At Peyto Lake in Canada’s Banff National Park

At Peyto Lake in Canada’s Banff National Park

I had never heard the German term Sehnsucht before I tried to Google “yearning wild places” a few minutes ago. According to Wikipedia:

Sehnsucht … is a German noun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”. However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state. Its meaning is somewhat similar to the Portuguese word, saudade, or the Romanian word dor. Sehnsucht is a compound word, originating from an ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht). However, these words do not adequately encapsulate the full meaning of their resulting compound, even when considered together.

Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.

It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home”. In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be, and the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for. The experience is one of such significance that ordinary reality may pale in comparison, as in Walt Whitman’s closing lines to “Song of the Universal”:

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

So what is my yearning? I can tell you one thing right from the start: It is for a place where there are no mosquitoes. Sun-drenched beaches are not anywhere in my dreams. Look at some of the places I have visited in the past years: The Hebrides and Orkney Islands of Scotland, Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, Iceland, the Canadian Rockies, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

My Sehnsucht takes me to cold, wild places, such as Pehto Lake in Banff National Park (above).

I also like deserts, especially those in the American Southwest and Argentina. I would add Mexico if I were more familiar with the states of the North.

Where I part from the Wikipedia definition is any identification of the places for which I yearn with home. I was born in Cleveland, which I will forever associate with dirty red brick buildings and accumulations of snow that exhibit a chronicle of dog piss over time. Nor is Los Angeles my “home” in any real sense. I like it. It’s where I hang my hat. But it represents the place I would like to escape from—at least for the time being.

No, I do not think I could live in Tierra del Fuego or the Outer Hebrides, but I love to visit them. And I love to spend months planning for my visit. The planning can almost be as enjoyable as the actual trip. It seems I am always either planning one of these escapades or actually at my destination.

That tension between where I’m currently living and where I would like to visit is one of the main motivating factors of my life. I must say, it seems to work—at least for me.

Howdy Doody and Harvey Rice

Me on a Tricycle Ca. 1950

Me on a Tricycle Circa 1950

That’s me on a tricycle, sometime around 1950. We were living at 2814 East 120th Street off Buckeye Road in Cleveland. The whole place was filthy with Hungarians. There were so many, in fact, that I did not know the English language existed until two things happened: First, we got a television set late in 1949, and I started watching the Howdy Doody show at 5 pm every day, just after Kate Smith closed her show by singing “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” (It took me a while to understand what Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith were saying.)

Secondly, I started kindergarten at Harvey Rice School on East 116th Street in January of 1950. My parents thought that, living as we did in a Hungarian neighborhood, the public school teachers would speak Hungarian. Nothing doing! Mrs. Idell sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt that asked, “What language is this child speaking?” As if she didn’t know!

That last factor decided my Mom that we had to leave our little Hungarian womb on the East Side and move to the suburbs. Gone forever would be the Reverend Csutoros and the First Hungarian Reformed Church; the Regent and Moreland movie theaters; Kardos’s Butcher Shop with its delicious Hungarian sausages; the College Inn, where my Dad would take me for French Fries; and the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled and I kept score.

It was a cohesive little world, but my parents ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge when they decided to raise me as a Hungarian. You know what? I’m grateful that they did. I made my adjustment to English (and I’m still making it), but my heart belongs to the Magyar Puszta.


Visiting the Angry Sisters

Mount Hekla

Mount Hekla in South Iceland

Whenever I have a few minutes during the craziness of tax season, I check out the Daily Life column on The Iceland Review’s website. Yesterday’s entry by Katharina Hauptmann (half of the Daily Life columnists are from outside Iceland) had the following to say:

In the past two days news broke about unusual seismic activity around the volcano Hekla.

Naturally, it became talk of the town.

Officially, a level of uncertainty has been issued and the related parties continue to monitor Hekla closely.

So can you by keeping your eyes on the volcano with this webcam.

Actually, everybody was waiting for Hekla’s neighbor Katla to blow, as an eruption is more than overdue.

Now it seems that Katla’s little sister Hekla is keeping the world on tenterhooks.

Here in Iceland, one usually refers to Hekla and Katla as the “angry sisters.”

I was once told that volcanoes had women’s names in Iceland because their nature was just like women: unpredictable and explosive.

During my upcoming visit to Iceland, I hope that neither Katla nor Hekla nor the dread Eyjafjallajökull erupt, because I will be spending four days in the South of Iceland in areas that would have to be evacuated (Hvolsvollur and Heimaey). And if it happens while I am in Höfn for two days, I will have to go all around the island to return to Reykjavik.

In European history, it is Hekla (shown above) that has the horrendous reputation. During the Middle Ages, it was widely regarded as the mouth of hell, and fishermen could see its eruptions from hundreds of miles away. By the way, there is a Hekla webcam you can visit. Just note that Iceland is on or near Greenwich Mean Time, and it is likely to be night there when you try.

You may recall the widespread cancellation the last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted twice in 2010. Newspapers around the world showed photographs of the devastation:



With volcanoes, one could get a day or two of warning before—literally—all hell breaks loose. But isn’t that all part of the fun?

Sons and Dóttirs

Icelandic Mystery Writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic Mystery Writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The following is loosely excerpted from a review I wrote on Goodreads.Com about Ashes to Dust by the Icelandic mystery writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir:

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s work reminds me of an Icelandic “delicacy” called hákarl, which consists of shark meat which is fermented for several months, sometimes underground, until the ammoniac stench is strong enough to repel the most ravenous shorebirds. I do not mean to imply that Ashes to Dust is as appetizing as road kill: It is just that its author has a tendency to go for the gamier edge of crime. That was also the case with her first book, Last Rituals. I was surprised to read that Ms. Sigurdardóttir is an engineer, because I would have guessed that she was a pathologist.

Ashes to Dust is about three bodies — accompanied by a severed head — which were discovered more than thirty years after the eruption of the volcano Eldfell on the Westmann Islands, which destroyed some 400 homes on the main island of Heimaey. Attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is trying to build a case for the innocence of the man accused of the murders, back when he was a teenager and the volcano erupted in January 1973. The story gets rather complicated (as in her other book that I read), but the author manages to keep all the threads in play until the very end.

Iceland is becoming quite a haven for mysteries: In addition to Yrsa and Arnaldur Indriðason—not to mention the American Ed Weinman (who has lived in Iceland for many years)—there seems to be a growing trend for the small island to become a major force in the production of mystery novels.

I thought I would segue into a not entirely unrelated topic, namely Icelandic names. You may have noticed that most of the names I’ve mentioned in this post end either in -dóttir or -son. That is partly because, until recently, it wasn’t considered quite kosher to have a last name that was anything but a patronymic.

Let’s see how this works. If I were an Icelander, my name would be James Alexson, “James the Son of Alex,” and Martine would be Martine Wilsonsdóttir, “Martine the Daughter of Wilson.” Take a look at the image below from an Icelandic telephone directory:

Bjork to Your Heart’s Content!

Bjork to Your Heart’s Content!

Notice that the names in an Icelandic telephone directory are alphabetized by first name, in this case Björk, and patronymic. In case you didn’t already know, Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the Icelandic recording artist Björk. My guess is the recording artist is probably the one whose address is in Reykjavik 101, which is the Icelandic equivalent of Beverly Hills 90210.

I Book the World’s Youngest Volcano

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

I had been there on a day trip from Reykjavik twelve years ago. Because I was afraid of seasickness on the three-hour ferry from Þorlákshöfn, which was famous for rough seas, I flew from the small Reykjavik airport. Several years ago, the Eimskip Line opened a new ferry port at Landeyjahöfn, which is only a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Westmann Islands. This time, I’ll take the ferry, fortified with Dramamine.

Heimaey (literally “The Home Island”) is a beautiful town flanked by two volcanoes, Eldfell (on the left) and the extinct Helgafell (right). Until January 23, 1973, Eldfell didn’t exist. What was a suburban development suddenly turned overnight into a volcano, forcing the evacuation of the entire island. While lava destroyed some 400 homes, the ingenious Icelanders found a way of forcing the lava to form a berm by endlessly pumping cold seawater on its leading edge. The story is told by John McPhee in his book, The Control of Nature.

I had a difficult time booking a room in Heimaey on my original desired dates. Then, just for the heck of it, I decided to hang around a few extra days along the Suðurland, or South Coast, of Iceland (at Hvolsvöllur and Höfn) and try for a few days later. Bingo! I got into the best accommodation on the island. My guess is that there was a local event, like a soccer game or a festival, that drew a crowd on the original dates.

Why do I want to go to the Westmann Islands again? First of all, it is drop-dead beautiful, a major fishing port, and the place where I am most likely to be able to photograph puffins:



I am told the island’s southernmost peninsula has the world’s largest concentration of the picturesque seabirds at a place called Störhofði.

Puffins and I go way back. I tried to find them in Scotland in September 1998, but they hadn’t arrived there yet. Then I went to Heimaey late in August 2001, but they had all just left.

Martine would love to see them, but I’ll just have to take a load of pictures so that she could enjoy them vicariously.

Those Krazy Kims

Kim III, Alias Kim Jong Unnnnhhh

Kim III, Alias Kim Jong Unnnnhhh

The nuclear era has been around for almost three-quarters of a century now, and we finally have a head of state threatening to begin a thermonuclear war against the United States. I think we have to take this wing-nut seriously. Even if it’s just empty tough talk, it’s the kind of tough talk that calls for a unblinkered response.

Why should we bother to send food to North Korea when they have identified themselves as our enemy? We should be planning airstrikes against Pyongyang and the various outlying nuclear weapons facilities, if we know where they are. Then I think we have to hold back on the trigger, unless, unless, Kim steps over the line in an overt way. Once he does that, he and his poor damned country will have to be vaporized.

Obviously, we will have to coordinate closely with China on this. I suspect that Beijing wants Kim out as much as we do, and may even take the first step. Seeing as how Chinese Communism has evolved into a form of capitalism, Beijing does not want to see its business partners threatened.

Right now, I see the DPRK (“Democratic” Peoples’ Republic of Korea) fully as dysfunctional as Somalia, Syria, the tribal areas of Pakistan, or any other failed state. Apparently, you don’t have to be Muslim to be totally wacko.

I have heard that Kim’s tough talk is occasioned by hard-liners in his military who think he is too soft on the West. Maybe, but I wouldn’t like to take that chance.

The Polymath

An Old Scholar

An Old Scholar

Keith was a pertinacious and omnivorous student; he sought knowledge not for a set purpose but because nothing was without interest for him. He took all learning to his province. He read for the pleasure of knowing what he did not know before; his mind was unusually receptive because, he said, he respected the laws which governed his body. Facts were his prey. He threw himself into them with a kind of piratical ardour; took them by the throat, wallowed in them, worried them like a terrier, and finally assimilated them. They gave him food for what he liked best on earth: ‘disinterested thought’. They ‘formed a rich loam’. He had an encyclopædic turn of mind; his head, as somebody once remarked, was a lumber-room of useless information. He could tell you how many public baths existed in Geneva in pre-Reformation days, what was the colour of Mehemet Ali’s whiskers, why the manuscript of Virgil’s friend Gallus had not been handed down to posterity, and in what year, and what month, the decimal system was introduced into Finland. Such aimless incursions into knowledge were a puzzle to his friends, but not to himself. They helped him to build up a harmonious scheme of life—to round himself off.—Norman Douglas, South Wind

Serendipity: The Janissaries

At One Time, They Were Feared by the Enemies of the Ottoman Empire

At One Time, They Were the Most Feared Infantry in Europe

They look rather silly, don’t they? But in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were the elite infantry of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries conquered the Balkans, much of the Black Sea coast, and Hungary. Little known to most people is that they were almost exclusively Christians, who were either kidnapped or bought from their parents by recruiters under the empire’s devshirme system. But, like many things that were once a good idea, it didn’t look so good any more by the time the 1800s rolled around.

The following discussion comes from David Brewer’s excellent book The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation:

The Sultan’s problem within his borders lay, as it had done before, with the corps of janissaries. They were now practically useless as a military force, and [the Sultan] Mahmoud had to fight his wars with mercenaries and with troops raised by local pashas. The janissary regiments in the provinces drew pay and rations in idleness, while those in the capital were an unruly menace, as a contemporary visitor described. “Lords of the day,” he wrote,

they ruled with uncontrolled insolence in Constantinople, their appearance portraying the excess of libertinism; their foul language; their gross behaviour; their enormous turbans; their open vests; their bulky sashes filled with arms; their weighty sticks; rendering them objects of fear and disgust. Like moving columns, they thrust everybody from their path without any regard of age or sex, frequently bestowing durable marks of anger or contempt.

In 1807 Mahmoud’s predecessor Selim III had tried to bring the janissaries under control by incorporating them into his so-called Army of the New Order. The janissaries reacted violently, the New Army was formally abolished and Selim lost his throne. In the following year, the first of Mahmoud’s reign, his grand vizier publicly advocated reforming the janissaries and curbing their abuses, but lost his life in the ensuing janissary revolt.

In the space of some four hundred years, the janissaries went from an elite military force to a kind of mafia, with members of the corps selling “protection” to merchants. They acted as the firemen of Constantinople, but it was also widely believed that they set the fires in the first place.

For a delightful novel about the decay of the janissary corps, I recommend Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree, a 19th century mystery whose “detective” is a eunuch connected with the Sublime Porte. In 1826, the Sultan could take no more and began arresting and executing the remnants of the corps. In Ottoman history, the persecution is referred to as the “Auspicious Event.”

By the way, Jason Goodwin not only writes entertaining detective stories set in the Ottoman Empire, but he is also a historian whose Lords of the Horizons is perhaps the best introduction to the Empire.

How Our Era Will Be Remembered

Turmoil in the Middle East

Another Day of Turmoil in the Middle East

Clearly, Islam is undergoing a large-scale upheaval. Ever since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, most Muslims in the Middle East have been living in countries with ill-defined borders ruled by various strong men. There is a general feeling that all is not well with their part of the world.

Beginning in the peri0od between the two World Wars, American and European oil companies moved in on these strong men and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: unlimited wealth and power, if only they would sign on the dotted line. They signed, all right, but after almost a century, that money has not filtered down to the Arab man on the street. (Most of it probably ended up in offshore banking accounts owned by the strong men and their families.)

What to do about it? Well, first of all, one could riot and cause mayhem. Even if they topple one strong men, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, there is always a Mohammed Morsi waiting in the wings to make himself and his family equally rich and powerful.

Or, another popular option is to blame the West for all their ills. “Ameriki” is the Great Satan and must be destroyed, along with its jackal partner Israel. If your country’s unemployment rate for young men is something like 75%, then blowing oneself up along with Islam’s enemies looks like a good career move. The Jihad Option is a popular one, especially the more the situation appears to be dire. The problem is, when all of Islam’s external enemies have been destroyed, then it will be necessary to move on the internal enemies, such as Shia, Alawite, or Sufi Muslims; Druzes; Baha’is; Copts and other Middle-Eastern Christians, and others. Other than filling graveyards, how does that solve their problems?

Islam has so very many enemies, and so few friends. If, by merely existing, Americans become enemies of Jihadists, what’s the point of trying to kiss up to them? The pity of it all is that, to quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And the streets are teeming with the worst….

The Second Step Is Taken

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland

Now that I settled on a flight to/from Iceland, it’s time to get some room reservations. Iceland has a very short tourist season, running roughly from the middle of June to the end of August. Even before September, many tourist offices are closed down in preparation for the beginning of school. That’s right: Many tourist facilities are in school buildings scattered around the country. Many boarding schools become summer hotels, and then return to educational use come September.

When I arrive in Reykjavik, it will be just before the longest day of the year, during which there is no darkness to speak of. Unless the guesthouses where I stay have blackout curtains (and most of them don’t), I will have to wear eyeshades to allow me to sleep. And because of the runtur—the Icelandic equivalent of a spring weekend at a Mexican resort—and the boisterousness of hundreds of European teenagers showing they can drink like a man, I will also come equipped with earplugs. That will not be much of a problem outside the capital, however.

Greater Reykjavik is a small city by U.S. standards, about 120,000 people in a country whose total population is about 322,000. It is the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state. That sentence is worded thusly to eliminate Nuuk, which is the capital of the Danish colony of Greenland.

I had hoped to secure a room at the Baldursbra Guesthouse on Laufásvegur, where I stayed in 2001, but they were booked solid; so I took a chance on the Guesthouse Odinn, which is slightly nearer the center of things by Laugavegur (the main shopping street) and therefore probably more noisy. No matter. Being by myself, I am more able to put up with a variety of situations. I just hope it’s not a big party place, with young males screaming and projectile vomiting all over the place.