Behind an eighteenth-century facade in downtown Oxford, just above a clothing shop, is a bedroom that was once used by William Shakespeare.
It was part of the Crown Tavern, owned by Shakespeare’s friend John Davenant. The Bard frequently stopped in Oxford on his trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. A nearby courtyard may have hosted his troupe’s performances.
Known as the Painted Room, it’s been remarkably preserved since Elizabethan times and still has hand-painted wall decoration from the late 16th century. This rare artwork survived thanks to oak paneling installed in the following century, and was only rediscovered in 1927.
Part of the decoration includes a religious text:
“And last of thi rest be thou
Gods servante for that hold I best / In the mornynge earlye
Serve god devoutlye
Feare god above allthynge. . .”
For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.
One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.
While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness“ to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.
This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.
KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.
The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.
%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.
That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.
Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.
I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.
On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.
There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.
I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.
What is travel writing? Is the genre defined by its commitment to true-to-life recounting of the people, places and cultures we have experienced and lessons to be drawn from them? Or is travel writing something more malleable, simply a style of writing, true or not, that utilizes places and people as vehicles for a good story? The tension between these two competing definitions is at the heart of the new travel-themed anthology, “Better Than Fiction” by Lonely Planet.
“Better Than Fiction” is a collection of short travel-themed works by some of the world’s top literary fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Alexander McCall Smith. Edited by Gadling’s own Features Editor, Don George, each of the 32 included short stories plays with this notion of “truth in travel writing,” bringing to bear the storytelling skills of veteran fiction writers to the world of non-fiction travel writing. Each of the varied works relates a true-to-life story from the author’s personal wanderings around the globe, all told with the writers’ rich storytelling skills intact.
For anyone who considers themselves a voracious consumer of travel writing, “Better Than Fiction” will make for a refreshing and illuminating read. In each of the short stories there’s a richness of character and crispness to the dialogue that makes them feel like excerpted chapters from a novel. Considering the growing glut of “Top 10” and “destination tip” travel journalism that exists online, it’s easy to forget the best travel writing works because it’s good storytelling, not merely a laundry list of destination facts and to-do’s. Great travel storytelling, like the work showcased in “Better Than Fiction,” reminds us that ultimately discovering the truth about the places we visit involves more than just restating the facts.
I had no idea what to expect that morning in Yangon. Inside the city’s once grand but now decrepit train station, a few lonely bulbs fought weakly against the dark. Across the arrivals hall was the silhouette of my transport, an intimidating iron locomotive. I moved hesitantly towards this slumbering rusty giant, past anonymous passengers squatting on the cracked cement floor, huddled in the chill of pre-dawn. The station’s shadows whispering with nervous energy. Who knew where this day was headed?
In the vague outlines of my journey, only one detail was certain: I was in a country called Burma (or was it called Myanmar?) and determined to witness a mysterious festival of “Fire Balloons” in a distant Shan State town of Taunggyi. Beyond that, I knew little. The previous day I had wandered into a travel agency hoping to find a way to get to the festival. Buses and flights there were full, and the agent had suggested heading north to the rail depot at Thazi to arrange further transport. It sounded like a half-baked plan. But with dwindling options and a burning desire to witness this strange festival, I had agreed.
As I considered my uncertain itinerary, the shaky locomotive rumbled its way out of the station in a fog of anxious dawn. The ancient carriage embraced a landscape of endless, monochrome-green farm fields, shrouded in a mist of faint light. A treacherous white-hot sun soon pierced the horizon, igniting a furnace of unrelenting heat. Out the window I could make out distant water buffaloes lumbering across shimmering rice paddy fields, trailed by men hidden beneath sun hats. Amtrak this was not.
Inside the train car, red-robed monks stripped to the waist in the warmth, fanning themselves with wilting sports pages. Meanwhile, men puffed on fragrant cheroot cigarettes, the smoke curling its way into every orifice and fabric. Young boys roamed the aisles hawking glistening nooses of freshly plucked chickens, while the heat painted sweat stains in mosaics on my pants and shirt. I sat stewing in this pungent mixture of sweat, billowing cheroot smoke and grease, drowning in second thoughts as the reality of the unknown journey inched forward.
My motivation for visiting Burma had so far escaped introspection. Romanced by visions of countless travel writers and the exotic, I had left my job and life behind, traveling alone to this reclusive Southeast Asian nation in search of something different. I wanted to have an adventure and discover some deeper meaning to my journey. But as the hours bobbed and squeaked past tiny wooden villages and muddy brown farm fields, fat and thick with monsoon rain, I felt invisible and wracked with uncertainty. I desperately craved something familiar – an anchor to the reality I had discarded far behind in my relentless search for discovery.
Twelve dripping, exhausted hours later, a small triumph shook me from my daze. Thazi! I made it! But Burma wasn’t ready to let me off easily. The plan was to meet some other travelers in Thazi and find a ride – but I was the only one there. Come to think of it, Thazi didn’t even have a bus station. It was no more than a dusty main road littered with stray dogs and wobbly Japanese pickups. It was nearly dark and I was fenced in by my stupid choices. Growing nervous with dwindling options, I stumbled to a nearby pickup truck owner and pleaded for assistance.
“Can you…take me to Taunggyi?” I asked haltingly. The man sized up the tall foreigner in his midst, grinning at his luck.
“Maybe tomorrow. 20,000 kyat.” he spat out, with a smile.
My shoulders sagged. The vehicle was barely upright, let alone roadworthy – the cream-colored exterior was polka-dotted with rust. Four balding tires looked ready to deflate or burst, I couldn’t tell which. But the prospect of spending the night in that strange city, alone, drove me to further action.
“I’ll pay 10,000, and I want to leave tonight,” I countered.
The owner grimaced and crossed his arms in thought. Meanwhile a visibly intoxicated man and several kids crowded behind us, intrigued by the transaction. The cost was worth less than a dinner back home, but it felt like something large was at stake.
“OK, we go – but very far. You pay 15,000.”
Adrenaline surged. Taunggyi was now within my grasp! How naive I was. The truck still needed to fill with passengers and goods before it would depart. We waited for what seemed like hours. Six women climbed into benches in the back. Three more men perched themselves above the truck’s metal scaffolding. A precariously stacked bundle of wicker baskets was lashed to the roof. The truck looked less like transport than a vehicular Jenga game ready to topple. I sat on the curb, eyes wide and mouth agape. The drunken man from earlier hovered over me babbling, gesturing at the pickup and chuckling.
The evening was well under way before we departed. I climbed into the pickup’s front cabin with the owner and a young camouflage-clad man named Mikey, my knees jammed against the dash and head poking against the cabin’s roof, backpack shoehorned beneath my knees. The intimate seating arrangements encouraged Mikey to strike up a conversation.
“Where you come from?” Mikey inquired in his halting English.
I got asked this question a lot while I was in Burma. Frequently the desired answer had less to do with learning your citizenship than simply conjuring your state of mind.
“Man, it’s been such a long day, I can’t even remember anymore” I groaned.
We set off shakily, our pickup struggling to gain speed with its massive load. A horse-drawn cart rolled past, leaving our shaky vehicle in the dust. Shortly after departing Thazi, the pickup had its first breakdown. An hour later, the owner stopped to secretly siphon gas into the tank from a roadside oil drum. As we drove, Mikey chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes blowing smoke in my face in between eruptions of flatulence and cackling giggle fits with the driver. Spending the night in Thazi began to look like an attractive option.
Despite the setbacks, I realized my earlier anxiety was gone. Each unexpected stop seemed less like a challenge than a bizarre novelty. I found myself smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. Mikey even bought me a can of iced coffee, trading a grin and thumbs up of solidarity. As I sipped my shockingly sweet Coffee King beverage, I happened to glance up at the night sky, which had unfurled itself behind the Shan foothills like a blanket of twinkling brilliance. Sparkling meteorites zipped and swooshed with startling frequency. Distant constellations seemed to pulse and move like the rhythm of a cosmic ocean. In my semi-lucid state, I stared in wonder, mouth agape. At that moment, all the doubts, insecurities and vanities of my journey faded. This was exactly where I needed to be.
After each repair, we were back on the road, our ride wobbling ever higher in the foothills of Shan State. The smooth pavement became a dirt road treacherous with potholes. It was not much more than a single car wide, and we had to share with the hulking Chinese semis lumbering past, showering our vehicle with aromas of diesel fumes and dust. It was all I could do to keep from gagging on these noxious clouds, fortifying myself with the knowledge that clean night air would soon return to my window, along with that luminous sky.
Seven hours passed before the lights of Taunggyi shined in the distance, glittering like a city on a hill. It had been over 20 hours since I left Yangon that morning. I found the nearest guesthouse, banged on the door until it opened and collapsed on a bed. My longest day soon faded into the memory of the stillness of night.
Life frequently requires us to make decisions without fully understanding their impact. I keep asking myself the same questions about my purpose and finding no clear answers. Where am I headed? What’s the point? With so much uncertainty and doubt, it’s easy to believe I’ve lost my way. Except that I haven’t. Whenever I have these moments of doubt I remind myself to take a deep breath, and look up at the night sky. Suddenly I find myself transported back to that night in Burma when I rediscovered my purpose, gazing up at a blanket of stars shimmering with light.
William S. Burroughs is most famous for his experimental novels about heroin and gay sex, yet he was active in many arts. Now a new exhibition at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, is focusing on his lesser-known artistic output.
The exhibition, “the name is BURROUGHS — Expanded Media,” highlights the author’s film, photography, collage and audio experiments. Much of this work reflects the style of his writing. Burroughs developed what he called the “CUT-UP method” in which he wrote a text, cut the pages into pieces and rearranged them. What’s interesting about this technique is that the sense, style and tone still come through. Try it on a political speech and you’ll see what I mean.
The CUT-UP method is especially evident in his film work, which looks like it was edited with a paper shredder. Like his books, much of Burroughs’ art is more emotionally experienced than intellectually understood. His photography is often more straightforward and includes some interesting self-portraits from various periods of his life.
The exhibition runs from March 23 and does not yet have a scheduled end date.