14 – 23 July 2014
The image above probably isn’t what you expected to see in a post about Switzerland. The thought of this small, peaceful nation usually evokes scenes of glorious snowy mountains, green hills and pristine lakes. Is the wealthy nation of Switzerland in a crisis?
When Americans go on long trips abroad, they may want to volunteer in less developed countries. Plenty of critics and journalists have revealed that this process sometimes does more harm than good. Often this form of “voluntourism” is just a guilt “trip”. It helps us feel good about ourselves. Having the privilege to visit less fortunate (by Western standards) countries, take photos, buy some handicrafts, and then leave again can bring up some complicated feelings. Many citizens of those countries have little hope of traveling through their own country (to visit pilgrimage sites or family members), and they have less of a chance to leave their oppressive or resource-poor situation. Travel backpacks are heavy enough! Why carry all that guilt when you can spend a few hours each week reading to orphaned school children or picking up used water bottles? Afterwards, treat yourself to cheap local massage! You’ve done something good. For yourself, mostly.
But we did want to give back in some way, and we wanted it to be meaningful and effective. We spent weeks researching online and talking to experienced travelers about where our efforts and skills would be most needed and welcome. Interestingly enough, it turned out Switzerland really stuck out as a neglected volunteer destination. This surprised us, until we arrived and saw the devastation of the countryside and the hopelessness in people’s faces.
The first thing we noticed, while walking around outside the Zurich train station, were two pieces of trash on the sidewalk. And no one was picking them up! We looked at each other and smiled, knowing we had finally come to a place where we could give instead of consume, consume, consume.
But we weren’t there to help the urbanites. We were headed to Altdorf, a small town way out in the middle of the country (maybe 2 hours from Zurich). Stepping off the bus, we were met by our Swiss friends Maya Karin and Martin. They were the first people we met when our journey started last September, literally as soon as we left our apartment. We gave Maya Karin a ride from San Francisco to Esalen and spent a month together there as work-scholars. We all became close friends and Jessica and I set an intention to see her again in Switzerland. We were lucky to have such wonderful hosts take us in and show us around, given how difficult life is on ground there. For example, one evening we waited until the grocery store closed and took a loaf of day-old bread from the bin out back. That bread went well with the aged handcrafted Alpine cheese we had to hike up a mountain to procure.
The true extent of the damage hit us once Maya Karin and Martin led us on a walking tour around Altdorf.
As you can see, the lake was littered with trash and debris, and some kind of construction barge was out dredging the lake. At first we were emotionally overwhelmed seeing the conditions the Swiss have had to endure, but the resilience of our friends gave us hope.
Sometimes we needed to get away from the bustle of Altdorf (pop. ~9000), and we would go hiking in the Alps. Really, our time in Switzerland was spent connecting with our two friends there as they showed us around the country. Fellow dancers, healers and travelers, we’re grateful they had so much time to share with us.
Switzerland was shockingly clean, orderly and expensive after where we had been. Possibly it is that way no matter where you have been.
After a week, I (Jessica) headed north out of the mountains to Germany for a few days to visit a dear friend from graduate school. Seeing an old friend was just what I needed after all my wanderings. Afternoon walks, cribbage, shopping in Heidelberg, and a pedicure, German-style, were so welcome after many months of life on the road. Thank you, Erica!
9 – 14 July 2014
A bit out of the blue, while in Turkey or maybe France, we decided to go to a tantra festival in Estonia. It was affiliated with the school we had attended on Koh Phangan, and we would have a chance to hear the school’s founders speak and find out what an Estonian tantra community was like (just like we’d always wondered, right?!). We weren’t sure how we would get there, or if we might suddenly need to manifest camping gear, but at this point in our travels, we knew enough to figure it would all somehow work out.
And, oh, did it ever work out! Our little long weekend in the far north came together with unexpected ease and beauty, like a crystal of sweetness dropped into our weary traveler laps. When we discovered that plane flights to Tallinn were scarce and expensive, we decided to fly into nearby Riga, Latvia, instead, a decision that transformed our trip into a serendipitous Baltic adventure, with a crash course in Baltic culture that we will not soon forget.
Back in March, in Bali, we happened to make friends with the woman in the room next door, the lovely Anna, who was originally from Latvia. So, when we knew we were going Riga, I wrote to her asking for recommendations on places to stay and things to see.
Beautiful, vivacious Anna, not one to do things halfway…not only did she connect us with three of her smart, charming friends in Riga (Elina, Dita, and Darta), who offered us a place to stay and a ride to the festival, Anna herself showed up in town! Anna’s mom is a well-known Estonian writer, and she showed us her apartment, which was in one of the cool old wooden buildings typical of the area, filled with beautifully-crafted mosaics and eclectic design.
Riga is the major city in the Baltics, and although our first impression was of a city made of old, stiff Soviet buildings covered in graffiti, the old town is beautiful and well-preserved, and many of those stiff block buildings outside of the center house modern cafes, cute (and expensive!) shops, and art. Riga is one of the European cultural capitals of 2014, and the international choir competition was taking place while we were there, so the streets were filled with music and posters about more music. We were delighted to find we didn’t stick out: locals would talk to us in Latvian, and one person even asked me for directions.
After a couple nights hanging with the girls at their favorite haunts in Riga, five of us (Darta couldn’t come) piled in Elina’s Audi for the 4-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, Estonia. On the way, just outside of Riga, we stopped at a spring by the side of the road and filled up big bottles with water for the weekend. “It’s blessed water, and sweet,” the girls said. I was skeptical. After stopping at spring after spring after spring coming out of the Caucasus mountains, could water from a mossy stream near the ocean possibly compare? But actually, the spring waters in Georgia often tasted sour or salty, whereas this Latvian water…I will always dream about that water. It was the best water I’ve ever tasted. Sweet, indeed, and soft and lovely.
The festival felt low-key after our time at Koh Phangan, and we couldn’t help but miss our community of contact improv misfits from Georgia. At the same time, we were happy to re-connect with friends and teachers from the island. The festival was held around a lake, with grassy fields and forests surrounding. It was close to midsummer and the sun didn’t really set. We got to spend evenings watching it trace its way sideways across the horizon for six hours before dipping under for a brief spell around midnight.
Jacob took this photo around 11:30pm:
When the Contact Journey was over, Jacob and I stayed on for several days way up in the mountains in the land of the Svan people (Svaneti), in a village at the end of the road, a place called Maseri. We called our guesthouse “the last house before Russia”, and it really was – we ran into a border checkpoint during one of our hikes. No one spoke English in the guesthouse, but they had Google Translate, and we had friends with us from the Journey who spoke Russian. The cook packed us lunches of local cheese, hearty bread, cucumber and tomato, with a firmly-tied little package of Svan salt, and we struck out on easy, wandering walks in the valley and mountains. The Caucasus was one of the most beautiful places we had seen, with fields full of wildflowers in all colors everywhere, ringed by contrasting green and snow-capped mountains. Semi-wild horses ran around along with cattle and dogs. I felt like we were in the “Sound of Music,” or one of those impeccably bucolic movie scenes designed to evoke the carefree innocence of childhood. We meandered across grassy pastures and picnicked by running streams, hiked to a waterfall and rode horses across vast green spaces without seeing a single other soul. At night we gathered in the kitchen/bedroom of the home-stay manager to try to catch the World Cup on TV from a Turkish satellite. We were sad to come out of those mountains, driven in a worn-out van down a winding road full of fallen rocks, cattle, pigs, and kids.
We returned to Tbilisi for a few days before leaving the country and stayed in the Old Town – an area so decrepit and dark that, walking through at night, I thought that surely the buildings were abandoned. But it was still inhabited. The piles of rocks and falling-down structures were a sad reminder of the political struggles of the Georgians. We could see that Old Town had once probably been charming, with leafy cobblestone streets and buildings with wrought-iron balconies. It was a huge contrast to the grand boulevards with imposing Russian architecture elsewhere in the city.
We had always wanted to see the Black Sea. We came close in Istanbul, on the Bosphorus, but not close enough. So, after leaving Svaneti, we went to the closest city on the coast, which happened to be Anaklia. It was a strange and desolate place to dip our feet in the sea, a semi-built up vacation spot for Georgians with a handful of stiff hotels and inexplicable modern sculptures rising next to what used to be a village. It was cold and windy.
Contact Improvisation is an honoring of every moment. There is a sweet surrendering that happens when our bodies stay faithful to what is happening now, and now… and NOW! One learns to recognize and differentiate subtle impulses in our movement choices and our partner’s choices. We begin to decipher the cues that we give and receive which tell us when to lead or follow, when to go up, when to go down, where to touch, how to lift, when to slow down, and when to be still. In this form one learns to stay in integrity with each choice, never forcing, never rushing. When Body, Mind, and Spirit are united in their instinctive wisdom one finds ones-self at home in every moment expressing one’s true nature.
– Mark Moti Zemelman
22 June – 2 July 2014
As if going to Georgia weren’t unusual enough, we decided to go there with a traveling contact improvisation dance (contact improv, or CI, for short) group and dance our way around the country. It was pretty funny trying to explain those two things to those who asked about our travels, but, now, after the fact, we can’t think of a better way to see a country. We danced in the National Theater, in a bohemian puppet theater, in an ancient cave city, in the forest, and high up in the Caucasus mountains. Georgian TV came to film us. Twice. Contact improv, to viewers who have no idea what it is, can look like a bunch of crazy people on drugs acting like total degenerates. But we were the soberest, sanest, wisest group of misfits.
The organizers made this video at the Kiev CI Festival, a few months prior to our journey. Many of the same dancers joined us in Georgia.
In CI there is no choreography (of course) and only one rule, “Take Care of Yourself”, which refers not only to knowing your physical limitations, but to a broader philosophy of self-responsibility in relationship. The dance begins when two (or more) people approach each other and decide based on body language whether to get closer. How much closer? It’s all up to the moment. When physical contact is established, it can include anything from a brief brush of skin to holding the entire weight of a partner, and everything in between. Once you touch, contact is maintained, except when it’s not, if you’re playing with space. Otherwise, weight is shared, and skin, muscle, or bones can be explored. Who leads and who follows is constant or constantly changing. Sometimes the movements are imperceptibly slow, sometimes uproariously fast. Everything is on the table. You might be up in the air or rolling over each other on the floor.
Contact improv feels radical, provocative, and subversive. Maybe most forms of dance felt so at some point in their history. But CI just totally blows out the speakers with the level of its daring.
Consider how many places there are in the world where unrelated men and women rarely talk to each other, and certainly cannot touch each other. The radical thing about CI is that total strangers can meet and dance in full physical contact: men and men, women and men, women and women. We’re talking much more contact than other partner dances. We’re talking rolling on the floor over each other and sometimes ending up with your partner’s butt in your face.
I love that in CI, I can strike up a dance with a stranger in confidence that even full-on physical contact will be respected as dance, safely in non-sexual space. Even dancing with many partners from many countries, I have always found a mutual respect for each other and for the dance.
That this dance can exist gives me hope. I also think that it can heal the debt of physical touch that many people have in our sometimes impersonal cities, offices, and lives. Indeed, many people say they appreciate exactly this quality of the dance, a safe, non-sexual source of intimate, creative and playful physical contact.
For me (Jacob), CI used to make me nervous. Because it looks so fun and allows for a theoretically infinite range of expression, I always wanted to be better at it. For these 10 days, I entered fully into this formless dance, participating in all the experiments and dancing with as many partners as I could. I love that I could try on different personas and play out roles and emotions I might usually avoid, just like in improv acting. The space created by the overall improv philosophy, where everything is welcomed, made lots of room for my spontaneity and playful expression. I had some of the most fun dancing I’ve ever had, and in the most inspiring settings. Between the people and the activities, this group was one of my favorites out of the six or so group experiences we’ve had on this trip.
In our group, most of the participants were from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia (there was also 1 from Kazakhstan, 1 Australian, 2 Israelis, 1 Canadian, a handful of Europeans, and us – the only Americans). The dominant language was definitely Russian. We LOVED these dancers and the improvisational life they exemplified – that present-moment agility, that readiness-for-anything – and improv was not confined to the dance, but saturated daily life. And so, as a group of 40, we adapted with flair to all kinds of living, eating, traveling, and dancing conditions. It was profound, it was skillful, it was beautiful.
Georgia is a special place. Although it has been invaded many times by different civilizations (Persians, Russians…) its culture remains unique. The Georgian language looks similar to Burmese, with a curvy, symbolic script, and it is not related to any neighboring languages. The people are at once proud and friendly – Americans can stay for 365 days in the country with no visa. The dominant languages are Georgian and Russian, and thank goodness we were touring the country with a group of Georgians and Russians. Otherwise, it would have been perhaps impossible to get around.
In many ways Georgia felt familiar, and for once we didn’t stick out walking down the street. Styles of dress and styles of interacting were more casual, and sometimes the country seemed to exist in a bygone age, like an America before there were public safety rules. Smoking was the default – sometimes there were no non-smoking rooms in hotels, and taxi drivers immediately lit up without consulting us. During the four hours from the train station to our remote destination in the Caucasus mountains of Upper Svaneti, our driver stopped twice – first for some vodka shots and then to drink beer, all before noon.
Georgia is known for its theater, dance, and singing – we were treated to the most beautiful impromptu concert our first afternoon there at a cafe. Three men sitting at another table drank copious amounts of wine and gave us a free sample of their culture’s famous polyphony.
Georgian food was a delicious surprise. I had never heard of any of the traditional dishes – things like khatchapuri (flavorful local cheese [oh, how I miss it!] between pillow-y layers of bread, similar to a quesadilla) and khinkali (dumplings). My favorite things were lobio (baked beans in a clay pot with spices) and lobiani (refried bean pie). And lots of tomato and cucumber salads with walnut sauce.
With our dance tour, we got to be in hostels, a home-stay, and a hotel. In the forest, our home-stay was a large complex out in the countryside, where all 40 of us filled two houses, along with local residents. Some people slept outside. Jacob played chess with an old Georgian man who lived there (won one, lost one), and Inna (one of the organizers) cooked us three thoughtful vegetarian meals a day.
Our lives for 10 days were a dreamy repeating pattern of sleeping, yoga, dancing, eating, dancing, eating, bonding, writing, and dancing. It was the best life.
We spent our last two nights in France in the village of Claviers, at Blandine’s summer house, which has been in her family for many generations. It’s a special place, for which superlatives won’t do. So, our homage to Claviers takes the form of a satire of the snobby yet useful New York Times travel column “36 Hours in…”, which gives weekend itineraries for destinations all around the world, squarely aimed at well-heeled travelers interested in the hip more than the historical. We can’t believe they haven’t written up Claviers yet!
Neon-filled nights? Yoga with dolphins? There’s none of that in Claviers (pop. 200), an old medieval village perched on a hill in Provence. Claviers is not on the way to anywhere else, and the only way to get there is up a long series of switchbacks on a country road. Its isolation makes it a choice getaway for stars like David Beckham, who is rumored to have a house in its hills. Recently, village life has continued as usual, and you could fill a weekend simply gazing out over the centuries-old olive orchards into the pine-filled hills. However, Claviers’ appeal stretches far beyond those Provençal views.
Leaves and Grass | 4 p.m.
Since the journey here was so long (60 km, or about 1 hour, from Cannes), the first thing to do is simply relax (read: wine). Walk around the garden of your summer villa and admire the olives on the olive trees. They were pruned back after the deep freeze a couple decades ago, and the new growth sparkling in the sunlight might remind you of a van Gogh. If you’re in need of a snack, olive oil made from these very same trees should do, just look in the shed. If it’s rest you need, float around in the pool.
You have a French mom, right? | 7 p.m.
Enjoy a home cooked French meal that miraculously emerges from the tiniest kitchen you’ve ever seen. Surrender your dietary restrictions, tear into the bread, and pass the jambon cru. Drink some more glasses of the rosé that your hosts got in a big metal drum from somewhere nearby.
Starry Night | 10 p.m.
Make some tea, put on your pajamas and hang out in the windowsill as the last rays of the mid-summer sun disappear. Then hop into bed; there’s nothing else to do. Unless the World Cup happens to be on, in which case you can pour a nip of home-made Eau-de-Vie and settle into a chair in the salon.
Sweet Start| 9 a.m.
After you’ve woken up and lingered in bed for a while, walk downstairs to find that your hosts have already returned from the local bakery with pain au chocolate. Tea and pastries are served on the patio.
Street Scene|10 a.m.
Wandering through the narrow lanes of the village center might be Claviers’ simplest pleasure…if all the other pleasures weren’t just as simple. It could be fun to get lost, but no, it’s too small for that. Many buildings date to the 1000s, with picturesque doorways and fountains among the many striking features. The fountains emerge gracefully from the ancient stone walls and the basins sometimes hold tiny gardens. A standout example is the one the black, white and orange cat hangs out in.
Assis à Sylvestre | noon
St. Sylvestre Chapel is Claviers’ most appealing architectural relic. Built in 1026, the last mass was held in 1949; it’s now used as an exhibition space. This is the epicenter of the Claviers contemporary art scene, and there are no current or upcoming showings posted. Sit on the bench under the tree next to the chapel.
World Connection | 3 p.m.
The cafe (one of two in town) on the main square is mostly frequented for its wifi. Getting a seat at a patio table only requires competing with the local cats, which outnumber human patrons. Even if the waitress says the cafe is closed, it’s possible to beg for an espresso to justify sitting and getting an internet fix. This is also the place to catch up on local gossip with the old village woman.
Feet Anchored | 6 p.m.
The town’s nightlife really starts to pick up once the locals gather under the leafy trees across from the church, split off into teams, and settle in for their intensely competitive and dearly loved native sporting tradition: Petanque. You might associate the game with daytime boozing and elderly men, but this quintessential Gallic pastime has enjoyed a surge in popularity worldwide in recent years. It can be taken quite seriously – recently there was a death threat scandal at the World Championship – but in Claviers, everything is laid-back, so don’t be afraid to join in.
Art & Politics | 9 a.m.
There’s not much more to do here, and spending a morning sleeping in is one of the most popular activities in the region. Your French country house probably has a stack of eclectic old books perfect for a casual read in the morning light. Maybe van Gogh’s letters to his brother or something on French socialism.
French Feast | noon
Sunday lunch is traditionally the finest meal of the week in French homes. Go downstairs to the rustic patio overlooking the small stone-walled shed. The sunlight filtering through the vine canopy overhead and the family atmosphere makes for a sweet intimacy. It’s noon, so you should have a glass of rosé in your hand by now. The gratin is made onsite.
Country Roads | 2:30 p.m.
Provence in the summer is hot. The wine from lunch is wearing off. For a final, unforgettable experience, lie down in the shade next to the pool and have a nap before your departure.
How to get there:
Begin studying French at age 13. Have a high school French teacher who is from France and has connections in France. Be a star student and eagerly learn the language so that your teacher takes notice and arranges for you to spend a semester of school in Paris (winning the National French Exam helps, but is not required). Now you have a French family! Make sure they have a summer house in Provence, and stay in touch and visit them over the years.
“You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door-nail. But does that make me an atheist? Clergymen consider me one – so be it – but you see, I love, and how could I feel love if I were not alive myself or if others were not alive, and if we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God. You see, when in due course my time comes, one way or other, to die, well, what will keep me going even then? Won’t it be the thought of love?”
– van Gogh, at 28 years old, in a letter to his brother, Theo
Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in southern France in 1888 and began his most prolific period of painting. Most of his masterpieces come from this time. I have always been an admirer of Van Gogh, not just of his paintings, but of his heart-wrenching letters to his brother, benefactor and best friend, Theo, in which he openly expressed his struggle as an artist to express the simple beauty he felt no one else had captured. He also wrote about his existential aims and the intense mental anguish which eventually took his life:
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
Provence had been painted before van Gogh, but the Dutch master thought the earlier works were insufficient. He wanted to capture the subtle colors of the night sky, the unique movement of the cypresses in the mistral, and the love he had for his subject. Accurate scale was sacrificed in his effort to express something deeper, something often unnoticed. Like a poet-journalist, he was less factual but still revealed truths. My favorite:
Jessica and I spent an afternoon exploring the beautiful asylum and it’s peaceful grounds. We appreciated the contrast of colors, like the lavender next to bright yellow wheat and the tall sharp cypresses like teetering black obelisks cutting into the sunny blue sky. The place was so charming that we thought it might be worth losing an ear if it meant we could live there.
“Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.”
Unlike Jessica, I haven’t traveled in Europe much, and after months of Buddhist temples and stupas, seeing some of the grand Christian cathedrals of France impressed me so much I nearly became Catholic. I was struck by the symmetry displayed in the ceilings – the way the arches come together, the gothic style of stonework that sometimes resembles dripping wax, the paintings and mosaics.
The first set of photos are from the church and cloister of the Jacobins in Toulouse. Considered the most beautiful Dominican church in Christian Europe, and now partly a museum, it was first built in the 1200s. The remains of St. Thomas of Aquinas rest here.
The following set comes from the Lyon Cathedral, built from 1180-1480. It seats the Archbishop of Lyon.
Finally, a few from the Basilique de Fourvière in Lyon, built in the 1800s and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was the most spectacular church we’ve seen anywhere. Sparkling with gold and brimming with colors, every inch of it was covered with mosaics and paintings. We both gasped with sensory overload and divine awe the moment we entered it.
Graffiti outside the church
It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.
A bit of Jessica’s history:
When I was 15, I left West Texas to spend part of a summer with a family in France. At the time, probably no one would have predicted that the trip would turn into semesters, summers, months, and years spent in France and a lifetime of friendships. Apart from a few footsteps across the Texas-Mexico border (it was easy to cross in those days) at El Paso, I had never been out of the country. Although I was a seasoned traveler within the US, moving frequently between the mountains of New Mexico, West Texas, Minnesota, and upstate New York, it was a big deal for me to leave the country. West Texas was not a cosmopolitan place, and my ideas about the world included a bumper sticker that I proudly displayed on my science notebook: “Hungry? Out of Work? Eat an Environmentalist!”
France, with its high taxes and government-provided healthcare, seemed impossibly far from the libertarian ethos that pervaded my childhood. I think I actually had some vague idea that I would find people there physically suffering from a lack of democracy, maybe in bread lines or in secret meeting halls plotting revolution.
But even though I was still mostly thinking like a Wild-West Texan, something in me was stirring that could no longer be ignored. I had never quite fit in: a curiosity bigger than Texas made me restless and hungry for new experiences.
My parents knew this, and at least one other person did, too: my high-school French teacher, Mr Catania. I was lucky he was there; he was actually from France, and he was the person who had inspired me to study French in the first place. Not only did I learn excellent French from him, but he was openly agnostic, a rarity in my religious city. He also taught us about French existentialism and showed us cool foreign movies that we watched at another student’s house since the films were a little too racy for my otherwise-awesome Episcopalian school.
Mr. Catania could see I loved speaking French and that I was darn good at it. So, when a friend of his family wrote to him from the suburbs of Paris, asking about hosting an American near her daughter’s age, he recommended me.
The woman who wrote was Blandine, and her daughter, one of three children, was Marine. Against all odds, seeing as we had exactly nothing in common, Marine and I got along exceptionally. Thanks to my wonderful parents, who saw how much I needed this and let me go, I ended up spending a semester of my senior year at Marine’s public high school in Villebon-sur-Yvette, a suburb of Paris. All of my classes, from physics to philosophy, were in French, and I was determined not to speak any English, anyway. My trip was so unusual that it was featured in the local newspaper in Texas.
It was the beginning of the rest of my life: I could see that people lived with totally different ideas about religion, love, government, and it wasn’t a disaster. The kids were alright. Plus, I felt so free in France, and not just physically – I could take the train into Paris whenever I wanted and wander freely in the woods around Villebon – but also mentally: free from the constraints of my old certainties about life, I could be open to listen, watch, learn, and try on new ways of being (once, this included ordering a vodka-orange juice in a cafe at lunchtime on a schoolday, just because I could!). I started to be able to empathize with those who were different, instead of condemning. Somehow I had failed to learn this in church; I had to live it to learn it.
I became obsessed with the idea that it was something about the language that gave me this mental freedom. I felt I re-invented myself when I used another language. I would go on to explore this idea in linguistics classes at my university.
Marine came to the States with me many times – New York, California, New Mexico, West Texas, upstate New York – and I have been going back to France ever since, including spending a year working in Toulouse. I have kept in touch with the entire family, especially Blandine, my “French mom”, who became a friend, too, once I grew up.
Although I eventually pursued science as a career, French still pervades my life. All of my devices – my phone, my music player, my e-reader, my Gmail account – are in French. When I use an ATM machine, I select “French” as the language. To this day, nothing makes me happier than speaking French.
On our current trip, there was no question that we would go to France. I have been fortunate to make many French friends over the years, and we went to see as many people as we could, in Lyon, Montpelier, Toulouse, and Nice, with a few days to ourselves exploring Van Gogh’s old haunts in St.-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles.
After six months in SE Asia and a couple weeks in Turkey, France was the first time we were squarely in the Western world again.
The first few days were the strangest – I could understand everything everyone was saying on the street! Everyone was speaking French! I was ecstatic. And also disoriented – I was used to being in places where not many people would understand when I spoke French, so I kept speaking loudly and with abandon about our trip, forgetting that everyone could overhear and understand.
It was unsettling to be in the West again, although France is so cute, with its cobblestone streets, soaring churches, and tranquil green-hill countryside, that we also felt relieved. We had been in many places (Myanmar, Nepal) with harsh, gritty environments; France is simply a beautiful country. It was also our first time back in Christendom, and the familiarity of the culture was, in some ways, soothing. However, after all our travels, it was clear to me that, although France will always have a piece of my heart, my interests have shifted. What was once so exotic to my West-Texan imagination had become too familiar.
What matters now is not so much the country itself, but the people I know there. While it’s an extra bonus to get to indulge in wrapping myself in the French language, I would hope to visit Céline, Marine, Damien, and Blandine wherever they were in the world.
Our trip began in Lyon, where we visited Céline, a French psychotherapist I had met in San Francisco via Craigslist. She had been in Paris with us the last time we were in France, in 2010, the day after Jacob and I got engaged.
Among Lyon’s famous former residents are the Lumière brothers, who invented the cinematograph and became the world’s first filmmakers in 1894. We had to see a film while in Lyon, so we picked Gerontophilia, a light-hearted exploration of same-sex intergenerational love. C’était génial!
In Montpelier, we saw my high-school friend, Marine, who is now a jazz musician and sings and plays upright bass in a kick-ass all-girl jug band (among other things) called Banan’n Jug. Although years pass between each time we see each other, in many ways it’s like no time has gone by, and we fall into our old rapport. Marine will always be my French sister who showed me the ropes in my first foreign country.
Also, in the center of town, true to French style, we found a random art installation in the courtyards of old buildings.
I held a job in Toulouse, my beloved “ville rose,” for a year after college, and there I met Damien, who lived in the same apartment building. I used to see him sitting on his window ledge, reading, and one day I just decided we should be friends and knocked on his door. He’s an English teacher with an impeccable accent and a stunning knowledge of music, art, and movies. Although Toulouse is a smaller provincial French city, I find it particularly beautiful and fun. More than a decade later, I still adore it. And this time, we even got to be there for Pride.
Leaving Toulouse, we hung out in the castle city of Carcassonne for a few hours – we had played the board game, and I loved showing Jacob it was an actual place.
After a couple days in St.-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles (which will be for another post), we met Blandine and her partner, Michel, in Nice. We spent a little while in Nice, Cannes, and Sainte Maxime, and then headed deeper into Provence to the family’s summer house in the small, remote village of Claviers (which will also have its own post), where I hadn’t been since my first visit in 1996.
3 – 6 May 2014
Ever since we saw the hills and valleys of Cappadocia, with ancient churches and entire cave-towns carved into the sides, hiking elsewhere just hasn’t been interesting. Cappadocia, in central Turkey, has apparently been inhabited since 7500 BC(!). In addition to having the most awe-inspiring landscapes you could want, it’s also Turkey’s biggest wine-producing region and the site of some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication and wine production in the world. We went on a tour of one winery in Urgup that wouldn’t have been out of place in Napa Valley, CA.
The wine is pretty good, but it’s the relationship between geology and culture that draws tourists to Cappadocia. Tens of millions of years ago, a few volcanoes erupted and covered the area in ash. The ash compressed and became soft tuff, which erosion sculpted into a surprising landscape of porous towers (“fairy chimneys”) and weirdly wavy hillsides. As the hillsides erode, you can see new fairy chimneys in various states of emergence, like a time-lapse landscape on the scale of millions of years.
Early Christians found refuge in this region during the Roman empire’s persecution of the new religion. They carved out homes and churches in the relatively soft tuff, living in vast complexes inside the hills and chimneys and in sprawling, interconnected underground cities (up to 55 meters underground, or 8 floors) that housed thousands of people and included space for livestock, graveyards and wineries. People lived in the rocks until the 1800’s, and today some cave homes still exist, as well as many boutique “cave” hotels for tourists.
Wander around any given town in the region, and you can easily find yourself in some old caves, at the end of a street -wherever a town runs into a hillside, the regular houses just give way to houses inside the hills. We stayed up on a hill in small, peaceful Uchisar, which had expansive views of the whole region and gave a little window into village life.
The sad part about the region is that most of the frescoes we saw were covered in graffiti, and many of them had the eyes or faces of the figures scratched off (we never found out if the scratching off happened a long time ago or was as recent as the graffiti). It was really an exceptional level of defacement that we had not seen in any other tourist site across many countries. Additionally, every time we peeked over a ledge to look down into a rock ledge, or cubby, we found empty plastic water bottles. The bottles filled every spot that in any way resembled a receptacle. The plastic trash was a sad anachronism in the stone and earthen dwellings.
We got (mostly) away from the tourists and trash when we went to hike the entire 14 km Ilhara valley. For once, the guidebooks weren’t exaggerating whey they described it as the most beautiful valley around. The entire length of the valley walls is full of dwellings, hundreds of churches, and even a mosque cut into the rock, dating from the Byzantine. It is thought to be the first settlement of the first Christians who fled to the area to hide from the Romans.
The day we went to hike, it rained on and off, and hailed. We got caught in a huge downpour in a wide part of the valley – no caves were around for shelter. While we huddled, mostly wet, under a tree, an old Turkish woman who was working on a nearby field walked over to us. She wore a headscarf and a skirt – no raincoat or umbrella. I reached out my hand to help her up on the high ground under the tree with us, and then she unleashed a torrent of words in Turkish. It seemed like a proper scolding, but I just smiled at her and pointed toward our destination. Once she realized there was no hope of our understanding each other, she exclaimed, “ALLAH!” and headed out in the downpour, walking slowly down a path until she disappeared from sight.
31 May – 3 June 2014
“Why are you going to Konya?”
Everyone in Istanbul asked us this question when they learned of our travel plans.
Konya, a moderate-sized city in central Anatolia, is an austere and conservative place. Most women there wear headscarves, and the markets sell shapeless, dark-colored, long-sleeved dresses and long skirts instead of the short-shorts and fluorescent fishnet tops to which I had become accustomed in SE Asia. The idea of going out to eat hasn’t really caught on yet – most people still eat meals at home. Otherwise, there are mostly only fast-food restaurants. It’s not necessarily an easy place to be a tourist.
I was certainly nervous about being in an environment where non-veiled women were the minority.
We took a flight full of elderly Turks to Konya. The women all wore headscarves and wool sweaters and kept popping up out of their seats at prohibited times to converse with friends in the aisles. The flight attendants tried to keep order, but got shouted down and out-willed by these steely villagers who didn’t give a whit about airplane rules. I was impressed, and I also felt I could relate! After that flight, Konya didn’t seem so intimidating. Actually, no one even seemed to give us a second look there, although we certainly stuck out. Shopkeepers and hotel and restaurant workers were just as friendly as in Istanbul, and nobody bothered us on the street.
The city wasn’t much to look at, filled as it was with tall apartment buildings of unfortunate architecture and surrounded by a flat, arid landscape. But it had beautiful parks and had awesome urban planning – American cities could learn a thing or two from its bike-sharing and transit system, plentiful pedestrian under- and over-passes, and well-organized taxi network.
I gathered the courage to cover my head with my scarf and actually enter a couple old mosques (I had never actually gone into a mosque before), although I was surprised at how upset I felt about it. I didn’t like to linger inside: I kept thinking I was about to get run out for inadvertently wandering in a men-only area or being somehow disrespectful. I felt conflicted about entering a place that I felt disrespected me. It seemed so strange that my hair would cause offense while Jacob’s unruly mop could be free. I also felt sad as I realized that I had let my fear/anger/repulsion prevent me from taking the time to get a deeper understanding of these rules.
I had felt totally comfortable entering Buddhist and Hindu temples in country after country, but a mosque gave me pause. I had no problem reading Buddhist or Hindu holy books and participating in rituals, but when it came to Islam, I shied away. I had spoken with Buddhist monks and devotees of Hindu deities, but I had felt hesitant to approach followers of Islam. Turkey was highlighting the limits of my openness, and I understood how much I still had to learn.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
There was only one reason we had come to Konya: Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi and great mystical poet, who had settled there after escaping invaders in Afghanistan. Rumi and his followers founded the Mevlevi order of the Sufis, also known as the “whirling dervishes”. Rumi developed this spiritual practice of spinning, called sema.
We got to see a performance of dervishes in Istanbul (probably they were performers and not actual practitioners, but nonetheless it was magnificent). Watching the whirling, I felt a shock of recognition: spinning as a spiritual practice? of course. After sitting on a cushion six hours a day in Myanmar, kirtan and vinyasa in India, kundalini in Bali, and tantra on Koh Phangan…why not whirling as path to God? It was mesmerizing. So smoothly the male dancers moved and whirled, always to the left, with feet wrapped in fabric that slid effortlessly across the floor. Their heavy white skirts flared out, and, eyes closed and heads cocked, they turned and turned. For 10 minutes at a time they would turn (without spotting!), and they also rotated around a central point while turning, as the planets spin while also revolving around the sun.
I let it turn me, too, but I couldn’t help thinking: where are the women? Where were the women in Rumi’s world? He had two (consecutive) wives who bore him four children. And yet in Rumi’s life, it’s his ecstatic devotion to a male friend, Sems, that is the relationship held up as an example of divine love. And in the dance, only men.
The program we were given for the show gave a detailed explanation of Rumi’s life and work along with plenty of inspiration, but had nothing to say about the conspicuous absence of women among the musicians and dancers. We know that though Rumi was open-minded and tolerant for his era, he still followed an ascetic faith that regarded women and sexuality as a distraction from the spiritual path. At the same time, Rumi’s works are considered to be among the greatest Persian literature and remain widely read in the Persian-speaking world.
The Mevlevi order was outlawed after the birth of modern Turkey in the 1920s, as part of a sweeping policy that aimed to separate the new nation from traditional Ottoman culture and embrace secular, Western values (including women’s equality, which Turkey had before many European countries). In 2005, the Mevlevi sema “whirling” ceremony was proclaimed as a part of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
In Konya, we went to see Rumi’s tomb. The entire complex of mosque, monastery, and rose garden surrounding his tomb is a major pilgrimage site for Turkish Muslims. By Rumi’s express instructions, it is open to people of all faiths.
Rumi was a first love among the mystical traditions for us. Like many Western seekers, we have known and loved his poetry for years. Yet here again we find another case of seemingly original spiritual teachings from the East that upon closer inspection turn out to have been taken from their historical context and repackaged for contemporary consumption. It is often said that Rumi is a best-selling poet in the US, but it is better said that Coleman Barks is a best-selling poet, because as English readers we really only know Rumi through Barks. Barks neither speaks nor reads Persian; he rewrote the poetry from existing translations. Not many argue that his work isn’t deeply inspiring poetry, but is it Rumi?
At his gorgeous turquoise tomb, even among the strong devotional energy of the many followers who pressed together to pray in front of it, I felt…nothing. Among my confusion, sadness, fear, and anger about my right, and the right of all women to exist as full humans, I had lost the thread that connected me to this mystical poet.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath …breathing …human …being.
photos from sites in Istanbul: