I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Thorny Turkish Issue #1: Armenia

Having just been in Turkey, I’m tuned in to three thorny issues that are in the news about Turkey these days: The “Armenian Holocaust,” Kurdish separatists in Turkey, and Turkish membership in the European Union. I’m less clever than our Vice President on these matters. But I thought I’d pass along how my Turkish friends explain them.

About the Armenians:

I have a personal affinity for Turkey, and whenever I rave about the place as a travel destination, I get…”flack” is not quite the right word…from Greeks and Armenians about the ugly history of that troubled region. Armenians insist that I make Turkey admit to committing, specifically, “genocide.” Turks don’t want me to talk about Armenia and would never put those two words in the same sentence. (I filmed at a ruined Armenian church on Lake Van and tried to deal constructively with the issue in one of my TV episodes…and I angered both my Turkish friend and Armenians.) Even though I know I just can’t win on this issue, let me try to explain what I’ve picked up on this in Turkey:

From 1915 through 1917, while Britain, France and Russia were trying to divide up the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians and Turks were killed in what was seen by many at the time as an effort to stop a rebellion of separatist Armenians.

Like the Muslim Turks and non-Muslims in the region, the Armenians had lived in relative peace and prosperity for centuries under the Ottoman administration. But starting in the late 1800s and escalating during World War I, the Russians and British — eager to undermine the pro-German Ottoman regime — enlisted Armenian groups to rise up against it. As a consequence, the Armenians suffered the bloody wrath of a dying empire.

Today, many descendants of the survivors (the Armenian Diaspora) live in France and the USA. An independent country of Armenia has emerged in what was once Soviet territory…while many of that civilization’s historic treasures lie ruined and desolate, just across the border in eastern Turkey.

Some of my most poignant travels have been wandering through ancient buildings deserted or destroyed in the early 20th century…lasting reminders of the slaughter of Armenians and the tragedy that the ethnic group that once thrived there will never return.

To this day, the government of the Turkish Republic (which didn’t exist until 1923, several years after the slaughter of the Armenian people) has never officially admitted to any wrongdoing. Armenians are mourning an almost Nazi-like genocide. But the Turks see something more analogous to the American Civil War: the South insisted on seceding and fired the first shots, so they are the ones who could have prevented the disaster from ever happening. Turks I’ve spoken with have no problem with having the truth investigated and debated on the world stage. But they want historians — not politicians — to do the assessment.

Coming up: Turkey and the debate over small Kurds and large Kurds.

More Questions and Answers, About Politics and Travel

There have been lots of questions over the last month on this blog. Let me answer a few of them:

Question: Will you ever do any more TV shows like the Travel Skills Special, with more general information about travel?
Answer:I’d like to. The three-part Travel Skills series we did is getting old, my old aviator glasses are looking dorkier than ever, and we could do it in high definition with the new 9 by 16 widescreen format. Most important: Travel has changed, and the skills need updating. The challenge: It takes three weeks in Europe to make it. Stay tuned.

Question: Are you planning any TV shows on Istanbul? Have you thought about visiting and/or filming in Riga? Lithuania and Latvia? Finland? Iceland? Malta?
Answer:I plan to shoot a new show on Istanbul in April. I have a great script for Helsinki and Tallinn in Estonia (likely in three years). I need to learn more about Riga and Vilnius. I’d like to do a show on the Baltic capitals. I have no plans for Malta or Iceland.

Question: Is there a way for people to see your St. Peter video when it comes out? (Other than through the Lutheran Church?) Will you post it? YouTube it?
Answer:The video will be finished within a month and it will be posted on YouTube (as my Luther video is now) and available on DVD through the ELCA. (It’ll be sent to all 12,000 ELCA Lutheran churches.)

Question: How about a guidebook focusing on wine regions and Back Door wineries?
Answer:I don’t do special-interest guidebooks such as those. And I’m not enough of a wine enthusiast to do a good job on that one anyway.

Question: Will you ever write a Greece guidebook?
Answer:Greece is my obvious gap. And I’m afraid it will stay that way. I don’t want to do a book that I am not enthusiastic about and that I couldn’t follow through and make it deserve the high sales it might enjoy. As I learned on my recent trip, I like Greece…but it just isn’t my forte. So I’ll let others with a passion for Greece be the teachers.

Question: Would you consider making a tour for people with different physical abilities? For mature travelers who want to go at a slower pace?
Answer:We are talking about a slower, less physically demanding tour, but nothing is in the works.

Question: Will you offer a single supplement on your tours?
Answer:We already offer single supplements on a few of our tours. But on other tours, it would require more individual rooms, which would force us to abandon many of our small, characteristic hotels — which we are very reluctant to do. Much of how we shape and promote our tours is designed to attract a hardy, fun-to-travel-with, and low-maintenance crowd. We believe our “no grumps” policy makes for a better tour.

Question: Did you ever think of a 7-day trip to Athens (with day trips)? A week-long city tour of Istanbul?
Answer: I would not do such a tour for Athens, but a week-long Istanbul tour is something we are considering. I’ll be doing TV shows on both destinations this April. To make Athens work, I’ll need to side-trip to Delphi and the Isle of Hydra. My challenge with Istanbul is that it could easily fill two scripts. Istanbul is just bursting with fun experiences that will make great TV.

Questions and Answers

There have been lots of questions over the last month on this blog. Let me answer a few of them:

Question: Will you ever do any more TV shows like the Travel Skills Special, with more general information about travel?
Answer:I’d like to. The three-part Travel Skills series we did is getting old, my old aviator glasses are looking dorkier than ever, and we could do it in high definition with the new 9 by 16 widescreen format. Most important: Travel has changed, and the skills need updating. The challenge: It takes three weeks in Europe to make it. Stay tuned.

Question: Are you planning any TV shows on Istanbul? Have you thought about visiting and/or filming in Riga? Lithuania and Latvia? Finland? Iceland? Malta?
Answer:I plan to shoot a new show on Istanbul in April. I have a great script for Helsinki and Tallinn in Estonia (likely in three years). I need to learn more about Riga and Vilnius. I’d like to do a show on the Baltic capitals. I have no plans for Malta or Iceland.

Question: Is there a way for people to see your St. Peter video when it comes out? (Other than through the Lutheran Church?) Will you post it? YouTube it?
Answer:The video will be finished within a month and it will be posted on YouTube (as my Luther video is now) and available on DVD through the ELCA. (It’ll be sent to all 12,000 ELCA Lutheran churches.)

Question: How about a guidebook focusing on wine regions and Back Door wineries?
Answer:I don’t do special-interest guidebooks such as those. And I’m not enough of a wine enthusiast to do a good job on that one anyway.

Question: Will you ever write a Greece guidebook?
Answer:Greece is my obvious gap. And I’m afraid it will stay that way. I don’t want to do a book that I am not enthusiastic about and that I couldn’t follow through and make it deserve the high sales it might enjoy. As I learned on my recent trip, I like Greece…but it just isn’t my forte. So I’ll let others with a passion for Greece be the teachers.

Question: Would you consider making a tour for people with different physical abilities? For mature travelers who want to go at a slower pace?
Answer:We are talking about a slower, less physically demanding tour, but nothing is in the works.

Question: Will you offer a single supplement on your tours?
Answer:We already offer single supplements on a few of our tours. But on other tours, it would require more individual rooms, which would force us to abandon many of our small, characteristic hotels — which we are very reluctant to do. Much of how we shape and promote our tours is designed to attract a hardy, fun-to-travel-with, and low-maintenance crowd. We believe our “no grumps” policy makes for a better tour.

Question: Did you ever think of a 7-day trip to Athens (with day trips)? A week-long city tour of Istanbul?
Answer: I would not do such a tour for Athens, but a week-long Istanbul tour is something we are considering. I’ll be doing TV shows on both destinations this April. To make Athens work, I’ll need to side-trip to Delphi and the Isle of Hydra. My challenge with Istanbul is that it could easily fill two scripts. Istanbul is just bursting with fun experiences that will make great TV.

Check Your Sword at the Door and Worship

As a Lutheran Christian, I learned long ago that the best way to enjoy St. Peter’s Basilica — which I have for 30 years considered the greatest church in Christendom — is to check your sword at the door and accept it on its terms: To enter into that dazzling sanctuary and focus on God (which is the intent of the place).

I inhale the incense, forget about gender issues and “infallible truths” that have been fought over and revised through the years, and ditch concerns about financial priorities and where all the money to build it came from. I see St. Peter’s as an awe-inspiring human work done by faithful people for the glory of God.

I used to get all uptight when I entered that church. I don’t anymore. In fact, a highlight of my Roman visits is to go to Mass at St. Peter’s. (As far as the Eucharist and me being of another denomination…it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.”) My visits lift my spirits and put me in a great mood.

To a Protestant mindset, complaining about your church leaders is just something we do. And it doesn’t bring thunderbolts. We’re all on the same team, and we Protestants complain as we go because we care.

There’s a fundamental difference between attacking someone’s faith and disagreeing with their denomination’s leaders. It seems to me that, among Christians, only Catholics believe that if you attack the ideas of their human and mortal leader, you’re “attacking their faith.”

I’ve been inspired by many courageous Catholics in our generation. The Catholics of our era I’ve been most inspired by are the priests and nuns who stand by the struggling people of Central America. They threaten the secular order and are routinely excommunicated for their “liberation theology” by Catholic leaders high in that Church hierarchy. They keep on Catholic keepin’ on because they believe a part of their vow of obedience to the church is (in their words) “disobedience to the Church.”

When I am writing, whether or not I capitalize “church” is a big issue. Capital-C “Church” refers to church government — fallible, political, necessary, and well-meaning…but corruptible. In my denomination, for instance, the church is not homophobic but, in many cases, the Church is. When I have friends so mad at God that they purge faith from their lives, they are usually mad at the Church…not the church. That saddens me. I would never take my frustrations with the Church out on the church. The distinction is critical.

I’m inclined to complain about things the Catholic Church does. But I’m not anti-Catholic. I don’t think I’m any more anti-Catholic than those excommunicated priests and nuns in Nicaragua. I’m married to a smart and beautiful woman who is Catholic. She comes from the best family I’ve ever run into. Our son goes to a Catholic university (Notre Dame). I’m in Rome — donating several days of work to the church (not the Church) to produce a video celebrating the life, work, and Christian leadership of the first pope, St. Peter.

The last time I flew south of our border, it was to El Salvador to honor a Catholic bishop. It was the 25th anniversary of the assassination of the courageous Archbishop Oscar Romero. (Read the journal from that trip on my website.) I marched and worshipped with countless Roman Catholics whose faith was stronger than the faith I encounter (in any denomination) in my city. It was a beautiful and inspirational experience.

Strange. I make a point not to comment much on the discussion my blog entries generate. It’s fun to just share an idea and let all the traveling readers of this blog respond. But in this case, I don’t like to be called “anti-Catholic,” and certainly not “anti-Christian.” My work is motivated by my Christian faith. I just have a style of worship named for a priest/professor who enjoyed beer and sex…and married a nun.

Gay Museum Busts Must Separate

My guide friend in Rome is getting a divorce. It’s uncontested. They just want to be through. A divorce used to take five to ten years in Italy. He said now, it takes only three. “Only” three years? I asked why so long? He said, “You were there this morning.” I understood. It was the Vatican.

While Italians are not particularly churchgoing, the Vatican still has a huge influence on Italian society. According to my local friends, the new pope (Benedict XVI) is particularly activist when it comes to homosexuality. I was told gay couples have no legal rights in Italy.

Benedict won’t even let the portrait busts of gay lovers (who haven’t sinned in 2,000 years) share the same museum shelf. As long as people could remember, Emperor Hadrian’s head was displayed next to his gay boyfriend (the incredibly beautiful — and young — Antinous). Antinous was recently moved out, leaving Hadrian’s bust all alone.

Horrible as it may seem to us in modern times, in ancient times, it was acceptable for a man to keep a boy as a lover — but only until the boy had hair on his chest. In ancient Greek morality, to love a boy was considered pure — no child possible, absolute love for love’s sake. (Please don’t shoot me — I’m just the messenger.) Many Romans I met — while not negative about the teachings of the Church — had a bad attitude about the Vatican’s wealth and bureaucracy. Guides who deal daily with the frustration of Vatican Museum crowds know that 20,000 visitors pack into the Vatican museum each morning. At 13 euros each, that’s about $400,000 revenue each morning simply from the museum.

Like Americans have a box on their tax forms giving them the opportunity to donate to political campaigns, Italians have a voluntary box to donate to the Roman Catholic Church. By all accounts, it’s rarely used.

About the Vatican labor force — when Pope John XXIII was asked how many people work in the Vatican, he answered, “About half.”