Thursday, February 26, 2009

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

There are two types of people in this world. Those who accept the passing of a ship on the horizon with disinterest, and those who stop to ask where the ship came from, who's on it, and what cargo does it contain. Ryszard Kapuscinski, belated international journalist and author of "Travels with Herodotus", was one of those people. Born in 1932 in Pinsk, now Belarus, Kapuscinski spent four decades traveling through and reporting on Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Growing up in the height of communist Poland, Kapuscinski cultivates the questions: What else is out there? Who else is out there? Set upon visiting Czechoslovakia, Kapuscinski is instead whisked to India with a copy of Herodotus's "The Histories". Through his travels, and his growing intimate relationship with Herodotus, a 5th century BCE author from ancient Greece, Kapuscinski becomes a changed man, and after reading "Travels with Herodotus", I feel like a changed woman.

Herodotus, affectionately coined "The Father of History" by Cicero, and later "The Father of Lies", traveled the world as he knew it, talking with people from different lands and cultures. Through countless second and third-hand accounts of people and wars, preserved this knowledge in a tome known as "The Histories". While Kapuscinski cannot follow the exact path Herodotus took, his goal is to see the world with that same curiosity and with that same perseverence, and to take the reader with him.

"Travels with Herodotus" is ripe with cultural images and the author's experiences in a very British India, under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao, and in the sun-baked country of Ethiopia. Peppered with quotes from Herodotus, Kapuscinski ties these together into his own experiences, and encourages the reader not to be satisfied with history as we know it. How many times have we read a line in history and never stopped to think about the mind of the thief, or the mind of the people who assisted, or perhaps stood idly by? How many times have we wondered about the faces of the people involved, and if they were laughing, or if they were terrified? Kapuscinski encourages the reader to delve deeper by reflecting on both his own and Herodotus's journeys.

After finishing this book, I put it aside with a smile and the urge that can only be described as wanderlust. The best books are those who take the reader with them, who encourage the reader to think, to learn, and to escape. "Travels with Herodotus" had all of these things, but it resounded with the deeper meaning I have heard while traveling the world: "Don't be a tourist, be a traveller." Listen, and delve deep.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vienna's Schönbrunn

When I think of the Greek and Roman gods, I picture them among the sun-drenched hills of the Mediterranean. I certainly did not expect to find them in Vienna, watching over my shoulder from the hedges of Vienna's Schönbrunn. A pure marvel, Schönbrunn is the royal Hapsburg's summer palace, and the outside and inside seem to be decorated for hedonism and as a display of power. I can easily picture Aphrodite or Helen of Troy lounging here, while servants attend to their every need.

The grounds are awash in Greco-Roman statues. Whether they crown the palace itself, dress the fountains, or adorn the art in the palace, they are clearly everywhere. One particularly striking statue is of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, defensive strategy, and crafts and Janus, the Roman god of doorways and opportunities. It is tucked against a perfectly manicured hedge. She embraces him, while looking both at him, and behind him, perfectly able to see both worlds. This is how Vienna seemed to me, a blend of classical art and royal prestige.

Nearby, fountains bubble merrily, adorned with sea creatures, all of whom insist on choking their friends in order to provoke a spray of water. The palace stands majestically as the centerpiece, while the sun illuminates the geometric and free-flowing designs of the flowerbeds. Peeking through a garden hedge, one comes upon the royal orangery, which can only be the Elysian Fields themselves. Secluded, lemons and oranges dangle just past my reach, begging to be plucked from their stems, while vines climb up a shaded walkway which disappears further into the palace grounds. The palace grounds also sport the oldest zoo in the world, a hedge maze, a labyrinth for those seeking spiritual solitude, and the crowning achievement, the Glorietta, perched above the palace grounds, a monument, and also a place to stop for lunch.

Make no mistake, the ancient Greek and Roman gods are watching this city. For nearby, at the Parliament, Athena's golden visage stands, flanked by an Austrian flag. She stands as a reminder to visitors and the Viennese that they are being guarded and guided towards a brighter future, while giving a solemn reminder to remember the lessons of the past.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rhiannon's Ride Trilogy by Kate Forsyth

Young, untamed, and part satyricorn, part human, Rhiannon is the heroine of the best-selling and international trilogy Rhiannon's Ride by Kate Forsyth. Finding yourself empathizing with Rhiannon, who, within the first few chapters of the first book, has knocked out the teeth and cut off the fingerbone of a Yeoman, is an amazing feat by any author. The reader is forced to sympathize with her, and chuckle to oneself, as Rhiannon learns the idiosyncracies of the human language, navigates through political intrigue, forces herself to learn proper manners, and, despite her wild upbringing, falls in love. The reader cheers along with this brave young woman who risks everything for characters who care for her one moment, but waver in their trust of her the next. Ferocious, witty, and "sharp as a tack", Rhiannon is a heroine that will not disappoint, and watching her conquer trial after trial, including gaining the trust of her companions, will keep you reading lost past your bedtime.

One of the first things a reader will note is that the series is peppered with Scottish terminology that can befuddle even the heartiest world traveller. Fortunately there is a glossary in the back of each book that not only defines the terms of the royalty, but also describes the cast of characters, which at times can become quite confusing. Also within the series is an impressive exhibition of Scottish and Celtic faerie lore. From the satyricorn heroine, a Fairgean princess, and bogfaerie servants, Forsyth has an impressive cast of little known faeries, and once again, the reader can consult the glossary for help.

What Forsyth also does remarkably well, that most authors should take note of, is helping the reader enjoy the series without having had read the previous series, The Witches of Eileanan. Also, kudos to the author and to the publisher for having the foresight to not only include the book number on the cover (few series books seem to be labeled nowadays causing confusion as to which book to read first), but also a summary in book three to get the reader back up to speed.

I look forward to reading the original series, and I look forward to this Australian author's forthcoming works. May she continue to write books that the reader not only enjoys but also ones that take the reader along for a captivating ride.

Visit Kate Forsyth's website here:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Death of Knowledge

Here I thought I would only be posting once a week, but unfortunately, life happened, and I am struck dumb by things that I heard today.

As a culture, we value the intelligent, and yet we are loathe to put forth the effort that is needed to cultivate that intelligence. Learning a language, whether modern or ancient, is too time consuming. Watching a historical documentary is, sadly, only for the eccentric. The minute we clutch a degree to our breast, book knowledge is dead. We are no longer interested in pursuing our education, in bettering ourselves.

Simply astounding that a culture who desires to be the best in the world puts so little emphasis on education or, especially, continued learning. Compare our teachers' salaries to that of Japan where if you are a teacher, or sensei, you occupy a most important position in society, For you have the youth of the culture in your hands, and you are treated as such. Unfortunately, here, once you are finished with schooling, you are finished learning. During lunch, I make the habit of bringing a book to read. For the ten minutes that I am allotted, my world slips away into the written word. Three years ago I decided to teach myself Italian. Not a language offered in the standard U.S. classroom, it is a language that I feel passionate about, and one that I feel will help me as I travel multiple times through Italy, whether visiting il Colloseo, or pouring over works by Botticelli in the Uffizi. Yet, when asked what I am reading or studying, the fact that I am studying Italian causes a plethora of responses from my fellow workers.
"Are you taking a class?"
"Are you going to Italy?"
It's uncanny, but I swear I can hear crickets when I answer "no" to both questions. People are stumped. A few will ask, "Why not Spanish? It's more useful." True, but if it's something that I do not feel passionate about, I slog through it, not learning anything. Therefore I shall stick with my passion, and encourage others to stick with theirs.

Eventually I plan on studying Latin, something I was not fortunate to be able to take in school. "It's a dead language," I hear over and over. I wonder how these same people would react if I told them I started teaching myself Linear B today. An ancient Mycenaen script, I felt it would be useful to know. Why? Because I am driven to know more. Because I wish to visit Greece someday and wish to be the reader of the tablets, not to have them read to me. So, perhaps Linear B is not your passion, but perhaps you have always wanted to learn about Mongolian eating habits. Go learn, and learn now. Not everything you wish to learn has to be useful. Not everything you wish to learn has to be that of the majority. Above all, don't stop learning, and reach high. For me, I have chosen Linear B, and that seems as good as any of a place to start.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Start of my Soul Trek

The question "What would you like to be when you grow up?" disheartens me. After all, who among us knew at the tender and chaotic age of eighteen, what we wanted to do with the rest of our life? Who among us, even if we did know, could answer the question of how to accomplish it? The question is thrust upon us too early, or perhaps too late.

As children we are given the proper education: one that is considered to be well-rounded; one that will turn out millions of cookie cutter children. The children who would rather be reading, and who cannot fathom a life without learning something new, are forced to cut out construction paper turkeys every Thanksgiving. If they feel the inclination to pursue grander things, they are gently reminded that scissors are sharp and how they must cut on the dotted line and focus on what colors they would like for their turkey's plumage. These children, budding intellectuals and scholars, are not shaped in the fashion that fosters their passion. Children who fall in love with Egyptian history are not guided towards a life as an archaeologist or museum curator. Instead, they are told it is too far fetched. Especially, as an American, I am struck by the amount of adults who have told me how they always wanted to visit Italy to study archaeology, or how they always wanted to be a painter. These adults were the children who were pushed towards a degree in business; their passion fractured, but hopefully, not destroyed.

Luckily, a number of us rediscover our passion. Whether we are fed up with the day-to-day office environment or we start feeling the effects of our age, we start to wonder if we will be in a rut for the rest of our lives. Fortunately, Netflix was the agent of my rekindled passion. Always passionate about Ancient Greece and Rome, but never having the opportunity to study it in high school or in college, I have been known to spend far too much time in museums pouring over their collection of headless and armless marble gods and goddesses. I have been known to be crushed over the closure, albeit temporary, of the Etruscan exhibit at the Vatican Museums. I will admit to pouting and forcing myself to be content with looking through the door. When an opoprtunity came, while my husband was away on business, to watch a documentary on Minoan civilization, I leapt at the opportunity. Thoroughly amused by the number of people I spoke with who either had no interest in Minoan civilization, much less knew where "Minoa" was, I curled up happily ready to learn.

I expected to be enthralled with the subject matter. What I did not expect was to be enthralled with the presenter, Bettany Hughes. Many documentaries take time to teach, but few take you along on the journey. I was there, with her, on Crete, birthplace of legends such as the minotaur and the labyrinth. I felt her passion to not only understand the past, but also to impart what she has learned to others. People have commented against her style of documentary saying it focuses too much on her and her clothing (for which I can only shake my head and hope that we continue towards true women's rights). I, on the other hand, enjoy her style because her enthusiasm is contagious, and I feel like she is a tour guide, ready to take me to places I can only dream about.

I owe her thanks for reminding me of who I want to be, and what I want to be doing with my life. With this passion, and regret of never being able to study the Classics where I went to school, I am revived. The flame has been lit, and wanderlust has returned, not only to put my foot down on ancient soil, but also to wander through the libraries and museums, searching for answers, and just maybe, a start of a journey of my own.