Far-flung human connection during enforced disconnection

A few days ago I received this brief email: 

Hi. 

Hope you and your family are staying safe in this pandemic. Keep prayerful.

— Kalpten

It was from a Turkish woman I met 10 years ago in Göreme, Turkey, in the magnificent region of Cappadocia — all fairy-tale spires, ancient cave churches and local stone dwellings. I was scribbling in a Moleskine journal at the whimsically named Flintstones Cave Bar, a glass of Efes beer at hand. I was mostly alone until about 9 p.m., when bodies suddenly filled the white-stone grotto, music began to pulse and about a dozen people danced by their glass-filled tables. 

A young woman, petite with dark pixieish hair, approached me, asked where I was from, and invited me to join her small party. I politely declined. About 10 minutes later, I decided what the hell and sat at their table and bought the group a round. The woman was Kalpten, whose name I still find distractedly unusual and pleasantly exotic. She danced with her friends, shyly, when I was there.

Kalpten explained how each weekend she and her friends made the hour drive from Kayseri, a city of nearly a million people in Central Turkey, where the airport which I flew into from Istanbul is located, to Flintstones Cave Bar for music, beer and boogie.

We hit it off, but eventually I ambled into the night, up the hill to my lovely cave hotel. As I was checking out the next morning, a message from Kalpten awaited. (In our flurry of small talk, she had asked the name of my hotel.) I called her back and she insisted on driving to Göreme, picking me up and taking me to the Kayseri airport. Yes, I said.    

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When we parted in the terminal she said she’d take a bus to see me in Istanbul at the end of the week. And she did. We spent a long, sunny day together, during which we broke up a vicious fist-fight between two young boys, sipped Efes beer, hung around the waterfront, strolled historic Sultanahmet and took a ferry to picturesque Princes Island.

And that was that. When I returned to the States, we exchanged several fond emails, then, inevitably, the flow trickled off, and a years-long silence followed.

Then the email at the top of this post came.  

I promptly wrote her back, five or six enthusiastic lines. Three days later, she responded, part of which read:

So much time has flown since we mailed each other. And now we both two as all other people experience the same troubles, feelings and thoughts, we are all passing through historical and tough times. 

Exactly. In these days of universal trauma and global grieving, our overdue reconnection takes on a slightly unreal complexion. It is strange, wonderful, serendipitous. Magic is not an idle player, I think. Yet tragedy is also part of the equation. 

Connection is important to me, yet not as important as it is to most. A loner at heart, I prefer people in small doses. Yet this reaching out by Kalpten struck me differently, poignantly. Of course there’s the nostalgia factor — long time, no see and the triggering of a dozen warm memories — but it’s more than that. She’s a distant friend I have only wondered and dreamt about, a phantom face I can visit in a few photographs.

And now she’s real all over again. It’s not necessarily a romantic thing; it’s a human thing. That’s about all we have in these fraught times, and in any time. 

Kalpten wrote: “It is really big pleasure to write you as always.”

Then she signed off.

How are you feeling?? Write me anything you want to write …

I’m going for now.

Take care

K.

How wine’s vines wrap around your brain

I am sipping wine as I write this, a chilled glass of Portuguese rosé that is an ideal swirl of sweet and dry, fruity and floral. It is 42 degrees outside. The fusty stereotype says that rosé is expressly a summer drink, just as some insist soup is only a winter meal. I say balderdash to both feeble-minded myths, which suffer a fatal lack of imagination. 

So, indeed, I am sipping wine (rosé!). And I am thinking of an article a friend sent me about the intricate neurological processes involved in the simple joy of tasting wine. It says: “According to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, the flavor of wine ‘engages more of our brain than any other human behavior’” — be it pitching a baseball, basking in Bach, playing Fortnite or, I imagine, having tangly Tantric sex.         

I’ll drink to that (and I did). More, and listen closely as the ideas get knotty: 

“The apparently simple act of sipping Merlot involves a complex interplay of air and liquid controlled by coordinated movements of the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat. Inside the mouth, molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure.”

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I’ll drink to that, too, mostly because that passage was as complex as some of the most sophisticated wine varietals, and it kind of gave me an instant hangover. (Shepherd’s book, by the way, is “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.”)

Yet so much jibber-jabber is a buzzkill. So let’s for a moment detour to Turkey, the last place I really indulged in wine. Namely to Göreme, in Cappadocia, where I enjoyed a marvelous wine tasting. Just me, the sommelier and lots of wine.

After almost crashing a rented motor scooter about four times in the craggy hills of Göreme, returning the vehicle well before it was due, I was rattled. Walking to the town center, defeated and with a comical helmet head, I caught a sign outside a handsome restaurant that said simply “Wine Tasting.” It was time for a drink, a celebration that I didn’t smash open my head toppling off the scooter into rocks and shrubs.

Apparently I stumbled upon a hotspot, the newish Mozaik Restaurant, which is rated the #1 restaurant in Göreme on TripAdvisor. (OK, it’s TripAdvisor — take it with a grain of salt.) For about $18.50 you get four tastings of the varietals of your choice. The wines come from the rugged Cappadocia region, a local tasting.

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A rose from Cappadocia, served by my sunny sommelier.

Thing is, and I’m hardly complaining, my friendly host did not pour tasting measures — a few hearty sips — but pretty much full pours. I sat there for a good 90 minutes, sipping four glasses of wine — a Chardonnay, Merlot and, of course, two rosés. They were excellent, dimpled with notes and accents and bouquets and finishes and all that jazz.

I all but forgot about the scooter drama, because, little did I know, this was happening inside my head: The wine, recall from above, “stimulated thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggered massive cognitive computation … emotion and, of course, pleasure.” (Italics mine.)

That’s a lot of action from a sip of fermented fruit. I know shamefully little about wine — I’m no vino snob; the rosé I’m sipping came out of a box — but I can tell good grape from rotgut pretty well. All that “cognitive computation” triggered by a “flavor signal” is nifty enough. But I think many of us agree it’s the “pleasure” that’s triggered that we are after. I’d drink to that, but, alas, my glass is empty.

A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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Cubby

All packed with nowhere to go (yet)

I’m ready to skedaddle.

I am going to Turkey and my prep-work is a whooshing blur. Look out — I am a trip organizer extraordinaire, a whiz-bang packer, planner and non-procrastinator. I am completely prepared to go to my next destination, namely Istanbul, with a two-day sidelight to the south in Cappadocia. It’s time. I’m ready. Let’s go. 

I’ve booked my round-trip flight between home and Istanbul, and the same for Istanbul and Cappadocia. Reservations are made for three hotels, seven dinners and a chi-chi culinary tour that ambles across both sides of the city, the European and Asian. 

I know where I’m renting a motor scooter in Cappadocia, and I know the price. I’ve purchased and printed my Turkish tourist visa. My passport and credit cards have been photocopied. I’ve selected the book I will take for in-flight reading. And I have procured provisions: No Jet Lag tablets (self-explanatory), Emergen-C immune boosters and a few airplane-size bottles of booze for the red-eye flight to Turkey.

In my head, my wardrobe is totally picked out and as good as packed. I am, I think, more than ready to walk out the door.

I leave in two months.

My readiness is ridiculous. I’ve accomplished all of the above in little less than two weeks since I bought my airline ticket. I book my flight. And I pounce. 

Yet I am not rash and hasty, though I have been on occasion in the past. (I still rue that musty, doll-house-size hotel room in the Latin Quarter. Refund!). I stay up late, often into the wee hours, researching and cross-referencing restaurants and hotels, poring over various reviews.

IMG_1163Budget is always a factor. Quality is too. Email exchanges with tours, eateries and hotels are voluminous. Like a bulldog reporter, I ask pointed questions, suss out better deals, dig for the best room and best price. Don’t hustle this hustler.

I have done this many times. I’ve had practice. Hire me for your next vacation. In a hair-whipping whirlwind I’ll have you booked and vacuum-packed in less time than it takes you to notify your credit cards that you’re leaving the country. (Yes, I’ve already done that, too.)

I’m sure this all appears quite anal and neurotic. And, dammit, it is. But it’s also the breathtaking, otherworldly efficiency of a luxuriantly bearded wizard or a dancing magical elf. I rule.

My brother and his family are going to Spain for Christmas. I see them straining, huffing, puffing, doing the rich, rewarding work of travel planning. Some of that includes reading books about their destinations that aren’t city guides. (OK, I still have a book about Turkey I need to read before I go: “Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.”)

I’ve assisted my brother a little using my almost eerie aptitude for travel research, helping him locate hot restaurants and the like. But four months out, they’re on the ball, doing great work.

My work, as thoroughly noted, is all but done for Turkey. I have two months.

Two months.

Now what do I do?

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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When traveling, putting reality on vacation

I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.

“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.

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Meeting people is easy. (Tokyo)

But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”

Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.

Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.

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My cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey.

Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.

I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.

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Cool guys I met in the Grand Bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, before the war.

I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.

But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.

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Kids, fireworks, India.

It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.