The Winding Road Back to Michigan

Friday, July 5, 2019

An ordinary middle-aged man was on his way from the archives of Moscow to Amsterdam, in the province of North Holland. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay for ninety minutes. 

(Apologies to Thomas Mann). 

Mountains in Central Mongolia
I've been reading Magic Mountain for much of this trip, so these were the words that came to mind when, just five minutes before we were to begin boarding, an announcement came on over the loudspeakers at the airport in Munich, telling us that the 7 pm flight to Amsterdam had been canceled. It was the latest unexpected development in a week of travel that has had its fair share of them. Not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a disappointment. After a month in Moscow, two weeks in Mongolia, and a week in Istanbul, I had been looking forward to a couple of nights in Amsterdam--where I research at the International Institute of Social History by day and prowl the Spui at night. Instead, I was headed for an evening at the Munich Airport Hilton. 

My wooden shoes would have to remain in their bag for one more night. 
Gobi camels
But let me back up a bit. The week had actually begun in Istanbul, where I had stayed until Friday the 28th. It hadn't been the smoothest of visits. Flying from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul via Moscow, my bag had been lost at Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport. Although it was located fairly quickly, dealing with the lost baggage staff in Istanbul's new (currently nameless, but in my estimation eventually to be called R.T.E.) airport was a challenge, to say the least. After a rather tiring day taking me first from Mongolia to Moscow, and then from Moscow to Istanbul, I had to spent an additional ninety minutes dealing with a series of individuals who were not, to put in gently, completely on top of things. Arriving in Istanbul in the early afternoon on Friday, I waited until 1.30 in the morning on Monday until my bag was actually brought to me. During this waiting period I talked to probably ten different air cargo employee, each of which told me something different about when my bag would be delivered. 

The visit to Istanbul also involved a small accident. I was jay-walking in Bebek, the nice little neighborhood on the Bosphorus where I'd rented an AirBnB for the week. It was my fault. The motorbike rider who hit me was a food delivery guy, so his bike wasn't that big and he wasn't going very fast. Traffic was locked up in one direction and I was stepping between cars, trying to get across the street. Since traffic flowing in the other direction was flowing more loosely, I was looking ahead to my right to see if there was any oncoming traffic, when the motorbike (weaving through traffic and passing the cars ahead of his on the left) crashed into me. The guy felt pretty bad about it, and even pulled over after I'd managed to continue crossing the street to ask me if I was okay. 

I had been on my way to meet up with some friends at the Bebek Kahve, the little coffee/tea/snack place on the Bosphorus where I wrote a considerable portion of Turks Across Empires. Back then, I had been spending a lot of time at the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) hostel in Arnavutköy, which is located just down the Bosphorus from Bebek. Now that the ARIT hostel has closed and ARIT itself has moved its operations to Beyoğlu, I still enjoy floating around the neighborhood, which is one reason why I opted to stay in Bebek this time. 

Meeting up at the Bebek Kahve, my friends and I ended up going to dinner in Arnavutköy--we went to one of the nice fish restaurants right on the water. It was a great dinner, very enjoyable at the time. Unfortunately, I got violently ill in the middle of the night--my friends had no problems, so perhaps it was the sketchy köfte I'd consumed earlier in the day that was actually at fault. In any case, it made for a rather rough 24 hours for me, but after a day of rest and a good night's sleep, I felt fine again. 

So Istanbul had its highs and lows, and on Friday morning I took a taxi from Bebek up to Taksim, where I caught the shuttle bus (Havataş) going to Sabiha Gökçen Airport, located on the Anatolian (Asian) side of the city. This was actually pretty delightful. The cab had picked me up at about 6.30 am and the streets were pretty much empty. The air had a coolness to it that one otherwise did not get to enjoy much during the steamy, hot week that I had passed in town. Partly out of jet lag (I was still on Mongolian time) and party because I'm just an early riser, I'd been getting up early most days since I'd arrived, walking along the Bosphorus while most of the city still slept. It was a nice, comfortable ride into Taksim, but that's pretty much where the good times came to an end. 

Flying out of Sabiha Gökçen felt
something like this
The Havataş bus was fine, but packed full, and despite the early hour and relatively light traffic at the beginning of the trip, it still took about 90 minutes to get to the airport. I'd been to Sabiha Gökçen only once before--at the start of what was supposed to be a quick flight to Trabzon, but which ended up as a long bus ride. Back then, the airport was relatively new, and had been nearly empty when I'd arrived. Now, however--just ten years later--it was a sea of humanity, with people pushing, crushing, jabbing, stepping over and on one another at every turn. To their credit, the airport staff did a pretty good job of managing people--despite the three (!) security checkpoints, I was shuttled through pretty quickly, and have no complaints on that count. It was just very crowded, as was the plane that took me to Moscow. 

So long, Tverskaia!
Saying goodbye to Moscow
I spent Friday and Saturday nights back in my old apartment--the place where I had first stayed for a few days as a tourist in the summer 2015, and where I'd spent a month in May-June of this year. It was good to be home in Nagatinskii Zaton, my neighborhood on the banks of the Moscow River. It was also cold in Moscow--in the mid-50s--which was something of a relief after the heat and humidity of Istanbul. My place on Klenovyi Boulevard is surrounded by trees and feels about five degrees cooler than central Moscow. I spent the weekend walking around town, mentally saying goodbye, for now, to the places I'd passed on a daily basis for the the month that I'd spent in Moscow researching earlier this summer. 

Pushkin Square
On Sunday afternoon I headed off to Domodedovo airport--a much nicer place than crowded Sheremetovo--expecting to end the day in Amsterdam. Alas, instead I was destined to spend the night in a sterile Hilton located about fifteen minutes away from the Munich airport. When I gave my voucher to the taxi driver, he mad a face--clearly he wasn't happy. I could see the problem--he'd waited in an enormous queue to get a passenger, only to wind up with someone taking a quick trip to a neighboring hotel. He asked me where I was from, and after I answered we continued in gloomy silence for a few minutes. Then I asked him where he was from, and he said he was Tunisian. I dusted off my classical Arabic--three years at Brown, plus a year of private lessons in Kazan and Baku back in the day--and amused him, I guess. I told him that I had visited Tunisia with my parents as a 13 year-old in 1983, telling him we'd visited Tunis, Sousse, and Sfax, along with a village called Al-Shebba. He'd told me he was from Sousse. By the time we arrived at the Hilton, the mood in the taxi had brightened a fair bit.  
While I may or may not have released an f-bomb under my breath when I'd learned that I wouldn't be flying to Amsterdam that evening, it didn't end up being so bad. I noted that the service desk assigned to help stranded travelers was fully-staffed, and we were all given taxi vouchers, dinner vouchers, and hotel vouchers for the night--a far cry from what's provided to people in this situation in the United States. Waiting in line to receive my vouchers, and then in line again at the Hilton I met a number of people, and had a very enjoyable dinner conversation (in Italian) with a Polish priest who had studied and worked in Italy for decades--the 1970s and 1980s. He had a number of interesting stories to tell about the pressures placed on him by Poland's communist government back then--he talked of receiving calls in the middle of the night from an anonymous woman who instructed him to steer his flock (Poles living in exile in West Germany, where he had moved from Italy sometime in the early 80s) toward cooperation with the Polish government. The cooptation of religious elites--which is a theme in one of the chapters of Turks Across Empires (coming out soon in paperback!)--is something that interests me considerably, so I had a number of questions for him. 

On Monday, July 1, I got up at 5:15, had a quick breakfast and then took a shuttle bus, a plane to Amsterdam, a train from Amsterdam Schipol Airport to the Centraal Station, and then finally a bicycle to get to the International Institute of Social History, my research center in Amsterdam. 

IISH building in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, as usual, was great, but perhaps the greatest feeling was the sense--after working all day on Monday and getting ready for my Tuesday afternoon flight--that I was ready to return to the MT. I'm really glad that I left Bozeman almost immediately after the semester ended. May and June are cold and rainy/snowy/blustery there, and this year was no exception. After four days in Amsterdam, four weeks in Moscow, two weeks in Mongolia, and a week in Istanbul, I was done with life on the road. It was time to end this nomadic existence and begin the road back home.

Sunset on July 4th
My first stop was Michigan, and my childhood hometown of Ann Arbor. I spent one night there before heading out to the ancestral homeland of West Michigan, where I've been spending most of the week. It's hot and humid here, and the beach in front of our cottage has evaporated. But it's good to relax and see family. I'm here for a few more days, and then it'll be time to return to Bozeman.   

Are you a Turk across empires? The paperback edition is coming out this July! Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

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