a russian train, and peter the great

Around Moscow, the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape. Small lakes and patches of woods are sprinkled among the meadowlands. Here and there, a village appears, topped by the onion dome of its church.

Peter the Great: His Life and World, Robert K. Massie

midafternoon, and the nevsky express is trundling through the countryside somewhere outside of saint petersburg. everything i’ve read about the bleak landscape of russia in winter is true: it is a great, flat expanse covered in snowy crust and blanketed by thick pines. sometimes this is broken up by a town of wet-stained grey houses painted over in anaemic shades of pink and blue.

though it’s barely past 2pm, the light wanes. a meek sun tries to push through menacing white snowclouds. the hour becomes pink; we cross a frozen river. it feels right being carried across this coldscape to close a year that, for me, has been fuelled by grief and heartbreak.

where do we get our desire to travel, and how do we decide to go where we go? cheap flights make things easier than they were generations ago, but that deep-seated wanderlust seems hard-wired into me in a way i’ve never fully been able to explain.

and the mystery of how we choose where we go. do the destinations, in fact, pick us at the times we are ready? i’ve wanted to go to russia since i was 22 and read robert k. massie’s peter the great. this led me to a temporary college major in russian history, quickly abandoned once i tried actually learning russian and took a moment to consider where a career in this arcane subject might take me. in fact, it probably would have been more useful than i thought back then.

why, then, after all these years, am i only here now?

i read peter the great and fell deeply in love with the early 18th century world i imagined peter the first lived in. a man larger than life (quite literally for he was 7ft tall!), an outsider to the murmuring, bearded world of old muscovy, it was peter’s inquisitive mind and search for things beyond where he lived that put him down in history books as an enduring world leader and the man who single-handedly built backward russia into an empire.

some might say peter was a visionary. to me, he merely followed his heart to the places it took him: lake pleschev outside moscow, where he first encountered a boat and learned to sail it. the city’s german suburb where he made his greatest friends from all over the world. travels in europe. an excursion in england, living in deptford, not far from where i do, and learning the naval arts from great british shipbuilders along the thames. and eventually the frozen marshy gulf of finland, where he built his own perfect city hundreds of miles from the dark, old capital.

rereading massie’s book over these few days in russia has led me to question what exactly it was about peter that captured my imagination, for he was also a deeply flawed man, prone to bouts of anger and overindulgence that led him to an early grave at the age of 52.

it seems to me peter lived with reckless abandon, an underrated quality and one we are taught will lead to our own destruction. for peter, it helped him build an empire and, it seems like, have fun while doing it. and so maybe it is possible to live our wildest, most improbable dreams, find our craziest moments of bliss and still be someone great and build something enduring, too.

the nevsky express slows upon entering an eerie patch of frozen fog. a dead forest of tree stumps closes in on the tracks from every side. the world goes charcoal-grey and suddenly the train compartment’s lights offer a warmth of contrast to all that, out there. another frozen river carves a snaking path of black ice below, and then there’s a small village of shanty wooden huts, roofs sagging. more fog, more pines, more snow.

and somewhere ahead, the steaming lights of old muscovy.

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poem from the train to bukhara

dusty, dry, golden
the fan mountains silhouette
a line of white chevys,
blue soviet trucks

a level crossing
then dushanbe, and
afghanistan after.

vestiges of trade routes that criss-crossed
this land like vines
creeping up trellises, along shanty
warehouses, next to a
dwindling river
carving a ribbon of
jade through the
desert.

in some other universe

there is a caravan
packing your heart
next to mine.

7 september 2017

travelling outside your age (or, an ode to my cool aunt and uncle)


my aunt jane and uncle dave are legends.

they grew up in the 50s and 60s and have a million stories from high school in pasadena, california. surfing, playing in bluegrass bands like the smooothies, the heady early days of the rose parade, smoking in the mountains, seeing steve martin with an arrow through his head at the ice house. when all four egenes siblings (that’s my dad john, jane the youngest, aunt lonnie and uncle tim) get together under one roof, a lot of eating, drinking, swearing, arguing and laughing usually ensues. normal family things, and things i treasure, for they are rare and wonderful.


it doesn’t feel right to start writing about aunt jane and uncle dave without putting on a record, like rubber soul or django & jimmie. my family is musical: jane a professional violinist and teacher, dave an excellent guitarist, my dad a music lecturer and general music savant. i have meddled in music throughout my life, but was never as cool as my dad and his siblings; never cool enough to have a bluegrass band in high school.


my earliest memories of jane and dave are foggy visions of their house in albuquerque, clad in houseplants and mosaic coffee tables and home-knit throws, and a great big grandfather clock that struck resounding echoes on the hour – and still does.

tonight i stick joni mitchell’s blue on the turntable and wonder if they are gonna hate it that i’m about to write about them. probably, because they are nothing if not counter-culturalists and hippies in a way, as a slacker and member of generation x, i always envied. gen-x’ers wanted to care about causes but we were too busy not giving a shit about the man to bother doing anything.


friday at 3pm in santa maria novella railway station in florence. they appear off the rome high-speed service, dave with his signature lumbering six-foot-five, white-haired lanky figure and jane with her wave of pulled-back dark hair fronted by grey streaks in the exact same place my greys are coming in. hugs are brisk and conversation is immediate and easy despite a year apart.

we are spending six days in florence for what has become an annual international trip together. jane and dave started travelling later in their adult life; they are american baby boomers discovering the world as semi-retirees and they have definitely got the travel bug. watching them figure out the italian public transportation system on their own for the first time, for example, was truly beautiful.


the joy of intergenerational travel (what a terrible term) is not something i’d ever thought about. when we are travelling together, it isn’t like a ‘family trip’ where i imagine bickering and bad meals and complaining. we have pretty similar interests (wine, food, culture, chillaxing), and that makes it easy. but i find myself seeing the world through their eyes, and hopefully they are seeing it some through mine.

one thing that happens is that i slow down. being with them makes it pretty obvious just how fast i take life. i walk at a london pace, quite literally, and a gentle stroll through the piazza della repubblica now becomes a moment of wonderment, as opposed to something you just get past or through. queries about what a building corner’s embellishment is call me to question, wonder, then google a lot of things i probably would not notice. musings on just what, exactly, makes this particular pomodoro pasta so much better than any before it create amazement in the everyday, and confusion with a waiter causes questions in my mind about whether the term ‘marinara’ has a different meaning in the united states than it does in italy. now i’m thinking about things.


these interactions also lead to mindful questioning in a way that maybe my generation never would. we are slackers, we are jaded, we think we know, and a lot of the times we do know. if i may generalise, baby boomers wonder at things, and it is a joy for a member of my grunge generation to experience that purity of questioning.


on tuesday evening, our final night in florence, we crack open the last bottle of chianti classico we bought on saturday’s tour of tuscan wine country. three plastic chairs are perched on a narrow, high patio at our airbnb on the 7th floor of a suburban florentine building. before us, the arno river carving a rust-coloured ribbon through red-tiled roofs and the moon and saturn raising a ruckus over the duomo’s cupola, pinkened by the just-set sun.


dave lights up a cuban and talks about his father and fishing and high-school buddies; jane rolls her eyes having heard these stories a million times before. they got married young in LA city hall (or was it pasadena? because i am a slacker, i fail to remember these details, but i’m sure they will correct me, with the clarity of memory they maintain).

cigar smoke wafts over us in the heat of the italian june evening and we savour this moment, for it is the stuff of life.

old friends and the wild atlantic way

wild indeed, where is the water coming from?
wild indeed, where is the water coming from?

this weekend, i have been enjoying a few days in ireland’s west with an old friend over visiting from boston. in addition to trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to recreate the types of travel adventures i got into on my very first forays abroad to ireland in my early twenties, we did get down to the business of seeing some real stuff. driving a portion of the newly-dubbed wild atlantic way was a particular highlight. this series of connected small roads dips up and down through the irish landscape, which goes from craggy and ethereal in the western reaches of connemara, to soft and ancient further south into county clare. in theory, the aim of our drive was the stoic cliffs of moher – a must on any itinerary to this part of the world – though sadly the irish weather being what it is, the cliffs were completely shrouded in a fog blown up onto the crown of hag’s head by a wind that several times threatened to steal my woolly cap away into the crashing, foamy atlantic.

in fact, the rough weather gave the drive a spiritual quality that encouraged old friends to dig deep in memories and erstwhile conversations whilst the rain not so much pounded but rather gently tousled our little hire car.

connemara dusk over the twelve bens
connemara dusk over the twelve bens

i am admittedly a sucker for connemara. i love its rough rocky edges where corners give way to rounded bulbous mountains blanketed in purple gorse and ponies with long manes look away at you as if waiting for the next round of uninvited visitors to pass through.

but county clare has charms that may be even more difficult to pin down. sure, it is home to some of ireland’s most famous landscapes, including the aforementioned cliffs of moher, as well as the faeryland-like burren, a karst rockscape broken up by streaming grikes that fill up like rivers with all manner of strange herbs and flowers come summer.

the coast along clare is sometimes oddly low, given that it rises into a 120-metre pinnacle at hag’s head. you feel like the land just sort of…stops…and the sea begins, sometimes after a small beach of rocks or grass tufts covering bits of sand and seaweed. in my imagination, the world starts and ends here.

flaggy shore: clare's low, ancient coast
flaggy shore: clare’s low, ancient coast

this morning, a wistful farewell for two old friends, and then i’m on the road solo in pat (the moniker we’ve given the shitty little white skoda i’ve hired). today is sunny, the sort of elusive cold, bright, clear day that only presents itself once in a very long while during an irish winter. there’s no wind; i make perfect time down the n18, and then the m18. few cars are about, and i find myself closer to shannon airport than i want to be for so early in the day.

a small brown sign beckons me to knappogue castle (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that, i’ve no idea), and so i find myself navigating a tiny laneway buttressed by giant damp hedges and the odd thatch cottage. i’m aiming for knappogue, but a few kilometres find me in the village of quin, a one-street affair with side-by-side pubs – the abbey tavern and the monks well – both named for the imposing quin abbey, which juts into my lefthand view as pat and i coast through the village.

quin abbey all to myself
quin abbey all to myself

the abbey is striking – perhaps moreso today than usually, as its pointy roofends and tall crumbling bell tower make a stark grey punctuation mark on the the blue sky and patch of soggy emerald in the middle of town.

i’m the only person at quin abbey, apart from an older gentleman i pass leaving with his dog on my way down the path to the gate. normally the abbey is open, but as it’s monday morning in mid-february, there are no visitors. quin abbey was a franciscan friary founded in the early 15th century by the macnamara family (the most powerful clan in this part of ireland at that time) on the site of an earlier anglo-norman fortress. parts of an accompanying church, apparently built a bit earlier around 1350, are located a little ways up the path.

chieftans' resting ground
chieftans’ resting ground

all of the macnamara chieftans are buried here, including the last of them, john ‘fireball’ macnamara, a notorious character who was as the stories go prone to duels and an excellent marksman and swordsman, with a pair of duelling pistols he named bas gan sagart, or ‘death without a priest’.

knappogue castle, it turned out, was closed for the season, and so i set off happily for the final few minutes’ drive to shannon airport and, now, a flight back to london. after an airport guinness (or several), of course.

the nomad soul

the nomad soul
craves
a dust lining for nostrils.
dust from a petrol station
along some highway in the earth’s heart
that nobody ever saw.

the nomad soul
seeks fellow nomads
linguistic anomolies
those who know dipthongs from alveolar stops
those who find the forgotten corners
of byzantine churches.

the nomad soul
loves deeply
yet finds joy in no home
joy in souls where is sensed
some deep dissatisfaction
some yearning for the unknown spaces.

the nomad soul
has no bus to catch
but frequents that african station
for mere thrill of adventure.

we are.

top photo: xinjiang, 2005
second photo: qinghai, 2014

found in translation

my favourite film of all time is lost in translation, sofia coppola’s alternative rock-infused slow burn starring bill murray, scarlett johannson and the neon streets of tokyo.

 

lost in translation released in august 2003, a pivotal summer of my life for many reasons, and i guess it soaked in pretty deeply, as i must’ve seen it at least three times in the cinema alone. and twice a year since, always accompanied by a whole bottle of wine.

the following summer, 2004, i went to china for the first time (another pivotal life moment). with hot humid wind in my hair as a late-night taxi hurtled through nanjing traffic, and kevin shields and jesus and mary chain’s dizzying guitars a running soundtrack in my head. the smear of neon characters across a half-rolled-down window. the scent of cooking oil and chilli, and garbage, in the air. i was once and for all hooked.

IMG_7999

the feeling of being so totally removed from yourself that suddenly everything makes sense, and you can never go back from that.

until a month ago, i’d never been to japan. i guess i was saving it up as, genuinely, one of those destinations that i might never return from. i think i found japan less romantic and more approachable than i’d been expecting. it’s the type of place that makes an easy in to asia: you still get the smear of neon characters across your window, but the scent of garbage in the air is lessened (nay, non-existent). after so many years in china, the japanese seemed accommodating to a westerner and rarely was there a linguistic struggle, even when the language barrier was there. people weren’t surprised to see me – a novelty i’ve come to expect in other parts of east asia.

IMG_8053

i loved japan, though, as much as i expected to. the zaniness of it, the organised chaos, the fashion and, oh god, the food. a bowl of ramen in the shadow of himeji castle, and a +10 sake and coal-grilled meat in a smoky izakaya are something every traveller should experience once in a lifetime.

i don’t want to leave.

then don’t. stay here with me. we’ll start a jazz band.

a new passport and 10 years of travel memories

yesterday, my new passport arrived. along with it was enclosed the old one, holes punched in the cover. that one was issued in 2005, and by late 2008, i had taken so many trips that i had to apply to the us embassy in dublin, where i was working on my masters degree, for additional pages.

uspassport-with-stamps
sweet old passport, bit tattered.

seeing these two passports side-by-side, one with crisp, forlornly empty pages and one battered and filled with faded colours and shapes, handwriting and splotchy dates, has made me, well, a bit nostalgic. so, in honour of that dusty old passport, i though i’d recall ten of my favourite travel memories from the past decade.

us-passport-old-new
new passport, new life

10. being wind-battered atop the mingsha dune

mingsha-dune
see how the sand appears smooth? that’s crazy 200mph wind blowing it upwards.

the setting is gansu province, which is north and west in china. it’s largely desert and it’s beautiful. the little oasis town of dunhuang sits right on the edge of the taklamakan desert, which has sand dunes that – according to my travel companion at the time, who’d lived in egypt – were huge by comparison. we trekked to the top – a feat unto itself – where views of dune upon dune stretched as far as my eyes would take me. it was windy. real windy. sand was blowing everywhere and my hair was straight out on one end. somehow – the locals call it magic – the oasis below never gets covered in sand, despite all this wind.

9. battling banshees on a windy connemara night

exploring killary earlier that day - not so creepy.
exploring killary earlier that day – not so creepy.

my first solo trip was to ireland and it wasn’t my choice. well, the trip was my choice but the solo part, not so much. my would-be travel companion had failed to apply for his passport in time and only told me two days before (thanks ben! 😉 ).

it was saint patrick’s day and i’d found the only village in ireland that didn’t have some sort of parade (leenane – it remains to this day one of my favourite places). i was alone in my hostel save for a curly-haired canadian and a huge group of scuba divers from a college in dublin, all of whom play integral parts in a semi-fictional book i have been off-and-on penning pretty much since then.

paddy’s day was freezing, rainy and extremely windy and the hostel was out on the edge of ireland’s only fjord, killary. the divers arranged a minivan into the village pub, and after we were all suitably locked, myself and two new pals (one of which remains a dear friend to this day) took a creepy walk through the late-night. just as the wind picked up a particularly shuddersome howl across the barren connemara hills, the irish among us gave a chilling description of banshees – or mythical celtic fairies whose wails were an omen of death.

8. almost getting stranded on putuoshan (and the night ferry)

the anji foreign legion, out for a night of karaoke in 2006.
the anji foreign legion, out for a night of karaoke in 2006.

in 2006, i was resident in eastern china and working as an english teacher. some english teacher friends of mine and i (all of us foreigners) decided to take a little weekend trip from our town (anji) to putuoshan, an island off the zhejiang coast known for its buddhist monasteries. the crossing from ningbo wasn’t particularly smooth sailing, but we got to the island and spent the day exploring its 12.5 kilometres from end-to-end before heading back to ningbo, where we’d a hotel booked for the night. or so we thought.

during the day, the wind had picked up, making the crossing impassable for the small passenger ferry we’d come across on. instead, we were rerouted to zhoushan, a larger island nearby. fine, we thought. we’ll just grab a bus across the bridge to ningbo.

then, as things tend to happen in china, it all went terribly wrong. no, it turns out, there were no more buses to ningbo that night and, no, there was no passenger ferry. as panic started to set in, one of our lot called a student of hers who she knew to be from the area. a car was arranged for us to a port some ways out of the main town, and tickets were bought (not by us) for a huge, slow, night ferry to ningbo – the kind that carries cars and lorries.

the passage was slow and the four of us sat on the outdoor deck, watching ships in the night, wondering where exactly we were lost in the east china sea.

7. fearing for my life on the roads of montreal

last year, bill and i went to montreal in a car we hired in boston. if you have ever driven in montreal, you know what i am talking about. and if you haven’t, well, let’s just say you should keep an eye out for buses coming up the wrong lanes on huge, scary bridges.

6. a first trip up the eiffel tower (and maybe the last)

not a complete waste - we got this nice squeeze shot!
not a complete waste – we got this nice squeeze shot!

i will be honest and say i didn’t love my eiffel tower experience. i waited quite a long time to pop my paris cherry and, when bill finally swept me off to france, it was an amazing time (much better than i ever expected paris to be). but the eiffel tower? ehhhhhh. we sprang for the tickets all the way to the top, which if you’ve ever been up there, you’ll know is basically like a horrible, circular corrugated steel room with high-up windows like some sort of terrorist boat, where people shuffle along, the tallest straining for views out the manholes like hungry giraffes. the tower’s better from the bottom, but then again, you will never have that first trip up, or that first eiffel tower smooch.

5. wine tasting in central otago

relaxation in a glass in central otago.
relaxation in a glass in central otago.

counted among my most relaxing travel memories was a 2012 drive through the south island of new zealand in springtime. buds were starting to bloom in central otago, where several lazy afternoons were spent straining for the last rays of spring sun on winery patios, gazing at the aptly-named remarkables mountains over endless glasses of lush pinot noir. can i go back now?

4. moving to prague, sight unseen

despite my misgivings, i never got over prague's beauty.
despite my misgivings, i never got over prague’s beauty.

my feelings about living in prague are pretty well-documented on this blog. prague did not turn out to be ‘my place’ in this world, but it is not 13 months of my life i regret, either. quite the opposite. sometimes living somewhere you really don’t get on with can be the most instructive of experiences, and if anything you walk away knowing what you don’t want out of life.

but those first few weeks in prague were ecstatic. the feeling of moving sight-unseen to a new place – one you’ve literally never set foot in nor eyes on – is exhilarating beyond belief. you are there for the good and the bad, no matter the outcome, it’s a commitment and an undertaking.

3. fleeing belfast’s egg hostel

this is the egg hostel. you can see why i remembered it.
this is the egg hostel. you can see why i remembered it.

oh god. this story is such an ‘in joke’ but it still represents one of my most-favourite-ever-top-of-the-heap-hilarious travel experiences. i was living in dublin. my friend ken had come to visit and we hired a car for a bit of a driving trip. it was great! we saw snow and tractors and connemara hills and giggled in hostels about snoring frenchmen.

then we got to belfast. before i continue, i should say that i have patched things up with belfast – we quite get on now (thanks kristen!), but if left to this one experience i’d never have returned. in fact, i wrote an entire post about it at the time, which may or may not be worth a read, but will at any rate explain the in-joke subhead here.

2. drunk driving a police car through rural zhejiang

my favourite party story is this one and i will tell it to you now, but if you ever want to hear it properly, stop reading and buy me a beer and i will give you the goods as they should be told in person.

it was late spring 2006 and i was very new to living in china. my chinese colleague was friends with a local, well-to-do family who desperately wanted to hire me to basically au pair for their daughter over the summer to improve her english. as is the chinese way, they threw me a banquet at their home to ‘show their friendship’ (aka try to woo me). my colleague – a chinese english teacher – and her boyfriend – a local policeman – came along. as is custom in these situations, there was a lot (a LOT) of toasting. mostly this was bubbly lager out of shot-glass sized cups. and there was a buttload of food. in my inexperience, i was sipping on beer in between toasts. if you ever find yourself in this situation in china here is some advice: do not drink UNLESS you are being toasted.

well, i got full on beer. quite full on beer bubbles, actually. but shots of 3% lager on top of mountains of rural chinese fare was never going to get me dead drunk. what it did do, though, was get everyone else wildly intoxicated. the wife/mom was reeling around and, when i refused a toast, she drunkenly tried to beckon me into the toilet to vomit so i could go on with another round. i didn’t vomit but i did keep drinking. somehow.

by the end of the night, my colleague’s boyfriend was pretty much dead to the world. but his cop car was out front and my colleague had come on her scooter and didn’t know how to drive a car. so here we had a dilemma: we couldn’t get three people home on a scooter and the policeman couldn’t sit up straight.

hey, guess what! i can drive! so in we got, with my colleague promising to direct me home from the passenger’s seat while the policeman conked out in the back seat. but not before turning on the cruiser’s lights.

home i drove us, gently intoxicated, red and blues flashing down the dark chinese back roads, wondering how i’d ever, ever top this memory. mostly i still haven’t.

1. falling in love on the streets of dublin

most glam pic of us ever. snapped by paul o'flynn on the isle of man.
most glam pic of us ever. snapped by paul o’flynn on the isle of man.

i always said i was going to move to ireland and find a sexy irishman to marry, but i never thought it would really happen. then i met bill and, on our third date, after seeing the somewhat racy nora, about the life of nora barnacle, we were walking the wet, dark streets of dublin talking about pubs and life and some other stuff that is all pretty much a blur. and then he quoted james joyce and kissed me at the top of o’connell street and my heart left my chest, never to return.

i have to thank my dear dirty passport, for this fine memory and all the ones that followed would never have happened without it.