Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thanksgiving in Krakow

Going to Krakow for three days was certainly veering away from the path I’ve been on lately – backtracking, really. Considering I was in Prague and Bratislava in late July and early August, it is a strange choice to fly all this way from Dublin. But my great network of awesome international people includes an old friend from Duluth named Morley, who is currently teaching in an international school in Krakow. And when you have a friend who’s living somewhere in Europe, you don’t just not go to that place while you are also visiting the continent.

Cathedral in the Market Square

And, oh my god, I’m so glad I didn’t miss Krakow! Not just because it was great to hang out with someone who I know well for the first time since August. But people kept saying to me “Oh Krakow is wonderful! You have to go!” and they were so right. Even if it felt a little like backtracking, it was another side of the region, another way of telling a story I’ve been trying to flesh out, and they have a lot of great craft beer to enjoy.

The old streets of Krakow
It’s easy to see why Krakow is the city that Poles bring their children to learn about Polish culture. My first impressions were that Krakow is a mix between Prague (with similar architecture, culture) and London (filled with parks and green spaces.) The Market Square in the center of the city is one of the biggest I’ve seen since Mexico City, but without the huge, gapping feeling of Plaza Zócalo. It is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen yet in Europe, with fantastic architecture, historic buildings everywhere – including a spectacular church and the old town hall’s clock tower – horse-drawn carriages echoing up and down the alleyways and people milling everywhere. They were even setting up the Christmas Market with lots of evergreens and little wooden stalls, but it unfortunately opened the day after I left Poland.

The entire historic city center is everything a European city should be: cobbled streets lined with attractive shops and restaurants, a grand and historic castle upon a hill with a dragon that will spout fire in your direction and churches on every corner, each more beautiful than the last. I saw more nuns walking about Krakow than any other yet in Europe. It's a great city to wander into shops with unique, local made items, eat interesting food and learn about the history of the region.

Not everything is beautiful and wondrous, of course. Most of the city’s inhabitants burn coal to heat their homes in the freezing temperatures, so the pollution sat heavy in my lungs, bringing back a cough I had thought I was just getting over with a vengeance. All of the florescent-lit tourist shops sell the same things as every other city in the world, with a different name printed across each item of course. The twisting streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, reveal hundreds of hip bars and restaurants, a youthful energy and grittier side of the city, but of course a cloud hangs over this part of the city; you can still see hollow synagogues, memorials everywhere, the remains of the walls which were built around the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Krakow, eerily resembling lines of graves. And not far down the road is Auschwitz, the most notorious memorial to the horror humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.

In the Jewish Quarter

More than anything, it was excellent to see my old friend Morley, to make our globe-trotting paths finally cross and to spend a few nights sipping tea in her tiny apartment covered in photos of Duluth, Minnesota and our north woods home. We went out for Indian food, pub quizzes and made Thanksgiving dinner together while swapping traveling and culture shock stories, day dreaming together about the places our lives could bring us. In Krakow, it felt like winter was truly coming to the continent. I bought myself a hat and hurried through brisk streets. It’s strange to acknowledge the coming of Christmas on a whole different continent, but I’m also glad, after so many years of more or less unchanging weather season to season, to enjoy chilly nights and days here, cities filled with Christmas markets and the coming of the holidays.

Old City Hall in the Market Square.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

100,000 Words in 31 Days

I’m not really sure how one writes about writing, but it’s a lot of what I’ve been doing lately – at least it’s probably the only thing worth writing about that I’ve been doing.

My days here in Derry have slipped into a bit of a haze. This will probably be the time I look back upon when I have an infant or two at home, day dreaming about the excesses of sleep and laziness I was able to achieve for two months in Northern Ireland. The hostel is slow this time of the year and with three-six of us volunteers, even a few beds, vacuuming the whole place, a good clean in the kitchen and dusting in the common room just doesn’t take so long.

I wake up, drink my coffee while I read, clean for about an hour (if that), eat lunch, practice some Italian (why not use so much free time to try another language, right?) then I head out to the library, spread my maps, calendars from 1972, notes and reference books around me upon a table and dive back in. I usually am able to work for about 3-4 hours (a number that has been steadily rising) before I’m exhausted and need to step away, back to an evening of yoga, daydreaming about other trips I’ll go on one day, beer drinking and TV watching with my fellow volunteers. Sometimes we go out to the pubs. Usually, no.

I walk home from the llibraryeach day the long way, unless the rain is really coming down hard. Through the Bogside, looking down from the City Walls to the murals depicting the battles, rallies and IRA fighters. I take the steep hill past the street I have decided the Crilly Family – my narrators – live on, past orange, white and green lamp posts, signs reading “BRITS NOT WELCOME – IRA” and graffiti. I walk the streets, which are so incredibly different – the whole area has in fact been rebuilt – since 1972 when the book takes place, smiling and greeting the people who nod at me when they walk by.

I am writing right now with a determination and clarity I have not felt since the summer I turned fifteen, when I stayed up until 3am nightly, before the eerie glow of the family computer furiously creating the world of my fantasy novel. I know where I am going, what’s going to happen to my characters. There is an event’s list, and I highlight and mark off major events as they happen. For many, many years this book has been one scene pieced together without a clear path or ending. It feels so good to have purpose and clarity, I cannot even tell you how relieved I am to be in this place.

I even have a title, everyone. Well, I see something outlined, just out of my grasp that could be a title. I haven’t been able to jump up and get a steady hold on it just yet. But it's there.

I’m over 100,000 words into the book and almost every single one of them is new - only about 5,000 were salvageable from the wreckage of all those early drafts. Here are some things I have learned/remembered about writing in the last month:

1)      You need structure and routine to make a large-scale project like this happen. Sure, there are moments of inspiration, lightning bolts that hit you, keep you up late and can propel your creativity through a few days, weeks maybe. But after that, just like the romanticism at the beginning of a new love affair, the jolt, the clarity, the buzz tends to fade. And you’re left with a lot of work. I don’t think I’ve ever meet a writer who doesn’t feel like writing every day isn’t work. Beautiful, fulfilling, exciting work. But work. And I have to get myself off my comfortable ass and go do it. Some days I hate it. But if I miss an afternoon, especially a few days, it is so hard for me to get back into the swing of things. My creative brain responds well to consistency. I show up every day and even if the first half hour is shit, I keep saying, just a little longer, just a little longer, and eventually my fingers start moving with rhythm: the words start coming. It’s in there and I need to give myself the structure to give it space to come on out.
2)      I can’t think about being published yet. That is a recipe for becoming totally and utterly overwhelmed, for seizing up with all the doubts, uncertainties, questions of “is this readable? Is this relatable? Is this worth my time, even? Was the whole trip worth doing?!” will make creativity stop short. Plus, if I’m writing at this moment for what I believe an audience wants, I am certain that what I come up with will be utter shit. 
3)      It’s OK that I’m writing this book. For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people about this book, especially people on the road, especially people in Northern Ireland. I wondered just who the hell I thought I was, trying to tell a story I in no way lived, full of horror and details I cannot even imagine. This probably comes from my social justice background and I still admit to struggling with it from the standpoint as a person of privilege. But reactions to this project have not at all been negative, and I’m not the only author to attempt to wade into a world in which I was not born. Granted, this doesn’t automatically make it OK, but I do believe I have given the subject matter as much research, deliberate investigation and scrutiny as I could in order to honor my characters and the interesting, yet difficult situation I got sucked into exploring.

4)      I’m allowed to call myself an artist. For a long time now, I’ve cautiously skirted around the topic of being an artist. I’ve been embarrassed about the connotations, about the fact that I had not been able to devote myself to my writing in a way that felt like an “artist” should for many years now. Throughout the trip I’ve been trying out the phrase, “I’m an artist, working on my first novel” and watching people’s reactions. Mostly it’s good. In fact, I can’t say I’ve met any truly negative reactions. And it continually reassures me, makes me feel more and more like I am, in fact, an artist.

So, all in all, 31 days into the complete overhaul and rewrite of The Still Unnamed Novel, things are going amazingly. I was terrified of this time before I left home, in the weeks leading up to arriving and even now if I overthink just what it is I’m doing here. All my friends are at home, getting engaged, having their first babies and buying their first homes. And what am I doing with my life? Just living abroad, writing my first novel, traveling and exploring. 

I suppose that I can, in fact,  live with that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I Don’t Deserve This

Sometime between Pécs, Hungary and Sofia, Bulgaria, I was reading the book The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. (Not my favorite book of the trip, in case you were wondering, but that’s not exactly important.) Offhandedly, the biblical verse from the Book of Luke came up: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

Being at one time, at least, a good Catholic girl, I’ve been exposed to my fair share of the Bible. So sure; I’ve heard this one before. But at that moment, sitting on a train somewhere in the countryside of Serbia, I was struck with how much these words suddenly meant to me; how true this idea has turned out to be.

In moments of reflection, I have realized that I tend to see my life as checkmarks upon an endless list: how many cities, how many countries, how many national parks can I mark off? I think in some ways I’m getting too good at leaving. I have stirred and shaken out my life, left something beautiful and fulfilling again and again, sometimes because I had to – graduating from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, finishing a year-long contract at Friends In Deed – and sometimes because there was something somewhere in my gut saying it was time.

Honestly, I have left so many communities and friends and routines behind that if I think too hard about it all, I could fall to my knees and cry out for the horror of what I’ve missed.

What keeps me standing and always moving is knowing how much I have gained.

A day trip in Donegal
By giving up everything in my life, by walking away from friends and family and routine and comfort, I have found a new sense of myself again and again. I have found confidence, self-reliance, joy and adventure. Not that every day – especially of this trip – has been easy. Not that every day has been fun or even exciting (I do get bored on the road). But by expanding my sense of the world, exposing myself to newness and letting go, I have pushed the edges of my personality, frayed some of my world views and opened up new channels of thinking and living.

I am happy. I am so very happy. Happiness is, in my humble opinion hard to define. It is not exactly joy, not exuberance. It is not a time without sadness, fear or anxiety. But I am fulfilled. I am excited to be living right now and every day into the future, in every sense that these words can be true.

Don’t get me wrong: I was happy, very very happy before I left California in June. I had friends, stability, adventure, love. I had family not too far, I had work that challenged me. I knew at the time that I was in the middle of one of the times in my life that I will also look back on and say “wow, what an incredible life I lead.” But I left. I’ve mused over why I left, what I was called to explore and experience. I don’t have an answer, but I can say that today I feel a new kind of happiness than I’ve ever been blessed with before.

And I think that’s how life goes: happiness comes. Joy sweeps our lives as do anger and despair. It comes to everyone, uninhibited, unexpected. Undeserved, really. No one deserves the sadness and hurt they receive, and no one is deserving of the happiness they receive either. These gifts just show up, and our job is to accept them, experience them and allow them to move on when their time comes.

I've been writing about happiness. Let me explain what I think I mean here because everyone says they want it and the thing I'm calling "happiness" isn't the same thing.

Happiness is something you can’t grab hold of. If you try to claim it, to give it a name or a permanence, it will dissipate between your greedy fingers. I have learned that true happiness (for me at least) needs more than a pinch of novelty to stay alive. We will always grow tired of a certain kind of happiness, a certain way of experiencing our passion or challenge or scenery. If we are brave enough to throw out all that we think – or even know – makes us happy and safe, we are rewarded.

Everyone is looking for happiness, myself included. Some people complain and ask for joy as if they deserve it. I don’t believe anyone is owed delight or contentment. The world is not typically a joyful place to be in, and consistent delight is not what brings us long-term happiness, or a sense of identity. We need to be pushing against the edges of our personalities, taking on risks and experiencing pain and hurt in order to fully grasp who we are and what we believe.

And this brings me back to that moment on the train, reading a book and thinking about gaining life (happiness, fulfillment, grace, whatever you want to call it) by allowing yourself to lose everything you have. When you truly let go of your life in some way or another, you will always gain something greater.

People always ask me how I do what I do: how I move across the country, how I travel the world. How I have confidence. How I write 70,000 words of a book in less than a month. I just do it. I just put one foot before the other, say where I’m going, save the money and go there. I just go to the coffee shop every day and force myself to write, even if I’m not inspired, even if what comes out is total shit. Maybe I’ll have to throw it away later. It’s showing up, opening your hands up and saying “what do you have for me today, world?” that’s the important thing. I love not just the stories I gain from loosing everything, I love who I become through these acts of abandon and risk.

I am lucky, yes, but I worked for this. I am blessed, yes, but I gave up everything to gain this blessing.

I am happy, yes. I am so deeply, elegantly happy. I let go of everything, had to allow the edges of myself to disappear, and it gave me grace, depth and courage. It won’t last, not in this particular way at least. This time and place and particular form of fulfillment and joy is a gift unto itself. It’s always good to be able to look at what you have and say to yourself “wow, I will always look at this time in my life as one of the most incredible!” 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The City of Bones

I had no idea before I arrived in Ireland that the origins of Halloween are Celtic, nor did I know that Derry hosts the biggest Halloween party in Europe, with three full days of parties, arts, parades, fireworks and a carnival. It was a pleasant surprise.

Before Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Druids celebrated the Samhain Festival each year at the end of the harvests in late October. It was a kind of New Year’s Eve for these cultures, a time when the bonfires of last year were ceremonially extinguished and relit to symbolize ending and beginnings. All the crops had been harvested – if you left apples on the trees, fairies would spit on them and you could no longer eat them – and all the animals were brought in for the winter months.

Along with the fiery endings and beginnings, this day was a time when the wall between the world of the dead and our living world fell down. Ancestors would be wandering, looking to come back home and people would leave food out in their homes for ancestors who would be back to visit. Of course, along with the spirits of ancestors, malevolent spits – like fairies, banshees or ghosts – were also wandering among the living, and these evil spirits wanted to find living bodies they could inhabit in order to stay in our world. One way to be certain that an evil spirit would not inhabit your body was to dress up as something else and confuse anything lurking around while the veil between the living and the dead was briefly lifted. You could also carve a menacing face into a turnip which you would place outside your home to frighten away evil. If you were very concerned, a candle inside would enhance the effects of the protective lantern.
Of course Christianity and all of the centuries since the Druids lived in Ireland have transformed Halloween, but today it is well known that Derry is the place to celebrate the holiday. Annually 40,000 people storm the city, everyone wearing costumes (and drinking, of course). In the nights leading up to Halloween, the old city walls were covered in a live performance with fire, dancers, fire dancers and acrobats. It was a full carnival for three nights straight. They called this the "Waking of the Walls." 

The Waking of the Walls on the 30th of October
Halloween brought out a parade, fireworks,  lots of pub parties and day-long festival events for people of all ages. The parade at moments felt like the Duluth Christmas City of the North Parade with little ones dancing and bands playing, then suddenly like the May Day Parade in Minneapolis with huge papermache puppets dancing down the street. I can't really speak to trick or treating - I'm not sure I saw any, but I wasn't looking either. 

Halloween Parade

Our group before we headed out to the events all night

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Work in Derry

Ask and you shall receive, they say. I do my best to ask, with positivity and faith in the law of attraction, for exactly what I want and once again, it seems to have worked out better than I could have imagined possible.

After a week in Belfast and a far-too-short driving tour through the south west of the Republic of Ireland, I came back to Derry - you can read about the moment of return here.  Derry is a smallish (100,000 people) city in the northwestern corner of Northern Ireland. It’s the only city in Ireland that still has the totality of its’ original city walls standing, and they are some of the best preserved in all of Europe. This beautiful little city reminds me of my hometown Duluth in many ways: people are genuinely friendly, all the important things are easily navigated on foot and the water is close by. It's not a bustling capitol city, but it is full of culture and history. It was actually named the European City of Culture in 2013.

I love it not just because my book happens to take place here. I just got lucky when I picked the setting for the novel.

Derry from the old City Walls

For months I have been saying that I will find a place in Derry where I can settle in and volunteer – clean rooms, wash dishes, give tours, pull weeds, whatever anyone needs – for a bed, as I’ve done in many ways before. For one of the first times in my life, though, I came here truly without a plan. There are a few people out there who know what a big deal this is for me and can imagine why this was a little terrifying.

It only took me about a week of wandering and asking around to unearth a free bed at a hostel, one of the four in town. It turned out to be a pretty simple thing in the end: I knocked on the door, asked if they needed a volunteer for the next few months and they said sure. A few days later I brought my stuff over and made my new bed.

There are six volunteers here right now, probably more than they need this time of the year, but they don’t really loose anything by having more staff around, besides a few pieces of toast in the morning and a little more coffee during the day. It’s a good group too: we all get along and work well together. I’m the only American in the group – the others are all from around Western Europe: Spain, Germany, England. They are working on their English, taking a break from school or work. Two of them are also writers, working on their own manuscripts right now.

I now live on Asylum Road, up the hill from the City Walls and River Foyle, just a five minute walk from the Bogside, where my book takes place. I now work in the house which used to belong to the Warden of the 19th Century Asylum. The house is apparently haunted and the ghost was terrorizing several guests. Some Italians suggested a few years ago that perhaps a blessing would rid the house of the spirit, but several locals also pointed out the residents of the house were likely not Catholic and such rituals might only anger them.

I now live in a house half a block up the hill from the main hostel, where the overflow rooms are. We sleep in the attic – where the help has always belonged, no? – up 50 winding stairs, past windows giving you an increasingly beautiful view of this picturesque little city and the green hills all around. The halls of our building are drafty and our room is chilly in the evenings, but the living room in the hostel is cozy, with a fireplace, TV and couches full of blankets. We only need to clean a few hours a day, even when the hotel is completely full the evening before: with six of us, it is surprisingly quick work changing 45 beds. Everyone has three 5-hour shifts per week. It's a pretty great situation.

The view of Derry from the staircase window.
So I write in the afternoons. 2-4 hours. 1,500-4,000 words, depending on how I’m feeling. Knock on wood, right now I feel an energy and inspiration that I have not experienced since I was 14 years old, frantically writing Catching Dragonflies, my fantasy novel, in my chilly bedroom in Minnesota until well past midnight, consumed and devoted. I always thought that this was an amazing piece of my youth, but I see now that maybe it has to do with opening enough space in my life, as well as being in the middle of a life-changing story, which brings forth a lot of inspiration.  

All in all, the transition between city-hopping, Mediterranean Sun-kissed Katy to sweater-wearing, sitting still and writing in the windy rainy weather Katy has so far been successful. I remain happy and fulfilled, but in totally new and delightful ways.

Derry, looking towards the City Center from the Waterside of the river.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Corners of Ireland

Slea's Head, at the end of the Dingle Peninsula
I have always idealized Ireland, even before I came here for the first time five years ago. I remember being mesmerized as a little girl by the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, thinking about green hills, seals, fishermen and rocky coasts; imagining winter storms knocking eagerly on the doors of thatch cottages. Maybe it is because I am most connected – through the gallant memories and storytelling of my Cashman family – to my Irish heritage. The stories of Edward Cashman coming to the United States and the endeavors of generations of his offspring are well known in the family mythology. We have also managed to keep in touch with our family that stayed in the Old Country, even after several generations. I’m hoping that like many of my relatives, I’ll have the chance to go back down to County Cork and visit the Cashman Farm before I leave.

I wonder sometimes if the deep, homelike feeling I get in my bones when I’m here is a construction of my very-American desire to connect to my nearly-lost ancestry and the idea of coming from somewhere. I wonder if the reason the mists dancing along the rocky coasts of these shores make me ache is that I’m finding my way back to some hidden core of myself, or if I just love this scenery and the energy it gives.

I do know that I am not disappointed with my second trip to the country. Since I arrived on the 1st of the month, I’ve been up and down the island, from Belfast to the Dingle Peninsula, from Derry to Cork, Dublin to Galway. It doesn't matter if it comes from a sense of lost heritage or the fact that this is just an incredible place: I am enamored. Every mile of this place is fill of history, secrets and stories. There will never be enough time to see it all, especially without a car. 

The task of keeping the images of picture-perfect moments fresh in my memory overwhelms me some days here. Walking through the winding streets of colorful villages as the sweet tang of peat smoke rises from the chimneys. Boats swinging and moaning in port, lining streets and market places. Mountains and fields of Connemara giving way to the rocky hollows and ancient graves of The Burren. Slea's Head, where you can stand at the Western-most point of Europe and watch the expanse of the entire North Atlantic Sea from the cliffs of the Dingle fingers. Holding tight to an ancient stone fence, looking out upon lonely islands as they rise and fall in the restless waves while gulls scream madly throughout the air. Dashing through the streets of Galway as an early winter storm breaks against the coast, the wind and the rain racing me to the warm interior of the pub.

Killarney City
Now I am surrounded by the hills and glens of the north: moist and rich with the autumnal colors and full of history, terror and madness. And sheep, of course. There are millions of sheep, white wool and black faces, peaceful and unaware of how they are probably the happiest sheep in the world.

I went for a walk in Ness Woods yesterday with the other volunteers at my hostel. We wandered through groves of trees in a deep valley, along a strong river, making our way to the largest waterfall in Northern Ireland. The trees were flush with vivid fall colors, enough to rival my beloved Northern Minnesota. The cold rain would come down in spurts but then the sun would emerge, calling out the deep hues of everything around us. Soon we’d see a rainbow on the horizon and know more rain was coming our way.

Yes, this wild and colorful homeland of mine is a place I am happy to stay for a while now.
Ness Woods, near Derry, after the rain.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Arriving in Northern Ireland

For weeks leading up to arriving in Ireland, anxiety crippled me in I way I have not experienced in years. I was awake late and up early with stomach pains, feeling distracted and simply off for the first time in months. I had the vague sense that it was because I was on my way to Northern Ireland without much of a plan besides, you know, achieving a lifelong goal. I was heading into something completely unknown and about to change the pace of the trip entirely.

From my comfy couch in California, 3 months in Northern Ireland researching, writing and living somewhere did not feel like a lot of time at all. It felt half-assed, honestly. I kept wondering if it would be better if I made that more like 4, maybe even 5 months. Now that I stand at the exact middle point of the trip – 13 weeks on the road, 13 more to go – I wonder what the hell I was thinking. I’ve been living out of a suitcase, wearing the same clothes and away from home forever. Three months feels like a very long time from this vantage point.

Traveling through England, I was lonely and exhausted and kind of wanted to back out of all the plans I had made. I was nervous about finding lodging, about people's reaction to my work, about actually doing the work. Which also told me I was onto something: call me a motivational poster board, but I’m pretty sure I subscribe to the idea that if you are not terrified of your goal in some way, you are not dreaming big enough.

But all my terror slipped away as the ferry from Liverpool pulled into the port of Belfast. There was something very romantic about the trip across the English Channel by ferry, watching Ireland rise out of the Atlantic to the west and pulling into that historic harbor of Belfast. I was overwhelmed in a way I had not anticipated: I expected more fear, instead I felt a huge sense of joy and achievement. As the taxi from the port pulled up to the Europa Bus Station I stepped out and sighed with delight: I returned. 

I bought myself a bottle of wine and privately toasted myself and all who have supported me in my hostel room.

When I came to Derry a week later, I walked around the city in glee, relieved that I had correctly remembered so many details, soaking it all in again with delight. It was like eating a fantastic meal, that first day in the city: when you have to keep yourself from rushing because it tastes so good and you know you should savor it, but with each bite you crave the next so strongly. I saved walking into the Bogside for last, my desert, my gift to myself after so many day dreams and plans gone right. As I stood atop the Butcher’s Gate, a place where an important scene in the novel takes place, looking down over the Bogside neighborhood, I gasped, tears welling in my eyes.

I did it. I came back. I allowed myself to stand there a moment and cry a bit. It is important to celebrate ourselves when we come to crossroads like this, I think. This is a big moment for me, as an artist and as a person. 

But arriving truly only signifies the beginning of a lot of work. There is much to get done.

This week I've spent lots of hours in museums and the library, reading and soaking in lots of information and history. It's like taking a refresher course on something you spent your entire college career studying but you haven't really thought about critically for a decade or so: I kept smacking my head and going "Of course! Yes! I remember!" and filling my notebook with dates and notes. The really incredible thing about this region is that no one feels like their story was heard throughout the entire Troubles, so everyone wants to tell whoever will listen, and it's ripe with energy to soak in if you open yourself up a bit.

Each morning I go for a walk through the Bogside, look at the murals, walk up the hill to the city walls, run my hands across them. Maybe I go to the library and read. Maybe I go to a coffee shop and write. I'm trying to reestablish a routine: the most important thing to my prolonged artistic flow. Writing at the same time every day, at least 4 hours. Its slow starting, honestly. But I know where I'm going more clearly than I ever have before, and I'm surrounded with so much new information each day. I just need to keep showing up, I tell myself. 

I have unfortunately realized by picking through what remains of all my past work that I need to start over entirely with a fresh Draft 2. Maybe only a few pages can really be salvaged from the tens of thousands of words already written. With hundreds of pages written over the last 7 years, its a hard truth to face, but it also makes sense - what I have now is jumbled, the style changes often and it's a mess, frankly. Some major ideas need to be cut entirely, continuity needs to be added and in general, I just need to give the whole thing new life. Which is both annoying and a huge relief.

At any rate, one week in the city and I'm giddy and delighted to call this place home. I am still terrified of all the work I have to do, I still struggle with explaining to people my real reason for coming to Derry, afraid to admit the magnitude of the project I'm undertaking, but I'm here, I'm opening my computer each day, and I'm writing, damn it!

The Bogside area of Derry, where my book takes place.

Turkey 3 - The Wonders of the Ancient World

The sunset at the Pamukkale 

We awoke that morning on the deck of our boat in the Mediterranean to thunder on the northern horizon. Above us, the sky was clear as the sun rose and filled in the pale early morning colors of the air. But to the west, over the mountains at the shoreline, clouds were gathering. Groggily, we folded our blankets and sheets, piling our mattresses and covering all the bedding just as the rain began to fall lightly and deliciously. As we pulled away from the dock where we spent the night, breakfast was served and the rain fell just enough to create a full rainbow across the sky, then faded as we arrived at a cove for one final swim before pulling back to shore.

From the Kekova islands we headed northwest along the coast to the small city of Dalyan, a pretty little town along canals leading from a huge lake to the place where the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas meet. Dalyan was probably my favorite city we visited the entire trip, filled with lots of shops, coffee shops and restaurants – and I say that only partly because of a great karaoke and dancing night out we had as a group. There was also really good coffee here.

We took a boat up and down the canals in Dalyan, across the lake ringed by mountains, and to a natural hot springs and mudbath spa. After covering ourselves in sulfuric mud and letting it dry in the sun, we rinsed it off and enjoyed a soak in a hot spring. Back in the boat, we headed toward the Sea, passing spectacularly carved ruins of the tombs of ancient kings along the cliff wall. We enjoyed our final afternoon of swimming in the Mediterranean and caught several glimpses of the local sea turtles, the Caretta Caretta’s. 

The group after our mudbaths
The tombs of ancient kings in the cliffs.
The guide Elif and Erwin dancing for us on our boat ride through the canals 

By public bus, we traveled inland again, arriving in the tourist city built below the giant calcium cliffs that are Pamukkale – “Cotton Castle” in Turkish – and the ruins of the ancient Greek city Hierapolis in the hills above. The cliffs are made from the hot springs which deposit a constant stream of fresh calcium with their hot water, running through several levels of what appear to be pristine tubs washing down the hillside. You can swim in these, as well as walk barefoot up the calcium wall – a feat which takes at least 15 minutes!

Walking down through the pools of hot spring water.
This peculiar phenomena and the apparent healing properties of the waters brought travelers and pilgrims here, and atop the calcium walls are the ruins of the ancient city Hierapolis. Unlike in Greece, in Turkey you can wander through, climb and touch the ruins, making it a much more magical and personal experience. From the steps of temples, hollowed out by millions of people over thousands of years stepping upon them, to the actual marble-lined roads of the city, you get an true sense for what it could have felt like to live in these cities - a special experience indeed.
Hireapolis ruins 
The theater at Hireapolis, which was the most incredible I have seen so far.
The Library of Celsus
But exploring Hierapolis is nothing compared to the grandeur of Ephesus: truly the most superbly well-persevered city in the Mediterranean and Aegean. We traveled to Ephesus the next day and explored the ruins in the hours before the sun was setting – after most of the cruise ships that land and bring hundreds of tourists ever day have left.

In ancient times city was much more crowded than Hierapolis ever was: this was a busy and essential port city, there were many more temples and the political life was much stronger through the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. You can see and walk through the ruins of temples to Gods of all kinds, cathedrals, public toilets, bath houses, brothels, the Library of Celsus, marketplaces, a theater and what they think may be the first ever advertisement in the world – for the brothel, of course. Each street is marble lined, with headless statues rising on all sides (it was easier to just put a new head on the statue when a new emperor came into power, so these were the most fragile parts of the statues.)
Walking down the street of Ephesus,
below used to be the harbor.

Mosaic floor tiles remaining from the marketplace
Public toilets - for men only, of course.

The main road of Ephesus, all marble stonework
Before the library of Celsus
In Ephesus there are evidence of hospitals, with the medical symbol we use to this day. You can still see the mosaic floor tiles that decorated the ground before “boutique” shops in the upper class marketplace. There are slabs in public areas with games carved into them – like chess boards in New York City parks. The Library of Celsus is an incredible work of art, covered in detailing, Latin writing and statues.

All that remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World.
Ephesus was a very important city in the ancient world: just beyond the city was the ancient Temple of Atriums – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today only a single column still stands and it’s hard to get a feel for the grandeur it once held, but you can go see it for free. It is also claimed that the Virgin Mary and St. John lived here after the death of Jesus, and there is a shrine built around the house they are said to have lived in. 

Wine tasting, as usual.
While visiting Ephesus we stayed in the city of Selçuk, which had plenty of its own tourist attractions to explore and enjoy. There is an ancient basilica and mosque and the ruins of a fort and castle atop the hill in town. The streets bustle with very artsy shops, where very unique Turkish jewelry and souvenirs could be found. Just five miles into the hills is the village of Şirince, a stunning little town with beautiful villas, lots of great wine to sample and plenty of shopping available. 

As the trip was winding down and we were all feeling much healthier than we did at the beginning, each meal felt harder. Every lunch and dinner, Elif would tell us we were welcome to go on our own, but we always met her and as a whole group wined and dined. It was an awesome and interesting group of people. I felt truly lucky to once again find myself inside a dynamic that suited my energy and style of traveling!

The slopped city walls of Troy
On our last night before we traveled back to Istanbul, we stopped at the ruins of Troy – you know, the place with the horse? The whole time I was in Turkey, I felt like people had been saying “Don’t expect much of Troy, there is nothing to see there. You just go because of the story.” Elif promised us a replica horse to play on, but told us not to get our hopes up again and again. I was imagining nothing more than maybe a field with perhaps some old stones nearly disintegrated and close to the ground level. So you can imagine my surprise when we walked up to some fully formed city walls and many layers of buildings. No, it’s not Ephesus, but there is certainly something there - including that horse replica, which is good for a photo-op.

The walls of the city of Troy, probably rebuilt after the fabled events (there is one layer of city remains where it is clear a huge fire caused major damage to the city - this is when they guess the Trojan War took place), but you can see why the Greeks had such a hard time getting into the city: the walls are slopped at a slight angle, making it nearly impossible to knock them down or do much structural damage. 

There is a horse there, and you can climb in it and
pretend to be an ancient Greek, if that's your thing
On our final morning together, we traveled along the Gallipoli Peninsula, an area heavily fought over in doomed battles between Australian and Turkish soldiers in WWI. For the Australians in the group, it was like arriving at Normandy - this was a famously disastrous campaign where thousands of people who had very little at stake in the War, being Turks and Australians, lost their lives over the course of several months of prolonged fighting in 1915. The area is now a huge memorial to all of the troops killed there, both Turkish and Allied Forces. 

Coming back into Europe and Istanbul was hectic - the energy of the city sweeps you right back in. We all spent one last evening together, enjoying rich Turkish food and laughing about those first days of stomach horror. Most of us had early flights to catch, and to a myriad of places around the world, so we headed to bed early, hugging and laughing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Turkey 2 – Cappadocia to the Mediterranean

On the hot air balloon over Cappadocia, early in the morning.
“Are you alright?” One of the Canadian nurses who’s name I have not yet memorized asks me, sitting down on the bench by my side. I’m squeezing my eyes shut, gently clutching my stomach.

“I’m fine. I’m fine, thanks,” I open my eyes and smile weakly. “It’s just how it goes for me.”

My stomach is the bane of my existence while traveling, especially in countries with massively different diets. I can’t figure out what is bothering it right now, though: I ate very carefully the first few days in Istanbul. So I cruse my bad luck. We’re sitting in the lobby of the bus station, about to get on a 12 hour overnight bus to Cappadocia. And I know that once we get on the bus, we’re all headed straight to the back 17 seats, so I’m worried about my nausea keeping me awake all night as it is.

But it’s only 12 hours. I can do anything for 12 hours, yes?

The pains continue to shoot through my stomach as we settle into our seats on the bus. My roommate Victoria sits next to me, an Australian girl who’s also been traveling through Europe for several months and also come to Turkey after months of dreaming about it. The group I’m traveling with is a diverse mix of Australians, Americans, English folks and Canadians, with one woman from Mexico – 16 of us in total; 2 men and 14 women. We’re all in our late twenties or early thirties. Incidentally the group also contains 4 nurses, one woman who worked as a nurse for 12 years and a hospital administrator, so you'd think if anyone had any health problems, we'd be in good shape.

The bus stops every 2 hours or so for 20 minutes so everyone can use the toilets or get some more snacks. We all sleep shakily, heat blasting on our feet and air conditioning blowing down from above our heads. I curl into several different kinds of balls, contorting and waking myself up when my muscles have clenched any one way too long. The dull ache in my stomach, agitating to shooting pains whenever I move at all, remains the entire night. It’s not quite nausea, and it’s not my normal “something’s not sitting well” pain, which worries me but I try to ignore it as best I can while we're on the bus, counting down the hours.

As the sun rises and we near Goreme, the village we will stay in, our tour guide Elif stands up from her seat, looks back and quiet starts chirping, “kak kak kak! This is how we say ‘wake up!’ in Turkish. Kak kak kak everyone!”

Others begin to moan and twist in their seats as Elif mentions breakfast will be ready for us when we arrive at the hotel. One woman has broken away from our section in the back of the bus, sprawling across several seats as far ahead as she can get, afraid she’ll become ill soon. We arrive at the hotel and everyone collapses and curls up into a chair in the lobby, head in their hands, moaning and groaning at various pitches and tempos.

No one wants, or needs, to know anything more about the stomach virus that took almost every single one of us down on our first day in Cappadocia. It was a bad one, to say the least.

So all I knew of this enchanting, surreal landscape of valleys filled with bizarre “fairy chimneys” was a blur from those last, curvy miles on the bus as the sun rose and the report of a good hike Victoria took with Elif early that afternoon before she too landed in bed, unable to do much by moan and puke for a good 24 hours.

But enough talking about that...

The thing everyone does in Cappadocia is take a hot air balloon ride as the sun is rising. It’s the best way to see the landscapes of the area and it’s probably one of the most unique places in the world to take a hot air balloon ride. This was not included in our budget trip, and I was on the fence, but after seeing photos from the group who took the tour the week before us, I was convinced that if I ever wanted to take a hot air balloon ride, Cappadocia was the place to do it. That night, when Elif came into our room with two plates of plain rice and some Sprite, even though I could hardly sit up without feeling faint and sending pains shooting down my stomach, I rolled off my bed and found my credit card so she could sign me up for the 4:50am ride.

Our views from the hot air balloons over the fairy chimneys and hills.
I honestly don’t know how everyone in the group rallied, nor do I know what our balloon operator thought of us, leaning against the basket, pale faced and dazed, but everyone made it that morning for a spectacular sunrise balloon ride, and some of us even shared in the (nonalcoholic) champagne toast when it was over.

Those of us who were well enough spent the day wandering through the Open Air Museum, a collection of ancient cave churches where some of the first Christians hid their new religion from the Romans. The rock of Cappadocia is relatively soft and these mazes of valleys were perfect hiding places. In the caves are perfect domes, ancient paintings of saints, bodies of the original priests and stone altars. No more than 20 or 25 people could have crammed into each of these tiny holy places at once and with the plethora of tourists moving in and out of each one, it was hard to imagine this being a very solitary hiding place. 

Church carvings and paintings in the Open Air Museum

In the Open Air Museum
We also toured an underground city, another hiding place for the original people of the region – the Hittites – and later the early Christians. The “city” was really a maze of caves and hollowed out caverns where hundreds of people and their animals could hide from invaders for months at a time.

We climbed the “castle” which was more of a fort, filled with rooms and tunnels carved into a tall stone hill for a fantastic view of the entire Goreme and Pigeon Valleys around us. We also got a Turkish rug weaving lesson from a local woman and visited a gallery of artisan carpets, getting to touch and roll around on the difference between a wool and a silk rug. 

The Evil Eye tree overlooking Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia
Rugs on display
Showing us how to make Turkish knotted carpets,
supposedly much more long lasting than Persian rugs.
Perhaps the most interesting adventure of Cappadocia was the very authentic Turkish Bathhouse. I went to a “bathhouse” in Hungary, but my god, I had no idea what this actually meant until I was in a room with 14 other naked women, laid out in marble slabs getting a rub down with rough material to remove all of our dead skin, then a silky soap massage while our Turkish masseuses shouted and laughed around us. Then there was the olive oil rub down and of course the apple tea afterwards. If we were not already intimate because of the stomach flu we had all shared, this certainly brought us close together quickly.

Another free day of hiking and shopping in Cappadocia, and everyone was more or less recovered before a second overnight 12 hour bus ride to Antalya, near the Mediterranean. After a rainy, lazy day in the village of Çirali we woke up early to climb Turkey’s Mount Olympus and see the flaming rocks – a phenomena that is somehow perfectly natural, but totally surreal. It’s not surprising the locals assumed a dragon was trapped under their regional mountain. 

The fiery rocks of Mount Olympus
Finally, we hit the coast, driving along a beautiful, scenic – though curvy – road to a port near the Kekova Islands, where we boarded our private boat, complete with bar, a tiny kitchen from which came the most delicious food, and a top deck where we would spend the night sleeping under the stars. On the boat, we did nothing but relax and lay in the sun, which was pretty incredible. The captain would drive us to one inlet of clear warm, Mediterranean water after the other, let us jump off and swim for an hour or so, then move on to another. 

The Australian girls and I at the front of the boat, enjoying a beer after a swim.
The Kekova Islands.
Our boat home as the sun set.
As we snaked our way through the islands to the port where we spent the night, we passed by the sunken ruins of an ancient Greek port town. As the waters rose in the last centuries, the ruins of the city fell below the sea level centimeter by centimeter, and now there are only skeletons of structures on the cliff walls. But from at the bottom of the sea, if you have a boat that you can look down at what lies beneath the water, you can see shards of pottery, house foundations and other relics of the lives lived along the shores thousands of years ago. 

The ruins of a sunken Greek city.
That night, happy, healthy and sleepy we all lay down on the upper deck of the boat, while Isa from Mexico told us bed time stories, including the Greek myth of how the Aegean Sea got it's name. In the distance, the call to prayer sang through the hills from the village in the port, and the moon rose as a firey red sliver above us. The sky awash with stars, I lay there, thinking about all the roads millions of people have taken over the centuries to arrive here, in the Mediterranean. And here I am among them, all those stories and memories and histories, weighed down the grandeur, and grateful for the chance to be among the waves.