Paula Swenson

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

An Anatolian Adventure

In Travel on March 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Time traveling in Turkey — heading to Cappadocia, (Kapadokya in Turkish).  For the geographically challenged, this region of Turkey sits in the middle of the country, in central Anatolia.  It is the land of ‘fairy chimneys’ – extraordinary rock formations created by natural erosion of a soft rock formed from volcanic ash (called tuff) capped by a layer of harder volcanic rock.  Wind, rain, and expansion and contraction caused by temperature extremes have worked together to create an otherworldly landscape.  It’s very hard to describe adequately, but is a truly unique destination.

We started our trip with a bus journey to Ankara, Turkey’s very modern capital city. For travelers like us, who crave the old and unusual, Ankara doesn’t hold a lot of attraction, but it is about halfway between our starting point of Bursa and Kapadokya, so we made it our stopping point, finding the prospect of a 12 hour bus trip less than attractive.

We set out from Bursa mid-morning on the very day the Queen of England was slated to visit Bursa . . . we were fortunate to be headed the opposite direction, as the traffic approaching the city was at a dead standstill, waiting for Elizabeth II’s motorcade to enter the city. From the windows of the bus we saw some interesting mosques set in scenery that reminded us of the American west.

Upon our arrive, we checked into a mid-range hotel that was conveniently located to the metro and downtown amenities and set out to explore the oldest part of Ankara, the ‘citadel’ – ramparts and fortifications atop Ankara’s highest point, abutted and surrounded by a literal village of Ottoman era houses in varying states of decay and decrepitude.

The swarthy inhabitants appeared to be Kurds and gypsies, in both look and lifestyle very far removed from the urban Ankarans below the foot of their hill. We saw a group of women in traditional wide Turkish trousers and colorful cotton head wraps with hand-crocheted lace edging who were sorting sheep’s fleece by color on several sheets spread out on the stony ground.  They declined to be photographed, but were happy to try to talk with us in a combination of Turkish and sign language, and soon we were surrounded by women who had ducked into their homes and returned with baskets of evil-eye trinkets and crocheted items.  I did break down and buy a trinket and a small crocheted item, fortunately I hadn’t much cash on me (or perhaps unfortunately, the crochet work was stunning).

Life carries on in this neighborhood at a slower village pace and it seemed like stepping into a different pocket of time, a sort of Turkish Brigadoon, without the ‘romanticized’ filter.  It was certainly a different era on that hilltop from what could be seen and faintly heard below.  The loudest sounds here were not traffic and sirens, but the twittering of small birds and the musical laughter of the women as they talked over their handwork, the sounds of the city below a faint soundtrack in the distance.

When we first visited Turkey 8 years ago, we were overtaken by an impression of a country with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st.  Living in bustling, industrial Bursa, heart of the thriving textile and automotive sectors of Turkey, has little of that feel. We see the occasional horse-drawn car and the simitci (men who sell the ring shaped, sesame-covered bread called simit) still roam the streets, trays stacked high with simit balanced on their heads . . . but mostly it is a city, not unlike cities everywhere.

So now, while crossing the vastness of the central Anatolian plateau, we were reminded of the dichotomies of this place.  Mules are as likely to be employed working the land as small tractors.  We also saw from the bus, on 3 separate occasions, men plowing the fields by hand with small wooden plows that most of us would probably expect to see only in a museum on early agriculture.  The sight was all the more poignant and unfathomable set against the grand scale of the endless fields stretching to the far horizon. You begin to understand why the young people from these far places willingly flock to Bursa, Izmir, Istanbul, etc, and vie for a chance to work in a factory for 350 YTL a month and filling meal every day (about 178 Euro/ $280).

This central Anatolian plateau is the meeting place of the Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates. Being in this geographical boundary area, it has two chains of extinct volcanoes, whose former activity helped shape the unique landscape. Ringed with mountain ranges of varying age and steepness, the landscape is reminiscent of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.  Perhaps this helps explain the enduring popularity of BONANZA (?!), the first American TV program ever shown in Turkey.

The next day we traveled through more of this landscape to reach Nevsehir (New City) the capital of the Kapadokya region.  We stayed there one night, and then moved on to the smaller town of Urgup, where we stayed in a hotel that had once been the guest quarters of a Greek Orthodox Monastery.  This area is famous for it’s magical looking rock formations, but also for the vast underground cities created in the 6th to 9th centuries housing as many as 20,000 people.  The same phenomenon that creates the ‘fairy chimneys’ allowed inhabitant to carve out homes and, indeed, whole cities inside the soft volcanic ‘tuff’.  Many of these towns were created in the 2nd Century AD, by early Christians escaping the persecution of the Roman Empire.  From the 9th Century onwards, the area attracted more and more Christians, and a vast number of churches and monasteries were carved into the hillsides of places such as the Goreme Valley (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site).

We visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, and it was fascinating . . . but the pinnacle of our trip was, far and away, the Hot-Air Balloon excursion over the area.  Words cannot possibly describe this experience, even the photos (which are magnificent) cannot really express the feeling of floating soundlessly over this fantasy landscape, the dawn sky filled with brightly-colored balloons like a jolly sort of alien invasion. Suffice to say, we would have got up before dawn to do it again the next day had it been possible.  It rates as one of the most amazing experiences of my life to date.

Back on the ground, we were incredibly fortunate to find a local guide, Hasan, who took us on a private tour of the sights we most wanted to see for a reasonable rate.  This allowed us to stop and photograph at will, and go at our own pace. The amusing bit was that he spoke to us almost entirely in German.  He understood a lot of English, but was more comfortable speaking German, having been born and raised in Munich! Fortunately we understood his German pretty well, so it worked out just fine.

We had an unexpected personal encounter with the place and its history during our stay in Urgup, an impromptu tour of an area of the town called Kaypakli.  It is one of the carved out mountain bits; on the far side of it, many of the dwellings are still inhabited, but the near side was abandoned for some time.  Recently the city has begun a restoration effort and there is scaffolding and evidence of ongoing archeology and the site is fenced off from the public for now.  We had wandered up to the edges of the fenced area and Steve was shooting photos in the late afternoon light.  There was a man who obviously was both living and working there, who had nodded to us and gone on about his business. A bit later he came out of his cave home (we could see a TV flickering inside) called to his big black dog, who had been keeping an eye on us, and then motioned to us to follow him.  He proceeded to guide us, with dog and flashlight, through the entire restoration site!  He spoke only Turkish, but managed to communicate volumes about he uses of the various areas, and we had an unmatched opportunity to see the whole project “up-close and personal”. At the end we thanked him profusely, and I finally remembered enough Turkish to ask his name. He is called Yasar (yah-sher) and we learned later that he is one of the engineers on the project.  What good fortune for us!

It was a magical trip, full of new and interesting experiences.  If you visit Turkey, we strongly recommend putting Kapadokya at the top of your itinerary!

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© Paula Swenson 2008 – original publication in an e-travel newsletter May 2008.


Get it right in Black and White!

In Business on March 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

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Waltzing Through Vienna

In Travel on March 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

Vienna is many things; monumental former capital of Empires, playground of child prodigy Mozart, home of the original Café Culture and the Waltz. . . . after several visits I have concluded that Vienna IS a waltz . . . open, sweeping, elegant, ornamented, lyric, Vienna sweeps you up, whirls you about and then gently releases you, feeling just slightly giddy and breathless.

We spent last weekend in this lovely European capital, and once again were delighted by it.  Our excursion started mid-afternoon on Friday when I met Steve in Ceska Trebova with my backpack and his previously packed shoulder bag.  He had left on the 6:45 bus to go to Lanskroun and teach for the morning with as little ‘teaching equipment’ as possible and his camera bag.  We rendezvoused in CT (it being a main railway connection about 14 km from Litomyšl) and caught an EC train to Vienna. EC is the designation for the European inter-city rail network.  With speeds up to 200 km/hr and frequent trains connecting main cities in Europe, the EC is a fast and convenient way of traveling across borders. 

In the time prior to our departure (we had about an hour to wait) we managed another official hurdle and submitted the applications for our InKarta rail passes.  Like many EU countries, Czech Railways sells an ID card that entitles the bearer to rail travel discounts, not only in CZ, but also while traveling in other European countries – the whole network is referred to as Rail+.  In CZ a 3-year InKarta costs 600 Czech Koruns (about $30 currently) and gives an automatic 25% discount, one or two longer trips and it pays for itself.  We found a sympathetic clerk who with a combination of Czech, German and English talked us through the process and even filled out the forms for us. I suppose she thought it faster, as the forms are in Czech, and it helped, I think, that we both pass through this railway station at least once a week, so she recognized our faces.

Originally she told us it would take about 3 weeks to get our cards and we could only have discounts locally until then, and we were OK with that, as we had just wanted to get it in process, since we hope to be traveling more in the coming year.  Once we had handed over photos and signed the forms, we asked to buy tickets to Vienna.  The clerk got a bit flustered, consulted her computer, and then said, “I need 2 photos in this case.”  No problem (we have been working our way through the stack of about a million ID pictures we had taken in Turkey) we handed over two more passport-size photos.  It seems that there was the possibility to make us temporary ID cards to allow us to have the local discount and take advantage of a special fare that was being offered this month to Vienna!  So in the end, our new rail cards paid for themselves before we have even received them!! It was a bit more complicated, as she had to issue the tickets in segments, but she seemed pleased to do it for us and we were certainly grateful for the effort.  The trip to Vienna takes only about 2.5 hours from Ceska Trebova, the train stops only 4 times and speeds through the picturesque countryside.  We arrived just after 6pm and settled into our lodgings.

Our main intention was to visit the Van Gogh exhibition, which the museum publicized as follows: This year’s autumn exhibition at the Albertina looks at Vincent van Gogh from an entirely new perspective: as both painter and draughtsman.  The 150 works assembled highlight the impact of the artist’s expressive draughtsmanship on the evolution of his brushwork.

We had heard that the exhibit was drawing record crowds and so we took the advice to by our tickets online and save some waiting time.  We probably saved about 15 or 20 minutes all told, because the lines were badly managed and everyone was in basically the same line until about 10 meters before the entrance.  It was a rainy Saturday, so everyone had the same idea ‘It’s a great day to be indoors! Let’s go to the museum.”  The lines were 6 to 8 people deep and stretched about 3 blocks at 10 o’clock in the morning.  We spent almost as much time in line as we did in the Exhibit, but it was really quite a fine show.  Unfortunately it was far too crowded inside the galleries to linger or step back to get some perspective, but it was interesting and informative anyway.  I considered buying the show catalog, but it was ensconced in a heavy tome, with lots of scholarly exposition and hard covers, weighing more than my entire backpack, so I decided to pass, investing in some lovely postcards of the show instead.

After escaping the museum crowds we wandered a while in the open air and stopped in one of the ubiquitous Viennese cafés for coffee and Sacher torte.  By then the rain had stopped so we strolled the cobbled streets of Vienna’s first district a while, just drinking in the ambience until we were a bit too chilled, and then made our way to the famous tea vendor, Schoenbichler.  This is an old-fashioned tea emporium with huge tins of exotic teas stacked floor to ceiling and a winding staircase leading to a balcony with small tables where you can taste the wares.  The balcony has soothing peach-colored walls, soft lighting and comfy nooks all blessedly empty, the perfect antidote to the over-crowded museum scene. We each ordered a pot of tea and relaxed, watching the parade of customers below us.

After tea, we caught the U1 back to our lodgings and met up with Helene,a friend living in Austria’s capital, to set out on our evening’s adventure to the Vienna CouchSurfing Stammtisch, a meeting that was international (I spoke to an Uzbeki, a Romanian, 2 Frenchmen, a Portuguese woman, a Brazilian and several Austrians), loud (everyone was trying to talk over the music, and of course they kept turning up the music!) and quite festive. Couchsurfing is an international hospitality organization which you can check out at  – we managed to meet up there with our summer Vienna host, Albert, and meet his new flatmate Yvy.  We also connected briefly with Matej, who had stayed with us in Litomyšl just the weekend before.  After several hours of mingling and shouting over the music, we three decided to head home, but not before visiting Helene’s favorite sausage stand for a midnite nosh!

We eased into Sunday with a wonderful breakfast of eggs and Norwegian salmon, before heading out to meet a former student of Steve’s for lunch (yes, it was ALL about eating! almost).  Julia lives in Salzburg, about the same distance from Vienna as Litomyšl, but in a different direction . . . and she decided to meet us in Vienna for lunch. We met in the first district again, at Vienna’s most famous schnitzel house Figlmüller, famed for their enormous schnitzels (seriously folks, bigger than a turkey platter!).  After seeing the size of said schnitzel being delivered to a nearby table, I opted for the Goulash and gnocchi instead.  Julia ordered Cordon Bleu “I can make schnitzel at home” she explained, and Steve, never one to shrink from a culinary challenge, order the monster schnitzel.  It was all delicious and Steve did manage to finish 80% of his breaded wonder and most of his field potato salad as well!

Stuffed and content, we wandered about the parks of central Vienna until dusk and, too full to eat dinner, simply whiled away the evening chatting with our friends in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses.  Monday morning came all too soon and we headed off to our train home, and an evening of teaching — just a little giddy and slightly out of breath from our Viennese Waltz.

~ this was originally published January 18, 2009 in a subscription e-newsletter. © Paula Swenson

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Muses Just Want to have FUN

In Art and Creativity on March 11, 2009 at 9:40 am


When I was learning to draw I was frequently very unhappy with the results.  I was doubly frustrated when the doodles, which I did obsessively in the margins of notebooks during classes and meetings or on the backs of envelopes while chatting on the phone, turned out better than my formal attempts at drawing!  If you ever feel this way, I’d like to suggest a radical move — make art destined for the dustbin!

“What??!?!? Is she crazy??” I hear you asking ” . . . invest my limited time and materials and then THROW IT ALL AWAY?!?!?!?” RELAX . . . and consider 3 things:

1) we often fail under pressure

2) masterpieces have been drawn on re-used paper with burnt matchsticks

3) 🙂 you can always change your mind!

Allow me to elaborate.

1) a blank canvas, a fresh sketch pad, an expensive piece of handmade watercolor paper, a block of Parian marble, a cherry wood burl . . . untouched, pure, intimidating . . . we feel immense pressure to “get it right” or “do something really creative”. . . sometimes it paralyzes us and sometimes we start, but then fuss too much and ruin it anyway — and occasionally we get it exactly right — usually when we are touched by a creative grace that pulls us along without too much “thought”.  If we release ourselves from the pressure of ‘getting it right’ we invite that creative grace into our lives.

2) tools don’t make the artist, nor do materials – don’t get me wrong, good materials are worth their weight in gold, and that’s often what we feel we’ve paid for them when we get to the checkout in the art supply store. Then we think “gee, I spent so much money, I’d better not waste any of this stuff” – more pressure — newsflash: NONE of this stuff is EVER wasted!  If it forwards the creative process, even if you throw it away, it wasn’t wasted.

3) If you produce something amazing on your kid’s lunch sack, you don’t HAVE TO throw it away (oh yeah!)

So, what’s the point?  The Point is to give yourself freedom and permission to fail . . . to be a kid with a huge stack of scrap paper from dad’s office and a coffee can full of crayons — try stuff, discard the “oops” and “yuck” ones and use the others to inspire your more serious artwork.

Color outside your mental lines.  The projects don’t have to be amateurish, but they should be ultimately disposable . . . it is the possibility to throw it away without guilt that frees your creative risk-taking self. It’s a lot easier to toss the flubs if it is only your time, and not expensive materials that you are tossing out.  Furthermore, if you can create something you like a lot with basic, cheap materials, just think what you can do when you take that same idea and do a ‘second draft’ with better materials! 🙂  . . . (and no, you won’t just ‘mess it up’ the second time . . . if you did it once, believe me, you CAN do it again.)

Few of us would even consider writing something for public consumption, without doing drafts, and yet somehow we often feel compelled to sit down and magically ‘create’ an artwork without the benefit of ‘rewrites’ — give yourself a break.  

I’m not suggesting using materials so inferior that they frustrate the creative process, but I am in favor of simplicity . . . get out the crayons, the colored pencil or the tempera paints.  Use the backs of gift boxes, the reverse side of watercolors or drawings that didn’t succeed, butcher paper, grocery bags, scraps of matte board . . . I’ve had a lot of fun with shopping bags from expensive boutiques, which are often made out of really NICE paper and usually only have a small, discreet, classy logo on them — cut them up and play!  Go crazy, experiment — you were going to throw it out anyway . . .

Freed from the pressure of not wasting materials and not having to “get it right”, you may find that your muse visits you a lot more often, after all, muses just want to have fun!

~ originally published  at Live Journal (online) February 2009 republished at Divine Caroline (online) March 2009  copyright: Paula Swenson, feel free to link to this article, but please do not republish without permission.

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