A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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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

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

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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Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

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The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

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Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away … 

Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

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From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

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Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

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Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

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From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

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?