Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Vienna, Austria: Nazis and Cowards, but Not All of Them

You don't need to read a Philip K. Dick novel to see what would have happened if the Nazis had won--you just need to come to Vienna, Austria. I've never seen so much informal racial segregation in my life. Go on the subway--not a single group of people, whether two or five, has diversity. People of Turkish descent, whether citizens or not, are with other Turks. Blacks are usually alone. Chinese are with other Chinese. And so on.

"But wait," you say, "Austrians can't be influenced by the Nazis--the Nazis wouldn't have given equal citizenship to non-whites!" At first, perhaps, but after war comes peace, and peace involves daily drudgery. Victors need people to do work they don't want to do, preferably for free or for low wages. In this regard, the Austrians have mastered the race to the future. Almost every single person in the city center working with his hands or in lower wage professions is not a white Austrian. 

Go to Naschmarkt, an ordinary and forgettable outdoor market--observe the people actually lifting the crates. None of them are blond or white. Go to a fast-food restaurant in the city centre--none of the workers are white Austrians, though you'll see a white manager here and there. All of the customers are with the same race, regardless of the group size. I've been to this McDonald's--where they serve beer--three different days, at different times. I've just now seen my first mixed couple, a single Austrian and his British-accented African-Austrian girlfriend, in the entire city in the past three days. 

I've chatted up Persians, Turks, Serbs, and Chinese people. I've tried to figure out why there's so much informal segregation, and none of them could give me a definitive answer. One white Austrian told me I was in the city centre, where it was expensive, and I needed to go to districts 10, 11, 12, etc. to see mixed couples. He, a real estate developer, was the only Austrian I met who had invited non-whites into his home. I'll tell you more about my experience in the "lower" districts later. For now, let me summarize a few conversations I had with non-white residents. 

Persian female newspaper/magazine shop keeper. (Conversation in Farsi.)

Me: "I don't like it here. Why do you think there are so few mixed friendships here?"

Her: "I don't know. They [the Austrians] are [says Persian word I don't know]." 

Me: "What's that word mean?"

Her: "It means they keep to themselves, they're not open like us. We are talking now, and we just met. There's no spontaneous conversation like this with Austrians."

Me: "Are you a citizen?"

Her: "No. I've been here over a decade, but I work part-time here. To get citizenship, you have to work full time for seven or eight years." 

Me: "Have you had any problems here because you're Iranian?"

Her: "No. The newspapers publish lots of stories of crimes by refugees, usually Afghans, Gypsies, and Syrians--they haven't made their way to least not yet. If you tell Austrians you are Iranian, they will like you."

Me: "Are you the owner of this shop?"

Her: "No--the owner is Iranian. In fact, this entire street is 90% owned by Iranians. Are you thinking of moving here?"

Me: "God no!"

Her: "Oh, good! Don't do it!"

Me: "You cannot run away from history. It is in the ground and the soil does not forget." 

Her: [Nods her head.]

Me: "Are you married to an Austrian?"

Her: "No. An Iranian."

African museum employee, Austrian citizen

Me: "Do you like it here?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "Do you notice all the lower level workers in Vienna are non-white?"

Her: "The people who work in museums are usually university students. I have a Master's degree."

Me: "Well, how many of your professors in university are non-Austrian?"

Her: "One."

Me: "Really? Where's she from?"

Her: "France."

Me: "Oh, a black professor from France?"

Her: "No, she's French. She's white."

Me: "There are lots of black French citizens, but ok. So zero non-white professors at your university."

Her: "Yes."

Chinese restaurant waiter, in English. 

Me: "Why do you think it's so difficult to mix here?"

Him: "The Austrians aren't used to our food. We eat chicken feet and other things they find strange."

Me: "Are you a citizen?"

Him: "Yes. I've been here many years." 

Turkish Uber driver, in English

Me: "I can't believe everything closes at 10pm in the capital city." 

Him: "Yes, it's a quiet city. Everyone goes home and relaxes at home after 10pm." 

Me: "Do you like it here?"

Him: "It is ok."

Me: "Are you married?"

Him: "Yes." [Proudly displays his phone's background photo, which has a photo of an adorable baby girl.] 

Me: "Is your wife Austrian?"

Him: "No. Turkish." 

I could go on, but you get the point. Not a single non-white with whom I spoke was married to anyone except his or her own ethnicity. Worst of all, when I would have these conversations--in which I got progressively louder with each passing day, unable to believe that it was possible for a capital city with so much diversity to have so much social segregation--the Austrians around me looked surprised. To them, there were no issues, it seems. I'm not surprised far-right candidates are winning in Austria, and I think it will get worse. In Prague, which successfully integrated 60,000 to 80,000 Vietnamese immigrants, when I mentioned their most famous far-right politicians, the younger generation openly voiced opposition. In Vienna, the younger generation shrugged their shoulders when I asked similar questions. After I explained this difference to one of the younger women, she said, "We are not so much into politics." 

That's when I realized these people are like Germans, but without the guilt. They think their situation is perfectly fine, even as far right candidates rise up. They don't care. To them, Nazis are something that happened in Germany, "not here." But of course it happened right here, which is why the buildings are so pristine, and the museums so wonderful. 
From the military history museum, which includes the car in which Archduke Ferdinand was shot & a Howitzer.

When I remarked the gold in the Imperial Treasury of Vienna must have been stolen, the real estate developer I mentioned earlier argued most of the gold "wasn't stolen," "maybe only 2 to 3%," and the artifacts were collected under the Habsburgs. He didn't respond when I said that doesn't account for what Nazi officers brought into Austrian territory after it became clear Germany would lose WWII. (I did not add that if it talks German, acts German, looks German, eats German food, and drinks German beer, it's an Austrian Nazi.) 

When Hitler--an Austrian, not a German--invaded Austria, his birthplace was first on his list of country collectibles. I don't know much about European history, but I suspected the Austrians--one of the few countries in Europe that still speaks German as its primary official language--didn't put up much of a fight. Sadly, my hunch turned out to be right. From Wikipedia: 

On the morning of 12 March [1938], the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. For the Wehrmacht, the invasion was the first big test of its machinery. Although the invading forces were badly organized and coordination among the units was poor, it mattered little because the Austrian government had ordered the Austrian Bundesheer not to resist. [Source: Albert Speer recalled the Austrians cheering approval as cars of Germans entered what had once been an independent Austria. Speer (1997). Inside the Third Reich, p. 109] 

Even Austrians themselves don't seem to deny they are cold people. Actual conversation with an Austrian woman:

Me: "You like it here?

Her: "Yes."

Me: "But the Austrians are such cold people."

Her: "Not all of them."

Me: "Well, not all Germans were Nazis either." 

Perhaps the far right voters are the ones who know what the ethnic minorities, including the citizens, think of them and are uninterested in collaboration or progress. And yet, the far right, under current circumstances, has absolutely valid points. Why allow a permanent underclass to exist in your society? Why shouldn't you deport people who don't appreciate your culture, regardless of disagreements about its warmth? How is it good for a country to have a growing segment of society only there for money? 

Remember the blond, blue-eyed real estate developer who told me to visit the lower districts, where I'd find mixed couples? I asked him to input the name of a place in Google Maps, and I got an Uber and went straight to the spot. Here's what I found: 
Basketball hoops in poorer neighborhoods look similar.
Note the inscription under the sign.

I had entered a place indistinguishable from a Turkish neighborhood. (I should know, having recently spent a month in Turkey.) Sure, there were a few non-Turks, but they could have been mistaken for tourists.

When I walked into a German, er, Austrian restaurant, every single person sitting down was white. They stared at me when I walked in, and I slowly backed out like a cowboy who'd entered the wrong saloon. When I chose a Turkish restaurant, there were non-Turks inside, but no one was white. I ordered a large tea in Turkish. (Say "finchan chai" to blend in if you're a brunette like me.) The food was fantastic. 

At this point, I thought the Austrian real estate developer was messing with me, but then I realized he probably doesn't come to this neighborhood. He's heard of it, but as an affluent person, he has no need to come here unless he really likes Turkish food. (We met in an upscale coffeeshop in the city centre.) 

When the far-right talks about "refugees" creating dangerous neighborhoods, they mean the lower districts in Vienna, about 20 minutes by car from the city center. The problem is, these people aren't refugees. They're just racial minorities. Instead of Chinatown, they've created Turktown. The Lebanese, Chinese, and Indians have established homogenous neighborhoods all over the world, but if the newspapers are highlighting crimes by x minority group, I can see why the far right is gaining ground--again--in Europe. 

I can blend into Turktown at least a little, and I love good, reasonably-priced food, but I did not like the neighborhood I saw. I'd go back to the restaurant, because the börek was too damn good--better than Turkish food in Istanbul--but the vibe is strange, just like the vibe in the city centre. People aren't as comfortable speaking English in the lower districts--they prefer German--and like most Austrians, the Turks don't smile unless you make the initial effort to socialize. It's as if both racial groups have taken on each other's worst traits and added a "hesitancy" clause to tolerate each other without any actual integration. Imagine the Tower of Babel, but in reverse--everyone speaks the same language, but no one talks to each other. 

How does all this help you, an aspiring tourist? It doesn't, so let's change that. The Museum of Natural History (Naturhisorisches Museum) is incredible. It covers geology, anthropology, astronomy, and everything else in between. Its exhibit on the creation of the universe is one of the best highlights of any museum. 

You've got to see Schönbrunn, the old palace grounds. It was there, surrounded by art from all of the world, imported by the Dutch East India Company, I realized governments used to derive their legitimacy through artists and trade. Trade, or business, would generate taxes to pay for the military, but also access to knowledge of other cultures and art. Since only royalty could afford expensive goods--often with debt that sometimes had to be paid off by melting down gold--they had access to knowledge unavailable to the general public. In short, successful governments used their power to promote knowledge, but today, anyone with a laptop can gain equivalent knowledge and goods. In such an era, especially where private charitable foundations can promote sports, arts, and theater even better than politicians, how do governments stay relevant besides through the military? How should governments adapt in ways to gain the support of their voters but without getting involved in an increasingly contentious and costly arms race aka the protection and surveillance technology racket? (By the way, I skipped Belvedere, but if you have time, I hear it's nice.) 

The military history museum (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum) is also worth a look. Lots of Nazi memorabilia, if you're into that kind of thing. To save money and get convenient access to the major sites, you can buy a multi-day pass from Vienna Sightseeing or Big Bus. I used Vienna Sightseeing and appreciated the convenience.

When arriving at Vienna's airport, you will see a few kiosks with CAT (City Airport Train) tickets sold. These kiosks also allow you to buy a 72 hour pass to buses, trams, and trains throughout Vienna. Get the combo pass--it's a great deal and applies to everything except horse-drawn carriages. When you use the 72 hour pass for the first time, you will push the ticket into one of of the boxes prior to entering a subway, which will provide a timestamp. You may take the CAT from the airport to a subway station in the city centre. (By the way, I should have mentioned this earlier--the word "Vienna" is uncommon in Vienna. The proper word for the city is "Wien.")

My last evening in Vienna/Wien, I took the subway again and saw a group of police officers converging on a group of Turkish teenagers. I can't be sure what happened, but the Austrian-Turkish teenagers didn't resist or look concerned--in fact, they looked used to this kind of treatment. I took a photo far away from the "action," but it confirmed my suspicion about countries that pass miscegenation and segregation laws, whether Nuremberg or Jim Crow: oppression always backfires on the oppressor. 

When you attack or seek to isolate or humiliate your neighbors, history does not forget. Either your neighbors' hopes and dreams take root, or their blood seeps into the ground, through the cement, and stays there. You feel it, too, and you spend your gold not on art or trade, but combating your own fears. A circle of suspicion generates, leading to a self-defeating cycle. Yet, the fear isn't coming from the people you are policing, but the ghosts of your own history, your own failure to resist, and your own inability to realize you have created a country that isn't normal. 
November 22, 2017. Note the teenager surrounded by all-white police personnel.
I don't think Austria's tourism board would be very happy with my suggested slogans, but I'll give it a shot anyway:

1.  Come for the Museums, Avoid the Nazis.
2.  Vienna: Where to Feel Proud to be American.
3.  Hitler's Birthplace: How the Germans Got a Bad Rap. 

4.  Yes, the Trains Run on Time. 

And so it goes. 

Bonus: I just saw a white-skinned and dark-skinned teenager hanging out together. The dark-skinned teenager didn't look like he knew the process for returning a McDonald's tray (it's different from America--there's table service in Vienna or a specific place for the tray itself rather than a garbage can), so maybe he's not Austrian, but it's still a good sign. At least some people from different backgrounds are talking to each other. 

Double Bonus: it's now 12:05AM, and a young group of four young adults, three whites including an Asian, just sat down next to me. Maybe there's hope after all for Austria. 

P.S. Believe it or not, Austria is essentially a petrostate, though nowhere near the same scale as Norway. Its largest company is the OMV Group, followed in size by several banks. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017


As an owner of an American passport in 2017, whenever I read anything from President Eisenhower, I weep inside. 

"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."

Bonus: "Some politician some years ago said that bad officials are elected by good voters who do not vote."

61.4% of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 election. Sound high? 
Only 28.5% of eligible Americans voted in the primaries, which led to the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, America's current mood seems stuck between Clockwork Orange's mindless violence and Nurse Rached's ordering of a lobotomy. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Georgia: Desperately Seeking the EU but Enjoying its Independence

When I landed in Tbilisi, Georgia, I expected cows, green pastures, and funny-looking hats. 
*Not* what Georgians actually wear.

Instead, I saw a modern airport with far too many Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot and widespread use of RFID-enabled payment systems. Interestingly, Tbilisi is closer to a cashless society than America, and one reason PayPal is valued more than AMEX is because the future doesn't involve credit cards per se, but the technology that allows payments to occur. 

In any case, in Tbilisi, many people speak three languages (Russian, Georgian, and English); are wary of Russia; can't say no to Russian money; and desperate to join the EU. Such conflicting characteristics create unique experiences. The most interesting Georgian citizen I met was an ethnic German raised by a Jewish grandmother in Russia who speaks better Russian than Georgian. The day before, I had met a Muslim Georgian-Ukrainian software tester working for a Danish company who attended Turkish primary school. She speaks four languages fluently. 

After a tour of the local Supreme Court, which includes a museum housing a Soviet-era courtroom, I told my translator the United States had surrounded Russia with military bases, implying America was becoming the new and overextended Soviet Union. Her response? "You [America] should conquer them!" 
Despite its history of conflict with the Soviet Union, or perhaps because of it, Tbilisi has become a hybrid of Russian and American influences. Freedom Square is next to Pushkin Square, named after a Russian poet. The beautiful parks I saw were designed by Russians, not Europeans or Americans. The long, foreboding escalators to underground metro stations were also made by the Soviet Union and still in use. 
Afraid of heights? Too bad.

Unfortunately, not all of Georgia's Soviet influence can be praised. Witness the utilitarian block-shaped housing structures and, believe it or not, coin-operated elevators. 
The one Georgian lari is inserted in the right.

If I have unduly focused on Russia in a piece about Georgia, it's because the country was under Soviet occupation from 1921 to 1991, with the Soviet army entering as recently as 1989 to quell inter-ethnic conflict in the bloody Sukhumi riots between Abkhazians and Georgians

History does not forget, and in 1992-1993, similar tensions flared up, leading to war in the Abkhazia region. The failure of diplomats to create an effective post-war framework presumably led to the 2008's Russo-Georgian crisis, which, depending on whom you ask, centered on Russia's desire to expand its territory, Georgia's failure to abide by the terms of its Gazprom contract, and/or the Abkhazians' desire for independence and their alleged claims of mistreatment by Georgians. 

Not until 2012, when billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili's "Georgian Dream" team swept elections, did Georgia finally look to be on its way to prosperity. (Note: many billionaires have Russian ties--Ivanishvili went to Moscow to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and made his fateful business connections there.) 

Actually, before we discuss the fun stuff, let's give you a quick Georgian history lesson. Around 1800, having been invaded by the Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, Georgia asked the Russian Empire to enter and protect it from outsiders: "At the end of the 18th century, Georgia... united herself to Russia of her own accord, on condition that Russia should defend her against her external foes." (Act of Independence of Georgia in Georgian National Museum, Soviet Occupation exhibit.) (I just realized I should have titled this article, "Let the Right One In." Ach, du.) 

The post-WWI climate, especially from 1918 to 1920, must have created issues because in May 1920, the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded Georgia and took Tbilisi by force. 
Lenin approved the invasion on the condition that it be a guaranteed victory, and the Red Army delivered. The results of the ensuing occupation were disastrous, with the Bolsheviks purging elites, church leaders, and intellectuals. 
The Bolsheviks didn't stop at murder--they also violated the cardinal rules of peaceful governance: 1) leave religion alone; and 2) don't raise taxes excessively. 
Consequently, as far back as 1936(!), Georgians were asking Americans to assist them. Had Germany not presented more problems than the Soviet Union in 1938, Georgian history might have been different. In 1941, however, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and though the Soviets defeated the Nazis, they lost 26 to 27 million Soviet lives in the process. Considering the Soviet Union's sacrifices, as well as its status as WWII victor alongside the United States, it must have been difficult for any country to openly interfere with the Soviet Union after 1945. 

Why does Georgia in particular have such a turbulent history? Although it lacks substantial natural resources outside the disputed area inhabited by Abkhazians, it's an important trade route and now delivers substantial natural gas to the EU. (The contract establishing Georgian payment and obligations for transit of Russian natural gas to the EU is fascinating, even if you're not a lawyer.) Aside from Georgia's competitive "New Silk Road" location, it has excellent wine, beer, and tea, none of which are exported widely for some strange reason.

How does all this affect you, an aspiring world traveler looking for interesting destinations? For its level of infrastructure, Georgia is inexpensive. Hipsters have taken over, gentrification is on its way, and soon Georgia may get its wish and become just like any other boring Western European city. As of today, however, I was stunned by how much beautiful artwork is displayed everywhere and casually so. Take a look at a few pieces I saw while strolling around Tbilisi. 

Mziuri Park
Hey, if a Dunkin' Donuts sign in magical-looking Georgian script isn't art, what is?
Tbilisi's most attractive feature isn't its low prices but its understated cosmopolitanism. While the current American president talks about building walls, Georgians probably love Americans because they told the Soviet Union to tear one down

My favorite bookstore, Prospero's Books and Caliban's Coffeehouse--English majors, commence mental orgasms)--is owned by a Russian woman who sells booklets of the U.S. Constitution. I am sitting there now, next to two attractive brunettes who have glossy Russian language magazines on their table. (Do I dare disturb them in a minute?) 

I would tell you much more about Tbilisi, but I can't add anything you can't easily discover yourself once you arrive. An airport ride to the city center should cost no more than 35 lari. There's no Uber, but there is Maxim. Stay near Rustaveli Avenue or Freedom Square--every major museum and tourist attraction is nearby, including the very touristy Meidan Bazaar. Don't miss the G. Leonidze Museum of Georgian Literature, which doesn't have books but does have interesting exhibitions (I just saw one about snipers on the Armenian-Azeri border--I've decided I'll never live near a border) and a cool cafe outside. The Museum's staff-only viewable artwork on the walls are more beautiful than ones in the MOMA. 
Incredible painting. "Pushkin in Tbilisi" by  Lado Gudiashvili.

If you are rich, stay at the Biltmore Hotel (there are two locations--the MoMa design is the new building, but I like the old one on Rustaveli Ave.); otherwise, check out Airbnb or Radisson Blu (also near Rustaveli Avenue) or perhaps the trendy Fabrika Hostel.

See the churches--the most beautiful ones are the Holy Trinity Church (aka Sameba) and Sioni Cathedral. 

Georgian wedding--a common occurrence on weekends.
Find a priest who chants Biblical verses in the ceremony for the full experience.
Mkskheta is a small city close to Tbilisi and easy to visit. Signagi and Svaneti (don't miss tasting/smelling Svanuri marili aka Svan salt!) are popular destinations as well. Batumi is a beach town apparently fun to visit in the summer. 10% of Georgians are Muslims and many reside in Akhaltsikhe (New Castle). If you go to New Castle, Vardzia is nearby. 

Walk into the "basement bakeries." Occasionally, you'll see steps leading underground to brick-walled restaurants or stores. I've never been disappointed by any of the commercial basement dwellings I've found. 
Eat khinkhali, khachapuri, and churchkhela with flavored soda (most popular flavor is cream, and it's usually only one lari). At times, it seems Georgian cuisine requires at least two sticks of butter in each dish--I couldn't finish my portions--but at least you won't go hungry. 
Adjarian khachapuri
So what is Georgia, other than eager to forge its place in the world? Imagine a place built by the Soviet Union, infused with hipsterism, yearning to be free like Americans, having a language derived from the Greeks, and being flooded by foreign capital. In short, Georgia's future is not set in stone, and its magical realism won't last much longer. If you want to visit, do it soon so you can see Tbilisi as what Europe ought to be--young, naive enough to believe in America's stated ideals, and doing its best to combine the old with the new.
Update: I just got a sulfur bath, and I feel great. I've had the Turkish hammam experience, but it didn't do much for me. The Georgian sulfur bath is different--your body absorbs some of the sulfur, which, depending on your skin type, will generate some effect. (My skin felt nice in a way I can't exactly describe.) 

You pay between 35 to 100 lari for a private room, depending on the number of people and the size of the room and bath. If it's just you and a friend, you may pay 35 lari. You can check out the bath before you decide which room you want. Towels and soap costs extra, about 2 lari each. If the water in the bath is too hot, try to adjust it by turning on the cold water tap that goes into the small pool. 
100 lari, high-end sulfur bath. Room next to it had several comfy chairs.
Not the one I used.

You will get your towel, enter the room, lock the door, strip, put on the slippers provided for you, and submerge yourself into the small sulfur pool. You have up to one hour, but half an hour was enough for me. A massage costs extra. (The Georgians claim to have their own massage technique, but they've just tried to copy the Thais.) After you finish sitting and relaxing in the small pool, you will take a shower (if you want soap, remember to buy it beforehand), dress, and leave. You'll probably be quite thirsty. I liked the experience, and I felt more relaxed afterwards.

What should you not do in Tbilisi? Strip clubs. There are two nearby the Rustaveli metro stop, one called Venus and another called Matine(?). I paid 30 lari to enter, and only four women were inside. One of the women sat next to me, and after I confirmed the drink she wanted was only 30 lari, she ordered. I received a bill for 1200 lari, and I had to waste 20 minutes of my time playing dumb until they let me go. (They only let me go when I texted my location to a local Georgian friend. Thank you, WhatsApp.) My Turkish-Arab friend living in Georgia told me some of these places even scam visiting Georgians, and he'd heard of one club threatening a tourist until he paid 400 USD.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Konya, Turkey: A Large But Modest City

My first three nights, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about Konya, Turkey. It's a large city of two million people that feels much smaller, as if it's unsure of its own place in its own country. Harun Turkmenoglu echoes similar sentiments about Konya, writing, "Imagine why this metropolitan city, in the very middle of the country, which is close to almost everywhere, is not well known... I think it has something to do with the fact that the people who live in this city do not live the city." 

Some of Konya's relative anonymity is due to its divergent geography: many residents live in the highly developed (and easily walkable) city center, including numerous university students, but much of its population lives on rural land with no urban connection. 
As a result, it's possible to see the city but miss half its landscape. While Konya has a rich history of carpet-weaving, it has decided instead to emphasize its crown jewel, the tomb of famous Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi: "Either exist as you seem, or seem as you are." 
Bardakci Mosque's carpet
Selimiye Mosque's carpet

Mevlana (aka Mawlana) Muhammad J. Rumi is buried at the Mevlana Museum, and his name is typically prefaced with Mevlana--meaning, "our master"--as a sign of respect. Rumi is famous for creating not Sufism--which has multiple sects--but its mesmerizing whirling dervish ceremony. 
Getting jiggy with it.

Author Martin Gray summarizes it expertly here, and I will quote a short passage from his Konya page: 

"The Sema ceremony, in seven parts, represents the mystical journey of an individual on their ascent through mind and love to union with the divine. Mirroring the revolving nature of existence and all living things, the Sufi dervish turns toward the truth, grows through love, abandons ego, and embraces perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached perfection in order to be of love and service to the entire creation. Dressed in long white gowns (the ego's burial shroud) and wearing high, cone-shaped hats (the ego's tombstone), the dervish dances for hours at a time. With arms held high, the right hand lifted upward to receive blessings and energy from heaven, the left hand turned downward to bestow these blessing on the earth, and the body spinning from right to left, the dervish revolves around the heart and embraces all of creation with love. The dervishes form a circle, each turning in harmony with the rhythm of the accompanying music as the circle itself moves around, slowly picking up speed and intensity until all collapse in a sort of spiritual exaltation." [Link to Martin Gray's webpage,, is HERE.] 

According to legend, Rumi passed a jewelry market and upon hearing workers hammering gold, began turning in harmony with the rhythm. Henceforth Sema was born. If you visit Konya, the city provides a complimentary Sema show most Saturday nights at 7pm at the Mevlana Kultur Merkezi (Mevlana Cultural Center). It's the highlight of any Konya trip. If you're looking for convenience, the Hilton Garden Inn is right next to the Mevlana Cultural Center.  

About half a mile away from the Mevlana Cultural Center is Rumi's tomb at Mevlana Museum. 
Most colorful tomb I've ever seen.

The museum, located right outside the tomb, is also interesting. I didn't know Sufis refer not only to the Koran and the Hadiths, but to something called Masnavi, a series of six books of poems. 

To do a lengthy walking tour encompassing most of the city's sites, you can start at the Mevlana Museum, then visit Selimiye Mosque; Aziziye Mosque; Karatay Medresesi/Madrassa (beautiful turquoise tiles); 
Does anyone else see Chinese influence?

Ince Minare Muzesi or Inceminare Medrese (Stone and Wooden Works Museum), which has the Wrestler's Stone; 
Observe the handle. With one hand, a wrestler would lift the stone to train and build arm strength. 
Konya's small Archaeology Museum (10 minutes is all you need); 
Is this the origin of the "evil eye"?
And finally Sahip Ata Vakif Muzesi (not to be confused with the mosque next to it named Sahib i-Ata Camii). 
In the olden days, if you established and funded a school/madrassa, you commanded enough clout to be buried in a special place. In other words, the rich have always been involved in education.

Rumi's teacher, Shams Al-Tabriz (aka Sems-i Tebrizi), is also buried in Konya in a much more traditional setting. (Shams was eventually pressured to leave Konya because after he met Rumi, Rumi stopped giving sermons to his disciples. Shams reportedly once said, "In order to live happily among people, you have to be a hypocrite but if you always want to tell the truth, you have to live in a desert or on a mountain.") 
Because the city center is close to hundreds of miles of farmland, everything I had tasted wonderful. My highlight was the fresh breakfast honey in Sumac Grill (inside Hilton Garden Inn). 
Tourist guides will tell you to visit Sille, a small town nearby, and Aksehir, another town about one and a half hours away. I skipped them both. (By the way, Cappadocia is 3 hours by car, but I have no interest in hot air balloon rides, so I didn't visit. Cappadocia actually has beautiful mountains that don't get as much publicity as its balloons, which is a shame.) 

Regarding tour guides, my hotel gave me this card, but I didn't meet him, and I don't know his prices, so I can't make any recommendations. 
I've now spent about a month in Turkey, and my favorite cities are still Istanbul and Malatya. If you want a beach town, Kusadasi wins the crown

Konya's problem is its lack of a unique identity. I asked several Konya-born hotel employees to summarize their city in two sentences, and none of them had a good answer. A young chef was finally recruited to assist and typed "heart of hearts" into my Google Translate app, but scurried away after I asked follow-up questions. (Turks do not generally speak English, which adds a linguistic struggle to the cultural barrier--and I say this as someone born in a Middle Eastern Muslim country.) [Update: a hotel employee born near Konya wrote, "Although Konya is a big city, it is a modest city.") 

Other than Rumi's iridescent tomb, it's hard to see Konya's unique pull. Note that Rumi is Persian and wrote in Farsi, not Turkish. He may have lived much of his life in modern-day Turkey to avoid a Mongol invasion, but he was Persian, and so was Shams, his teacher. I didn't feel Rumi in my bones when I wandered here because the Turks have appropriated an Iranian icon without importing Iranian culture. 

Moreover, Turks seem rougher around the edges than Persians, including the women, and the ones who reminded me of more graceful Persian women looked more Persian than Turk. Perhaps the hardness I felt comes from having one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world while being involved in active or recent conflicts with Greece, Syria, and Iraq, but other than Malatya, a small city known for its apricots, I didn't get the sense that I was living in a place Rumi would appreciate today. 
Turkish flags are everywhere in the city. In my experience, the more flags, the less openness. The more a country needs to *regularly* display its patriotism through public symbols & overt ceremonies rather than everyday actions, the more problems it usually has.
A beautiful woman doesn't need too much makeup.

After three nights of feeling as if my Turkish trip would end with a whimper, not a bang, I happened to see a photo of Salt Lake aka Tuz Golu. The lake is nearby Cihanbeyli, which feels like a traditional Turkish town. When I paid for the lunch of two elderly ladies, they thanked me, and I asked to take their photos. Two of them initially sat for me, but one moved away when her husband beckoned her from a car outside. I still managed to get a photo of one of the older ladies, who graciously posed for me. 

You'll find Tuz Golu 120 kms from Cihanbeyli. My travel woes evaporated instantly when I saw it. I've been to Chile's San Pedro de Atacama, which looks similar, but it was freezing. Tuz Golu reminded me of San Pedro de Atacama, but with a warmer climate. As you may have guessed from the name, workers mine salt from the lake. 
Salt, salt, baby.

The salt "mountains" are unique, but the view... well, see for yourself. 
I was so happy, I pranced around like a kid in Disneyland. Running to and fro, I tasted the salt on the ground, admired the mountains, and cupped the water in my hands (it left a salty residue!). 

The view back was almost as wonderful. Take a look. 
Remember I said Konya, a city of 2 million people, was half farmland? Riding back to the city center, I observed the trees, the open land, the mountains, the herders, and it was then I realized why Rumi lived here: nature. Rumi found God in nature's vastness. It's a wide open landscape, filled with possibilities in every direction. A man could wander for years and not feel lost. Far from the city center, the locals don't need flags to know their identity or to feel proud of their country. 

When returning, I saw a curious sight. The sky had opened up, and the sun was shining light from the heavens to the ground. I stared at it for a few minutes, not believing my eyes, and I finally took a photo. Due to zooming in, it doesn't truly capture what I saw. If you were there, however, you'd see a singular beam from the sky, as if to signal a holy presence.  

I don't know if Rumi believed in the Resurrection or the Reckoning, but seeing the sky that evening, I knew why Rumi was so happy he had to dance away his spiritual energy. God may be everywhere, but more in some places than others. You just have to know where to look. 

"We are neither Pharaoh nor Nimrod. What do we have to do with this terrestrial world? Can there be peace of mind, a permanent home for us in this world? I have lived in the dark prison of this world only to be of benefit to the people; otherwise, why should I have spent my lifetime in prison? Whose property have I stolen? I pray that I will soon return to [the Prophet] Muhammad, the beloved friend of God." -- Rumi 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Stock Musings

Two stocks catch my eye as of October 27, 2017: Freds, Inc. (FRED) and General Electric (GE).

I've never set foot in a Fred's. The stock closed at a meager $4.77/sh on Friday, breaking the psychologically important $5/sh mark. Its inventory numbers seem high, and it's not doing a good job calling in receivables as quickly as possible. While Dollar General (DG) and similar stores have prospered, especially in America's Midwest, Fred's never seemed to capture the magic formula. Nevertheless, at below $5/sh, Fred's seems like a value play. Alden Global Capital has made a substantial investment and appears to be holding major losses, but its presence could spur activism and perhaps break Fred's out of its complacency.

General Electric stock closed at $20.79/sh on Friday. The last time GE's stock saw such levels was in 2012. With a new CEO determined to turn the company around and already in cost-cutting mode, GE seems like a potential buy on weakness. 

Disclosure: I own GE and FRED stock. My positions may change at any time. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security. You are responsible for your own due diligence. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Izmir and Kusadasi, Turkey (& Ephesus, Too)

I have nothing against Izmir, Turkey. I really don't. 
View of Izmir from the top of the Asansor

No one robbed me. No one accosted me. I didn't see any homeless people, a remarkable feat for a city of its size. Almost everyone was helpful. I found many excellent small restaurants and diners (interestingly, the best ones had chefs from Konya and Syria, not Izmir). 

But Izmir, formerly called Smyrna, is just another city. It lacks the magnificent mosques of Istanbul or Iran. It doesn't have Delhi's palpable energy. Unlike nearby Malatya, it's so used to tourists, it doesn't feel the need to impress them anymore. 

In case you want to visit, you only need one day. Almost all the popular tourist sites are within walking distance around the Konak Square metro stop. If you want a budget hotel, you can stay in Antikhan Otel, located near a small ruins area. 
Agora Park area
A typical tourist will visit Konak Meydani (aka Konak Square); Saat Kulesi (Clock Tower); Kemeralti Bazaar/Market; Kestanepazari Camii/Mosque; and Hisar Camii/Mosque. Farther from these sites and accessible by taxi or metro are the Asansor, an elevator with a nice view of the city, and the Izmir Museum of History and Art (not to be confused with the inferior, forgettable Izmir Museum of Art and Sculpture near Konak Square). 
Entrance to Asansor

Some tourist websites mention Kadifekale as a nice spot, but I didn't go there. Also, if you go to Asansor, you can see the Bet Israel Synagogue next to it (it was closed when I tried to go inside). 
Bet Israel Synagogue

For me, Izmir really only had two interesting attractions: the Museum of History and Art (mentioned above) and Kulturpark. 
Conveniently, the Museum is inside Kulturpark, a large, relaxing outdoor park that also hosts a convention center. Entrance to the three separate museum "houses" is only 5 Turkish lira, easily the best deal in town. 

After you spend a day and night in Izmir, take the train at Basmane Otopark (aka Basmane Gar Otobus Duragi) to the small town of Selcuk (about 10.50 TL), then walk to a the local bus station and catch a small shuttle bus to Kusadasi (about 6 TL), which is near Ephesus.

Kusadasi is unlike any other city in Turkey, a combo of Newport Beach and Santa Cruz, California. It had perfect sunny weather in late October, when I visited. There's not much to do except walk along the beachfront, but part of the charm of visiting a small beach/hippie town is precisely that there's not much to do. 
View from my hotel balcony

To be fair, several tours exist, and the primary attractions are in or near the Biblical town of Ephesus, where several archaeological ruins and the House of the Virgin Mary (aka Meryemana) are located. 
Not the House of Virgin Mary.
This is Ephesus Archaeological Site aka Efes Orenyeri.

An Ephesus (aka Efes) tour, including roundtrip transportation, will cost you 40 euros in the low tourist season or 50 euros in the high season. Combining the Ephesus tour with other attractions, such as the Virgin Mary's house, will cost you extra (maybe another 10 or 20 euros). Definitely see Ephesus if you visit Kusadasi--it's only 20 minutes away by car, and it'll take you an hour or hour and half to walk the entire area. (The exit is located near the church ruins of the Virgin Mary, not to be confused with the house of Virgin Mary, which is in a totally different location.) 
All together, you only need one day for Izmir and two or three nights total for Kusadasi/Ephesus. I stayed at the Doubletree (by Hilton Hotel Kusadasi), about one mile from the main strip, where you can visit Mado Cafe for your sweet tooth, Mezgit Restaurant for seafood, and Erzincan Restaurant for Turkish food (get the beef/chicken claypot dish). For your SIM card or cellphone provider, Turkcell worked much better than Vodafone in Kusadasi but performance was even in Izmir. 

I'm not a beach or golf guy, but i
f you want to golf, try the Ramada Resort Kusdasi & Golf hotel. Kusadasi also has four beaches: Pamucak beach; Kustur beach, a narrow strip of beach with a beautiful view of the ocean; Ladies Beach, accommodating to both men and women, despite its name (25 years ago, it was only for women); and Long beach, which is probably exactly what it sounds like. I didn't visit any of them, but I passed Kustur beach, and it looked nice, almost like a private beach. 
Your eyes do not deceive you.
This is Kusadasi, Turkey, the bar district.
I'm sitting in Mado cafe now, enjoying yet another rice pudding and sunset. For some, Kusadasi is the place to get wild in Turkey, but me, I prefer pudding and sunsets.

Bonus: I just visited Sirince, a small village about 20 minutes from Kusadasi known for its wine and olive oil. I paid my driver 40 euros, and he dropped me off and waited while I walked around. The drive to Sirince was beautiful--lots of greenery and mountains--but the village itself was too small for me. Then again, I'm a coffee drinker, not a wine person, and lots of older ladies seemed to be enjoying themselves. I'll include some pictures below in case you want to visit. 

Lots of small European-style pensions here.
This one looked nice from the outside. Gate was locked.
Personally, if you desire a small town atmosphere, I'd try Selcuk, though it lacks the full nature scenery of Sirince. 
Temple of Artemis in Selcuk