This post might better be called “Turkey’s tots and tweens,” as it’s really a mix of youths I took snapshots of as I got lost in the serpentine streets of Istanbul. In my travels kids are hands down the most fun to photograph. They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (“Where you from?”) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands. Below are just a few of those characters, ebullience, boogers and all.
When traveling alone, my inner mind buzzes so feverishly with thoughts, words and soliloquies that I often forget myself and think I’m making a racket that everyone can hear.
But no one can hear me, I realize, and I fall back into the hermetic hum. The brain rattles in verbal commotion, synapses chatting away, echoing through cranial canyons. It’s the classic internal monologue, an incontinent loop. (Do I ever get tired listening to myself? And how.)
In countries where I don’t speak the language — most of them — I can go hours, even whole days without uttering a word. Transactions are reduced to semaphore and sign language. There’s lots of pointing. The lingua franca of a candid smile goes a long way.
Talking aloud is good and healthy. Being a mime all day can be suffocating while alone on the road. You need to air out. I’m always relieved to hear my voice stir to sonic life at the end of the day when, say, I order dinner at a nice restaurant and converse with a waiter, or, if lucky, when gabbing with patrons at the local pub.
I blush to admit I’m terrible about learning languages of places I visit. It’s pitiful, really. I’ve never used a phrase book and only bother to learn terms for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you.” (In French and Spanish, I also know “Do you speak English?”)
And that’s always been enough (except with cab drivers, who invariably need written directions). English is so uniformly familiar around the world that I find getting by something of a breeze.
Still, those basic words — spasiba (“thank you” in Russia); proszę (“please” in Poland); bro! (“hello” in Las Vegas) — are invaluable social tools that make life easier amid the exoticism of a new land.
But there I am, tramping across jungle villages and cluttered cityscapes, locked in my own head, mostly mute but open to vocal interaction, the human touch. I can tell you there’s nothing like laughing with a local during a far-flung voyage.
When you’re going solo, getting out of your head takes an effort, as does anything worthwhile. It’s easier than you think. And the rewards are rich. Just watch as the elderly shop lady goes from mirthless money taker, pensive her in her task, to beaming with gratitude all because you simply said xiè xiè (“thank you” in Chinese ) with a smile. It’ll make your day, and possibly hers, too. Nothing is lost in translation. Everything is gained.
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.
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.
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?”
Booked on a calculated whim, the trip to Paris set for mid-October looks more and more like a comic blunder, a fool’s pipe-dream, a rash impulse buy. (The flight was so cheap, I practically had to get it.) The whole idea shrivels before my eyes as the pandemic spreads with no end in sight. Covid cases explode, fatalities rise, economies crater and global cities are in enforced lockdown — a fall Paris sojourn is, I am certain, très peu probable.
So the trip is pretty much DOA, as I suspected in a previous post, and we’ll be homebound for more months than ever imagined and stir-craziness is its own pandemic and who cares? People are dying and I could be next and I’m moping about not getting to dine on Michelin-star cuisine and missing the Christo show at the Centre Pompidou and forgoing the serial heart attacks Parisian women unfailingly give me.
There is so much more to mope about, of course, and I am an Olympian moper. Give me a large pimple, computer glitches, long hold times, an exorbitant phone bill, cruddy customer service, a mean paper cut and you will see sulking in all its ravishing splendor. It’s like out of a Bergman film.
Now is not the time to complain and temperamentally crumble, but it seems like our entrenched culture of complaint is in full grousing, shouting swing. Everybody’s bitching about something: quarantines, Trump, lack of this and that, government overreach, face masks, being barred from the nachos plate at Chili’s. It’s a big boo-hoo carnival. I refuse to partake.
How? By keeping my über-fluffy head on straight (no haircuts! Mope!), not sweating the small stuff (I’m working on it), doing my best to ignore the White House, and trying not to weep myself to sleep about the surely dashed Paris trip.
Whining about so much picayune stuff is a luxury these days. (Paris is itself a luxury, the very definition of an obscene luxury, so buck up, crybaby.) There’s sure to be much more about which to complain, cry and caterwaul, and few of us will go untouched. As the more trusted experts are saying, this is going to get exponentially worse. So snap on your face mask, hang tight, and shush.
It’s time to recalibrate and sacrifice. To adjust expectations and know that we’re pretty screwed. In this bonkers new world, it’s time to realize we can’t always get what we want. And we won’t.
The giggly, beatific smile on a bedraggled beggar girl on the steps of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. Three eager children bounding up to their cow for an impromptu snapshot in the backstreets of New Delhi. A red-eyed, dye-smudged wise man looking meaningfully into the distance in Udaipur.
They’re but a few of the images I snapped some years ago while traipsing about northern India, including Old and New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During the long days of corona cocooning, I recently flipped through travel albums and found a theme: wondrous, troubled India — and its magnificent people, so kind, polite, funny and alive. These are some I met:
In two weeks I head to Japan, one of the best food and drink cities in the world. Last time I was there, I was green, gullible and a little lost. I ate at places I stumbled on that simply looked good — I had no reservations — and bought drinks at random bars or even from beer vending machines. This time I’m prepared. My eats itinerary is tight and structured, and I’ve wisely left a few days open for discovery. Below are eight of my top food and drink destinations in Tokyo and Kyoto:
1. Tokyo boasts more Michelin Star restaurants — 230 — than any other city, making the neon-marinated metropolis the world’s number one food destination, according to France’s revered (and feared) Michelin Guide. I can’t afford a 2-star or 3-star outing — like Sushi Jiro, whose stardom skyrocketed after the worshipful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — nor will I subject myself to the fussy rigmarole of trying to reserve a spot at one of them, itself an Olympic event demanding backflips, secret handshakes and blood oaths. I did, however, after some patient, nimbly maneuvered reservation action, land lunch at Ginza Iwa Sushi, a 1-star Michelin destination, whose fixed-menu fee ($101) makes me blanch. One of the most popular sushi joints in Tokyo, Iwa serves a 12-course lunch and is known for its elegance, tradition and finesse. And wallet-thinning powers.
2. Though I never dream about it (unlike Jiro and his sushi) and only eat it about every three years, yakitori is one of my tongue-tingling tops. It’s primarily grilled chicken skewers, but also features eel, myriad meats and grill-happy veggies. For my yakitori fix I’m going to Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi in Kyoto, an unpronounceable place so popular I had to secure a reservation through my hotel concierge months ago. It’s considered the best yakitori in Kyoto. Online reviews speak of chicken transcendence.
3. I know, well, nothing about one of Japan’s national drinks, sake. (It’s rice wine, right?) I’m here to learn. And drink. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve booked at the foolishly early hour of 1:30 p.m. (on Halloween, no less). It’s set in an izakaya — a snug local bar where a variety of small dishes and snacks are served with alcoholic drinks — where pupils of the potent potable will taste eight to 10 kinds of sake under the affable tutelage of a guzzling guru named Murata. I’m actually not a big sake sipper, though I had some the other night at, what else, a sushi dinner, and it was cold, smooth, savory. Teach me, master (small bow).
4. My last time in Tokyo I visited the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market at the crack of dawn, extremely punchy from staying up all night, mildly partying before quaffing Starbucks. I was a beet-eyed mess, weaving through the warrens of stalls and stands filled with fresh-off-the-boat fish and sea creatures, snapping zesty photos, lost in the briny commotion of frenetic commerce. Rudderless, I just wandered where my soon-soaked sneakers took me. I didn’t know where to eat some of the fresh catches, which is something you definitely do at the market, and I didn’t know where to go next. I needed a guide. That’s what I’ll have with the Tsukiji Fish Market Food and Culture Walking Tour, a 3.5-hour expedition, starting at 8:30 a.m., through the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Sushi, sake, fried fish cake, tea and a Japanese omelette are just part of the menu. Sobriety is another part.
5. I’m in Japan, one of the supreme culinary capitals in the world, and what I’m craving, with impish urgency, is … an egg salad sandwich from 7-Eleven. This, I swear, is a thing. Convenience stores (or conbinis) are rampant across the country — there are at least 50,000 — with three reigning chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart. Here’s where you find whack Japanese to-go cuisine, from dried squid and deep-fried quail eggs; to insta-noodles and syrup-filled pancakes; to 9% alcohol beer and ongiri (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with savory fillings). And, of course, the homely, homey egg salad sandwich (tamagosando). Celeb chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have sworn by their tastiness and websites are devoted to them. 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart offer variations on a simple theme, using fluffy crustless white bread and the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie. “Japanese mayo tends to be more tart than American mayo, with a mild sweetness and robust umami that gives it a bit more flavor,” writes a blogger, who conducted an egg sandwich showdown between those at the three major conbinis. (Spoiler: 7-Eleven stuffs the most egg in its sandwiches, as seen below.)
6. Hailed by many cocktail connoisseurs as one of the best bars on the planet — and easily the best in Tokyo — Bar Benfiddich, in the city’s sleepless Shinjuku district (where my hotel is, conveniently), pours classics with radical twists. Show-runner Hiroyasu Kayama has been dubbed an alchemist, whose design for the bar was a “moonshine den, dark and mysterious, with dusty 19th-century bottles and jars of arcane herbal infusions.” It is intimate. How so? Try eight seats and two tables. I’m lining up. Now.
7. I lust for ramen — I’m partial to mazemen, or brothless — and it had better be excellent. I like my noodles thick and savory and chewy. The best ramen in Kyoto, they say, is Kyoto Engine Ramen. No reservations, so I’m crashing the place. I only know what I’ve read in the noodle-sphere, the bulk of it stellar, exalting the omnivorous varieties and vegan options. Ordering’s a breeze: From a vending machine you purchase a ticket with your selection on it, then slip it to the server. “The space itself is groovy and modern. Cool jazz was playing. A nice touch was the cute little Shintō shrine behind the bar,” writes a guest. I wanted more about the ramen (photos show mouthwateringly complex bowls). Then I read this: “The ramen is bomb!!!” Pow.
8. Beyond the go-to Suntory brand Bill Murray shills in “Lost in Translation,” Japan distills several top-shelf whiskies, most of which can be sipped at LiquorMuseum Pontocho in Kyoto, a seatless, stand-at-table whisky pub run by surpassingly knowledgable whisky whizzes. They serve 1,000 types of drinks at the esteemed bar. All drinks are 500 Yen (including tax), or about $4.65. And there’s no service charge. I’ll have another one, bartender-san.
I have never done karaoke, and I never will.
I don’t understand runners. I don’t know what in the world they are doing.
Dancing — a faint memory from my roaring twenties that I hope goes away.
Reggae is the devil’s flatulence.
A good, mean rollercoaster mainlines an unparalleled high.
There is nothing sexier than a comely woman reading a book.
Cars. I will never get them. They are like refrigerators — necessary appliances.
‘Good dog’ is redundant.
People who purposely don’t travel are unevolved and sad. (And people who say Munich is better than Paris are the most unevolved and most sad.)
Going to the movies alone is the best.
Religion is so radically misunderstood, so repulsively knotted up, we should hit delete and start all over again.
I am constitutionally incapable of playing charades.
Giving money to your alma mater is strictly for suckers.
Unless you’re doing it to a tiny child, the high-five is socially questionable. Fist-bumps — criminal.
There are worse things than tongue piercings. Though I can’t think of anything.
When an adult says they’re “reading” Harry Potter, they’re not really reading at all.
Sushi is sublime. I’ll even eat the grocery store crap.
I‘m thinking of going back to Japan. The more I think about it, the crazier I get.
I have this thing that if someone tells me they don’t read, I want to go back in time to the moment where I hadn’t met them.
Carnivals are disgusting and revolting. I adore everything about them. Even those poor goldfish.
I can’t do the Great Outdoors. It’s the outdoors part that gets me.
I like sharks a lot. If one bit me, it would probably like me too.
Pet rats are like itty-bitty dogs — highly intelligent, funny, trainable, social, responsive. They drink beer and eat anything and, well, everything. Then at about 2-years-old they die and shatter your heart into 10,000 pieces. They’re the best.
If, in a post-apocalyptic world, all sports were wiped out, I wouldn’t care a whit. Take the fans first.
I was thinking of going to a local food festival and parade. Temporary insanity just creeps up on you.
My 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.
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.
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: