Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.


Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.



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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
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Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.



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Talking to a Therapist

Talking to a Therapist

Matt Valdespino is—along with his twin, Greg—one of my oldest and best friends. When I first met the two of them, I honestly could not tell them apart. I spent years mixing up their names. But as time went by, they diverged in fascinating ways.

The brothers share the admirabe ability to mix seriousness and humor—loving to laugh without trivializing the important things. But whereas Greg’s serious side was channeled into his passion for learning, Matt has always been pulled between art and activism. His urge to help others eventually won out, and culminated in his decision to become a professional therapist. This is his story:


ROY: What is your educational background? What did you study, where, and why?

MATT: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and I studied Political Science, with a concentration in Political Theory. My minor was in Modern Middle East Studies. The reason? I guess I’ve always wondered this myself, since I’ve strayed so far from that, personally and professionally. But I guess the reason is that it was the Obama years, working in politics as a liberal progressive was a valued and exciting thing. It felt like being young and politically active was really in vogue, and also really useful. So I got really caught up in that. My older brother studied political science, too, and I look up to him as an example of what a good person does.

And we talked a lot about politics in my family growing up. I definitely loved the horse race elements of it—following legislation, following campaigns, who’s up, who’s down. It was like a game but it had stakes and a moral punch to it. And the Middle East stuff, it’s because it was the post 9/11 era, and I wanted to help people in the Middle East and Americans come together—you know, the whole idyllic, Obama-era, get everyone holding hands. That was the vision I had in my head.

R: After graduating, didn’t you work on a farm?

M: Yes, yeah, I did end up working on a farm. Because all of that political stuff—despite the idealism and the interest, the more I got into it the more I realized that I didn’t like politics as a process. And even policy was really complicated and hard for me to follow. It’s so intensely convoluted and everyone says it’s all wrong, anyway. I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The only thing I really could understand and feel connected to was political theory—like Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli. Like that vague stuff. The stuff that was really not about doing anything in politics, I loved that. And slowly I realized that that wasn’t what politics was going to look like. If I worked in politics, nobody was ever going to ask me what I thought about Leviathan. Nobody was going to give a shit about any of that. So I said, ok well then I don’t give a shit about you, and I’m going to farming.

R: Tell me about that experience.

M: So I graduated from college, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been working in political internships that I thought was just selling snake-oil, selling “change” but just really fund-raising to keep our jobs. Or trying to scare-monger people to fight against the other scare-mongers. It felt fake to me. And I was reading political theory, which also felt fake, even though I liked it. So I thought, “Let me do something that’s undeniably real. Let me pick fruit for a year.”

So I ended up in Washington State. I did WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so they just put you on an organic farm. And you work for your room and board. And the owner of the farm also had a farm down in Chile, so they flew me down there for the spring harvest (or their fall).

R: After that I understand you got into stand-up. What attracted you to that?

M: I’ve always liked stand-up. I remember the day I got Comedy Central in my house. It was a ground-breaking moment in my life. Like, oh my God, a network that’s always funny! I just loved that. And I’ve always considered myself to be funny and enjoyed making people laugh. I feel comfortable doing that. But while I was farming, I was listening to all these podcasts, especially WTF with Marc Maron where he interviews comedians. And they were all so emotionally screwed up. But they had found a way of talking about it through comedy.

And also it was a way that I could talk about the big things, personally and globally, without being so condescending. I could just provide my impressions of them in a way that was sort of digestible to people. It was a way that I could talk about intense things without it being hard for people to understand. And without having the accountability of making a flawless argument. I could just say what I felt without backing it up with a full five paragraph essay.

R: Is five paragraphs a lot?

M: Yeah, in grad school we don’t write. Five paragraphs? I can’t even think of it!

R: So what do you think is the most challenging part of being a comedian?

M: The whole idea of stand-up is that you’re funny in your real life with friends, so just translate that to stage. So the problem is that, the reason you can be funny with your friends in real life is that they have all this context—of your relationship, shared experiences, and all of these conscious and unconscious parameters around who you are. And this allows you to subvert those expectations, or touch on these older identities, yadda yadda yadda. But in stand-up (unless you’re really famous) the audience doesn’t really know you. So then you need to take what you think is funny and translate it so a stranger thinks it’s funny. Then the challenge, for me, was finding an impression of me and my sense of self that other people can understand and connect with.

R: Meanwhile, you were working as a social worker. Is that right?

M: Yeah.

R: How did you get into that? And what did that entail?

M: So I moved to Washington, and I moved in with my uncle, who’s a therapist. And I love him. He’s really funny, really goofy. And we had all these conversations about what it means to be emotionally vulnerable and emotionally open. And he was telling me what it’s like to be a therapist. So I kind of got fascinated with the idea of just helping people. I think there’s a big part of me—going back to political science—that feels like I need to be helping people. That’s a moral obligation. But I lost that because politics became so vague, abstract, and argumentative. So my uncle showed me a way of helping people where it was direct. And it was kind of fascinating. You get to learn about people, find out who they are, explore them. I applied to a bunch of helping jobs—a nurse, a hospice worker—and the social worker is the one that got back to me.

I got a job as a social worker at a psychiatric center—so people with severe mental illness voluntarily come there. The umbrella term would be a “day center,” where people with mental illness come to spend the day, to help structure their lives.

R: You were doing this, and you were doing comedy. But at some point you decided to become a therapist.

M: Yeah.

R: What, exactly, are you studying now?

M: Clinical psychology. I still really don’t have a concentration, I’m just getting the lay of the land. It’s a Psy.D at Rutgers University. As opposed to a Ph.D, a Psy.D is really for practicing therapists, not researchers.

R: What made you make that decision, that you wanted to be a clinical psychologist?

M: It was a pretty gradual process. For one thing, stand-up is really hard. It’s a very exhausting pursuit. I fell less in love with it over time. It became harder and harder to enjoy it, to create new jokes, and to feel that I was getting better—which was pretty hard for me. I also felt that I was becoming phony, like a character or a persona. And instead of my stage presence becoming more like who I was off stage, the opposite happened. I got scared that it was infecting my whole life, that my life was becoming this kind of performance. It was creepy. Like I don’t know where stage ends and life stops.

And the social work stuff. A lot of it was great and moving. But a lot of it was really, really boring. There’s so much of social work that is just so monotonous. I was just spending the day with people. And a lot of it is just sitting at a computer typing with somebody. But there are moments when people get really, insanely honest with you—just wildly honest—and I liked those moments. That’s what I appreciated. And everything in comedy just felt so performative by comparison.

R: You’ve done some practice clinical work?

M: Yeah.

R: What do you think is the hardest part of being a therapist?

M: There are two things I find hardest. One hard part is just caring enough. I definitely struggle sometimes with, “Uh, ok, lemme just get through this session.” Thinking that somebody is making a problem bigger than it has to be… Basically, people aren’t always the most pleasant in therapy. They’re their absolute worst. And that’s good, they should be. But I can sometimes get annoyed with people.

And the other difficult thing is not jumping to conclusions. A therapist is like an emotional scientist, in that you’re always looking for more information. Your conclusion is the very last thing. Mainly you’re just trying to get more emotion out there, as much as possible in the moment. And that’s hard, because you want to be brilliant, you want to blow someone’s mind like “I got it! You yell at your boss because you hate your dad.” But I think there’s so much more value in just being curious.

R: Then what would you say is the most rewarding part of therapy.

M: Getting somebody to say something that they’ve never said before.

R: Can you elaborate?

M: Absolutely not.

R: What?!

M: Alright, I mean getting somebody to an emotional place that they have been afraid of, or were struggling with verbalizing, or didn’t even know was there. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me. So they can experience and express a different part of themselves.

R: Is there anything you want to add?

M: Yeah, there is. Therapy is a very weird idea. It’s still relatively new, even though it’s becoming more accepted to go to therapy (and also more accessible). But I think people still go to therapists and don’t really know what they’re doing. And that can be fine. That can be totally fine. But I think one thing people should do when they go to a therapist is to be more comfortable asking the therapists what’s going on, asking for help with a certain thing, and telling the therapist “This is what I need.” I think people should feel more empowered to push back against therapists.

Because I think people get stuck in therapy, and it becomes this passive process that they’re not participating in, it’s just happening to them. But you can own the therapy process.

Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.



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An Emigrant’s Story

An Emigrant’s Story

(The original interview in Spanish.)

I met Antonio after moving into my current apartment. There was no doorman in my previous place, much less such a pleasant and helpful one. Little by little I got to know him, and his life started to interest me more and more. Finally, I decided that I had to interview him, and I’m glad I did.


R: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: My name is Antonio Bande. I was born in Venezuela. My parents are from Galicia, Spain. They were born in the province of Ourense. I was born in Maracay. Maracay belongs to the state of Aragua. Aragua is one of the central states, because it is near the capital, Caracas. Maracay is the capital of Aragua, where I was born. Maracay is located exactly 105 km from Caracas. It is a coastal region, with lots of beaches, and you can also find many open plains in the countryside.

R: What did your parents do for a living?

A: My parents set up a business in Venezuela. My father left Spain first, and then my mother. My father left in the year 1958. This was the postwar era in Spain, and Spain was very depressed, so he went to look for a future. Of my four siblings, the oldest was born here (in Spain), and the rest of us in Venezuela.

R: So you have three siblings?

A: More, really, because my dad got married again. So we are really eight siblings in all. My parents got into sales, and they set up a business. In the beginning, clothes, but later it grew, and it ended up being what you would call here a chain of stores. For a long time, as an adult— once I had finished my studies— I was working in this chain, until my father decided to sell it. He was thinking of retiring. From then on, I began to specialize in administration. And I became an insurance broker. Before leaving Venezuela, in the last 27 years, that was my job, an insurance broker, in my own office. And I trained, in fact, with an American company. It was the owner of the company Seguro Venezuela, the American Insurance Group (AIG). I trained with them.

R: What year did you move here for good?

A: Three years ago, in 2018

R: I know there’s a crisis in Venezuela, and it’s not going well. But what, in particular, made you decide to move to Spain?

A: When your life is worth the price of a pair of shoes, or the price of a watch, or the price of a phone, then you have to make some decisions. Because the price of life is something intangible, it can’t be determined or quantified. With the rising crime rate, and a complicite government, well, you have to make decisions. So, in the first place, the factor of crime is fundamental. The factor of impunity (that crimes are not prosecuted). I’m talking about insecurity, I’m talking about impunity, and I’m saying that this impunity is rooted precisely in judicial insecurity. Because, what happens? In the state, as a corrupt state, they have made it so that all the powers—that is, the executive, the legislative, the judicial—all the powers are in the hands of the state, including electoral power. So, if you’re in Venezuela it’s not reasonable to think that they’re going to respect your vote. No, no they won’t respect it. But this is not something recent, this has been happening for the last twenty years at least. And it keeps getting worse.

R: I read something about inflation.

A: Hyperinflation. I’m going to tell you something very simple. Up until this month of May, which is about to end, Venezuela has accumulated 1500% of inflation. We’re talking about this cycle, this year. There is no honorable work, there is no honest work, that you can do to support yourself. There’s none. And I’m telling you that back in Venezuela I was a part of the upper-middle class. I had three apartments. I only sold two cars to come here. I had the good fortune to be able to come, and come with my family, with my wife, my youngest children and our dog. But many people arrive alone.

R: So, if you’re earning 1,000 euros a month…

A: Do you know what the minimum wage is for a person in Venezuela? Three euros a month. And those fortunate enough to earn ten times that, earn thirty euros a month. But you can live on that in Venezuela. Because nowadays, Venezuela is an economy that is completely “dollarized.” The bolívar (the national currency) no longer circulates because the necessary amount doesn’t exist to sustain the exchange, dollar-bolívar. If you have 100 dollares, that would be many millions of bolívares. So all transactions are done with dollars. Where do people get dollars? More than 70% of the population receive support from those who have left the country.

R: Is your family here with you?

A: Here I have one daughter by blood, and two stepchildren. In Venezuela I have two more children, and another daughter who lives in Delaware.

R: Do you miss Venezuela?

A: What happens is that… yes, I miss it. But I miss it, knowing that what I’m missing doesn’t exist anymore. The country has changed completely. And it is the quality of being Venezuelan. The gentility, the humanity, of the Venezuelans. And of course I really, really miss the homeland. Because Venezuela is a country where you can go to the beach twelve months a year. It has an enviable climate. It has places with beach weather twelve months a year, places with snow twelve months a year, and even places that are deserts twelve months a year. Truly, it has a range of climates that is something to miss. And, man, the country is beautiful. What’s bad are its politics. It has dreadful politics, and that has totally ruined the country.

R: What surprised you the most about Spain?

A: What surprised me the most was not something very favorable. It’s the difficulty of working, of finding work. In general, in Spain it’s very hard to find work. And this is surprising when you’re a person used to working every day. For someone like me, who wants to manage his own life, you feel a little useless. I never thought of being a superintendent of a building. And I’m not denigrating, or saying that I’m doing something embarrassing, no. I have a job like any other, a job I like doing, not only for necessity but also because I feel comfortable. In Spain, they want young people with lots of training and lots of experience. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how you can have a lot of experience, being so young.

R: Is there something you like about your life here?

A: There are lots of things in Spain I like. The first is that I have a part of my family here. Not only those who came with me from Venezuela, but also those who were already living here. In Madrid, in Galicia, in Valladolid, for example, or in Bilbao. I like the food and drinks. I have it in my blood because, when I was young, I ate from my grandmother’s hand, who was Spanish. First from my maternal grandmother, who died, and then from my paternal grandmother. Man, Mediterranean food… 

R: Do you like Spanish food more than Venezuelan food?

A: Every cuisine has its pleasure. The good thing about being here, is that here you can eat Spanish food and Venezuelan food, because in Venezuela you have trouble eating even Venezuelan food, since everything is scarce. You eat whatever there is. Do you know the terrible ordeal a Venezuelan has to go through to get a loaf of bread? At six in the morning, you have to be in the doorway of the bakery. Standing in line. There are 150 or 200 people, because those are the 150 or 200 loaves of bread they’re going to make that day. You can buy one loaf of bread, maybe two. And they give you the receipt, and you leave. Then you come back after 2:30 in the evening to pick up the bread.

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La historia de un emigrante

La historia de un emigrante

(La entrevista traducida al inglés.)

Conocí a Antonio poco después de mudarme a mi piso actual. No había un portero en mi último piso, mucho menos un portero tan agradable y atento como él. Poco a poco lo fui conociendo, y su vida me interesaba más y más. Al final, decidí que le tenía que entrevistar, y estoy muy feliz con la decisión.


R: ¿Me puedes decir tus datos básicos?

A: Me llamo Antonio Bande. Nací en Venezuela. Mis padres son gallegos. Nacieron en la provincia de Ourense. Nací en Maracay. Maracay corresponde al estado de Aragua. El estado de Aragua es uno de los estados centrales, porque está alrededor de la capital, Caracas. Maracay es la capital de Aragua, donde yo nací. Maracay se encuentra exactamente a 105 km de Caracas. Es un estado de costa, con playa, y es un estado con llanuras, las zonas de campo.

R: ¿A qué se dedicaron tus padres?

A: Mis padres establecieron un comercio en Venezuela. Mi padre se fue de España primero, luego se fue mi madre. Mi padre se fue en el año 1958. Era la época posguerra de España, y España estaba muy deprimida, y se fue buscando un porvenir. De los cuatro hermanos míos, el mayor nació aquí (en España), y nosotros tres en Venezuela.

R: Entonces, ¿tienes tres hermanos?

A: Más, realmente más, porque mi padre se casó otra vez. Entonces somos ocho hermanos. Mi padres allí se dedicaron al comercio, establecieron un negocio. En principio, de ropa, pero después se fue proliferando, y se acabó convirtiendo en algo que se llama aquí una cadena de tiendas. Por mucho tiempo, ya siendo yo adulto — una vez que culminé los estudios — estuve trabajando en este grupo de tiendas, hasta que mi padre optó por venderlas. Porque estaba pensando en su retiro. A partir de allí, yo empecé en una especialización de administración. Y me hice agente corredor de seguros. Antes de irme de Venezuela, en los últimos 27 años, trabajé así, de agente corredor de seguros, en una oficina propia. Yo me formé, de hecho, con una empresa americana. Eran los propietarios de la empresa, Seguro Venezuela, de American Insurance Group (AIG). Yo me formé con ellos. 

R: ¿En qué año viniste aquí a vivir?

A: Hace tres años, en el año 2018.

R: Sé que hay una crisis en Venezuela, y va muy mal. Pero, en concreto, ¿qué te hizo decidir irte por España?

A: Cuando tu vida vale lo que vale un par de zapatos, o lo que vale un reloj, o lo que vale un móvil, pues tú tienes que tomar muchas decisiones. Porque el valor de la vida es algo intangible, no se determina, no se cuantifica. Con el nivel de la delincuencia que se ha exacerbado, y con un gobierno tan cómplice, pues, hombre, tú tienes que tomar decisiones. Entonces, en primer lugar, el factor de la delincuencia es fundamental. El factor de la impunidad (no se juzgan los delitos). Te hablo de la inseguridad, te hablo de la impunidad, y te hablo que esta impunidad tiene su base precisamente en la inseguridad jurídica. Porque, ¿qué pasa? El estado, como un estado villano, se ha hecho de todo de que son los poderes — o sea el ejecutivo, el legislativo, el judicial — todos los poderes están en las manos del estado, incluso el poder electoral. Entonces, si estás en Venezuela no es sensato pensar que se va a respetar tu voto. Pues no, no se va a respetar. Pero esto no está pasando ahorita, esto ya viene pasando desde hace cerca de veinte años por lo menos. Y viene cada vez peor.

R: He leído algo sobre la inflación.

A: La hiperinflación. Te voy a decir algo muy simple. Hasta este mes de mayo, que está a punto de terminar, Venezuela lleva acumulado 1.500% de inflación. Estamos hablando de este ciclo, menos de un año. No hay un trabajo honrado, no hay un trabajo honesto, en el que tú puedes trabajar para cubrirte y costearte. No hay. Y te estoy hablando de que en Venezuela yo era parte de la clase media alta. Tenía tres apartamentos. Solamente vendí dos coches para venirme. Yo tuve la fortuna de poder venirme, y venirme con mi familia, con mi mujer, los dos hijos pequeños y el perro. Pero mucha gente se viene sola.

R: Entonces, si alguien gana unos 1000 euros al mes…

A: ¿Sabes cuánto es el ingreso básico de una persona? 3 euros, mensuales. Y los que tienen la fortuna de ganar 10 veces de esto, ganan 30 euros mensuales. Pero con eso no se vive en Venezuela. Porque hoy en día, Venezuela es una economía totalmente dolarizada. El bolívar ya no circula porque no hay la cantidad circulante necesaria para soportar el cambio, dolar-bolívar. Si tienes 100 dólares, esto sería muchísimos millones de bolívares. Entonces todas las transacciones se hacen en dólares. ¿De dónde saca la gente dólares? Más de 70% de la población recibe remesas de los que estamos fuera. 

R: ¿Tienes tu familia aquí contigo?

A: Aquí tengo una hija consanguínea, y dos de mi mujer. En Venezuela tengo dos hijos más, y otra hija que vive en Delaware.

R: ¿Echas de menos Venezuela?

A: Lo que pasa es que, sí lo echo de menos. Pero lo echo de menos, teniendo la conciencia de que lo que tú estás echando de menos ya no existe en el país. El país se ha deformado totalmente, la calidez, el gentilicio, la humanidad, del venezolano, se a perdido. Y por supuesto echo muchísimo de menos, a la patria. Porque Venezuela es un país de riquezas naturales, donde se puede ir a la playa los doce meses del año. Tiene un clima envidiable. Tiene desde sitios de playa los doce meses del año, hasta sitios con nieve los doce meses del año, hasta sitios desérticos los doce meses del año. De verdad, tiene una diversidad del clima que es algo de echar de menos. Y, hombre, el país es hermoso. Lo malo es la política que tiene. Tiene una política pésima, y se ha cargado una nación completa. 

R: ¿Qué te sorprendió más de la vida en España?

A: Lo que me sorprendió más no es muy favorable. Es la dificultad de trabajar, de encontrar trabajo. En general en España la posibilidad de encontrar trabajo es muy difícil. Y eso, pues, sorprende cuando eres una persona habituada a trabajar todos los días. Para alguien como yo, quien quiere gestionar su propia vida, se siente un poco inútil. Yo nunca pensé en ser un conserje en una comunidad. Y no estoy denigrando, ni diciendo que estoy haciendo algo penoso, no. Tengo un trabajo como cualquier otro, un trabajo que hago agusto, no únicamente por la necesidad sino porque me siento agusto. En España, te piden poca edad, mucha formación y mucha experiencia. No entiendo esto. No entiendo cómo tú puedes tener mucha experiencia, siendo una persona muy joven. 

R: ¿Hay algo que te gusta de la vida aquí?

A: Hay muchas cosas en España que me gustan. Lo primero es que tengo una parte de mi familia aquí. No solamente los que vinieron conmigo de Venezuela, sino los que ya vivían aquí. En Madrid, en Galicia, en Valladolid, por ejemplo, o en Bilbao. Me gustan la comida y la bebida. Lo llevo en la sangre porque de pequeño yo comí de mano a mi abuela que era española. Primero de mi abuela materna, que murió, luego de mi abuela paterna. Hombre, la comida Mediterránea… 

R: ¿Te gusta la comida española más que la comida venezolana?

A: Toda la comida tiene su gusto. Lo bueno de estar aquí, es que aquí se puede comer comida española y comida venezolana, porque allí en Venezuela es difícil comer comida venezolana por la escasez de todo. Comes lo que hay. ¿Tú sabes el viacrucis que hace un venezolano todos los días para comer pan? Tiene que estar a las 6 de la mañana, en el portal de la panadería. Haciendo una fila. Estár de 150 o 200 en la fila, porque esto son los 150 o 200 panes que el hombre va a hacer este día. Al pagar la barra de pan, se dará una, o máximo dos. te dan un tiquet, y se va. Para regresar a partir de las dos y media con el tiquet para retirar la barra de pan. 

(Cover image by Paolo Costa Baldi; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Don Bigote: Chapter 10

Don Bigote: Chapter 10

Chapter 10: The Journey’s End

Three very, very long months passed in that pilgrim’s hostel. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be that bored again—at least, I hope not, or I might go crazier than even old Bigote.

At first it didn’t seem so bad. We told our stories and sort of got to know one another. But after a few days, things went sour real fast. The landlady started screwing the police officer, which made the debt collector jealous, who started taking it out on the patient, who could not stop bitching about the lobbyist. Meanwhile, Franck went around talking to everyone with a doofy smile on his face, like they were all primitive savages and he was there to learn their ways. Professor Allesprachen didn’t succeed in working on the cure for the virus he was looking for; but he did end up brewing some pretty decent beer.

And Bigote—Jesus, did that guy go straight off the deep end, right down to the bottom of the ocean. I mean, you should’ve heard him. He’d spend all day and all night on the computer, scrolling through page after page of blogs, watching hours and hours of videos of people with scraggly beards talking into cameras from their basements… I tried not to pay attention, but every once in a while he’d get off the computer and come around, with this eerie look in his eyes, like he was a religious zombie or something, and he’d just go on and on about… I mean, what didn’t he talk about?

Ancient aliens using pyramids as energy reactors, politicians harvesting babies for blood and organs, the Queen of England instituting Maritime Law on the US, secret cures for cancer, AIDS, and Ebola that the Rothschilds were hiding, Tesla’s blueprint for infinite power generators, the magical powers of medieval pipe organs to regenerate limbs, Hitler being imprisoned in ice at the southern tip of the Flat Earth, and, of course, lots and lots of Trump—his secret plans, and his weird little coded messages (using his tie color, lapel, or tweets)… 

At first I hoped he’d just get over it. After all, a lot of the stuff was just obviously bullshit. Like he’d go around telling everyone, “At 9:00 pm today John F. Kennedy is going to reveal that he’s alive, and release documents about the faked moon landing,” or “Within 24 hours Trump is going to initiate Plan X, using elite ICE rangers to perform a pincer attack on the Capitol, unmasking the devious, nefarious, and downright diabolical pedofile-cannibals who occupy the American government,” or… well, you get the idea. And, what would happen? Nothing, obviously! But did that bother Bigote?

One time, Bigote comes up to me when I’m playing cards with the patient.

“Chopin, listen to this. I have made a tremendous discovery.”

“Yeah, boss?” I say, not looking up from the card game.

“Although very few Americans are aware of this momentous fact, there is verifiable proof that, in 1871, the American Constitution was replaced with another, secret document.”

“No way. You mean all that ‘We hold these truths’ stuff was just bullshit?”

“That is the Declaration of Independence, my worthy assistant.”

“… it’s not the same thing?”

“Oh, how our so-called ‘public’ education has failed you, Chopin! But let us not dwell on the iniquities of our system.”

I’m pretty distracted by now, so I make a dumb move and lose a hand to the patient.

“To continue,” Bigote says. “This new constitution was voted—by an overwhelming majority—into effect on January 9, 1871, to little fanfare. Indeed, it was presented to the public as a minor, parliamentary adjustment. But in truth, what this constitution did was to revoke the sovereign authority of the United States, and to return the entire country to British ownership.”

“Wait,” I said, “are you saying I’m English? Because that’s kinda cool.”

“Chopin! This is a highly serious matter. It was not simply a matter of nationality. This new constitution was the first step in a process of enslavement that has culminated in this supposed ‘pandemic.’ For it was then that the government started issuing its citizens with birth certificates. And what is a birth certificate? Nothing less than a receipt of ownership. Those born in the United States henceforth became property, requiring special permission to leave the country.”

“What, like a passport?”

“Precisely, Chopin. Under this secret constitution, we need permission to be born, permission to travel, permission to do business… And, now, we see the logical conclusion of this plan. We cannot even walk outside without breaking the law!”

“Damn,” I say, losing another hand.

“Indeed, they are damnable!—More than that, they have been damned! For the identity of these dastardly conspirators is becoming clear: They are the sons of Cain.”

“Say what?” I say. “Isn’t that something from the Bible?”

“Of course, Chopin. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who was marked by God for the sin of striking down his own brother.”

“Woah, man,” I say. “But I thought it was all the Muslims… and the Mexicans.”

“Of course, that was my original hypothesis,” Bigote said. “But now I realize that this conspiracy goes far beyond the Muslims, Mexicans, Vegans, LGBTQ, Feminists, and Baristas. Indeed, it goes back thousands of years, to the dawn of civilization, in Babylon.”

“Man, if they’ve been working on it for that long, they can’t be very good.”

But by now, Bigote has already stormed off, to rant to some other people. I gotta admit, I’m a bit worried about the guy… I mean, when he was blaming Mexicans it was crazy, but not that much crazier than my parents and grandparents, to be honest. But blaming Biblical Babylonians?


Finally, after three months of being inside—right when I think I can’t take it anymore, and I hate every single person I’m with, and just generally feel like total shit—the news comes that we are free to go outside. The pandemic is going away. But not totally away, since now we have to wear these little masks all the time. I gotta admit, I feel like a total doofus with it on. But at this point, I would dress up as an enormous dildo if it meant going outside.

We walk out the door, blinking and dazed—like we had just gone on an enormous binge, and were suffering the consequences—one sunny morning in May. I don’t go in for birdwatching or any of that nature shit, but it feels so good to smell the air, see some trees and grass, feel the sun. Like, damn, I never want to live on a submarine or anything like that.

“So, what’s the plan?” I say, after a few minutes of stretching our legs.

“The plan?” Bigote says. “Why, of course, we must finish the pilgrimage!”

“What?!” I say. “Dude, no way. We got wayyyy better things to do than just more walking. I mean, damn, like find a city or something, meet some new people.”

“Oh, Chopin,” Bigote says. “If only the world were such that we could relax and enjoy the simple pleasures. But, alas, we are in the midst of a world-historical crisis, and we have a sacred duty to act.”

“A sacred duty?” I say. “What do you mean? Your plan is just to walk!”

“A pilgrimage is not just the simple act of ambulation. It is the attempt to draw closer to God, after stripping off all the unnecessary accoutrements of civilization.”

“Man, Bigote, sir, I didn’t know you went in for all this religious stuff…”

“I admit that I was previously not of the most pious disposition, Chopin. However, now that I know that the evil conspiracy is directed by none other than the sons of Cain, it behooves me to seek the guidance of almighty God!”

“But couldn’t we fight the conspiracy in, like, Paris or London or something?”

“No more chit chat, Chopin. Onward we must go!”

“If my calculations are correct,” Dr. Allesprechen interjects. “Assuming an average walking speed of 5 kilometers per hour, then we should arrive within 24 hours.”

“Oh, just a day?” I said. “That’s not so bad.”

“I suppose we shall have to factor in time to eat and sleep…” Allesprechen adds.

“Wait, what?”

“Hey, guys,” the debt collector says. “Relax, I have a guide book here. It says we’re four days away.”

“I suppose, with six hours of walking per day…” Allesprechen mutters.

“Four days?!” I say. But what choice do I have?

I gotta say, even though this pilgrimage was just as stupid and boring as the first time we tried it, this time I’m not suffering so much. I guess I’m just happy to have something—anything—to do, besides waiting around inside, so that even just walking in a field is kind of a relief. Also, we finally get to eat some pretty decent food in restaurants, instead of whatever crap we could cook ourselves.

But Bigote doesn’t make it easy. For one thing, he refuses to wear the masks. Instead, as usual, he lets his mustache flap freely in the wind—and, believe me, that thing has grown to rather ungodly dimensions during this pandemic, creeping down below his lower lip and onto his chin, and spreading across both cheeks. I mean, maybe the thing blocks out virus particles after all?

Well, in the countryside nobody really cares if he’s wearing a mask. Buuuut, it becomes a problem every time we’d walk into a town. Everyone is looking at him funny. People won’t let him in their shops or, sometimes, even in restaurants. Worst of all, none of the pilgrim’s hostels let him stay there. After the first day of walking, we go to one, two, three, four separate places, and they all tell Bigote: “No mask, no service” (or whatever that is in Spanish).

“Come on dude,” I say finally, after the fourth rejection. “It’s just a bit of paper over your mouth. No big deal.”

“No, no, no!” Bigote roars. “Chopin, don’t you see? The masks are themselves the cause of this purported ‘virus’! The dastardly conspirators spray the masks with a secret mixture of chemicals that, when combined with the mucus in your nostrils, form a deadly poison.”

“Uy,” I say. “Well, if you don’t want to wear a mask from the store, you can just tie a bandanna around your face or something.”

“No, Chopin!” Bigote roars again. “Don’t you see? Wearing a mask would signify my capitulation to the dastardly conspiracy. It would be a symbolic surrender!”

“Well, you can do whatever you want, sir,” I say, “but I’m not sleeping outside.”

“Though I do wish to demonstrate solidarity with you,” Dr. Allesprechen says to Bigote, “I think my bones are too old to tolerate an adventure slumbering out of doors.”

“That is perfectly fine,” Bigote says. “I have trained for this, hardening my body and steeling my mind to face the privations of nature.”

“I can stay with you,” Franck says. “I am a great lover of the outdoors.”

“Splendid!” Bigote says. And the two of them traipse off to find a clearing in the woods or some shit. Meanwhile, I enjoy my shower and my soft pillow.


“Now that we have ample time at our disposal, my friends, let me reveal the fruits of my deep investigation.”

We’re walking through yet another grassy field, on this stupid pilgrim trail. Bigote has slept outside twice by now, and he’s looking a bit ragged.

“Five thousand years ago, shortly after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, their son, Cain, murdered his brother. Of course you know the story: God punished Cain for his treachery, marked him with a sign of his sin, and sent him off. But this was not the end of his tale. Cain lingered on the earth a long time, lurking in shadows, spying and scheming, biding his time, until eventually he found a mate. His children bore the mark of his sin—cursed from birth!—and were raised by Cain in evil ways. His purpose was to wreak vengeance upon God and Mankind.

“Cain’s son, Enoch, took the first fateful step when he founded the first city in human history: Babylon. He laid the first stone of the first building at the exact moment that Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars were aligned in the sky, a tremendously powerful and evil planetary alignment. Soon, men and women were flocking this city, filling up its streets and buildings. But like all cities, Babylon shortly became a wasteland of sin and a sinkhole of iniquity. From this city, all sorts of horrible crimes entered the world: war, murder, bestiality, homosexuality, and vegetarianism! Indeed, the modern tyranny of scientists (telling us what is healthy and unhealthy, what is real or imaginary, what is true and false!) began here, with the famous Tower of Babel, the product of human arrogance!

“The descendents of Cain set about spreading their new evil ways, slowly, little by little, generation by generation. Most importantly, they established trade networks with other cities, sending out diplomats to all the known corners of the world. And with commerce, their nefarious ideas also spread: cosmopolitanism, money-lending, libertinism. Eventually the agents of commerce insinuated themselves into the very institutions of governance, planting their evil seeds in the bosom of civilization itself. Thus, even when a catastrophe (a flood, a fire, a revolution) would befall any one city, including Babylon itself, the ancient conspiracy survived and continued to grow.

“During this long expanse of years, the vast majority of the population have remained blissfully ignorant of this evil power controlling their lives. Occasionally, a brave and noble soul has learned the truth, and sometimes has beaten back the conspiracy (if only temporarily). But the descendents of Cain are nothing if not patient. Their plan is designed to be so slow and subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Indeed, it is designed to coincide with the planets—for the sons of Cain, being pagans, naturally worship the heavens, and take counsel from astrology rather than the true religion.

“On December 21, this year, the planets will finally realign, creating that same formation—of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars—as pertained when Babylon was founded. This is the moment they plan to strike! Their entire scheme will come to fruition in what has been dubbed the Great Restart. This so-called ‘pandemic’ is the penultimate strike, a gut punch meant to weaken us, so they can deliver their killing blow and, finally, the sons of Cain will triumph over humankind.”

Bigote’s voice rises into a crescendo at this last bit, making his mustache flap like a flag on the fourth of July. A long silence follows…

“Yo,” I say. “That’s pretty fucking crazy dude.”

“Indeed, Chopin,” he replies, “it is the deepest, darkest, vilest secret in all of history.”

“But wait,” I say, “so like, these Cain guys, they’ve been trying to take over the world for like two thousand years?”

“Six thousand.”

“Six? Why are they waiting so long?”

“My dear Chopin, as I explained, they must proceed at a tempo dictated by the planets.”

“But, like, if they have so much power, and they can make new Constitutions and viruses and they got, like, spies everywhere and all that, it seems like they could’ve taken over a long time ago, right?”

“You are correct, Chopin: They are already in control!”

“If they’re already in control, though, like what are they doing?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Like why are they going through all this to take over the world if they already have all the power?”

“EGAD!” Bigote cries, pointing to the distance. I look over and see a bunch of big white wind turbines on a hilltop.

“What?”

“Oh, the humanity!” Bigote yells, and starts sprinting toward the turbines.

“Fuck!” I say, and I start running after him, sure that this is gonna end badly. I can hear that Allesprechen and Franck are close behind me.

Bigote comes to a stop close to the base of one of the turbines.

“What is it, my friend?” Allesprechen manages to say, as he chokes and gasps for air.

“Can’t you see?” Bigote says, gesturing like a maniac. “It’s these infernal machines!”

“Are they not devices used for capturing the power of the wind?” Franck says.

“That was my conclusion as well,” Allesprechen says.

“Oh, that’s what they say,” Bigote says. “But the truth, as usual, is far darker. You see, what these machines do is catch 5G signals and spread them over the landscape. This creates a kind of negative energy force field that blankets nearly every surface of the planet… And what’s the purpose of this? Well, this force field blocks the energy harvesters designed by Nikola Tesla, which can gather energy from the atmosphere itself.”

“Why would they want to do that?” Franck asks.

“Why? So that they can control humanity’s access to energy! If it weren’t for them, we could just take energy right from the air!”

“Uh, but isn’t that what they do?” I say.

“Blast you!” Bigote screams, and whips out a revolver. Grasping the gun in both of his spindly hands, he opens fire—BANG! BANG! BANG!

“Stop, stop!” I yell, and duck for cover, but he empties the gun. The bullets make a little pinging sound when they hit the metal turbine.

After a few moments of silence, I peek up. Bigote is standing there, gun still raised, trembling from head to foot.

“Why d—” I try to say; but the next moment, something falls out of the sky, right onto Bigote, who collapses underneath. 

“Shit!” I say and run over to see what it was. It’s… some kind of big bird.

“Ah, a white stork, Ciconia ciconia,” Allesprechen says, and picks it up off Bigote. “Beautiful specimen.”

Meanwhile, Bigote is collapsed on the ground, totally knocked out.

“Sir, sir!?” I say, shaking him.

“Uhhghhhh,” he says after a few seconds, his mouth gurgling, his eyes spinning back in his head. After a few minutes of recovering, he says: “Wah happaneh?”

“My conjectural hypothesis,” Allesprechen says, “is that one of the bullets discharged from your pistol ricocheted off the wind turbine and, by chance, struck this poor stork in the breast, killing it mid-flight. Then, in an even stranger circumstances, the fatally struck bird fell on your head. Given the bird’s weight and probably altitude and speed at the time of impact, you are lucky to be alive.”

“It is as president Trump said,” Bigote says, “these turbines are deadly for birds!”


It’s tomorrow now, the last day of this stupid pilgrimmage. Bigote has one side of his face all bandaged up. But you can tell that it’s bruised, all ugly and black and blue. Poor bastard. The good part is that his swollen jaw makes it painful for him to speak, so we’ve got some peace and quiet. Even better, people have stopped asking for him to put on a mask, since his face is all wrapped up anyway.

But I got to admit that, without his crazy ramblings, I am even more bored than usual. I don’t get how people can get so worked up about nature. Like, yeah, trees are nice, but that doesn’t mean I want to see 300 of them. And, sure, birds can sing pretty, but have you ever heard of a thing called music? I mean, come on—nature has no beat. Plus, the sun gives you sunburn, and rain just sucks.

Looking for some kind of distraction, I decide to talk to Franck.

“So, uh, what’s up,” I say, pulling up next to him.

“Isn’t this marvellous?” he says. “In my own homeland, all the streets are paved with diamonds, and the trees are decorated with pearls. Even the birds are bedecked in gold and silver! But here all is plain and natural, like fresh milk.”

“Yeah…” I say, pretty much regretting my decision to talk to him. “Well, how are you liking, like, the… uh, the world outside of your home country… what was it called?”

“Geheimnissland.”

“Right, Gimeyland.”

“Ah, well, I must tell you, this world is fascinating, simply fascinating.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, you may remember that, in my own country, wealth is extremely abundant—it is available to everyone—and sex is done for the sake of duty, not for pleasure. Here, I find just the opposite is the case: everyone seems to be pursuing money and sexual experience.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“The fascinating thing is that, in this culture, quite abundant resources are treated as if they are scarce.”

“Man, I freakin’ wish they were abundant.”

“But, my friend, they are! It is obvious at a glance that the means exist with which to provide everyone with food, shelter, and at least a few luxuries. But you subscribe to rather arcane rules that determine who gets to have what, and how much, with the consequence being that most of the wealth is controlled by quite a small number of people.”

“Uh…. I don’t follow.”

“For example, if someone—like the lady we previously met—is given legal ownership of properties, which she can then rent out, she receives substantial sums of money for very little work. But if someone works for twelve hours a day, cooking food or cleaning, they receive quite little compensation. It seems clear to me that the cook is working harder and providing a higher value to society than this landlord, and yet it is the landlord who is wealthy and, indeed, often respected.”

“Yeah, but like anyone could clean a toilet or flip a burger, though. It’s, um, supply and demand.”

“And anybody couldn’t simply own the deed to an apartment?”

“Well, uh, I guess that had to work to get the money to buy it in the first place, right?”

“In some cases, I presume, but in many others, no.”

“I gotta admit I don’t know much about economics. But tell me about the sex part.”

“Well, the case is quite similar. People subscribe to very odd notions of fidelity and purity, forming pair bonds that, supposedly, will last forever (even though a large portion of them do not). This effectively takes many potential mates out of circulation, thus adding to the scarcity. Furthermore, the prospect of mating for life also necessarily makes people more selective with any potential partners, thus adding another element of competition.”

“… so you’re talking about marriage, right?”

“Yes, indeed, the institution you refer to as marriage.”

“What should we do, then?”

“Oh, no, I do not presume to dictate to your society, how it should be run. I only wish to note that, if sex were freed from the bounds of this tradition, then it would cease to be a scarce resource.”

“Yo, that’s what college is all about, baby.”

“The key to your society, then,” he says, rambling on, “is a preoccupation with hierarchy.”

“Higher what?”

“Virtually everything seems to be conceived of as an enormous competition—education, mating, working—that determines what rank a person occupies in the social ladder. And the vast majority of people seem to believe that this is a fair game, even though the greater part of a person’s success is determined by factors of their birth—not only inherited wealth and such things, but also genetic inheritance, like intelligence or attractiveness.”

“Yo, are you like a communist or something?”

“A what?”

“Nevermind.”

“The most curious thing—if I can be allowed to round off my observations—is that your society does possess a vigorous concept of a just and fair society, where people live in harmony, and that is religion. However, this harmonious state is treated as if it were something transcendent, or otherworldly, something unattainable here. As such, the ideal society acts as a kind of palliative fantasy. It is very, very curious, indeed!”

I’m getting pretty sick of this German commie by now, so I’m very relieved when we get to the top of a hill and, in the distance, a city comes into view.

“Sandiago!” Bigote says (muffled by the bandages).

And, amazing to say, Bigote is right. Out in the distance there’s a city, with two big spires sticking up above all the other buildings.

“Dat’s da cadedral,” Bigote says, pointing to those pointy towers.

We walk down the hill, across a bridge, and into the city. It’s definitely nice to be in an actual place and not the middle of bumblefuck nowhere. But I gotta say, I’m a little disappointed in the city. It’s pretty small. Not a place with a lot of nightlife, seems like. Just a bunch of old churches and stone streets and that sort of thing. We walk on and on, until finally we get to this big open square, right in front of that cathedral. Ok, I’ll admit it was a pretty dope church—all these statues and decorations and shit, super big and awesome-looking, like being in a movie.

“What a quaint structure,” Franck says.

“Judging on purely stylistic grounds, it appears to be about 5,000 years old,” Dr. Allesprechen says.

“We made it!” Bigote cries, and falls on his knees, hands raised over his head. An awkward silence follows.

“Sooo,” I say, “should we, like, find a place to eat and get some food or something?”

“Oh, Chopin,” Bigote says. “Can’t you enjoy dis momend?”

Another awkward silence. Bigote stays kneeling on the ground, like he expects heaven to open up or something like that.

Then, to be a good sport, Franck kneels down next to Bigote.

“Santiago!” he says, raising his arms, too. “Now, is there some kind of ritual we need to perform in order to attain salvation or wash away our sins or some such thing?”

“Yes, indeed!” Bigote says. “We musd go do mass. Bud, dad’s lader, so led’s find a place to sleep firsd.”

We find a place called the Seminario Menor, which looks like a really big public school building. And since there are four of us, we get a room for ourselves, with a bed for each one of us. Then… well, I don’t want to bore you with all these details. But I have to mention the mass in the cathedral.

So we walk in and it’s huge—I mean, way bigger than I thought. All these people are crowded into the little benches. Up in front there are a bunch of priests in their white robes, standing in front of this big golden statue thingy. Anyways, the mass is boring as hell. All this monotonous chanting, endless talking, bad singing, and we have to get up, sit down, get up—blah, blah, blah.

I’m pretty fed up with the whole thing when, all the sudden, something super cool happens. The priests get together and they get this big metal thing that’s hanging from the ceiling, and they light it on fire, so all the smoke is pouring out of it. Then they go over and pull on these ropes like a big lever, and the fiery smokey ball starts swinging around the cathedral, super high and really fast. I guess God is into this sort of thing.

But the best part comes later. That night, after dinner, we finally go out to a bar. It’s awesome. Yes, Bigote is still a total wacko weirdo. Yes, Franck is some kind of a cosmonaut communist, and Allesprechen is, well, just old and boring. But I order a round of shots of whisky, invite some random people to join us, and the party starts. Alcohol is magic stuff, man. You can be in the most boring, awkward, and stupid situation, and a few shots will turn it into a party.

The rest of the night is a blur. Bigote and Allesprechen get into some kind of a heated discussion, while Franck entertains a group of pilgrim’s with his napkin folding abilities. Meanwhile, I do what I do best, and make sure the alcohol keeps flowing, and everyone is feeling good and happy. I may not be too smart or athletic or even very good-looking, but when it comes to this, I’m a genius. Of course, I do my best to see what kind of lady action is going on, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of options.

Somehow, after the bar closes and they kick us out, we manage to find our way back to the hostel. Allesprechen is puking and Bigote can barely walk. It takes all the energy Franck and I have to heave these stumbling senior citizens up the hill to this Seminario place. But we make it, crawl into bed, and fall into the deep deep sleep of the inebriated.


I wake up the next morning feeling, as expected, pretty fucking terrible. In fact, I feel even worse than that. My head hurts, my stomach feels like crap, even my arms and legs feel heavy. It even hurts to breathe. After a few minutes in bed I push myself upright and sit on the bed. Everyone else is still sleeping. I should do the same, but I have an immense pressure in my abdomen. It’s time to go to the bathroom.

The walk from the room to the bathroom (it’s in the hallway) feels like a billion years. I’m shuffling like an old man. Every little movement feels like super intense exercise. Finally I arrive and I collapse on the toilet. Urination is a sweet, sweet relief, but it feels a little strange. It feels… warm. Do I have a fever? That would explain why I’m shivering. No time to think, here comes number 2! It’s always a doozy after a night out. Oh god, so much better. But that’s funny, I can’t smell shit—literally. What the…?

“Oh fuck,” I say, out loud. “I think I got that ‘rona.”

I shuffle back to the room as fast as I can. When I arrive, Franck is sitting in bed, and the two old men are propped up on their elbows.

“How are we feeling?” I say.

“I think you know the answer to that inquiry,” Bigote says.

“Word… Can you do me a favor?” I grab one of my old socks—and you have to know that my feet smell truly terrible even on a good day, so imagine after walking a pilgrimage. I stick it under Franck’s nose.

“What does this smell like?” I say.

He sniffs gently.

“Nothing, why? Is this another pilgrimage custom?”

I walk over to Allesprechen.

“What about you?”

“I haven’t any olfactory sensation.”

“And you?” I say to Bigote.

“No, it doesn’t smell, Chopin. But what is the meaning of this?”

“Yo guys,” I say. “I think we got that virus.”

“Are you referring to SARS-COV-2?” says Allesprechen.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Impossible!” Bigote cries. “That virus is a hoax! The symptoms are cau—” but he erupts into a fit of coughing that cuts him off.

“Come to think of it, I do feel rather unwell,” Franck says.

We all get back into bed and, for the rest of the day, that’s where we stay. All of us start coughing and wheezing. I’m sweating like a pig one moment, and shivering the next. And I feel like I have a thirty pound weight on my chest whenever I inhale and exhale.

“It’s just a light cold,” Bigote says, occasionally. “Maybe the flu. By tomorrow we will be fine.”

We spend all day shivering, sweating, and hacking up our lungs. We can hardly move. I go in and out of sleep, having those weird fever dreams. Scenes from my life play out in random order—the boat to Spain, the drug runners, the cult of Ayahuasca hippies, that crazy cave with the dude who spoke out of his ass, and then back to Alabama—all my friends, high school, parties, girls, my mom and dad… If this sounds like it might be pleasant, believe me, it’s not. Being sick is bad enough without having a whole nostalgia trip thrown in.

I wake up the next day, after a night of tossing and turning. My bed is totally soaked. But, I do feel slightly better. Like, I can at least sit up in bed and stay awake for a little while. Breathing doesn’t hurt so much. Franck also seems to be on the mend. But Bigote and Allesprechen are still down for the count. By midday, it’s been way more than 24 hours since any of us had anything to eat, but there’s no way I can go out like this.

Luckily, I pocketed a little flyer for pizza I saw the day before (you never know when something like that will come in handy). After a call with Allesprechen’s Interpersonal Aural Communication at a Distance device (it’s just a phone), we have four whole pizza pies, a couple bottles of water, and a bottle of red wine.

“Anyone hungry?” I say, ripping into a slice with chorizo.

“I am,” says Franck, and grabs some.

“Water…” Allesprechen says, faintly.

“Uh, would you help him out, bro?” I say to Franck, who proceeds to pour some water down the old geezer’s throat.

“Chopin…” I hear Bigote say.

“Yo, sir, how are you? Want some pizza?”

“No, Chopin… I need bleach.”

“What? Did you stain yourself? We can worry about that later, Mr. Bigote.”

“Chopin, inject me with the bleach. It will clean out my veins.”

“Wha—inject? I’m pretty sure that’s not a good idea.”

“Chlorine is the secret…”

“Uhhh, listen, if you want to disinfect yourself a bit, how about some wine?”

He just moans in response. But I figure it will shut him up at least, and maybe help him sleep, so I pour a bit of wine into his mouth like he’s a baby or something. It seems to calm him down, so I have some too. Immediately I felt about three times shitier.

“Ugggh,” I say, climbing back into bed, where I stayed for the rest of that day.

Another night of fever dreams (I think I have one where Bigote is my dad) and another day waking up sick. But now I feel like I’m definitely getting better. There’s still that general feeling of shittiness, and I still have a fever, but at least now I can stay awake, walk a little, and maybe have a conversation. Franck is about the same as me.

“You know,” he says, “this is my first experience with illness. The force field of Geheimnissland repels all pathogens, so we enjoy infinite good health.”

“Why did you ever leave that place?” I say.

“Oh, it is pleasant enough, but the world outside is far more interesting. To think, passing your life without knowing what it feels like to have a fever!”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“For my part,” Allesprechen says, leaning up, “the experience of illness was an invaluable lesson in the workings of the human immune response. One can feel the exhilaration of having one’s body become a battleground between invading viruses and antibodies.”

“Well you look a lot better,” I say. “Let’s see how Bigote’s doing.”

I get off the bed and walk over to Bigote’s cot. He’s there laying on his side, his face to the wall, like he’s asleep. But when I turn him on his back, I gasp. The dude is totally white, like freaking paper. And he’s not sleeping. His eyes are bloodshot and open. He’s breathing hard. He looks terrible.

“Oh my God!” I say. “Sir, are you okay? I think you need a doctor!”

“No…” Bigote’s voice is weak and thin. “No, no doctor’s. They are just another part of the conspiracy. They’ll kill me.”

“You’ll kill yourself if you don’t get any help. Allesprechen, can you call 911 or something?”

“I said no, Chopin!” Bigote says, and pulls out his revolver from under his pillow. “I’ll shoot any doctor, medic, or nurse who comes within 10 feet of me.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” I say, backing off, and go back to my bed. “Relax.”

The rest of that day is pretty tense, at least for me. I want to take that damn gun away from him, but he even sleeps with his finger on the trigger, so I’m afraid to even go near him. So I just wait and chit chat with the two weird Germans. Later, we order more pizza, but Bigote is still too weak to eat.

The more time goes by, the more worried I get. I mean, the guy looks terrible. I feel so bad that I can hardly even sleep that night, even though I’m still a bit sick myself. Meanwhile, Bigote just sits in his bed, breathing really heavy, like he’s just been exercising, and occasionally coughing a bit. By next morning, I’m so nervous about the whole thing that I decide that I have to try again.

In the early morning, when everyone else is still asleep, I sneak over to Bigote’s cot as quietly as I can. I tense up my body to jump and snatch the gun (it can’t be so hard to wrestle him now), but just when I’m about to go for it, I notice that he’s looking right at me.

“Chopin,” he says, his voice weaker than before. “Turn on the lights and wake the others.”

“Hey guys!” I say, and switch on the lights.

“What, what?” Allesprechen says.

“Is something happening?” says Franck.

“Guys I think Bigote isn’t doing too good.”

And he’s really not. His skin looks translucent now. You can see all his veins underneath. He also looks like he’s gotten even older, his skin super wrinkly, probably because he’s lost a lot of weight. Even his mustache looks a bit thin.

“Listen very closely, my friends,” he says. “My reason is now free and clear, rid of the dark shadows of ignorance that my unhappy constant study of those infernal conspiracy theory websites cast over it. Now I see through their absurdities and deceptions, and it only grieves me that this destruction of my illusions has come so late that it leaves me no time to read proper, verified news and well-researched history. Now, alas, I sense that the end is near, and it appears all I will leave the world is the name of a madman. Quickly, somebody fetch a lawyer, for it is time to make my last will and testament.”

“What are you talking about?!” I say. “Franck, quick, run and call an ambulance!”

“It appears that our time together will soon come together, Chopin,” Bigote continues. “I can only apologize for having dragged you into this insane series of foolish acts.”

“But, sir!” I say. “How can you say all these things? You can’t give up like this, now that we are so close to our goal of stopping the conspiracy, or at least preventing the collapse of Western culture!”

“Tut, tut, Chopin,” he says. “You and I both know that it was all rubbish. As a case in point, I am on the verge of dying from the coronavirus, which all of my theories said was not dangerous or did not even exist! Now, Professor Allesprechen, please write this down.”

“I am at your service,” the professor says, pulling out one of his gadgets. “I call this, the Portable Electronic Notepad, or PEN.”

“Quite impressive. Well, here it goes. I, Donald Davison Bigote, being of sound mind and under no undue compulsion, do hereby declare this to be my final and ultimate testament. I leave all of my possessions, property, and financial holdings to Daniel Chopin.”

“No, no, no!” I say. “Sir, this is no time to die. You can’t die! You’re just being ridiculous. Please, stop all this, get up, and we’ll go and fight the sons of Cain, or the vegetarians, or the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy or whatever. The world needs us!”

“You are the finest companion that I have ever had,” Bigote says. “Now, goodbye.”

And he closes his eyes, breathes one creepy, raspy breath, and his body goes limp. He’s dead.

Allesprechen and I look down at him, too stunned to say anything, when Franck finally bursts in with the paramedics. They’re dressed in full-body hazmat suits, like you see in movies about nuclear wars. After quickly checking his pulse and breathing, they scoop him onto a stretcher and run out of there. That’s the last time I see him.


Since these stories are about Don Bigote, I can’t really go on writing them now that he’s dead. I just wanted to let you know that, after all that talk of leaving all his stuff and his money to me, the only thing I ever “inherited” was that revolver, which I sold at a pawn shop in Spain for 100 bucks, not even enough for a plane ticket to Alabama. Luckily, Professor Allesprechen agreed to fly me back to Alabama in that contraption of his, whenever we can get it repaired. And maybe he can even reverse time travel, so my parents don’t freak out too much when I get home. Fingers crossed.

Review: The Babur Nama

Review: The Babur Nama

The Babur Nama by Zahirud-din Muhammad Babur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this History I have held firmly to it that the truth should be reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred.

I do not think I ever would have read this book, had it not been gifted to me last Christmas. It is quite a beautiful volume—hefty but compact, the pages thin but not fragile, the font and layout quite attractive—and yet, I still felt daunted by the prospect of reading an autobiography from a time and place that I knew so little about. It was a kind of miniature adventure.

By any standard, the Baburnama is an extraordinary book. The memoirs of Babur, founder of the mighty Mughal Empire, the book covers his life (with notable lacunae) from his early years to a short time before his death. It was written in Chaghatai, an extinct Turkic language that was Babur’s mother tongue. This edition, by the way, was translated by Annette Beveridge, who was something of an extraordinary figure herself, having completed this translation at her English home for linguistic amusement. It was no easy task, as the mountains of footnotes—almost all comments on a particular Chaghatai word or phrase—attest.

Babur’s life was nothing if not eventful. The story begins in Central Asia where, at the tender age of 11, Babur first becomes a ruler. From this moment he is thrown into the thick of politics and war, conquering and losing territories, fleeing for his life, gathering forces again, and repeating the process. Eventually his changing fortunes force him southward, to India (or Hindustan, as he calls it), where he conquers vast territories in a series of massive battles, thus setting the groundwork for the Mughal Empire that would dominate for centuries to come.

And yet this thumbnail sketch does not really capture the experience of reading this book. For one, it reads a lot more like a diary than a polished autobiography, full of short entries of quite quotidian details. One senses that Babur wrote this either for himself or for a small circle, as he does not take many pains to explain who people are. In any case, there must be well over 200 individuals mentioned in this book, which can make for a pretty frustrating reading experience—especially when you are also unfamiliar with the geography of the region. (I do wish Beveridge’s footnotes added historical context rather than expanding upon linguistic puzzles.)

In most professional reviews I have read of this book, the writer dwells upon Babur’s virtues. There is, indeed, much to admire in the man. His prose is plain and unadorned, cutting straight to the point with no unnecessary flourish. Even more important, Babur is frank to quite a surprising extent. He admits, for example, that his first feelings of love were for a boy (even if he did not go after men, women did not seem to excite him all that much). He can be disarmingly sensitive; at one point he cries after a melon reminds him of his lost homeland. And he is consistently honest and fair-minded, neither magnifying his victories nor minimizing his defeats.

Babur also boasts many intellectual virtues. He was clearly quite cultured and literate. This book is scattered with poems, many his own. Clearly, he cared deeply for the written word; near the end, he even takes the time to chastise his adult son for sending him a badly-written letter. And in the section on the flora and fauna of Hindustan, Babur reveals a penetrating eye for nature. He divines, for example, that the closest living relative of the rhinoceros is the horse—a brilliant deduction, considering how superficially different the two animals appear. He consistently dwells on his love for beautiful natural spots and well-made gardens.

So much can be said for Babur. But not enough is said—either in those reviews, or the introduction to this edition—of the river of violence that courses through these pages. True, Babur does not dwell on this violence; he usually mentions it as a passing detail to a more interesting story. But it is never far off, and I always found it disturbing. Babur speaks quite casually about executing prisoners and, indeed, putting whole cities to the sword. Probably I should not be shocked by this. After all, Babur was one of history’s great conquerors; and it is obvious from his own narrative that he lived his entire life under threat of violence.

Even so, I could not bring myself to admire the amateur naturalist knowing that he had, some time before, been strolling through the streets of a conquered city, stepping over the bodies of hundreds of massacred civilians. And I think that this considerably diminished my enjoyment of the book, as I found it far more difficult to savor the quieter, more human moments of the text. This, along with the preponderance of names and the diary-like brevity, made the book a bit of a slog at times. However, if you have any historical interest at all in this time or place, then the Baburnama is obligatory. It is full of so much valuable detail that a historian could easily spend a decade on this book alone, parsing out all of the references, piecing together the wider story. And even if you are a complete amateur, like myself, this book is still quite an educational experience.



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Ancient Cities: Istanbul

Ancient Cities: Istanbul

The plane ride was remarkably pleasant. After years of traveling on budget airlines, finally I had a bit of luxury—spacious seats, decent food, an entertainment system, and even free cologne in the bathroom. I was even more impressed when I stepped off the plane. We were in the new Istanbul Airport, which has been opened just the month before, in April of 2019. (This replaced the older Atatürk Airport, now used only for shipping and cargo.) The place was striking. Everything was sleek and shiny, with a futuristic design reminiscent of a spaceship. This was not what I expected when I chose to fly to an ancient city.

This was Holden’s second time in the city, and my first, so I was following his lead. We withdrew some Turkish Lira from an ATM (worth about ten Euro cents a piece), and then found the bus to Istanbul. Even this bus was pleasant (it had free wifi!). We were dropped off in front of a big hotel, and had a quick bite to eat in a nearby Kebab place.

Now, I need to say a word here about kebab—more specifically, döner kebab. It is a staple in Europe. Indeed, along with pizza, it is one of the only truly pan-European foods. You can find kebab shops in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Poland, Germany, or England—all with the same rotating spits of meat, the same shabby decor, the same disposable napkins and frozen french fries—and you are always guaranteed a cheap and filling meal of bread and meat, with a sprinkling of lettuce and, perhaps, the odd tomato thrown in. For two years I even lived above a kebab shop, and breathed in the meaty aromas which wafted up from below, filling me with strange cravings at odd hours.

Unfortunately for me, the kebab in Spain is notably worse than the kebab elsewhere. I blame it on the Spanish preference for bland foods. To adapt to the local tastes, kebab owners here tone down the spices, reducing the flavor to that of a standard hamburger. Even so, during my nights out, after some drinks with friends—or before, or during—I came greatly to appreciate the humble döner kebab, so cheap, fast, and ubiquitous. This may seem to be quite a lot to dedicate to a bit of ground meat on a bun; but I want to explain why I was so excited to try a kebab in Turkey, its birthplace. I was finally in the Mecca.

The kebab arrived, and I devoured it with passion. Absolutely scrumptious—far better than the Spanish version. But it was late now—approaching midnight—so we could not stay to savor the meal. We found our Airbnb and got ourselves ready for bed. The next day our trip would truly begin.


If asked what the largest city in Europe is, I suspect most people would say London, Paris, or perhaps Moscow. But with 15 million souls, Istanbul easily takes the cake. Admittedly, the city is not wholly European: it straddles the continental divide between Europe and Asia. Roughly half of the city sits on either side of the Bosphorus (the strait that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea), which has always put Istanbul in an ideal place to dominate trade, as this is a natural bottleneck. We should not be surprised, then, that the city’s roots stretch far back to antiquity.

Istanbul is a city with three names. In addition to its current appellation, it has been called Byzantium and Constantinople. The city began, like many cities around the Mediterranean, as a kind of Greek colony and trading post. The Romans, as was their wont, eventually conquered the city; and when the great Roman Empire grew unwieldy, and split into West and East, Byzantium became the capital of the new state (thus the name Byzantine Empire). Shortly thereafter, however, the city changed its name to honor the great Constantine, who is now remembered mostly as the emperor who converted to Christianity; but he did an awful lot of things besides that—most notably, govern well.

For centuries thereafter, Constantinople was one of the great cities of the world. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and Europe was swallowed up by the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire preserved much of the pomp, prestige, and power of the erstwhile Romans. The city remained a major center of trade—particularly on the Silk Route—as well as an important barrier between the new religion of Islam and Christian Europe. After a very long and very slow decline (famously catalogued by Edward Gibbon) the city finally fell on April 6, 1453, to the Ottomon Turks, who used cannons to break through the previously impregnable city walls. As Gibbon narrates it:

It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet the Second. … The senators were linked with their slaves; the prelates with the porters of the church; and young men of the plebeian class with noble maids, whose faces had been invisible to the sun and nearest kindred.

But of course that was not the end of its story. The city became the capital of the powerful Ottomon Empire for another five centuries—until finally, after independence was won from the Allied Powers, the capital was moved to Ankara, and Constantinople renamed Istanbul. Even so, few would doubt that Istanbul remains the most important city in Turkey. Indeed, though somewhat fallen from the glory days of Constantine, Istanbul is still one of the most important cities in the world.

It is also, as it happens, one of the most enchanting.


I only had one demand of Holden: that we see the Hagia Sophia. So that is where we headed to first.

It was a stunningly sunny day, the sky a piercing blue. After a bit of fumbling, we managed to get tickets for the tram from the machines, and off we went through the city. The tram took us over the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. The spires of minarets and the domes of mosques loomed in the skyline overhead. The streets teemed with people. The city had none of that sterile polish that some popular tourist destinations have. It was immediately clear that Istanbul was a real place.

Locating the Hagia Sophia was no challenge. But buying tickets presented us with a dilemma. We had the option either to buy a single entry to the museum, or to buy a combination pass that included many other monuments. I normally shy away from such passes, since you lose money unless you visit most or all of the sites; thus buying it commits you to a certain itinerary. So I elected for the single entry. But Holden reached the opposite conclusion, which led to a competition between us: Who would save money in the end? I will not bother with suspense: Holden won. I humbly recommend the combination pass.

In any case, it is too vulgar to dwell on such things in the presence of the Hagia Sophia, one of the great architectural wonders of the world. Completed in 537, under the rule of Justinian, its name literally means “Holy Wisdom.” Two churches had previously occupied this spot; both burned down. Justinian was determined that his own effort not meet with the same fate, and so ordered the new building to be made of brick and stone.

Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles were chosen to design the new building, even though they were both mathematicians rather than architects. It was a brilliant choice, as only a mathematician could have designed the series of pendentives and semi-domes that culminate in the crowning central dome, mutually supporting one another over a vast internal space. With the help of some 10,000 workers, they created both the largest dome and the largest cathedral in the world—not to be surpassed for almost a thousand years. (Its dome was eventually surpassed by the Duomo in Florence, and its size by the Seville Cathedral.) Admittedly, an earthquake caused the roof to partially collapse just a few months after it was completed, which required extensive reconstruction.

The Hagia Sophia is a building marked by time. Much has changed since it was first built. For one, the marble covering its façade has almost entirely fallen away, leaving the structural brick exposed. This gives the current building a slightly shabby aspect from the outside; but in its day it would have glimmered brightly in the Mediterranean sun. Many other changes are due to the building’s religious history. After it was converted from a church into a mosque, four massive minarets were constructed on each corner of the building, whose spires even extend beyond the top of the dome.

The inside presents the same contrast of religions. The most obvious sign of Islam are the eight large medallions bearing ornate calligraphy, boldly displaying names of Muhammad, Allah, the caliphs, and Muhammad’s grandsons. There is also a mihrab where the Christian altar used to stand, though it seems strangely misaligned, as it had to point to Mecca in a building which points to Jerusalem. The Christian elements are no less obvious. The walls are covered with elaborate, golden mosaics, depicting Jesus, Mary, Emperors, Empresses, and Saints. These had all been covered with plaster during the centuries when the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, as representational imagery is considered sacriligeous in Islam. They were carefully uncovered during the mosque’s conversion into a museum in the 1930s. The strangest of these might be the six-winged seraphim adorning the pendentives—a bundle of feathery wings with no face, appendages, or bodies.

A few curiosities stand out for note. There is the Wishing Column, a column with a hole in it that apparently was replaced with a piece of bronze. Curiously, the bronze now feels oddly wet, for which reason it is also called the sweating or the crying column. In any case, touching this perspiring indentation is supposed to bring you good luck. Also curious are the two enormous urns, meant for the ritual purification of Muslim worship. The urns themselves were actually carved in Ancient Greece out of two even more enormous blocks of granite—an incredible feat. Most amusing, for me, were the graffiti carved into the upper-story railings. While you may think that these have some religious significance, they were actually carved by soldiers in the Emperor’s Varangian Guard—an elite bodyguard unit, with members recruited from the brutal northern lands. In other words, there are runic inscriptions carved by Vikings in a building in Turkey.

As for the majestic beauty of the place, I will leave that to Edward Gibbon:

A magnificent temple is a laudable monument of national taste and religion; and the enthusiast who entered the dome of St. Sophia might be tempted to suppose that it was the residence, or even the workmanship, of the Deity.

But he also adds:

Yet how dull is the artifice, how insignificant is the labour, if it be compared with the formation of the vilest insect that crawls upon the surface of the temple!

It is true that cathedral architecture does lag far behind insect evolution in complexity and efficiency of design. But I still prefer the Hagia Sophia.

I cannot move on without noting the recent decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a working mosque, rather than a museum. Thankfully, this time around, the Christian artworks will not be plastered over. Even so, many people criticized the decision, as the Hagia Sophia has long been considered to be a symbol of co-existence between the two religions. But to be fair, Christians are still worshipping inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which was turned into a church when the city fell to Christian conquerors, about 200 years before Constantinople was taken by Mehmed II. So perhaps we should make an exchange.

Standing right outside the Hagia Sophia is another ruin of the ancient city, though you may not recognize it. The current Sultan Ahmet Square occupies what used to be the Hippodrome,* Constantinople’s version of the Circus Maximus. That is, it was an enormous stadium—big enough for 100,000 spectators—used for chariot races and other amusements. None of the stadium survives; but some of the monuments placed in the center of the race track do remain. One of these is the Serpent Column. This was actually the base of a sacrificial tripod, made in the 5th century BCE to commemorate the victory of the Greeks against the Persians; and originally three snakes’ heads extended from the twisted bodies of the column. Unfortunately, those delicate heads rusted off a few hundred years ago, leaving only the slithering column at the base.

(*Hippodrome is Greek for “horse course.” The word “hippopotamus,” by the way, comes from the Greek for “water horse.” Hippocampus, used for both the animal and the part of the brain, means “sea horse.”)

That Greek column was transported here by the Romans as a celebration of their power. The same was done with the Obelisk of Thutmose III. This is an enormous stone tower, built around 1490 BCE during Egypt’s 18th Dynasty (Thus, this column was more ancient to the Byzantines than they are to us!) It was transported here during the reign of the emperor Theodosius, for which reason it is sometimes (though unfairly) referred to as the Obelisk of Theodosius.

In his excellent course on Ancient Egypt, Bob Brier remarks that obelisks were enormous engineering accomplishments, arguably more impressive than the pyramids. This is because they were made from a single piece of stone. Moving them from the quarry, and getting them into position, was thus a terrific challenge—not only because of its massive weight, but also because it could easily crack if not properly supported during transport. As a case in point, this obelisk was damaged when the Byzantines moved it here, effectively losing over a third of its original height. As another case in point, the so-called Walled Obelisk, built by the Byzantines as a kind of matching twin to the Egyptian original, is made from cut stone—that is, assembled out of little pieces, rather than carved from a single rock. It certainly looks shabby when compared to the original.

I should here mention the infamous Nika riots. During the reign of Justinian, in the 6th century, chariot racing was intertwined with political affiliation. The populous divided itself into factions—blues, greens, reds, and whites—which were as much like street gangs as political parties. After chariot races, hooligans frequently clashed, sometimes with fatal results. But in the year 532, tensions were coming to a head. Justinian had become so unpopular that, at one chariot race, partisan loyalties were thrown aside, and the entire populace turned against him, chanting “Nika!” (“Victory!”). The rioters started attacking the palace and destroying the city. Justinian (prompted by his wife, Theodosius) stayed to command his forces against the mob. By the end of the riots, tens of thousands of people had been killed, and half of the city burned down. Indeed, this is what gave Justinian the opportunity to build the Hagia Sophia.

Looming over this ancient racing ground, within sight of the Hagia Sophia, is another iconic monument. Yet this one is not ancient. I am talking about the famous Blue Mosque, though it is properly called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Sultan Ahmed I ruled the mighty Ottomon Empire from 1603 to 1617, notably deciding not to kill all of his brothers when he ascended to the throne. (Sultans typically had many sons, from their polygamous ways; and it was customary for the new sultan to get rid of the competition when the time came to rule.) Though his life was eventful by any standard, he is mainly remembered now for the erection of his eponymous mosque. Indeed, he is buried in a türbe (tomb) right outside its walls—a surprisingly humble shrine for such royalty.

The Blue Mosque is still very much an active place of worship. This means that, five times a day, the muezzin sings in a husky, melismatic voice: “Allah is the most great. I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to salvation. There is no God but Allah.” In the old days the muezzin would ascend to the top of the minaret and shout out this call at the top of his lungs; but nowadays they use loudspeakers rigged up to the minarets. In any case, it is a lovely and haunting sound—seeming to encompass the whole culture in a few lines of melody. But this does mean that the Blue Mosque (as with any mosque) is sometimes unavailable for visits.

From the outside one can easily see the influence of Byzantine architecture on the Ottomon style. Much like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is composed of a series of cupolas and semi-domes that culminate in the large central dome. Its appellation notwithstanding, the hue of its façade is, at best, only vaguely azure. Visiting the mosque means getting in a queue and shuffling through the impressive courtyard that sits in front of the entrance. Shoes must be removed for the visit (little plastic bags are provided to carry them), and women must cover their hair (scarves are provided if you do not have one). Some Westerners may bristle at the sexist double-standard, though to be fair I have seen women being told to cover up in Rome before visiting Basilicas. So perhaps we are not so different.

I had never been inside a mosque before, so I did not know what to expect. What first struck me was that the inside was a lot less “busy” than a European church. Whereas a cathedral is full of little altars and shrines, with saints and angels jumping out at you from every corner, the Blue Mosque was open and empty. The floor was covered with an enormous prayer rug (red, not blue), and the walls decorated with ceramics of highly elaborate floral designs. As mentioned above, Islamic art considers depictions of the human form—especially of religious figures—to be profane, a prohibition which prompted Muslim artists to develop abstract design to prodigious heights. Yet what I found most charming about my visit was that there were young men passing out copies of the Koran, in multiple languages. I requested and got an English version—with an appropriately blue binding—which now sits proudly on my bookshelf. I ought to read it soon.

Our next stop was the Topkapi Palace. This was the center of Ottomon power while the empire was at its height, built by the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, six years after he took Constantinople. Unlike monstrous European palaces—everything gathered under one enormous roof, Versailles being the prime example—Topkapi takes the form of a series of walled courtyards, each more intimate than the last. In other words, the palace is spread out rather than piled in a heap. The place is quite massive, so I will not even attempt a general description. But there are a few highlights. What most sticks out in my memory is the impressive collection of porcelain, how displayed in the palace’s kitchen. Here the Muslim genius for decorative art is displayed to full affect, as the ceramics were covered in lush patterns.

A model of Topkapi Palace

In the third courtyard, in the Sultan’s private chamber, there is also a display of Islamic holy relics. These include things like Muhammad’s footprint, his bow and sword, his robe and his banner, and a letter by his hand, in addition to relics of Moses and John the Baptist. In one room, a hafiz—someone who has memorized the entire Koran—keeps up a continuous recital of that sacred scripture (presumably they do it in shifts). Koran recitation, by the way, is a serious artform in the Muslim world; to Western ears it sounds like music. The most impressive architecture is to be found in the fourth courtyard, where a series of beautifully decorated kiosks, full of delightful ceramics. Here you can also enjoy a view of the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea.

Roof decoration from the palace

Unfortunately for me, however, I did not get to see one of the most interesting parts of the palace: the Harem. This was because it cost extra to go inside—that is, if you did not have the pass. Perhaps I would not have minded paying; but I was determined to show Holden that I would save money through my decision not to buy the bass. Holden, meanwhile, strolled right inside, leaving me to wait in the courtyard. In any case, it is worth noting that the harem was not exactly the den of pleasure imagined by European orientalists, where the Sultan luxuriated among limitless numbers of concubines. Indeed, his whole family lived there—including, most notably, his mother, who was involved in selecting women for the Sultan. Still, judging from the photos, it was probably a pretty nice place to be (at least for the Sultan).

Holden running from an Ishtar Lion

Right next to Topkapi is perhaps the finest museum in the city: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. In fact, you do not even need to go inside to enjoy the museum’s collection, as the courtyard is littered with stone fragments—of sculptures, columns, and even sarcophagi—a kind of graveyard for monuments. Even though part of the museum’s collection was unavailable due to construction, I still came away quite impressed by the visit. There are, for example, some examples of Ancient Mesopotamian art, such as the wonderful Ishtar Gate, or clay tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions; and the many busts, friezes, and mosaics—from Egypt, Greece, and Rome—should also be mentioned. But the highlight of the museum is its extensive collection of sarcophagi. The most famous of these is the Alexander Sarcophagus, reputed to belong to the great conqueror. Alexander is certainly depicted on the outside (in much the same manner as in the Alexander Mosaic, in Naples), but it is very doubtful that this was actually his resting place. Even so, it is a beautiful place to be dead in.

This actually isn’t the Alexander Sarcophagus, but another impressive work in the museum’s collection

After enjoying the museum, we headed to the Basilica Cistern. This is so-named because, in this spot, a Basilica once stood, facing the Hagia Sophia. Now, only the underground rainwater receptacle remains. But it is impressive in itself. The visitor pays the fee (it isn’t included in the Istanbul pass, much to my delight and Holden’s chagrin!) and descends a tunnel into a kind of damp cave. There, you walk on a platform (the cistern is mostly drained, but some puddles remain on the floor), observing the strange subterranean environment. It is an enormous space, big enough to hold 21 million gallons of water. The roof is supported by 366 marble columns, most rather plain, but some quite elaborately decorated. One column is decorated with eyes, which seem to be weeping tears—apparently a tribute to the slaves who died constructing the cistern. Two other columns rest on enormous carved statues of Medusa (a case of recycling materials). In any case, it is clear that the Byzantines knew the value of water.

After saying so much about the major monuments of Istanbul, I ought to take some time to describe the city itself, as well as its people. This was my first time in a predominately Muslim country, so a lot was new for me. I found the innumerable mosques, with their minarets and domes, to be endlessly charming; and the call to prayer (adhan) never failed to send a little shiver down my spine. What is more, it was Ramadan when we visited, which meant that, every evening, right as the sun was setting, one could observe the people scrambling to eat. One policewoman carried a stack of pizza boxes to her fellows, as they got ready to devour them at the appropriate time; and vendors rapidly set up shop along the streets, with rice and chickpeas ready to be sold to hungry customers. Another consequence was that alcohol was not especially manifest. Granted, if you wanted to find a beer, it was not especially difficult; but it was not reliably sold at every corner store. And, of course, most women walked around with their hair covered (and some with their face veiled, too).

My impressions of the Turkish people were entirely positive. In every interaction we had, they were unfailingly attentive, polite, and helpful. The helpfulness was the most striking thing. Any time we asked someone for directions, they would really go out of their way to help us out. Holden, for example, was determined to get a haircut while we were there, but we did not know where to go. When Holden asked a bystander who was sitting on a bench, smoking, he got up and walked us several blocks to a barbershop. Then he even called inside to the barber, and led us in, purely out of courtesy! (The haircut, by the way, was quite special: The barber used only scissors, no electric razor, and layered the hair with diligent skill. He also gave Holden a shave with a straight edge razor, and even used a little torch to burn off the peach fuzz on Holden’s face and neck. It was quite a performance.)

The Galata Bridge

Aside from its many monuments, the city of Istanbul itself is not exactly beautiful. Yes, the bridges and waterways provide for a nice view; and many neighborhoods are reasonably attractive. But great swaths of the city are run-down, with damaged buildings and shabby roads. Feral cats and dogs were a constant presence, so much so that I doubted whether any Turks had any actual pets. To get a good taste of modern Istanbul, you can head to Taksim Square, one of the major plazas of the city. It is ringed by hotels and restaurants, where tourists are inevitably gathered. In the center is the Republic Monument, which celebrates the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—freedom fighter and first president of Turkey—occupies pride of place in this monument; indeed, he is on both sides of it.

But Holden would argue that Istanbul is not best seen from any square, street, or building. As he is fond of saying, “The best way to see a city is by boat.” It is his mantra, his life’s creed. In keeping with this sage principle, therefore, we decided to take a little Bosphorus cruise. The waterway is constantly full of little ferries, transporting busy Istanbullulars north and south, and from Europe to Asia and back again. You can buy a ticket for one of these ferries for an exceedingly reasonable price (though Holden and I struggled to find exactly where to buy the tickets, and which ferry line to use). So after Holden had his hair cut, we were off to the seas for the absolute best possible view of Istanbul.

It was a sparklingly clear day, with cloudless skies and shimmering waters. Seagulls floated motionless on the gales as we ascended the gangplank and found seats on the upper deck. It was not crowded. Soon the ship had pulled away from shore, and we were cruising northeast, hemmed in by two continents. We all around us were gargantuan cargo vessels, full of multi-colored shipping containers. (According to Rick Steves, many of these are Russian, as the Bosphorus is still a major artery between Russia and Europe.) In the distance, swimming among these leviathans, I spied the black backs of a pod of dolphins, coming up for air.

Holden was correct: the city was very attractive from this vantage point. I especially liked the many mosques and minarets that adorned the surrounding hills like crowns. Far off, we could spot the commanding form of the Çamlica Mosque, the biggest mosque in the city, which had opened just a few months before our visit. After fifteen minutes or so we came upon the Dolmahbahçe Mosque—a small and lovely mosque that sits on a platform over the water. Right up river is the Dolmahbahçe Palace, which replaced the Topkapi Palace as the center of Ottomon Power in 1856. Unlike its predecessor, Dolmahbahçe is transparently European in inspiration and design, imitating Versailles in its weighty grandeur.

The Dolmahbahçe Palace

Further on, we encounter the Rumelihisari. This is a large fortress, built by the orders of Mehmet II (the Conqueror), with the intention of choking off boat traffic on the Bosphorus. This effectively prevented any kind of aid from reaching Constantinople during its final siege. Finally we reached the Bosphorus Bridge. Opened in 1973, it was the first permanent bridge to span two continents. (In his attempt to conquer Greece, the Persian Emperor Darius had a bridge of pontoons built for his army to cross.) Leonardo da Vinci first proposed a suspension bridge here in the 16th century; it took the rest of us a little while to catch up with his vision. 

Such was our little cruise, which lasted about two hours. (There are longer ones that take you all the way to the Black Sea, a day-long affair.) Holden may be right about his boat theory. But if you do have to see Istanbul from land, then perhaps the best place to go is the Galata Tower.  This is a tall watchtower—measuring about 60 meters, or 200 feet—that was built in the 14th century. The Genoese had a colony in the city at that time, which they used as part of their extensive trading network; and they built the tower as a kind of lookout on the Bosphorus. The visit seemed a bit overpriced (and it wasn’t included in Holden’s pass!), but the panoramic view of the city is difficult to beat, even if you do happen to be on a boat.


On any trip to Istanbul, it is pretty well obligatory to pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar—even if, like me, you are no great fan of shopping, and have no need for touristy souvenirs. Here you can see that the idea of a shopping mall has impressively hoary roots, as this enormous market was opened back in the 15th century. The bazaar is fairly inconspicuous from the outside; but once you go inside, you find yourself wandering in an enormous maze of covered passageways—61 streets in total. All around you are shops and stalls, selling textiles, spices, jewelry, makeup, and sweets like Turkish delight. None of this may appeal to you (I didn’t buy anything), but it is enjoyable simply as a spectacle.

Standing quite close to the Bazaar is the oldest monument in the city: the Column of Constantine. In its current form, you may wonder why this lumpy bit of stone is famous. But when it was constructed, this column was enormous (perhaps the biggest triumphal column erected by the Romans) and glorious, featuring a shining bronze statue of Constantine on the top. A gust of wind eventually blew down the statue, as well as a few chunks at the top of the column, which was replaced with a cross. Then the crusaders blundered the bronze rings that held it together, and the conquering Muslims had the cross removed. Finally, the column was scorched in a fire, giving it a distinctive black tint. These days, a masonry base has replaced the original marble one, and iron braces hold the porphyry of the column in place, which makes it a rather ugly sight. But it is still worth seeing, as this column commemorates the renaming of Byzantium in Constantine’s honor, in the year 330.

Our next visit was a less ancient monument: the Süleymaniye Mosque. Until it was surpassed, in 2019, by the aforementioned Caliça Mosque, this was the largest in the city. It is certainly hard to miss—sitting atop a hill, with a commanding view of the Bosphorus. The mosque owes its name to perhaps the greatest Ottomon ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, famous for both his many conquests and his judicial reforms. He also, as it happened, presided over a high point in Ottomon art and architecture, as evinced by this glorious mosque.

I remember my visit most vividly. Before going inside, we spent some time wandering in the adjacent cemetery, examining the tombstones with Arabic calligraphy. Then we paused to admire the expansive view of the Golden Horn, full of boats on the glimmering waters. Finally we turned our attention to the building itself. Using little fountains outside the walls, people were practicing wudu, the ceremonial washing of the face, arms, and legs before prayer. We went inside, first into the enormous courtyard, surrounded by the towering minarets, and then into the massive prayer hall. In form it was quite similar to the Blue Mosque—a floor covered with a rug, and walls decorated with abstract designs. One side of the space was set aside for visitors, while the other side (roped off) was for worship. A very polite young man, volunteering at the mosque, gave us an enthusiastic explanation of the building’s history, with a few curiosities thrown in. According to him, ostrich eggs are put on the chandeliers to repel spiders (I suppose spiders hate ostriches?).

I must mention here a fact that testifies to my own general ignorance. While waiting for Holden, I peaked into a large tomb, which a sign said was for a man named Suleiman. Somehow, I did not realize that this was Suleiman the Magnificent himself, who is buried right outside his eponymous mosque.

Next, we had a Christian monument to visit, the Chora Church. Its name (Greek for “field” or “countryside”) actually refers to the fact that this church originally stood outside the city walls of Constantinople; and even now, the church is far from the city center. Holden and I elected, unwisely, to walk the few kilometers to the church, thinking that we could see some of the city on the way. Instead, we ended up walking through ugly urban wastelands, alongside busy and noisy roads. It was not pleasant. Thankfully, once we got nearby, we popped into a little café for some Turkish coffee. And we were charmed to find posters of Hollywood films in Turkish hanging nearby.

When we got to the church, Holden’s sagacity in purchasing the Istanbul pass was decisively demonstrated, as he was able to walk right inside, while I had to wait for about 20 minutes to buy a ticket (the ticket office being monopolized by a tour guide buying dozens of Istanbul passes). So, once again, if you go to Istanbul get the pass.

The church was undergoing extensive restorations when we visited, so there was almost nothing to see on the outside, as it was entirely covered with scaffolding. But the church is famous for its interior, anyway. This is because of the gorgeous and astoundingly complete set of Byzantine mosaics that cover the ceilings. Though the church was originally built in the 4th century, these decorations hail from the 14th century, a period of artistic splendor known as the Palaeologan Renaissance. Typical of Byzantine art, the mosaics feature somewhat abstract figures against a glittering, golden background. The mosaics are astounding for their quantity as much as their quality—far surpassing those in the Hagia Sophia, even though Chora is so much smaller.

I should note here that, last year, shortly after the decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, it was announced that the same was to be done with Chora. Like the Hagia Sophia, this church had spent several centuries as a mosque (known as the Kariye Mosque), until it was converted into a museum in 1945. A Turkish court decided that this conversion was unlawful, and that it should be used as a mosque once again. Personally I found this decision rather odd, as it does not seem practical to cover up the dozens and dozens of Christian images, which the Muslim faith demands. But I suppose it is their monument to dispose of.

To return to the city center, we decided that we had better take a bus rather than walk this time. By chance, the main bus hub we found was right next to the iconic Theodosian Walls. This is a set of double walls, built around the ancient city by the order of Theodosius, who reigned in the 5th century. The walls are both tall and thick; and having two layers of protection only made them more formidable. It is worth going out of your way to see them, as the imposing walls of Constantinople are largely responsible for the Byzantine Empire’s longevity, making the city almost impregnable until the advent of cannons. Indeed, over 60 cannons—including one super-sized cannon, weighing over 30 tons—were used by Mehmet II to finally capture Constantinople. 

Now, here I must break off this long list of beautiful monuments, in order to introduce you to an experience. I am talking about the Turkish Bath. Normally I don’t go in for this sort of thing. I have never gotten a massage. But Holden was adamant: we absolutely had to get a Turkish bath if we were in Turkey. Here is how it went.

After looking around for a good place, we decided on one that advertised itself as being traditional (I think it was Çemberlitaş Hamamı, near the Column of Constantine). The price was about 30 euros per person, which I found reasonable. Then we were guided to the changing room, or sogukluk, which is a kind of enclosed courtyard with multiple floors. We were led up the stairs to a little room with a glass door; then the attendant handed us two towels and said something like “Take off your clothes and put these on.” (I should note that both the changing room and bathing areas are segregated by gender.)

At this point I panicked. First of all I still have my puritan notions of nudity to contend with, so I did not feel at all comfortable disrobing. But my other problem, as I soon found out, was that I had no idea how to properly fasten a towel around my waist. I confessed this difficulty to Holden—who, for his part, was feeling totally at ease and eager for his massage—who almost passed out from laughter. When he collected himself, he kindly helped me to wrap myself with the garment, explaining the principle to me. (At home and at college, I had always carried my clothes into the bathroom with me to shower, so I never had to learn!)

Then, we were led from the changing room (where we left our things) to the sickaklik, the bathing room. This is quite an impressive space. The room has twelve walls, and sits under a large dome, which is perforated with little, star-shaped holes for ventilation. In the center is a large, raised platform; and all around the periphery are little niches with fountains. We were instructed to lie down on the slab and wait (we had a little towel to cushion our heads). Holden explained that we had to be properly sweaty for the bath. This was no problem, as it must have been nearly 100 degrees inside, the air dense with moisture.

After about 10 minutes of silent sweating, we were approached by two burly Turkish fellows, who explained (in functional English) that they were there to bathe us. The first step of the process is pretty jarring. My gentle masseuse started to vigorously scrub my skin with a kind of rough cloth (called a kese), I suppose with the goal of exfoliation. It was not exactly painful, but it could not be called soothing, either. Then, my attendant filled a bucket with very soapy water, and proceeded to lather my raw epidermis. After properly suddy, I was instructed to get up and go to one of the bathing niches, where I knelt down as he poured hot water over me. As the final step, I was taken outside the bathing room to a kind of adjoining room. Here I was once again instructed to kneel down, as the attendant vigorously scrubbed my hair and scalp with a bar of soap, and then once again doused me with bucketfuls of hot water.

We were back on the street in about an hour. Holden, for his part, felt absolutely clean, refreshed, and rejuvenated. I mainly felt exhausted from the sensory overload; but it is an experience I will certainly never forget, and will perhaps someday repeat.

So Istanbul has much to offer in the way of history, architecture, cruises, haircuts, and baths. But it would be criminal not to dwell on the food. It was delicious, filling, and cheap—a winning combination, if ever there was one. I have already had occasion to laud the kebab. It was consistently good (most distinctively, it was served with pickles), though I have to admit the best kebab I ever tasted was still in Berlin. The sweets were also excellent. Istanbul of little pastry shops, with displays filled to the brim with tiny packets of delight. I ordered a little plate of baklava every chance I got, and the kunefe was also scrumptious. Another joy was the coffee: it was both very strong and very sweet; likewise for the tea. After a few baklavas and a cup of Turkish coffee, I was always ready for more adventure.

Another common sort of shop are buffet-style restaurants, with hot food—vegetable, meat, and fish dishes—behind a pane of glass, for you to choose. Holden and I ate at one of these; and, judging from the other clientele, it was the most “authentic” place we went to. But the real stand-out place was Falafel House. We went there our first night for dinner, and returned every night for the rest of the trip. I ordered the same thing every time: falafel, hummus, and tabouleh (a kind of salad made from parsley, mint, cucumbers, and bulgur wheat). Not only was it vegetarian, but vegan, and (to repeat myself) delicious, filling, and cheap. Unfortunately for Holden, he suffered from food poisoning on our final night, which is strange, considering that we ate almost the exact same things during the trip. But in general I would rank Istanbul very high in gustatory pleasure.

For our last night in the city, we decided to cross the Bosphorus to visit Asia. So we hopped on another ferry and traveled over to Kadıköy. As I stepped off the boat, I felt a strange thrill: this was my first time in Asia—officially, the fourth continent (after North America, Africa, and Europe) that I had stepped foot in. This part of town was quite different from what we had already seen. First we passed through an enormous market, selling fresh vegetables, jars of pickled foods, cheeses, olives, sweets, fish, spices—a garden of earthly delights Then, we found ourselves surrounded by trendy bars. This, alone, was striking, as establishments mainly devoted to alcohol were absent from the Istanbul we had seen. The people looked different, too. Both men and women were dressed as hipsters; and, notably, many were walking their dogs. (Virtually all the dogs we had seen up until then were strays.) Clearly, this part of town was more Westernized.

Holden and I strolled around, eventually coming to a park on the water. There, young people were lounging on the grass, drinking wine; and a group of boys were playing basketball. The Bosphorus gently lapped the rocky shore, as couples held hands and kissed (it also occurred to me that I had not seen any public displays of affection until then). Holden and I decided to have a coffee, where we found that the establishment had backgammon boards available. We played a game (my first) and I narrowly lost. To drown my sorrows, I then had a drink at a bar.

If Holden’s boat theory was not definitely proven during our Bosphorus cruise, it was strongly verified on our return back across the Bosphorus. At night, as the city lights played on the placid waters, with mist sweeping in from the sea, the city took on a dream-like quality. One could easily imagine what it could have been like for a traveler, years ago, to see the towers, mosques, and minarets rise up in the distance over the waves. This was Constantinople.

As I mentioned before, our final night was somewhat marred by Holden’s getting food poisoning. (We also watched the disappointing penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, which didn’t help.) In the airport, the next day, we noticed some men with shaven heads, partly wrapped in towels, with odd red patches on their scalp. This is evidence of Turkey’s increasing medical tourism, specifically for hair transplants, which are apparently far cheaper than in most Western countries. (According to this article, however, the quality is inconsistent and the procedure potentially dangerous.) Finally, we boarded the plane back to Madrid, which was just as comfortable and luxurious as the ride there had been. It was an extraordinary trip.

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My Novel Has Been Published!

My Novel Has Been Published!

Their Solitary Way by Roy Lotz


I am excited to announce that, at long last, my philosophical novel has been published and is now available!

I wrote this book about six years ago—before I even moved to Spain—but I have been steadily working on it since. A philosophical novel with dubious commercial prospects, it took a while before I could find a publisher willing to release it. Thankfully, Adelaide Books agreed, and turned my little project into a reality.

In short, if you have ever read one of my reviews and thought “Boy, I wish that lasted three hundred more pages!” then have I got good news for you—you can! But be advised: I wrote this book when I was working under the combined influence of Marcel Proust and Ludwig Wittgenstein. While I would not dare compare my poor novel to their works, it does suffer from the attempt to emulate them.

In any case, to repeat the novel’s acknowledgments: “I am thankful to be part of such a wonderful online community of readers, and indebted to many members for helping me learn and grow.” It is no exageration to say that this book would never have been written, much less published, without Goodreads and the readers of this blog. So thank you once again.

(Ebook versions will soon be available across various platforms. I have linked to the publisher’s website and Amazon above.)

View all my reviews