Herodotus today

Yalikavak, Turkey

Anyone writing a blog post owes a debt to the “Father of History,” Herodotus.

He was the first to show how write narrative history. And despite his additional appellation as the “Father of Lies,” he did show how to collect information systematically and to assess its validity. It’s noteworthy that his ἱστορία (historía, history), also means inquiry. The delivery channels have changed since the 5th century BCE, but we could still learn from his advocacy of careful methods.

Herodotus lived in Halicarnassus, the site of the famous Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as well as an ancient stadium and castle. It’s now Bodrum, the booming town and resort area of southwestern Turkey.

We’re staying not far from Halicarnassus/Bodrum, near Yalikavak. Of course much has changed. Our stone cottage has a smaller doorway than he would have wanted, or is it possible that people today are taller?

There are still beautiful views of a landscape convoluted by millennia of volcanic activity and earthquakes, and of a limpid Aegean Sea. The vegetation is still of the maquis type, which is found throughout coastal regions in the Mediterranean–dense scrub, with evergreen shrubs, live oak, bay trees, olive trees, lavender, and rosemary. However, the hillsides are now coated with swaths of white block houses, reflecting the rapid development experienced here.

We have photovoltaic cells to heat our water, whereas his solar heating was entirely passive. I imagine a goatskin bag filled with water and hanging in the sun. But I’m not sure we’ve advanced much. A morning shower here leads to abstruse discussions along the lines of “Was the water hot?” “What do you mean by hot?”

We have amphoras in our cottage, just as Herodotus must have had.They’re still made and used locally. However, I’m not aware that the amphoras gather for symposia, as shown here in the Bodrum Kale (castle). That exhibit is part of the underwater archaeology museum, the world’s largest.

At the end of the day yesterday, we stopped to buy some vegetables for dinner. Although Herodotus wouldn’t have used the Turkish lirasi as we do, it’s not hard to envision him or someone in his household selecting beans, carrots, or onions as we did. Even the measuring device would have been similar, a crude balance with old, battered weights.

I’d always imagined Herodotus as an old man with a long white beard, as he’s portrayed in statues. But thinking of his life here, I now wonder: Would a young Herodotus be writing blog posts from his stone cottage? And when he was younger still, how much would he look like the young boy we see today?

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.


  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Voyages with the Rob Roy

rob_royI had shoulder surgery on August 18, so my days of paddling through rapids or hoisting a canoe on my shoulders need to be postponed. As a substitute, I’ve been reading A thousand miles in the Rob Roy canoe on rivers and lakes of Europe (1866), by John Macgregor (1825-1892).

singers_wagonMacGregor himself led a life that sounds like an overdone adventure yarn. At the age of three months, he was rescued from a burning ship whil een route to India with his parents. At the age of 12, he helped launch a rescue boat for a ship in distress off Belfast, then slipped aboard secretly a the last moment to help out. He grew up sailing, boat-building, riding, reading, and experimenting with home-made steam engines, batteries, and chemicals that led to several major explosions. He attended seven schools before graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in mathematics. He traveled throughout the world, fighting Greek pirates and crocodiles, climbing Mont Blanc, Etna, and Vesuvius. He won awards for sharpshooting, drew for Punch and illustrated books, and wrote his own books on marine propulsion, patent law, travel, and transcriptions of Syrian and Egyptian melodies he had heard in his travels.

MacGregor built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and a double-bladed, kayak paddle which he named the “Rob Roy”. He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. His account of the journey became a best seller and was the beginning of the recreational canoeing movement. His trip inspired many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his own voyage in a Rob Roy, and then wrote about it in his first published book, An inland voyage.

morningMacGregor’s account portrays a Europe with only distant resonance to today. Instead of shopping centers and freeways, there were people cutting hay with hand tools. Instead of the Web, there were newspapers, 3241 in Germany alone.

A thousand miles displays a buoyant optimism and refreshing sense of discovery. MacGregor talks of “a strange feeling of freedom and novelty which lasted to the end of the tour,” (p. 15), and throughout, of a reverence for the canoe, which I share:

Something like it is felt when you first march off with a knapsack ready to walk anywhere, or when you start alone in a sailing-boat for a long cruise.

But then in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, I was in a canoe, which could be paddled or sailed, hauled, or carried over land or water to Rome, if I liked, or to Hong-Kong. (p. 15)

digueI also like his descriptions of wildlife, for example of herons “wading about with that look of injured innocence they put on when you dare to disturb them.” (p. 35) Later, he refers to a gathering including the

long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce- looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. (p. 71)

At the village of Geisingen it was discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. (p. 59)

meuseMacGregor’s challenges along the way become not discouragements, but the very stuff of the journey. He  reminds me that a broken shoulder is just a toss on the billows, one that can be an opportunity to learn:

It is, as in the voyage of life, that our cares and hardships are our very Mentors of living. Our minds would only vegetate if all life were like a straight canal, and we in a boat being towed along it. The afflictions that agitate the soul are as its shallows, rocks, and whirlpools, and the bark that has not been tossed on billows knows not half the sweetness of the harbour of rest. (p. 37)

Which side of the road do they drive on?

Map of the world showing the driving directions for all countries and any changes that have occurred, beginning with Finland’s change in 1858
     drives on right      drove on left, now drives on right      drives on left      drove on right, now drives on left      had different rules of the road within borders, now drives on right

[Map from Right- and left-hand traffic]

While working at the National College of Ireland, I got into a lunchtime discussion about driving, in particular, about why some countries, such as Ireland, drive on the left and others, such as the US, drive on the right. None of us could even say with much certainty how many people in the world did it one way or the other. Seemingly simple questions led to many jokes, confident pronouncements, and further questions about changeovers, what boats and planes do, and so on.

As I began to look into it more, I realized this was yet another example of how simple questions can lead to interesting inquiries without end. One of the most interesting sources I came across was a website, Which side of the road do they drive on?, edited by Brian Lucas, and based in large part on The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice by Peter Kincaid. Here’s an excerpt from the site:

The side of the road one drives on seems to be one of those mundane details of everyday life which people take for granted and never bother to write down. In his book, Kincaid comes up with a blank: “I have been unable to discover any firm evidence as to what the rule of the road was in any part of the ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, or Assyria. It seems inconceivable that there was not one.” We have found, however, evidence that the ancient Romans drove on the left.

In late 1998, the remains of a Roman quarry was discovered at Blunsdon Ridge, near Swindon, England. It is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman quarries known. Ruts in the road leading to this quarry are much deeper on one side of the road than on the other. If it can be assumed that the side of the road with deeper ruts was the side used by loaded carts leaving the quarry, while the side with shallow ruts indicates empty carts arriving, then we can conclude that at this particular location, at least, the Romans drove on the left. (Sources: a web page in the SwindonWeb Local News Archives for October 1998 which has since disappeared, and an article by Gwynne Dyer, Is driving on the right right or wrong?, from 1999.)

Another piece of evidence comes from a Roman coin. Robert Pease writes that he has seen a picture of a denarius from between 50 BC and 50 AD showing two horsemen riding past each other, right shoulder to right shoulder (i.e. each keeping to the left side of the road).

It was amazing to me to learn how this simple practice connects with our physical characteristics, modes of transportation, revolution and empire, warfare, commerce, and many other aspects of daily life.

Nea, neo: losing planes and finding museums

I’m now completing a wonderful, two-week trip to Turkey and Cyprus. Unfortunately, the return journey isn’t uniformly wonderful.

I arrived in Athens, from Larnaca, Cyprus, following a drive from Limassol to Larnaca. I’d been up since 3 am and it was now 9 am.  I anticipated a 4-hour layover, with nothing much to report. But a delay on the Athens-Philadelphia segment turns that into a 10-hour layover, which causes me to miss the flight to Indianapolis. USAir has booked me for a 10:30 am flight from Philadephia tomorrow. This means the 27-hour travel time I had braced myself for is turning into 44 hours, assuming that everything from here on goes well.

airplaneI considered going into Athens for the day, but between the lack of sleep and my carry-on stuff, I decided to stay at the airport. Unfortunately, it’s hot and humid, so walking around isn’t a great option. Moreover, it’s very crowded and there are no places left to sit.

I’m sitting on the floor at this moment, both to get away from all the smoke and to take advantage of one of the few electrical outlets. People walking by give me amused looks, undoubtedly out of jealousy for the great spot I found. They know that the hard floor is still much better than the cramped seating that USAir offers on its 11-hour flight. All in all, the situation offers an ideal opportunity to be annoyed. (Photo shows some plane actually taking off from Venizelos airport&mdash:it’s not my plane, which is lost somewhere).

It’s probably an indication of fatigue and sleep deprivation that I’ve begun noticing odd connections. My flight is marked as Νέα, which I think is short for “nea hora” or new hour/time. Upstairs the Νέο McCafe offers surprisingly the most attractive option for sitting.

And then I discovered a new Airport Museum, which helped me forget the travel vagaries. It chronicles the history of the Spata area, where the airport is built.

Things To Do [when your plane is delayed six hours]: Visit the airport mini museum. Athens International Airport “Airport Museum” presents the continuity of life in the rural Messogia plains and its evolution through 172 archaeological findings discovered in the excavations undertaken during airport construction, and dating from the Neolithic and Early Helladic through the Post-Byzantine period.

I’m using Otenet, which claims to offer many Νέο features. So I feel I’m being immersed in neo/nea-ness, even though I’m not sure I understand exactly what’s new and what’s late, other than my plane.

I also discovered a separate exhibit on Eleftherios Venizelos, for whom the airport is named. He was a prominent statesman of the early 20th century, who helped to create the Νέο Greece we know today.

What we do not know: The betrayal of our values

I returned to the US in June after living a year living in Ireland. Many people have naturally asked, “What was it like? How was it different? What did you learn?”

It’s hard to know where to begin. I may have learned as much about myself and my home country as about Ireland, or other countries I’ve visited. And, mostly, if I learned anything, it was how much I don’t know about other people and places. As Confucius says: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Our Hollywood Self-Image

But one specific thing I’ve become more aware of is a gap between what most Americans conceive as their moral stance on the world and what many abroad see as our actual practice. I suspect that many of us in the US identify with Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s decent, naive, idealistic, earnest, fair, caring, and above all honest, embodying all the American small town values. He’s not sophisticated or slick, but he’s the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend or trust for political leadership. Mr. Smith asks us to adhere to “just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor” and reminds us that “there’s no compromise with the truth.”

What’s interesting today is that many abroad would also identify with Mr. Smith. And they admire the US for modeling his values, offering hope for other countries. They recall our promotion of the Kellogg-Briand pact, the struggle against authoritarian regimes, the Nuremburg trials, the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, as concrete examples of how we have stood for truth, peace, courage, and justice, just as Mr. Smith might have wanted. Their values are our values; their people are our people.

But then, we part ways, because of something many Americans do not know. Continue reading

Reading versus first-hand experience

Three thoughts regarding reading and first-hand experience:

MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”

No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of throwing stones or shaking apples from a tree.
—John Dewey, Schools of tomorrow

There are some who say that sitting at home reading is the equivalent of travel, because the experiences described in the book are more or less the same as the experiences one might have on a voyage, and there are those who say that there is no substitue for venturing out in the world. My own opinion is that it is best to travel extensively but to read the entire time, hardly glancing up to look out of the window of the airplane, train, or hired camel.
—Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter truths you can’t avoid