Place is not time

I can’t decide whether it is more jarring to come back to a place that has changed radically in your absence, or to a place that has changed little while you yourself have. This year seems to be an alternating series of changes and returns. Most recently, I took a weekend trip to Zaragoza, 11 years after I spent my junior year abroad there, and spent my two days trying to line up my memories of the place with the city as it is now.

It started with seeing my host family again, a couple who had made me a part of their lives for 9 months when they were only a few years older than I am now. To my eyes, they have changed little, but two new members have sprouted up in the family photo – their two daughter, 9 and 5, adorable troublemakers. This year, a new American host student lives in my old room. We have little in common, and yet there was a Back to the Future feeling of meeting my old self – or perhaps it was just nostalgia getting the best of me.

As we looked through the older daughter’s communion photos, catching up on years of milestones, my Spanish “dad” pointed out one the guests: his mother’s exchange student. I had a sudden flashback of Christmas dinner with my Spanish family, 11 years ago, in their pueblo – seafood stew, festive clothing, a room filled with extended family, and me, the sole American. Perhaps the nostalgia was for this feeling of being “adopted,” a fairy-godmother-like magic of being granted membership rights in a new family. I kept having to remind myself that I hadn’t lost that – here I was, still able to reconnect after so many years. I even had time for Sunday morning churros con chocolate with my Spanish grandmother, at her initiative. We chatted over our decadent breakfast, churrería windows steamed up against the cold, and I felt a bottomless gratitude for not being forgotten.

zaragoza muralsIn other ways, I fought the feeling all weekend of trying to squeeze into a much loved dress that no longer fit. Little has changed in this town – still the beautiful old center, extending out from the festively-tiled Basilica of Pilar, still the arches of the Paseo de Independencia and the looming Corte Inglés on my old route to school, the pastry shop I used to frequent still on its corner. I walked the streets as if in a Sunday paper spot-the-difference puzzle: a new tram, a few bright new murals, and, jarringly, a brand new Taste of America market (though surely I missed Russian food more, when I was here). How is it possible for a place to change so little and feel so foreign?

Time has a habit of erasing jagged edges, and I remember my year in Spain as a colorful montage: me in Aragonés dress at the Fiestas del Pilar, me in Romanesque churches and Gothic cathedrals, me hiking in the Pyrenees from fall foliage to snow, me digging into paella at elaborate weekend lunches with extended family. But it’s easy to forget all the time that linked the highlights. Many days, I was homesick, I felt like an alien, I couldn’t talk or explain myself, I was bored and lost. I idealize this year, I know, though I am not entirely wrong to. I was 16, and I had left my home and friends to live with a different family in a different language. The experience changed me. What is wrong is imagining that the feeling from my highlight-reel memory would flood back as soon as I stepped off the bus and into those familiar houses and streets. Place is not time, and I am 27, not 16, though I admit with some embarrassment that a part of me hoped that immersion in the place could recapture the time as well. The reality is banal: things change. For my next visit, it’s time to pick a new favorite bakery.

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Connection vs. mere communication, and the relief of common language during travel

I’ve been miming and two-word-sentence-ing my way through Turkey for the past three months, but never realized just how draining it was until I traveled through Georgia, and was suddenly, miraculously, able to talk to almost anyone. Suddenly, speaking Russian felt as extraordinary as having a Babelfish in my ear.

Our travels are made up of these small interactions with people that add up to the full picture of a place as much as, if not more than, the sights we see or museums we visit. It can be as simple as asking directions or joking about the weather, or asking about the culinary secrets of a babushka selling homemade cheese and mchadi at the market, or getting into philosophical debates with your homestay host about Georgian politics. I had heard some warnings about speaking Russian in Georgia, since the relationship between the two countries is tense, but I couldn’t learn more than “gamarjoba” and “madloba” on short notice, nor memorize the cursive Georgian script. As it turned out, almost everyone I spoke to was simply happy to talk, no matter what the language.

Among other interactions, a portly grey-haired woman sold me the most enormous green figs and the most delicious churchkhela I’d ever tasted. In conversation, she told me about her garden, her technique for making the grape syrup for the churchkhela, her pride in these sweets that she gouged me for, but that were worth it. Another time, asking for directions, an old man launched into a tirade about gas prices these days, and how could anyone claim that life was bad under Stalin, when you look at the inflation rates? Being able to stand up for myself with a sketchy marshrutka driver. Hapless attempts by a potbellied 50-ish Georgian man to hit on me. Hitchhiking with students and soldiers as we listened to Georgian folk, Russian rap and Lana del Rey. All of these portraits of Georgians would be lost to me without Russian.

I speak 3 languages; of these, English opens the most doors and smoothes over basic interactions almost everywhere I’ve traveled.  I could never advocate traveling only in countries whose languages you speak fluently  – you would never leave the house. Sometimes the language barrier is a challenge worth facing, where every real connection feels like a minor blessing, where you gain a newfound appreciation for the simplest tasks you accomplish. Other times, you cannot shake the feeling that you’re just skating on top of the iceberg, and missing some fundamental understanding. Coming back to Turkey from Georgia, I was plunged back into muteness. Aside from destinations and food orders, I can’t carry on a conversation, don’t understand jokes, often cannot distinguish between helpfulness and flirtation. And my travels in Turkey are tinged by that feeling of being on my guard, afraid of being lost, or being misunderstood. There are many places I want to go, still, whose languages I do not speak and am unlikely to ever learn. But, as I plan future solo trips, I feel I will lean heavily in favor of places where I can continue the conversation past the “what” questions and into “why.”

Solo travel tips for cowards

Levo League published my article with ideas for travelling alone, just as I came back from from 10 days in Georgia, my second solo trip of the summer. It just gets easier.

The next time you go on vacation, consider challenging yourself to a solo adventure —it may help you learn a thing or two about yourself and what you are capable of. You’ll come away with the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, and with a stronger belief in your own self-reliance. You may also realize that you are better company than you think.

Read the whole piece here.

Life as language mnemonic

I know few enough words in Turkish that I can remember when and where I learned many of them over the last 2 months. Some words float up unbidden and I cannot recall why I know them. But other words take on associations for me, like songs or scents, with certain scenes in my Turkish life. They are more useful than any mnemonic I’ve come up with so far.

Yumurta, the word for “egg”, is an appropriate start. It is the first word I used in my first Turkish errand. Unfortunately,  I learned torba and çorba around the same time. A one-letter difference leaves little margin of error; I hoped to tell the shopkeeper that I had my own bag (torba) for groceries – instead, I told him soup (çorba) was not necessary.

Dikkat – careful! – I learned attempting to cross the streets in Kars. I have since figured out that streetlights are observed at only 3 of the town’s intersections. The rest are decorative.

Yağmur, rain, I first heard standing at the top of the Kars castle, watching the sky broil and darken with a forceful May thunderstorm. The word, all vowel sounds, seemed too gentle for the rushing dark clouds heading directly for us.

Çamur is mud – an appropriate rhyme with rain. Both the word and the substance were hard to miss, walking through a village in sneakers and hoping to stay on my feet, nor trapping my shoes in the stuff. The village kids were delighted that I had increased my vocabulary by one with their help.

I learn the word for “cheese” not in a grocery store but through an introduction to our neighbors’ yellow cat, Peynir. I am relieved that I didn’t test my comprehension by calling “here, cheese, cheese!” to any local strays. To add to my animal confusion, I live with a cat named Baykuş = “owl”.

Dut is mulberry, my favorite childhood fruit. On a trip to Diyarbakir, I went for a walk with Couchsurfing friend, who took me below the city walls and along the Tigris River. We ate our fill from the trees we passed, hands stained violent purple-red. I’ve never been more motivated to keep learning.

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.

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.

“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.