. One building has the sleek lines of the Floretine Renaissance another is a glassy, modern shopping arcade. Across the street is a rounded Art Deco building graced with a series of twelve caryatids, half are Atlases, holding so many globes above their heads. There is a belle epoque apartment house not 50 meters away that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Vienna. A statue sits in the middle of the square dedicated to I know not whom: I can’t tease out any meaning from the inscription. Magris says Budapest is the “imitation of an imitation” meaning it imitates Vienna, which imitates Paris. He’s right. It may be a place of architectural kitsch, but it works. Normally, as I wrote about a mosque in Turkey, a blend of styles doesn’t work, but somehow Budapest charms. I wish I had more time here.

Castle Hill is a Prague-esque tumbledown of architectural styles too. It’s gorgeous, rising up over the bend of the Danube, on the Buda side of Buda-Pest. (My hotel is on the Pest side, as is my train station.) The views north and south down the river are impressive. More so than in Prague, but I imagine that is a function of the size of the Danube here. It’s wider than the Vltava River in Prague. But what Budapest lacks that Prague has is a compact city-center full of cafes, life, culture. Budapest has all that. It is an artists city, as well as an opera and theatre fan’s town. But it’s spread out, if not quite sprawling.

The Hungarians are much more European than the Romanians. There is also a lot more obesity here, in men and women, than I’ve seen since Thailand. Must be that sausage and beer diet. It’s the only thing on the menus. I miss the salads of the Levant. Atilla the Hun is huge here. The Hungarians claim descent from the Huns. Of course, there is a 400 year gap in the historical record, from the time the Huns arrived in the area to that of the Magyars arrival on the Great Plain. No matter. We all create our own histories in this post-modern age, don’t we?

“Are you hungry,” asked the waitress.

“Yes, I am hungry in Hungary, no less,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes. As if she hasn’t heard that one a thousand times? I couldn’t resist. Puerile, I know. But still, how many times does one get to say something so patently stupid, but enjoyable?I’d heard about the beauty of Hungarian women. But I’m not constantly rubber-necking like I was in Bucharest. Probably a good thing. I pay more attention to the art and architecture that way. Budapest isn’t nearly as ‘poor’ as Bucharest, but it wears its poverty differently. The gap between those who have and those who do not is wide. If you are well dressed then you are reasonably fit. If you aren’t then you are heavy, pot-bellied. And probably drinking a beer. There are a lot more street people here than I’ve seen since India. Turkey just didn’t have them. Of course, there were gypsies in Bucharest, but not so many.

The energy here is very European, industrious, even if the Magyars are Catholic by tradition. The sexes mix. Nice change from the East, if you ask me. The cafes aren’t full of underemployed men sipping tea. Laughter, feminine and masculine fill them. Ladies join their boyfriends for a beer. As it should be.

It’s the first place I arrived with a huge backpack strapped on where I wasn’t immediately stared at. No one paid me any notice. I found this anonymity disconcerting. I could hide here and never be noticed. Is that element of serendipity gone? I hope not.

Bucharest Journal, June 3, 2009: Chocolate Impressions

Universitatae: BucharestTravel journal, undiluted:

One pleasant surprise is the significant amount of urban renewal going on in throughout Bucharest. There is a lot more happening here than in say, Moscow. The streets are filled with new buses, not the old East-bloc types. New model Skoda’s, Benz’s, BMWs, Opels and Toyota’s clog the streets. The traffic isn’t nearly as bad as Istanbul, however. I’ve only seen a handful of Ladas and Volgas. The metro has been revamped and is so comprehensive that I got lost on the damn thing. It’s as complicated and convoluted as the Paris metro. There are no maps in the stations and they all have that damp, musty subway smell. The train station has been somewhat restored. It has a few nice new shops–multinational book chains and a KFC and McDonald’s. About 50% of the trains are now German made, shiny and new. The old Eastern-bloc Soviet types still run, but are very beat up.

The sidewalks around Universitatae are lined with coffee shops, bars and sadly, like all former East-bloc countries: casinos. The bars are full, even at ten in the morning. Life is still close to the edge here, even if a tentative air of rising expectations exists. I’ve already seen three fist-fights. Casual violence is all too common in Eastern Europe. Seen it in Russia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic too. It’s not brutality. It’s just boredom. Drift, change. Purposelessness.

The Romanians don’t look Balkan. Then again, they really aren’t. They don’t look like Northern Europeans, either. Sure, there are lots of fair skinned folks running about. But they share some commonalities. Large, gypsy-like noses and round, deep set eyes. A generalization, to be sure. But true nonetheless. Many are dark skinned, but not in the Levantine way. It’s like successive waves of medieval barbarian migrations left a hodge-podge of Asian, Germanic, Slavic and Turkish genes over the old Moeso-Thracian substrate. Many of the women have luxurious manes of black tightly wound curls. The men are fit with short cropped hair. They dress stylishly–a simple Euro fashion statement–unlike the overblown strutting peacocks in Turkey. Nice teeth too. People wear shorts. No love handles or rotund bellies, as well. Must be all the walking. The women are deadly gorgeous: high Asian cheek bones and pouting Slavic eyes. Got to get the hell out of here, fast!

The people are much friendlier than I expected. Sure, there is a taste of that communist-xenophobia but a smile and a hello are all it takes to dispel it. It’s no where near as intense as in Russia. The Romanians are Orthodox, but they don’t paint their Orthodoxy all over the city like the Greeks or Bulgarians, much less the Georgians.

The language is downright odd. I studied Latin for several years (and speak some Spanish) so I can make sense of what I read. But what I hear? It’s like Portuguese all mashed up with the mushiness of Russian. The words: Latin. The intonation: Slavic.

It’s humid in that late spring Oklahoma way. The Danube isn’t far away. The sun was bright this morning, but by three o’clock a low bank of clouds rolled in and unloaded.

The taxis don’t drive in that maniacal ‘as Allah-wills-it’ way like in Turkey. The cars give way for pedestrians, at least most of the time. The architecture is a mishmash of High Communist and 19th century Parisian belle epoque. Tin gilded domes hover over churches. Haven’t seen a crucifix in a long time. Trees line the boulevards. The woman I bought my subway ticket from was smoking–in her office. Always strange to see. It’s not dirty, but it isn’t clean, either. Opera and ballet posters hang from every empty space in the city. It’s always strange to see a culture as far away from the mainstream geographically speaking imitating the ‘centre,’ as it were.

There was a statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus near the train station. They do speak a romance language and are descendants of the Romans. But who isn’t in Europe? Chalet style villas bunch up in the back streets with twenties-style art-deco homes with lots of stucco. Tram wires clog the views of all my photos. What an eye sore. Some of the buildings have an almost Gaudi-esque feel to them. Rap music clogs the airwaves. What is it about that music? Does it assuage some inner desire for rhyme?

The Romanian tri-color hangs proudly everywhere. The country has done good for itself. It’s not an economic basket case anymore.

There are no ugly Krushchev era apartment blocks to be seen. (A few out on the suburbs, but not as many as I expected.) New glassy buildings are rapidly replacing the old Romanian ones. Sad that most local architectural traditions have been subsumed by the uniform international modern.

And they have chocolate in the stores. If one thing has contributed to my significant weight loss in the last 11 months it has been no chocolate. I hope I can avoid the temptation.

Probably not.


University Church: BucharestI was on a mission yesterday when I walked down to the Radisson SAS Hotel for breakfast. (A meal there is probably as much as my hotel was, near the train station. Bucharest photos can be found here, by the way.)

“What would you like for breakfast, sir?” The waiter asked me.

“Two scrambled eggs, toast and eight strips of bacon,” I said.

“Excuse me? Eight slices?” He asked.

“Yes, eight,” I said. “If you have a whole pig back there I’ll take it, actually!” I smiled.

He frowned, a puzzled look coming over his dark Gypsy eyes.

“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been traveling in Muslim countries for almost six months and I want pork!”

“Okay,” he said, taking a step back from the strange American.

“You have bacon, yes?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Well, hop to it!” I grinned. “I’ve got a fierce hankering for lots of crispy bacon. A rasher, if you will. A slab of ham. Porks chops. Hell, bring me a plate of swine flu if you have to.”

“It’s too early for pork chops, sir, the kitchen cooks only breakfast until eleven am. But I can ask,” he said.

“It’s a joke,” I said, smiling at him. “But please, bring me lots of bacon.”

“Certainly sir,” he said, rushing off to the kitchen.

Ten long minutes later he arrived, set a plate towering with glistening, pig fat laden crispy bacon. There must have been twenty slices.

He smiled and said, “bacon’s on the house sir. Enjoy.”

I ate every last piece. Each crunchy morsel followed by a delectable sip of Illy coffee. As I finished the last strip I thought of my old friend Carolina–a Mexican woman originally from Oaxaca–back in San Antonio. We used to have breakfast once a month to catch up on family and friends at a local greasy spoon.

“Juan Pablo,” she would say every time we met, “I only order tocino (bacon) here. Tocino es mi perdido.”

Perdition indeed.

Balkan Pickup Lines

The Balkan EkspresThe train pulled out of Sirkeci Station at 10pm sharp, bound for Bucharest. Within an hour the slow rocking of the train put me to sleep. Sometime around 300am the train stopped, the conductor rapped on the door, shouting “immigration” and the passengers filed out in a stupor. Passport stamped I climbed aboard and went back to sleep. Thirty minutes later there was another sharp rap on the door: “customs!” The officers tore my cabin apart, like cops back home with a warrant. Finally, after fifteen minutes of pillage they left, satisfied there was no contraband in my meager belongings. I fell alseep, only to be awakened again thirty minutes later by a huge, semi-toothed Bulgarian border officer. “Passport?”

I handed it over. He glanced at it long enough to realize I was American, snorted and handed it back. “Okay,” he said, “good night.”

“That was easy enough,” I thought and went right back to sleep. I don’t know how much time passed, but once again, I was awakened by a hard thump, followed by two quick knocks on my door, like rapid gunshots.

“What now!” I exclaimed in frustration.

“Eet iz passport kontrol,” came a woman’s voice behind the door. I fumbled with the lock on my door as images of a snaggle-toothed, heavy Bulgarian matron danced through my head. I flipped on the light, and slid open the door.

“Holy shit!” I said. She was 5’11″ with tight blond spiral curls falling down off her shoulders. A perfect row of white teeth shined in the light. Her blue border guard uniform did nothing to hide the magnificent shape of her body as my eyes were drawn to the large gun on her shapely hips.

“Passport, pleaze,” she said in a deep, but feminine voice.

“Damn, you’re hot,” before I realized what I was saying. She held out her hand in expectation of a passport, which I quickly produced.

“You must be very tired,” she said with that self-deprecating Slavic humor I know all too well.

“No, darling,” I said in my best Texas drawl, “you are a fiiiiine piece of work.”

My brain was screaming, “shut the fuck up you sleep addled fool.”

She flipped through the pages of my passport.

“You have been to many strange places,” she said, “Uzbekistan? Iran?”

“Yup,” I said, “you want to come with me some time?”

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” my brain howled in indignation. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I ignored it.

She reverted to her ascetic bureaucratic stare, but not before I caught the hint of a smile, just enough to know I’d hit the right chord.

“How long vill you stay in Bulgaria?” She asked.

I wanted to say, “had I known it would be this nice, a long time,” but discretion–and the gun on her hip–got the better of me. I only managed to sputter out, “not long enough. Just passing through to Bucharest.”

“Eets a pity,” she clucked, “Bulgaria is beautiful country.”

“Yes it is,” I replied.

“Eenything else Meester Kelley?” she asked, handing back my passport.

“Your name? Phone number? Email?” I blurted out.

“WHAT THE FUCK! YOU DON’T ASK A WOMAN WITH A GUN FOR HER NUMBER YOU ABSOLUTE IDGIT,” my brain shrieked in protest. My temples froze up like I’d just wolfed down an ice cream cone and there was a crashing and grinding of gears in my head.

She pulled out a notepad, jotted down her number and email, handed over the piece of paper saying, “Irina, my name is Irina. Come back to Bulgaria. You vill like,” and then she walked down the hall and off the train. I was astonished. I’ve certainly never been accused of having any amount of charm. And I’ve always been horribly shy around women. I have no idea what came over me. Lack of sleep? Lunacy? Does it matter?

The Americans in the next-door compartment laughed uproariously.

“Duuuuuuuude,” said Dominick, a young twenty-something on a gap year journey across Europe, “that was hilarious. And she was hot!”

“Yeah, she was, huh? Who knew a border guard could look so good?” I said.

“So, are you coming back?” he asked as the train pulled out of the station.

I grinned triumphantly, puffed up like a rooster in a barnyard. “Who knows?”

I soon fell into an uninterrupted sleep, dreaming of blue uniforms and blond curls.

“The Balkan Ekspres”

The Balkan Ekspres

Took the train from Istanbul to Bucharest last night. It was a fun train ride. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.