images-1 Different cities match up to to different descriptors and monikers, some better known examples being the Big Apple for New York, La Serenisima (Venice), Tinseltown (LA) and El Kahira or the City Victorious for Cairo. For me,  the word that personifies Vienna is “gracious.” Of course this choice has to do with my experiences there, but compared to other European cities that I have enjoyed, this city truly wields her considerable charms with a grace unmatched (for me at least) by others I have visited.

I began this post last (2011) summer, after my second extended visit to Vienna, when I got to relive my first enchanted stay there in the same enchanted apartment, revisit old haunts and discover new favorites places to enjoy the next time I get there (whenever that will be). But why gracious of all words? There is despite it’s basically positive tone, a note of something perhaps a little staid, not so young and maybe even just a little condescending in the word gracious. And funnily enough I think it’s the full import of the word with all it’s positive and negative baggage that makes it such a perfect match for Vienna. For Vienna is not primarily a young city, teeming with energy and offering something for everyone. No, it’s a city for a peculiar sort of tourist,  indisputably beautiful with gorgeous facades on buildings churches, and Gustav Klimt lurking in unexpected nooks – but also less energetic than your usual holiday fare and somewhat expensive (hence the note of condescension?) Cafes look like living rooms with velvet lined furniture and evoke images of bygone eras when gentlemen still kissed the hands of ladies. not their cheeks as they do now. For some reason, these cafes reminded me of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin who pined for the days when one could sip champagne from a lady’s slipper. Culturally apt or not, the scene (it has to be a pink satin slipper) is just the sort of graciousness that I imagine when I think of Vienna.

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The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

Where do you consider home to be?” It’s a question I’ve been asked it often enough (not really surprising considering) and the most recent occasion set off a bout of introspection, which in turn, predictably enough has led me to these pages…

So where is home really? The glib answer I suppose, is “wherever I happen to be,” though that’s not always true. In fact, as I told Kelly when he asked, home for me is tied to people more than it is to places, though the latter naturally have their place (!) in the equation. For instance, if I think about it, I’ve always referred to visiting my parents as “going home,” regardless of where they are, Chandigarh until the mid 90′s and since then, Bangalore most of the time, but also Hawaii several times (including this summer if I make it). And when I lived in Heidelberg, going to see Sanja in Bern also felt like going home, even though the former is objectively speaking the lovelier of the two!

But even the answer “people” doesn’t quite cover it. Going to see Sanja last year in Murten for example was lovely but the ‘home’ feeling gelled only after we’d driven to Bern and visited some old haunts. So while both place and people play a role, ultimately I think, home for me is a state of mind.

Come to think of it, I’ve actually used that precise description before. In an interview of sorts three summers ago in Vienna (another ‘home’ I shall be revisiting in less than a week actually). Can’t think why it didn’t come back to me immediately when the question came, but there it is. Home as a state of mind rather than a matter of location is where it’s at for me.

When I first got here in February, Cairo was definitely home in my head. As recently as a few weeks ago, when Dad flicked on an international news channel and I heard the commentator’s voice, speaking in the heavy Egyptian accent, I sighed sentimentally, “the sounds of home.”  Which gave my Mom a chuckle. Funnily enough, I had known from the get go that there was a finite-ness to my stint in Cairo, that it would never be a permanent home. I went for the 3 year-post doc to begin with, and stayed for 3-1/2, feeling miserable (as regular visitors to this blog learned at their peril perhaps)  about having been forced to do so. Professionally, I think I was ready to leave Cairo midway through my second year… but on a personal front, it was entirely different. That sense of ‘belonging’ in a community, came early and never left even if the particulars of whom I belonged with changed a bit from year to year. In that case, no contest! it was the people side of the scale, hands down that won the day in setting my state of mind. Elissa, Salima, Peter, Belle, Michel & Louise, Steve & Helen, Hoath, Duncan, Yasir and Suf, Maria, the list goes on and on… But I’ve loved people before, just taken them with me after a fashion to my new home. So it really shocked me that leaving Cairo hurt as much as it did for as long.

Part of the reason was of course the intensity of everything my last days there.. sharing in the revolution experience in different ways with different people… made leaving a wrench! So much of a wrench in fact that I was quite determinedly unhappy when I first got here, despite being sure that the food was better here (and everyone who anything about me knows how important that is!), and that the landscape (once winter was done with anyhow) would be green in the way I like, and not the dusty crumbling veneer that seems to coat all things in Cairo (even some of the people) and get me depressed sort of. But arriving here, sick with the ‘flu and hacking dry cough, to sub-zero (in degrees Celsius at any rate) temperatures and being relegated to teach a distant campus did not bode well for my state of mind any time soon.

Even without that additional isolation, the international faculty size is smaller here,  wa-a-ay smaller and I was part of an incoming “cohort” of 2! Compare this to Cairo where there is an average of 60 incoming folks every year. So there we had our initial community walking in, whether or not we stayed with them. Here in Seoul, people went out of their way to be nice upon my arrival but it wasn’t the same. Or I wouldn’t let it be. At least not at first. I missed my kitchen, my mealtimes, and my friends. I was the sole non-Korean female. I’d have imaginary conversations with Salima, Peter & Duncan (and when I could catch them on skype, the real articles and Belle and Helen as well) as I disconsolately wandered in my apartment (albeit with toasty toes tho thanks to the floor warming of feature in Korea that I’ve loved from the get go). So used I had become in Egypt to cooking for hordes and having left-overs that lasted no more than a few days that I gave myself a bad attack of food poisoning, having left a stew for too long in the fridge and eating it without realizing it had turned. [Lesson: spicy leftovers and anosmia do not mix. When in doubt, chuck/bin or otherwise dispose of food items].

But gradually, inevitably, things change. And bad things like good, come to an end. My first term is nearly over (hard to believe but it’s true) and I am achieving a sense of equilibrium. I cannot mark the exact turning point, though a previous blog post links it to the start of school as the beginning of the process. Springtime was beautiful and a hike in the local area with Jon and Kelly was oh-so-restorative to my spirit. Then there are the cafes. Seoul has cafes for every mood, and there’s at least one near my apartment, where I’m recognized as a r’glar. (Am discovering many more to go camp out at with papers and reads thanks to Jesse). The bumping into folks in the foyer and spontaneous gatherings for meals. Being invited to play hookie from the daily grind to share a long, Parisian-style birthday lunch (complete with lots of wine and great foie gras) All of which have contributed greatly to a growing sense that here too there is a belonging. (I still have my imaginary conversations but they are fewer and farther between, though the real ones still continue, I’m glad to say on skype etc.)  Now that summer is upon us, Jon and I have taken to appropriating the central gazebo in the complex in the evenings, sipping wine and chewing the fat with friends… Jesse, Paul, Kelly, Hwa Yeon… whoever can join us really. I’m off in a week for about 2 months, and while I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to that (who couldn’t when Vienna beckons with the full force of her charms?) there is a part of me that is also looking forward to returning. Insidiously, without my quite realizing it, for now anyway, Seoul has become home.

One of the reasons for my recalling the last post which had been sitting in my drafts folder all this time, is the big news that is sure to be dominating the news in the US… the termination of one big O by another big O. And while I think this news brings closure to many, even if we did not personally lose any loved ones on that fateful day the twin towers went down, and even applaud the acheivement, I am once again less than impressed with the American reaction.

So am I being a knee-jerk self-hating American in my reaction? A terrorism or Islamic apologist? Critical for the sake of being critical? None of the above. For my own sake, I’ll try to clarify why I’m reacting negatively to what is essentially a positive outcome. It has to do with what i consider the complete loss of perspective inherent in these successes and the need for self-criticism and housekeeping rather than the unbridled self-righteousness that I’ve been seeing in the aftermath.

My reaction goes back to what I consider the American tunnel-vision regarding itself and its position in the world. So yes, Osama needed capturing or killing. 9/11 was an act of utter horror and I certainly do not buy into the various conspiracy theories afloat about it being masterminded from the inside in order to raise anti-Muslim sentiments in the world. (That is absurd, and the idea very self-referential. That is, only someone who would actually consider such an extremely deranged act could even think that someone else would use such a tactic. Fundamentalists, extremists and those of similar ilk).

That said though, I would have hoped that the Americans would realize and admit their grave errors in dealing with this problem over the past decade. Instead of course the mood is egregiously self-congratulatory. That editorial in New York Times by .. who was it now.. oh yes, Maureen Dowd… about the need for revenge? Please!!  The guy is dead! Beyond our reach. Nothing we do can hurt him anymore. Get over it. Besides, he is just one man. Even worse than her column though, much worse, was the implied justification for torture. Excuse me? Precisely what information did we get about Osama via torture?

Meanwhile mistakes, costly to human lives, are being ignored or glossed over. My main point of contention for instance, the Iraq War. How in the name of anything logical does Osama’s capture justify our invasion of Iraq, wreaking terror in the region in name of the war or terror?  No wait .. that was the initial excuse.. then it shifted to WOMD and then to bringing democracy! to the region. Arrrghgh. Elsewhere of course, we continued to support the regime in Pakistan (forget about the right to democracy of the people there or their WOMD because heck we finance that and besides, without it India would be a larger threat to our identity as the arbitrators of democracy in the world!!!!) and only worked on covert operations there, even though  there was so much more evidence for Al Qaeda and religious extremism in that part of the world. But why go after the the Oklahoma bomber close to home when you can destroy Washington State on some flimsy excuse. (That comparison is just to give a sense of the geographic absurdity of the Iraq War).

Somebody (many bodies actually) were comparing this to the death of Saddam. Something I find offensive. At least Osama was a clean kill.  I was no fan of Saddam’s, but the second-hand way in which his execution was engineered and then attributed to the will of the locals still makes me cringe and leaves me feeling unbearably dirty in a I-need-to-wash-my-hands sort of way .

I am aware that this rant is disjointed and rambling – I am reminded of Donna Leon’s description of her protagonist’s wife as a woman of leftist but chaotic politics -  but I hope my main point is somewhat clear. War is always horrific. And even in incidents with decisive outcomes like bin-Laden’s death, there are no winners. Everyone loses something.

For some reason I never posted this one… and looking at it now it seems complete enough. So let me take you back to the summer of 2009 (not written until November though, hence the Nobel reference):

Obama’s Nobel for Peace may or may not turn to be a remarkable feat of foresight on the part of committee or it may simply be, as so many Republicans claim, the world thumbing its nose at GWB finally relinquishing power. I’ll admit I’m ambivalent about the whole thing (GASP!!! am I actually agreeing with the Republicans?) not for the politics of the prize-givers, which I’m in sympathy with, but because politics rather than performance seemed to have motivated the decision. I’m not sure I have much more to say on that topic, but meanwhile it serves as a peg for me to hang my overdue post about my summer-solstice visit to Oslo where I not only visited the Peace museum but also some monuments to various childhood heroes (hence the title of the post).

Stories of polar expeditions, Peary and the North Pole and the race between Amundsen and Scott to the South, were gobbled up voraciously by my 7/8-year old self, oddly enough through the text books of my older cousins when I would visit them over holidays. I rejoiced in the victories of the victors. And though I felt truly sorry for the defeat of Scott, back in those days, Amundsen was my clear favorite. Until…

Fast forward a couple of decades to Yale, where I as a new graduate student in the history of science was working on a paper on the history of neuroscience for one of the introductory courses. During the course of my research I came across another name, Nansen, whom I did not remember from the Polar stories but was a true Renaissance man. He was a contributor to a fundamental concept known as the neuron theory, that incomplete as it might be, is the basis for understanding of how the brain does the various things its supposed to. He was also an explorer – polar expeditions, ski trips across Greenland the works… and finally, as I found out in a conversation with a doctor, also won the Nobel Peace Prize for post WWI humanitarian work. I had my (unfortunately too brief) flirtation of studying this guy further as a diss possibility but language barriers, other courses, papers etc soon sent him to the bottom of the pile. And over the next decade his name got lost in the recesses of my memory.

Fast forward again to summer solstice, 2009. There I am in Oslo, and decide to go to see the Viking boat museum. Only I found out that with my ticket I could visit an entire slew of museums all over town, in Oslo and on the peninsula by the Fjord were not one but 3 museums whose main themes were boats. There was the viking museum, where I could look at the vessels of Eric the Great (or Rapine depending on perspective I suppose); the Kon-Tiki Museum whose name jogged memories of yet another book/adventure I’d read about when I was young (very nerdy kid, what can I say?) and also the Polar boat museum aka the FRAM museum. So on a lovely clear summer’s day – the quality of light in Norway at that time of year is something to write songs about and maybe one day I inshallah – I took off for my land-bound maritime adventures. And reacquainted myself with some heroes from the days when I believed in them.

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Have to admit it! Yesterday was the first day since my arrival here that I’ve felt the restoration of some sense of balance in my life since leaving Cairo. In a truly nerdy fashion it took the first day of school and the meeting of my new students to get the ball really rolling on the process.  This is not to say that my new colleagues have been anything but incredibly helpful and very friendly, but I guess I’ve been on a determinedly miserable and melancholy mindset… missing my Cairene life fiercely and going to bed having imaginary, one-sided conversations in my head with my friends there (and some real ones too thanks to Skype). Then there have been the pangs of anxiety about adjusting to various aspects of life and bureaucracy in Korea.

All told I was on slump in terms of mood, but the first impression I got from students here is that the move was certainly career-wise, so to speak. Students, at least at the outset seem engaged, even pleased to be taking these courses (History of Science [yeah finally!] and a writing tutorial and many in the latter seemed genuinely enthused about the theme. This time it is about voyages and discovery (not food), chosen because it to resonate with my recent past.

The course itself more akin to the freshman writing classes I taught at Eau Claire than to the research writing experience at AUC, but I seem to have a better handle on it, having taught the upper level course, and also learned some do-s and don’t-s in teaching writing. I do have a common book project, which I plan to integrate in with other exercises. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, seemed ideal encompassing as it does both a trip of the length and breadth of USA, and personal journey as well. He also does well on the descriptive front. The book exposes the kids to a world class writer but is short enough to be manageable. Another piece I’m thrilled to be using a newsletter article on travel narratives called “A sense of place,” by Richard Hoath. (In true British style, he said he was “chuffed” about my using it!). I daresay my enthusiasm will wane as the semester progresses and things get chaotic as they’re bound to and oh yes, the 40 km commute (from new campus) entailing a bus from there at 7:40 and hence leaving home around 7 twice a week at least, will get old real fast. But those are par for the course, and in that respect at least I ought to feel right at home!

Sunday, Feb 13… Reading my last post, I can’t believe how the moment determines the mood. I was so elated then to have gotten the job, that the reality of leaving Egypt never hit me. Especially since I had known coming in that AUC was a terminal 3-year gig. But 3 became 4 (which I confess I regarded as a personal defeat albeit one with perks) and then 4 cut down to 3-1/2 because of the offer from Yonsei. And now reality is biting big time! I am sitting in the airport with this giant lump in my throat, unable to cry but feeling oh so blue! …

Feb 19th…

Well, I interrupted my lament for pleasanter activities such as chatting with friends and boom! It’s a week later and  I’m in Seoul after a 2 day detour in Istanbul which was instructive and interesting and may prove yet to be fruitful. Seoul is freezing cold, in comparison to both Istanbul (which was plenty cold in its own right) and Cairo naturally. 3 full days in (I arrived Wednesday eve.. nearly night) I’ve fought jet lag, discovered many small and inexpensive places with great eats, paid a brief visit to the main campus of my new employers – where I will NOT be teaching – and lets see… what else? met a few of my new and very pleasant colleagues.

Am missing Egypt like crazy still, and I daresay the intensity will pass, but really I need to chronicle the last few weeks there before the immediacy of those memories fade. A blow-by-blow account of the revolution which I was privileged to witness is certainly in order and I will write about it. What a time to have left. But at least I listened to my inner voice and delayed the departure until the 13th for which I’m sooo…. grateful. Not only did I get a few last extra days with everyone (and if start naming them I will start blubbering…), but I also got to experience first hand, the stepping down of Mubarak. Talk about a (nearly) bloodless coup! I am proud, so proud of the Egyptians for what they’ve achieved and in such exemplary fashion. I’m truly privileged to have been a part of it albeit as a sympathetic foreigner.  And be it on vacation or insh’allah in the capacity of a visiting scholar in the years to come, I will, to quote Schwarzanegger, be back.

 

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