Archive | November, 2011

Spiritual experiences in an agnostic traveller

20 Nov

I was brought up a Catholic, but since my teens I have  been an agnostic. When I was in Sicily, I went with some colleagues of mine to see the Shrine of Santa Rosalia above Palermo. There was the usual religious tat being sold outside- hologramic postcards of Christ and a popular cult priest, dishcloths with Saints on it, and so on. This didn’t surprise me or my colleagues, but what really surprised was the inside of the shrine.  It was located in a cave inside Mount Pellegrino. There was a glass reliquary with an effigy of St. Rosalia lying in it. People had left inside the reliquary either objects of devotion – valuable silver hands, and other such peculiarities – or lots of banknotes and messages on pieces of paper, thanking the Saint for some small miracle or other that she had performed for a member of their family or old friend. There was also statue of the Madonna standing on an altar nearby. A halo crowned her head,  lit up with bright, gaudy lights. When we got outside, my colleagues admitted they had been shocked. It went against their Protestant- agnostic souls.

I did not have a spiritual experience in Sicily, though this at times gorgeous island can lend itself to that. Who can fail to be impressed by the view from the tower in Monreale, or from the Norman castle in Erice which was built on what the caretaker described as a sacred bordello. You could see the temple of Aphrodite from far out at sea, apparently.  Maybe realising the point of certain places is a kind of spiritual experience. Instead of being disappointed by Troy, you can stand on a mound and look out over the plains that were once covered in sea, and imagine you are King Priam scanning the horizon for Greek ships. Perhaps that only qualifies as an experience of the imagination…

I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but though it was lovely, all those blue tiles giving the impression of sea and sky and space, I was a only little uplifted spiritually.  Likewise the pocket-sized Byzantine churches in Kastoria, the Chora in Istanbul, the old Greek church in Ayvalik, and so on. In all these places I felt a calmness, that still small voice of calm the popular hymn talks about, but in a totally different context. The architecture, frescoes, icons and patterns on tiles were all there to be appreciated for their beauty.The space of the place, if you like, was to be appreciated for its calm, for getting away from the ugły roar and the rant of the outside world.

How about swimming in a  beautiful, cool, clear Polish river surrounded by forest, on a hot June day. That was as close to a natural spiritual experience as I could get, and that left my head buzzing. No imagination required, just soak it all in.

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12 Nov

This is waiting for the celebrations on Polish Independence Day.

Food and Polish Independence Day

11 Nov

I’ve had many memorable meals, from excellent Satay and Nasi Goreng in Indonesia to unmentionable Fish and Chips in a chippy in North London, where the chips probably were two days old. They weren’t just swimming in grease, they were sliding, diving and crawling through it. I’ve had excellent Steak and Ale Pie in Norfolk and an unusually horrible meal in Italy, in a trattoria in Palermo. The  chef came out of the kitchen and told us we were insulting his professionalism when we complained. My wife was poisoned by a red mullet once in a place in Greece that should have known better, and where the menu read: Squib in Tomatoes. I advise anyone if they should ever dine at a taverna in Greece and read that squib is on  the menu they should leave the establishment at once. On the other hand, there is another place in Greece close by to the offending one which served simply wonderful Stuffed Aubergines, and Beef in Lemon Sauce, while its wine from the barrel was not first class.  Wine from the barrel at an excellent trattoria in Agrigento in Sicily  accompanied my and my companions’ visit to the Valley of the Temples, where we poured libations to the gods at every temple we visited. I invented some poetic lines (read: doggerel) before every offering.

I will never forget the first meal I had in the Czech republic, which was in a pub-restaurant round the corner from the language school I was about to work in. For starters, they watered down the beer, so that some of the boozers who basically hung around all day would not become tired and emotional.  I actually saw the manager of the place shoving a hose in to an open barrel and switching the tap on from a discreet wall at the back of the building to help the beer go further. If you could bear the watered down beer, the meals there were perfectly acceptable, and cheap as well.

I can never forget some of the Turkish food I tried in Istanbul, Ayvalik, and Pergamon.

As already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I like Polish food. Today I tried some goose cooked in the style of the 1920s. A local hotel had decided to organise an exhibition of soap and soap products from the 1920s to the present day, a cabaret,  and a detective murder mystery game. This explained why there were some people mysteriously dressed as Polish Counts and Countesses who have found themsleves in a Agatha Chritie novel of the 1930s. The screen above the bar was playing a montage of early Polish commercial films with 20s and 30s music. The reason why we were here though was to try their Obiad Marszalowski , a reward for us after we had watched the Polish Independence Day parade.

Today was a holiday and it was a sunny, if not especially warm day. Normally, we would have gone somewhere else, say Gdynia or Poznan, but I had a strong cold, so we decided to stay here. My wife and I were on our way down to the festivities when we were accosted by a lady who wanted us to help her put her Polish flag up outside her house. In fact she had already got someone to do this; instead of this,  she was keen to point out that Poland had endured 150 years under the domination of other countries at various points.  She basically wanted a chat.  After saying goodbye, we ventured on and got to the Market Square.

 A large crowd of people had all gathered in  anticipation of the military parade that was about to take place.  A group of pigeons hung around the old pistachio building on one side of the square, perching on the balustrades as if also looking forward to the parade, with their fine view of the proceedings. Children rushed around in the middle of the cobbled street, sensing the excitement.  The weather was just warm enough for people to hang around and wait for the events without stamping their feet. The military band, their blue berets like coloured rocks in a sea of people, were  waiting like the crowd. They were more stoical than their civilian counterparts. A police whistle blew somewhere, but nothing happened.

The professional photographers and TV people started to move, an indication that something was about to happen. Standard bearers appeared at the back. Suddenly, the wind cooled.  The military band struck up.  Following the band and its jaunty tunes, and the fluttering flags of the standard bearers,  a lot of local Top Brass, veterans, the police,  various officials, Boy Scout-Girl Guide groups, the mayor and his henchmen. Bringing up the rear were the local football team supporters, today looking far less hooligan – like than their reputation would suggest, and a group of people who held a very long strip with the Polish flag imprinted on it.

The crowd followed the band up to the classic-vintage car show parked on the pavements, and after admiring the cars, we went in for our goose. The dish, cooked according to a 1920s Polish recipe, was made with a mustard sauce and was rather good, though perhaps a little on the rich side.   

Though it was a good meal, it was really the occasion here that made the meal memorable.

Ragoutsaria, or the Kastoria carnival

8 Nov

I know this is supposed to be about Poland, but at the moment, as I’m following some of the prompts from Bootsnall, I am thinking back to other places. Before I leave the subject of Poland, however, I’d like to point out that in Kujawsko Pomorskie region there is a (fun) carnival season, but there is no one town here that specialises in carnivals, unlike the town I am going to talk about now.

The Ragoutsaria takes place every year in early January, in Kastoria, a town in Northern Greece, right up on the borders of Albania and Fyrom. It is famous for its lake, its fur and its beauty, and of course the carnival. A curious combination.  It was once again a long time ago, but in early January of 1993 I attended it. In those days, settled gipsy musicians came in from the hills, and for three days played the same three tunes over and over again while the good citizens of Kastoria got drunk and partied in the streets. The first day was a kind of prelimnary, the second day was the spontaneous one when anyone could dress up as they wished , and the third and final day was the parade.

What distinguished the Kastoria carnival in those days was its apparent spontaneity, and its close links to the Ancient Greek Dionysian festivals in which all the notions of being under the spell of the god was Maenadic – if you apply the Bacchantes to both sexes, rather than exclusively female. For a start the lyrics of the tunes (nobody sang, so you never heard these) were bawdy. Secondly, the same repeated rythms and tunes cast a kind of hypnotic spell not unlike that of the fire-walkers of Langadas, only there was no fire-walking at the end of this, but plenty of dancing. Fuelled with drink and the insistent repeated tunes, people could and did go on and on dancing in the streets all night.

My own contribution to the second day was minor – I dressed up as Einstein, but nobody who I knew and saw in the street realised this – I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that I thought this was rather a poignant metaphor, but it made me chuckle. I wasn’t a member of one of the groups who do the final parade on the last day, but I hung around to watch it, and it was what everyone feared it would be : too good, too professional,  like the Patras carnival, though it had moments of real spontaneous madness. What were those tube like creatures?

The kindness of strangers.

5 Nov

I’ve often encountered kindness from strangers when travelling – but not last year. I remember once when I was walking along a street in Athens with a heavy backpack, trying to find the local metro station, and I passed a man standing by a van. ‘Where is …. station?’  I asked him. ‘It’s a long way, and it’s not straightforward’ he said, ‘if you hang on a second, I’ll take you there.’ So he gave me a lift in his van, all the way to the tube station.

Another time, I had a heavy computer and printer, and was trying to get to the centre of Thessaloniki from the airport. I would have taken the bus, but for the computer.  I told the taxi driver, ‘I only have x drachmas; could you drive me nearly as far as the meter will show and then drop me off at the y  hotel because the bureau de change there  will be open today.’ All banks were on strike that day, and the only place you could exchange money was in selected hotels.  It was about half-way there, and very close to the hotel in question when the meter clocked up the amount. I gave him the money, but instead of opening the boot for me to collect the computer, he waved away my protestations, ushered me back into the taxi and drove me all the way into the centre of town, anyway, to another hotel where I could exchange money. I took the computer out this time and he helped me put it in to the foyer.  When I had emerged from the bureau de change he had gone.

These are two small examples of the kindness of strangers, both happened in Greece and a long time ago. Strangers have been kind to me everywhere, though, from the Indonesian Muslim leader of the village who invited us in for lunch after a long trek across miles of paddy fields when the boat returning us from Pulau Dua to Banten had broken down and three Indonesians and myself had  just floated randomly in to somewhere in Java, to the person who helped me find something I had lost in Wroclaw.

I’d like to think that I’d returned this kindness though, occasionally. I was walking down the road in an outlying district of Prague when a British girl who was completely lost  asked me how to get to a hostel I had never heard of. ‘Do you know the name of the street,’ I asked her. She showed me. ‘Wait there for a few minutes,’ I said. I dashed back to my flat which was round the corner, grabbed a map, came back to the girl who was still standing there and showed her the street on the map. I pointed out where we were, and gave her directions using the map, and then gave her the map. This year, if kindness to strangers should be called upon, I hope to continue returning the compliment.

music, nostalgia, and travel

3 Nov

Okay, this is the easiest one for me to relate to, as I often associate music with travel, and not necessarily music about travel. For example, whenever I hear The Beach [now more commonly known as ‘At The Secret Beach’]  by Mikis Theodorakis, sung by many different singers in many different ways, I am reminded of my childhood holidays in Greece, when it was often played on juke boxes on ferries. The bouzouki opening and the bittersweet vocals, are like olive groves in the shimmering heat of a midday summer. But I also like it as an adult because of my re interpretation of the lyrics.  The lovers at the end of their romance, knowing that this is the last time, and they are trying to get what is left of it while they walk on the beach. The lyrics were in fact a poem by Nobel Prize winning poet Seferis, and yet I think Theodorakis captures perfectly the mood of the poem in his music. I have projected the meaning to refer to doomed holiday romances, and that is as nostalgic as one can get.

WhenI was a teacher in Thessaloniki, in Northern Geece, the locals were big fans of Rembetika, Laika and ‘Post-Rembetika’ music.  One of my students gathered a cassette of Greek songs and gave it to me as a Christmas present, and whenever I play some of the lovelier ones, like Kali Mera Ilie,   I am reminded of the forests of Northern Greece. the plunging gorges near the Prespa region and some of those villages clinging to the hillsides. And of course, my time in Thessaloniki. I was not always happy there, but I so loved this part of Greece. I still have on film my Greek friends charging around the streets of the old town pretending to be spies following me. I remember Kallia, one of the people who consented to appear in the project, commenting that my take on Thessaloniki was too like Beirut (this was when the Lebanon was still recovering from the war) for comfort. She had that dark humour that Greeks claim is a British preserve.

What reminds me of the Czech Republic?  Dvorak and Smetana. Listen to the Slavonic Dance in E minor by Dvorak. It is Prague. The old streets, the castle,  those monuments all conspiring together with the bustle of life in it to make a rich and enduring harmony.  And what about the second movement of the From My Life Quartet by Smetana? Those soulful Czech girls.  Enough said.

I could go on and on and on. The spookiness of Bartok in The Miraculous Mandarin. Switch it on when you ąre appoaching a Mittel European castle which is supposed to be haunted. As I said to some of my Polish students only today, never underestimate the power of legend to lend something to a building or monument. Look at Bran Castle in  Romania or Cachtice castle in Slovakia.

And what about the Stranglers? I have memories of wandering down various beaches in Bali with one of their most famous songs, Peaches, singing in my ears. If I wanted something that connected me more with the locals than with the tourists, however, some Gamelan music was required, but I had to admit I found it hard going.

Nowadays,  I tune in to the Long and Winding Road and Across the Universe, two of my favourite Beatles songs, and I find I am transported across continents. They may be sad songs, but they are travelling ones.

Travel goals in the last year.

1 Nov

My travel horizons haven’t diminished since settling in Poland, but  I have reduced the travelling distance, in other words getting to know Poland, especially this part of Poland. No longer do I stroll around various destinations as far removed as Borobodur or Ljubljana. You won’t necessarily see me wandering the streets of Munich or Venice, Ayvalik or Bandung, though I’d love to check out the ghosts of Singapore. I think getting to know your adopted country is just as interesting a form of travel if you happen to be in that position. So, I aimed to swim in at least two new lakes and one new river last year, but I ended up in swimming in the same river as I had before twice, and in two new lakes.

I wanted to see a few more castles in Poland. In previous years, I had seen castles in Warsaw, Szczecin, Gniew, Golub, Malbork and others, but this year it was more cathedrals than castles. Poznan cathedral and Farrah church, Gniezno cathedral and Gdansk cathedral.  As you can glean from this, I like castles, churches and swimming, and what you can not glean from this is I also saw old mansions, which I also like. 

For example, for art lovers, there is a little secret place in the grounds of  Rogalin. Let us keep it a surprise for visitors to the place.  The national museum in Poznan has an awesome collection of art, both Polish and international. You can mix your Malczewskis with your Tintorettos, but actually some of the lesser known paintings are the real stars of the show.   On the way to Poznan from Torun and Bydgoszcz, there is also a folkloric park where I stood in a typical peasant homestead and bought fabulous farm made sausages and a few bottles of beer from a tiny local brewery. On the subject of microbreweries, Poznan has one which is famous all over Poland and yes, the beer is great.

As for my adopted home town, it still has good pubs, but I do not visit them that often. Married life diminishes the need to prop up bars. I plan in the future to interview the owner of one of them, a jazz pub, if he allows me, as he is a talented jazz drummer in his own right, and bung it here on the blog. It is only a plan… As for future travel plans, we shall see.

My wife and I went also to Greece for a summer holiday. Greece really is in crisis, but there was some humour about it all. There were menus in Athenian tavernas called Crisis Menus, i.e. cheaper than usual.  The waiters were more attentive. One of them in the Plaka district introduced me to the chef because he happened to come from the island we had gone to. For the first time ever, in a taverna we had been to before a few times, the owner produced a till receipt with the bill. Gone are the days when island people would flap a white handkerchief in the middle of the seafront to warn others that the taxman from Athens cometh off the ferry.