Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bardo in Bodrum

For two weeks now, we have been looking at boats.

We spend hours every day on websites. Every morning with coffee. Then dragging ourselves away from the screen because it somehow has become one or two in the afternoon and time to get something to eat.

We’ll sit at a restaurant and order, and Jennifer will pull out her iPad and hunch over it again.

Back in our room, the first thing we both do is glue our eyes back to the screens, clicking away through listing after listing.

While I have been narrowing my search to my acquired prejudices, it turns out Jennifer hasn’t been randomly clicking through boats. She will find one and begin to research its provenance.

Every now and then, she looks up and asks,

“What’s a fin keel?” or “What’s a cutter rig?”

Within days of our searching, she knew as much about the lineage of various boat lines as I did. And within another few days, I dare say, she began to know more about their history.”

To my surprise, Jennifer has been finding beautiful yachts. She showed me photos of gorgeous interiors with fine woodwork below and bristol fashion teak on deck.

“How did you find this?”

“I searched for antique and classic,” she said. Or she had searched for boats manufactured between 1970 to 1989, because she had read that the quality was great for certain lines during those decades.

Her fresh approach to searching forced me to widen my perspective. In the past, I had never considered a steel hull. Mostly out of prejudice. I had heard that they are loud down below when the waves slap against the hull. I worried about electrolysis. And I guess it’s an emotional issue too. I just feel steel is cold.

And who wants to say their boat is made of Ferro cement? I don’t even know what that stuff is, but talk about a cold-sounding material. Wood is warm, but not practical unless you are a carpenter if not a full-fledged shipwright.

We have spent days wandering among some of the largest yacht harbors in the Mediterranean.

Three different brokers gave us tours of boats. We stood in front of dozens of others posted by their owners as “For Sale.”

Between looking for boats, we searched for an apartment. We couldn’t afford to continue staying in a hotel. We met a man who showed us his apartment building. Terrible, dark, barren holes. While we were being shown the apartment a tenant came out and asked in English, “Um, the hot water is not working yet. Oh and, you said you were going to bring me a plug for the washbasin.”

The boat broker connected us with a colleague who had a flat for rent. But it was overpriced and appointed in a style than can only be described as Ottoman meets disco. Glass table next to Empire bed, next to 60-inch TV, next to velvet curtains.

In a small alley in town we found an office with handwritten postings of apartments. With limited words and writing numbers down on paper, we tried to work with him while he browsed through his online listings.

Trying to express numbers in English is hard for Turks. Their system must be similar enough in terms, but different in meaning. So we were shown an apartment and told the monthly rent was, “Twelve hundred thousand.” And then after a half-second pause, he throws in “million” as if some sort of insurance that we aren’t talking about $120 a month, but $1,200.

And to be fair, English is tricky. We say, one thousand  two hundred. But we also say, twelve hundred for the very same amount.

Anyway, we weren’t going to pay twelve hundred thousand million for what he was showing us. Nor even twelve.

We left, and stepped back onto what I thought would be the sidewalk of a beautiful, sea-side Mediterranean village on a sunny day.

Turns out, I had stepped into the quicksand of depression. I tried grasping at anything to prevent myself from sinking, but it was too late.

We couldn’t find a decent apartment. And the type of boat we wanted just wasn’t to be found here in the area.

At times, we discussed going back home.

“Home?” Jennifer said. “Where’s home?”

It was meant as an encouragement to stick with our adventure, even though it was challenging right now. But in my edgy depression, I jumped on her even before she could make her point.

“Exactly! We have no home. And I need a place where we can finally be. We have been on the run for two months now. And we can’t find a boat or a place. We tried. Maybe it’s time to start over again someplace new.”

We talked about changing directions. About renting a house in Turkey for a winter. I could write and Jennifer could ... “What? What am I supposed to do?”

We talked about renting or buying a camper van and traveling through Europe. But in the winter? No head. No shower. No room for guests to visit.

That night, I talked to Joel via Skype.

“You, my friend, are in Bardo.”


“You can read about it in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s an intermediate phase of existence after death where your soul floats around seeking purpose. It’s a confusing time. It ends when you have gone through all kinds of dimensions of time, space and emotional turmoil, and understood the dreams of rocks and were forced to simultaneously hear every bad joke being told in the world, until you find some couple fucking who are in the exact quandary that you understand and you are reborn to them. It’s scary place, Bardo. While you’re in this state, you’re not sure if you’re a toaster in some suburban, split-level ranch in Kansas, or if you in fact are the Turkish shepherd boy who’s going to grow up and unify all of Europe and make CEOs of companies who sold water in plastic bottles dig up landfills by hand and sort out compostables from plastic.”

Joel often goes on fascinating, semi-relevant spirals of improvised thought.

“Give yourself permission just to be in Bardo,” he said.

We talked for an hour or so, and when I hung up, I didn’t feel much better. But I felt better about feeling bad.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dave and Dina

In his Australian accent, Dave told us to meet him and his wife Dina for coffee at Sunger.

“’at’s roight, Mate, ‘arbor road just in front of the hotel. Three o’clock then, roight? See ya then, Mate.”

On our three-day trip down from Instanbul, one of the hotel owners, upon hearing our story and our search for a new boat, immediately whipped out his phone, dialed a number, chatted with someone on the other end of the line, and then handed me the phone.

I was hesitant to take the phone. Everyone in Turkey, upon hearing our story, tells us they know someone who’s selling a boat. It usually ends up in a discussion in which they don’t quite get what we’re looking for. Or, they get it, but they want to convince us to consider something else.

Now the phone was at my ear.

“Hi ya Mate, so my friend tells me ya looking for a boat.”

After the first few exchanges of what becomes a twenty-minute conversation, I can tell that Dave gets it. He seems to know boats. He recommends a broker. He says that we are on the right track by coming to Marmaris and Bodrum area. And he concludes by saying that when we are in town to give him a call and he’ll give us any other advice we need.

We stayed in Marmaris the first night, after visiting the “Mythical” there with Kemer. We left the next day and drove about three hours to Bodrum.

We checked in and wandered the town.

While Marmaris has succumb to the seduction of catering to tourists with all-inclusive hotels and waterfront restaurants all offering the same over-priced food, Bodrum has worked hard to retain its town center as a village.

Since coming, our impression was confirmed by the ex-pats we have met who came, saw both towns, and settled here.

Dave and Dina walked up and greeted us at one of Sunger’s sidewalk tables.

Dave has an adventurer’s face, weathered by wind and sun, while Dina’s is round and agelessly smooth. They sit, look at our Turkish coffees and ask,

“You going to have anything else?”

We shake our heads and they look at each other.

“They might as well get to know us,” Dina says.

“Yup,” Dave says and orders a bottle of white wine.

We were expecting to meet them for a quick coffee, maybe an hour, pick their brains and get a lay of the land.

Seven hours and four bottles of wines later, we realized that maybe this was more than that.

For most of his 60-some years, back down under, Dave was a commercial diver, professional motorcycle racer and stunt man. After breaking his back twice, various other bones several times and getting a metal hip implanted, he ended up in Bodrum about seven years ago and got to see the gulets.

“I came, worked at this gulet tour business and then bought it,” he said, then waited for a beat, winked at Dina and added, “and I got the girl as part of the package.”

Dina is half Turkish and half American. After applying her entrepreneurial skills to an internet cafe and ice-cream shop, she ended up working in the gulet business.

We talked, we drank, we shared our stories and when we left Sunger’s at ten that evening, we walked home tipsy and with renewed hope that we had come to the right place to find our new boat.

Since that night about two weeks ago, they've had us over for dinner twice, hooked us up with the brokerage Gino Group, shown us another couple of boats with another broker, and just generally kept our spirits up and eyes open to possibities.

You'll hear more about them in future posts.

This is a shot of Dave and Dina I pulled from their website. Check it out: Southern Cross Blue Cruising.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Meeting the Mythical

From the small village where we spent the night, we drove on the next morning, rising back up along the high ridge of a peninsular leading to Marmaris.

We came upon a traffic stop, with cones narrowing our approach and were flagged to a stop by uniformed officers with berets on their heads and machine guns in their hands.

I stopped and rolled down my window. A large, dark-haired Jandarma, or national guard, approached and looked at me silently.

“Hello,” I said.

And with that, he waved me on.

We assumed this was connected to heightened security following the recent hijacking of a Turkish ferry by a person alleged to be a member of the radical PKK or Kurdish Workers Party, which is not a political party of Turkey but an revolutionary organization seeking an independent state for Kurds. My American “hello” was all he needed to know I was not the terrorist he was on the look-out for.

Following a few more mountain turns, we saw a small sign to Karacasöğüt. We turned down a windy road and began a twenty-minute descent toward the bay.

Coming around one corner, we braked for four goats. Besides bells around their necks, they also had long ropes; maybe some twenty feet long. I suppose they are not easy to catch when you need to.

They passed in front of our car and climbed an impossibly steep embankment on the uphill side of the road.

It was drizzling when we finally arrived at a small village of some dozen houses with scraggly gardens. We got out and strolled along the single, aging boardwalk dock to look at the 20-odd boats in this cove. Some nice gulets, but mostly live-aboard yachts. The boardwalk ended in a larger square, the size of a small living room or kitchen. And it was outfitted exactly like both, camping style. White-painted letters on the boardwalk just in front of the booth announced: "China Town."

We ambled back to the small store at the parking lot which had a covered patio. There were a few tables. One had the remains of a freshly attacked Turkish breakfast. Plates with bits of bread, bowls of yogurt, honey and olives. Empty tea glasses.

As we sat in the chairs looking out on the dirt parking lot, a goat wandered up and started nibbling on the leaves of a rose bush next to the patio. This one, just like the others was dragging a long rope.

“That’s gotta hurt her nose to pick those leaves off that prickly stem,” I said to Jennifer.

“Oh oh,” she said, “Now he’s eating the rose! No, please, I was enjoying that rose!”

From somewhere an older woman had appeared. Dressed in Turkish village style with headscarf and robe. She started clearing the table with food. Then saw the goat and shooed her off, chasing her clear across the rainy parking lot.

Jennifer and I returned to fantasizing that perhaps we could buy one of the gulets docked here, sail it back to America and start that kind of business. Gulets are a style of Turkish sailing boat built high and wide to accommodate as many staterooms as possible, often about four to ten. Guests are fed great food while toured along the coast.

Our fantasizing was interrupted by the old woman who was now giving us each a glass of tea, set in the traditional mini-bowl of a saucer.

Once again, we were stunned by Turkish hospitality.

We practiced our Turkish “thanks” which is Teschekür Ederim, a word that took us four days to learn. Everyone was correcting us in the beginning. At least now we have it down well enough that they just smile.

Just as we were enjoying our tea, our man, Kemer, came out of the store. He pulled up a chair and soon he too had a glass of tea in his hands from the woman who moved silently and wordlessly but with a smile.

Kemer is a handsome, tall and typically Turkish looking man, which is to say, it is hard to make out any distinct ethnic background. Our small talk progressed to our plight and then onto to Turkish culture, and after a while he invited us back to his boat, anchored in the cove.

We walked the few hundred meters down a path along the water, climbed down some rocks into his dinghy, and, using one of his teather lines from boat to shore, pulled ourselves out to his boat.

An odd sensation coursed through me. As if a ghost was somewhere just behind me. In my mind, I turned and looked in all the corners of my being to identify who or what was there. Then, without thinking, I said it out loud to Jennifer and Kemer:

“This is the first time I’ve been on a boat since the night of the fire.”

Then, as quickly as it came, the ghost of life aboard Dolphins dissipated and we were hoisting ourselves onto Kemer’s boat.

On board, we were greeted by a friend of Kemer’s. Another sailor. And as we chatted more about Turkey, sailing, our voyage, and our search for a new boat, Kemer’s friend made us Turkish scrambled eggs. It had some sausage, some tomatoes, goat cheese and hot pepper sauce.

Besides always enjoying meeting other sailors, our purpose in meeting Kemer was to ask him to join us in viewing a boat in Marmaris.

It was our dream boat. It was a Hans Christian 41 ketch. In 2006, after I had just owned Dolphins for a couple of years, I happened to come upon a HC ketch and was able to visit her down below.

“I have always believed that Dolphins is the perfect boat,” I told the owner. “But if I ever had to choose another boat, then I have to admit, this boat is a bit nicer.”

And here we were, five years later, contemplating the purchase of this mythical boat. I say mythical, because Jennifer and I had already searched the internet, browsing through thousands of boats. At first, we started with search criteria for boats that would meet our preference for a heavy, ocean-going ship of character. But when that search revealed just a few boats that were either too expensive or not right for other reasons, we expanded our search parameters to any boat between 33 and 50 feet and within our budget of $50,000 to $125,000. There were thousands.

Browsing through the list was easy for the most part because the majority were Beneteaus, Bavarias, Jeanneaus and similar white fiberglass boats which – perhaps snobbily – are known by sailors of classic boats as “yogurt cups” or “Chlorax bottles.” But page after internet page, we became more and more depressed that we couldn’t find something we both liked and could afford.

Finding such a boat became a search for the mythical. For the holy grail, for Shangri-la, for that ship of Utopian flag.

So when we came upon the HC41 ketch on one of the websites, it was like getting a glimpse of the possibly extinct ivory-billed pileated woodpecker. And yet, instantly, it also seemed to make sense in a fatalistic way. Coming upon this ketch seemed like the natural extension of our river of fate, which had swallowed our boat, tossed us in white water and now was going to calmly deliver us out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.

Oh yes, did I mention that this boat was green, just like Dolphins had been?

Of course we were meant to find this boat. Of course, it was already in Turkey. Of course in the area of Turkey where we were planning on wintering.

And thus, mythical.

We thought that having a Turk along with us on our viewing might help. Being foreigners, unable to speak the language, brand new to social customs, and at the mercy of a society of bargainers, we were grateful to have made this connection.

After lunch, Kemer, Jennifer and I clambered back into the dinghy, pulled ourselves ashore, and headed off to the boatyard.

Kemer did indeed prove to be invaluable. The broker wasn’t available and an assistant was showing us the boat. This pleasant woman spoke about as many words of English as we speak Turkish. So while we headed off to find the boat among the hundreds that were up on the hard, Kemer was able to keep up the small talk and translate our questions about the boat’s history.

Finding a particular boat by walking around under a canopy of hulls is like trying to identify a particular person by just looking at knees. We zigged and ducked to get by a bow, zagged and hopped to get over a water hose. The broker and Kemer craned their necks a few times, saying “maybe...”

But I knew what I was looking for. I knew what this hull would look like. Hans Christians and boats similar to them have a distinctive form. And sure enough, from a few dozen yards away, I spied a curve I recognized.

As we approached the boat, I tried to tune in to exactly how I felt.

Anticipation is potential made palpable. You can feel and sometimes even taste the excitement of possibility. At the same time, you feel yourself grazed by the weeds of trepidation.

We found a ladder and climbed aboard.

If stepping into Kemer’s dinghy and onto his boat revived the dead dreams into living memories, then stepping onto this boat was like walking up to a body in a morgue. I knew this might happen. I had warned Jennifer.

“Boats on the hard feel dead,” I had told her. “They don’t move; they don’t respond to stepping aboard. They don’t pull at the docklines. They don’t heave and breath.”

I’ve always felt that way when working on Dolphins during the spring fitting-out sessions. It was as if Dolphins was in an induced coma to allow me to operate on her. Only when she was launched did I feel any return of emotion from her. As if kissed and awoken.

We went down below to inspect the interior of this Hans Christian. Since it was a cloudy, drizzly day, it was dim down below. She did not look as bright as in this photo:

But even knowing that disadvantage of seeing her on a rainy day, even knowing that boats on the hard are lifeless, I couldn’t help myself from sinking into despair.

Jennifer was experiencing it too.

“I don’t know. It’s just not as beautiful as in the photos,” she kept repeating.

Then we began to dissect the exact causes of our disappointment. The salon, though larger than Dolphins’ (because this boat was wider) had an even narrower walkway between table and settee because the settee had this goofy curve. The boat’s compression post (that brass pole you see in the photo which supports the mast) was in the way. On Dolphins it had been designed into a wall so that you didn’t even see it.

The coup de grace were the berths. There was one vee-berth, and two quarterberths. None of them were designed in such a way that we could lie in bed and sit up resting against a wall.

That had become our routine on Dolphins. Every night, we would cozy into our bed, fluff the pillows and lean back in a semi-sitting position to read, work on a crossword puzzle or watch a movie on our computer.

Without a backrest, life aboard is just camping in a tent.

Here’s a picture of the vee-berth, and you can see how crossword puzzling is out of the question.

And with that realization, the “mythical” along with all of its dreamy tentacles wrapped around our expectations shrunk, shriveled and disappeared.

Now, we were standing on just a dead hulk of fiberglass. It was time to leave. Time to start the search again. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Road to Marmaris

We left behind the town of Selcuk and the nearby ruins of Ephesus.

At one time during the Roman Empire, Ephesus was one of the grandest cities on the Mediterranean with a population of about 300,000.

Perhaps because the harbor dried to a swamp and then to grassland, the city was never rebuilt a hundred times over, like, say, Rome. Therefore, one can wander among 2000-year-old ruins and from the remaining marble columns and walkways, imagine the masses of traders, gladiators and soldiers who wore groves into the very stones we trod.

We headed south in our rented car. Our destination was the southwest corner of Turkey where the waters of the Aegean meet the Mediterranean.

In that area are two towns of interest to us because they have some of the largest yacht marinas in all of the Med.

One town is called Bodrum. The other, Marmaris. Our goal.

All along our drive, we could see the past and future of Turkey. The past represented by towns whose roadsides fronts consist of large half-open restaurants or cafeterias, each offering exactly the same selection of minced meat dishes, kebabs, and Mezas or plates of various yogurt-based sauces and mixes. The tables are rudimentary, the chairs most often plastic. The patrons are usually men, playing dominos, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, which is served in small hour-glass-shaped glasses.

The future was being built, apartment complex after apartment complex. Quick, characterless buildings made of brick and mudded over with stucco. In most towns, these were three- or four-story buildings and in some, they were high-rise apartments of 20 to 30 floors, right in the middle of fields on the edge of sprawling towns. On rare occasions, we saw developments of private homes too.

The path to the future was quite literally being laid beneath us as we rode on the pavement of a newly widened road which now accommodated two lanes in each direction, separated by a median. I wondered why Turkey was choosing this method of improving its major arteries instead of highways, European or American style. But the answer is immediate and obvious: It is cheaper to expand roads than to build new ones. It is quicker. And: To bypass these towns would be an immediate death sentence to rural Turkey. Perhaps it is the very brilliance of Turkey’s exploding economic success that prosperity lies in growing the towns, not bypassing them.

On the negative side, these wide, divided highways bifurcate towns, making it difficult to get to stores if you are driving on the other side. For pedestrians, it is a treacherous risk to walk across this raceway.

At the southern end of this trip, there was a man we wanted to meet. His name is Kemer. We had been put in contact with him through friends of my sister. My sister’s friends, a couple in Istanbul, invited us to dinner and when they heard of our disaster and that we were on the search for a new boat, we were put in touch with a cousin. This man. This Kemer. He is a sailor who has circumnavigated and has been living on his boat for six years. Right now, he’s living aboard, anchored in a cove near Marmaris.

“Come down. I will be happy to meet you and talk about boats,” he said on the phone.

I scribbled down keywords of his directions. The names of small Turkish towns he spelled out in maritime alphabet style: Kilo, Alpha, Romeo and so forth.

Because we were arriving at the coast late in the day, we spent an evening at a nearby hotel, and started the final leg in the morning.

Upon approaching the coast, we began a serpentine descent down steep switchbacks revealing stunning views of a valley penetrated by a Mediterranean bay. Coming off the highlands and descending to the coast, I instinctively breathed more deeply. This is where I like to be. The edge between land and sea.

I have spent all the summers of my life where water laps at land. The shores of Fire Island. A lakeside camp in Quebec. The shallow headlands of Cape Cod. The coves and beaches of Lake Champlain.

This is where my heartbeat can slow. And this is where my heart beats a bit faster.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Compass of Want

Some more years ago than I can exactly remember, my daughter gave me a compass as a present. It was a round brass disk. Inside, under a glass, was a needle hovering over an etched, brass compass card.

A brand new, shiney brass compass. This is exactly what my compass looked like when my daughter game me mine.

I liked the weight of this compass.

I didn’t, however, know what to do with it. It was too impractical for navigational use on my boat. It was too kitschy for display on a shelf. Yet that’s exactly what it did for a few years.

Every now and then I would pick it up and play with it and wonder what I should do with this thing which couldn’t be used for either of its intended purposes.

One day, it came to me: I opened the cover, smashed the glass and removed the needle.

I had freed it of its imposed restrictions. Some people and things prefer the perfection of the needle. Others work better in the freedom of relativity.

Since many more years before my daughter gave me this compass, I have had a fascination with compasses. I can trace my awakening to their inherent metaphor back to a volume of poetry, “Compass of the Heart,” by Burlington, Vermont poet Robert W. Caswell.

I suppose I have always believed if given enough time to contemplate and enough space away from life’s loudness, we can all find the answers to our own selves; that we have a internal needle in each of our hearts which will guide us toward what is right. And good. And what we want.

Since the beginning of stories, humans have been fascinated with tales of finding magical providers of what we want.

Think of the magic lantern and its genie who grants wishes. Think of the Fisherman and His Wife, who catch a fish with such powers.

Even before written stories, the Aztecs carried fetishes; small carvings imbued with the powers to provide desired traits and qualities.

A compass is such a fascinating tool with complex paradoxes. It relies on an invisible force deep within the largest thing tangible to us: the Earth. Yet, the only way to perceive this powerful force is to create a delicate instrument. If manufactured correctly, it will always point in one direction. Yet by doing so, we can travel in all directions.

We use a compass to know in which direction to go, but to go in any direction, we must first know the destination we want.

So in essence, a compass helps us arrive at what we want.

And depending on what we want, a compass sometimes works best without a needle. Because sometimes the direction is not on a flat plane. Want can be a destination sometimes only achieved through time. And often through emotional turmoil. It is rarely a linear, logical or rational path.

In such ever-morphing territory it is easy to get disoriented and lost. Which is why is it good to have a compass that keeps you connected to your own inner powerful force and helps you relocate your want.

My brass compass had now become exactly this type of instrument. The compass of my want.

The way it works is much the way a standard compass works. I would open the compass and ask myself, “What do I want?”

The compass does not always provide a clear answer. Its power lies more in returning to it again and again, repeating the question.

The beauty of how it works is so simple that it is vulnerable to being dismissed: Any answer will do. Because then, of that answer, I repeat the question: “Is this what I want?”

So one answer leads back to the question, which may lead to a different answer, which is more of what I want than the first answer. Eventually I find a want which doesn’t seem to vary too much. The invisible needle settles into one direction.

The more I use my compass, the more nuanced the process has become. At its simplest, however, my compass is truly as magical as that: I ask it what I want and it helps me find my answer. Not always, of course, but often. Ok, maybe only often enough. Well, sometimes. The important times.

Some weeks ago, as you know, our boat burned and sank. We escaped with nothing more than the clothes on our back. Almost immediately, every one, in their desire to dispel our depression, suggested that we should get a new boat. It is a normal human instinct to want to cheer someone up, but now I know that what is most important is just to be there for someone who has just experienced a great loss. I needed people to simply acknowledge my pain, validate my feelings. Because then I didn’t have to feel guilty for my sadness.

Dolphins had died and there were five stages of grief to experience first before I could think about anything else. Get a new boat? I didn’t know if I wanted that yet. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue this journey. Some of me longed to be home again, in the comforting bosum of Vermont. Just rake some fall leaves. Spend time in my quiet study, waiting for the snow and letting my fingers eventually find the right keys on my manual typewriter to write about my loss.

But emotional retreat is one option not granted to the suddenly homeless. Jennifer had I had to face the immediate onslaught of relentless details, like temporary shelter, police reports, regaining access to communication, and money. Before I could deal with what I wanted next, we had to find to quite literally establish who were. We had lost all of our identification.

For the next few days, we were cared for by kind strangers in a hotel which was built on a cliff with a grand and dramatic overview of the harbor of Mahon. The beauty of our surroundings contrasted so perversely with the pain of our circumstances.

I would sit at the breakfast table, watch the blood-red sun rise over the harbor and speak to the harbor. “In your waters; there, just beyond that island, at the eastern end, on your seabed, rests my boat.”

We were waiting for salvage operations. For Dolphins’ remains to be floated and towed into the working docks for investigation and eventual disposal. From this over look, I would see her on that final funeral procession. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to see that or not.

It turns out, I missed that. We were in town when we got the call that the hull was out of water and waiting at the dock. We returned to the hotel for some work clothes, which we would need to sift through the remains. Before we left, I looked down from the balcony of the hotel.

From a couple of miles away, a sailboat appears small. Yet to her owner, you can make out more than anyone else. The shock of seeing her green hull and above the gunwales just black was instant, deep and painful. I’m glad I absorbed that first stab from a distance.

Arriving at the wharf and seeing the charred remains was like being drowned in a wave of blackness. The only emotional air I could gasp was expelled in the repetition of a single word, over and over again. “Fuck.”

At that moment, I was drowning in numbness. No feelings. Not even sadness, really. Just overwhelming numbness. Maybe like someone who has lost a limb and doesn’t yet feel the pain, but just looks on in a stupor at this hole in his body where once part of him was.

We took photos and we watched as the insurance investigator climbed into the huge tub of charcoal.

Then it was our turn. My brother Roland and I donned our coveralls, slipped into rubber boots, pulled on industrial work gloves, and stepped into the cold, soggy fire pit. Jennifer stood by to receive anything we pulled out.

Our mission was to see what, if anything, was worth salvaging. At best, maybe some of our jewelry, computer drives, or wallets. At worst, some disfigured items we could keep as mementos.

Thank goodness Roland was with me. His presence reminded me that we had a mission to complete. And he had the detachment I needed to make decisions about what to keep. I picked up an oval, bronze portlight frame and was confused about whether I wanted to keep this burnt bit or whether I never wanted to be reminded in this way again.

Piece by piece, Roland, Jennifer and I dissected and evaluated various remains. Then, scraping through the coals in the area where the desk once was, we found some our jewelry. Nearby, we found the melted mass that was once Jennifer’s purse, and inside, some credit cards and her drivers license.

We looked for more. In this spot, there was water in the hull too. So it was more like grabbing into coal slurry and then pulling up a fistful of soggy char and rubbing it slowly, letting it sift out of your hand to see if anything valuable remains.

On one such scoop, my hand reached something distinct. I pulled it out and it was my compass. With sudden clarity, I felt a bolt of certainty shoot through me. For the first time in a week, I felt the strong and positive pleasure of conviction. I looked at the compass in my hand and I instantly and reflectively thought, “I want to continue this journey.”

The relief of having my inner self suddenly swing toward such surety flooded me with joy. For the first time in a week, I knew what I wanted.

As I said before, the landscape of one’s emotions is not a flat plane. We all have many wants in us. Some are equally strong, yet conflicting. Jennifer and I had talks in which I would bring up the desire to go back to Vermont and start a sailing program. Or we could open some shop in Burlington and sell Turkish rugs. Or maybe even rent a house in the Mediterranean for a year. I could write and Jennifer would take cooking classes.

But then I would look toward my compass again. I had set it up in the various places we were staying.

What do I want?

The needle is steady these days. It points to a small town on the southwestern corner of Turkey. The town is called Marmaris. While the town itself is nothing special, we are told that it lies along the most beautiful, unspoiled stretch of Turkey’s shore with pristine beaches that can only be reached by boat.

And Marmaris is home to the Mediterranean’s third largest yacht harbor with thousands of boats. Many of them for sale by people whose needles of desire point elsewhere.

And one of those boats is a beautiful Hans Christian, just like Dolphins was.

We leave today. With a GPS on the dashboard and a brass compass in my pocket.

My Compass Of Want. I spent some time with a scrubby and pumice trying to get the soot off. I didn't get it all off. And that's okay. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rome: Beauty, Power and Awe

To visit Rome is to be throttled by thousands of years of rulers, artists and priests who all want you to do more than just admit to beauty, power and awe; they want you to succumb to it.

From our very first walk through Rome, across the grand Piazza della Repubblica, past churches that take your breath away, and through small alleys, each more picturesque than the last, I was ready to admit to all three.

For five days, we visited and we viewed. Church after church. Ruin after ruin. Imposing antiquities of grandeur after even grander monuments to power.

At first, it’s the sheer number of churches which impresses you. I don’t think it’s possible in Rome to walk down any street without coming upon a church. Most of them are grand sights in their own right, but in Rome, there are so many of these pearls that after a while, each becomes just another brilliant pearl on a blinding beach of pearls.

Off the Piazza Navona, we walked into the church Sant'Agnese in Agone. Except it was not a church, it was a marble-lined, gilted, enormously high-vaulted, ornately painted, mind-boggeling dedication to Saint Agnes.

If I had been blindfolded, taken to Rome, into this church, had my blindfold removed and told that this was the height of Rome’s grandeur, I would have had no doubt.

Indeed, this is no mere church. It's classified as a Basilica Minor. And to give you an idea of the concentration of Rome’s wealth in churches, now imagine there are about 60 minor basilicas here.

And those are just the minors. There are four major, or papal, basilicas. And then there is St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

The number of additional churches? Just that many more pearls.

Leaving the quiet and cool of a church in Rome, you are instantly reborn to the hustle of this tourist town. You shuffle into a line to exit, pass the beggar at the door, pass blindingly into the light, and are disgorged out into the loud, crowded square. In this instance, the Piazza Navona.

On to the next site.

We walked, we bussed, we tramed, we taxied.

We climbed the Spanish Steps.

We squeezed in among the crowd at the Trevi Fountain.

We traipsed through the Coliseum. (Where it is doubtful, by the way, that Christians were fed to the lions, though it is true that slaves and condemned prisoners were.)

We craned our necks to the open circle at the top of the perfectly round dome of the 2000-year-old Pantheon.

We listened to audio-guides as we gazed at paintings and statues in various museums. We strode along the Circus Massimo which held up to 200,000 people watching chariot races.

We put our hands in the Boca della Verita. According to legend, if you tell a lie while your hand is in its mouth, it will bite your hand off. 

We spent hours exploring the ruins of ancient Rome’s seat of power where once the Emporer’s throne room overlooked the Forum below and the city beyond.

We quite possibly walked the same steps which were Ceasar’s last.

How can one stand among the ruins of ancient Rome, once the greatest empire of the world, without remembering Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

Of the coliseum, I want to write in more detail than I have time about how I could suddenly feel the vibrancy of 70,000 people seated in one stadium, enjoying a spectacular display of a fake forest rising from trap doors in the arena floor, and then, just as magically (from other trap doors) lions, tigers and panthers populating that staged forest. I could sense the pride of the gladiators, who, if successful in their battles against beasts and each other, became famous and well-off idols to the cheering populace. Today these theatrical performances have morphed into World Wide Wrestling and violent games of football. Chariot races replaced with NASCAR, both riddled with the allure of fatalities.

And standing there, looking at this oval architectural marvel, which provided the senators ring-side platforms, and then with every higher set of bleachers, lower-ranked citizens, I could understand the grumbling indigence of senators and other roman prominences who were pressured into funding these extravaganzas by game organizers. The events were free to attendees, but through private funding (or extortion) promoted an entire industry of organizers, set designers, wild game traders, and of course, payments to the successful gladiators. The events became so lavish that when news arrived that a whale had washed ashore on the coast, the next Coliseum event featured a gigantic whale whose jaws opened and spilled forth 40 bears into the arena.

One afternoon, we spent hours touring famous works by sculptures and painters.

We circled, within arm’s reach, magnificent, life-like marble statues carved by Bernini at the Galleria Bourghesi.

Of the Galleria Borghese, I wish I could write with as much vividness and salience about the paintings and sculptures as Bernini was able to evoke in the 1600s with his marble sculptures. When restoring his “Apollo and Daphne,” workers found the marble leaves so delicate that when tapped, they rung.

Of the painting, Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb, I truly can’t write because I can’t capture how this painting took my breath away, nor have I yet untangled all the emotions I feel the more I look at it and research Cranach, seeking some insight into his mindset when he painted this one of his many variations on the same theme. Upon close examination, you can see letters in Venus’ headband, and her necklace seems to be a row of pea pods. What do both signify?

And then, after we were almost numb from so much beauty, so much antiquity, such displays of might but also of virtuosity, we visited the Vatican.

This was to be the pinnacle of our Rome visit. First of all, the scale of St. Peter’s Basilica is hard to grasp even when you are standing in it, or – as we did – climbing to the top of the cupola. One fact that might help you imagine its gigantic size is that the Statue of Liberty can stand inside the basilica and still not quite reach the ceiling.

I will not describe its beauty, because it has been done better elsewhere. Michelangelo's Pieta, the cherubs, the mosaics, the gilt, the marble, the baldachin, the bronze statue of St. Peter with the worn toe from pilgrimage rubbings.

Some of the Vatican’s museum halls are just as elaborately designed as parts of the basilica. The ceiling of the map room has relief statues coming out of frescos, creating three dimensional scenery.

My increasing numbness to all this extravagant beauty began to take a sour turn because about every fourth room had a souvenir table selling kitsch and chotskies.

Here is the epicenter of Catholicism's oblation to God, this is their greatest manifestation of a complex for worship, and it is also one of the world’s wealthiest sites, and they need to sell junk in here? Really?

Is it to make just a few bucks more? Or to cater to human’s material desires? Which answer is it, because either leads me down a road of disgusting hypocrisy.

Here is a religion which advocates a life of simplicity, sacrifice and the abdication of this world’s material wants, and yet has built the gaudiest display of greed and accumulation. With gold stolen from the people of Central America. With marble “acquired” from the decaying Roman temples and palaces. And a few extra coins from tourists by selling them Chinese-made plastic replicas.

I was done with Rome. Yes, I will admit to its beauty, power and awe. But succumb? No. I turned my back on it.

After we had visited all we thought we would, we spent a couple of days catching up on chores: shopping, correspondence, paying bills over the internet. In the afternoon of the second day of our chores, we took a walk around the block in a new direction.

We walked by another ruin. This one appeared to be undergoing renovations. We walked around to the front to see more. There, just off the busy Piazza della Repubblica which we had passed almost every day for the last week, we saw a modest entrance in the wall of the ruin.

It is a bit like the magical entrance in Herman’s Hesse “Steppenwolf.” Suddenly there, when all the previous week, it had not been.

We walked through the entrance and with a sudden sense of imbalance, we spiraled through time and space.

Time, because we had instantly traveled from the present 1,700 years into the past, into the midst of what once was the largest bathhouse complex in the world. It spanned 30 acres when it was built. Most the brick archways and garden spaces still exist, but little else of the endless marble and pools which served the million people who lived in Rome at the time.

Space, because we were no longer in a bathhouse or the city, but in another beautiful church. In fact, another basilica. The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. This basilica was Michelangelo’s last project.

And back to time again, when you realize that about 450 years ago, Michelangelo, at age 84, converted the remains of a 1,200-year-old bathhouse into a stunning basilica.

It was disorienting to absorb what we were seeing and experiencing.

Here is the wikipedia entry along with a photo of the unassuming entrance.

As I read the informational plagues in various spots in the basilica, I reluctantly found myself being seduced by this holy space. This church is only one I have ever known to incorporate science and astrology with catholic worship.

On the floor, laid into the marble is a long bronze line of about 150 feet acting as a sort of sundial, marking the seasons along with designs of the respective astrological signs.

It is perhaps that only evidence I have ever seen of holistic thinking and cosmic awareness within the Catholic Church.

And so, in our exhaustion of this city’s opulence, I had to admit that even my indigence with the church’s hypocrisy was softened.

I loved that Michelangelo did not replace the bathhouse with the church, but worked to incorporate the two, exemplified most significantly by the modest entrance in the half-crumbled ruin.

We left the church and instead of taking the direct route back to our room, we walked down another street. The sun was low as we rounded a corner and almost to our delirious humor with the situation came upon another church.

With the attitude that nothing more could impress us, we decided that we should give it a quick look-see anyway. As we approached, a beggar-woman opened the large door for us and held out her cup. We entered, nodding our coinless thanks.

This was, by Roman standards, a smaller minor basilica, and yet, the first words out of Jennifer’s mouth were, “This is out of control.”

And those were the only words we repeated for the next while as wandered through the Santa Maria della Vittoria. If you google the images, they will give you a hint of its extravagant ornateness, but not do it justice.

I stepped into the crossing and looked to my left into one of the church wings. What I saw there, stopped me in my tracks. I have heard that people have had visceral reactions to marble sculptures. I had two friends tell me they had wept when they saw Bernini’s pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. But I had seen his pieta. I had seen Benini’s other works at the Galleria Bourghesi. They were beautiful, yes, but enough to make me cry?

But this.

This sculpture. I was drawn to it, almost involuntarily. While my body had become slack upon seeing it, now my feet were moving on their own accord, as if the sculpture had a gravitational field pulling me close.

My eyes and mind worked feverishly to comprehend what presented itself before me. Here was a woman, completely enrobed, except for her face, hands and feet. She is reclined backwards in a collapsed sitting position, one foot loosely dangling. Her head is slack, to the side, but face up with her eyes, half closed, or should I say, half open. Her mouth is agape. She is in turmoil. She seems to be suffering. And yet there is no hint of tension, fear or anger.

Lording over her is an angel. A winged cherub with curly hair and the body of a late male teenager. He is half clad in a robe and half revealing a well-toned chest and arm. In contrast to her face of suffering, he is smiling. So broadly that his eyes are half squinted by his delight in her throes. His hand delicately holds a fold of her robe. Why? Surely it is not supporting her in anyway. Is he pulling her robe to reveal part of her?

In his other hand, just as delicately as the robe, he is holding a golden arrow. It is pointed directly at her lower body.

How can this angel be taking, what seems to be sadistic pleasure in piercing this woman? And how can this woman not fear this? Not show any signs of pain?

The answer is so plain, yet so unbelievable that I couldn’t grasp it. She is suffering the throes of ecstasy. She is experiencing true passion, which is delight so pure, it is painful.

And this angel is not sadistic, but rather showing his pleasure that she is offering herself fully, freely and completely to the ecstasy of devotion.

I wandered to the gift shop to see if I could find more about this sculpture. And sure enough, it is a work by Bernini dedicated to St. Teresa of Avila.

Here are her own words from her autobiography written in the mid-1500s:

“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful - his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim. ... I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.”

We left the church. I was dazed.

I have to admit: in the end, I had succumbed to Rome's beauty, power and awe.

Veni, vidi, but in the end, no vici. Instead we were the ones who were vanquished. Vanquished by Rome. Vanquished by beauty and hypocrisy. By might and tenderness. Vanquished exquisitely and passionately.