Daydreams in the Ani ruins

The first time I saw Ani, it was grey-wet with rainclouds and bursting at the seams with wildflowers, and I felt like I had walked into a dream. Most of this medieval Armenian capital has either been destroyed or remains hidden under rolling grassy mounds. Only a few churches and a mosque punctuate the angle-less landscape. In the rain, seeking shelter in a ruined cathedral – the caved-in dome letting in a cylinder of rain – we were alone with the landscape and the swallows in the eves. We could have been the last people on Earth.

I came back to Ani again in clear morning sunshine, expecting some of that magic to wear off, burned off by the clear blue glare, diluted by the shuffling groups of tourists. But walking along the riverside cliffs, looking across to Armenia over the heads of a monastery chapel and a crumbling bridge, or brushing against the columns of a Zoroastrian fire temple – that feeling was back again. It hits me in the gut, squeezes my ribs. This place used to be filled with markets, children, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, construction, commerce, military processions. And now there is only the broken geometry of grudgingly restored buildings.

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

How can a city go from a bustling trading center of 100,000 residents to a forgotten ruin, from the City of 1001 Churches to a leveled plain of broken churches? I can see the spiraling steps of a minaret lying queasily on its side. The market stalls are stone outlines filled with poppies. The frescoes are fading. The rust and black checkered walls cave in. I close my eyes and imagine I have retro-X-ray vision – the hillocks are now houses, the churches stand side by side with palaces, the city walls are unbroken, the bridge is restored and the streets are busy with Silk Road traffic. I open my eyes and it is full of ghosts.

I can’t say why this place affects me so strongly, after all the ruins I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the vastness of it, or the isolation; or perhaps it’s the contentious history, its years of neglect. I watch the swallows burst through the narrow clerestory windows, strobing through light and shadow in the high nave. I want to be alone with the ruins, retreating to the past, both fearful and relieved about how everything changes.

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Motion blur impressions of Turkey

Turkish inter-city buses will deliver you to your destination, but the gently winding potholed roads will lull you into a doze and warp your views of the countryside, reality smudged around the edges, odd details jumping out.

In mountain passes, you will wonder if you are seeing sheep or scattered rockfall. You will pass queues of cows, tumbledown houses topped with satellite dishes, green fields, yellow fields, pink fields. You will challenge yourself to name wildflowers colors in Turkish, but despite the abundance of subjects, this game will be very short. You will attempt to make conversation with your assigned seatmate, always carefully chosen to be female, and to explain in awkward, uninflected strings of Turkish words why and where you are traveling. You will lapse into silence.

You will pass goslings watched over by women, geese herded by men; children, roadside, waving bunches of wild greens for sale. A man selling a fresh caught fish, and a few hundred meters down the road, a boy selling a smaller fresh-caught fish. Mosques and untethered horses and old weathered snow patches. You will count white-painted or stone-brown minarets. You could make it into a game, with a friend, but you are traveling solo, so your reward is uncontested access to the hazelnuts and dried apricots bought for the journey.

You will pass alien fields of craggy black lava stones extending into an early-morning mist. You will pass fields of Martian-red poppies as Mt. Ararat towers in the distance. Half asleep, you will be startled by a white minaret needle in scaffolding that you mistake for a rocket about to launch.

Starting over, in Turkish

I have studied Turkish for 2 months and lived here for 1. It’s an ongoing challenge:

A month into living in Kars, listening to the flow of Turkish speech still feels like drowning in a river, grabbing on to the driftwood of the few words I recognize. This is simultaneously exhilarating and deeply frustrating. Out of the stream of this incomprehensible language, I manage to catch familiar words, which feels like a minor miracle. But then I am stuck holding the orphan words with no context. The stream keeps flowing by and drowns me once again. Continue reading…

“Out of sight, out of…?”

A little over a month ago, when I wrapped up my life in San Francisco and moved to eastern Turkey, I knew that as long as I had an internet connection, I would never be too far. So what if I wasn’t there in person? With Facebook, Gchat, Skype, I would not forget or be forgotten, and if I was a bit remote for a while, so much the better for an eventual excited reunion.

I like living in Kars. Our house has a large kitchen, a sunny porch, chickens pecking in the yard. A castle overlooks the town center. Summer weather is mild, fresh produce is plentiful, and the hikes outside of town are painfully picturesque. I take many photos of the beautiful surroundings and of my travels further abroad. I enjoy my work. And yet… I cannot help the occasional sinking feeling that comes with realizing that I am quite far from my community. After two months studying Turkish, I can barely hold a simple conversation, limiting my socializing to the 3-4 English speakers in Kars, all connected to my company – a wonderful, but small, group. My narrow bridge to my US friends is through my computer.

A rainy afternoon in Kars

A rainy afternoon in Kars

Community is not just about physical closeness; it is about shared experiences. Despite responses to my Facebook posts, there is a frequently a sense of disconnect with the world I’ve left behind for these few months. Perhaps because my life here is so different that few people feel equipped to make small talk about it. Perhaps because they feel that they already know what is going on, seeing the photos.

Sometimes the illusion of connection, aided by Facebook, is so strong that it feels irrelevant that only a handful of people have a complete picture of my life here. “Didn’t that sunset photo of the castle get 20 ‘likes’? See, people care about me!” But Facebook is a false and selective medium of communication. I do not post pictures of minor daily annoyances, of the ankle-deep mud nor of our unsteady house appliances. I do not complain of the discomfort of not being able to take evening walks in a Turkish city without being stared at. I do not talk about the isolation of not speaking the language, the difficulty it causes in completing even simple daily tasks. I enjoy the challenge, but living here is not a cartoon of an adventure – it’s life, with all its difficulty and complexity.

This is not the first time I have felt emotional distance, caused by the physical. Living abroad in Spain at 16 for a year, I communicated with the now-quaint AIM Messenger with friends back home, who stayed up late just to chat with me once or twice a week. I spoke on the phone only to my parents, and rarely. There was no Skype, no Facebook, and I did not own a digital camera. I sent postcards and real printed photographs and emails. When I felt lonely, I read books, I talked to my host family, I daydreamed. Now, when I feel lonely, I log into Gchat and hope that someone is up late or up early. But conversations are dissatisfying when I cannot talk openly, when the answer to “how are things going over there?” is expected to be “amazing!” It is only rare close friends who ask that question honestly and expect a more nuanced answer.

It is hard to explain why I am here, and what daily life is like, and what cultural differences emerge. Problems and questions that plagued me at home do not disappear simply by moving to a new place, but in conversation they become secondary to the superficial exoticism of living in a new county. Explaining that takes work, and so does listening. I am not innocent – I, too, have lapsed in communicating with friends who move away, because of the amount of individualized effort it takes to be in touch with their new life. So I hold no grudges. But, stronger than ever, I feel I am overdue to write a batch of personalized emails. From this side of the world, I see that Facebook is no longer enough.