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    I’m now back in Istanbul after a week in Italy. Today, I’m posting photos of Venetian masks, which is a new fascination of mine after this trip. They’re simply striking; I love the high theater and drama. And, while, the Venetian Carnival is in February, the masks are displayed and sold throughout the year.

    Walking the back streets of Venice, I came upon a dress and mask shop. I saw a woman hand-sewing a traditional Venetian baroque costume, all the work completed with a simple sewing  machine and her hands.

    Honestly, it was a relief. So many of the stores along the waterfront sold items that were ostensibly “Italian” or “Venetian.” But it didn’t take a brain-surgeon to guess otherwise. The material was cheap and obviously mass-produced. Half the stuff was probably imported from China or Bangladesh. In perhaps one of the most touristy places in the world (Old City Venice in August!), one would be a fool to not know they were being taken as a fool. So, to witness something so basic as a personal handicraft, completed on an old shop desk, on a forgotten side street, was really quite remarkable.

    I chatted with the store owner, too. The business was an old family-run operation, and he participated in Carnevale every year. He asked if I was religious, told me he was an atheist, and talked about psychological research conducted by a professor at my former alma mater. Then, pulling out his computer files, he showed me his recent photos — there he was, decked in fine white silk, and his son — like a baby baroque charmer — and an older Dutch woman, who has participated in the Venetian Carnival for over 20 years, and even an old gay couple, with one man in female costume.

    I bought a handmade, paper-mache bauta (full-face mask.) It was a rare character, explained the shop girl (who was religious) — someone who is always getting involved in everyone else’s business. “Oh, a gossip!” I exclaimed. She continued, “One of the main characters in the Commedia dell’arte is Harlequin,” motioning at the Harlequin masks. “How about women?” I asked. “Oh, there is Colombina,” she said, “who is smarter than Harlequin.” My mask is now sitting on my bookshelf; it has a long-nose, beautiful sea-blue paint and a traditional Venetian floral design on a paper surface.

    When I’m traveling, I like to talk to everyone, from dapper cafe dwellers to bored plumbers. There’s a pleasure in being an “outsider,” and as a result, not even noticing (or at least fully participating in) the class distinctions. Similarly, Carnevale was developed with the same spirit; the masks rid of traditional social distinctions. You cannot see who is who. So, in theory, everyone can rejoice freely. And, yet, how true was this? Did common servants walk in lavish costumes, exquisite jewelry and finely-painted masks? I would think not.

    The same holds for today. A poor kid, trying to make ends meet, will not fly to Venice, purchase magnificent historical costume, and have the financial means to forgot himself in a week of high-end drunken splendor. Sorry, Venice. Just wouldn’t happen.

    Venice has become a holiday destination for the idle rich, who purchase sinking architectural masterpieces along the Grand Canal. It has become a playground for who? Maybe Russian oligarchs or Euro socialites. Maybe American billionaires or bored heiresses. I don’t quite know who. But I certainly do know that this beautiful city — once the home of Marco Polo, Bellini, Titian and Casanova — is now a home to a very select few: the long-standing locals and the rich.

    And, combined with the hordes of tourists, Venice can also be a nasty thing. I was reading quotes on Venice, and came upon some funny ones.  Henry James on Venice: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” And, Truman Capote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

    But, ah, I’m veering! I’m supposed to be writing about the MASKS. And I do genuinely find them gorgeous.

    I learned that the Commedia dell’ arte, which is the origin of many Venetian masks, has ancient roots, going back to Greek theater and Etruscan festivals. This tradition was carried on to the Roman Empire, though the first record of such performances was in 16th century Rome. The performances were earthy affairs, played on the streets and in public venues, by traveling actors. And, unlike other European theater of the time, female characters were played by actual women — imagine that! In fact, Ben Jonson supposedly referred to one female player as a “tumbling whore.” Fantastic.

    I especially love the characters. They are full of humor and real life relevance. I can imagine people today, in my life (especially in Istanbul!), who could stand as examples of such characters. There’s the Zanni, the a-little-too-clever servant, with country roots and a wooden sword. There’s the Innamorati (“the lovers”), constantly and melodramatically in love. And, as the shop girl said, Colombina, the flirtatious, female intellect.

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos from my Italian Week of Food, Wine and Beautiful Things. I visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Padova, Verona and Lake Garda. I remembered how much I loved Italian food. Like prosciutto with melon. And wine. And fresh mozzarella. I remembered pizza and pasta. I tried new foods for the first time, like tripe soup and horse meat! And I was charmed by a bevy of cafe baristas and shop owners and candy shop keepers. Thank you, Italy.

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    It’s been a long time since I properly updated this blog. Honestly, I have been busy (in a good way). But it’s high time I resumed things… So, here it is goes:

    Okay, I hate looking like a “tourist.” I don’t want to carry five cameras and wear white bermuda pants. I don’t want to follow the “beaten path,” eat at every Lonely Planet recommendation and then happily tread home. I love the serendipity and adventure of attempting to live like a local… But, alas, this entry is about being the ultimate tourist — or, in other words, that whenever I enter the Hagia Sophia, I feel like I am back in Istanbul in 2009 (the first time I visited) — totally struck with awe and wonder — bewildered by the history and beauty and blood — that, perhaps, the Hagia Sophia makes everyone (even Istanbul natives) a bit of a tourist — it represents a history that is long gone, a shadow but not forgotten — and this leaves us all in a state of quiet observation…

    The history is mesmerizing, yet tragic. First constructed in the 4th century, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a wooden-roofed basilica. First under the rule of Constantine II and then Theodosius II (who caused a lot of theological problems by meeting with Nestorius in Syria!), the basilica stood until the Nika Revolt in 532. Nearly half the city was destroyed in the revolt, and the basilica was burned. And what were the riots about? Well, chariot racing factions (in the Byzantine days) more closely resembled 1920s mafia famiglias than one would imagine. Basically, the Greens and Blues (two racing teams) were embroiled in an internal dispute over murders, which spilled out into the city — like football hooliganism and mafia rivalry, all taking place in the Byzantine Hippodrome — then, the Senate took advantage of the opportunity to demand changes in taxation and other political elements — Ultimately, the basilica was burned, with only some marble blocks surviving until the present (which can still be viewed today).

    I was fascinated to learn that the riot was, in large part, quelled by a EUNUCH named Narses. He stepped right into the anarchic Hippodrome, diplomatically tried to reason with the masses …and then Justinian’s troops came in and, basically, made a bigger blood bath of the situation… By the end, it is estimated that 30,000 people were killed…

    For many reasons, Justinian was an unprecedented leader …within days of the revolt, he commissioned the reconstruction of the basilica. But, this time, it would be grander than anything ever seen before…

    In truly imperial style, Justinian demanded the finest of materials. These included columns from Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, stones from the quarries of Egypt, green marble from Thessaly, yellow stone from Syria and black stone for the Bosporus region. The building itself was an architectural wonder — the brainchild of a physicist Isidoros of Miletus and mathematician Anthemios of Thrales.

    Before the Hagia Sophia, domes were supported by heavy columns. But the architects envisioned an ingenious way to create a “floating” dome — one supported by the structure itself, without the need for columns underneath, thereby giving the building a sense of heavenly weightlessness…

    I will include more photos and stories about the Hagia Sophia tomorrow. Today, I need to work and pack because, in two days, I’m visiting the United States! So, more to come…

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    October 18th, 2010adminCrafts, Folk Culture, Gypsies, History, Imagination, Istanbul

    A photo taken, near my friend's flat, in the slum district of Tarlabaşı -- a mixed neighborhood, including families, petty thieves, prostitutes, small businessmen, Kurds, expatriates and an assortment of Turks.

    As I’ve written in the past, history is plainly different here. In America, I fantasized about the rollicking saloon past of San Francisco and Portland. I wondered what New York City and Washington D.C. looked like 200 years ago. I imagined the old factories of Chicago, the blues joints and robust German immigrants and newly arrived Greeks and Irishmen. But did I feel the history? Could I really conjure it? No.

    In the United States, economic progress was so fast — and so great — that cities barely resemble their past, barely have remnants of even 150 years beforehand.

    Drying clothes in Tarlabaşı in the last days of summer.

    In Istanbul, I sense history. I don’t “feel” it completely — so much has been expanded or redeveloped. But history is also very much alive. Because it never completely went away.

    A man, hand-sewing blankets, in his shop, which overlooks hip art galleries, featuring political art work. The juxtaposition can be fascinating or, if you see it every day, totally average.

    For example, I live in Mecidiyekoy, a very modern district. My bedroom window overlooks the new Trump Towers, glossy and boastful elements of the modern age. But what’s directly below the towers?  Burnt, charred homes, with cardboard roofs, occupied by gypsy families, living (more or less) like they did a century ago. I pass some of the gypsy families every day. They smoke cigarettes, play cards, and keep an assortment of animals — chickens, roosters, dogs, cats. They are a part of the neighborhood — just as much as the corner store, mosque or police station.

    Of course, there is a huge textile industry in Istanbul and most people here just use factory-made, mass-produced items. But these shops exist, too -- and that's important.

    And this is not tokenized history.

    When I visited friends in New York City, I saw advertisements for a museum (and tour) of former 19th century tenement life — interesting but also long gone. Also, if you’re visiting the Western states, the Lonely Planet guides like to recommend former brothels and other former venues of licentious activity. But how silly, right? How strange. The unruly, anarchic and passion-filled past is made into common tour. You’re left to wonder.

    Perhaps if I lived in Appalachia, I would feel differently — maybe history would be more ever-present. But, in urbanized America, history seems so hyper-branded.

    Of course, there is historical tourism here. And waiters wear gimmicky Ottoman clothing, at times, mimicking a time that is long gone.

    But there is also a tremendous sense of cultural and historical preservation. In Istanbul, history is a continual thing — something that extends so far back, and still seems so ever present, that the crumbling buildings and old folk songs seem relevant — somewhere between historical and contemporary.  And, as a history nerd, I can’t help but feel enchanted by the intermingling of past and present here.

    A watermelon cart in Cihangir, a yuppie/bohemian district bordering the Taksim area. I also took this picture walking home from a friend's flat. In Istanbul, you don't need to look for photo moments -- they're constant.

    Here's Cihangir -- modern, pastel and safe. Contrast Cihangir with Tarlabaşı...

    I know I have written multiple times on the old/new element of life here. But I’m honestly not tired of it yet! Perhaps it’s my favorite part of Istanbul. So in this blog, I’ll come back to it, again and again …just like my daily life …walking up and down streets and passing faces and doorways that could be 20 years old, or 200 years old — as if it even matters at all.

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    October 3rd, 2010adminImagination, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Religion

    Mosque cemetery from the Ottoman era (in Fatih)

    Cemeteries are so interesting, especially in foreign places.

    In Los Angeles, I used to live across the street from a cemetery. For years, people smoked, played music, chatted (even broke up!) on that balcony, overlooking a vast  military cemetery. The intermingling of life and death also struck me — it was a bit eerie and a bit comforting.

    Last month, in the Fatih district, I passed by an old mosque. It was early evening and families gathered for prayer, weaving their way through the cemetery. One man reached to feed a street cat, hiding behind a tombstone. And then they quietly entered the mosque.

    The ubiquitous Turkish street cat -- in this case, a baby kitten who was as equally scared of humans as it was eager for food. I'm a huge feline fan, so I'm basically in love with all the street cats and wish I could take them home.

    I took these pictures in the cemetery, directly behind the mosque. It was so very green. The place felt magical, like a fairy or unicorn lived behind the brush. Really, that’s what it was like!

    I’ve been thinking about cemeteries …how revealing they can be. Some are so stark, so direct — dirt, a simple cross and the sky. Others are ostentatious & ornate, like the absurd mausoleums of Hollywood.

    Cemeteries tell us things. The kinds of stories we, sometimes, find in coffee shops or taxi rides. But they’re more quiet ..and they’re just different …they seem to communicate something else. Cemeteries are a way to understand people — how they memorialize life, and love, and how they interpret memories. That’s another reason why I visit them. I may not know the people, yet I wish I somehow did.

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    Grandpa reading the paper

    My 92 year old grandfather engaging in an arcane hobby: Reading a newspaper.

    I’m surrounded by technology fetishists. Why? I live in San Francisco — ground zero for Google-level geekery. Just take any bus Downtown, and you’ll be inundated with popular technology. And I mean the whole spectrum of trendy gadgets, glorified like holy grails on tech blogs. So, on the bus, you’ve got the clean-shaven “suit,” faithfully reading Thomas Friedman on his Kindle. And the admirably on-top-of-his-shit dude, fiddling with his iPad. And the PR girls, wrapped in Marc Jacobs wools, doing *something* on their iPhones. And I’m sure there’s some Japanese or German innovation, which I’m too inattentive to notice. And it’s an eerie sight, sitting on the bus. Everybody is so “plugged in.” They’re typing, talking — so seemingly “involved.” But, in the process, they seem “tuned out.” Distracted. Distanced. Out of it.

    And I wonder …is this making us more stupid? Okay, I’m not a Luddite. I support machines. Seriously, where would I be without the polio vaccine, birth control pill or Gutenberg’s printing press? And I’m immersed,  too! Really, look: 1) I’ve worked for multiple online companies 2) I know basic web design 3) I own tech items 4) I ‘m good friends with professional techies  & I often respect their work (it is definitely more useful than 90% of the garbage coming out of the movie, music and finance industries).

    But I don’t think we need all this digitalization. Or, I’ll get off my soapbox and say that, personally, I don’t need it. So, how will I feel living in a place, like Istanbul, where people don’t just SAY that tech can be “stupid”? Instead, they actually DO live outside a 24/7 tech bubble. How will I socially interact, living in a place, like Istanbul, where tech doesn’t dominate the public sphere? Will I feel better about things? About our future? Will I miss how “accessible” everybody seems? Ideally, I’ll spend more time on the “good stuff,” like web design and digital photography, and less on the junk. But we’ll see.

    As much as I love technology, I think we’re using it incorrectly. It should enhance our lives. But it shouldn’t become a detached human organ, serving as our universal portals, enveloping and overwhelming  us. And, ironically, the more tech-savvy I become, the more strongly I feel this way. That’s because I see the beauty of technology. I’ve gained the power to actually MAKE what I have passively viewed for years (i.e. web pages). That’s massively empowering. But I also see the limitations of the Internet. It is an infinite network, probably the most tangible way for me to understand the expansion of the universe — and that’s pretty deep stuff. But, due to its infinitude, it is a void. There is no end and there is no control. Somehow, we fall in deep. We’re victims of its immensity.

    Scientists think black holes are created by TOO MUCH.  They occur when an object can’t resist its own gravity. So, it collapses under its own weight. Now, apologies, if I sound apocalyptic. But, in a small way, this is how I perceive the “Information Age.” We’re not miraculously enlightened. The world seems just as impoverished, hardened and cruel as it was 25 years ago. But, now, the privileged countries are infected with something new: an onslaught of information. It bewilders us. In turn, we can’t help but succumb — or, to hammer home the analogy (sorry!), we “collapse” under the weight.

    There’s a reason, after all, why the Luddites raged through England, smashing stocking frames. They perceived a real threat to their livelihoods. They foresaw the incredible industrialization of the 19th century. And they didn’t like it. But the machines came, one after another. And they were powerful. And influential. And undeniable.

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    Related stuff to check out:

    Frontline Report: Digital Nation — Who doesn’t love Frontline?

    Neo-Luddites — As the name implies, they’re Luddites for the 21st century.

    Transhumanism — They’re all about machines & technology …kinda  like the anti-Luddites.

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