Archive for March, 2010

Watching Spring Spring

Vondelpark Amsterdam

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon — or even, ahem, even a Masters level counseling graduate — to know that weather affects mood. We always talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka, how people get depressed in Seattle, but have we focused sufficiently on Spring Syndrome, the condition by which everyone is in a ridiculously good mood on the first few sunny warm days of the year?

I’ve had the privilege of being in London, Vienna, Prauge, and Amsterdam on those “first spring days” over the last couple of weeks. The parks are flooded, people are wearing far too few clothes for the barely-warm weather (especially in London. The British in spring are like Iowans in March. Forty degrees? Shorts!), and everyone’s smiling. Optimism abounds. In Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, so did Heineken and marijuana, but I think those were the tourists.

I want to capture that spirit right now. I don’t want the weather to dictate my attitude. I’m choosing today to diagnose myself with Spring Syndrome for the foreseeable future. Symptoms? A commitment to see new life everywhere I look, a blatant disregard for anything negative, and hope springing stereotypically eternal. No emotional April showers for me. Let the clouds be burnt off my the light of the sun.

It’s a new season, indeed.

Needing home away from home

I arrived in Amsterdam last night after six days on the road in Vienna and Prague. I was supposed to spend a couple days in Berlin before arriving here; instead I spent just a couple hours in a suburban train station there waiting for a connection.

It’s funny how your priorities change. The “task-oriented-check-things-off-the-list” part of me, who organised this week, wanted to visit as many places as possible, post as many photos as is conceivable, and show you all, “Hey. I’m doing this.”

Screw her. She is overly independent, not as tough as she looks, and really not all that fun to hang out with. (She’s the unredeemed New Yorker part of me. The kind that would push her way through South Bronx streets with nary a raised eyebrow. She does come in useful sometimes, I must admit, but mustn’t allow her to rule my life.)

I chose to listen to the “warm-fuzzy-I-love-people” part of me instead, especially when I got deathly ill in Vienna, and my place of refuge was a hostel room shared by seven other girls, two of whom were friendly, but none of whom were family. Warm fuzzy chick me said, “Hey, sweetie. Let’s go to Amsterdam early.” She was right.

From the moment the train crossed over into the Netherlands (made obvious not only by the signs seen from my window, but also by the presence of a new Dutch train crew, including a girl so blonde I wanted to hand her a bouquet of tulips and pair of wooden clogs), I felt at home. I have family here: urban family, spiritual siblings, but very real family all the same.

My success metrics to check off the list today? Love people well. Engage in relationship. Be at peace.

Check.

All Thumbs is Not So Bad

I just figured out that the WordPress interface works well enough on my BlackBerry. What a wonderful tool we have in the opposable thumb. Armed with one of these little babies (well, two) we can dish out the latest news to friends, disperse advice on the best coffee in London (Caffe Nero for lattes; Pret does a mean Americano), muse on the nuanced societal differences between the UK and the big colony I’m from, and grip tightly to suitcase that will equip me for all these journeys. All with a total in less than six inches of bone, muscle, and flesh. Pretty impressive when you think of it actually.


Technology is wonderful, no doubt. But the thumbs we have to use them? I’ll take them over a smartphone any day..

Censorship

How can Istanbul feel so modern, serve great wine, embrace many cultures, and have its own Time Out … yet have a government-ordered block on YouTube?

To be fair, I discovered this while trying to access a video about LOST, not political commentary or social justice statements. But an interesting reminder that there’s more to life here than what’s on the surface.

Call to Prayer

Blue Mosque

Istanbul is a fascinating city of paradox. East meets West, old meets new. I won’t attempt to do justice to writing about these paradigms, as others have done so with far greater insight than me. But one of the things that has fascinated me this week is the Islamic call to prayer.

The minarets of mosques were traditionally built  so the imam could chant the call to prayer from the highest point in the city, and therefore be heard. Today, the minarets are equipped with speakers that look like bullhorns. Five times a day, at times determined by the lunar calendar, the call to prayer is chanted across the city. There are so many mosques in Istanbul that you hear the call as if it’s echoing, coming from one mosque, then another, just a few moments behind its neighbor.

I’ve heard the call to prayer while at the Turkish bath, a bookstore, clothing stores, from friends’ homes, on the bus, and at the Istanbul Modern art museum, viewing  work that violated all sorts of Islamic prohibitions on representing the human image (not to mention nudity). I never cease to be surprised by the juxtaposition of the call, which feels like something from deepest history, against the modern circumstances in which I hear it.

But more than anything, I’m always struck by how sad, how haunting, the voice sounds to me; how such a mournful tone could be using words that declare the greatness of God. Sadness and declaring God’s greatness seem even less concordant than a mosque and a shopping mall on the same block. I recognize that my cultural lens has little experience with Islam, but still—I wish for a deep joy in this place, in this region, often.

Starbucks Angst

Starbucks

Herein lies my dilemma:

I am a traveler. I am not a tourist. Tourists are those loud Americans who take the double-decker bus and eat McDonalds in Rome. Travelers experience local culture, boldly try new things, and take uncommon pride in their useless yet intimate knowledge of knowing public transportation systems all over the world. (Ask me how to get somewhere in DC. Seriously, just try me.)

However…

I have been to Starbucks nearly every day since I arrived in Turkey. It feels dirty just writing it. I’ve been going to Starbucks because they have good coffee (well, here. I don’t drink it much in New York). I’ve tried Turkish coffee (see “traveler,” above), and it’s just fine, but kids, I like a good espresso. I’d go so far as to say “need,” but I have a deeply ingrained caution in using that word, as I hear my father’s voice in my head asking, “Do you NEED it, or do you WANT it?” Turks love their tea, and I’ve been drinking heaps of it. But a girl’s gotta have her coffee.

But why is coffee such an important experience for me? And here comes the insight gained in reflective time. Starbucks is a decidedly Western phenomenon, and you know what? I’ve really realized this week that I like the West. This may sound obvious, but as I’ve been spending time with foreigners who have chosen to live here — and love it — I’ve felt a bit of angst on this point. I always feel “white guilt” when I see non-Anglo places become Westernized, and wow,  Istanbul stands as the world’s the most glaring example of the intersection of cultures. Where East meets West, on every level. And I am planted on the West. I’m staying on the Asian side while I’m here, but my heart lights up when the bus pulls into Taksim. It feels like home to me. I counted six Starbucks on Istiklal Cadessi in a 20-minute walk. See, that would annoy me in a New York neighborhood, and I’d bemoan the death of the independent cafe. But here? It’s reassuring.

More on the East-meets-West phenomenon later, but for now, I’ll share that my resolution is this — I’m OK with being a Western girl. I still enjoy the East, embrace where I’m visiting with a whole heart, and appreciate the culture for what it is without trying to change it. And then I sit down to muse on the beauty of this amazing diverse world in which we live… with an espresso in hand.

Up in the Air

Preparing for this trip, I’ve had a vision for two things: I want to write, and I want to connect with people.

I want the kind of connections with people where we have a lasting impact on one another. Where we find ourselves smiling knowingly, one day years later, as something reminds us of that random moment we shared on the road. The kind of connection that seems much more divine than coincidental; much more meaningful than circumstantial.

Before my flight even left JFK, the trip began with that kind of connection. We conversed in the dance you walk with someone with whom you’re about to share the next 10 hours in a confined space. Reveal a little. Conceal a lot. Ask questions. Open up. Retreat. Create distance. Discover. Revelation. Connect. Surprise. You’re kidding. Actually, I should confess… Me, too. Wow. Huh…

It was actually too special, too perfect, too significant to share with you. It was a gift. It was an answer to prayer. It was, I believe, a harbinger of things to come.


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