A Travellerspoint blog

Sounds of the city

semi-overcast 68 °F
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I am in a simple room with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a wardrobe; in a four-bedroom flat on the sixth floor of a Greek apartment building constructed 150 years ago; in the alley street of Hocazade Sokak, southeast of Taksim Square; in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul; at the eastern-most edge of Europe; nearly half-way around the world from my Oregon home.

My view from the room is limited: the varied backsides of a dozen similar apartment buildings, each one streaked with the stains of the city and the years. Peeling paint, mildewed stucco, rotting window frames, cracked and sliding roof tiles, overgrown locust trees — it is the beauty of imperfection, the wabi sabi of modern life in an ancient city.

Through the day, sounds escape the neighboring flats and rise from the streets, entering my open window. In the dawn, the city is nearly noiseless; only the dove who’s made her nest above the drainpipe on my balcony, and a few rumbles from far-off delivery trucks. As the sun rises, various hums and murmurs flow through the air. A ship on the Bosphorus calls with its long, deep horn.

The streets wake up, suffused periodically with car alarms and horns. Boys whistle sharply to a friend, the men across the street at the car park gossip, someone laughs, cellphone ringtones emit tiny songs. Fast-voiced DJs speak a their patter of radio-talk, while television cartoons issue their own aural chaos. My flatmate George flicks his lighter on the first of many cigarettes.

Late in the afternoon, the city seems to switch to its musical mode: neighbors practice their violins and clarinets, learn scales on a recorder; the bars and dance clubs test their sound systems, and their musical acts prepare for the evening’s show. A girls’ chorus slowly chants their songs.

Before dinner, across the courtyard, a man and a woman have sex, her small moans and his grunts combine and intensify to a rhythmic peak, then diminish.

All through this the calls of the muezzins at the five daily prayer times, their distorted drones wafting from the loudspeakers on the minarets.

And last night, the rain: a thunderous roar so loud it woke me from my still-jetlagged sleep.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 01:52 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Surf’s up in Munich

sunny 75 °F
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I am supposed to be on a journey to Istanbul, to the end of the West and the beginning of the East, expecting to arrive in a place that is far different from most of my travels in the States and Europe. And instead, I find myself on the first Sunday of June, in a bus speeding down the freeway into the city of Munich, Germany.

The woman who wore the Special Service Agent badge at the airport is coincidentally a rider, too: she must have gotten off work just after she suggested to my newfound friend Mac & I that we escape the torture of waiting in the airport for another six hours, and instead head to the Englischer Garten. The Lufthansa airport bus takes us to a part of town near to the garden, and we take a cab the remainder of the way.

We are dropped off outside the Seehaus, the beer garden that looks out over the lake they call the Kleinhesseloher See. Immediately we are surrounded by a friendly chaos of walkers, joggers, bicycles, strollers, musicians, and seemingly every other Munichian. It’s a gorgeous Sunday, warm but not too hot, and it’s clear that this is the place to be.

The motto for the city is ‘Munich loves you,’ and while we don’t feel a direct outpouring of that love, we do feel very welcome and comfortable sharing the city for the day with its residents. Young, old, hipster, parents, elders: everyone’s here, enjoying the weather and celebrating the day.

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After taking a quick stroll around the lake, Mac & I navigate our way through the semi-self-serve restaurant at the Seehaus, ordering large plates of roasted potatoes and sausage, and two very large steins of beer. It’s strange trying to find my way in a language I don’t know very well, and one I was totally unprepared to use. I mumble danke schön to the cute cashier, and we find a table with a little shade.

The food is incredibly good, although simple. Although beer, sausage, and potatoes is a bit of a German stereotype, it feels quite genuine: it’s exactly what everyone else here is eating and enjoying.


Sated, we walk south, towards the Japanisches Teehaus (Japanese tea house). We pass fields full of sunbathers, more beer gardens, and musicians playing everything from blues to Rolling Stones covers to German folk music.


Near the southern end of the park, the Eisbach river becomes the powerful focal point of the landscape. People swim its currents, wade its eddies, perch in its waterfalls. Near the Teehaus, the river splits, one branch heading west into a gentle stream that winds around the Japanese-style garden.

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The other branch narrows and becomes a torrent, emanating a frightful energy even on this beautiful day. At the very apex of the river’s intensity a crowd is gathered, and beyond this crowd is a surfer in a wetsuit, his surfboard floating on a stiff wave, exactly perpendicular to the shores of the river, perhaps fifteen feet wide. The surfer glides along the green-gray wave, between the two sides and the two crowds. The wave is powerful, and only allows itself ridden for short periods. When one surfer gives in, falls back, and lets himself be taken downstream, another surfer enters the water and somehow — I keep missing the exact moment — rights herself and resumes the riding of the wave. The river, the wave, the surfers are constant and never-ending: it’s the eternal surf of Munich.

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[dateline Munich, Germany]

Posted by jslabovitz 12:57 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

How do I get to Istanbul?

Practice, practice, practice

sunny 75 °F
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Descending for the landing into Munich, I see in the distance the craggy edifices of a monumental city, reflecting white, orange, and violet in the morning. But this is an impossible city: its architecture doesn’t rise linearly, but rather explodes like a huge crystal. I realize it is not a city after all, but the Alps, lying calmly at the horizon in this Bavarian morning sun.

Below me, the countryside is a calm network of meandering roads and streams, nongeometric fields, small woods, and villages at the nodal points. Not quite flat but not quite hilly, the landscape looks like a lovely place to go for a long walk. I fantasize about taking a two-week stroll along the lanes and towns, perhaps ending up in Munich where I would gather my photographs and journals into a small book.

The transfer at the Munich airport is quick and painless, and soon we are in the air again: our entry into the exotic east. I wonder how different it will be than the fairy-tale setting we’ve been traveling through.

But happenstance rears its head. The captain announces that one of the jet engines is leaking oil, and has been shut off, and that we are returning to Munich. The situation is handled with aplomb, and I have this sense the the plane’s passengers, as a whole, hold a certain confidence that these smart German technicians will have it all worked out very soon.

Back on the ground, we’re back in the modern reality of the service industry. Lufthansa Airlines seems to not want to divulge the possibilities for whisking us efficiently off to Turkey. We wait. We receive an announcement that they will soon announce their plans. We wait further. Our entire group is whisked over to the service center, where we watch closely the unmoving line. Occasionally, a service agent comes out and talks to whoever happens to be in front of the mob. People get angry, demand their ‘passenger rights’ (a certain nervous/angry consumerist tone betrays the probability of a recent media campaign promoting these supposed ‘rights’). The group becomes a mob of traveling minnows, blindly following rumors, gossip, and inaccurately interpreting the body language of the service agents.

Most of the passengers are Turkish; I’ve spotted only a couple of Americans. I happen to be standing next to one, a man in his 30s. Mac works for the Pentagon, and is going to Turkey for a NATO conference. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and our conversation meanders around travel, cellphone service, networking technology, living in DC, government work… None of us know our immediate future under the care of Lufthansa, but it’s always nice to talk about the possibilities.

Long past the time we would have reached Istanbul on the one-engined plane, we finally learn our options. We have missed the two intermediate flights, but there is one more this evening, leaving nearly 12 hours after our original airplane did. There’s no other choice, so we agree and are very slowly and manually rebooked.

I am not one to sit around in airports, so with a big friendly American smile, I ask our very capable Special Service Agent about possibilities: Can we sit in the Lufthansa club? Get a shower? Maybe get a free wifi pass? No, sorry, Es tut mir leid; none of these are possible.

But then her eyes twinkle, and she says to us: ‘You have American passports, yes? Then you may leave the airport. You should go to the Englischer Garten. Very nice. You may sit at the Seehaus beer garden. There is a bus.’ And so we set off, slithering around the Munich airport, out through passport control with only a smile from the agent, into the warm summer air of Munich and into the waiting bus that will take us downtown.

[dateline Munich, Germany]

Posted by jslabovitz 20:53 Archived in Germany Comments (1)

Heading out

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Sometimes a trip is best begun as a series of nasty-looking ladders that need to be climbed. The hurdles remind the traveler that he has departed on a journey, and that this journey is not his everyday life.

In my case, the first hurdle is getting up at 3am, after only an hour’s sleep. Molly arrives to drive me to the shuttle, which will then deliver me to the Portland airport. Molly runs the local bakery in our town; she is the only person who would naturally be up and reasonably awake at that hour. God bless the bakers, for they give the early mornings their souls.

Although I’m not an early waker by any means, I love the dawn when it arrives to me by accident or circumstance. This morning, the moon is a foggy silver over a violet-gray sky. The city slowly illuminates, a new act begins on the stage of the world.

The free wifi in the shuttle bus lets me begin the documentation of the trip, just a small ‘tweet’ of what I see, via the Twitter messaging network and my handy iPod.

[dateline Portland, Oregon]

Posted by jslabovitz 22:10 Comments (0)

How to read a city

In ‘Cities and Ambition,’ Paul Graham explains how great cities attract different sorts of ambitious people, thereby creating different types of cities. He posits that if you want to be ambitious in a particular city, it’s essential to know how to read that city for its specific type of ambition. And if you find your own ambition to not match the overarching ambition for that city, perhaps you’re in the wrong place.

Paul’s main point is how a resident of a city is affected by the kind of ambition that’s found there. But I think there are also hints here for travelers.

When I arrive in a new city, I find myself looking for clues on how the city works. Some of the clues are logistical: Are the streets in a logical grid or quadrant, or do they run to and fro, connecting the nodes of the city like mycelium? Is the traffic ordered and calm, or chaotic and frenzied? Where are the main boulevards, the pedestrian promenades? Where is the edge of the city? Where is its center?

Some clues are social. Do people look you in the eye? Do they smile, or do they tense up? (I was once warned to never look into another man’s eyes if I went to Liverpool.) Where is the social scene: on the sidewalks? In the plazas? In the malls? Who is sitting at the sidewalk cafes — if anyone?

Some are architectural, or historical. What is the style and age of the primary buildings? What about the secondary buildings? What about the in-fill — have houses from the 1400s been bridged by a concrete edifice from the 1960s? Or is everything from the 1960s and onwards?

I’ve long I’ve considered writing a guide, tentatively titled How to Read a City, that would go into all these attributes and signs of a new city. It would be part tour guide, part psychogeography. It would be non-specific, be applicable to any city in the world, be usable by any traveler. It would not be a book of answers, but a book of questions.

Posted by jslabovitz 23:53 Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

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