A Journey Around the World
III. Europe: The New World
(warning: raw thoughts, rough draft, to be plundered for more polished pieces; facts, spelling, piquancy not checked)
What a thrill it is to be in the city in which "Gladiator" is set, April 16, 2001.
I'm half fooled, for the second time (and I've only been in Rome twice), by the Monumento Vittorio Emanuele II. This too-huge "wedding cake" with columns looks to the untutored eye (i.e. mine) like classic evidence of classical Rome's too-huge might. It was built, however, in the last couple of centuries. (In case you required further evidence of the limitations of your journal keeper's eye.)
"The streets of Rome..." I'm mostly experiencing them back about two thousand years -- reading about the great conquerings, the sloppy (and amazingly bloody) successions, the astounding number of slaves; I'm seeing mostly ruins. Pleased to be in front of the columns that all those columns in Washington -- or on some of the more pretentious houses in rich Alpine, New Jersey -- are imitating. But, of course, the Romans were also imitating...the Greeks, as usual.
"Ancient footsteps everywhere." ("When I Paint My Masterpiece," from which I have been quoting, is not a masterpiece, though Lonesome Bob has produced other numbers that qualify.) This visit to Rome, like my previous one, is hurried. So I end up returning to the same four places: Coliseum, Forum (where I spend most of my time), Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps ("cold dark night") and, of course, the Sistine Chapel, which, at least, has been freshened up since I last gaped at its ceiling. Rome does put you in mind of masterpieces and their creation. April 17.
My museum problem. They route you through a good bit of the Vatican Museum on the way to Michelangelo's ceiling. But I'm deaf to all those curly-haired, smooth-faced pieces of marble. One long hall has an open window; I find myself drawn to the view of the deep and deeper, rough-faced greens of Vaticanland. It is possible to see much of the work I've done -- my book arguing that sensationalism is inescapable in journalism, my book arguing that fast-cut video is capable of masterpieces -- as a war against taste. Museums, consequently, can be sites of incomprehension or contestation for me.
But not the Sistine. I hardly look at all at the other renowned paintings, on its walls, by all the other renowned artists. I look up like everyone else. I am in awe like everyone else. A flat surface, a ceiling (a church, I might add in a less tolerant moment) is such an unusual place to find such excesses of life. Is it the overflow that makes a masterpiece? The density and concentration? The acuity of perception and deftness of encapsulation? (e.g. "When your gravity fails and negativity won't pull you through.") Would I have appreciated much more of what I walked by this afternoon if I gave it the attention I give this particular work because of its reputation? The puzzlements of taste. And my feet hurt.
There is one moment, while trudging between my four sights, when I experience one of the rarer varieties of the feeling of being in a new place -- the one in which you sense the day-to-dayness of the place, the get-up-and-go-to-workness. I've enjoyed this in the few places overseas in which I've lived for extended periods: Aix-en-Provence, London, Rostov-on-Don. I feel it, usually, when the weather is untouristy brisk, when people are wearing jackets, dressed in darks, commuting. On one street, in Rome, with cars, coming around a curve -- and it is rather chilly -- I feel it.
I'd like, despite the lack of various qualifications, to be a tour guide for the planet. Hold up my green umbrella and lead a rocket load of Martians around: "And these humans are living in the agricultural age."
I used to feel reverence for only one of the flags displayed on this planet: that of the United Nations. Don't see too much of that one nowadays. But this darker blue flag with that circle of yellow stars, which waves in front of so many building in Rome, which is impressed upon the newer of the license plates. You could get me to bow down before that.
Rome brought its peace. But it also imposed its taxes, took its slaves, crucified its opponents. Might we dream that this new European empire -- graced by the hard-won humilities of its member nations, all of whom have had the benefit of large, inescapable defeats -- is a new, nonbeligerent, nonreligious, nongreedy, even selfless kind of master? (Wiser and less arrogant than that self-satisfied technology whiz and economic dynamo, flying the stars and bars, on the other side of the ocean -- which has been the beneficiary of too few defeats.)
Europe: harbinger of the new world? Among the tests Slovakia must meet for entry into the European Union is, I read, better treatment of its Gypsies. Has a new (crusading) decency been injected into world politics? Or just a new version of the kind of American "can-do," we-can-make-it-all-right blundering, which caused so many villages to be torched in the last half of the twentieth century? (Or even a new crusading, albeit Godless, religion?) Have certainties -- intolerant, inevitably brutal certainties -- been surrendered? Or just adjusted? Am I underplaying the EU's free-market strictures, its self-protectiveness, its bureaucracies? Still, I love seeing the flag. I love the chunk it has taken out of all those venerable nationalisms. I feel, naive American that I am, something new; I do.
"I left Rome..." And I'm on a train. (In the past when I tried to get on Italian trains or planes there was often a strike. There is no strike.) Moving again. Rolling fields. Green hills. (Sorry, you deserve more original description.) Towns in once-so-insular Europe lovely in their homogeneity. Towns in once-so-dangerous Europe perched on hills. I arrive -- this all-alone, late-evening, knowing-where-he's-going-but-still-kind-of-lost traveler -- in Ancona, Italy. I take the bus toward the ferry because I feel ripped off by what I hear from the taxis (a recurring behavior). I find the ferry. I find the Internet. It only takes me a few restaurants before I find a homey, non-touristy pre-ferry dinner. April 18.
And I'm on a ferry. The cheapest cabin for this overnight trip from Italy across the Adriatic to Croatia is a double. I settle in on the lower berth. I go out and look around. We haven't left. Back to the cabin. I wait for a knock or the sound of a key. It doesn't come. I go out and watch the shore recede, the sun having already receded. I write a little. Still jetlagged, I don't sleep that much despite having this cozy, rockin' cabin to myself.
And I am in the Balkans. Off the ferry. Snap customs. Split, Croatia. All sunny and water framed. All beautiful and white -- in a human-resort kind of way, earth tourists. And I have about two hours for it, with Internet to do and breakfast to eat, before I catch the bus to Sarajevo. April 19. Later I learn there's an amazing Roman ruin in Split. Later I learn it's from Diocletian, rapidly becoming my favorite of the emperors -- Diocletian who gave up pieces and then all of the Empire, who preferred to grow cabbages.
The bus begins by winding around a long procession of seaside curves -- each one more demanding of being photographed than the previous. Why does the presence of sea in an landscape so dramatically increase our feeling that it is beautiful? I feel the former Yugoslavia to have been beautiful. But I'm here -- aren't I? -- for its ugliness. Almost as far as Dubrovnik before we turn northeast into the hills, for Bosnia. Someday I'd like to make it to Dubrovnik.
Someday I'd like to go everywhere I've gone almost as far as. Guess I won't.
Having no common language, the bus drivers and I work out hand signals -- flashing fingers to denote the length of the current break.
Dis-Yugoed-Slavia. Another easy border and I am in Herzegovina. (Three countries in about fourteen hours -- each, of course, comprehended perfectly.) I am wondering what I will see. I remember wondering when I visited Dachau outside Munich whether I would see enough and feel enough. I did. I certainly did. Here I do. I certainly do. First the red, white and blue Croatian flag, flying rather defiantly over the road after we've entered Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then ruins.
Too many ruins. This house hollowed. The next mostly gone. And it wasn't done hundreds or thousands of years ago. Such anger (not an easily comprehensible emotion for me) exploded, such violence reigned, maybe half a dozen years ago, more or less yesterday, perpetrated by people more or less like your companions on this bus. Many too many ruins.
I feel naive cause this is new to me (despite my claims to having been around), naive cause I'm reduced to analogies to the set of war movies (backwards analogies), naive cause what I am seeing does not fit my schemes about a New-World Europe. I want to dismiss it as "stupid." I am already shoving it into the slot marked "exceptions." But it is so undeniably, ghostly, not-just-news-footage real. They say Mostar was hit hard. We drive through. Mostar was hit hard.
What language is there to convey all this? "Hollowed." "Mostly gone." "Exploded." "Undeniably ghostly." "Hit hard." Is it more effective to be vague? "All this." Or even to indicate by stating the negative? "Not-just-news-footage real." Would news-footage-like images actually help here? Might additional words be of use? "Shattered." "Smashed." "A shell." Should I include more detail? "A pile of concrete which must have been its second story." "Minus windows, roof and about half its walls." To convey all this? Not only to you. To seeing-and-feeling-but-never-quite-understanding me.
I should note that a tremendous amount of building is going on as I move through Herzegovina. and then Bosnia. New gray or red concrete-block buildings sprouting all around. Optimists must find beauty in secondary-growth forests. The compulsively, committedly naive must talk of regeneration and replenished soil.
Sarajevo has even larger blasted-away buildings. I am introduced to the hollowed skyscraper. And it often turns out to have been the parliament or the home of a newspaper. I notice, as so many before have noticed, that this city, sitting below green hills, was well-designed for its years as a bomb-catcher.
April 20. I also note, as so many before have noted, that history -- rubble-making history -- has a way of passing through Sarajevo. There's the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by a Serb nationalist to kick off the First World War. And Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians and Nazis have had their days here, left their marks. Not to forget Communists.
But the chocolate-brown, center-of-town Turkish section has been rebuilt. A "nonstop" Internet cafe has opened. Crowds -- non-nervous crowds -- flow through the streets. It is, I'll admit, hard to see all this city's history, including its recent history, as an exception. But might it be possible to imagine that the bomb-catching, if not the history, might someday -- perhaps even this day -- end? That whatever history Sarajevo continues to participate in -- whether as major or minor player -- might be bloodless? "A time for peace"?
I'm not hungry and I don't want to read the International Herald-Tribune, though I love (when abroad) the Herald-Tribune (as I love, when home, eating). Part of it is that speed and hassles and some loneliness have killed various appetites. Part of it is that I have enough to take in, here.
And there's this guy, Turkish I believe, staying in my cheap pension. Lived in Freeport, Long Island, for eighteen months working in a gas station, he tells me in almost no English. Kicked out. Left behind a child. A child in Turkey, too. Wants to go back to New York. Can I help him? Looking, in particular, for an American wife. Well, let's see... I end up writing for him a "To-whom-it-may-concern" letter, which probably won't help.
I think it might be interesting to try to find the tunnel that was built under the Sarajevo airport to duck the bombs. I present the tourist office with this unusual request. Not so unusual, it turns out. There's a kind of museum. With the help of a kind, informative, new, local friend -- father of a classmate of my daughter -- I arrive there. And find language once again coming up short, but feelings coming through.
The tunnel. You can walk through a bit of the dark, dirt, wood-buttressed tunnel. But here the news footage seems superior. We're shown a video, and I start seeing the smoke and fire that necessitated this burrowing, that did all that to all those buildings. And one of the guys in the video -- the son of the man from whose house the tunnel was dug -- is the one showing us around. He was seventeen when the war started. Spent the whole war in the Bosnian Army, often rushing things into the city of Sarajevo through this tunnel. At times resisting Serb efforts to blow it up.
What this young man has seen. He says there are still "too many nationalists" here. He says the peacekeepers would have to stay for another fifty years. What this much-older man -- me -- has not seen. There is a reason why some exceptions command attention. Some exceptions certainly deserve attention. But are rules to be drawn based on his exceptional experiences -- of an Old World intractable -- or mine?
Dinner with the family of that father of my daughter's friend. "Refugees," they use that word for themselves. First Istanbul, after the Serbs evicted Bosnians from the village in which they had lived. Then the Bronx and Astoria. Now back in Sarajevo, but maybe not for good. What this more-or-less-the-same-age man -- me -- has never had to do. So I play at travel?
The story of Europe, so soon after so much, still must be the story of war and conquest, or their absence, or their end. And the story of the world may still be, in large part, the story of Europe.
Bosnian man: "These people are not going to be in one country." He means the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs. "They have different ways of life, different histories, different traditions." Me: Could they be in different countries (not that they'll be easy to untangle) but united under a blue flag with yellow stars? Yugoslavia is a name that can infuriate those who don't imagine themselves part of it. Bosnia is a name that can infuriate those who don't imagine themselves part of it. How about Europe?
April 21. Yes, I really did want to go to Kosovo. Indeed, I had a disturbing itch to travel to Kosovo. I'm not the thrills and chills type. I prefer gentle slopes: cross-country not downhill. However, this trip -- events in Mauritania in particular -- seems to have brought on a bit of an adventure addiction. Kosovo. But there are no days and the bus arrives there in the wee hours, and someone says I'm crazy, and I don't know how I'd get back. I board a bus to Zagreb, Croatia.
The thing about democracy, which is now trying to implant itself all over this addicted-to-history-making continent, is not that it produces particularly wise or efficient, let alone perfect, governments. Masses can certainly be as stupid as elites. (Don't get me wrong: I continue to hate kings.) The thing is the flexibility, regularity, frequent purgings, ostensible fairness and stability of the system -- and the potential power it bestows upon masses. Another thing: Is it possible that governments are becoming less important? Is it possible that other efficiencies in our lives enable us to put up with large doses of political stupidity and inefficiency.
View from the bus as we follow rivers and streams through the valleys, between the green and gray hills of Bosnia: A woman with a bull on a rope. Traditional dress -- here, still, in Europe, on women: long skirts, heads wrapped in scarves, high, colorful socks, or boots for the spring mud. (Have I neglected to notice that it is spring?)
My food -- okay, I'm now real hungry -- comes late at a place at which the bus has stopped, and I hold up the bus. Can I handle that? It is nice not to be any longer hungry.
We switch, without the need to produce passports, to the Republic of Serbia -- the Serb section of Bosnia, wanted, grabbed, cleansed, then acknowledged in the Dayton accords. The official signs suddenly are in Cyrillic or half in Cyrillic. It's now a war -- since Serbian and Bosnian and Croatian are more or less the same language, since the shooting has blessedly been stopped -- of alphabets. Judging from the ads here, Roman is winning.
And Zagreb, Croatia . Jazz at night in the Internet cafe I find. There's a special Havel-like hipness to be found only in places that were for so long not allowed to be hip. April 22.
And Zagreb. The most money I've ever seen on the streets of a former Communist country. Some guy smoking a pipe in an old poets' cafe explains that Tito's course had kept Yugoslavia less Communist and thus better prepared to be capitalist. Looks, more than sooty Budapest, like a junior Vienna. April 23.
And then I'm in a train heading for Paris. April 24. Typing as the sun sinks into the northern Adriatic. We like it when our suns extinguish themselves in the sea. Moving mostly west. I'm somewhere between Trieste and Venice -- two names we also like. But I'm alone, and spending another couple of days in transit -- long, long transit. The alert reader might be wondering what role this journey, mostly west, plays in a circumnavigation that is to be mostly east. (See Map.) Let's just say that I wanted to get to the Balkans to think about ethnic hatred and to Paris to think about globalization (or mondialization) hatred, and there was a flaw in my planning.
I see someone working a small piece of ground, and I wish I had some seeds in ground of my own. Feeling jangled and "a long way from my home." To leave something is to risk losing something. This song begins playing in my head: "Maybe [or is it "Baby"] it's time to come home." It, however, is not yet time.
It has been a transit spent mostly, so far, in Slovenia and -- like most on this trip -- a transit filled with beauties. Allow me to indulge in some dollops of description: the late afternoon light in the trees and on the sides of the white, stucco towns (with their roofs of gray or orange-red); the perky steeples above those homogeneous villages; the new-green spring farm lands; the now-domesticated rivers that determined the placement of those towns and this railroad line; the large white puffs of blooming cherry (or is it apple?) trees; the light green of the new leaves and the dark green of the pines and furs on the hills; the churches or minor castles claiming the summits of the better positioned hills; the change from an Alpine -- wood balconied -- architecture to horizontal, Renaissance regularity as we approach Italy. These too are all things we like. Old world. But I'm alone and going in the wrong direction, and I've made a lot of transits lately.
More things we like: houses (or huts) of the same design, knowing your neighbor, homegrown foods, courtship rituals, understanding between generations, making (not just listening to) folk music, living with animals, moving slow. This is the traditional world -- from the Amazon to the Sahara to southern Europe. What, I continue to ask, if there is one tradition but there are many modernities?
I sleep in a couchette on the train from Venice to Lausanne. Six beds, only one other person -- an old Italian guy who takes out his wallet to show me a picture of his "friend." His friend, who shares my haircut, ruled the country before and during the Second World War. "Hitler, no good," he says. "Mussolini, good." I say nothing. Tell myself I don't want an enemy in the next couchette at night. He also expresses admiration for Richard Nixon and tentative fondness for our new president.
So I've mostly slept through Switzerland, but, you won't be that surprised to learn, I have things to say about Switzerland. I've seen, on a previous trip, the half-hidden caves in which the country has secreted weapons and bases. The New World will have definitely arrived in Europe when Switzerland begins to disband its army. I've seen the postcard-perfect farms that cling to the mountains. I've heard the local joke -- that in Switzerland farmers are so heavily subsidized that they're civil servants. There's a New -- walking-street, center-city, Swiss-farm, Disneyfied -- World germinating here too, I believe.
April 25. Arrive, once again, in Paris -- at Very Grand Speed. "My hotel" full. One a couple of doors down turns out to do just as well. Been traveling in parts of the world where they ask first for your passport. Here, securely in the West, it's your credit card. And it's nice to have a plug for the bathtub. In Sarajevo I was told to just stuff some paper into the hole. (Worked okay, I must admit.)
We are here to talk with left-wing intellectuals. I'm kind of nervous about that. They all condemn Americanization and speak disparagingly of the "Anglo-Saxons," but they all speak good English. This Anglo-Saxon (what an odd category to find myself in) will talk with them in English. I will challenge a bit, listen a lot. I will have to condense it somehow for the radio. Still, coming to Paris to speak with the left, with the idea-laden, is, especially given its historical resonances, a pretty exciting assignment.
Le Monde diplomatic is in the embarrassing position of having moved to what looks, to my eye, like an International-style office building out on the fringes of the Left Bank. Serge Halimi, with a full head of black hair, vague beard and large glasses, begins to talk. I enjoy his rhetoric about the "pensee (you'll note that we're not bothering with accents) unique" -- the world's apparent conclusion that there is one and only one correct economic system: free trade, free flow of capital, low taxes, scrupulous repayment of all loans, cutback in the Welfare state. I wish, however, he were more open to the ironies and complications: the question of whether our attachment to representative democracy does not also represent a "pensee unique," for example. Does he take efforts to protect the French language from American influences seriously? I'm surprised by his answer -- this young, hip, cosmopolitan, leftie, who has studied at Berkeley. He does.
On "Marketplace" this evening I mostly air his ideas, on the theory that they are not much aired nowadays in the United States. Dinner at Procope, 1686, the oldest restaurant in Paris. Voltaire's desk. The tradition of Parisian intellectuals.
Lunch, April 26, with Prof. Serge Latouche, author of Le Planete Uniforme. I begin by noting the Vietnamese, Japanese, English, Baghdad and Chinese restaurants within a block of the door to his office. Then we end a traditional French meal by eating a "Crumble." I make the case for such mixings: Asian restaurants on French streets, English tart in French meal. Much of what is good in the world has come from mixing, I assert. But do we risk -- given the power of mass media and multinational corportations -- losing that with which we might mix? We seesaw on what he calls the "diversity/uniformity dialectic": He sees the world reducing itself to one value: making money. I see black faces on Paris streets and all those exotic restaurants. This is fun. Prof. Latouche, in gray suit and mostly gray beard, has no trouble with the ironies and complications. I am mostly (a hazard in this line of work) charmed. Can our differences be boiled down to temperment: His: suspicious (in his love-a-good-meal way). Mine: enthusiastic (in my flat-voiced way).
Later that afternoon, before it's time to get back on the train and retrace my steps, I return to Le Monde diplomatic for a quick conversation with its editor, Bernard Cassen. I get a useful history of the development in recent decades of that "pensee unique" (names like Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, prominently mentioned) and of the development in recent years of a potent, in his view, reaction to it. Tables have turned against globalization in France, he says -- intellectually though yet not politically.
And what do I think, as I get back on the TGV, about this unique thought, this globalization? I will write for FEED in detail about what they think and I think, but at bottom I see something that just might work in imperfect, unwise, inefficient and, alas, unfair (in huge and crucial ways) free-market, global capitalism . It just might work because it shares important qualities with that other pensee unique, democracy. The thing is the flexibility, regularity, regular purgings, ostensible fairness (in some ways) and stability of the system. I've met a lot of poor people on this trip who want someone simply to tell them the rules and give them half a chance to succeed by them. They want freedom from corruption. They want what they don't yet call "transparency." Global, free-market capitalism might present as good a set of rules -- at this stage in human development -- as any we're capable of devising.
And I think that I'm concerned by this current turn in Left-Bank, left-wing thought: anti-international, anti-pop culture, anti-mixing. How did the left find itself on the side of keeping out, protecting, defending, of a kind of cultural and political nationalism. It's disconcerting to hear the folks with the beards, sitting in the cafes -- where Sartre once sat, where Voltaire once sat -- sounding like border guards. McDonald's. Franglais? Hip hop? Certainly the world faces more serious threats? French thought has been envigorated by German philosophy, Italian opera, British political ideas. Can't it find something useful to steal from the Americans? Hasn't it?
Stealing. Sartre and Derrida from Heidegger. What art, what language, what thought has been pure? What art, what language, what thought, has benefited from insulation, from protection? (Okay, there have been some.) Don't we love the hybrids, the ones who stand between? Van Gogh. Picasso. Bob Dylan (who created masterpieces by mixing folk seriousness with pop energy). My favorite French musician of the last half century is Serge Gainsburg (whose name, nevertheless, I do not know how to spell), with his goofy mix of Gaulois cool and Village-hipster, who kissed jazz on both cheeks. Everybody's favorite French filmmakers stole liberally from Hollywood on their way to outdoing Hollywood, for a time.
But what I think sure sounds positive, pleased, satisfied. What kind of a way is that to sound? Is this a proper, an interesting, a useful stance (or temperment) for an intellectual? Shouldn't fanfares for the current age be played only by politicians and business types? Isn't the role of the intellectual, the journalist (if not the traveler) to critique?
Train from Paris to Lausanne to Venice to Zagreb, during which it becomes April 27.
And then after a night in well kept Zagreb, it's on to Hungary. April 28. Good news often gets reported -- especially by us intellectual, journalistic types -- slow. You know by now that I have a tendency toward the chipper and that I move too fast to see deep. Yet the surfaces of Hungary seem cheerier, more colorful, better turned out than when I spent some time here in 1992. Do I think old capitalism deserves at least a little credit? I do. Do I know about the manifold discontents here? Kind of.
American voices appear and disappear on this trip with disturbing regularity: Sarajevo -- mostly no. Zagreb -- mostly no. Venice -- of course. Paris -- of course. Budapest -- yes. April 29. Come on, folks! Let's expand the itinerary a little!
I stay in one of those nab-you-at-the-station private apartments, where I hear a Korean traveler talking to a Japanese traveler in English. I guess that is what they mean by the new Latin.
If I love travel, in part it is because of its resemblance to time travel. So where would I want to go were it possible actually to travel in time. Backward? That's easy: Palestine, Passover, a few decades after the birth of Christ; the days before the crucifixion; Romans, Jews and that influential fellow himself. (Though, I suspect that's a time and place where getting by only with English might be quite difficult.) Forward? One hundred years in the future, would certainly do. (Will many more be speaking English?) If I could choose only one direction? Forward.
April 30. The night train out of Budapest. Some sleep.
Brasov, Romania, which is beautiful in that traditional European way and which is poorer than anything I've seen so far in Europe. May Day. First horse and cart since Africa. An almost Africa-like swarm of taxi drivers and room renters trying to buttonhole you at the station. I fend them off. Take a bus. Find a hotel. Stare at the town's mountain-shadowed, colored-buildinged square. Eat cheap. Yo Americans! Come here, too.
And out to see the castle in Bran that was not really Dracula's but that is really old. Guess I'm developing a castle problem, too. But on the bus out and back a snow-covered chunk of the Carpathians follows you -- as the sun or moon can follow you. I have no problem falling under its spell.
And getting on the train the next day, May 2, gypsies follow you (with similar tenacity) and bump you and grab the passport out of the pack of another traveler. They disappear. I go running off in search of police. By the time I return, passport has turned up. Thrown away. It was worthlessly Russian.
Still thinking about the EU. And what was the attitude of those with whom I spoke in Paris towards that blue-with-gold-stars flag? Considerably less reverent, as you might have guessed. "We had hoped for political union," Latouche said. "Instead we got economic union" -- following the American economic model. But I'm feeling a politics in the EU's growing role (with Bush Junior having pulled back) in the Balkans. I'm feeling it in the various human-rights pressures they are putting on potential members like Romania. I'm feeling -- since I'm smitten -- something New-World making.
We get the combination of snow-covered mountains, rolling hills and fast-flowing water that we particularly like on the first, curvy stretch of the train ride from Brasov to Bucharest.
I'm playing with the notion of putting together a list of global words. Some go back to Indo-European: the relatively similar words in so many languages for one or water, for example. Some were Greek: museum, democracy. Some were spread by Rome: senate, forum. Quite a few are French: restaurant, cafe. And many are more recent: lotto, unisex, nonstop, Internet, telephone, pizza, jeans, sandwich, supermarket, metro. There are also global things: red light, green light; fork, knife and spoon (though we eat with a hand in Mauritania). Additional candidates: center, opera, toilet (W.C), sex, shop, television, radio, bar, casino, hotel, spaghetti, film, guitar, SOS, auto, bank, camera, video, import/export, menu, disco, pharmacy, deli, photo, pop music, mini, stop.
I have maybe two hours between trains in Bucharest. Wasn't easy to really get to know the city in that time. But I did manage to ride a couple of metro lines and see the river that bisects the town and a nice square (Piata Unirii) and a bit of the old part and, most importantly, the Palace of Parliament -- a monstrous (second largest building in the world), dumb, but pleasingly linear and symmetric, conception of former Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989. Much more interesting -- for me -- than that Bran castle. (I've both been in and helped surround and try to levitate the largest building in the world.)
A well-dressed young man comes into my compartment on the train in Bucharest. Sits down and pulls out a clipboard. "Do you speak English?" he asks. "Yes." "There's a problem." I get nervous. He then says, "I have no house." I am not moved or pleased by this duplicitous intrusion. "No! Please! No!" I say. He quickly moves on to the next compartment.
Hadn't seen any shacks since I left Africa. In Romania I see shacks. And dirt streets. And a higher concentration of cheap Communist cars. I'm on the overnight train out of Bucharest to Istanbul. On the Romanian side of the border with Bulgaria, late at night, a fatigue-clad soldier guarding the tracks goes from window to window begging for money or cigarettes.
I lose my clip-on sunglasses on this train, and this time they do not come back.
The Danube has grown fat as we cross it to cross into Bulgaria. I then see people throwing boxes and bags off the train -- presumably to avoid customs. I begin to videotape the scene, but the box and bag catchers start yelling at me. Someone picks up a rock. I stop. They smile.
The best photograph my father ever took hangs in a few of our houses. It shows women in kerchiefs and long skirts holding hoes or sickles and expressionlessly facing the camera. It was taken in (then Communist) Bulgaria. I see enough to convince me such a picture could still be taken.
Oh yeah, Bulgaria likely will soon vote into power parties organized by the king, Simeon II, who ruled the country (though absurdly young) before 1946. Bulgaria was on Germany's side in World War II. I continue to hate kings. I continue to think democracy can survive such idiocy -- unless, of course, he ends democracy.
May 3. Is the train five hours late to Istanbul, or did I just misread the schedule? Water, minarets, flowers (pansies; it's been pansies all across the Balkans this spring). And fat, rounded spaceship-like Mosques, and a thousand-year-old mosaic face of Jesus in Aya Sofya that is more troubled, more pinched, more concerned and stern, yet still warm, than any I've seen. Standing at 20:10 on a patio overlooking the Sea of Marmara, when suddenly loudspeakered Moslem voices calling to prayer, come from many directions and begin to glide up and down the scale.
I ignorantly cross the Galata Bridge and think I've finally made it across the Bosporus to Asia. Turns out I've just crossed the piddling, if glamorously named, Golden Horn to the newer part of European Istanbul. 'Twas a false Asia. May 4.
Next day take a ferry across the real Bosporus, in the rain, to the real Asia -- my fifth continent on this trip. Can I go home now? May 5.
I can, it turns out, hang in a mosque on the Asia side of Istanbul as the call to prayer is broadcast and men, depositing their shoes in lockers, sock-step quietly in. They find a piece of carpet and wait. More and more of them. Maybe two hundred. A guy in the back by me chants something into a nearby microphone. They all move to the front. Another elder walks to the front of the front, where there's another microphone, and soon everybody is kneeling and bowing like I saw by the roadside in Mauritania, kneeling and bowing all together, perfectly choreographed, kneeling and bowing with what appears to be profound and moving humility. No one, to the best of my knowledge, gives a sermon on what to do if your neighbor borrows tools and neglects to return them.
E. M. Forster: "The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosphorus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and the extraordinary." Cool.
Back to Europe. I'm disappointed to learn that the Alexander Sarcophagus in the Archeological Museum doesn't and didn't contain the remains of that great perpetrator of Greek cultural imperialism, though it does date from around his time. It got its name because of the presence of a couple of figures, carved in relief, who appear to be representations of Alexander, smiting from a horse. He was a great (or Great) smiter. He was also one of the world's most significant mixers. May 6.
I've been carrying on about the crusaders (though I guess they too did heavy mixing). Current irritant: the bronze they stole from Obelisk of Constantine in the Hippodrome here. (Apparently melted it down to make coins.) This Obelisk -- now rough and pitted -- certainly suffers from its absence. But guess what? The Pope, visiting Greece, has just officially apologized for the crusaders' sacking of Constantinople. Do I have to now include the Pope in this European New World?
Not that we should pretend that Constantine himself, perhaps the world's most effective spreader of Christianity, doesn't have enough for which to apologize. My favorite example: While on the way to Rome to celebrate the anniversary of his becoming emperor he decided to kill -- reason unclear -- his son and his wife (mother of his five other children). Those were the days, eh?
In that Archelogical Museum: the colorful gates of Babylon. Babylon -- evocative name for me: that first-rate David Gray song, a stop on the Long Island Railroad and the ancient, Jew-exiling empire (case has been made that a response to this exile is the hidden message of Exodus). I think too of the Tower of Babel (and Genesis).
People, all speaking the same language, were growing so powerful that, as god puts it, "nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach�." The tower was the symbol of that growing power. Happy day? No, jealous god. So we humans were, prophylacticly, scattered and confounded. Can the spread of English and pop music, along with the rise of super-national entities like the EU, be seen as evidence that we are becoming less scattered and confounded? Can globalization be seen as a sign that the reach of us mortals is once again being extended? Is it possible, despite the moving lesson in humility this tale contains, to be on the side of the humans in this particular contretemps? Can we root for them -- for us -- to again be able to do what they -- we -- propose to do?
Not that I am unaware of the limitations of human power: our inability to make ourselves significantly more happy, for example.
May 7. I am buying no rugs. Smoking no water pipes. Visiting a small number of the available museums. I do eat a lot of kebobs, though. And, yet again, I'm doing large amounts of laundry. Some satisfaction, I'll admit, in having laundry drying. Kind of like having seeds in the ground. This from a fellow whose a long way from any ground he might seed.
International Herald Tribune, my bible, today: While as many as 95 percent of Americans say, depending on how the question is asked, that they believe in god, in Europe that number is as low as 50 percent.
One of the huger cities, Istanbul, and I miss a stop on a bus and find myself somewhere I do not know. Try the Metro. Doesn't go my way. A bus is suggested. I'm sent this way and that and this way again. But it always works out. I always find my way. If I am patient. May 8.
May 9. Meet my wife at the airport. She brings, along with emotional sustenance, new sunglasses and a Russian visa.
Why do great cities happen in in-between places like Istanbul? Isn't it because of the mixings: between Greek and Asian (with help from Alexander and various other conquerers), Greek and Roman, Turkish and Byzantine, Moslem and Christian, Asian and European? May 10.
A young girl -- a gypsy girl, one would guess (or is this part of one's problem?) -- is caught stealing a chestnut from a street vendor's cart. He tries, with some force, to get it back. She is alternately crying and laughing -- a kind of hysterical laugh. Woman, begging, who seems to be her mother or grandmother, impassively looks on.
Ferry, fast ferry, from Istanbul to Bandirma, and Asia once again. May 11. Plan was to rent a car there. Apparently there are no cars there. Everything is in English in Turkey until you leave the tourist areas and nothing is -- not on the street, not even when we walk into a hotel. Confounded.
The world is too big for any one understanding (or two, or three). For every theory about English's triumph there's one disproof (Mauritania) or another (Bandirma). Or, more likely, many others. Is globalization going fast? Yes. Is globalization going slow? Yes. Are living conditions getting better? Yes. No. Maybe. Who knows? Who can know? So, so big!
Anyway, we do find a pleasant enough bus into the sunset toward the Aegean coast and Canakkale. An aged woman is sitting in front of me on the bus with bandages on her face and limbs. She gets a call on a cell phone. The driver of the bus gets a call on his cell phone. Cell phone towers come in threes along this narrow, farmland road in Turkey.
The pouring of a lemony, perfumy liquid on hands -- at restaurants, on buses, throughout Turkey. Yet another cultural difference.
And we walk looking for a hotel in Canakkale and find one and eat and can't rent a car again the next morning, May 12, but the taxi taking us to the bus offers a reasonable price to take us where we're going. Where we're going is Assos -- and Troy.
"Don't get excited," the tour book said. There's not much to see at Troy. Nine cities in a rubble stack. Last of them Roman. Okay. But then with Mustafa Askin, guy who wrote the best guidebook, as our guide, we're suddenly standing under the pretty well preserved (cause they were buried by later cities) walls of Troy VI, which seems the consensus choice to be Priam's city, the city of the epics. I am very, very excited. Because they were prehistorical epics, because we're talking maybe twelve hundred B.C., because the legendary, the fanciful has somehow, before my eyes, taken physical form, because men who had within them the seeds of the presumably mostly fictional heroes Achilles and Odysseus may very well have stood, once, under these walls.
Gray limestone, stacked-stone walls, slanting back 20 degrees (upper part, which is mostly gone, wasn't inclined), rough-cut with only bronze tools, total of twelve meters high (existing wall half that), cracked in places, perhaps from an earthquake credited to Poseidon, with yellow flowers growing out of the top and a couple of red poppies jutting out of the wall itself.
And Mr. Askin points to the Dardanelles -- that narrow channel controlling access from the Aegean to the Black Sea -- right in front of the hill on which the various Troys were constructed. Helen may make for a better story, but the real issue here, he says, may have been economic: the Greeks battling for control of this key trade route. The bitter pestilence-and-starvation-producing sieges of the Old World: We surround your town and strangle you until you open your gates. Those were the days, eh?
One of the gardeners at Troy today -- the tenth Troy? the Troy of tourists and guides and theories and restoration and a life-size, kind-of-cute "reproduction" of the Trojan Horse -- wears a Yankee cap.
Talking globalization, my wife makes an analogy, not a politically correct one, between the romanticization of childhood and the romanticization of traditional cultures. She lived for some time, as a child in Jaffa, without a toilet, so she has some credentials in this area.
And then on to Assos. Actually we're not staying in cute, seaside Assos but, it turns out, in historically-more-significant hilltop Behramkale -- in a lovely but cold pension near the very summit of that hill. Just a little bit higher is a sixth-century B.C.E. temple to Athena. (If I were going to have a favorite god...) Climb up there the next morning, May 13, and see, among the wild flowers and sheep droppings, a wide, water view; a large marble platform; about a dozen marble columns, five of which are complete; and a sign with information in Turkish and English. It explains that Aristotle was invited to Assos and stayed (from 348-347 B.C.E.) and married (Pythias; did she take an interest in his work?) and taught at the gymnasium. (If I have a favorite philosopher...) All this excitement! Aristotle among the sheep droppings. But he built no temples, no arches, no statues. Didn't even lay seige to any walls. Hard to be a philosophy tourist.
How they dress in Turkey: The women -- often bent over in the fields like an upside-down L -- in either waistless dress/robes with no collar or long skirts, with kerchiefs covering their hair, with slippers and socks, maybe pants underneath, and with aggressively uncoordinated patterns but muted (I want to say dismal) colors. These covered up, hair-hidden women -- body-invisible, out-of-the-game. Desexed? A kind of (to throw a heavy word around too lightly) sartorial multilation? Or just a relaxed, don't-have-to-shampoo, don't-worry-about-the-gray, acceptance-of-age? An attitude that we (I, with my little brown hipster beard) have lost -- at the price of ease, contentment, acceptance -- in the West? Is it a question of going gently?
The men in sports jackets or suits or jeans and, perhaps, a gray-patterned sweater. Their look -- anti-shabby, anti-peacock. You've seen these costumes -- female and male -- before. You'll see them again. How they dress in most of the traditional world?
One of the stages humankind goes through -- if you wanted to fend off the disproofs for a moment and hazard a theory -- is, of course, the agricultural. The upside-down-Ls-in-the-fields, chickens-in-the-yard stage. The bulk of the population in some parts of the world -- mine, for example -- rapidly exited that stage in the last century. But my wife brings a story that shows just how complicated this stage stuff is. It involves a Westchester woman married to a hugely successful lawyer who spends all her days, essentially, in the fields, in her vast and renowned gardens. Has she not selected an agricultural life for herself? Obviously, there is a large difference between being able to select such a life and having no choice but such a life. How exactly might that difference be categorized? Shouldn't our goal be to get all of humanity onto the selection side, the rich-lady side of that difference? Or am I just getting dreamy?
The world has a way of defeating theory-makers. I guess that's why most confine themselves to countries or neighborhoods.
May 14. Back in Istanbul. And with my wife in the lead, actually make a purchase: a platter, something to remember our trip by, something beautiful. Do I sound more human? She made me do it!
I've spent, for logistical reasons mostly, more time in Istanbul than anywhere else. Some exciting moments, but it has persistently failed to explode into weirdness. People occasionally ask what country I liked best, so far. Mauritania. It exploded.
May 15. Another tearful goodbye, more wanting to cry. This, of course, is why they don't want kids calling home from camp. It's harder when what you're missing is near and then gone.
Airport exited. Backpack packed. Bus east, to Trabzon, found. And once again you're ejected from the island of the English speaking (though the bus' staff of four (!) includes a steward, who speaks some). And once again cutting -- this time, my third time, by bridge -- across the line (somewhat less imaginary here than in some other places) between Europe and Asia.
The city of Istanbul keeps on coming. It takes the bus two hours to finally escape its tall buildings and the sight, in the distance, of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi and the Aya Sophia. Cities that keep on coming are, I'm learning, an important part of the story of the turn of the millennium world. Saigon. Sao Paulo. Budapest. What economy there is, when there isn't much of an economy, tends to congregate around the tall buildings. That's where the money is. That's where the people -- leaving their kerchiefs or gray sweaters behind? -- go. Selling flat, round bread in the streets. Selling chewing gum. Squatting by a scale on the off chance that a participant in that economy might fancy getting weighed.
The International Herald Tribune: Global trade has surged more than sixty percent in the past decade but has declined in the least developed countries. May 16. Slept through Ankara. (You can miss a lot staying on the ground, too.) Early AM view from the overnight bus: We're on the Black Sea coast, and I'm seeing roof-sagging, wood-rotting, plaster-patching, sheet-metaling, rooms-unfinished, shack-attached poverty. We've left something -- is it Europe? And you can see why Istanbul is so crowded. The taxi driver who has taken me to the bus station in Istanbul was from Trabzon.
There's more going on on this island of a bus than I suspected. About an hour outside of Trabzon a young man from here -- who has been studying international relations, in Istanbul, in English -- asks the person sitting next to me to exchange seats. And I learn that the economy, such as it is around here, is dominated by hazel nuts. And it is explained to me that traditional dress "is an advantage for a women" looking for a husband, since it makes a man "feel secure." And I find out that, hazel nut prices not having been very strong in this inexplicable global economy, there are probably more people from Trabzon currently living in Istanbul than living in Trabzon.
Now we're in Trabzon. Dumped from the bus, brusquely as usual. (It always feel brusque when you ain't arriving home and no one is waiting for you.) Did I mention that I'm here to take the ferry to Sochi, to Russia. Well, sure enough, there is a ferry tonight, as promised. Work out payment. Leave my stuff in my cabin. And it's time to connect with some among those I know who aren't with me here in eastern Turkey. Like everyone.
This is -- unlike Istanbul, of course, but like just about everywhere else I manage to end up on this trip -- a no International Herald Tribune town. I see nothing remotely resembling a Western tourist. But it has a McDonald's. And next store to that is an operation -- not the only such in town -- called "World Internet." Computers are all filled when I arrive. Have to wait. Those manipulating the keyboards all seem local, all seem under the age of twenty-one. One wears a Yankee cap; at least three are in gray and blue school uniforms. I see games being played, Yahoo mail being sent. Two drawings of the omnipresent Ataturk on the walls.
The absence of paper is one of those things you keep noticing: napkins, tissues, the stuff you occasionally would like to find in a bathroom. My sesame pretzels, in Trabzon, come wrapped in cut squares of newspaper.
Can see why they call in the Black Sea! But then again any similar body of water would look the same if you ventured out upon it, and left the lights of shore behind, at 9:30 p.m. Outside my cabin I get a whiff of a great old-ship smell, which I won't even attempt to describe. One of the romantic smells of motion.
It's 2:30 a.m, May 17, and I'm asleep in a double cabin without a companion on this ship partially filled with mostly Russians and no other tourists. Then the door -- the presumably locked door -- opens. (I'm almost positive this wasn't a dream.) Three guys look in at me -- previously fast-asleep me, wearing sleeping hat and boxers; they're laughing and talking to each other. And I say, "Hey!" or something equally well thought out. They look and laugh and talk some more and then seem to decide to leave. I hear them talking and laughing for a while outside (further evidence this wasn't a dream). Did they somehow have access to a master key? Could I have been robbed, if I didn't look so unrich? Was one of them supposed to share my room? Mysteries abound when no one speaks what you speak.
Awake and step out on deck to see the oversized bowl of non-black-looking sea, bordered on one side by vague-in-the-haze mountains -- those mountains would be the Caucasus. I'll watch them come closer and the Russian resort town of Sochi grow clearer and larger. Watching with me will be fellow rail hangers -- perhaps the same guys who were watching with me yesterday evening as all those trucks filled with non-containerized boxes of tomatoes were backed on board this ferry. We like to watch.
Turkish style breakfast -- olives, hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese -- served with Soviet style indifference. Guess I've just learned how you say "no substitutions" in Russian. Wide-girthed, open-kneed Russian men in sports jackets sit, elbows apart, in front of the metal trays. Two turned-out prostitutes -- this ferry is known for transporting them to and from Turkey -- find metal trays of their own. Then we dock.
Here's Russia. Greeted by longshoremen, three of whom are wearing Yankee caps. Greeted by the rust, lack of paint and jury rigged equipment of the crumbling Soviet Union -- to be found even here in fashionable Sochi, the only place in Russia with palm trees (I think). Greeted by a two-and-a-half-hour-or-so delay before they let us -- and this is a regular ferry -- disembark. Tomatoes growing less fresh. Passengers, truckers, longshoremen, crew, border officials, even one tourist -- sitting around, wasting time. Various business people unable to do their various business. Why? "This is Russia," a Turkish man says to me. Another quips: "Maybe we have a spy?" Would a return to socialism, in some form, cure this? Hard to imagine. Will capitalism's transparency -- with questions asked, explanations demanded -- cure this? Likely it will, someday. Is efficiency, getting off a ferry in a reasonable amount of time after it docks, everything? No it isn't, especially if you do not have enough to eat. But it has to help.
This is, remarkably, my fifth visit to the Russian Black-Sea coast. I am -- equally remarkably? -- still fairly helpless upon arrival. A taxi driver, with whom I share no spoken language and who proves not particularly fluent in sign language, fails to get me to an ATM. He does manage to transport me -- for a relatively exorbitant fare -- to the train station. I need a ticket north, maybe to Rostov-on-Don. But I am awfully far from English here. This country is too big and -- outside of Moscow and St. Pete -- too rarely visited by Western tourists to worry much about any language besides its own. I recall maybe a dozen words in Russian -- none of them being the word for "train" or "next" or "when." So I'm lost on line for train tickets when finally I decide -- for the first time on this trip -- to ask, loudly: "Does anybody here speak any English?" I wait. I look at the faces. Finally, a man -- turns out he had been on the ferry -- reveals some small knowledge of my language. And, with his help, I get the time and the price (which I mostly misunderstand) for a sleeper to Rostov this evening.
I find my way to an ATM. I buy the ticket. I find an Internet place -- though Yahoo is too slow to work there. (My visit to Rostov, where I have lived and where I have friends, will therefore be unannouced.) But I am going to be on that train. And I feel, actually, pretty good about this. On all my previous trips to Russia I had handlers. This time I have landed alone and managed, however clumsily, to handle myself. I am satisfied, even proud, to conclude that I could, if necessary, accomplish this anywhere in the world. That one could, if necessary, accomplish this anywhere in the world.
It's such a beautiful evening to be all alone in southern Russia, where no one you've encountered in the past few hours speaks much of any language you pretend to understand. Sochi is displaying a non-Soviet colorfulness and a non-Soviet street life. The sky isn't all blue, but it's blue enough. The air isn't that warm -- you see jackets and heavy sweaters -- but it's warm enough. And, as I head in the direction of my night train, things have a late evening, late spring glow -- the green foliage (and Sochi displays a lot of green foliage) is exuding it, the white concrete of this railway station is exuding it.
Train arrives from Georgia, I believe (someday there too!) We board. The train -- a "lux" car for me -- departs. And for the next hour the sun sets and, when we come around another curve, sets again -- in yellows, then pinks, then reds -- into the blue, then gray, but not-yet-black sea. Men fish, couples walk along beaches -- the hundreds of kilometers of "rest-home," concrete-scarred (this whole country has been concrete-scarred), former-Soviet beaches.There's new construction going on around some of those beaches. I take that as a good sign, even if it is being done in concrete.
What I still think of primarily as the bubushka look -- the long skirt, the kerchief-covered head -- is, not surprisingly, alive and well here where that word comes from. Here, there, half of everywhere? The female, adult part of the world clearly is divided between the hair displayers and the hair hiders. This line across our planet is long and firm enough to be, I believe, important.
With this two bed "lux" cabin to myself, I go to sleep while moving for the third straight night. A night -- sharing a seat, cramped and trying to find a good place for my legs -- on a bus. A night -- alone in a double cabin, rocked to sleep, but oddly awoken -- on a ferry. And now a night -- with more rhythms to lose myself in than might even be provide by a mother's womb -- on a train. I can handle this, as well as myself.
Each morning, each day, May 18, is a new adventure. Sometimes you wish you would have mornings, days that were not.
Rostov-na-Donu -- on the Don River -- where I lived for three months with my family eight years ago, on another, less clearly demarcated section of the border between Europe and Asia. From a high-floor of the old, vaguely renovated Intourist Hotel here you see the steppe stretch off very far, very flat into the distance.
And people in this former superpower ain't got anything approaching what you got. And they ain't gonna get it soon. They both want and don't want you to be aware of that. And you want to say to them that all the corruption and deprivations they are experiencing are merely typical of early stages of capitalistic development: Putin some version of Boss Tweed. Problem is it still sucks. Problem is they're watching later, more pleasant stages -- including your stage -- on TV every day. Is it bad that they're receiving this information? Would it be preferable were they more ignorant and therefore more satisfied? Or will dissatisfaction accelerate the movement between stages? I should add that Rostov is looking a bit better. May 19. More color. More shops, certainly. More cafes. More money on the streets. This is not a scientific survey.
Another overnight train, also "lux," to Moscow. It was warm. Guess what? Moscow is cold on May 20. (Moscow cold? Who would have thought?) But the light lasts long on this, the furthest north point on my trip. Checking into a huge former Soviet hotel (which has managed to preserve many of the old former-Soviet courtesies) near Red Square, I meet a guy speaking American: Kent Froehlick, an LA lawyer. Been on a little trip around the world of his own: a nine-year trip. In the final year.
Have you read enough here to figure that I would be a big dead-Lenin guy? Cause he's my candidate for the most newsworthy character of the twentieth century and I'm fascinated by his will, his accomplishments, by his blindness and failures. Cause you don't get to see many dead people -- particularly many well preserved, long-dead people. Cause it's so damn weird. But Lenin's mausoleum is, at all potentially convenient hours on this visit, closed. So I content myself with Kremlin towers, Stalin's grave in the distance, the eternal flame honoring victims of what they really do still feel here to be "the Great Patriotic War," and Saint Basil's cathedral, which is currently catching the, as Dostoyevsky would say, oblique rays of the late, late evening sun. You probably wouldn't know it by reading this, but I'm also a big Saint Basil's guy. It is the most beautiful building I have ever seen.
Also see, this evening, the statue of long-bearded Dostoyevsky in front, of all places, of the square-columned, sooty-marble Lenin Library. I'm rereading (not something I do often) the Brothers Karamazov.
You know, we should note the absence of something that was, fairly recently, very much present in Russia, certainly, but also in France, Germany and just about everywhere else in Europe: crippled old men. The World War II generation, my father's generation, is just about gone. They have, with few exceptions, not been replaced by new war woundeds. Allow me to say for us all: Great!
The Soviet Union having splintered, getting from here to where I'm going requires a lot of visas. In Washington, in order to obtain a Kazakstan transit visa -- the train to Uzbekistan passes through there -- it was necessary to produce a Russian visa, which I didn't have before I left. In Istanbul, I learned to my dismay, in order to obtain said visa it was necessary to produce train tickets from Moscow to Uzbekistan; but you can't buy such tickets abroad (I had tried), and you can't have someone buy them for you in Russia (tried this too) cause they require the passenger's passport . So now, May 21, a.m., I'm on line outside the Kazakstan embassy in Moscow, a long line. (Lines in Moscow? Who would have thought?) Train leaves tomorrow, Tuesday. Next train not until Saturday. I know they'll want to see train tickets before giving me the visa, but I can't see how I can pay two hundred bucks for train tickets before I know whether they will get me the visa in time to get on the train. Can't get that information by phone. I wait. I ask. Maybe they can do it, but I have about a half hour to produce the tickets. Try -- running through the metro tunnels. Fail. Can't something be done. No, frowns an efficient, impatient, cold-faced Kazak. Prepared to wait four, heel-cooling days in Moscow.
Dinner at a stylish, fish-themed Japanese restaurant, not far from Red Square -- the world is getting more the same. I don't know when I have seen so much public drunkenness: bottles of beer carried even by young women waiting to buy train tickets in the middle of the afternoon. At night the metro tunnel tilts, lists under the influence of booze and boozers. And it is a Monday. Vodka, pevo culture remains strong; it is not the same here.
Something happened in this country, in this city, which, I venture to say, we, still hung over, have just begun to think through. A theory of history, a commitment to reason, a dream of fairness -- somehow got control of a country, many countries. (My father shared this commitment and dream, though not necessarily this theory.) How odd, how unprecedented. If it weren't for the blood, wouldn't we have to celebrate the audacity of this experiment, celebrate the large, if clumsy, spirit behind this experiment? (My father's life, 1917 to early 1990, was coterminous with Soviet Communism.)
The blood. What do I -- discombobulated by the bombed buildings of Bosnia, made uncomfortable by a bunch of young drunks -- know from blood? But I know from theories, and I am making myself an expert on just this kind of twentieth-century, we-can-make-it-all-straight-and-true audacity.
Dostoyevsky gave socialism a kind of pre-thinking through: socialism, he says, is "the problem of the Tower of Babel constructed expressly without God, not for the attainment of heaven from earth, but for the abasement of heaven to earth."
The abasement of heaven to earth. From my point of view much of the first part of the previous century was devoted, following a growing recognition of the impossibility of a celestial heaven, to the audacious attempt to contruct an earthly heaven. Equally impossible.
The New World that is being discovered here in Europe represents, I suggest, the abandonement of such hopes. Defeated Europe. Humble Europe. Can humankind unscatter and unconfound itself, can it construct a great tower, while preserving this humility? It is closer to happening now in Europe than anywhere else in the world. A Europe without war cripples. Non-audacious Europe? Is there such a thing as a Tower of Humility? A tower of abandoned hopes? A tower of trying, with all our flaws and limitations, to make things a little better? A tower of increments? A tower of imperfections? See it standing, crooked and medium height, against the sky.
May 22. Back to the Kazaks to get that visa for the Saturday train. Another long line, but Russians know how to play lines. Rain provides the hoped-for angle. They push to the front under the pretext of seeking shelter. This American found that same angle and ends up -- pushing and flaunting his Americanness -- quickly inside...where that same efficient, impatient, cold-faced Kazak, on noticing the four-day train delay to which I am being subject, reveals himself to be prepared to rush a visa for the train today -- the train that leaves in just a couple of hours. Nice after all, I want to conclude. But a Russian who has been helping me notes, bitterly, that life here is filled with officials who refuse for no reason then expect to be thanked should they deign to relent. What do I know from such bitterness?
To the station, where more lines must be circumvented, for a refund on Saturday's ticket and one for today; back for the visa; race to the hotel; a grocery store for food for the train; back to the train station; and on the train -- Moscow to Samarkand, where I will spend the next eighty-one hours and once again cross the border without oceans into Asia.
The Journal Continues....IV. Asia: Excesses
Beginning of the Journal: The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 1)
Beginning of this part of the Journal
"...Because there was nowhere to go but everywhere," J.K., On the Road.