Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have spent enough time in Varna by now that I can hardly get away without mentioning its connection to my pet interest: John Hunyadi.
Faithful readers of this blog may recall my arguably odd interest in this medieval Hungarian nobleman, Hunyadi János to the Hungarians and Ioan de Hunedoara to the Romanians. In 1456 at Belgrade, he led an alliance of European armies to victory over the Ottoman Turks, halting Ottoman advance into Europe for a century.
If Hunyadi’s life were a Hollywood feature, Belgrade would constitute act 3, the hero’s final triumph and apotheosis. Varna, on the other hand, would happen at the end of act 2, his greatest defeat and the nadir of his career. Today Varna is a mid-sized semi-resort town on the Black Sea coast where Bulgarians and Russians and other Europeans and, yes, Turks, like to come to relax. But like so many places in Europe, it is also the site of much tortuous history.
Since I started traveling, I have come to feel as though I have two birthdays. There’s my actual birthday in August, and then there’s my traveler’s birthday, today, July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations. In travel years, today I turn four.
And every year around July 1, I feel as though I should have some profound new insight into the meaning of life. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise this year. But, for a number of reasons, I have been pondering the role that luck plays in our lives.
First it’s because I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, the Wall Street trader and essayist who gained celebrity in the wake of the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008, has popularized a number of concepts. One is the “black swan”: an event considered rare and unlikely that nonetheless becomes inevitable given enough time and ultimately has outsized impact. In the same way, if enough monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters for long enough, eventually one of them will type out Hamlet.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
“Harden up,” they used to say.
They were my teachers and, soon enough, my fellow 14-year-old boys.
“Harden up” — it could be the response to a great many things during those months when we lived three to a room in wooden huts at the former mill in rural New Zealand. But I remember it most frequently said when we hiked in the forest, stumbling and panting and sweating.
“Harden up,” one teacher might say to a boy complaining on his first hike that his backpack was too heavy. “Harden up,” one boy might to say to another if he fell and scraped his knees and looked like he was going to do anything other than to brush it off.
The new and controversial Gillette ad campaign focusing on the now-popular concept of “toxic masculinity” has prompted me to think back to that semester in high school in the woods.
In one episode of that excellent show, “The Good Place,” a character explains that every U.S. president who had died had ended up in “the Bad Place,” the show’s version of hell. “Except Lincoln.”
The passing of George H. W. Bush has brought forth the to-be-expected hagiographies, the reverential paeans to his management of the end of the Cold War, to his personal grace, to his loving relationship with his wife Barbara, to the beautiful letter he left Bill Clinton upon leaving office and the remarkable friendship he struck up in later years with the man who defeated him.
On the other side of the ledger, dissenting voices have pointed out how nauseating such paeans can be, and more importantly to underscore the many questionable aspects of Bush’s legacy from the Gulf War to the racism of the Willie Horton campaign ad to his administration turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic.
I wrote about Jin Yong or Louis Cha earlier this year when the first installment of an English translation of one of his novels was published. Two weeks ago, Louis Cha died in Hong Kong at the age of 94.
As one commentator put it, the cultural cachet of Cha’s works in Asia is comparable to the combined impact of Star Wars and Harry Potter. His books sold perhaps 300 million copies worldwide during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the millions of bootleg copies that must have circulated during the same years — after all, his books were banned in Mainland China until 1984. Anywhere in the world where there are readers of the Chinese language, there are fans of Jin Yong, including just about everyone in my family.
And yet, his New York Times obituary is perfunctory. And the South China Morning Post, the paper of record of Hong Kong, carried an op-ed by one of his English translators on why he’s never been popular in the West.
A few years ago I published a law review article.
Hardly anyone read it, not least because it was on a subject that at the time seemed barely worth discussing: birthright citizenship in the United States Constitution. And yet that subject is now suddenly a hot button issue in the news.
Specifically, I was tracing a connection between the birthright citizenship guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment and the “Natural Born Citizen” clause in Article II.
A recent “Dear Abby” column recommended that parents who may have non-Western backgrounds give their children “traditional ‘Western’ names.”
A non-Western name, Abby wrote, can “cause a child to be teased unmercifully” in school. She went on: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers, and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”
Unsurprisingly, there has been a substantial amount of backlash, not least on that fount of genteel and good-natured discussions called Twitter, against this bit of racist-lite parenting advice. But the controversy makes me consider the significance of my own name, or rather names.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."