It’s no secret that I have a (not-so-secret) long-distance crush on the city of Istanbul. Recently, I ran across the passenger list for my grandmother’s passage to the US on the SS Themistokles on 27 Jan 1915.
My World History is splotchy at best, so my best assumption is that they fled the wrong part of the world at the right time… Gallipoli was mere months away, WWI was still raging in Europe. The US was opening its arms to immigrants who brought innovators and craftsmen and laborers to its shores. They travelled from Jaffa, through Piraeus (and through Cleveland apparently), to eventually settle in Brooklyn. Country of origin at the time (though technically Palestine): Turkey.
So maybe it’s in my blood.
Fast-forward 100+ years and I’m making a hodge-podge breakfast sandwich with what I’ve found in my fridge and pantry shelves: Persian cucumbers, pita bread, some red pepper spread from a jar I picked up in a market somewhere, avocado, smoked herring… I have a momentary and wistful flashback to a fish sandwich under a pop-up tent by the banks of the Golden Horn, in the Eminönü neighbourhood, across from the spice market, this side of the Galata Bridge.
More than New York City, more than Boston, this place calls me.
Balık Ekmek is common street food here, it’s fresh grilled fish served on a hunk of fresh bread with lettuce and onions and lemon juice if you want it as a sauce. It’s not fancy, but it is a simple kind of wonderful. The vendors walk around touting cups of pickles with fermented cabbage and pickle juice that’s meant for drinking. Even for one who likes pickles, it’s an acquired taste.
As much as the taste and freshness of the mackerel is the destination, what completes the experience and makes one’s senses come alive are the contrasts and interminglings here: the sounds and the bustle of the waterfront, the smells of the roasting corn and chestnuts mixed with the salty-ish city air, the colours and textures of the fabrics, the redness of the Turkish flag.
I’m daydreaming this morning: an ode to a mackerel sandwich, perhaps. The spring is trying to bust through here. And as a fairly dull and dreary winter comes to a close, I feel that familiar tug to the east, a restlessness in my legs to go adventuring, a void in my spirit where spice markets and lutes and zithers and magic carpets seep into my dreams.
Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.
But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.
The waiting is the hardest part.
So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).
So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.
Once again, Nature as antidote.
In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.
Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.
The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.
Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….
With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.
And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.
One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.
Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!
My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.
Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!
And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.
Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.
The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!“
It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.
So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:
Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!
Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.
Yep. Travel plans are pretty much in limbo for the foreseeable future. So any pipe dreams for diving in April or hiking in May are certainly dashed. Don’t even know if my niece’s graduation over Memorial Day Weekend is a possibility at this point, even a month and a half away. They’ve closed schools here until May. We’re on semi-lockdown and there is still a shortage of toilet paper and dry goods in the grocery stores. It’s madness. It’s weirdness. It’s an unsettled quiet like I’ve never known in my lifetime, even after 9/11. And my stepmother put it well the other night: those events, 9/11, the Marathon bombing, Paris, Brussels…they all were time-boxed. There was a thing, it happened, then it was over and we moved to the healing phase. This thing, it has tentacles and 6300 legs, and we don’t know who it will touch next, or where (or if it has already come… or gone).
So if you’re like me, you may be feeling antsy and anxious and cooped up and sad and worried and exasperated and exhausted and near-claustrophobic, over-worked, under-slept, and really very laden. I’m often the go-to person, but in all honesty I am out of ideas at this point. I’m simultaneously managing my own isolation, my dog’s demise (he has recently been diagnosed with lymphoma) and a work cadence/velocity/schedule that I never signed up for. I’m feeling more than a little broken. So I was thinking that since most of the things that keep me sane and keep me, me are in the realm of wandering and pondering and investigating and, yeah, travelling… instead of a travel blog post, I’d craft an inertia post.
Except I really don’t know how to write about inertia, unless it’s about ways to avoid it! This point in time feels like a game of hopscotch through a fireswamp where the rules are more or less arbitrary and are subject to change without notice. But here goes: my guide for surviving this Corona-lockdown-madness without actually succumbing to it or being eaten by monsters along the way.
In no particular order:
Move. My goal: 10-15,000 steps a day; 10+km on nice days. Walking the dog. Walking on the treadmill. Walking around the flat at 11:30 in a zombie state to clock those last 550 steps before bed. They all count. And when the dog only wants to walk to the end of the block and won’t poop when you want him to, the steps still need to be stepped. As an old Rollerblade friend used to say, “if you stop, you die.”
Stop. As important as activity is, being still and letting go of all the news, chatter, stuff you just cannot control is maybe even more-so. Stretch. Read. Hug the dog. Sit in a quiet corner under a blanket with a space heater pointed at yourself, listening to the Liquid Mind channel on Amazon Music; close your eyes and feel the warmth and the music and know that there is an “other side” to this worldwide hell we’ve collectively entered. We’ll come out into the vernal sunlight as new hatchlings with a clean slate to fill. Stop. Breathe. Cultivate hope.
Engage. This is perhaps surprising coming from a card-carrying introvert. Here’s the thing that is most shocking to me: we introverts have built a lifestyle around choosing when and with whom to interact. We make these choices carefully and deliberately, avoiding gatherings and social interaction unless absolutely necessary or with intentionally-selected others. Social Distancing is really one of our artforms. But here’s what I’m learning about myself in these strange days… because I am careful about how I spend my social time, it tends to be infrequent but of high-quality. So now that I’m not even allowed that, I feel boxed-in; even more imprisoned within my own existence than I’ve ever felt. I’m not craving parties and social events, I’m craving connection. More specifically, I’m feeling isolated from those who make me feel like a better version of myself. And more-so because I’m not allowed to see them. (N.B.: Introverts do not like rules imposed over their own social rules.)
So, yeah, engage. But now, electronically.
It doesn’t feel quite right and it’s not in any way solving my need to be free and adventuresome with those I care about, but I’m doing yoga online with my teacher of 12+ years. At work, even though my team is distributed across the globe, we’re super-connected. We’ve been doing more meetings with our webcams set to “on” these days, and it’s nice to see the faces of those I interact with so often (just have to do something about the quantity of meetings…). I’m still not talking on the phone because I hate it, but the WhatsApp calls with those closest to me are a bright light in my day.
I said this to a friend the other day: I feel like those that remain in our lives after this thing is done with us are the only ones that really matter.
Hope. Life is upside down right now for most of us, trying to bodge together some semblance of normal today and to figure out where to go next with this invisible thing that shatters the boundaries within which we feel safe. Work, friends, family, school… Fences have been erected between the different parts of our lives, forcing us to get creative, think differently, look at our social structures with a fresh lens, reassess priorities, act more humanely. These weeks, although stressful and overwhelming, I’ve observed more simple kindnesses, put more faces to names on those videoconferences, heard more please and thank yous, and seen collaboration like I’ve never seen before.
There’s a glimmer of hope. That we’ll emerge from our coccoons on tentative new wings, more careful and more kind and more aware of the fragility of the present.
Observe. Quiet times afford us the opportunity to watch and to really listen. I’d love to be in one of these madhouse places that have for the moment gone silent: Delhi, Istanbul, Bangkok even… A place where if you stop the modern madness it will take you back in time. Where the migratory birds can be heard and the blue skies dawn like a new era. The scent of spices and flowers and home cooking emerge from behind the smog. The green shoots of spring, visible in a quiet and locked-down new reality.
But I’m here, trying to mesh the sadness of my home with the frenzy of my work with the uncertainty of all That out there… I’m checking in: with myself to make sure I’m okay as I get up each quiet day; with my dog to make sure he’s breathing, and then that he’s enjoying these last weeks he’s got here; with those close to me (and those also slightly broken), because connecting with them these days helps me feel like there’s still an opportunity to make a difference even in a cattywampus world.
The croci have come, as have the daffs and the forsythia… the songbirds are making their way back, and the undertones of spring wafts in the air. There’s hope. There’s springtime haiku. Travel will happen. Projects will end. Hugs will be allowed once again.
The crazy thing in all this is the silver, or maybe green, lining. Fewer cars, less unnecessary air travel, more walking, ironically-less excess. There’s a glimmer of hope that maybe we’re injecting more peace or less ugliness into the world by coming together on such a universal level that the batshit crazy powers that be won’t be able to stop it.
Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.
Part I: Dubrovnik
I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).
I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:
The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.
Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.
First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.
No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.
But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.
*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!
I’ve posted this piece on my Medium page, as it crosses that fine line between travel writing and essay. But here’s a preview, linking some of the stuff that rambles through my brain on any given Wednesday morning to travel thoughts, life lessons and pre-liftoff considerations:
I’m drinking honey-sweetened green tea with mint, a taste for which I acquired in Morocco. The mint leaves, bought at a local farmstand and dried in my kitchen. The images of desert campfires and Sahara dunes come back when I drink this brew…