Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Candlelit Cathedral (St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria)

I have seen a lot of churches and cathedrals. A lot. But none of them looked like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 


Located in central Sofia, this cathedral is not only one of the most revered orthodox cathedrals in Bulgaria, but in the entire region. In fact, there is only one church that is larger in the entire balkan peninsula. This is not entirely surprising - the church is nearly 35,000 square feet and, at its peak, can hold a cool ten thousand people. 

For me, the most striking feature of the cathedral was the large golden central dome. We were lucky, when we arrived the sky was bluer than I could have imagined, and the sun's powerful rays brought the golden dome to life. In juxtaposition with the soft white painted exterior and the light pastel green of the cathedral's other domes, the gold was impossible to miss. It gleamed, as gold is wont to do. 


Originally, I had thought the clear blue sky was a blessing, and it was, but in my research I came across a photo that led me to believe that the presence of clouds is capable of adding a dramatic touch to the scene. The overall conclusion? No weather is really going to be enough to ruin the majesty of this church. 

(source)
The large open expanse of the interior was not entirely what I expected, but this is likely because my expectations were misplaced. I am more used to the somewhat sterile, symmetric orderliness of catholic cathedrals, but the focus in this orthodox masterpiece seemed to be on the lack of these very things. I wandered from mural to mural in the dimly lit setting, re-configuring my expectations. 

I loved the way that light entered the cathedral. The stained glass windows let in only the light they wanted to, which was, appropriately, the perfect amount. I was awestruck by the enormous candlelit chandeliers in the middle of the room, their light flickering off the nearby walls. The floor was an example of the subtle splendour of marble, and the ceiling contained a fresco of absolutely epic proportions. The cathedral was actually only built at the beginning of the 20th century, but, for one reason or another, it felt much older.  










When I wrote about the Rila Monastery, I spoke about the fact that Bulgaria was full of surprises for me because, well, I simply did not know what to expect. There is a certain beauty (and ease) in doing little to no research until you arrive in a destination, a beauty I rarely experience as I often research quite a bit, doting on the possibilities of upcoming adventures. In this case, I was able to turn the corner and...BOOM, the enormity of the structure (and the moment) struck me like a ton of bricks. 

I've come to the realization that places I have visited that are draped in religious symbolism and built as religious symbols feel special because of the care, effort, and emotion that they were built with. They are built as a flagship of faith, and, thus, rarely spare any expense - sometimes taking decades (or the better part of a century) to build. The finite details are all there. I saw this with the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the mosques in Brunei Darussulam, recently with the Rila Monastery, and dozens and dozens of other places that I haven't had the chance to write about. And there's a continuity in arriving in a new city, and going through the comfortable motions of visiting its prominent mosques, temples, churches, shrines, or cathedrals - a continuity I very much enjoy. In general, there is a continuity in an approach to travel, a method of one's own.  

Hm. That last sentence gets me thinking...

My "travelling self" has evolved over the years. Years ago I used to rush through cities, checking off the cities's sights at a torrential pace, and now I take the time to let things soak in a little more. Instead of trying to see 3 cities in a week, in constant motion, I now am more inclined to plan nothing at all, and stay in a city or destination for as long as it captures my interest. And, that way, I take the time to enjoy the small things without a sense of rush, and enjoy that beer or coffee on the main street (or not so main street), an experience which can often be more revealing about a city or culture than a tourist attraction ever could be. 

I've come to the understanding that I will never see all that I want to see of the world in one lifetime, but, it is enough to embrace the notion that through experience and travel, I can come to know a little more about the world (and myself) than I did yesterday.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Five Epiphanies in Istanbul

I'm not quite sure I ever feel like writing "conventional" blogposts anymore, though I probably couldn't define what a conventional blogpost is. Personally, I think of a conventional blogpost as being dry, and focused only on the chronological, the bland re-telling.

I've come to realize that the re-telling of a story or event, if it is to be without any sort of creative fervour or angle, is better left to one's personal journal. That is definitely something I did not know when I started blogging. I have learned to be more adventurous with my writing, and in some ways, today's post is about learning.  When I awoke today I knew I wanted to write, but I had no idea about what. I decided that, after almost three months here in Istanbul, I might be due for a sort of experimental, over-arching piece on the city.

Today's theme? Five Epiphanies in Istanbul. Ever since I read James Joyce's The Dubliners, (a text notorious for its focus on the use of the epiphany) I've come to love the idea that one moment can have so much impact on a person's understanding of the world. I read The Dubliners in Ireland in 2006, so I can imagine I've had quite a few epiphanies since then. But, for now, let's focus on the one's I've had in Istanbul, in no particular order.

One - Istanbul, The Place I Call Home


There are things that we know that we don't really understand or realize until a later moment. I knew that I was moving to Istanbul about half a year before it happened, and I knew what Istanbul was like because I had visited with Bri in 2010. I knew for certain that it was happening, and I knew it even more when I landed at Istanbul Atatürk Airport in August, and checked into my hotel in the Taksim area. But I didn't realize it until the booming Turkish sun was overhead, and I was a "tourist" again in the Sultanahmet area in late August. 

Shortly after arrival, sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, it hit me like a ton of beautiful bricks..."this is where I live now." And it was an overwhelmingly positive feeling, as I understood that I couldn't be having this moment in any other city, surrounded by this particular history, and these buildings. I often need to remind myself of this fact when I'm walking through the storied streets, but this was the original moment, the moment I became all doughy eyed, filled with excitement and intrigue. 

I had quite a different vantage point of the Blue Mosque several weeks later, and, yeah, that didn't hurt my impression of Istanbul either. 


 Two - Istanbul, The Delicious 


I had been eating food. I had been eating lots of food, and thoroughly enjoying it, in fact. Turkish food is well-spiced, flavourful, and diverse. It wasn't some fancy dinner that turned me into a believer though - it was, rather appropriately, a certain run-in with a particular kebab stand. 

At the top of the famous Istiklal street, right at the turn off towards the area of Cihangir, there is a man who regularly changes my life. It is the first time he did this that I shall recall. Simply based on the smell of the meat, I ordered two kebabs from him, and I was not mistaken in this. Succulent chicken, slowly roasted tomatoes and peppers, a little bit of tomato and yogurt sauce and a healthy serving of pickles, then lightly toasted for good measure - it was a dream. At that moment, I realized, this city is a foodie's heaven. Of course, I was soon to discover that there are simply endless food options in this city, but I must admit, this kebab is still very high up there for me. 

The real-epiphany here is, If I'm ever hungry, I can be full in 5 minutes or less with an ever friendly kebab. Yeah, it counts as an epiphany. 

Three - Istanbul, The Surpising


Tell me, in what other city can you stumble upon a fourth century, secret palace? 

I was out on a walking tour of sorts with friends when all of a sudden my friend Rebecca says, "Oh let's stop here for a moment." Not knowing why in particular, we followed Rebecca into the chic looking Palatium Cafe and Restaurant. In the back of the cafe, on the outdoor patio area, there was a staircase that lead-down towards the open, cavernous door pictured above. Of course, we followed. 

What we found was remarkable. An entrance into "The Great Palace of Constantinople," a royal residence and the center of imperial administration from 330 to 1081. I repeat, it was an underground Byzantine palace complex. Walking through the palace was surreal, it was a welcomed shock. I knew that this was one of so many surprises I was yet to discover, and I relished every minute of it. And that was my epiphany, that this city is absolutely full of surprises of the highest magnitude. 



Four - Istanbul, The Proud


By all accounts, Istanbul is a proud city, and rightfully so. Many Turkish people I have spoken to complain about the congestion and traffic (something I mentioned in my interview with Expats Blog), or some other annoyance, but I believe that under it all people are proud of the city that Istanbul is. Whenever I find myself talking about my love for this city with a local, they give me a look back like "you're right." On Republic Day, just days ago, people were out in red, celebrating the history of the city and nation. It can also be said that the people are passionate, which I understood after being near my first protest just weeks ago. 

I felt these sentiments after only two or three days in the city. I was on a boat on the Bosphorus sitting near the back, watching as the flag lapped in the wind, and I understood that this was one of the greatest cities on the planet, and, though not without problems, it was a truly proud city with proud people. 

As far as its greatness goes, Distractify was quick to note relatively recently that Istanbul was the number one city to visit in your lifetime. Looks like Briana and I chose a good place to live. 

Anyway, I like to think I understood just a portion of all this, in that moment on the windy boat.

Five - Istanbul, The Great


I was buying books at a book fair in Beyoğlu (accidental alliteration...I shall give myself a pat on the back). I took a moment to veer away from the book vendors and found myself peering over the edge of a wall, which lead to an endless scene. And I was just overwhelmed by being surrounded in all directions by city, in ways that I simply wasn't back in Toronto. Hours in all directions...Istanbul. 

But, in the epiphany, I found solace. I thought about how many people there were in this city I had yet to meet, places I had not even heard of yet, and food that had not found its way to my mouth. It's a theme I find myself writing about fairly frequently when writing about Istanbul, but I think of this moment (photographed above) as really being that true epiphany. A wow moment if I've ever had one (and I have had many, so I can verify that this was indeed one of them.) 

---

I adore epiphanies because they are moments of pure, intense clarity. Magnifications of what you might have already known, or new thoughts that decisively and decidedly become a part of your outlook. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rila Deal (Rila Monastery, Bulgaria)

There is something decidedly special about being somewhere that many people have not. Over and over I read about the same places - Paris, London, Berlin...you know the rest of the list. Well, I'm here to tell you some important information...forget the list. It's not that these places don't have value, they do, in immense quantities, but it's worth taking the time to explore places that you haven't learned about just by nature of being alive. I knew what the Eiffel tower was and what Big Ben looked like before I knew exactly what they were, and why they might be important. The point is, when I got to those cities I was delighted, but I wasn't surprised.

There is immeasurable value in the moment of surprise.



In the misty foothills of Bulgaria lies a place you probably have never heard of, but need to know about. The Rila Monastery is astonishing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its age. It was founded in the 10th century, and it is the largest, most famous, and most coveted Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, and some would argue the whole region. This place is so important to the Bulgarian people that it is actually on the back of the 1 lev note.



And, how is it that I didn't know this until a few months ago? Well, I know now, in spades.

The monastery was founded by St. Ivan of Rila, a man who lived in a cave nearby with absolutely no material possessions while his students and disciples constructed the famed structure. Since its formation, almost every single Bulgarian ruler has made contributions to ensure it could continue to thrive and remain an important cultural icon. It has been visited by many important people,  even a pope. And, It has been rebuilt several times in its pronounced history, always with care and attention to detail. During prosperous times it was an example of Bulgarian tradition and ingenuity, and during periods of foreign rule, it was a refuge for the continued preservation of Bulgarian culture and life. Often described as "Bulgaria's Jerusalem," it is truly astonishing.








The frescoes on the central building were like none I had ever seen.






...

I think that what defines me most in this life is my boundless curiosity. I covet this. If I ever lose that, then I am decidedly doomed because it's what keeps me focused - what keeps me interested. And, I am lucky to be interested in a large variety of things. But, most of all, I am simply interested in learning new things. When I saw the Rila Monastery, I knew that, forever, it would be something I now, in some small part, understood. And no one could take that from me.

That means something to me.

Travelling, a push towards all that is out there that I have not yet seen, allows me to colour in all the blank pages of my mind. That is, where there was once nothing, now there is, decidedly, something. And knowing that there will always be something keeps me inspired. If I ever lose that inspiration, then remind me of this post, because a dull, ordinary life is what worries me most. But only in the abstract - because every moment I am on this earth, my entire life has been a battle against that very worry. My experiences, travelling, my knowledge - it's what makes me who I am, and ensures that I can continue to strive to become the person I want to be. It's visits to places like the Rila Monastery that let me know that I'm still on the right path.

There's a quote that I can't help but share considering all that I've written and thought about today. I've always found it worth remembering,  and, just maybe, you shall find the same.

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." - Plutarch 


Monday, October 13, 2014

Bri and Me

No matter which way you look at it, the most important thing that has happened in my life over the past five years or so has been meeting Bri. I imagine I could write a good 25,000 words on my feelings about all that, but I know that you people have things to do today. It's truly remarkable to think about all that I've shared with Bri - she is, undeniably, my everything. She should likely be in the running for some grandiose, high-paying award for the patience and love she has shown me throughout our relationship - it's seriously impressive (and, I should note, humbly appreciated). Travel and living abroad have helped me grow tremendously as a person, but not nearly as much as Bri has.

Today I looked over at the right side of my blog to note that I had 300,000 hits on my blog, and it occured to me just how many tales I've told on here with Bri right there with me. I think that at some point I just started saying "we" did this or that, and just assumed that everyone would know who I was talking about. That's how much we were doing together (and, fortunately, continue to do together). Well, just in case you didn't know who I was referring to, I decided today that I would put together a post, full of photos, that highlight some of our journeys over the last half a decade (yes, half a decade). At the risk of embarrassing her, it's probably best that I stop writing, and post those photos I was talking about.

More or less, the start of our travelling adventures together. *gasp* look how young we were. Athens, Greece - 2010

Loving the Boryeong Mud Festival together along with Dave and friends. South Korea - 2012

Bundled up. Tokyo, Japan (2) - 2012 

Zip-lining through the jungle. Chiang Mai, Thailand - 2012

A baseball game with close friends. Seoul, South Korea - 2012

When the family came to visit! Seoul, South Korea - 2012

Using  the waterproof camera case for some kayaking. Koh Lipe, Thailand - 2012 
Cabin-mates aboard our boat. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam - 2012 

My favourite person to dine with. My birthday on Koh Phangan, Thailand - 2012

Slow-boating down the Mekong River. Laos - 2012

An action shot from our vespa expeditions. Paros, Greece - 2010

The one and only Everland Resort. Seoul, South Korea - 2011

The picture says it all. Mykonos, Greece - 2010

Living the life on Koh Lanta, Thailand - 2012

A historical moment. Athens, Greece - 2010

Hiking up Pura Lempuyang Lehur. Bali, Indonesia - 2012

The White Temple in all its obscurity. Chiang Rai, Thailand - 2012

I believe we may be on an extended motorcycle here. Koh Lipe, Thailand - 2012

Our bed for the night (one of many times). Kuala Lumpur International Airport - 2012

Sunrise at the Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia - 2012

Hongdae Trick Eye Museum, Seoul, South Korea - 2012

Jumping for joy at Lotte World. Seoul, South Korea - 2012

The sun setting in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia - 2012

At the top of Taebaeksan ("The Grand White Mountain") - 2012

Angkor Archaeological Park, Tomb Raider-esque - 2012

Fake snow dropping from the skies of Universal Studios, Singapore - 2012

Among new friends in our new home. Istanbul, Turkey - 2014

Settling into Istanbul, Turkey, happy as ever - 2014

Man, does it ever put a smile on my face to look through these. It puts an even greater smile on my face to look up from the couch at this very moment, and see her sitting right across from me. We joke that if we ever did break up our future partners would likely say something like "who is this damn person in all of your photos?" Thankfully, I'm not worried about that in the slightest. So, here's to many more adventures together, everyday. I am, truly, the luckiest man in the world.