Thursday, August 9, 2012

Owls in Cages

Owls in Cages

The Songwriter was asleep, exhausted from our explorations around the old city.  For hours we had wandered through the white castle on the hill and tiptoed around the ornate cathedral where the skeleton of ancient Abbott Konrad looked down upon us from his eternal cage high above the altar.  Dusk had found us, dressed like peacocks, perched on tiny gold chairs in a grand room at Mirabell Palace as we listened to a string quartet play enchanting notes composed centuries ago by the city’s favourite son, and now it was past time for bed.  Too tired to sleep, I had opted for a hot bath and was preparing to dry my hair as I reached for my little travel dryer.  I checked to see I had the correct plug and confidently put it into the slot in the wall.  There was a pop, a sizzle, and the whole world went dark.  The atmospheric old house in which we were staying only had a few rooms and I heard no screams or curses rise up from my error.  I did hear, however, the footsteps of our elderly innkeeper as she raced up the stairs and down the wooden floors to my door.  I threw it open just as she approached and we stared at one another in frustration, yards of unknown language like a rippling moat between us.  She looked at my wet hair, the pitiful little blue hair dryer hanging limp in my hand with its offending cord dangling past my knees.  
“Kaput!?”, she said.
“Kaput.”, I sadly replied.
We laughed.
Sometimes it is possible to breach great chasms with just one word.

  It’s my belief that every person should have the opportunity to travel outside of their own country, preferably while still young - before ideas are solidified, before patriotism veers into jingoism.  To stand on a foreign street, barred from any meaningful communication by lack of common language and custom, bequeaths a knowledge no textbook can manage.  There is a certain alienation inherent in each of us.  We are born alone and we die the same.  Alienation exists between countries, between religions, between members of the same family.   It’s therefore no surprise that we tend to group together with those most like us.  These mirror circles make us comfortable, and the desire for comfort grows alongside the harshness of our world.  But if we never pierce the boundaries of those circles, never reach across to touch unfamiliar hands or look into eyes of a different colour, then the alienation we feel only becomes more profound.   Comfort becomes ignorance, ignorance becomes fear.  Soon even curiousity is suspect as the tendency to demonize what we don’t understand manifests itself ever stronger.

In the extraordinary new book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, writer Suzanne Joinson explores the theme of alienation both as it exists today, as well as early in the last century.  In the story, one of the characters inherits an owl.  Sitting silent and still, it peers from the bars of its cage - the most exquisite portrait of an unknowable world, providing the backdrop for the characters' often maladroit efforts to connect.  The book shows us both the difficulty and the rewards of human connection as we realize anew that it is often not easy to do.  But connect we must, lest we find ourselves in a cage of our own, one no less restrictive for being fashioned by our own hand.

It was a lucky synchronicity that I read this particular book this particular week. Though I’m not necessarily a sports fan of any great measure, it has been impossible for the Olympics to remain outside the realm of my notice.  I have marveled at the dedication, the prowess, the sheer beauty of the many young people competing and have been grateful for this great biennial gathering of so many countries and cultures.  The games are such a positive connection for us all in this small yet polarized world and, although highly controlled and somewhat orchestrated, they provide a valuable window into other cultures, other lands.   
This can only be good.

Read more about it HERE.


  1. Hello Pamela

    I love the story and the singular work "Kaput" seems understood by all nationalities. I have lived in several countries and, like you said, it is so important to do so at a young age. My father used say it should be compulsory for every national to live abroad for at least three years before returning home.
    I love the Olympics and I find myself cheering for countries that I have no connection with, other than wishing them a win.

    Suzanne Joinson's book looks interenting.

    Helen xx

  2. Love the 'kaput' story. The Kashgar novel has crossed my radar. I'll add it to my (long) list. I remember my mother and I driving on a back road in Greece looking for an out-of-the-way Bronze Age archaeological site off the western coast near the tiny town of Chora (Hora). We stopped in the smallest of village squares to ask for directions from a few old men playing backgammon outside. (Only the men sit around in Greece; the women are apparently off doing all the work.) Of course none spoke any English, and my Greek consisted of a few basic phrases. They were trying to figure out if I was asking about a place or the time (hora) which sounds the same. This was demonstrated by pointing to the wrist for an invisible wristwatch. Somehow I indicated I wanted the place, not the time, and they gesticulated the directions enough that we managed to find our way. It was very amusing. It was probably the highlight of those old men's day, wondering what those American women were doing wandering so far from the typical tourist's itinerary.

  3. I'm beginning to wish I could just stay home (another trip on the radar!) and spend time reading all the fabulous books you share dear. I've started The Night Circus, thanks to you, and just can't wait to get into bed at night and read! This one sounds wonderful too - and I love the story of how you blew the fusebox! Bob did that in two hotels long ago, shaver in Helsinki, hairdryer in Gibraltar! KAPUT!!!!! I carry so many plugs with me these days, nothing is ever easy when one travels!

    I plan to be riding camels this time - never a dull moment - hope they have howdahs!

    Your writing is so beautiful and inspires me greatly Pamela.

    Mary X

  4. Having lived on three continents and seven thing I know to be true...we are more alike than different.
    Thank you for the book recommendation...I am on my way to the bookstore!

  5. The gathering of cultures at the Olympics is one of my favorite windows to others' worlds.

    Loved the "Kaput!" story...and the phrase "dressed like peacocks"

  6. That book sounds like one my husband and I would like.
    Kaput solved a potential international incident, quite a good word.
    I am an American and chose to spend my junior year abroad at a college in Turkey, as you say, soaking up the world while still young.

  7. There are some words which transcend language Pamela and Kaput is one.
    I'm glad you are enjoying the Olympics. I too am totally unsporty and yet I am glued to the screen every day and so inspired by these young men and women. It is even more inspiring because it is taking place when the world is in such a mess.
    Why is it that owls always seem to have the wisdom of Solomon in their eyes?

  8. I do love this post, Pamela. I've just the moment read a comment on my blog, from the husband of my dear, deceased friend, that is completely the opposite of this. I feel so fortunate to have the travel experiences I've had and to have been able to get a broader perspective than some. It is a lovely experience to find and connect with the humanity of those in other countries and cultures and you've expressed this idea beautifully, as usual.

  9. I watch the Olympics less for the competition and more for the stories of the competitors that are told--beautiful, inspiring stories. The character and grace of individuals displayed in the face of glory and defeat are the things that I cheer no matter what flag is flown.

    "Comfort in ignorance..." what wise words you have given us to ponder.

  10. ' But if we never never reach across to touch unfamiliar hands or look into eyes of a different colour, then the alienation we feel only becomes more profound... Comfort becomes ignorance, ignorance becomes fear. Soon even curiousity is suspect as the tendency to demonize what we don’t understand manifests itself ever stronger.'These words I read over again.. Profound, true, and put in practice by many I am afraid.
    And I believe these words can apply to any of our comfort zones, regarding anything in life.
    And the resulting judgement can stop people from encouraging their
    own dreams or another's.

  11. I have become less frequent a visitor having left Blogger these past few years, but find that I visit it from time to time to catch up on most your posts, especially when I am tired.
    Hope you and Edward are keeping well and are happy!

  12. I agree with Jacqueline, I too have lived in different countries for a time and it's amazing just how alike we all are, if only the people who start wars would remember that too.

    Kaput's a funny word, like 'okay' it's one of those that somehow is universally understood. Thank goodness the lady laughed!

  13. The visual of the landlady bounding up the steps to find you makes me think of Edward racing into your bedroom to tell on Apple. On both occasions words were not really needed.

    Well, this time one word was perfect. Thankfully there was no hissing beast, just a zapped out dryer.

  14. P...
    I am sitting in bed, enveolped in white, on this fine Thursday morning in Saigon. Outside my windows, palm trees are swaying in the breeze...I am contemplating the day ahead, thinking of my strategy to get through it...the language diffrences, the silent messags we send through body language, the smells, the sights, the sounds... One needs to prepare. Which is why I loved this post all the more. It is interesting, when you live outside of that 'comfort circle' for a long time..the trick is getting back in. It is easy to feel alienated in your own home country, when you have been away too long, for all the reasons you just mentioned. Travellers are often viewed as the strangers, for living a life that does not follow the norm. Double edged sword? These are the things I contemplate on this Thursday my foreign world. As always, every word of yours gets me thinking and touches me in a way that I could not have imagined. The book is in my Amazon cart...bonus...she is riding a bicycle... :)
    Warm wishes from Sunny Saigon...
    Jeanne xx

  15. beautiful post Pamela. have never lived aboard just visited but your
    hairdryer experience was amusing.
    I assumed it was fried and there
    you stand with wet hair no so amusing. Shall check the book
    you words entertain and inspire
    me cause me to ponder over the
    small yet vital things in life.

  16. How are you and Edward, darling? Sending love...

  17. I do enjoy your recommendations Pamela... so I have marked this one...

    As for the Olympics... I have loved every minute of them and am glued to the television each evening to watch the coverage...

    Your thoughts about moving out from our comfort zones and visiting other countries... learning of their ways and their cultures... that is what I have tried so hard to show and teach my children... and so far... so good...

    Lovely, thoughtful post as ever... xv

  18. Dear Pamela,
    A visit to a foeign land is a wonderful experience on many levels ..... culture, food and communication. To see how others live and to connect with different nationalities is a wonderful thing. The world would be a sorry place if we were all alike, wouldn't it ?
    ...... and, I don't think that I have moved from the sofa since the Olympic Opening Ceremony !! I am loving every minute of it and, although I am biased, I don't think that there is another country that could have nearly all of the sports at an historical site !!
    Right, it's back to the television for me to see if we've won any more medals !! XXXX

  19. Pamela such a wonderful story! I am behind on your book recommendations; and really want to read this one!

    All the comments before mine show us just how globally connected we all are. One thing I love about the blog land we share is the community of those living both near and far, hearing of a myriad of experiences.

    Art by Karena
    2012 Artists Series

  20. What a wondrous and beautifully written post! My goodness.......all choked up, I am!

    The dedication and focus of each athlete who qualified for the Olympics is so inspirational to me!

    One of our daughters has spent the last 8 years in Switzerland with our three grandchildren (l they lived here for 3 years...before this with..3 children) moving back now with children who have seen way more than I will ever see!

    Another daughter with 2 grandchildren lived in Madrid for a year! Travelled all about!

    As hard as it was for "Granny and Nonno" I can see the results of their exposure to other "worlds"; and their complete mastery of another language!

  21. Pamela, I can't wait to read this book! Thanks so much for letting us know about it. Your comments about travel resonated with me as my daughter was just saying the very same thing the other day: the value of traveling and doing things in general outside our "comfort zone." And yes, how true about the wisdom of trying to connect with others outside of our usual circles. E.M. Forster wrote about that so beautifully in "Howards End." "Only connect.." opens the book and is also on his tombstone. His writing was so brilliant and still relevant today.

  22. It is very pretty and nice post.Thanks for sharing the blog.Keep on updating the blog.

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