Sunday, Göreme, 5:45am
Tuesday, Ürgüp, Satan and friends
I’d been revelling in madness’ throes all day. The last night in Fethiye was one of those insanely depressing, disconcertingly comforting kind of nights, a microcosm for everything and nothing. Sipping Efes in an empty bar, watching an empty game of football – mid-table Germans bashing each other with mind-numbing mediocrity – we’d been to the so-called ‘ghost town’ earlier but this was the real fucking thing. Not a tourist attraction, not a clump of ruins on a daisy hillside, but a real fucking town with a real fucking dearth of people. I wanted to go to Club Bananas, god knows why. Josh vetoed it, which proved wise when we strolled past, bottle of vodka in hand – a deserted barn, with a sprinkling of greasy cruisers dotted round the entrance, preening to nobody. I was frustrated that there was nowhere to go, and frustrated that I was frustrated, a double dose of self-loathing that always stemmed from the same thing. I had texted her the previous night, when I was bubbling and raging and crying, and now I was empty as well.
It looked like it was going to be another night of spliffs and Portishead, dancing around our freezing room yelling platitudes from the Goo Goo Dolls and other teenage memory-jerkers. But Josh hauled himself up on the gangplank of some vessel and we kotched there, whilst he tried to unsuccessfully persuade me to tightrope walk across the bay. He was wavering on the right end of the drunk-introspection spectrum, nudging the border affectionately. This was after we got thrown out of the hotel courtyard, and before we finished the bottle. I knew the next day would be hellish.
And of course it was. The bus ride seemed standard enough – snow and dark and Johnny Cash and dollops of Mahfouz and salami – but fourteen hours is enough to wear anyone down. I spent one particularly unnecessary stop prowling about in the falling ice, chasing after a pack of stray dogs. Times like that I know I’m falling into my own personal depressive-hedonistic hell, which has become a home from home, but fuck it, the groove is too worn down to escape from. So when we left dog-white middle-of-nowhere-ville I finally fell asleep in the back of bus, dreaming of her.
Josh woke me at 5.30am, announcing with measured concern that we were being ejected from the vehicle. Of course we were, the one time we take the only ‘reliable’ bus company in the country they dump us in some frozen back-corner of Cappadocia in the early-morning light, shivering our arses off. We didn’t even know what fucking village we were in as the behemoth sped off, taking my hat – the last refuge of my addled mind, the one adornment that gave me the veneer of the man I wanted to be, not the shit I’ve become – with it. All I had left to stave off pneumonia was my bloody beanie, a woven joke that Josh said made me look like a cross between a four-year-old and a condom. A dozen dickheads passed our flailing arms before one kind soul drove us a few kilometres towards Göreme. Even so, it was too far to walk with our bags, and the sun was coming up and the snow was falling harder, and we were by the side of the road in the middle of the Anatolian wilderness, and I knew by Josh’s face – and the fact he had begun to belt out Maccabee drinking songs – that he was on the elevator down to his personal hell as well. So we did the logical thing – cracked open the 12-year old malt whiskey that she had given me, and lit some cigarettes. I wandered off to some cliff-top to piss and sight-see through the haze. Josh carried on singing.
Fast-forward ten hours and we’re warm, but gluttons for punishment. So we head off to the tuff, the phallus-shaped fairy chimneys of Volcanic ash and cave-holes. I’ve got frostbite on the right foot, and Josh is harbouring delusions of spending the night in one of these troglodyte-relics, so we climb into one and start a fire, choking on our own fumes as we sing Third Eye Blind and sigh over a semi-charmed kind of life. And now we’re playing it again, while silent restaurant-boy shags his fit girlfriend in the room next door and Josh ponders the patriarchal-significance of squat toilets. And talks to the dog. And now restaurant-boy is back to answer his phone and check we’re not nicking beers, and he has a self-satisfied post-coital glow. And there’s nothing left to do but write and think and dream and squall.
Ephesus, now the scattered remains of a once-stunning classical city on the banks of the Aegean, has seen its fair share of cataclysmic ruin in its two and a half thousand year history. Today it’s a more sedate affair, especially in the winter when the tourist buses rolling in and out of the site are few and far between. The adjacent town of Selcuk is small and sleepy; any visitor looking for trouble here really has to go out of his way to find it.
Thankfully, find it our heroes did. Things began uneventfully enough, with a stroll into the nearby mountains. After negotiating their way – in no particular order – through an orange grove, an airstrip and several fields of cotton, all baking under the midday sun, the pair emerged high above the countryside. The views were awe-inspiring, a patchwork of gleaming ocean, dense forest and speckled stones, many of which made up the outer perimeter of the ancient walled city. Congratulating each other on their success, the intrepid couple boldly struck out amongst the clouds.
Looking back now, when the dust has settled on the whole affair – recriminations exhausted, horrors abated – it is hard to recall the first warning-signs. Certainly there was no panic when the sun began its graceful descent over the horizon several hours later; nor was there much consternation when the last sesame-seed husks had been washed down with the last dregs of water. After all, the lights of Selcuk were still faintly visible in the distance, and anyway, our two warriors were hardy souls, unperturbed by such irrelevancies as the onrushing blanket of darkness in the sky, or the lack of essential supplies in their bag.
What can be said with confidence is that by the time the first wolf howl echoed through the twilight peaks, our protagonists were experiencing their first wave of self-doubt. The rocky outposts that had been guiding their way back to civilisation suddenly looked confused; the acres of woodland that had looked picturesque when stretched out in every direction in the afternoon sunshine now appeared terrible and foreboding in the evening light. Thousands of metres in the air, miles from any other human life forms; our heroes shared their now-starlit prison with none save the small cluster of vultures circling them silently overhead.
At this point in proceedings, hero number one (for the sake of propriety he shall remain anonymous, known only as ‘JR’) decided that as the pair’s predicament (near-certain death by starvation and cold on a remote mountain-top) was not quite exciting enough, the most sensible way forward at this stage would be to resurrect his long-term knee complaint, which reduces this otherwise immaculate specimen of a man into a pale and fragile geriatric, incapable of taking more than a few steps an hour. This transformation was accompanied by an appropriately loud yelp of pain, which reverberated endlessly through the black valleys below.
Shivering and groping blindly through the darkness, hero number two briefly pondered abandoning hero number one to his fate. However he admirably rejected this course of action after realising that hero number one would be a useful source of meat or wolf bait as the hours dragged on. Our duo duly staggered on: lame, tired and hungry, fighting their way through thorny thickets, plunging off unseen parapets, they knew they were not long for this world.
In the end, it was two things that saved these young crusaders. One was an inner fortitude, obvious in both. No matter how icy the wind blew around them, or how terrifyingly the rocky slopes gave way under their weight, they retained a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts. The other was the discovery of a path down to the bottom. Thus did our two heroes emerge triumphantly back into the world of men, and thus does the epic of Ephesus end.
Belgrade has straddled the border between East and West since the 4th century, when the Roman Empire was torn apart by a schism that would last over a thousand years. Today the city’s fume-choked streets are bearing witness to another clash between Europe and Asia, as two opposing visions of Serbia’s future are placed before a volatile electorate. The outcome will have decisive ramifications, both local and global.
This, at least, is the angle taken by much of the Western media as Serbia goes to the polls this Sunday to elect its next president. Incumbent Boris Tadic, a pro-Western moderate feted as a progressive democrat by the West, is facing the hardline Serb nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who is standing in for his party’s official leader, currently on trial for alleged war crimes in The Hague. Overshadowing the two contenders is the question of Kosovo’s independence, due to be announced unilaterally by the territory’s ethnic Albanian leadership within the next few weeks. Tadic preaches moderation and negotiation on this sensitive topic; Nikolic has promised not to “sit back” and let it happen and has threatened military intervention. No less important is the question of European integration, which has led to the EU and the USA virtually bankrolling Tadic’s campaign.
On the ground in the nation’s capital, where every inch of barren concrete is plastered with the candidates’ smiling faces, it is hard to argue with the notion that a fundamentally divided Serbian society is preparing to cast its ballot. But speak to those that will make the crucial decision – evening shoppers on Republic Square, students eating their lunch outside the university campus, or party activists cheering at the final rallies – and the picture becomes far more confused.
Take Alexandra Bozic. Four days before the poll, she found herself on the fringes of one of Tadic’s meticulously-planned, dramatically-executed public meetings at the heart of the city centre. A 19 year old, English-speaking student who dreams of hassle-free trips to Paris and London, she is the archetypal Democratic Party supporter, rejecting the narrow nationalism of the past and embracing a peaceful, neo-liberal Western future. But Alexandra hadn’t planned to be at this rally; she stumbled across it whilst shopping for shoes and is slightly nonplussed by the thunderous speakers and garish floodlights. “I don’t support anyone,” she declared stubbornly, wrinkling her nose at the East vs. West paradigm that is being tirelessly imposed on this country. “I will vote for Tadic on Sunday because I want easy travel to Europe, nothing more.” Those nearby echoed her apathy; Tadic is seen by many young people as tired and corrupt, but he represents their passport to modernity. Hence this reluctant band of democrats will back him on Sunday, not out of any deep-seated alignment with West over East, but rather out of self-centred necessity.
The same contradictions were on display a few miles across town, at the Belgrade Arena. In the city’s biggest venue, the Serbian Radical Party pulled out all the stops at the Nikolic rally. With folksongs celebrating Serbian Kosovo, thunderous chants of “Serbia, Serbia,” shaved heads aplenty, and beer flowing freely, it is easy to dismiss Nikolic support as a backwards-looking longing for ‘Greater Serbia’. Yet for many people present, Nikolic is first and foremost the non-Tadic: a promise of change and a break with a president perceived as crooked and unconcerned by the economic troubles of the ‘common man’. “Who doesn’t,” in the words of one anti-Tadic demonstrator “care about the Serbian woman, who is reduced to begging?” Some, like 54 year old, small-time entrepreneur Boris Ristic, stressed their admiration for Europe and their opposition to Milosevic, only to declare their support for Nikolic as the lesser of two evils.
Beyond the cynics and the sceptics, gloriously sandwiched in the middle of this bitter contest, lie the opportunists – as baffled by the militia-cap sporting Nikolic supporters and the bohemian-looking Tadic enthusiasts as they are excited by the financial possibilities these figures represent. One such character patrolled the corridors of the Belgrade Arena, flogging large clocks adorned with the hand-painted likeness of Nikolic set against the immutable borders of Greater Serbia. When these correspondents enquired as to whether the hands of the clock – set dramatically to five minutes before midnight – were a symbolic expression of the final hour of Serbian consciousness as election day looms, they were assured that, on the contrary, the batteries on the clock had merely run out and would be replaced shortly.
A far cry from the stereotypes proffered by many observers of this election, the real choice lies in the hands of the largely apathetic majority, concerned not with a fundamental struggle between East and West, but rather with the day to day minutiae of jobs and travel. The people of Belgrade are not divided into two irreconcilable camps; a vote for Nikolic is not a rejection of the West, nor is a vote for Tadic an unreserved endorsement of ‘modern’ European values. Whilst the rest of the world looks on, Serbians see this as primarily a vote about domestic politics; mundane or not, the world will have to live with the result.By Jack and Josh.
Prague seems to be turning into/back into? Vienna writ Czech. A city centre full of cafes harking back to a coffee house tradition now more concerned with the height of the whipped cream than any sort of bohemian dynamism. This does not detract from Prague’s undoubted beauty, vistas of alleyways and illuminated arches, balustrades, columns, breathtaking vistas from the Petrin, the Castle. Yet the city thus looked down upon seems at times strangely lifeless, bustling, but with nowhere to go, just tourists turning the same circles gazing wide-eyed and fresh-faced at a city that itself has become too fresh, too new; brightly painted facades replacing the layered whitewashes and crumbling stucco that made Prague, like Rome, a site of monumental, glorious decay and faded glory. I, for one, prefer my Empires a posteriori—or medium-rare.
These musings apply only to the city centre, searching for cafes and Zion in Zizkov and bits of the Kleinseite are quite a different affair: bohemian, at times gritty, small cafes and real people. Of course it is people like us, looking for the “real,” that lead every last corner of the city to be overrun by lonely-planet clutching backpackers, eager for “authentic” experience.
If Prague is turning into staid Vienna, then Budapest is moving out of the shadows of both. Too big and too alive to be run-over by tourists, it is a bustling, crumbling, grand, cool, ode to joy, where it is possible to wander for hours doing little more than wondering at Gruenderzeit and art nouveau facades, the monstrous, neo-gothic Parliament, the imposing, if slightly jumbled Basilica, the Opera, the castle, the churches, striking statues. Cafes in ruins, minimalist interiors in clubs like underground caverns, dramatic statues, the glorious, steaming baths...
The memorialisation of recent history in the countries we are passing through has been a persistent theme, watching the building of post-communist nations through contesting what communism meant. All this is discussed from my point of view, which should not be confused with any claim of “no point of view” objectivity. I hope the following won’t be monumentally boring. If it is, watch this space for a fast-paced article about a wild night of gonzo journalism covering the final rallies in the lead-up to the Serbian presidential elections.
The ramble of national narratives and sites of memorialisation began in Berlin at the recently opened Deutsches historisches Museum. The German national narrative showcased there is very much a product of 50 odd years of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, strongly infused by western debates, intent on drawing a rich and varied image of the “national past,” with heroes whose shadowy sides are drawn out (Bismarck) and avoiding the temptation of mythologizing and externalising the Nazi past. Yet when it comes to Communism, it is a memory fixated on West Germany victorious against the East, of a united narrative divided where West Germany is the truer Germany.
In Prague there is no museum of national history, but Prague does boast a museum of Communism, a sad, misnamed private affair about the inter- and post-war history of the Czech Republic, devoid of any exhibits of note and illustrating a narrative cooked up by amateur historians attempting a desperate undergraduate all-nighter with scarcely Wikipedia for support. Keen to remember Marx as a “failed poet,” Lenin for being a German agent, and the 1948 communist victory to have been a result only of agitation and intimidation, it made up for its tendentious tone through its poor translations. In perhaps the only Central European country that had a strong domestic communist movement, the Museum is eager to remember Communism as a Soviet import, alien to Czech sensibilities.
The same externalisation is evident in Hungary, where the controversial terrorhaza is a celebration of victimisation. Commissioned by the centre-right government under Orbán and opened in December 2002, it is a memorial to Catholic memory triumphant. Sadly, the sculpture of Cardinal Mindszenty, martyred on the Cross of the Twentieth Century (a Swastika superimposed on a hammer and sickle), which most radically sums up the fundamental thesis of the Museum, is not yet on display there, to be found instead in the Budapest Basilica near St. Istvan’s shrivelled right hand. From the outset, the terrorhaza is eager to remember the Nazis as interchangeable with the domestic Arrow Cross movement and essentially identical to Soviet Communism. Both Fascism and Communism are portrayed as foreign imports and invasions, Hungary caught helpless between German and Soviet aggression. For a country with its own revisionist axes to grind after the Treaty Of Trianon and where the Arrow Cross movement was the second largest party in the 1939 elections, this is a daring line of argumentation. Thankfully, the national museum has a far subtler story to tell, yet it too has striking silences. The denial of any positive interaction and development under Ottoman rule (conveniently summed up as “150 years of destruction”), the stress placed on Hungary being pulled against its will into two world wars and the denial of any Hungarian agency under communism (aside from Imre Nagy, we hear very little about Hungarian communists) all seem oddly simplistic.