Hipsters, Conservatives, Defaulters (and anarchists!)

For someone who’s spent most of her spare time over the last five years traveling like a penniless bum, I’m very poorly read in the travel classics. I only recently got to Kerouac’s On the Road, that dated instruction manual for the would-be hipster. I liked it, I guess – who doesn’t like the escapism provided by reading about people more dissolute than you will ever be? – but it doesn’t make me long for America. The Road through Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Frisco sounds dull and sordid. Reading about how drunk they all are makes my head hurt. And the diet of apple pie and cheese sounds even less healthy than my current menu of kebabs and dark chocolate.

One thing I have been missing, however, is The Road. There’s just something about a change in the air and having everything I need in a backpack that I find intoxicating. It’s possible to get too much of it – I’d say I was drunk by the Ukraine and nursed my hangover for much of the beginning of my time in Istanbul – but the trip home for Thanksgiving was the equivalent of ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep. I’m ready to start drinking again.

That, and the pollution in Istanbul is getting to me. Artistic wealth, generous inhabitants, and baklava this city has in spades, but emissions controls not so much. My brother Robert is visiting and we spent much of Saturday walking through unexplored neighborhoods and hiking along the top of the 4th century Theodosian walls (the picture to the right is me talking to a dog in the slum next to the northern end of the city walls). Being able to wander aimlessly through centuries of history in a tank top in the middle of winter is a luxury I wouldn’t have even dreamed of in my four years of purgatory in freezing Cambridge. But, greedy as always, I would love to be able to spend the day outside and not feel like I smoked a pack of car-exhaust-flavored cigarettes at the end of it.
And so Saturday night Robert and I caught a bus to Edirne. The city was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the base from which Mehmet the Conqueror sent his army to take Constantinople in 1453. Today it is best known for being the border station to Greece and Bulgaria. Oh, and the annual oil-wrestling contests in which mostly naked men cover themselves in olive oil and grope each other. In the words of a friend who went last summer, ‘it’s like the WWF with lube and less clothing.’

The city that most travelers miss – because they are on their way to Istanbul or watching obese oily men perform their homoerotic ballet – has a lot to offer by day and not much by night. I’m taking the word of our hosts Batu and Mutlu (via Couchsurfing, once again) on the night part: there is only one club worth going to, they say, and even that is only really good because you can stop at this sweet kebab stand on your way out. We went. The club walls were covered in fake antiquities. Actually, given the archaeological wealth of this country, they may well have been real. As Eddie Izzard would say, ‘there’re a lot of them about…

By day, there are sublimely beautiful mosques to visit, immaculate streets bordered by crumbling houses to meander, and innumerable tea houses to sit at and discuss the future of Turkey. As a border city, it should come as no surprise that the West, and Turkey’s relation to it, dominates the conversation.

The general consensus among the Turks I’ve talked to is that the EU accession process is good for the country. Regardless of whether or not Turkey joins the EU, the process is stimulating reforms that have been a long time coming, such as a revision of the civil code to allow women to work without their spouse’s consent (passed in 2001) and reducing (though not eliminating) the amount of jail time you may serve for ‘insulting Turkishness’ (2002).

Mutlu, whose name translates as Happy, isn’t as overly enamored with Westernization as many of the Istanbullians I know. I imagine he appreciates the above reforms – we didn’t discuss them – but he thinks that Turkey is held back by the IMF debt it accumulated in 2001. Turkey can’t advance, he says, when it doesn’t have the money to invest in major projects. Turkey’s brave new future can only come about when it stands up to the Western institutions telling it how to spend its money. Presumably by defaulting on its debt.

As a fiscal conservative who relies on a sound financial system, I am obliged to say this is a horrible idea. A pragmatist, however, might say Mutlu’s take isn’t altogether crazy. Argentina, after all, massively defaulted on its IMF debt in 2001 – and then enjoyed an internally-financed growth rate of 8% a year from 2003 to 2007. Turkey’s GDP growth in the same period has hovered around 3% a year. A recent article in the NYT argues that ‘strategic default’ (granted, for homeowners, not countries) is beneficial not only for the defaulters, but for the economic system as a whole, because it encourages more strategic bartering.

It isn’t obvious to my brother, who has now been in Turkey for six days, that Turkey is a poor country. ‘This is confusing,’ he said as we walked through one of Istanbul’s lavish malls on Christmas day. ‘Isn’t this a developing country?’ The bus to Edirne, he noted, had better service than planes in America. A walk through some of Istanbul’s slums on Saturday might have tarnished the impression he was getting of Turkey if it hadn’t been the kind of rare gorgeous day that can make life in an uninsulated shack seem refreshingly simple, a la Walden Pond. Thoreau could have set up shop here, I found myself thinking, when we found a mattress inside one of the old watch-towers on the city walls.

I hardly have more cred than my brother when it comes to getting to know Turkey’s gritty side. The brushes with protestors around the IMF/WB meeting (‘A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)’) were dramatic, to be sure, but it’s not the kind of stuff that happens every day. I live in chic Cihangir, the traditional haunt of journalists and gentrified artists. The closest I’ve come to Istanbul’s underbelly is a few tranny sightings on Istiklal Caddesi, the modern city’s main drag, and the uncannily perceptive photographs of Sevket Sahintas.

A major factor in my lack of social conscience is my continuing unmastery of the Turkish language. Therefore, in the spirit of this time of year, I am making my first New Year’s Resolutions since 2002: I will learn Turkish, and I will get off the familiar paths I’ve already carved through this city.

To that end, I just emailed Hakan to see if I can enroll in evening courses for January. If I’m going to learn this language and this country, I figure I might as well do it with a chain-smoking anarchist.

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A Country to be Proud Of

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I liked the Ukraine from the moment I arrived. I flew in from Stockholm, where a sandwich in the airport costs $20. In Kiev, that same $20 will cover the forty-five minute taxi ride into the city and a beer once you get there.

I don’t usually take taxis, no matter how cheap they are: if public transit is a tenth of the price, which it usually is, anything else seems indulgent. I also don’t make a habit of getting a beer on arrival, but my plane arrived late and I was scheduled to meet my couchsurfing host, Laure, at a pub at 9pm.

Couchsurfing.org, which I described in greater detail in my previous column, is an online social networking site for travelers of both the armchair and literal variety. It connects budget travelers, or ‘surfers’, with people who are willing to let them sleep on a spare couch, bed, or section of floor for free. Laure is a thirty-something French diplomat who lives in the posh embassy district just north of Kiev’s historic center. When she wasn’t dispensing visas to hopeful emigrants, she took me to embassy parties and tacked me on to a private city tour the embassy had arranged for a visiting French artist. Fortune can be so kind when you go looking for it.

I didn’t know what to expect of Kiev. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find gorgeous white sand beaches in the middle of the city. Their appeal is lessened by the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened a hundred kilometers upstream. Radiation poisoning isn’t really my thing, so I skipped the beach and hit the usual tourist sights. Kiev’s cathedrals are magnificent orthodox confections, with starry domes and darkly glittering icons in their candlelit interiors. The state museums are average, but Ukraine’s oligarchs have a long and faithful history of sharing their acquisitions with the public in sumptuous townhouses: the exhibition of rock star artist Damien Hirst’s skeletons in billionaire Viktor Pinchuk’s icy modernist gallery was only the coolest of the bunch. A few miles down the road, an international modern art festival was intellectually stimulating during the day and a raging new music party every night. On the street, funky folk art rises next to gorgeous eighteenth century mansions. Ubiquitous kiosks sell the two things essential to Slavic well-being: chocolate and vodka. Hundreds of meters under ground, the subway stations drip with mosaics and chandeliers, like medieval grottoes masquerading as bomb shelters.

Kiev’s wealth seemed strange for a country that suffered under Stalin, famine, and the Nazis. I had a hunch I wasn’t getting the full story, so I bought a ticket on a 10-hour train ride west to Lviv, near the border with Poland. Against Laure’s advice, I traveled fourth class, which meant a seat on a bench in an open carriage. I was surprised to find the carriage mostly empty. A few old men hovered near the bathroom – a puzzling choice, as it reeked of stale sewage – and a shirtless man sat on the bench opposite me eating a neon green bell pepper. He said something in Ukrainian, inhaled deeply, and gave me a wry smile.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked in Russian. The two languages are similar enough that people fluent in either one are able to understand each other. Ukrainian is slightly softer: heard from a distance, it can sound like French. I don’t speak any Ukrainian but have picked up a little Russian.

‘Why yes!’ he said, excitedly. ‘I think. I have learned it but I have never spoken to a born English speaker.’

I told him his English was excellent, and asked what he had been saying in Ukrainian.

‘Oh. I was saying: the toilet, the national smell of Ukraine.’ And he laughed.

Ukrainian humor confuses me. You can’t call it black humor, because it’s depressing rather than ironic. I suppose, when your country was arguably the worst-suffering industrialized nation of the 20th century, a twisted sense of humor comes naturally.

The shirtless man and I spent the rest of the train ride discussing movies, music, and systems of governance. There are so many problems with the Ukrainian state, he said: corruption, flawed educational systems, vanishing social safety net. He still loves his country, though.

‘I hate my country, but we can change.’ The way, he thinks, is to raise a new generation that does not expect the state to take care of everything, like his does. I brought out my US Passport to show him a quote I’d found inspiring, written on the last page of the visas section:

‘Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds… to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.’ – Ellison S. Onizuka

He smiled again, this time ruefully. ‘You have made me depressed,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I think it will be easy to change and to make good Ukraine’s potential. But we would never have that writing in our passport. I never want to be American, but sometimes I admire you.’

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The Bush-Ahmadinejad Connection

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

Backpacking, for all its wonders, can be tiring. I took refuge from hostel beds and train bunks at an old friend’s house in northern Sweden at the beginning of September. Philip, who sang with me in the Christ Church Choir, has just moved back to his mother’s hometown of Östersund, a little more than halfway to the arctic circle from Stockholm. It was a wonderful opportunity to sit back, hammer out some job applications, and revel in those things I never realized I was taking for granted: drinkable tap water, toilets with seats, and relatively unpolluted air.

Sweden, at least in the summer, is pretty close to paradise. I don’t like to think of what it would be like in winter, though everyone around here says it’s most beautiful in the twilit snowy months when the sun only shines from 11am-2pm. I am not cold lover. The ninth circle of hell, according to Dante, is not the inferno of popular imagination but a ring of ice, where Satan suffers in deep freeze for all eternity. That was pretty much my experience of Boston in January and February. I have no desire to go somewhere even colder.

But back to the summer. It’s clear, cool sometimes, and starkly clean. Old barns in romantic states of disrepair dot the hillsides and the lakes – everywhere, lakes! – never seem to stop sparkling. It’s a bit like northern Michigan except the roadside greasy spoons are replaced by artisinal cheese shops and gourmet bakeries. You can’t have everything.

We went mushroom hunting in the mountains on my first day. Philip’s mother insisted that we talk loudly to scare off any bears that might be in the area. I thought this was a bit silly until we came upon a large pile of recently produced bear droppings. I then had a flashback to Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man‘, a documentary about a man who observed Alaskan grizzly bears. He thought they had accepted him into his pack until one ate him alive. We began singing nervously, then raucously, imitating opera singers and post-menopausal community choir members with uncontrolled vibrato.

I spent more than a week being coddled by my surrogate mother’s home cooking and broadband internet, but all good things must come to an end, and so I headed south on the 7th September. I spent a night in Uppsala, a medieval university an hour outside Stockholm, with an old friend named Viktor, who did a year abroad at Greenwich High School back in 2001. Other than Viktor, I’d never met a foreign-exchange student before I got to Harvard, which was full of both internationals who had spent years at public schools in the US and Americans who had studied abroad. I’m not sure why foreign exchange is so uncommon in Greenwich, and I think it should change. I fully appreciate that the Greenwich Public Schools offer an excellent education, one that I profited from for thirteen years. But there are millions of intangible things one can gain from time abroad: sensitivity to people of different cultures, gratitude for the smoking ban (a stray cigarette burned a hole in my favorite scarf in the Kiev airport), awareness of the kind of hurdles and benefits that affect people living in different parts of the world.

Spending serious time abroad is different than being well-traveled. Going to a lot of exotic destinations doesn’t necessarily mean you have learned about another culture, as any college student on their way back from Cancun can tell you. A semester or a year are better for observing and, eventually, absorbing the rhythm of life of another culture.

If you’ve already graduated from high school or college, or if time or money constraints make travel difficult, there are other ways to branch out: take couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is sort of like hitchhiking for apartments. Open-minded people who have a spare bed or room can create a profile on couchsurfing.org or its sister site hospitalityclub.org, and travelers can send requests to ‘surf’ for a night or several. An essential tenet of the community is that you are not to pay for the privilege, or demand payment: it is meant to be an opportunity for cultural exchange or simple altruism. While the potential for abuse is remarkable – the host is giving a set of keys to his/her apartment to a stranger, the hostee is putting his/her personal safety at risk by staying in a stranger’s home – reports of abuse have been few and far between. And it’s not just a young hippie thing. Though the majority of surfers and hosts are in their twenties and thirties, a growing number of retirees and empty nesters are opening up their homes. I’ve used the service to sleep for free in Burgos, Moscow, Stockholm, and now Kiev, and never had the slightest problem: on the contrary, I’ve made some very good friends.

Standard protocol is that you send out five requests a few days before you arrive. One or two won’t get back to you, one or two will be busy or out of town, and hopefully, one or two will offer their couch. My host in Stockholm was Meysam, a twenty-nine year old Iranian PhD student who lived in the university dorms in the north of the city. We spent two long nights in the kitchen of his dorm with an Italian woman who lived down the hall, arguing about international security policy and whether it was important to get married before you were thirty. On the latter point we all agreed it wasn’t; on the former we had more to talk about. Meysam supports Moussavi, one of the reform candidates that challenged now re-elected Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but he abhors US/UN attempts to dismantle Iran’s nuclear development project. ‘We have a right to clean, nuclear energy,’ he said. ‘Why on earth would we make a bomb? It would be suicide. But it’s also suicide to rely on outdated, dirty technology as the world is getting warmer.’

The man has a point, I thought. But did he expect the international community to trust Ahmadinejad? Shouldn’t there be a revolution against his illegitimate regime?

‘Of course the election was to some degree rigged. But you have to respect the rule of law. We’ve tried in the courts, but they’re biased, which sucks. I don’t know much about American history, but didn’t something similar happen in your country in 2000?’

‘I don’t think you can compare Bush’s election with Ahmadinejad’s,’ I said.

‘But didn’t the other candidate, whatever his name was, have more of the popular vote?’

I didn’t have a very good response for him.

‘Anyway. What I am getting at is that we should not do anything crazy. We will gain support and try at the next election. Maybe we will have a Kerry, but maybe we will have an Obama. We’ll see.’

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