Monday, September 01, 2014

Shanteniketan

On the outskirts of the jungles of West Bengal, I awoke to the sounds of the pitterpatter of rain in the trees; it was all a mirage, the sky was clear and blue and it only the residue rains from the night's monsoon still trickling down the large leaves.

I spent the day dreaming of new windmills.

That evening, I became a goat-whisperer, as I shielded a kid from a pack of trouble-making dogs. I can only imagine what the local thought when they saw a white ghost carrying a black goat down the village road.

Across the wide monsoon skies, the sun set gold, peach and salmon pink over the green mid-harvest rice fields.

The night descended over West Bengal like a purple wine benediction, and the communion night was filled with the cricket symphony.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Flags

In Dhaka, I have seen three ubiquitous flags: the Bangladesh flag (duh), and also the Brazilian and Argentine flags. A very stirring reminder of the power of football to connect the world.

Free lunch

Whoever said there is no such thing as a free lunch? My hotel staff in Dhaka was so impressed that I was unfazed by the rolling blackouts, and that when the hot water heater broke I simply asked for a bucket and some boiled water in the kettle to bathe in, that they treated me to a free lunch at the hotel's restaurant. Chicken Vindaloo never tastes so good as when it's free.

The King of Pop lives on

In one of the more surreal nights, I spent the evening on a radio station in Dhaka, Bangladesh that was doing a tribute to Michael Jackson for the King of Pop's birthday. 

The station had an awesome Bangladeshi band in studio doing soulful, acoustic renditions of the King of Pop's music; I was invited to discuss the upcoming Next Level program in Dhaka, cultural diplomacy through music and how music connects us. I called MJ the original musical ambassador.

The pièce de résistance was the whole studio singing along to "Heal the World." 

After the show concluded, we sat around the studio eating American-style Chinese food (Yes, apparently we have co-opted Chinese food) and drinking whiskey (still haven't been to a Muslim country where I couldn't get a drink) as we watched clips from the BMW Film Series. 

As it got late, I bade the party goodnight and wandered into the naked, dead streets of Dhaka. The seething, choked city was serenely peaceful in the still of the night. I wandered through the empty streets until I found a bicycle rickshaw to speed me home. As I was bargaining over the rickshaw, two ladies appeared. In chivalrous fashion, I offered it to the ladies--only to realize they were ladies of the night and wanted me (and my money) not the rickshaw. On that note, I hopped on the bike chariot and sped away.

I got stopped once at a police checkpoint, by some guards after backsheesh. They pointed out that the rickshaw did not have functioning tail lights (!). I laughed. They made the international sign to grease the palm. I laughed harder. I smiled and offered to bribe them with a clove. They laughed back. I gave them a salute and offered "khoda hafiz" (Go with God). They smiled, and sent me on empty-handed.

I returned to the hotel with the power out, and wrote this all in my journal by LED flash light.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Love Changes Everything

Love Changes Everything

Love changes everything.

Love makes black hair into a sea of raven ink.

Love makes brown eyes into a forest of mahogany. 

Love makes soft ivory skin into warm marble kissed by the sun.  

Love makes the soft caress of fingernails on my back into a thousand splendid shivers. 

Love changes everything.

-Eric Hayes

Ferguson

I saw the images from Ferguson yesterday while in a small market shop in Olympus, and I got so angry.  Tanks and riot police in the streets.  WHAT THE FUCK! I watched with my face buried in my palms.

Two articles that have made me alternately laugh and cry:

-How we'd cover Ferguson if it happened in another country

-The Onion's tips for being an unarmed black teen

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Athens Market; Akropolis

No sooner had I decided to stay put and made the proper Greek arrangements to do so, I was rewarded by stumbling upon an open-air market just a street below me.

Wandering through the market (Athens)

After meandering through the market, I caught the bus downtown to get some lunch and work done.  I stopped for an incredible kebab in Monastiraki, and sipped a katamba as I worked on projects.  Such is my vacation--working on the things that went by the wayside.

It was getting hot in the outdoor patio, so I departed for a fun little cafe to finish my work.

I met Marianna in Syntagma Square at the proper time (not 11am, not 12pm, but 4pm) and we hopped the subway to the Akropolis base.  We sat out chatting and sipping ouzo as we waited for her friend Chryssa to join us.  I explained to Marianna how the Targaryeans had built the Acropolis to honor their victory over the Andals.  I fed the sparrows and pigeons potato chips as we sat out in the afternoon heat.  Chryssa, an architect joined us for a coffee.  After Chryssa came, and we waited for the afternoon heat to break a bit, we headed on to the Akropolis.


Both Chryssa and Marianna were able to get in for free (student pass; architect courtesy), but I had to cough up 12 euros for the entry.  Not too bad, and the pass is good for 5 other sites around the city.  We began our climb up the mountain top.  Chryssa the architect was able to point out little structural differences and discuss the various styles on the site.

 We passed the Roman amphitheater, and the city began to open up below.  The climb did not take long, and I snapped a lot of pics on the ascent.  We quickly reached the summit of the City of the High Place.  The view was spectacular.  I wandered in and out of the ruins.

I crossed the gates into the summit with the ruins of the Parthenon, the temple to Athena on the top of the Akropolis.


Unfortunately, much of it was under renovation, but it was still pretty spectacular to see.  And the views across the city were magnificent.


I ducked behind a rope to get to a better section for some photos and got a scolding by a security guard.  Meh, I shrugged.







The best part was wandering over to the side of the walls where the winds came rushing up, and the sounds of the cicadas echoed off the marble walls.
We began our descent down to visit the Agora and Temple of Hephaestus.  The temple was well preserved and fascinating.   But after enough antiquity, we departed for a restaurant that had a phenomenal view of the Akropolis. 
 We sat out eating a wonderful mezze of pureed fava beans (Greek humus), tzatziki, zucchini fritters, grilled mushrooms and grilled haloumi.  We washed it down with cold beer as the restaurant blasted some great American blues music and the night enveloped the city.




Later we wandered through the area, and I climbed up on top of a fence post to get a pic of the incredible huge moon hanging over the lit Akropolis.  Unfortunately, I am a better climber than photographer because the shot was simply beyond my skills.  But I had fun anyway climbing to the top of the fence post and taking in the view.

We grabbed some delicious gelato for dessert, and sat out in a lil bar where we sipped rakimeli (hot honey brandy) and enomeli (hot spiced wine) as the music from the island of Crete bellowed out of the establishment.  The music was hauntingly beautiful and familiar like some Levant mournful cry, as Marianna and I discussed the Greek state of affairs and how difficult things had become.  As we headed back in a taxi, Fortuna shared her gift as the taxi driver was a Greek New Yorker whose fortuitous encounter helped bring peace to the evening.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Strolling around Athens for Free

After my Marathon day, I slept blissfully late.  I was going to slough off the day, but rallied in the afternoon after a nap to make my way down to the Athens Free Walking Tour.  I have done similar tours in Brussels and Bruges, it is a fun way to see the city and get a lot of info on the place I am in.  Basically, the tour is free but it is expected that you give the guide a tip.  Usually something between 5-10 euros depending on how good the tour was.

I met the tour at 5pm next to the Acropolis Museum.  On the tour was a smattering of nationalities including people from France, Singapore, Canada and Ireland. I was the only American, generally not a surprise.

We received a lil info about the tour and Greek history before we embarked down to ruin of the Temple of Zeus, of which construction was initially begun in the 6th century BC, but was not finally completed until the Roman period by Hadrian.  It was the largest temple in Greece during the Roman period, but by the 3rd century AD was sacked by Germanic barbarians.


 In front of the fallen colossus was Hadrian's arch, which opened up from below up to the Akropolis on high
 From there, we ventured on the Panathenaic Stadium, where the Pheidippides collapsed after his sprint across the plains of Marathon.  It was once where the Olympics took place.  Now it is where the Athens marathon ends, and also where the torch ceremony for the Olympics begins. 

We continued on to the Zappaeion, which was build by the Zappas brothers to hold the headquarters of the first modern Olympics.  It also played host to the fencing competition in the first modern Olympics.

From there, we wandered through the lovely public gardens of Athens and over to the Parliament (Factory of Corruption...) to see the soldiers standing guard.  The soldiers gave us their best rendition of Monty Python's silly walk as they strutted for the changing of the guard.

We passed back through Syntagma Square, as a protest for Kurdistan passed by.  We passed down to the Athens Basilica, with its beautiful blue marble.  Unfortunately, the church has been under construction for more than a decade after an earthquake so it did not make for good photo materials.

We then continued down to Monastaraki, a main plaza in Athens.  It was fascinating because there was an old Ottoman mosque in the foreground, following by Hadrian's library in the midground and the Acropolis in the background.

We ventured a little further uphill to get the last of the tour amidst the day's fading light.  I got a nice shot of the palace of justice just near Mars Rock, where the Apostle Pavlos preached to the Athenians to lil success at the time.  In the valley below, sat an old temple of Hepaestus, the God of the Smith.

On the whole, it was a great tour.  Well worth the price of admission (and the tip).  I learned a lot about Athens, and would recommend it for anyone visiting this fair city.






Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Staying Put in Athens

Last year, when I was on my sabbatical in Paris I planned to stay for a month in the city of lights and then go on the road through Belgium, Holland and Germany for the next month.  But something strange happened.  I loved Paris so much after a week that I couldn't bear the thought of leaving after a month.  I liked my little studio in the servants quarters, and the city surrounding it that brought so many questions to the fore, so I planted roots. I scrapped my peripatetic plans, and signed on for another month in fair Paris.

It was the right decision then, as my time in Paris was one of the most meaningful periods of my life.  I got to do the reading, writing and thinking that I had been craving, and I made a wonderful network of friends that became so dear to me.

Nearly a year later, the same phenomenon has happened.  I had planned on staying in Athens for approximate 10 days, then I was going to go backpacking around the islands.  But after so many days on the road, and finding my first place to call my own since Paris, I suddenly had the idea that I wanted to stay put.  The prospect of island-hopping in the high tourist season just didn't feel appealing, and I liked having my own small place to cook lentils, sip red wine and call my own as I adventured in Athens.

So for the second strange time, I have decided to stay put.  It is quite contrary to my itinerant nature, but it feels right.  So I am now spending a third week in Athens, and will venture out to the areas in Attica to do some exploring closer to home.

Marathon

Sunday came, and I went to fetch my fixed jeans from the woman at the bakery.  At first, she wouldn't accept any money for it.  "I have sons," she said.  I collect mothers all around the world--of course I found a Greek mom.  But I wouldn't let her off the hook of accepting my thanks, and finally convinced her to take the 5 euros for her handy work.  She tried to force feed me spanikopita, but I escaped with just a boureka filled with cheese.

I headed over to the metro to catch it north to the suburbs to meet Marianna.  It took me a lil bit to find the station, whose tracks I could see but whose entry remained hidden.  I got to the station, but did not have change to buy a ticket and there was no open ticket shop.  I tried to get change at the kiosk outside but the guy was not willing to break my 20 euro note even with a purchase.  The train pulled in, and I decided to just hop it.  I tried to buy a ticket but it just wasn't working out.  

The train snaked north on elevated tracks, and I stared alternately out the window at the graffiti and in the car for a ticket checker.  I finally pulled into the station and booked it out of the car and station, lest I get hit with a fine for train-hopping (like in Paris, when I did buy the mo-fo ticket!). I left the station, and as I was taking the escalator down, I happen to see a ticket checker heading the opposite direction.  I think I turned white.

Marianna snagged me at the metro, and we headed out to pick up her friend Costa, who had 4 small cats with him to transport to his parents place in Marathon.  We drove across the suburban Athens landscape, which continues to remind me of Southern California for its architecture and landscape.  The cats were not happy with the ride and meowed something fierce the whole journey.  


We arrived to Marathon, dropped the cats and headed to the Temulus of Marathon.  We visited the monument to the great battlefield at Marathon.  I read through the description of the day and battle, and got chills looking out into the desiccated grounds spotted with  brown eucalyptus trees.

Marathon was pivotal in that it stopped the first Persian advance into Greece, and proved that the insurmountable juggernaut of the Persian Army could indeed be checked with the right strategy and tactics. But I had to laugh a lil at the perspective descriptions of the significance, bellowing that the victory was one of Greek Democracy over Persian Despotism.  I explained to my Greek friends that while yes perhaps it was indeed a victory for such things, under the Persian Empire, the Jews fared far better and had far more tolerance of religion than when the Greeks subsequently came to rule.

We walked through the hallowed ground to a giant mound that bore the graves of countless Greek soldiers, and I simply listened to the dry winds rustle the leaves of the trees.

So, when Persia was dust, all cried, "To Acropolis! 
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due! 
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!" He flung down his shield 
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the fennel-field 
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through, 
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay, 
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, - the bliss! 
-Herodotus'

Νενικήκαμεν, we are victorious



We circled back to a giant dam to have coffee over the beautiful lake.  The verdant landscape ringed the blue lagoon.  We sipped coffee as we watched a helicopter swoop in to take water to put out a brush fire.

Afterwards, we went for lunch on the sea for a wonderful meal of lil fried fish covered in lemon juice; sauteed greens; garlic tzatziki; lil sardines swimming in oil and garlic, and crusty Greek bread to sop the oil; french fries to mop the tzatziki.  We sipped white wine and threw the leftover lil fishies to the stray cats.  The cats had absolutely no interest in the garlic fish. 





From the Euboean Gulf off the Bay of Marathon, we spent the evening on the beach watching the grand luminous moon rise and the stars shoot across the wine-dark skies.

As I previously mentioned, Greece reminds me of Southern California, and no much more so than on the beach.  The landscape reminded me so much of SoCal beaches, and it added to the feeling when a nearby group of beachgoers started blasting Sublime.

In the wine-dark seas, I went for a swim in the waters that once anchored the Persian navy set to sack Greece.  In the warm waters, I swam in solitude, listening to the waves crash softly on the sandy shore.

As befitting any good Greek story, we ended the night over 2am gyros and a pitcher Greek wine.



Monday, August 11, 2014

Pallas Athena

On a warm Saturday, I meandered about.  I tried to get some jeans with a hole sewn up at the laundry place I went the day prior but they didn't provide such services.  I walked a lil further on to the bakery where I received the fritter prezent the day prior to get some kafa hellinco.  I chatted in broken English with the lovely woman and her husband, and we discussed a Greek-English lesson exchange.  It dawned on me that this woman could probably sew so I showed her the jeans with a hole.  She promptly brought me a needle and thread and sat me down to sew it.  I explained that I would rather pay her to do it, and get it done right.

I dallied a bit in my apartment, then headed down to Syntagma Square to meet Marianna--a friend of my friend Justin who convinced me to go to Greece in the first place.  I arrived a lil before noon to meet her in the middle of the square in the fountain.  About ten minutes passed, when I had the sinking feeling that I was supposed to meet her at 11am, not noon.  I had no Geek SIM card for my phone, and no way to get on the internet to check but I was pretty sure I was off an hour.  I was about to go find an internet cafe to profusely apologize when I saw a girl on her i-phone.  I debated going over to ask if I could use her i-phone for a second, when she came over to me.  She recognized the Gandhi t-shirt I said I would be wearing.  It was indeed Marianna, and i was indeed an hour off.  I was amazed she had waited, but she simply figured I got confused.  I promised to make it up to her over coffee.

We headed down from the square through the pedestrian streets and over to where I caught my first glimpse of the Acropolis on high.

We wandered through the hills of Athens, through picturesque old neighborhoods before the midday heat became too much and we stopped at a cute taverna for coffee.  The Geeks drink a wonderful iced coffee called Cappuccino Freddo, which is iced espresso with a rich milky froth on top.  We sat under the canopy chatting about life in Greece, New York (where she had studied) and life on the road, and all sorts of movies, literature and myths as we sipped refreashing gin-and-tonics.  As the afternoon dragged on, we got a tad peckish and ordered a veritable feast of Greek dishes for lunch. 
We had an amazingly wonderful Greek feast on a lazy Athens Saturday.  Crete Salad of onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and feta on a rusk; fried cheese covered in fresh lemon juice; spanikopita. To follow, Greek yogurt covered in honey and crushed walnuts and pistachios; sweet black Greek coffee and a glass of milky white ouzo.
   
After the long day's journey into afternoon, we finally set back out and went walking through the quiet city.  Like Paris, Athens is empty in August as all the Athenians have taken their vacay and fled for the islas.  Many shops lay closed, even more so since it was sunday.




Along the way, I spied a monument that struck me as interesting. Only after, did Marianna explain to me its significance:  it was to mark the horrendous crime that was the population transfer between Greece and Turkey.  The idea was to transfer Greek Christians living in Turkey to Greece, and Turkish Muslims living in Greece to Turkey.  Good idea in theory, but the reality was the transfer of Greek Muslims to Turkey, and Turkish Christians to Greece--neither of whom had any cultural or linguistic connections to the larger community, merely the same faith.  It was a horrible action in practice, with who communities uprooted into years of dispossession.

But i digress.  We continued meandering through the empty city until we found the wonderful hipster-ish bar 6 Dogs with its huge outdoor patio.  We sat out until late under the hanging lamps, chatting and sipping weisbeer.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Peace of Paris; The Peace of Athens

Sitting out in the twilight of the evening on my deck, I am finding peace that I haven't had since Paris.

There is not much I need, just a lil studio space; a European capital that is tolerant enough to let me enjoy a beer on the street in the sun's setting light; a small kitchen with a hotplate to let me cook a pot of lentils with red onions, zucchini, green peppers and mushrooms--simmering in cheap red wine; cheap red wine to drink in the night's purple resplendence.

This is the first time in a while where I had space to read, and write, and think. And Athens, like Paris, loves its thinkers and romantics.  I may stay put and skip the island-hopping for now.

And the beauty of this Peace of Athens is that I can finally put my Peace of Paris in perspective.  I really haven't had the right space to put my Hemingway days of Paris into perspective until now.

This is the first time I have had my own space really to me in just about a year.  It really doesn't take much for me to be happy or find peace...

From Beograd to Athena

As any good Greek tale begins, one should start in medias res.  But I don't know which middle to begin in.  Here I am stuck in the middle with Athena.

I find myself in Athens for some much-needed, much earned vacation.  I have been running hard since March.  From India to Holland to Bosnia to Serbia to Venezuela to India to Brazil to Serbia to Greece.  It has been a long, convoluted and wonderful road that I have traversed, and it has left me frayed.

I can scarcely start beginning to describe the wonderful, incredible program I had in Serbia, and how much I came to love that country and those beautiful people. It was wonderful and meaningful, exhausting and challenging.  After Belgrade, we had a mini-NL Academy in the gem of a city that is Novi Sad, and I can do no justice to summarize it or the return to Belgrade so I simply, sadly must move on.

All I can do is start with the morning.  I woke up in the early dawn to check myself out of my regal room in the Hotel Rezime Crown.  I had sent the NL Team Serbia off the morning prior at the crack of dawn, much to all's chagrin. I returned by car with Alexsander, the owner of the shuttle service that had sped our team to the airport.  We spoke of all that had been lost with Yugoslavia.  He spoke of the loss of humanism in the Balkans.  "Before," he said, "we had things, we got by and money was not the object of life. Now we cheat and cut throats for nothing.  It was not like this in the old days."

I returned to catch some much-needed sleep.  I woke up late in the morning, and treated myself to a much-needed massage.  Even the masseuse commented on how much stress I was carrying in my back.

Anshul and I met Ivana and Marija for a late lunch in Zemun, a historical area connected to greater Belgrade
Zemun is known for its fish restaurants sitting on the river Sava.  We sat out in the tranquil restaurant Saran, and tried to put the whole experience in perspective.

In a lovely, slow lunch, we ate domestic Serbian cream cheese covered in chopped chive and olive oil with fresh bread.  I sipped rakije and rose as I ate scrumptious crispy grilled perch.  We were joined by Serge--a famous Serbian actor who is a friend of Ivana.  Serge had lived in LA and NY, and we spoke of the craziness of Lalaland.  He was amazed that I lived in LA for 2 years without a car.  The day wasted away in a slow fashion that I hadn't enjoyed in a long while.

Later that night, after I had dropped off the last of my charges, I stood outside my hotel with Clare- the Embassy intern who I helped convert from security to PD.  The street symphony played Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and I conducted the symphony with my fingers as I marveled that I was now DONE.

For dinner, I grabbed a slice of my favorite pizza from a place called Fresco.  They make a slice called "Verde" with mushrooms, a dollop of pavalka (thick Serbian sour cream) and a black olive sitting on the creamy goodness.

I turned in early for my morning departure and out of shear exhaustion.

I awoke early the next morning and wandered the empty streets of Belgrade, looking for espresso as I munched my bread stuffed with soft cheese.  I bade goodbye to the lovely hotel staff.  I always find it such a compliment when folks who work in transient professions take to you.  One dear friend at the hotel went as far as to give me a gift-- the masterful "Bridge over the Drina"  by Ivo Andric.  I was touched.

I departed the hotel, and found a grey Mercedes waiting to ferry me to the airport.  Alexsander had liked me so much, he sent me his luxury car for transport.  I sat in the back of the grey Mercedes as we burned through the city covered in grey fog and sped to the airport.

I cleared the ticket counter and customs, and killed time drinking espresso and the last of my rakije as I waited to depart my dear Serbia.

We flew out of the grey and into the blue horizon.  I slept for a while, and woke up to work on a new grant I am pitching.  I have vacation coming, but not on vacation quite yet.

We flew over the azure of the seas that line Greece.  We descended past fields of verdant grey, green olive groves, and I felt that wonderful nervousness that I get when arriving to a new place, a new adventure.

I cleared customs, grabbed my things and figured out my way to the bus to the center of the city.  I stared out the window at the vast Greek horizon that seemed to stretch forever.  The azure of the skies was as rich as the azure of the seas, as the bug fat Greek clouds floated overhead.  I passed a fortuitous sign that heralded my arrival: a sign pointing the way to Μαρκοπούλου (Marco Polo)..

The bus sped through the outskirts into the city.  I began trying to size up the differences between greater Athens and greater Belgrade.  While greater Belgrade looks old Soviet, greater Athens looks liked suburban California.

We finally reached the Syntagma Square and I hopped a short cab ride to my apartment.  I met my landlady Eurdyice, who did not speak much English but enough to get me settled.  The studio was small--not even the size of my bathroom in Belgrade. But it was fine, with a nice lil terrace.  I settled in, and had a small battle with two cockroaches in the cupboard below the hotplate that were large enough to be Greek hoplite soldiers.

After settling in, I went to grab some lunch at a nearby student district.  There I found the best gyro of my life.  The chicken was succulent; the tomatoes and onions crisp; the tzatziki smooth and creamy.  And the pita, wow.  It was practically a fried bread in the form of a pita.  It was incredible.  With my mouth full, I gave the waitress a big thumbg up, and she just smiled and said thanks in Greek.

After a much-needed nap, I went out wandering down the main street Pattison.  I suffered a bit through culture shock, as I missed my dear Belgrade.

But I rallied at a small restaurant, where i drank ouzo and ate small grilled sardines swimming in oil with crusty Greek bread.  I listened to the Greek patrons speak a language that struck me as an something sounding like an unintelligible Castilian Spanish.  That gravely Mediterranean voz from the throat, coated with the Mediterranean winds and too many cigarettes.

And what happened to all the gorgeous women?  Don't get me wrong, I have seen some beautiful Greek girls that Artemis has blessed.  I have seen a number of beautiful Greek girls with their hair ribbed in braids that remind me of statues of Antiquity.  But the shear number of gorgeous women that Serbia offered is just not here.  So it goes

I walked back for a bit, but was tired so I went to catch the bus.  I bought a ticket from a Pakistani clerk at a newspaper stand. His eyes lit up when I thanked him in Urdu.

But alas, I caught the wrong bus and it turned a different direction.  I hopped off, and snuck my way on the next correct bus.  I turned in and slept late.

So begins  My Big Fat Greek Vacation!  

The Mediterranean Rockowers

In the Mediterranean, it is said: with a Greek, they are always right; with a Turk, you are always wrong; with an Israeli, you don't know what you are talking about.

 Among the Mediterranean Rockowers, Ellen is the Greek, I am the Turk and Harry is the Israeli.


That's the way the world goes round

I had been swimming in a bit of culture shock from moving from Belgrade to Athens.

While Belgrade felt cosmopolitan, Athens feels a bit more staid and gritty.  Belgrade felt like a Balkan Paris or Balkan Vienna with its semi-MitttelEurope charm; Athens feels far more Mediterranean like Tel Aviv or Alexandria with that more Levant feel.  

While Athens has significantly more diversity, as I saw Filipinos, Pakistanis and Africans from a variety of countries, many just seem glumly ambling about like Athens was some way station they were stuck in.

And while the Serbs had an initial warmth when they caught my smile, the Greeks looked a bit more Gorgon (stone-faced) and suspicious as if I could be a sichameni Turki (blood-thirsty Turk).  But I am slowly learning that it is a thin veneer of suspicion, and the Greek poker face changes on a drachma once they establish you are not indeed a blood-thirsty Turk.

I could offer a few examples, like the man at the laundry shop who recognized that I didn't have any other clothes other than the ones I was dropping off and thus did my laundry on express for the price of regular, or the long purple-clothed, long white-bearded priest who blessed me in the morning light as we walked by, but I will expound on just one.

As I was walking back from dropping off my laundry, I stopped to get a cup of coffee from an old lady at an old bakery.  First, I asked for espresso, then Turkish coffee, then got it right and asked for kafa hellenica.  She pointed to all three, and laughed if I wanted them all in one pot.

In broken communications, we established the proper sugar and strength of the rich Greek coffee.  She took the old bronze coffee briki (pot) off the wall and started simmering my coffee.  As it began to boil, she slid the glass case open and with her silver tongs grabbed a round dough fritter sprinkled with sugar: prezent.

I took one bit and melted in a sea of warm fried dough and cool vanilla custard in the center.  It was marvelous.

Orreoh, she said.  Very Good.

Very, very good.

I bade her ciao, and the old woman replied, ciao bambi (Goodbye child)

With gratitude and a smile as big as the Aegean, I wandered out of her little shop with my cup of black Greek coffee and the homemade fried custard donut that was the best fritter I have ever had.

That's the way the world goes round.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Pallas Athena


Oh Muse, sing through me as I adventure in the City of Grey-eyed Athena!

Bye Bye Belgrade; Hello Athens


Dear Serbia, хвала (thanks) for all the fun, warmth and charm. 

When I was living in Paris last summer, my friend David Grave  raved about how much he loved the Balkans. I see why. 

Serbia has been utterly incredible for its food, culture, ridic night life, and most importantly--wonderful people. 
It has been a real gem of a surprise, and I would put Belgrade high on my top ten list of cities (no. 7), not a compliment I take or make lightly. 


This Odysseus is off now to sail the wine-dark seas of Greece for some much-earned vacay. Closing down the virtual office for a week while I go live in Athens to drink ouzo, eat gooey baklava and sip black Greek coffee. 

Then re-booting the virtual office at the Acropolis and a lil island-hopping; I wonder if the triremes have wi-fi.
ευχαριστίες (thanks) for the suggestion Justin Goldner, who planted such ideas in Rio in what already feels like a lifetime age. 


As always, journey on.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

These U.S. ‘diplomats’ wield fiddles and dance moves, not briefcases.

A good article on cultural diplomacy: These U.S. ‘diplomats’ wield fiddles and dance moves, not briefcases.

I worked with Prof. Hurley in Iraq, he is a real character; with Kyle Dillingham on the American Music Abroad tour, he is incredible; presently with Prof. Katz, who is a pioneer in hip hop diplomacy through the Next Level program, currently in Belgrade finishing up a hip hop academy that was pretty stellar--you can see the vids and pics on the NL FB page.

And to Prof. Rob Alboro: it isn't every day that I get to tell a professor that he doesn't have the slightest clue what he is talking about, and should probably do his homework before making vacuous statements :)

Belgrade Morning

From a barge on the Danube, where I spent dancing the night away to the percussive techno beat, I stared at the bridge lights reflecting in the river water.  The pastel shade that lit the bridge cast a pastel glance in the water; the lamp posts shimmered a dance to the beat.  I sat from my vantage point, chatting and leaning back over the turgid, turbid river.  I chatted with a beautiful blond Serbian girl, who was stunning and yet was still trying to find comfort in her beauty--perhaps so much so, she did radio.  I chatted with a Serbian television producer of the biggest shows in the country. I chatted with a traditional fokloric dancer of Serbian dance.  And I chatted most so with the ever wise Anshul, who always makes me think.

We watched the sky turn light blue, and we set out on our trek back.  I watched the morning mist cloud the beautiful church steeple, as the night light peered out.  In the slow river, a boat and its lights reflected in the crystal morning river.

I spoke of my last sunrise in Calcutta, on a boat floating slowly across the Houghly River.   I spoke of a tree where I found peace, if not a minor enlightenment as fleeting as it can be. And I spoke of traveling on my own, and learning to trust myself and my instincts.

You are lucky you get to travel, they said. I am.

I could only offer Gandhi in that my life is my message.  And then I started spinning projects.  The beautiful Serbian hostess; the tv producer; the folkloric Serbian dancer; Anshul the videographer.  I walked backwards across the quiet bridge as I pulled ideas out.  I helped them pull the pieces together for a good project to get them to India:

A television documentary on introducing traditional Serbian music and dance to India.  And all the fun of introducing India to Serbia through culture, music, dance and food.  Indians would love rakije, and Serbian music and dance.  I could sketch it, and it would be fun and fascinating. But it isn't my project to propose.  I can only leave ideas to be played out.

And I need to get some rest on my rest day, so this tale comes to an end.  We shall see if anyone wants to play with my ideas, all I can do is offer them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gastrodiplomacy Takes New York!

A great piece in Real Cheap Eats on gastrodiplomacy in New York, with this hunger-blatherer quoted.  Have a read: Gastrodiplomacy Takes Root in New York City: Connecting to Culture Through Cuisine

Belgrade Beauty

As I sit in my palatial room bedecked with gold trim in the Rezime Crown, and the sound of the street symphony's scherzos filters through my large open windows with orange lace veils, all I can think of is how much I love Belgrade.   This is truly a grand city--one that I have fallen completely in love with.

I would put Belgrade on my top ten list of cities worldwide.  Probably around number 6 or 7.  That is how highly I think of the place.  But it is truly a wonderful city, with warm, wonderful people, terrific food and some real culture.

And the girls are some of the hottest in the world. Like really, I think Belgrade may win for the shear number of ridiculously hot girls around.  Tough to nudge Istanbul, Paris or Rio, but it is uncanny.

I with I had more bandwidth to be writing about all that has been going on.  It strikes me as sad that when I am doing the most meaningful, wonderful work, I have the least time to write about it.  So it goes.

But in short, I am good.  I am grand.  And I really love Belgrade.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hair of the Monkey

After a long, late night of clubbing on a barge in the rain on the River Sava, I woke up with an opice, what the Czechs refer to as a "monkey."  Dunno what the Serbs call it but it was something fierce.

I needed something to stick to the ribs, so I headed to Kavarna ?, a traditional Serbian restaurant for some local fare.  I picked up some cheap shades-- a lil sombro to save the day.

Me: what do you have to cure what ails me?

Waiter:  We have rakije, and I would recommend some dunjevka (quince brandy) for you.

Hair of the monkey indeed.

Belgrade is one of my favorite cities in the world, and that is not a compliment I take or make lightly.

I had a filet mignon cooked medium rare.  A Serbian salad of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.  Some warm homemade bread.

I gave the final hunk of steak wrapped in bread soaked in mignon juices to a Gypsy kid.  His eyes widened as he ran off with the steak sandwich.

I chatted with some French girls next to me who were living in Budapest.  They had hitchhiked to Belgrade.  We chatted about what I did.

You live the life.

I hear that from time to time.  I always respond simply that I live my life.  That I figure I have one life to live, so I might as well live it.  Not that I really believe we only have one life, but that is a different story.

On the way, I sat in the sun next to the old Ottoman fountain.  I chatted with the Serbian girl Ana who worked at the hotel.  She was on her way to start her shift.

You are so lucky.

Luck is not something you wait for; you have to grab luck by its throat.  She grabbed mine, and I laughed.  Generally you rub a Buddha's head, not grab his throat.

Enough of this banter, I'm off to go nap in the gardens of an old Ottoman fortress that overlooks the two rivers that hung Belgrade.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Buffalo Diplomacy? The Imperial Summer Capital of Belgrade?

"All the food I ate in America was bland and boring...except for the spicy chicken wings. I LOVED the Buffalo wings."
-Snezana

Perhaps we should be doing a lil Buffalo gastrodiplomacy to Serbia?  Snezana would be pleased.

The poor Serbian lass also felt much more unsafe in DC than Belgrade.  I laughed, and explained that when I told people I was going to the Balkans, they worried about me.  She laughed as I explained the American image of Serbia as some grimy paramilitary chetnik with a beard and a kalashnikov.

In reality, I also feel much safer in Serbia than America....

And other random gastrodiplomacy thoughts.

Two words: knafeh gelato.

Belgrade, you rock.

As Anshul smartly suggested: Belgrade should be my new summer capital.

On Harlem

"To live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay. Harlem is a ruin — many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams and, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance."
-Ralph Ellison

The Clinton Curtis Band in Espirito Santo

The U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro, which hosted The Clinton Curtis Band in Brazil, made a wonderful visit of their tour in Espirito Santo!

 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Next Level Serbia!

Already off on the next adventure.  How do I get off this crazy ride?

Here is a great intro video to the Next Level Serbia program from DJ B Money and VJ Sunshot


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Perfection

"Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it."
 -Salvador Dali

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Americans try exotic Asian foods



Haha! I have had all these, save for the live octopus.  The only one that made me retch was balut.  Love Nato and durian!

Greener pastures

I've had enough of the headache of Israel/Palestine and Ukraine. I'm leaving for a far more tranquil part of this earth: the Balkans.

Monday, July 21, 2014

When I'm 64

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?




It's my father's 64th birthday, and I'm wishing him all the birthday best.  And yes, I am still feeding him--taking him out for Brazilian food tonight for his bday dinner at The Grill from Ipanema.

My father shares a birthday with someone I hold in just slightly less esteem than my old man: Ernie Hemingway.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. 
-Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea"

Aloha Venezuela II

Way behind on this blog, it dates back to May.  Better late than never...

The day after the concert in Caracas, we headed out of town past the creepy billboards of the eyes of Chavez and on to the airport. We had a ton of stuff to check. I got a little worried because we were 40 kilos (88 pounds) overweight and I had not received anything in the grant to cover domestic travel overages. But because fuel is so cheap in Venezuela, it only cost an extra 256 Bolivares for the extra 40 kilos ($4). Incredible.

Our flight was only 35 minutes but we were delayed an hour and so we passed time at the airport playing Uno.

Once we took off, the flight was quick. We arrived to Isla Margarita, and drove to the Hotel Isabela La Catolica- a boutique hotel with rooms named for the kings and queens of Spain. I asked if I was getting the Torquemeda room.

Once checked in, we had a lovely 8 course meal of small plate delights that connected with the island's tastes. I am starting to think the biggest threat of cultural diplomacy is on my waist line.

The next morning we had a special breakfast at La Repisa Restaurant in La Asuncion with the Mayor of La Asuncion Richard Fermin. Mayor Fermin is the second youngest mayor in Venezuela, he is only 29 years old. We had a tour with the chef of the restaurant and gastronomy school. The breakfast was a lovely affair of different tastes of Isla Margarita like cazon- shredded baby shark.

The only strange thing was the cafe con leche tasted awful. It tasted salty. I sent it back and just drank the normal coffee without milk. Later we found out that because of the situation in Venezuela, there is a shortage on milk at times, and the restaurant had instead given us baby formula in our coffee. I was reminded of Lula- the former president of Brazil, chiding Chavez over the fact he couldn't get milk for his coffee as a symbol that Venezuela was having issues.

After breakfast, we toured the city. We visited the lovely old plaza, one of the oldest plazas in the Americas. We stopped in to see the El Sistema program, which we would be working with later. We also visited a beautiful pastel church but it was closed so we sat out in the courtyard and enjoyed the island breeze. I found a Virgin Mary tree.

That afternoon we had an incredible workshop on Hula dance at the Casa de la Cultura de La Asuncion. It was a workshop for Deaf students and hearing dance students. It was extremely poignant to watch the Deaf and hearing students interact and help each other and learn from each other as they learned the story dance of Hula. It was a very special engagement.

The next day we had a tour of the El Sistema program. We had an adorable group of kiddies play a song for us on tiny violins and trumpets. Then we headed over to another El Sistema program in an old university for a masterclass. The masterclass was excellent. All the old windows of the room were wide open, and a sea breeze was blowing in. It was a little warm, and we didn't have any water so I ran over with the driver to a little store to get some agua. It was a three-stop process of standing in line, ordering, going over to the cashier to pay, then returning to get the bottles. I returned to a marvelous jam session with the music students and Keola and company. 

That night we had an intimate performance at the hotel restaurant called Juana La Loca.

The following day we had the morning free. We had lunch at a little beach cafe with our feet in the sand. I had some ceviche that was a little too , but fine. After lunch we returned to the El Sistema building for a small class with the El Sistema students, and a bigger jam session with some of the professors. The head of the school was there, and looked like the Dos Equis guy. He had a grizzled old salt-and-pepper beard, and played the quatro. His deep voice boomed on the collaboration song La Luna de Margarita, which all the teachers in attendance sang along to. It was pretty special.

That night we had a concert in the middle of the square in La Asuncion. Keola and company had a raised stage to perform on in between two old colonial buildings. We were supposed to have the collaboration partners who we jammed with earlier in the day play with us, but politics got in the way. Two of the musicians arrived and said, “oh, we forgot our instruments.” That basically meant that it was too politically difficult for them to perform in public with American musicians brought down by the U.S. Embassy. But a third musician decided to perform anyway, and borrowed a guitar from Keola.

Before their concert, we had a group of local dancers perform for us some of the local dances. It was beautiful, they flared their colorful dresses as the performed local dances. Then Keola, Moana and Jeff performed beautifully under the full moon rising over the cobblestone city square. And we had a bit of the collaboration, and the crowd all sang along to La Luna de Margarita under the white light of the moon. After the concert, the mayor of La Asuncion presented Keola, Moana and Jeff with certificates that made them honorary residents of the city. They presented him with a decorative Hawaiian quilt.
The following day, we drove to the center of the island to have a special lunch at Casa de Esther. Casa de Esther was an eclectic old estancia filled with records on the wall, and typewriters and sewing machines around the open air courtyard. The lovely matron Esther had filled the place with wooden shapes that looked like animals. There were hammocks, which I cocooned myself up in.

The lunch was immaculate. Esther cooked with real love, and it was apparent. We ate monkfish egg pate and cazon (shredded baby shark) tortillas, as we sipped white sangria filled with mint and cucumber. 

 The main course was exquisite. Esther made a few different plates, and divided them up depending on what she thought people should eat. Keola and Jeff received steaks that had been marinated in rum and espresso; I received a pescado blanco in a plum salsa with a side of shredded plantains and saffron rice with raisins.

Dessert was even more amazing, as we arroz con leche (rice pudding) in cinnamon syrup covered with pumpkin icecream and shredded coconut. We also tried crema de marcuja that was wonderful. We sipped coffee laced with fine rum, and tried to take in all the deliciousness.

After the immaculate lunch, Keola, Moana and Jeff presented Esther with Hawaiian cookbooks, Hawaiian salts and Hawaiian coffees.

And they performed the Green Rose Hula for her, which left her so touched that she had tears streaming down her face. She spoke of the music as the language of love just as she cooks with. She was so moved that she declared that lunch was on the house. We tried to protest, but she would hear nothing of it.

That night, we had a concert at El Castillo- a giant stone fort overlooking the city. The view was spectacular as the sun began to set across the horizon and heavy clouds flanked the peaks in the distance. One of the students remarked to me that this was a site of the early fight for independence for Venezuela from Spain. He looked a little perplexed when I remarked that it was less a fight for Venezuelan independence and more a fight for Gran Colombia's independence. I doubt such history is taught.

The concert began with the students of El Sistema who we had jammed with the day prior at the old university performing, then doing a collaboration with Keola and Jeff.

Keola and Jeff gave a wonderful performance on the stone platform above the courtyard where the audience was seated below. On the stone incline leading up to the stage, Moana performed her hula dance. During Jeff's portion of the show, he spoke about the wonderful lunch we had at Casa de Esther, and performed a song he had written that afternoon in honor of then feast. Yes, he wrote a song in the afternoon and performed it that night in Esther's honor. Keola also spoke of the incredible lunch we had, and the whole crowd was left curious of what we had dined on that afternoon. The wonderful concert ended with a toast and presentation by the Isla Margarita board of tourism. After the show, there was a wine reception, and then on to a reception held in Keola and co.'s honor.


All of it struck me as amazing given how much the Embassy was doing for this program, compared to how little I could get other post's to contribute to upcoming programs. It left me shaking my head.

The following day we had a final program with the Deaf students we had been working with. We had a breakfast buffet at a nearby hotel, and the kids were frankly amazed at the amount of food available. They ate and ate, and we sure didn't stop them. After the breakfast, the students performed some local folk dances and “sang” for us. Keola and co. reciprocated with a last hula.
The students presented Keola, Moana and Jeff with gifts, including one that left me touched. The students had drawn a pair of hands, colored in US and Venezuelan flags—the significance profound given that the deaf students communicate with their hands.

We checked in and had a delayed flight. We stopped in the duty-free shop to kill some time. The CAO Neal pointed out an extra-special bottle of Diplomatico rum that was about $85. When he walked away, I schemed with Keola and Jeff, and we purchased the bottle for Neal as a thank-you for all his efforts on the program. But rather than save it, he opened it to share with all of us. We sat around the food court and drinking expensive, exquisite rum out of plastic cups. We played “Roses and Thorns,” a game I conduct on my programs to discuss 3 “roses” (good things) and 3 “thorns” (bad things) that happened during the program. We were all moved when the Cultural Affairs Specialist said, with tears in her eyes, that in her 8 years doing cultural programs for the Embassy this program most directly connect with the heart of the Venezuelan people.

We returned to Caracas and were picked up by the Embassy's van. I watched the sun set over Caracas through the bullet-proof windows of an armored vehicle. We checked into a Marriott near the airport, and spent the evening relaxing at the hotel overlooking the ocean.

The next day I got my charges off on their flights, and departed myself on to Frankfurt and on to Delhi after that.

The Aloha Venezuela program was one of the most profound cultural diplomacy programs I have ever participated in. The U.S. Embassy really went out of their way to create real programs to connect Venezuela and Hawaii, and thought of every possible detail to build a meaningful connections.