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2014 Grateful 16

There’s a saying in Turkey that a cup of coffee commits you to 40 years of friendship. That’s some commitment.

I grew up with instant coffee, granules that you add to boiling water and then add milk (white coffee) or don’t (black coffee).  A simple choice – black or white. When I first went to America a couple of lifetimes ago, I was completely bemused by the differentiation between filtered coffee or instant coffee, and completely confused when I went a second time to find that ordering a coffee now took serious thought. The styles: latte, espresso, frappé, cappuccino. The substance: skinny, decaf, leaded.

Today, it is even more complicated. I can have a long or short espresso (depends on how much water I add). I can  add some steamed milk and upgrade to an  espresso macchiato. Or I can top with whipped cream for an espresso con panna. And if I add some booze (e.g. sambuca or cognac) I can have an espresso corretto. And that’s just an espresso…

tcI had my first Turkish coffee in Sarajevo. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I prefer mine with a little milk, which borders on sacrilegious, and is not so much frowned up as simply not understood. Why would anyone want to add milk to Turkish coffee? The apologetic, wheedling smile that accompanied my request worked most of the time in Istanbul, but not always. One chap simply refused point blank. Another turned a deaf ear and ignored the milk part. A third explained to me that it just wasn’t done. Fair enough. When in Rome and all that, I thought…but it didn’t stop me asking.

What I didn’t know though was that Turkish coffee (the culture of it rather than the actual stuff itself) is inscribed in 2013 (8.COM) on UNESCO’s  Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture. The freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the ground coffee, cold water and sugar are added to a coffee pot and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the desired foam. The beverage is served in small cups, accompanied by a glass of water, and is mainly drunk in coffee-houses where people meet to converse, share news and read books. The tradition itself is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, refinement and entertainment that permeates all walks of life. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity for intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns. Turkish coffee also plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays; its knowledge and rituals are transmitted informally by family members through observation and participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s fortune. Turkish coffee is regarded as part of Turkish cultural heritage: it is celebrated in literature and songs, and is an indispensable part of ceremonial occasions.

Had I known that the grounds left in the empty cup could have been used to tell my fortune, I might be viewing the world in a whole different light today.

At the end of a week that had days I thought would never end and days that I thought ended far too soon, I’m in need of a Turkish coffee or three. I’m knackered. So much is going on that it’s hard to keep track of it all. I want to scream at the world to stop, so that I can get off for a while and disappear. But that ain’t going to happen. And while I know that it’s sleep and not stimulants that I need, this week I am grateful for the restorative power of coffee. For the rituals that it comes packaged in. And for the conversation it encourages.

To the Sufi monks in Yemen – you have my undying gratitude.

 

Sublimimal messages

As I was reading Henning Mankell’s The dogs of Riga in January, I never guessed for a minute that I would end up in the city a scarce three months later. I’ve always known I was gullible. I’m every advertisers dream. I go into a store for milk and come away with every product I’ve seen advertised that week. Which is why I don’t have a TV. Am way too impressionable.

IMG_3531 (800x600)What I knew about Riga last week could have been written on an ink-repellant beer mat. Okay, I knew it was the capital of Latvia, but that’s it. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Old Town is listed with UNESCO as a world heritage site. Or that it’s the biggest city in the Baltic States (in fact, I’m not sure I could name the Baltic states!). I had some vague notion that it will be European Capital of Culture in 2014 but didn’t know that it is the only city in Europe where five religious churches are located. I also didn’t know it was the cleanest capital in Europe in 2007 and I wonder how they worked that one out…

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

The Sun Stone building is the tallest in Riga and the second-highest in the Baltics (122.78 metres)  and the first of its kind to be built after the Russians left. Located on the west bank of the Daugava river, it’s known locally as Saules akmens or  Swedbank’s Central Office.  The Cable bridge (Vanšu tilts) is 595 meters long and was built during the Soviet era and originally named Gorky Bridge (Gorkija tilts) after the man himself  Maxim Gorky.

Latvian TV skyscraper

Latvian TV skyscraper

The TV skyscraper is a mere 22-storey construct, built on the island of Zakusala. It reminds me a little of the Needle in Dublin – even if it looks nothing like it.

Library (left), stone bridge, and Central market (right)

Library (left), railway bridge, and Central market (right)

The National Library of Latvia (NLL) is home to 4.1 million books in 50 languages. I could get lost in there. I’m not at all sure though whether I like the building. It only opened to the public this year and what I find most remarkable is that back in 1999 almost all 170 UNESCO member states adopted a resolution to ensure all possible support for the implementation of the NLL project. What registers on people’s order of importance in the grand scheme of things is truly subjective.

Up until the eighteenth century, a common pronouncement heard in Riga was ‘as impossible as a bridge over Daugava’. The Swedes put paid to this, though, when in 1701, they constructed the first floating bridge that connected Vecriga with Pardaugava. This was replaced by a pontoon bridge and in 1872 and 1914, two more bridges were built, including the Iron Bridge which was destroyed in WWII. The Daugava River in Riga now has five bridges: the Railway bridge (Dzelzceļa tilts); the Stone bridge (Akmens tilts); the Cable Bridge (Vanšu tilts); Salu Bridge (Salu tilts); and the Southern Bridge (Dienvidu tilts).
IMG_3485 (600x800)
These photos were taken from the seventeenth floor of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a 21-storey building thought to be the first skyscraper in Latvia. It took ten years to build (1951-1961) and strangely enough was built on the site of a Lutheran cemetery and church. I’m superstitious … I’d have trouble working there, magnificent and all though the building  is.
Interestingly, when I Googled it, I came across a page listing the mind-boggling achievements of science in Latvia that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2007. I wonder if there’s a message in that? And speaking of science … apparently some doctors in Riga have opened a restaurant called Hospitalis where the dining room looks like an operating room and the waitresses wear nurse’s uniforms.  There are syringes and operating tools for cutlery as well as test tube and beakers for wine glasses. A skip or a must-see?

Bed and breakfast and bucket lists

I have a bucket list. And given that I’m going to live until I’m 87, it’s quite an extensive one. It includes everything from walking the Ho Chi Minh trail to taking the 17-hour train journey from Baku to Tbilisi to having a long drink with Sam Waterston. Somewhere, buried amidst these dreams is to run my own, exclusive, B&B, where people would come to get away from it all – to go dark. No phones, no Internet, no iPads, no connection with the real world. An escape furnished with old-fashioned, paper bound books, music, and plenty of nooks and crannies to sit and do nothing. The ability to do nothing is in danger of dying out – we need to save it. But that’s another post. Right now, I’m trying a Jekyll and Hyde character on for size: a cantankerous curmudgeon, sometimes hard to keep quiet while other times you’d have more luck getting blood from a particularly insipid turnip than getting two consecutive sentences from me. I’ve not quite figured it out fully, but there have been days recently when that character is becoming slightly more real. In the meantime, I’ve been keeping my eye out for suitable properties and came across this one last weekend.

This house is for sale. And it’s gorgeous. It extends right out the back and would make a perfect guesthouse. Were I really serious about my bucket list, and had the wherewithal to make it into a reality, I’d consider buying it and ticking off ‘creating the ultimate getaway’ before I get too old to be bending over to take that homemade bread out of the oven. But while I am serious about my bucket list, it needs to be revised as I’m not all that serious about having strangers in my house. At least not in my current peopled outedness.

This is an idyllic piece of property though – it’s in quite good nick, has a great view, and is within spitting distance of its very own castle. What more could I want? It’s about a two-hour bus ride north of Budapest in the heart of the country with lots of great walking trails around it. Pop over to the next village, Kozárd, and you’re in Apple Valley.  But this house is in the village of Hollókő (raven on a stone) in the middle of a 141-ha nature reserve and is the only village in Hungary which is registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. For the last 25 years or so, its residents have, in effect, been living in a museum. So, were I to live here, I’d be part of this museum and have people peering over my fence every waking minute of the day. I am laughing to myself and thinking: were I in Valdez, I’d just load the house on a trailer and take it out of town! But I’m not. And it’s not. I won’t take it off my bucket list just yet – but I will demote it a few places. At least until I get over my people thing.

And, an aside: My man Sam is being honoured with a lifetime achievement award from Old Sturbridge Village (another living history museum – but not a real-life one, like Hollókő). Is that merely a coincidence or is the universe busy playing around with serendipity?

The right to be undistinguished

Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian street running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.

Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, the oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prerequisite for a job in that part of town.

Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.

I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.

When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.

It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prison a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system  and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.

Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.

The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….