Taking the Long Road to the Imperial Metropole

June 25, 2018

Back when I was living in Turkey in the 1990s, I made a point of taking a vacation every summer for 6-8 weeks. It made sense, and I could afford it. After all, most of my English teaching work dried up in the summer anyway. From the beginning of July until the end of September, there wasn't a lot of work to do, and frankly I appreciate the opportunity to get out of Istanbul and visit some other countries in the region. My daughter was living in southern Hungary at the time, so pretty much every year I'd trek through the Balkans to go see her, usually traveling up through Bulgaria and parts of ex-Yugoslavia, then coming back down via Romania and, again, Bulgaria. Other summertime excursions took me through various places in central Europe, the ex-USSR, the Middle East, and east Asia. 


For fifteen years, however--beginning when I started graduate school in 1999 and ending with the publication of my book in 2014--I didn't take vacations. Sure, I traveled a lot for research, but never felt I had the time or money to afford myself the opportunity to just take my bag and explore. But now that I've got tenure I feel I can do those things again. And frankly, living in a place like Bozeman, MT--which is very nice, but also quite far away from the parts of the world that interest me the most--makes me feel like getting away and going someplace where I have the opportunity to speak another language is particularly important.

   Colorful place

This year I decided to combine summer research with a vacation. I had research to do in Holland, Budapest, and Istanbul, but found a cheap ticket via Reykjavik and opted to spend a bit of time in Iceland as well. In mid-May I spent a few days in Reykjavik, then rented a car and drove north to Stykkishólmur. From there, I spent a day driving around the Snæfellsnes peninsula before heading back to Reykjavik for one more night and then flying out to Amsterdam the next morning. In all, I spent six days in Iceland during my initial visit there in the middle of May. 

    More Reykjavik

Reykjavik and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Reykjavik is a colorful and fun city. It's small, with maybe about 125,000 inhabitants or so, a third of Iceland's population. Architecturally it reminded me a little bit of Copenhagen. I stayed in an AirBnB about a half-hour walk from the center of town. On my first day in town, I took the bus downtown, then waited to long to get off and ended up in the suburbs on the other side of the city. I walked back until I got to the docklands area where the whale-watching boats set off from. 

    Crowded as usual    

The weather was kind of depressing when I first got into town--a steady rain was pouring down on me. I noticed that I was the only person carrying on umbrella. I think folks in Iceland--maybe they should just call it Rainland--seemed inured to the elements, just stoically walking forward no matter what. 

   Hallgrímskirkja--a funky Lutheran church

I decided to do the same--in that wind, my umbrella wasn't going to last long, anyway, and then I found a nice-looking restaurant and had a beer with a big warm bowl of fish soup. The lunch recharged my batteries and by the time I'd finished the rain had stopped, at least for the moment. I spent the rest of the day walking around town, occasionally seeking refuge in a coffeeshop or bar. 

   Inland lake     

Overall, though, there was a lot of sun in Rekjavik. It just tended to alternate with rain pretty frequently. 

   More color and sun

The highlights for me from Reykjavik were: 

a) The public thermal baths, which were just down the street from my apartment. 

b) The National Museum, where I learned the Icelandic national narrative (they've got one!). 

c) Hanging out in bars and coffeeshops. 

After spending three days in Reykjavik, I rented a car and drove north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which my guidebook had recommended for its beautiful scenery and decent roads. 

The Snuffleupagus peninsula was indeed impressive, and the weather was incredible. The drive up from Reykjavik had been pretty miserable--the wind buffeted my SUV and the rain pissed down relentlessly. By the time I arrived in Stykkishólmur I was feeling pretty gloomy. Why on earth had I decided to do this, I wondered. Just at the time when Montana was emerging from months of deep-freeze, I had chosen one of the relatively few inhabited spots on this planet that is noticeably colder than the place where I live. 

   On my way out of Stykkishólmur in the morning 

The next morning, however, I was awakened by brilliant sunshine. Per the advice of the dude running the guesthouse where I stayed in Stykkishólmur, I drove south to the southeast corner of the peninsula, then went around clockwise. This way, I would be able to see the giant glacier in the distance as I drove westward. Altogether, the trip around the edge of the peninsula would have taken 3-4 hours without stopping, but I ended up spending about 9-10 hours on the road that day. 

   Lots of lava fields in these parts...

As I pulled out of Stykkishólmur in the morning, the one radio station I was able to find that played music treated me to a series of songs by beloved artists from my past and present--the Beastie Boys, the Clash, even Mulatu Astatke. It was a little eerie, in fact, the degree to which the music matched my tastes. With coffee in hand and a couple of hot ham-and-chesse filled croissants in the passenger seat next to me, I drove off through the hills marveling at the surrounding scenery. The previous evening I'd seen nothing but clouds and rain, and only now did I realize why people went out of their way to come to this place. 

   ...but the landscape is constantly changing   

It was an incredible day. I started with the southern coast, stopping for coffee at a beach on the ocean. Driving west toward the tip of the peninsula, the big glacier ahead of me came closer into view. The weather, meanwhile, changed drastically by the hour. Brilliant sunshine and blue skies were followed by dark, foreboding clouds, which then led to hailstorms and brutal, almost frightening wind. I remembered the words of the rental-car employee back in Reykjavik, who told me that "more than fifty percent" of their cars came back with damage to their doors after their occupants failed to hold on to them tightly enough when getting in or out of the car. Suddenly, I had visions of flying doors skittering across the blackened lava fields that surrounded me. In any case, the cycle of blue skies, black skies, and hail storms continued for the rest of the day. 

My base on the peninsula was Stykkishólmur, which is located in the northeast corner of Snæfellsnes. I stayed in a guesthouse run by an older man who played the guitar. As a boy he had lived on Heimaey, an island off the south coast of Iceland where there had been a volcanic eruption in 1973. 

He described being awakened in the middle of the night by neighbors knocking on the window, and then sitting in the kitchen while his parents debated what to do. They ended up evacuating the island, along with everybody else, never to return for more than a brief visit. Since both of his parents had originally been from Stykkishólmur, that was where they eventually relocated. 

After I got back from my tour of the peninsula at around 6 pm, Heimir--the owner of the guesthouse--took me on a small tour of Stykkishólmur. He even took me to a meeting/cocktail party that local representatives of a political party had organized ahead of elections. In Stykkishólmur there is also an art exhibit called the "Water Library"--a friend in Bozeman had suggested I check it out. Heimir was a bit dismissive of the place, but went and learned the code to unlock the door while I was touring the peninsula as the Water Library would be closing before I got back. After our local tour of Stykkishólmur was over, he opened up the door to the Water Library for me and told me to knock myself out. Just close the door firmly on your way out, he said.


    Black beach on the western tip of the peninsula

The next morning I bade farewell to Heimir and headed back to Reykjavik. On my way out of Stykkishólmur I picked up a female hitchhiker who turned out to be an American high school teacher from Brooklyn. She was heading to the Reykjavik airport, which is located about forty minutes outside of town. That was my general direction as well, as I had a plane to catch to Amsterdam early the next morning and was going to be staying at a hotel just outside the airport. 

    I could feel the sand quaking a bit beneath me when these 
    awesome waves pounded the shore

We took the long road back, skipping the tunnel that I'd accidentally taken on my way up. The tunnel had shaved an hour off of my northward trip from Reykjavik up to Stykkishólmur, but I'd preferred the idea of driving around all of the little inlets and seeing the coast instead. Nevertheless, I'd ended up taking the tunnel anyway by mistake as I didn't know the Icelandic word for "tunnel." By the time I'd realized what I was doing, it was too late--there was nowhere to turn around. 

    Heading west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula

Anyway, on the way down I knew enough to look out for the tunnel, and Leslie was also game to drive along the inlets looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. Once again, pissing down rain mixed with beautiful sunshine and ferocious wind to make for some absolutely stunning driving, even as the relatively heavy SUV we were in was somewhat alarmingly buffeted by the winds. We decided to stop in Reykjavik on our way to the airport, and ended up having lunch in the same fish restaurant where I'd sought refuge my first day in town six days earlier.  

    On the southwestern coast of the peninsula

After dropping off Leslie at the airport, I found my hotel and then headed out to the Blue Lagoon. This is a tourist trap thermal bath/spa/hotel located not too far from the airport. Nevertheless, the Blue Lagoon is typically described as a must-see for Iceland. It was okay, but pretty crowded and expensive ($100 for entry). I preferred the thermal baths I'd visited in Reykjavik, which were a lot cleaner and less crowded. That being said, the blue water was pretty interesting. 

    Little harbor in Stykkishólmur 

At three in the morning I got up to head to the airport. The wind was howling outside, and I wondered if my plane would indeed be taking off. It all was fairly ominous feeling, but at least it wasn't very dark--by the third week of May it was light out most of the time. I hate getting up in the middle of the night when it's dark out, so the sunlight brightened my mood a bit. 

  The expensive blue waters of the Blue Lagoon

Not long thereafter I was heading to Amsterdam. 


Finding a legitimate research rationale for working in Amsterdam has got to be one of my proudest accomplishments so far during my academic career. Amsterdam is where I spent the first two weeks of my 2016-17 sabbatical, and is home to the International Institute of Social History--which just happens to be one of the most important research locations for the project that I'm currently working on. 

   The majestic grounds of the IISH

After spending six days in Iceland on vacation, I showed up in Amsterdam ready to work. It was great. I rented an apartment for ten days located about a fifteen minute walk from the IISH. The IISH is on the eastern part of the city, in an area that's not particularly attractive, at least insofar as Amsterdam's generally beautiful architecture is concerned. This part of town, I imagine, was either destroyed during the war or else has been rebuilt for some other reason. It's okay-looking, but the apartment buildings tend to be modern and there are a whole lot of tourists around. In all, it's about a forty-five minute walk from where I was staying--just outside the Singelgracht--to Central Station. 

Where I was staying didn't really matter all that much, however, because I rented a bike at the end of my second day in town and kept it until I left. It was a bit intimidating at first--which is why I waited a day or two. I felt like I needed to acclimate myself a bit to Amsterdam traffic, which--believe it or not--is a bit busier than what I've grown used to in Bozeman, Montana. Nevertheless, I was emboldened by the memory that I'd ridden a bike on a daily basis when I was in Amsterdam in September of 2016. I'd needed to do it back then, as I had been renting a place on the western side of town, and riding a bike was really the easiest option then. As was the case in 2016, I found it much easier this time to stay on a path and go straight, as opposed to actually making turns, so I occasionally ended up getting trapped on a path and riding beyond where I needed to go. In any case, I got used to things again and by the end of my stay I felt pretty comfortable riding around. As usual, however, I frequently lost my way and had to ride around for a while before figuring out where I was. I also took a couple of day trips on the weekend on the bike, heading out toward Weesp on one day and to Marken the next. 

I really liked the neighborhood I was staying in, and not only because it was close to the IISH. Because it was in a less historic-attractive-touristed part of town, the neighborhood seemed a lot more genuine than most of the spots I know in the city center. It was basically just a contemporary, pretty cool little area, and there were loads of people from Morocco and Turkey around. I spoke Turkish on a daily basis at the supermarket and other shops, and it was nice to walk into a bar or restaurant and have to wait for a few minutes while people searched for an English-language menu. 

My routine in Amsterdam was to work at the IISH until about 4.30, then head out on my bike. I tended to head toward the Spui, which is one of my favorite parts of town. When I was staying in Amsterdam in the first half of September 2016 the Spui was on my way home, so I'd stop there for a "kopstoot," which consists of a shot of Jenever and a beer. "Kopstoot" translates as a "kick in the head," and is often consumed alongside "hot balls"--little balls of veal that you dip in mustard. It was a nice way to end the day after sifting through papers, photographing books, and listening to more than nine hours of audio tracks related to my research project all day. 

In all, I took about 3,000 photographs of rare books and papers, so I didn't take any photos of Amsterdam itself. The main reason for this, however, is that I've been to Amsterdam probably something like twenty times and have all the photos I think I'll ever need from there. Still, certain moments from my trip were unforgettable, such as when I woke up early on a Sunday morning to see a friend off at the train station near by apartment (a friend from high school who currently lives in Germany had visited for the weekend). After getting back home I realized that it was about 7.00 am and I wasn't really tired enough to go back to sleep. Moreover, the weather was actually gorgeous that morning and no one was on the streets. I decided to take my bike and ride around areas of town--the Jordaan, the Red Light District, etc.--that were too crowded to really check out well on my bike during the day. I rode for a couple of hours and had the streets to myself--it was just me riding amongst the litter and congealed vomit deposited on the streets in these areas from the night before (no photos). 


The first time I visited Budapest was in April of 1992. That was a somewhat more fraught visit, coming on the heels of a trip through the south of Hungary that I ended with the knowledge that I may have gotten a girl pregnant. Today my daughter is twenty-five years old and lives in Budapest, so trips to Hungary are now undertaken primarily to visit her. On this occasion, however, I also had some research to undertake, as one of the minor characters from the book I am writing is now living in Budapest. I spent two days visiting her--and now she's become a considerably less minor character! 

I spent five days in Budapest, which I spent mainly walking around town when I wasn't hanging out with my daughter or interviewing the person from my book. My Hungarian is rusty now. Back before my daughter began college and started living in Budapest, we had spoken Hungarian to one another--I had begun studying the language in Istanbul in the mid-90s, when I found a private teacher. The point back then had simply been to find a way to communicate with my daughter, whose existence I first learned of at the end of my first year living in Turkey. Since then, Hungarian has become a quasi-research language for me, and I even used a few Hungarian-language sources when discussing pan-Turanians in Turks Across Empires

Today, Hungarian is mainly a language that I use in order to navigate around town when I'm visiting my daughter. But who knows? Maybe it'll come in handy again for future research--it certainly helped this time around, even if the interviews that I conducted were in Turkish. 


Speaking of things Turkish, after Budapest I then flew down to Istanbul to spend two weeks researching in various film 
archives and libraries around town. In this respect it was a different sort of trip in comparison to what I usually do in Istanbul--which is to work in the Ottoman archives. This time I didn't go to the archives at all, but rather spent most of my time chasing down books and movies related to my current research project. I ended up watching part or all of seventeen films, in addition to buying about fifty books related to the subject of my book. 

Being in Istanbul is always a heady experience for me. After

all, I was twenty-two when I first came to this city, and thirty when I moved back to the United States to begin graduate school. This is a pretty important time in an individual's life. I rented the first apartment in which I lived by myself in Istanbul, and Istanbul was also the site of my first professional employment. Some of the first important relationships of my life took place here, and it was all done in Turkish. Turkey shaped my life in ways that I'm still unpacking--indeed, the theme of how an individual profits from this sort of experience and uses it later on in life is one of the themes of Turks Across Empires, and is an even more explicit component of the book that I'm currently working on. 

To be honest, I think that one of things that I miss most about living in Istanbul is the attention people pay to me just for being a blond guy who speaks Turkish. After checking into my AirBnB I went to a restaurant that I tend to frequent whenever I'm in town. Immediately I'm greeted with handshakes and
kisses. A girl at a neighboring table gives me her telephone number. People who can help me with the book I'm working on are willing to drop everything and meet with me for a couple of hours. Booksellers toss in an extra book or two on top of the (voluminous purchases) I'm making. I'm given a photograph gratis of the beloved Turkish actor Kemal Sunal. The cashier at a bookstore looks at my credit card and asks me if I'm the author of "Turks Across something or other." I like other small details, too. Like having the hairs in my ears burned off with flaming wax at the barber, or riding up front with the driver when I'm in a taxi. 

In retrospect, however, I'm kind of glad that I lived in Istanbul when I was in my twenties, rather than now. I'm not sure I'd have the energy to live in such a vibrant place at my age. It was exciting to live there when I did--for seven years as an English teacher in the 90s, and then for another couple of years when I was in graduate school. 

But now--I'm frankly kind of glad to be living in a quiet little mountain town where I can cross-country ski five minutes from my home. Granted, I still kind of feel like I need these extended trips abroad during the summer in order to feel good about living in Bozeman the rest of the time, but given the choice between cacophony and tranquility, I guess I'm starting to lean a bit toward the latter. 

That being said, a day in Istanbul still feels to me like a month spent in most other cities, and for the most part that's something great. So, the weeks I spent in town this time around felt like a special injection of energy. 

The Road Back

From Istanbul I flew back to Budapest, where I hung out with my daughter some more and got in one more interview with the character from my book.  

Budapest was more of the same, with "the same" mainly being the sense of incredible good fortune and wonder that I feel, walking the late-night streets of Budapest with my now-25 year-old daughter. As a twenty-two year old who'd gotten a girl pregnant in Hungary in 1992, I thought my life was over--I was so terrified. Obviously, my daughter's mother was a thousand times more terrified. 

But now, when I hang out with my daughter--a smart, funny young woman who now speaks English better than I speak Hungarian--I'm just amazed at how lucky I am. Finding out, at the end of my first year living in Istanbul, that I had a child was terrifying for a number of reasons, one of which was because I realized that my life was changing in a significant and permanent way. Had my daughter never been born, I probably never would have thought of staying in Istanbul more than a year or two, and likely never would have gone on to graduate school or thought about becoming a professor. I wasn't around much when she was growing up--typically I'd only see her for a week or so every year. But more than just about anyone in this world, she's shaped my life.

From Budapest I headed back to Iceland for five more days, but that will be the subject of another post. 

More shots from my first visit to Iceland can be founhere and here


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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