Even travel letdowns are worth it

I’m a jaded traveler, asking much, with high expectations and a low threshold for disappointment. 

So naturally I’ve at times been disillusioned during my many journeys around the world. It happens. And it’s not a terrible thing. After all, how letdown can you be by, say, Madrid, a great city that pales a bit compared to its more lustrous and colorful cousins, Sevilla and Barcelona? Not much.

In a previous post I told how I recently unpacked piles of my travel journals from cold storage after several years. Written in blue ink in black notebooks — usually on barstools after long days wending wide-eyed through cobblestone streets and spindly alleyways — the pages are filled with the magic of travel, the mirth of discovery, the shock of the new, amazing people and far-out food (like the whole cobra I ate in Vietnam). 

The journals are also laced with descriptions of those isolated times when I was dissatisfied, underwhelmed or — what! — plain bored. I’ve re-read these bits with a kind of dismayed surprise: Really? That’s how I felt about Rome? Rome? 

Well, yeah, on that particular day. Travel experiences are colored by everything from jet lag to daily frustrations (taxi rip-offs, getting lost, language hassles). They are mutable. What deflates one day might electrify the next. 

My journals reminded me of this in bold strokes. These are some examples of thwarted expectations and little letdowns on travel’s twisty, rugged road: 

In 2000 I went to Israel a hardened agnostic bordering on a true atheist. Astounded by religion and the mindset of its believers, I wanted to go to the desert nation that’s home to the big three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and see what makes them tick. Scenes from my journal:

“Today in Bethlehem I arrived at the perhaps blasphemous idea that the region is a historical Disneyland, a realm of fairy tales. ‘Here’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.’ ‘This is where Mary slept.’ We might as well be told, ‘This is where Snow White ate the fateful apple,’ or ‘Behold the tomb of Cinderella’s stepsisters.’ It’s psychotic that pilgrims succumb to the fanciful whims of Constantine’s mother, who randomly appointed holy designations to places here. Paraphrasing something I actually heard on a tour: ‘Here’s King David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper, but, uh, not really, because they’re lost somewhere far below the city.’ And people eat this stuff up.”

Later I noted:

“Believers hoisting giant wooden crosses follow ‘Christ’s final footsteps’ on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s maniacal, and not half as fascinating as you’d think. That’s how religion is for me now. Just silly, impossible to be contemplated in the higher regions of the mind. It absolutely fails to astonish. So this trip, which is wonderful thus far — peaceful, pleasant, edifying — is innocent of any celestial wallop, of a blinding halo glow and spiritual intervention. I am unmoved. I am unchanged.”

Then there’s Prague, which I visited with inflated enthusiasm in 2002. I should have known better, especially since so many blinkered Americans just love the tourist-clogged Czech capital and callow expats infest the place. I got there and sighed, writing:

“Not entirely impressed by the city. Like an Eastern Amsterdam: beautifully antiquated, charmingly European, painted with time and soot, tired but proud. And yet rather vacant. It’s all show, with a familiar, generic Euro tang. My true feelings are stifled from sleepless flights. My impressions are, for now, Cubist — fragmented, jumbled, unreliable. But, so far, a fine, sturdy European city of great charm and Old World wealth. A Disneyland-like anachronism, bursting with pastel façades and fairy-book antiquity, tourist throngs and souvenir kitsch.” 

Two days later I wrote: 

“I like Prague, and yet needing to write that means I’m working at liking it as much as I’m supposed to.”

On my second trip to Italy, in 2003, I revisited Florence and Rome, with a day trip to Pisa to see that teetering tower. My scribbled impressions:

“Pisa is a university town with a tower. Not sure why Italy doesn’t touch or connect with me the way Paris does. It’s less refined, more brusque. Its virile, violent history isn’t as deep and textured. It’s less intellectual, less progressive and less interesting. It’s about gelato and church.”

And about Rome specifically:

“Rome is OK. Trevi Fountain, Vatican, St. Peter’s — all numbingly familiar and inert, just there, edifices radiating gray. The city is sort of like Madrid or Berlin — popped expectations.”

What’s notable about the Italy trip is that when my girlfriend finally arrived to meet me there, everything shimmered to life with a giddy radiance. The Trevi Fountain at night was a splashy thrill, the Sistine Chapel an almost spiritual swoon. I loved my girl, and I loved Italy. 

I’ve learned that the fluctuating charms of travel cannot be underestimated. They should be greedily embraced. Up, down, it’s all about the ride, the swirling ecstatic journey.

Even for the most solo traveler, the human touch matters

Early on my vacation to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2008, I scribbled this in my faithful moleskin journal: “Depressed tonight, like the trip’s a mistake.”

Those are ugly, gooey words for an insatiable, solo world traveler like me, someone who practically levitates just smelling the inky pages of a new travel guide. Recently I hauled out a dusty box of journals from many journeys, randomly cracking open the Beirut book for the first time in 12 years. I was surprised at what I found, how dark it all read. 

It wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it’s a bit different from memories I shared in a long-ago blog post that described the city as “beautiful but battered, regal but raw … a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.”

What stands out in the journal is how damn down I am, on the city and on travel in general, and that’s the real shocker. Yet I think it all signifies those inevitable pockets of mild dejection, loneliness, confusion and fatigue experienced during any trip, even my best ones.

“I am so precariously manic as I travel,” I wrote in Beirut after a day of jumbled emotions. “Life’s complexion switches kaleidoscopically as I journey — up, down, sideways, loops and spirals.”

Yet this was different, so much intensely bleaker than the emotional yo-yos of my usual one-man voyages, be it China, Portugal, Morocco, Japan, France, etc. 

Much of it was certainly that the war-torn capital — once regarded the Paris of the Middle East for its beachside beauty and lush cosmopolitanism — felt like a tumbledown tomb, hushed and sealed off, choked in a martial pall. This despite hip bars and cafes, delicious restaurants, the prestigious American University and all the shiny men’s hair products.

I knew what I was getting into. I did my homework and sought out a place rocked by enthralling if troubled history, yet still knew how to party. (And how: the narrow, bar-lined Gemmayzeh district absolutely spills with stylish, rambunctious — and not a few douchey — revelers every night.)

Still, once there, my initial assessment was harsh: “Most of the city is a rundown wreck. Even the ‘nice parts’ are dilapidated — the Hamra district is gimcrack, mostly crumbling and derelict and spray-painted and bullet-pocked. … Beirut is an ugly city.” (I think I just lost my gig writing the Lonely Planet guide to Beirut.) 

I was slipping, hard, right into the old emotional vortex, and I was confused.

“I don’t know what is happening,” I wrote. “I suppose it’s the listlessness of the place that has robbed my zest. Something big is missing. A sucking, sinking void, parts depression, loneliness (one feeds the other), dislocation, depleted expectations.” 

Then I really laid it on: “This happens, and it’s fatal because it corrodes my desire to ever travel again, a crazy but not unfamiliar notion. ‘I’m through’ — that’s what I feel.”

The isolation I was experiencing in a cold city, despite interesting chats with taxi drivers and random conversations with locals in bars, was wearing. I’m far from extroverted or people-needy. But something dawned on me. I journaled, “I just need someone to talk to. My blood has frozen.” I was crying out, pitifully and most uncharacteristically.

Enter Lina, brilliant, warm, charitable Lina! The young local and I were forced to share a tiny table at popular loo-sized bar Torino Express on Gemmayzeh one night, and we naturally started talking. I learned she’s Christian, a teetotaler and speaks Arabic, French and English. She likes the heavy metal band Savatage.

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Lina’s useful Arabic cheat-sheet

Not only did she write in my journal helpful Arabic phrases, she later drove me up Lebanon’s northern coast to lovely Byblos, showed me around and introduced me to some friends. She even invited me to her small birthday gathering at a bar the next night (I still don’t know how old she is). It wasn’t a romantic thing, it was plain, extraordinary hospitality. She was a mensch, a blast of sunlight in a dark stretch.

After even more encounters with friendly travelers and locals over 19 days — I spent a week in Beirut and 12 days in heavenly Istanbul — animated with laughs and living, I finally admitted in the journal: “Meeting people is groovy.”

On one of my last nights during the trip, I met a trio of travelers in Istanbul, an hour or so during which I may have finally figured something out about travel, and life. 

“I made people laugh tonight, honest extemporaneous guffaws, eye-squinching laughter,” I wrote in the moleskin. “That’s worth something. Real human connection. Meeting of minds, tickling of souls. What else is there?”

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Snapshot: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

One of the most tremendous places I’ve been is Istanbul — I’ve said it before — and one of the most divine places I’ve been in Istanbul is the grand Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Defining it is a bit complicated. Built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in the 1400s, minarets and all. Its knotty history is tidily shrink-wrapped here.

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The park dividing Hagia Sophia, background, and the Blue Mosque.

All of these photos I took about eight years ago, my last of three trips to the European-Asian metropolis. Expect new photos when I return. (Soon.)

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Islamic panels added to the cathedral when Muslims overtook and designated it a mosque.

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Christian mosaics discovered long after the Muslim conquest. Muslims covered them up, but did not destroy them.

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Each day after visiting Sophia, I’d make the infinitesimal stroll over to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, pop my shoes off and watch the devoted pray while ogling the at once ravishingly ornate, calligraphically tasteful 17th-century architecture. A preview:

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