Travel

Back in Time – Remembering a More Peaceful Syria

Damascus Airport

It has been widely reported that Syria is currently up in arms and engulfed in flames, but it wasn’t always so.  Back in 2005, I used to travel to Syria on a monthly basis, and we will be posting little details of what it used to be like, something that I believe has interest for both historical purposes and as a memorial to a time that will never return, and a “before” impression of the impression I had of the country’s invaluable cultural treasures – many of which have since been damaged in the fighting.  

 

In the semi-twilight of Damascus airport at four in the morning, it’s pretty much normal to wonder how in the world you ended up there.  It’s also normal to wonder when the next plane out was leaving but, sadly, that wasn’t an option for me.  I had just gotten there – and I had  work to do.

I nervously negotiated the immigration process, using a combination of English and sign language to communicate with the olive-uniformed airport personnel.  At each position, I became more and more worried that no one in the airport seemed to have a basic command of the English language.  I’d been to quite a few places, and had never had quite this hard a time talking to the airport people.  The uniforms weren’t good for my nerves, either.

About half an hour after leaving the plane, I emerged into the civilian part of the airport where I was greeted by a few desultory guys with moustaches leaning against a wall and holding up signs with names on them.  None of the signs had my name on them, so I walked past them to look for the official taxi stand.

It was unmanned.  There was a hand-written sign on the counter presumably giving instructions on what to do in this event, but it was in Arabic.  There was nothing even remotely resembling an information desk.

At this point, I stood completely still.  I would have cried, but that wouldn’t have been particularly manly.  I knew I could just walk out and grab a random cab on the curb, but years of travel in Latin America had taught me that that could be a very, very bad idea.  I had no idea what to do next.

And then a cell phone rang.

Normally, this wouldn’t have made any difference.  Ringtones blend into the background of airports like the sound of airplanes or the PA announcing flights.  It is not something one pays attention to.

But this one was impossible to ignore.  The ringtone was the lead song from the movie Lambada.

Just like that, all was right in the world.  Any country whose people could choose that ringtone wouldn’t be all that bad.  All the worries simply disappeared into a self-effacing chuckle, I reminded myself that I’d traveled over 24 hours to get to Damascus airport.  The last couple of miles to the hotel wouldn’t be the point at which I gave up.

Damascus taxis

I walked outside and climbed into one of the cabs on the curb.  “Hotel Semiramis,” I said.  The driver said a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand and I just shrugged, repeated the name of the hotel and hoped for the best.  He mirrored my shrug and drove off.

 

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New kid on the Block

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Being a global citizen is emphatically not an exclusively Western thing, particularly over the past few decades, where India and especially China have become huge drivers of the world’s population and economy.  Today’s guest writer, Vero Nica, spent a long time in China.  Unlike most Westerners who visit China, she wasn’t “just looking”, so to speak – she moved there, and had to work to make ends meet.  As you can imagine, she has amassed a wealth of amazing stories and insights and, better still, has agreed to share some of them with us.  Enjoy!

I arrived in Beijing in November 2006, with a job as an English teacher. I had the right qualifications for the job. Mainly, I looked foreign. This leads us to an interesting insight into the imagery of the Chinese population: all foreigners speak English. Therefore, the main characteristic needed to teach English at that time was to look foreign. Nationality, education and actual level of English were rather distant second considerations. However, I hear that has changed now, as you are expected to have a passport from an English-speaking country – and preferably, look foreign.

I felt in a different world. I had studied Chinese for a year, but quickly realized it was nowhere near enough the level I thought it was (particularly my pronunciation of the infamous 5 tones). It was surprising, though, how far the words “this”, “that”, “thank you” and “how much is it?” took me those first few weeks. Anyway, the first few days I didn’t explore much, as I was adjusting to the time zone, the college (a joint Canadian-Chinese venture), the job, the apartment, etc. I did, however, need to eat and clean the apartment, so I ventured out to get the necessary supplies.

The staff at the school had provided teachers with a computer-generated map to a supermarket catering to foreigners (meaning, expensive imported stuff, but in a language you could actually understand), and I headed that way. It was just two blocks away, but when I got to the first corner, I found a biggish sort of obstacle. It was the meeting of two two-way streets, and was fairly busy by my standards.

I stood there waiting for the light, and started to cross. And I was surprised to see that cars did not seem to respect the traffic light a whole lot. I made  to the other side in one piece, but the episode left me confused. A bit of background is in order here, I think.

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I have lived most of my life in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Why is this important? Well, I am completely used to being on the receiving end of aggressive driving and having drivers treat traffic lights, speed limit and driving regulations as suggestions, as opposed to something that actually needs to be respected*. Still, cars can only advance – in any direction – when the light is green (with the exception of the usual homicidal/suicidal rascal who goes on ahead regardless of said traffic lights, other cars/pedestrians and anything else that might prevent them from gaining those precious thirty seconds). If you are big into survival skills, I do advise a trip to downtown Buenos Aires during rush hour. For the complete ninja experience, try a busy crossing with no traffic light. I have been to other places where driving rules are different, but they weren’t as notorious since drivers STOP for pedestrians. But I digress.

After a few more tries, I figured it out. There WAS a traffic light, and it worked,and people respected it, but traffic seemed to pour continuously into the street. Why? Well, I discovered that cars/motorcycles/mopeds/buses/etc. can always turn right, without having to wait for the traffic light, as do bicycles. At the same time, when the traffic light was green, oncoming traffic could turn left onto the street I was trying to cross.  None of this is legal where I come from, and made for some interesting/crowded moments, and made me feel like an owl every time I stepped off the sidewalk.

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Chinese drivers have a few saving graces, though: they don’t drive fast, and they usually signal their actions. Not only with their lights. If they drive into the “turn” lane, they will turn. This, of course, is radically different from my native country, and initially added to the confusion.

The important thing is not to panic, grab your towel, do as the Romans do, and submerge yourself in the challenge (and the smog, as it was) of opening your mind.

*I am usually a pedestrian or obnoxious cyclist. I do turn into a wilder beast behind the steering wheel.

Aerobics for My Brain

Open Road Canada

Today’s entry continues our series of guest blogs, and is perhaps the one (so far), that best summarizes what this site is all about.  Our guest today, Ace Lightning is a woman of many, many talents (as the piece itself will hint), having been everything from a Wiccan priestess to a broadcast engineer – which is a scope that is impressive even by the standards of this blog!  It tells of a familiar feeling for world travelers, and one that never gets old.  Enjoy!

 

My second language, after English, is Spanish, with French a very poor third (some random phrases I picked up when I worked at UN Radio – they inexplicably placed me in a French-speaking studio – and culinary terms). I live in the New York metropolitan area, and it’s easy to reach southeastern Canada from here. I had been to the cities of Montréal and Québec, and enjoyed both greatly. In Québec, I had occasionally had to resort to my fractured French, but as soon as I mentioned that I was American, not Anglophone Canadian, everything was all right.

Welcome to Quebec

When my son was in his early teens, we decided to take a family vacation along the St. Lawrence River. Neither my husband nor our son speaks a word of French, although we all speak Spanish. I was hoping I’d be able to see the Northern Lights (an obsession of mine); my son wanted to see moose in the Parc Gaspésie; and my husband was interested in seeing what Canada was like outside of the major cities. We flew into Montréal, rented a car and drove to Québec, then drove out along the river, staying overnight in a different place each night. Our accommodations ranged from a rather nice hotel in Montréal, to a rustic motel in Rimouski that had a door which opened out directly onto the beach of the river. The further away from the major cities we got, the less English people spoke; I soon found myself having to do most of the communicating. I had to teach the menfolk a few phrases, such as “Je suis Américain“, “Je ne parle pas français“, and “Où sont les toilettes?” I also watched French TV in our hotel rooms – usually MéteoMedia, the Canadian weather channel. Soon I was able to order meals for three people, buy petrol, and ask for (and even occasionally understand) driving directions. Everywhere we stopped, one of us would ask, “Do you speak English?”, and someone would reply “A leetle beet!”… which turned out to be the extent of their English. It was often frustrating, but also fun. (My husband and son just found it frustrating, although my son was often amused as well.)

We stopped in Cap-Chat, because I was especially interested in Éole – a huge vertical-shaft wind-powered generating plant, built as a “proof of concept”. I was immensely fascinated and impressed by the simplicity of its engineering. The tours were only given in French, and I wished I was able to ask more questions, but I still learned a lot. (Note: Éole is no longer in operation, although the structure is still there; the site is now an education center concerning wind-powered and other alternative sources of electricity.)

eole cap chat

We went all the way out to Gaspé, stayed for two days, and drove back to Montréal. I insisted on stopping at Éole again – this time they found someone who could describe some of the machinery in English. We also visited the site of an old copper mine, which had been made into a historical center, although we didn’t have time to take the tour of the mine itself. We made our way back to Montréal and flew home to New Jersey.

A day or two after we got home, I was describing this adventure to a friend, who said, “That must have been awful! Weren’t you terrified, being in a completely unfamiliar place, and forced to try to communicate in a language you barely know?” I said that, on the contrary, it had been positively exhilarating – I described it as being “like aerobics for my brain”. My friend couldn’t grok that at all; my mere description of the experience gave him a panic attack. Then I described it to another friend, a White Russian who had been raised in Paris and spoke something like 103 languages. He grinned and said, “Oh, yes, that’s always so much fun! But there aren’t many places where I can’t make myself understood.”

Next time, I want to try something really difficult, like trying to find my way around in Finland or China.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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As most people concerned about the cultural decline of Western civilization continue to moan in despair* , I would like to take a moment to abandon my own complaining and look at one group, at least, that seems to be bucking the trend.  But before I get to the point, I need to digress again which, I suspect, is why many of you are reading this in the first place.

It used to be, there were places where you could meet the right people, even if you were far from home.

When railroads and a general lack of Europeans from different nations slaughtering each other on sight made travel a lot more pleasant, certain places came to be generally accepted as the ones one went to to meet acquaintances.  Perhaps for the Anglophones among us, the archetypal example is the Pump Room at Bath (below).  Anyone familiar with English novels of manners from the pre-Victorian period will have run into this (even casual readers are likely to have encountered it in Austen).

Pump Room Bath

Essentially, it got everyone who was anyone together in one place, without having to go to the trouble and expense of getting invited to the Royal Gala or whatever.

There are other places (notably certain hotels where one would meet for lunch), which took the anglophone through the Victorians and into the 20th century, but by then, the world had once again become a much smaller place, and culturally relevant people – even insular Englishmen – were no longer meeting exclusively in their own cities, or with people from their own countries.

By now, they were meeting in Paris.  More precisely, they were meeting in the Paris Cafés.  1871 is usually pointed to as the beginning of the Belle Époque.  From then until the first world war, Paris was the place to be seen at, and to meet your acquaintances, French, Dutch, Austrian or British.  There is a myth, an image flying around that this era was overrun with impecunious artists.  It is relatively true, but only tells a small part of the story.

Small, but what a story.  It must have been amazing to witness the birth of a new and major current in art every few weeks, driven not by the established masters but by a previously unknown artist from the countryside, or from Spain or somewhere equally unexpected.  The heady times among the currents and countercurrents in the avant-garde were balanced by almost equally exciting events in what was then considered high culture, from the World’s Fair, to Stravinksy.  Even the now reviled Paris Salon gave us iconic images.  Not all the great works were famously rejected, you know.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette

But WWI brought it to a screeching halt.  Europe was not really in the mood for it all, and any mingling of nationalities would be best done on neutral ground, so the circus moved to Broadway.

Broadway in the twenties

Eventually, the in-crowds moved to Hollywood,  and then spent some time in Monte Carlo (always at least peripherally on this list), but it also lost some of its melting-pot feel.  The problem is that, as the world became smaller and smaller, the enclaves started catering to the super rich… and no one else.  I’m certain you’ll run into the right people if you snag paddock passes for the Monaco GP, but there aren’t many of them, and you might have to sell a yacht to afford them.  Any Dubai pool party classifies in the same category, too.

The day you sell a yacht is supposed to be the second best day of ownership after the day you buy it, but what about those who either prefer to keep their yachts or simply aren’t in that financial class?  What about the slightly less well-to-do global citizen, who wants to be surrounded by like-minded people, but has accidentally travelled thousands of miles from their usual base of operations?

The answer to that, after decades of traveling in a variety of budget levels is surprisingly heartwarming, and I first got an inkling of it when I bought a pass that saved me money on a variety of New York attractions.  The way it was set up was the clue: each ticket let you enter one of two attractions.  One of the options was something typically touristy, while the other option was generally a museum.  Strangely, the typical things you see on TV were usually mirrored by things that I really wanted to do.

I probably missed out on a lot of people very different from myself by choosing the museums.  But I did enjoy them.  And most of the people I generally have things in common with have spent a disproportionate amount of their time in major cities at the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado or the National gallery, and considerably less at the photogenic large buildings / famous actor’s former homes / scenic countryside than others who visited the same places.  Art museums seem to be the one place where you’re likely to run into the polymath and global citizen today.  Even the ones who prefer hiking and hitchhiking aren’t going to miss the city’s big museum(s).  The fact that the great cultural artifacts of humanity also attract much smaller crowds than Graceland is only a secondary consideration to the kind of people this blog is aimed at.

Most of them can tell me which wall this…

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is hanging on.

Which, when you stop to think about it, is kind of nice.

*and yes, I know, we urgently need a nice knock-down, drag-out fight about the relative merits of high culture as opposed to popular culture on this blog – the very nature of this space cries out for that particular battle.

A trip to New York on Hydrogen Wings. It Was Just One of Those Things.

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After the stunning success of our first guest post, I am happy to announce our second, which is also amazing, but in a very different way.  Today’s blogger, Stacy Danielle Stephens is most certainly a polymath in the traditional sense of the word.  Not only is she the owner of Flatwater Press in Nebraska, which puts out classics in affordable editions, but she is also an author in her own right, having written The Nothing That Is and Other Stories,  The Bohemian Girl and Other StoriesWhen So Much Is Left Undone and Other StoriesBut Soon It Will Be Night, and Daybreak in Alabama.  As if that wasn’t enough, she is also extremely knowledgeable about WWII and the immediate prewar era.  And that, of course, means airships. Because, as steampunk writers never tire of telling us, there is nothing more awesome than airships.  Enjoy!

True story.

In 1936, a passenger boarded The Hindenburg, then went to her room to rest before takeoff.  After some time had passed, she began to wonder what the delay was, and rang for a steward.  When he arrived, she asked when they’d be taking off.  He told her they’d taken off over an hour earlier.  This illustrates two things.  Traveling in The Hindenburg was unbelievably placid.  If you weren’t watching the ground passing beneath you, you probably didn’t know you were moving.  The other thing?  You couldn’t watch the ground from your room, because it had no windows.

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A passenger cabin of The Hindenburg was actually smaller than a Pullman car for railroad passengers.  But the Hindenburg passengers didn’t mind this.  They spent most of their time on the promenade deck (below), where they could watch the landscape, in much the way rail passengers in the observation car might, except on The Hindenburg, you watched from above, with just enough altitude for the the view to be dramatically panoramic, yet highly visible.  The Hindenburg operated at low altitudes not just to offer this fabulous scenery, but for the safety of it.  Atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude, and this caused the potentially explosive hydrogen inside to strain at its containment cells.  It would be vented as necessary to prevent damage, but also to compensate for the loss of fuel as it travelled.  And from this lower altitude, the Hindenburg crew was also better able to watch the weather as they approached it, and would not only avoid storms, but even take advantage of them, maneuvering the ship into a useful tailwind whenever and wherever they found it.  The passengers were seldom aware of this, or of the fact that the elevator man was essentially strong-arming the ship’s stabilizers to keep it within five degrees of level, which is another reason passengers seldom felt any sense of movement.  An eight-degree tilt is enough for heavy objects to slide off of a smooth surface, and in household plumbing, drainpipes are set to a four degree slope to ensure that waste water flows easily but quietly.

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In 1936, passage on The Hindenburg, between Germany and the US, cost $400; converted to today’s dollars, that would be between five thousand and six thousand, depending on how the conversion is calculated.  For comparison, first class passage on a fast boat was $240.  The Hindenburg would make the crossing in no more than three days; its fastest crossing was forty-three hours.  A fast boat would take five or six days.  For people who could afford it, getting there in half the time was worth paying nearly twice as much, particularly when comfort was only slightly compromised, and any risk of seasickness done away with.

For further comparison, the standard of transcontinental fixed-wing air travel in the thirties was set by United Air Lines Boeing 247.  For $160, United would take you from New York to San Francisco in twenty hours, with five to eight stops along the way.  In those same twenty hours, for still more comparison, the Twentieth Century Limited would take you from New York to Chicago for $52.

Now contrast The Hindenburg’s reading room (below left) with the 247’s interior (below middle) and the 20th Century Limited‘s observation car.

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I have yet to write the passage of my War Correspondent novel in which a woman who travelled on The Hindenburg wistfully recalls the absolute wonder of it some twenty years later.  If you don’t want to wait, you might want to visit The Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and see the Hindenburg replica there.

 

The Grand Tour – Not Just For the 1%

In a world where most travel is vicarious, just a few clicks away, the concept of the Grand Tour may seem wasteful or even immoral.  Something for the 1%, or, much worse, the people who want to be like them, the wannabees, nobles plotting to become royalty (or whatever the 21st century equivalent is).  I believe that it isn’t – but that it has also changed shape, to become almost unrecognizable.

English Gentleman on Grand Tour in Rome

So what, exactly is this Grand Tour thingy? Well, there’s a long, complete article on Wikipedia, of course (which is where the image above of an English gentleman posing in Rome came from), but for our purposes, suffice to say that it was a custom among upper-class gentlemen to take a long trip to continental Europe after finishing their university studies.  It is mainly associated with British gentlemen, but was practiced in most of northern Europe as well as North and South America.

Ah, it’s just like when modern college kids finish college, then, and it’s nothing special.

No, it’s not.

While the purported objectives of both kinds of trips are similar (get to know other cultures), that is where the similarities end.  While a typical modern student trip might involve coming into continued contact with the local populace and seeing the local culture, a Grand Tour would would put one in contact with the creators of that local culture, as well as an understanding of why that culture exists, from the horse’s mouth.

The differences don’t end there…  A grand tour would last months, even years even had youth hostels existed during its heyday, no one on the tour would ever have gone near one.  No, if you’d been visiting the continent, you would have been lodged at the homes of notables in the countries you visited.  You would have been exposed to the top of society, as opposed to the bottom and sides.  There’s a much clearer view from up there, of course, which meant that the Grand Tour would create a much deeper understanding and, in so doing, remove a layer of ignorance and arrogance.  It was a good thing.

It was not universally loved, of course.  Isaac Asimov wrote a story called “Good Taste“, set in a future in which mankind has colonized parts of the solar system.  Essentially, the main character goes on a “Grand Tour” of other celestial bodies, where he gains knowledge and loses some of his prejudices – which eventually leads to serious problems (I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you’d like to read it, the story is available here).  

Fittingly, the conflict centers not on the knowledge gained but on the prejudices lost, and that has always been the Grand Tour’s greatest value.  It takes more than a couple of weeks in Paris to accept the French attitude towards sex (hell, even I was surprised that they show hardcore porn on normal cable channels, completely uncensored) or, on the other side of the spectrum, Arab marriage customs.  You need to understand the people’s quirks, get more than just a passing feel for their beliefs, and see their culture as more than just a tourist.  But in doing so, you will lose part of what makes you similar to the people back home.  It’s the fear of the different, the “contamination” that it brings, that leads to the fear, and this is what Asimov was pointing at in his story.

Of course, there is ample reason to fear, at least in the eyes of the narrow-minded.  On returning home, the attitudes of your acquaintances will seem primitive, provincial and narrow.  Their attempts to right the world’s wrongs will seem basic and one-sided.  Finally, you will not be able to resist speaking out initially out of a desire to help them expand their views, then out of frustration and, finally (if you are too dense to shut up in time), out of self-defense.

I know that among some super-rich families, this is still a custom, but other than that, there are many ways to go on the tour.  Probably the most popular is to get transferred to a job abroad.  This has the advantage that you will be living in relative luxury on company accounts, hobnobbing with the upper crust and other expats, and – though you may not enjoy it – being exposed to other default conditions.  It also lasts long enough to make a lasting impression (three years is typical).

The downside is that people with the experience to deserve a transfer are usually a bit old and set in their ways to be truly moldable.  Maybe the ideal would be to be the child of one of those expats (which has the added upside that you will possibly end up at one of these schools), but that isn’t something you can choose if it didn’t happen naturally.

As a counterpoint, being a world citizen on the internet is just about the worst way to do it.  It gives a lot of information around which to form an opinion, but none of the context that is, by definition, unwritten.  A lot of people believe they have had contact with other cultures or ideas, based on their online adventures.  That is about the same as saying that you’ve climbed Everest because you’ve seen pictures taken from the top.

Anyhow, I think that, if at all possible, everyone should be exposed to an immersion in a different culture at an early age – or at an advanced age.  And never stop teaching what you’ve learned, even if most people won’t want to hear it.