The story behind my blog photo

People have asked me if the photograph above this blog is is a screen-shot from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” as it resembles a scene from that classic 1959 film. It is not.
It is Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s amazing picture of kids at a Parisian puppet show, “Saint George and the Dragon,” at an outdoor theater in 1963.
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Time magazine recently wrote about this enchanting photo:

Capturing the thrill, the shock, the shared triumph-over-evil that the children feel at the very moment when St. George slays the mythical beast, Eisenstaedt’s picture feels as fresh as when it was made, more than 50 years ago.

Here, the picture tells us, is an innocence that can remind even the most jaded of what it was once like to believe, to really believe, in the stories that unfold before our eyes onstage, or onscreen.

The master photographer himself said of this very picture:

“It took a long time to get the angle I liked. But the best picture is the one I took at the climax of the action. It carries all the excitement of the children screaming, The dragon is slain! Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.”

Black hole bust

I can’t tell you how underwhelmed I am by the newly released photo of an honest to god galactic black hole — the first-ever snapshot of one of these largely invisible yet still whoa-awesome mega-vacuums.  

“It’s like the universe had a royal baby: That’s how excited everyone is for this first glimpse of a black hole,” writes Slate.

My interest in royal progeny or anything about the Royal Family is several notches below my interest in macramé and pulling weeds, so right there we have a faulty analogy.  

I like stars and planets, the sun and galaxies and Chewbacca, but I’m a solar system sourpuss on this one. I don’t frown upon astronomers finally clicking a picture of a black hole — “an abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it” — it’s just not emotional rocket fuel. It elicits a cosmic shrug. I was expecting explosions and ecstasy.

“The image is based on data from radio telescopes all over the world,” Slate says, “so it’s not technically even a picture of a black hole. It’s really confusing that everyone’s acting like we have a picture of one. This is actually a composite that shows the shadow of a black hole.” 

Here is the image, released today by astronomers:

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“A composite that shows the shadow of a black hole”? Maybe you can see why there’s disappointment amid the jazzed gawping. Not only is it not an actual black hole, but the photo really isn’t so hot. Blurry, amorphous, rather dull. Like a toddler accidentally took a picture of a lightbulb with his mom’s lame Android phone.

Some liken it to an orange donut, the bagel emoji, or a SpaghettiO — a junk-food fest. Others, like the New York Times, wax poetic, declaring the black hole, “55 million light-years away from Earth, resembling the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”

Deep. And quite lovely.

But really now, this is a black hole:

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This is the black hole of our dreams and nightmares, the yawning, all-devouring abyss of a crappy 1979 Disney fantasy titled, aptly, “The Black Hole,” the cosmos’ most grandiosely epic sucker-upper, a whirling, phosphorescent monster maw, God’s unblinking eye, or the fiery, furious, inflexibly unforgiving gateway to Hell. It is glorious and mad, beautiful on a mind-altering scale, a spinning top dancing on the lip of the great beyond.

But it is also just a NASA illustration, a dazzling graphic vibrating with the curiosity and imagination of good speculative sci-fi. No one knows what a black hole really looks like, even after the new fuzzy photo. I’d love to see a crisp, clear portrait of one of those galactic phenomena that sucks up everything in its path. Alas, today’s picture just sucks.

View of the day, wistfully

IMG_1286.jpgMy laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.

This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait. 

At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.

I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.

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Blue Mosque, November 2018

Hounding the dogs of Istanbul

She ambled into the cafe smiling, her rump gently shaking this way and that, tail shyly wagging. The cafe owner, a radiant globe-trotter named Nazan who’s lived in Istanbul for years, joyfully greeted the large brown mutt, patting her head and cooing her name. The dog then plopped onto the wood floor and rolled on her back, legs skyward. She remained in this posture for a good half hour. She looked ridiculous. And adorable.

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The pup, whose name is Garip, is one in a gaggle of dogs and cats Nazan feeds and takes care of. Garip is a stray, part of thousands that live in the by turns picturesque and grungy streets of Istanbul, a massive, hilly metropolis bulging with 16 million people — the world’s fourth largest city and the biggest city in Europe. 

That means a lot of stray dogs, whose numbers rival the city’s seething stray cat population (lovingly profiled in the documentary “Kedi,” which I wrote about HERE). It’s a zoo out there, an amicable, well-behaved cosmos of bewhiskered street urchins that are mostly pampered by locals or, at worst, casually ignored. 

Animus towards the animals isn’t evident. I was in Istanbul for nine days this month and kept a close eye on the roving dogs and cats. The critters are almost universally plump and well-fed by caring, compassionate locals attuned to the spiritual sustenance of communing with intelligent four-legged creatures that reciprocate the love. 

There they are, zonked out, on their sides or curled in balls, in the middle of plazas amid the bustle and noise of swarming tour groups that step over them. They loiter outside of restaurants, reliable fonts of food, and snarf up the dog kibble people put out for them on schedule. Nimbly dodging cars, some move in small packs but most ramble their neighborhoods as lone wolves, occasionally pausing to sniff one of their hairy cohorts’ rear-ends before tramping off down cobblestone paths.

The dogs calmly stroll around for snacks and strokes, but are rarely beggy. They don’t cadge, they don’t hector. They scarcely bark. Rather they befriend and endear. If you approach them, they nuzzle up to you, tail fanning, like any dog worth its canine credentials, yet leave you alone when you pull away (unless you call them to follow you, as I often did). Their independence is admirable, even noble.  

As the homeless can attest, street life’s a bitch. Hunger remains an imperative and untended wounds agonizingly fester. I met a dog with a ghastly slash around its throat and another with an oozing cut on its back leg that left a bright streak of blood down its fluffy cream tail, looking like a giant paint brush dipped in red paint. Many stray dogs are registered by the city, signaled by a tag on their ear that means they’ve been fixed and vaccinated. I think that’s swell.

At the cafe, the marvelous Mitara Cafe & Gallery, Nazan visibly adores her furry charges, her courteous quadruped pals. She speaks to them, strokes them, invites them in for a bite and respite from the heat or cold. When I handed her a tip for my lunch, Nazan assured me it would go to food and medical care for the animals. That was all right by me.

A motley gallery of some new Istanbul friends:

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Captivated in Cappadocia (Turkey Part II)

The stony hills don’t roll so much as jag and tumble. Fantastic rock formations — so often called “fairy chimneys” that the term, apt as it is, has become cliché — spiral from the clay-colored earth in tapered towers and stout tepees. 

Cave dwellings and ancient cave chapels adorned with shimmeringly preserved Christian frescoes honeycomb hillsides. Phallic boulders and chalky spires erupt out of the arid Anatolian plains. Horses graze amid tall grass and bright wildflowers and horse-pulled carts trundle down steep stone streets.

After a long time away, I am soon returning to this otherworldly, almost Martian landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, where I will rent a motor scooter and buzz the hills, stop and gape at the underground cities and famed Open-Air Museum, stay in the obligatory cave hotel, tuck into lavish Turkish cuisine and partake of the modest nightlife. (I’m partial to the funky Flintstone Bar, which is also, yes, a cave.)

I was last in Cappadocia a decade ago and I marveled then and expect to marvel all over again at the sculpture-like topography — it’s a mushroom! It’s an arrowhead! — molded by the artistic hands of the heavens. This UNESCO World Heritage site, whose pink dawn skies are peppered with flotillas of touristy hot-air balloons, would make an exemplary location for a sci-fi or fantasy movie, and probably has. 

It’s practically a hop-skip from Istanbul to Central Anatolia — a 90-minute flight, that, at $25 each way, is a steal that can’t be denied. So back I go this fall.

These are scenes from my last stay in Cappadocia — looking back while looking forward.

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My cave hotel in Goreme, Cappadocia

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Cave hotel room

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And three bonus photos that really capture the magic, borrowed from the web:

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The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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The euphoria of traveling alone

This was a mistake: I once told a female friend to go ahead and meet me in Tokyo when I went some time ago. She was excited. Then I wrote in a blog that she shouldn’t be too excited because I need my space, that I, huh-hum, walk the Earth alone. This did not go over well. This was unmannerly. And dumb. Whatever. It was true.

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Louvre, Paris, 2015

Decidedly, defiantly, I am an incorrigible solo traveler. Occasionally I’ve traveled to Europe or somewhere in the States with a gal pal, but 99-percent of the time I’m a one-man production. Two weeks in Japan. Three weeks in India. Two weeks in Turkey. Ten days in Paris. Do I get lonely? Rarely. Embracing solitude and deflecting loneliness is an art form, and, done right, it’s invigorating.

Last fall, I wrote here about loneliness vs. solitude: “My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals in bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat …”

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So I am gladdened by the new book “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude” by journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom. Not only are the four cities she explores — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — some of my absolute favorites, but her experiment in solitary travel is of course immensely attractive.

Despite spending undue verbiage defending solitude — feebly citing scientists, psychologists and philosophers who rail against the social stigma of aloneness, as if it’s some zany pathology — Rosenbloom says that solo travel is surging, and, a fine reporter, she provides the stats.

In a time when everything is socially entwined and extravagantly networked, the hunger for alone time is greater than ever, be it a solo trip to a movie or a solo trip to Morocco. I habitually go the movies alone, just as I unfailingly globe-trot untethered. As Rosenbloom learns, such excursions are steeped in rare splendors, from the placidity of eating alone and truly savoring a meal to the transformative power of focusing on the present moment.

“Alone, there’s no need for an itinerary,” she writes. “Walk, and the day arranges itself.” One can be “curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.”

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2008

As when I spontaneously tooled through the fairy-tale hills of Cappadocia, Turkey, on a rented Vespa, or stumbled upon the ritual slaughter of sacred rams in a mosque abattoir in Istanbul, or visited an orphanage for critically ill children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or, most harrowing, got myself detained by Hezbollah goons in South Beirut. And of course there are countless cordial encounters and forged friendships among fellow travelers and locals that organically blossom, and often last.

Rosenbloom had a plan: visit Paris in springtime, Istanbul in summer, Florence in autumn and New York, her hometown, in winter. Except for New York, she was only in each city for up to one week. Her aim was to peel back the delights of traveling alone in exemplary locations, ones awash in food, architecture and art, revealing how fine it can be to be unhurried, “accountable to no one,” exhilaratingly free.

The upshot is part vivid travelogue and vague memoir, filigreed reportage and free-floating opinion. “Alone Time” doesn’t provide the stunning personal epiphanies and life-altering experiences of Elizabeth Gilbert’s classic “Eat, Pray, Love” (nor the luxurious prose). It’s more a practical guide, a how-to on solo travel, including an epilogue, “Tips and Tools for Going It Alone.” (Though I had to roll my eyes at a few sections, like this one: “How to Be Alone in a Museum” — really?) She offers some gauzy instructions, like how “to be open to wonder,” which, actually, is much easier than you think.

Rosenbloom, diehard journalist, is wed to her sources, so that her rigorous apologia for eating alone comes with too many testimonials from psychologists and the like, bogging down what modest narrative thrust there is. I wanted to blurt out: “Eating aloneJust do it! It’s entirely fine and easy and acceptable. You don’t need a sheaf of Ph.D studies to validate this primal pleasure.”

For this introvert, whose two favorite cities happen to be Paris and Istanbul, “Alone Time” is a mild affirmation that my travel habits might have universal appeal, something I kind of already believed. Solitude -— not loneliness, which must be fended off —  is a source of power and creativity, great assets while on the road.

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East River, New York City, 2010

As I wrote last fall: “In solitude one reaps energy from oneself. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion.”

Rosenbloom, who began her physical journey and spiritual awakening in the City of Lights, sums up with characteristic pragmatism and admirable ambition: “My aim wasn’t to master Paris. It was to master myself: to learn how a little alone time can change your life — in any city.” And there she nails it.