Sunday, November 19, 2017


People who haven’t seen me in a year or two tell me my Russian’s getting better. I’m not really aware of the change, and don’t remember my Russian being all that bad a couple of years ago. Then again, there are still some things I just don’t get right. Honey, for example.

Honey. It’s even simpler in Russian: мёд. Three letters. One syllable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can buy it just about anywhere. But I can’t buy it anywhere, because nobody knows what I’m talking about when I ask where it is in the store.

Today I went to a big supermarket called Green City. The sign is even in English. The store is huge and I had no idea where to look for the honey, so I asked a clerk stocking one of the shelves. She looked across the aisle at the health foods and asked me what kind. There were bottles of colorful fruity-looking stuff on the shelf she was looking at, but I couldn’t see any honey at all. I said, “Regular. I prefer it runny.”

“Maybe we don’t have it,” she replied.

Certain that they sold honey, I asked, “Do you understand me?”

She clearly wanted to answer yes, but she looked at me long and hard, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe not,” she admitted.

I repeated, “Honey. From bees.” Her face didn’t change.

“Bees,” I said. “Do you know what they are?”

“No,” she admitted. She didn’t.

Finally, I got out my phone and wrote on the screen: мёд.

“Oh!” she said, clearly embarrassed. She took me directly to the honey, two aisles away. As we walked, I asked her what she heard me say, how I might improve my pronunciation.

She was too embarrassed to answer, so I pressed her. “Please,” I asked, “say ‘honey’ for me.”

She wouldn’t do it. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t understand.”

“But if you say ‘honey’ for me,” I said, “I’ll learn how to say it right. Please, say ‘honey.’”

She said it. I could tell that the vowel sounded a little different, and she said the letter “d” without resonance. It just stops. My English-teacher friend Natasha tried to school me on this earlier, and I thought I’d gotten the point, but clearly I still need practice.

I’ve told stories like this before to friends who have gotten used to my American accent. They usually tell me that I say мёд just fine, that the problem is with the other guy. One of them repeated it to me today, as I relived my grocery-store trauma. It’s very nice, but I don’t believe it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Istanbul again

So, lemme tell you about Turkey. Or, to be more accurate, I want to tell you about my recent weekend in Istanbul. It’s a city I already knew fairly well, and I went only because Belavia offered a super sale price and a friend there offered to show me some parts of the city I hadn’t seen yet. But a couple of days before departure, my friend told me that she was crazy-busy at work and the only time she could spare me would be dinner on Friday evening.

I nearly didn’t go at all. I’d just had a great week in Athens and didn’t trust my luck with solo travel. What if I found myself stuck and bored? Why pay hotel and restaurant bills when I could just hang out in Minsk? I’m not sure what factors finally led me to go. I’m just glad I did.

In the first place, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t just lucky traveling in Greece. I like solo travel. It’s easy. You meet people. You do what you want. You have to ask a local when you want advice. You get nowhere to hide.

I arrived on a Thursday morning and paid too much to have a taxi driver take me to my hotel the long way. I got my revenge for this by taking public transit to the airport on my way home. In fact, I didn’t take another taxi ride at all. By Friday, when I told my friend that I’d walked from Beşiktaş to Galata Tower the previous day, she didn’t believe it. It seemed impossibly far to a Turk, but any Belarusian will tell you that no distance is too far to walk. I didn’t actually plan to do that, but it sneaked up on me. I’d started by walking to Dolmabahçe Palace, which was closed, so I continued to Taksim Square after visiting the palace cafe. At Taksim, I found a Lebanese falafel place which may have raised the bar for the best falafel I’ve ever eaten. The only thing that could possibly follow that would be the best baklava in Istanbul, for which I had to go to Karaköy Güllüoğlu. I walked, of course. There, I ate a prodigious amount of baklava, overwhelming any urge to bring any more back to Minsk. That’s fine. I like to travel light. That was basically my Thursday.

I had intended that day to take a boat tour up the Golden Horn, but just missed a tour boat, sat down to lunch, just missed another boat, and took the long walk instead. On Friday, then, I went directly back to Dolmabahçe Palace because it looked so great from the outside. I loved it and the associated museums, and spent the whole day there. Finally, I left in time to change my clothes and take public transit to Galata Tower, where I would meet Gaye for dinner. Walking back from the palace toward the hotel, I saw a couple of Turkish students taking pictures at the clock tower. They’d found a great photo spot, so I waited and asked them to take a picture of me, too. We started to chat, and found each other interesting for a variety of reasons. Conversation flowed easily and naturally all the way to the bus stop, where we exchanged Facebook contacts and talked about doing something together the next day.

Beside the tower, Gaye showed me the Anemon Galata Hotel. Their rooftop restaurant has a wonderful view both of the tower itself and of the city as one might otherwise see from the tower. The food was fine, but you go there for the view. It’s spectacular.

The next morning I texted my student friends Gulim and Öznur to see if they wanted to go for a ride with me on the commuter boats. Because of rain, my commercial tour had been canceled, but the commuter boats looked promising. I’m sorry they weren’t able to come along, but I had a really great time. I bought an Istanbulkart and put enough money onto it to take a lot of little rides. Looking at the map, I’d imagined I’d have to pay for many segments individually, but it turns out that most of what I wanted to do was one long ride with many stops. I rode up the Golden Horn until I noticed the Rahmi M. Koç Museum at one of the docks. The concierge at my hotel had assured me that I’d like this museum, so I got off the boat. Guys. The museum deserves its own blog post. Mr. Koç got rich making things like tractors and he collected a whole lot of things that go. I didn’t even manage to see the whole thing, but had a really great time trying.

Wanting to continue my boat ride up the Golden Horn before the sun set, I left the museum late afternoon and returned to the dock. Although rain sometimes blew in under the canvas roof, I stayed on the upper deck and enjoyed fabulous views and the company of a few other intrepid travelers.

On Sunday morning, I awoke to clear skies and thought about my over-filled Istanbulkart. I could use public transit liberally that day, so I asked the concierge where he thought I should go. He suggested Kadıköy. This is another interesting district of Istanbul, with a blend of homes, cafes, little shops and restaurants, and lots of character. I had a great time walking around, and bought some kaymak to bring home with me.

Finally, I headed off to the airport. As I said, I took public transit, which wasn’t perfectly easy for me this time because it wasn’t obvious where to go to find the Metrobus at the first connection. But it was easy enough, because I showed the map on my phone to a fellow commuter. She recognized what I wanted to accomplish and took me right to the transfer point. I’d had a similar experience the day before, when I got stuck at a pier because I had an old tourist map that showed a discontinued boat route. Some guy with very little English took me down the road to another pier where I could wait for a private boat (which still cost less than a dollar) back to the Golden Horn line. The private boat was small and smelly, and the only other passenger spoke no English at all, but we had a great ride together and took a selfie.

I had a great time. If you want to see pictures, click here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

My week in Greece (part 2)

On Friday morning, I rode with a friendly Uber driver down to the port and boarded the Celestyal Olympia. Since I bought a cheap cabin at the last minute, I ended up right next to the engine room, where the smell of diesel fuel and the rumble of giant engines made me want to flee. I went to the reception desk and asked about changing cabins. The receptionist was very nice, but said she couldn’t talk about any changes until everybody had boarded and she knew what else may be vacant. What she really meant was that she didn’t want to change anything until after the lifeboat drill, which is choreographed to room numbers and they were very serious about getting the lifeboat drill right.

Once we’d all assembled in our lifejackets and been inspected by the safety officer, the friendly people at the desk offered to put me into the bow of the ship, still windowless and one deck lower, but in a place much quieter and more pleasant. I met the two people who would be doing my housekeeping, and I learned who at the front desk also spoke Russian. The Russian-speakers always jockeyed into position to help me when I approached the desk, and I felt like I had my own personal concierge. They remembered everything about me and took excellent care.

I wasn’t so pleased with the dining room staff, but we ultimately warmed up to each other. The problem was their policy for dealing with solo travelers. They would only put solo travelers across the table from an empty chair, and my first meals were rather lonely. At lunch, I sat to the side of a group of four people from some American church, who talked animatedly among themselves about their pastoral duties but ignored the guy beside them who offered a couple of times to participate in the conversation. Dinner was even worse, when I got seated beside a Greek family in dirty clothes who specifically did not want to have anything to do with me. By breakfast, I’d had enough. I ignored the steward and sat down where I wanted, in the empty seat across from one solo traveler and beside another. That was much more satisfactory. After the dining room staff came to understand my preferences, meals became more interesting.

For our first port, we visited Mykonos. We arrived just as the sun set. In the lingering twilight, I scrambled up the hill to try to get some sunset photos. I enjoyed walking aimlessly through the village, the crooked little alleys and staircase streets. I didn’t stay as late as possible because I wanted to eat dinner on the ship and I knew I’d have to get up early the next morning. We’d have to assemble for our tour of Ephesus by 07:00.

I discovered that there were lots of Americans on our ship, many of whom were engaged in tours of the Holy Lands. Some of them had intended to see more of Turkey but had been thwarted by the diplomatic kerfuffle limiting visa services between Turkey and the USA. Everybody on the ship gained entry today by a special ship visa, so nobody needed individual visas. One of the churches to which Saint Paul wrote was at Ephesus, and we’d get there by a short bus ride from our port at Kuşadası, Turkey.

We had a great tour guide who knew a lot, loved her country, and spoke with enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge. She led us through Ephesus and told us about ancient life, archaeology, and related subjects. My favorite moment was visiting a public latrine downtown. We saw a marble slab running along two walls, with cutouts body-width apart. I don’t even know if this was the whole thing, but it looked like about twenty men could sit side by side and poop at once. Running water washed away the falling feces and wall openings allowed for fresh air, so one could imagine this as a social gathering place. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the three-seat “bloopers” we had at Boy Scout camp.

This being Turkey, we also visited a weaving cooperative, where a different guide showed us how they get silk out of cocoons, how different kinds of looms work, and how they make hand-tied Turkish rugs. Not surprisingly, they also offered to sell their work. I don’t know how many they sold to our group, but I’m pretty sure we bought more than a few.

When we returned to the ship after this tour, I went to the dining room and insisted on being seated with other solo travelers. The steward offered me a spot beside Annie Counts, a recent college graduate whom I had seen on the Ephesus trip. Annie, like me, reads the Bible and had more than passing interest in the historic aspects of the places we would visit that day. We discovered that we’d both ended up on the religious tour of Saint John’s Monastery at Patmos that afternoon, though both of us had thought that we’d prefer to take the other, sold-out tour that included more of the countryside and less of the saints.

The best thing about our tour of Patmos, other than getting to know each other, was that we met Pastor Mark Correll and some people traveling with him. It felt like a privilege to know these people, and we joined their group that evening to hear Mark debunk some of the myths and legends we had heard from our tour guide in Patmos. (Our guide was well versed in local legends, but not so well versed on scholarship or the Bible.)

The next morning, our tours started early once again. Annie and a couple of her friends joined the same bus group with me to Crete and the Minoan Palace. We got very wet during this tour, as it rained almost continuously. The Minoan Palace is, today, mostly a reconstruction on old foundations. The rain prevented me from enjoying it as much as I’d enjoyed other archaeological sites in Greece, and I ditched the tour when we returned to the city of Heraklion so I could see the Archaeological Museum instead of taking a city tour. Much to my chagrin, I failed to notice that Annie’s friend Mason had tagged along to the museum, and I ditched him too. Isn’t that the same failure I was complaining about from the church group I sat beside at the first shipboard lunch? Oops.

The museum was great, and I think Mason got his revenge by grasping more of what he saw than I did. We had an interesting conversation about it all on the bus ride back to the ship.

The weather cleared as we approached Santorini, and the island beckoned alluringly as we drew near the shore. I had queued for an early departure, wanting to get onto one of the first boats, and I studied the hillside as we approached the dock. It would be fun to climb up the mountain on the footpath, and that’s what I intended to do. But some Greek passengers on the same boat urged me to take the cable car so I’d get up high sooner, before the sun set. They assured me that I could do plenty of walking up there, and that I’d like to see the sunset from the hilltop.

I’m glad I took their advice. From the cable car station, I hustled off to the left, toward the town we usually see in photographs of Santorini. My pathway took me higher and higher along the brow of a cliff, with little homes, hotels and restaurants below and sometimes above me. The sky reddened as the sun slid past a few clouds leftover from the morning rain. The sea sparkled. I loved every step. Finally, as the sun touched the water I reached a pleasant outdoor restaurant with a spectacular view protected by a glass shield. Since the air was cooling off, this seemed like a perfect place to punctuate my walk. I stopped for a cup of tea and then started back down toward the cable car. For a while I considered the possibility of walking all the way down to the dock, but it got quite dark and I began to have a little trouble choosing my route. I decided to take the cable car, so I’d be certain to get back to the ship on time.

The next day, Monday, we landed (as usual) early in the morning. I walked from the ship towards the Metro station, stopping at a little café for water and a restroom. After leaving the café, I ran into Annie and her group, also about to enter the Metro. We traveled together to the city center, and then I continued on to the airport. I liked being able to say goodbye to somebody as I prepared to leave Athens. I’d had a great trip and met a lot of wonderful people. I’d certainly be pleased to come back.

You can see more pictures from the whole trip here.
And here's the first half of my Greece story.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

My week in Greece (part 1)

I was in the midst of some life changes and didn’t want to write about it on my blog. (I am now divorced. It’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it.) But as soon as I could see the divorce process coming to a close, I went to see where I could go. I didn’t want to arrive in Belarus before October 30, but would be free to leave the USA as soon as the 20th. So, I logged onto the British Airways site to see where I could go on a travel reward. They offered me Athens, and I accepted.

I’d never been to Greece, and never even thought much about what I might do there. I just knew it should be warm, and it would get me closer to Belarus. Busy with personal matters, I didn’t have time to think about what I should do in Athens. Fortunately, the Google Trips app on my phone noticed my airline reservations and recommended a three-day itinerary. So, just before leaving, I booked a three-day reservation at the Golden Age of Athens hotel and assumed I could figure out everything else later.

I arrived on Monday morning, October 23. The desk clerk at the hotel gave me a map of Athens and marked some areas where he thought I’d enjoy spending most of my time. Fearing that jetlag might set in if I sat still, I went out immediately to do a hybrid of Days 2 and 3 of Google’s three-day itinerary. It felt like I could tear through Athens in a big hurry and then think about seeing something else. Anyway, I was learning the layout of the city.

I started in Syntagma Square and meandered through the National Garden and the Zappeion before reaching my first significant historical landmark, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I bought a single-entry ticket and walked around inside. It didn’t appeal to me very much at this time, and I decided not to buy entry tickets to most places but just to look in through the wrought-iron fencing that surrounds most of the archaeological sites. I had more fun discovering quiet streets and cute restaurants than I had in the recommended sites. But that all changed as I circled the Roman Agora for the second time, wandering around and looking through fences. I met Cati, a Venezuelan professor of Greek classics. She’d been there for a month and was sad to be leaving so soon. She would go to the airport that evening.

Cati told me about her favorite places and the people who had helped her to understand them. She spooled off a long list of ideas, contacts, suggestions and advice. I wrote down as much as I could and urged her to share anything more she thought of. She did write to me that evening with more concrete ideas, but most importantly she inspired me. She reminded me of the importance of the artifacts I was seeing and inspired me to see them better, to try to see them through the eyes of the people who built them. She also told me that I should really buy the 30-Euro pass to get into the Acropolis and surrounding sites. She didn’t think I should go to the Acropolis until the next morning, but my meanderings took me to the Acropolis main gate and I plunged in after climbing to the top of Mars Hill and thinking about Saint Paul’s lecture to the Athenians from there.

I loved the Acropolis, but I still didn’t really understand it. I “saw” it in a couple of hours, but thought when I’d left that somehow I hadn’t managed to see the Odeum of Herodes Atticus just below it. (This wasn’t true, but I didn’t know what I was taking pictures of.) I’d loved my visit and was glad I’d bought the ticket, but I still didn’t really grasp what I was looking at or what it meant.

I made some progress the next day, when I used my multi-entry ticket to go inside the fence I’d peered through at Hadrian’s Library. I stopped to read most of the information posted on signs around the site and began to take a new interest in what I was seeing. I’d had a hard time getting motivated even to go out that morning, but by the time I finished Hadrian’s Library, I felt excited and energized to see more. I finished the library in a little indoor space walking around and around the statue of Athena Nike. The more I looked, the more beautiful, interesting and real she became. No, I didn’t start believing the mythology, but I began to feel a connection to the ancient Greeks and it made Athens much more interesting.

Walking out of the Library, I noticed a little business advertising boat trips to the Greek islands. I’d hoped to “finish” with Athens in three or four days so I could move on to see something else, and I thought it would be more fun to reach Santorini or Crete on a boat than by air. So, I went in to ask what they knew. As it turned out, the guy was promoting the last island cruise of the season, a three-day all-inclusive trip on a big ship. The daily cost would be less than I was spending to sleep and eat in Athens, and I’d see a bunch of stuff, however briefly. I signed up, and I’ll write about that in a separate post.

Still in Athens, brimming now with enthusiasm, I continued my reevaluation of sites I’d previously seen only through fences. I had a nice lunch in a sunny spot and finally entered the Ancient Agora. Wow. Guys. This is incredible. I walked back and forth through the Agora, circled the Temple of Hephaestus, surveyed the vast territory and finally went inside the museum in the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos. Somehow I still had time to return, afterwards, to the Roman Agora. Once again, I liked it a lot better from the inside even than I had through the fence.

I don’t know how far I walked that day. It wasn’t even over. Mid-afternoon, I went out to climb Filopappos Hill to see the like-named monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Athens. From the top of the hill, I could see the sea, the city, and a lot of the history. I met some Lithuanian travelers who spoke Russian and we shared our favorite impressions. They told me about the museums that interested them the most, and I remembered how much Cati wanted me to see the Acropolis Museum. I made my way slowly to the museum, passing the spectacular side walls of the Odeum of Herodes Atticus. I’d have to come back to see this in the daytime.

The Acropolis Museum was open late that evening, so I went in. Generally, photography is not allowed in there, but the docent encouraged me to take pictures of the original columns from the Temple of The Muses. (The columns I saw at the Acropolis were reproductions. After restoration, the curators did not want to put the original columns outdoors again.) These are the columns that look like women in robes, and they are amazingly beautiful. Truthfully, one of them is missing, stolen by Lord Elgin and placed in the British Museum. The Brits have a bunch of Greek antiquities, and I get the impression that Greeks today aren’t too happy about it. Anyway, I had a great time in the museum though I went through it in a bit of a hurry. I even finished my speedy tour in time to have dinner there just as the staff was closing the dining room.

I felt pretty satisfied by the end of the day that I’d seen the highlights pretty thoroughly, and wondered how I’d use my last two days in Athens before the cruise began. I slowed my pace a bit for those last two days, but was never bored.

On day 3, I started out by getting into that Odeum of Herodes Atticus from the downhill side. This also gave me access to long pathways leading left and right around Acropolis Hill and even back into the Acropolis. I really enjoyed my second visit to the Acropolis, seeing things with new eyes and new interest this time. I stayed on the hill for hours, exploring obscure areas off to the sides of the main structures. I met and chatted with tourists from China, Argentina, Germany and a few others. The Chinese were boisterous and enthusiastic. I enjoyed them, but their group was so big that it became easy for them to block masses of people as they assembled for selfies.

For my last day in Athens, I visited several museums. This post is already so long that I won’t describe them to you in detail, but they’re all fabulous. The Benaki Museum is the most colorful of the three I visited, and they have a great rooftop café. The Museum of Cycladic Art was more intimate, and included a large and interesting space dedicated to Cypriot arts and culture. I also enjoyed listening in as a teacher addressed a very young and very interested group of school kids. Unfortunately, she taught in Greek and I understood almost nothing. Finally, I walked a long way to the National Archaeological Museum. I walked a lot all day because of a one-day Metro strike, but I had enough time that I didn’t mind. The Archaeological Museum has, in its spacious halls, an amazing collection of beautiful and important artifacts. I spent lots of time among beautiful statues and other artistic artifacts before discovering that they also have the actual Antikythera mechanism and a lot of other amazing scientific stuff. I loved all three museums.

Coming home from the Archaeological Museum, I squeezed into a bus along with about a thousand other people who might otherwise have been on the subway. I don’t know how anybody managed to unzip my over-shoulder bag in that crowd, but they did. I left, however, before they reached anything interesting. The most interesting thing might have been my wallet, which I kept in a sticky rubber band inside my front pants pocket after snatching it from a pickpocket’s hand on a crowded Metro train two days earlier. Everything is fine, but I decided not to take public transit to the pier the next morning. Packing my suitcase, I thought about how much fun I’d had in Athens, how many interesting things I’d seen and how many kind people I’d encountered. Maybe traveling alone is going to be OK.

I’ll tell you about the second half of my Grecian adventure tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can see all of the pictures I posted from this trip here.