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Travel with a painter

Painter goes in search of sunlight.

For almost as long as I can remember my dad has been a painter. His output has become more serious, skillful, and prodigious since he retired. Now he’s traveling with us, swapping South Island sunsets for Roman ruins as subjects.

Travel looks a little different through a painter’s eyes. I’m not sure what the painting equivalent to a photogenic scene is, but dad is always looking for it. The scene, that is, not the word.

It has a lot to do with light. Whereas we judge an absence of rain and haze as good travel conditions, dad is all about the existence of bright sunshine. Light lends shadow, depth and complexity to a painted image. It’s autumn here in Turkey and the weather is pleasant but the light has been hit and miss. That’s led to:

  • Small jumps of joy when the sun pops out for time enough to snap or sketch and scene that will be painted up later.
  • A lot of comments like “I hope the sun comes out soon”, “Maybe the sun will come out soon”, or “I’m not moving until the sun comes out”.

We’re headed on to Spain soon, and dad’s interests will no doubt turn sharply in the direction of Europe’s astoundingly good art galleries. But I have no doubt that when the sun suddenly cuts through the cloud like the hand of God, the sketch book will be fished out again.

How Cappadocia got crazy


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Four score and thirty million years ago the three massive volcanoes that still dominate the central Turkish region known as Cappadocia spewed out enough ash and mud stone that covered the plateau. The spew firmed up into a soft rocky material called tuff. Ever since the tuff has gradually been eroding away.

Where the tuff is mixed with harder rock, like basalt, the erosion process creates the cone shaped ‘fairy chimneys’ which have made the Cappadocia landscape famous. The tuff surrounding the basalt is worn away, leaving it standing on top of a cone or column. Eventually the underpart is eaten away by more erosion, the chimney collapses and the whole process starts again (just like an ineffectively regulated banking sector).

Even if you have as little understanding of the geology as I, you can still appreciate the Cappadocia landscape as special. It looks plain crazy. The rock formations look like mushrooms, or phaluses. Mostly they just look like they couldn’t possibly be caused by nature. There are other sites too: like the picturesque rose and red rock valleys.

Amidst all the crazy landscapes are dwellings, churches and cities carved into the rock, or occupying natural caves. Our hotel was like this too. It’s super atmospheric, and the rock is great for insulation. It sure gobbles up wifi signals, though.

We spent three days in Capadocia, gorging ourselves on the absurdity of the landscape. It’s low season, so there weren’t a whole lot of other tourists around, and those that were mostly stuck to the main sights. There’s a well worn path between the most spectacular sites, but we got off it in our rental car, and found the more distant landscapes even more alluring.


At the moment we’re traveling with my dad and his wife. Their first stop was Istanbul, where we stayed in an airbnb in an authentic centre city suburb. In this guest post he shares some observations about our time there.

Istanbul is the sixth largest city in the world. At 6400 people per square kilometre, it is up there in the density league, if you leave out the teeming cities of South and East Asia.

We have just been driven through about half of it, on the way to the secondary airport on its southern edge. It took an hour at mostly open road speed. Practically everyone in Istanbul lives in apartments blocks. So the journey featured mile after mile of them, in all sizes and states of repair.

In the older areas, the apartment blocks verge on the ramshackle. They seem to lean in towards each other, over narrow cobbled streets designed for cart traffic rather than motor vehicles. Lower windows are all barred, but up nearer the light, many are open, with washing and flower boxes adding colour. Music and conversation can be heard, the latter often shouted across and down or up. The Istanbulli do not hold back. There are always people on the street, even at odd hours and in the rain, and they are always carrying a package or two or three. These are people who do all their shopping locally, on foot. They are well served.

Outside our Istanbul apartment, featuring Mince the cat.
Outside our Istanbul apartment, featuring Mince the cat.

The population density supports lots of local shops of all kinds, all within walking distance. In the street in central Istanbul where we stayed, there were two local “dairies” within 100 m. of each other, and two vast aggregations of shops and eating places a block away on each side (the latter of which we only discovered en route to the airport). Our daily excursions to see Istanbul’s many sights took us through one of these aggregations, to and from the very efficient tramway system. At all hours the footpaths, shops, eating places and trams were crowded and busy. Even at 9.30pm, the barbers and hairdressers were only just sweeping up.

We have noticed a peculiarity in the way many shops are arranged. Nor far from our apartment there is a street that is only about 150m long, but it has six pharmacies! On closer examination, three of them are pharmaceutical dispensaries and the other three sell what might loosely be called “medical aids”. In the Grand Bazaar, shops are grouped according to product lines, so you will find clusters of a dozen or more shops selling the same kinds of things such as leather jackets, carpets, jewellery or spices and dried fruits. On the way to the airport we passed along a street of shops selling kitchenware.

We did not go into any of the more modern apartment complexes away from the city centre. They tended to be high rise, stand alone-monolithic and associated with shopping complexes that you would have to drive to. Their builders and tenants are clearly aspiring towards a more western lifestyle, but will they develop the sense of community that is needed to ensure a good quality of life for all?

If we go to Greece will we have been to Greece?

Fiona comes from a family of enthusiastic and accomplished travelers. So much so that, every once in a while, they circulate a spreadsheet where everyone marks down how many countries they have visited.

We’re currently staying with Fi’s uncle who is the clear frontrunner in this competition. With a career as a gold-mining geologist he has cause to go places no one else would (where is Mali, anyway?). We’re staying in Izmir with him at the moment and I recently declared we might consider taking a trip across the bay to a Greek Island. I love the novelty of new countries, I said, and another point in the sweepstake wouldn’t go amiss, either. His, not unconsidered view, was that lunch on a Greek Island did not a visit to Greece make, and was certainly not worthy of a spreadsheet point.

All this leads back to a very important question which I want to address once and for all: what standard do you have to meet to have been somewhere. There are a range of schools of thought, some legally or time based, some experiential. I have my own views which I will dress up as authoritative in a later post. But before I do I want to crowdsource the intuitions of my esteemed blog readers. Let me know what you think of the scenarios below.


Istanbul’s excellent

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Istanbul is an excellent city for touristing. We spent five days there and each was full of the kind of sites and experiences of a Paris/London/Beijing tourist quality.

To speak of Istanbul as the crossroads between East and West is cliched and, to my mind, wrong. Istanbul feels primarily European, and I imagine that feeling is just going to increase over time. Plus, Istanbul’s geography is just a fraction of what makes it interesting. History, more so. It was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, and a range of Turkish empires that have followed. What that amounts to is a terrific collection of churches, palaces and mosques.

You steal my sunshine

Turkey should have two time zones. The ‘Central European Time’ it shares with the likes of Finland, Romania and Greece is normal enough for Istanbul at Turkey’s far West. But the further East you go the more absurd it becomes.

We’re in Goreme, approximately the East/West median, and this mid-autumn day the sun set around 4pm. We’re doing our best to scrounge up daylight by starting our day earlier, but there remains something depressing about the sun going down when you should be enjoying afternoon tea. The situation is more absurd in the far West, where crossing the border into Iran puts you forward an hour and a half, or more during daylight savings.

Before the advent of Greenwich Mean Time in the nineteenth century, individual cities set their local time based on when the sun was highest in the sky. Local Boston time was twenty-three minutes ahead of New York, for example. As travel became easier and more common, it made sense to coordinate, and the current system of twenty-four time zones was implemented. Inevitably timing in many places became less in sync with sunshine. You can see how this pattern plays out over most of the world in the excellent map below. The US is an especially good example.


But you can also see time zone variations that extend well beyond the necessities of a globalised system, and these generally occur to encourage national unity:

One of my favourite scholars on nationalism, Benedict Andersen, wouldn’t be surprised by this. He cites the development of clocks as one of the single most significant features in forming modern nations, and the sense of a collective shared experience. That’s explicitly what Hugo Chavez was going for when he changed things up for Venezuela.

Alternatively countries may change their time zones to better align with other states.

  • Argentina’s late time lines it up with Brazil’s eastern metropolises, underscoring their importance for trade.
  • Spain switched its time in WWII to align with Nazi Germany, and never got around to switching it back.
  • Western Samoa recently changed their day to bolster trade and cultural ties with Australia and New Zealand.

I’d say Turkey’s single time zone can be explained by both political influences. First, since Ataturk there’s been a strong nationalist imperative. Synchronizing watches to Turkishness aligns with this. Second, the same nationalist project has also been about Turkey as a modern, Western looking state, seen currently in Turkey’s quest for EU membership. Only a fraction of Turkey is geographically in Europe, but all its citizens set their clocks to a plausibly European time.

You can OE anytime


My dad and his wife have joined us for a few weeks of travel in Turkey and Spain. They’ve not traveled much, and never to non-English speaking countries. You might even say this trip is their OE.

It’s great because:

  • It feels like organising their trip, and giving them some confidence on the ground, is a great gift that we can give them.
  • Their excitement has reinvigorated our interest in touristing, when we might otherwise have become increasingly consumed by our job hunt
  • We get to live vicariously through their thrills at all the novelties that you experience when you first travel, but take for granted later. Little things like: the pleasure of watching foreign landscapes pass outside your plane window, the charming discomfort of being packed in a metro for the first time, surprise that the trees, and the birds on their branches, look different, even the excitement when the food on a long haul flight announces the cuisine at your destination.
  • Four is the optimal number for taking taxis. And playing 500.

They’ll leave us from Madrid, heading home via Paris and Shanghai, hopefully emboldened by their time with us, and maybe even planning some more travels of their own.

Who wears headscarves

One of the great things to see in Turkey is groups of women enjoying each others company, some with headscarves and some without. It is evidence of the possibility and success of a pluralist Muslim country, and some evidence that women who wear hijab are exercising individual choice to do so. Though of course where choice stops and social pressure starts remains an open question.

With such diversity on show we started to wonder about which women in Turkey cover their heads. Our anecdotal experience would say the further East and North you live, the more rural your home and the lower your socioeconomic status, the more likely you are to cover your head. Istanbul observations play out as a microcosm of this. It is a city that straddles two continents and, generally, the more European looking the neighbourhood, the more female heads of hair you will see on show.

I went in search of more reliable demographic data. There wasn’t much I could find. But I did chance upon a study about attitudes towards bans on headscarves in government institutions. It found, for example, that lower socioeconomic groups are more comfortable with headscarves worn by public figures like the President’s wife. It’s not a big stretch to imagine those attitudes extend to who actually wears hijab too, so our observations are probably correct.

That study forms part of a big literature about Turkey’s ‘headscarf controversy‘. Said controversy isn’t, thankfully, about whether women should be required to wear headscarves, but whether they should be allowed to in civic institutions like universities, or when carrying out government jobs. The idea that government should be headscarf free is built on Ataturk’s vision of a modern, secular republic, with a clear division between church and state. A ban has been in place since the 1960s, but it has been patchily enforced. An effort to lift the ban for women studying in universities was passed in 2008, then overturned by the courts.

There’s an argument, eloquently made by The Economist, that says the fact the legal status of hijab is so fiercely debated, and that policies on it change is both a good thing, and more proof of a fundamentally stable Muslim democracy. The status of Islam in political life is just another cleavage that has been incorporated into that democracy, like gay rights, or fiscal conservatism elsewhere. Policy changes are made within the democratic framework, rather than because of a coup or religious revolution (ahem, Iran). This is good stuff. Things are titling towards Islam, at the moment, with Cabinet Ministers tweeting Koran verses, and moves to increase internet censorship. But it seems likely the median voter might swing things back the other way soon enough.

What to say about a harem

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The harem is easily the highlight of Istanbul’s Topkapi palace. That’s partly because of the beautiful mosaics and stonework, but partly because the stories it houses are full of intrigue. It was essentially the Sultan’s private quarters (harem literally means ‘private’). Inside the Queen Mother ruled over up to 200 concubines, attended by a small army of black African eunuchs, and Crown Princes spent their first sixteen years, without a peak into the outside world. When the Sultan visited he wore shoes that made a distinctive clacking on the cobbled floors so everyone knew to get out of his way.

The harem reached its prime around the same time the Ottoman empire did. At the peak of their strength, the Sultans decided it was no longer tolerable for them to marry princesses from the lesser states to produce heirs. Instead they took to bedding various slave girls who were captured from enemies or brought in from far away lands. They didn’t have primogeniture (first heir, next monarch). The prince that gained the most favour from the Sultan ended up succeeding him, providing he could fight off challenges from his brothers. Or, more likely, half brothers.

If you’re thinking this sounds like the setting for a phenomenal period drama, you’re on the same wave length as the Turkish TV industry. They’ve pumped out many a programme about the Sultan’s harem and the court that surrounded it, contributing to Turkey’s astonishing position as the second largest producer of television in the world. The Magnificent Century is a recent example, and it’s available with English subtitles here.

There’s some consternation in Turkey about the romanticisation of harems in popular media. I guess they’re claiming shows Magnificent Century do for harems what Big Love did for fundamentalist Mormon polygamy: make it modern and sexy, when the reality was more complex. The Sultan might have had two hundred concubines, for example, but it seems like he was only sleeping with four of them at once. Others were more conventional entertainers, playing music, dancing and such.

One academic, Alsi Sancar, in particular criticises the sexualisation of the harem portrayal, and the objectification of the women in it, as a propagation of a kind of western fantasy. Instead, she describes a meritocracy among the women, who gained favour by mastering etiquette. If they were musical, she says, they were taught instruments. If they had a shot at getting close to the Sultan, they were taught to read and write. “For Ottoman women it was a distinction to be in the royal harem,” she says.

Sancar trotts out a whole new kind of harem romanticisation. Never before have I read something that uses the phrase “slave girl” frequently but still comes to positive conclusions. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a mass orgy, but the ‘meritocracy’ involved striving to get closer to the Sultan’s bed, ideally to producing a male heir, and then enjoying the status and protection of being a sort of queen. Not, like, smashing glass ceilings and ending up a neurosurgeon.

I think the best that can be said is that the harem contained the sorts of gender structures that were common throughout Europe at the peak of the peak of Ottoman power. They remained in place for longer than in the West however, the Ottoman harem was still going in some form in 1923.

Man attracted to other men? Iran says you need gender reassignment

In our week relaxing in Izmir we binged out on international media, and one thing we found was this: an in depth report from the BBC about an apparently common practice in Iran where young people who indicate they are attracted to others of the same gender are encouraged and/or forced into gender reassignment surgery.

Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by death. In contrast the Supreme Leader was once so moved by the plea of a woman who said she was living in a man’s body, that he issued a fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – that said gender reassignment surgery was okay. This has resulted in:

The individual stories in the reporting are instructive, and moving. There’s:

  • the young man whose family said he could either become a woman, or they would kill him
  • many who flee across the border to Turkey as refugees including
  • one who has setup a Queer Railroad to get those facing persecution our of Iran
  • the woman who called him for help, and didn’t know how to answer his question as to whether she was transgender or lesbian: she didn’t know that the latter existed

This practice is another example of the stunning contradictions in modern Iran. It’s like a drastically souped up version of  women with hair covered with veils and noses touched up by surgeons. Before we visited we might have expected that both homosexuality and transgender identity would be frowned on in a conservative Islamic society like Iran. Now, the practice of encouraging homosexuals to change gender makes an odd kind of sense: it represents the kind of clash of religious conservatism and modernity that we appreciate as part of Iran’s complexity. Doesn’t mean we’re any less appalled, though.