Year of the Wunderkammer- Best of Travels 2019

A Day at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This year has been, strangely (or not so strangely, given the current state of affairs in the world) that of the Wunderkammer. Every now and then something related to cabinets of curiosities would pop up, most recently in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Initially, I thought I did not like cabinets of curiosities, or, more precisely, I wasn’t bothered about them, I had never really given the concept a thorough consideration. Perhaps because in my younger days I wanted to experience everything as whole- go to a museum and see everything, and that everything should make sense, say Van Gogh’s oeuvre from potatoes to sunflowers through severed ears. But with every year that passes I come to realize that nothing is ever truly whole, there will always be a side of everything that is beyond our grasp, and as such, the only exhibitions that make sense to me now are cabinets of curiosities- flights of fancy and imagination connected by the loosest of strings. The only way to remain sane in the world is to regard it as a cabinet of curiosities as well- this may be a simple, and simplistic thought, but it gives me a tremendous amount of solace.

Sarajevo from the Bijela Tabija on a rainy spring day. I used to consult weather apps like some sort of tarot cards backed by actual science, intensifying my forays into the future each time a meticulously pre-planned trip would approach. Lord, Allah, Zoroaster, Flying Spaghetti Monster, have mercy on me, let it not rain.  And then sometimes it would not rain, but other times, obviously, it would. And then suddenly careful plans would go topsy-turvy, and we’d actually do something unexpected, discover tucked away bars, seek refuge in strange little museums, sit and chat on sheltered terraces, or be two of the four visitors who peered into the mists that hovered gently over the raw green valley that shelters Sarajevo. Anyone can have the sun drenched vision that is replicated and sold on postcards, and the two will slowly bleed together and you won’t be able to tell them apart. But this ghostly grey day, with all its melancholy mixed with hope, will only be ours.

Reconstructed past(s) in Oradea. When people ask me to tell them one thing about the place I come from, I like to tell them that I come from somewhere that is not really one place, but many. It’s a crossroads, always has been so, and saw nations and empires rise and fall. This is its greatest strength and, at the same time, its greatest tragedy. The fading beauty of Oradea is now being slowly restored, and with every building that regains its old charm, hundreds of stories are reborn, stories of Hungarian poets, Jewish merchants, Austrian architects and Romanian politicians. Even these associations are random, you may mix nationalities and jobs as you wish, and then mix nationalities among themselves and add in religions too. Anyone’s claim of exclusive ownership can thus never be anything but an illusion, and a very dangerous one. These places belong to all of us, because we built them together and lived in them side by side, and to celebrate that, carried away by the calm quiet of the place, I whispered a Protestant prayer for my Orthodox ancestors in a synagogue.

Travels and travails with coffee. In Viennese coffee houses I order a Kleiner Brauner, a very sweet cake drowned in whipped cream and read the papers pretending I understand what Unentschlossenheit means. In Sarajevo I sit on low benches covered by geometrically patterned blankets and eavesdrop through the thick fume of cigarettes, understanding a word or two of the local gossip or the chat about current politicians to despise and the latest ref who brought terrible decisions against Željezničar. In Turkey I sit on low benches covered by geometrically patterned blankets and eavesdrop through no fume of cigarettes (oh Turkey, what have you done to your tobacco-loving soul) and understand absolutely nothing at all. In Sibiu I sit with my mother in a hipster specialty coffee shop and she really loves the light, fruity brew then reminisces over how hard it was to get real coffee in Communist Romania, and how she and her fellow students knew the one place in Cluj where you could get a decent espresso.

 

Alone with Atatürk. Lax as I have become in my approach to travel planning, the one thing I try not to miss is a solitary morning walk. I do have a loose outline, such as reaching the compulsory monumental statue of Atatürk that towers over Kuşadası (other past favourites are getting to the Kalemegdan in Belgrade or the Sacré Coeur in Paris), but other than that I just walk and try to take in the sights, sounds, and smells. There is a calmness and scarceness to the morning that allows you to get to know the place without being overwhelmed. People are few and far in between, and very often involved in the sorts of activities that become drowned out by the intensity of later hours: fishermen slowly unloading boats in the port, a woman sweeping the terrace at a measured pace, and old man very carefully feeding a ragged moggy a few tiny morsels of meat.

What we saved through the fires. The Vijećnica and the thousands of books and manuscripts it housed were burned down during the Siege of Sarajevo, but today, it stands again and provides excellent shelter and entertainment on a rainy spring day. The Temple of Artemis was burned down by Herostratus, and to be fair very little of it remains, but nearby we can still take in the splendour of Ephesus. No one knows how many fires tore through the many iterations of Troy, but we again know where it stands and can look at the horizon imagining the arrival of the Achaean troops. Medieval cities were being consumed by fire at an alarming rate, yet the old town of Sibiu has survived and seems to be staring down on its ungrateful daughters and sons with intrigued but forgiving eyes.

The Cabinet of Curiosities. Getting chased by wild boars on a secluded beach with silky, egg shaped stones. Waiting for a tiny, elusive, train to show up in the park next to the Donauturm. A beautiful stained glass black eagle in Oradea. Moorish details of the Vijećnica in Sarajevo and the neolog Synagogue in Oradea. An almost deserted bookstore in Vienna with Buddhist meditation music and the scent of curry streaming from mysterious corners. Getting lost in a maze of colourful houses that turned out to be a shanty town- thank you, Google maps. Mixing up the place where Franz Ferdinand was shot while downing beers in Sarajevo’s Inat Kuća. High altitude meals in the Avaz Tower (accompanying weather: the Biblical deluge) and the Donauturm (accompanying weather: the bluest sky since the beginning of time). A chain of colourful fishing houseson the shores of an industrial lake. The worn off and worn out faces of Orthodox saints abandoned in the apocalypse safe haven of Şirince.  A white rabbit with all the time in the world hopping around on Pigeon Island. Unexpectedly finding the factory where the make the excellent Scandia liver paté. Falling a little in love with the football team Velež Mostar because their fans have great murals around town.

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