LETTER FROM ITHACA

(September 11, 2007)

Greetings friends and welcome again to the Sander Zone! Apologies for the long silence on this end — for better or worse, I am not a blogger. There are already, in my humble and inestimable opinion, far too many cyber-popinjays out there foisting themselves on the jaded cyber-public, and I don’t wish to be one of them; rather, I would prefer to wait a few months until I really have something worthwhile to share with you.

The Conqueror, on the Estonian shore of the Gulf of Finland

Consider this, then, your quarterly newsletter from Sander Media, your one-man, one-stop shop for all your media needs. As you can see below, there’s plenty to talk about this fall, as I tally up the memorable moments from my most recent expedition to Northern Europe,and prepare for my first trip to South America later this week to fly the flag for the just-published Brazilian edition of “The Frank Family That Survived.”

Meanwhile, tonight, on the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attack on New York, I will be giving my sixth talk based on “Frank Family” at the Center for Jewish History. Given that my book is essentially about survival and hope, I would like to think that the presentation, which is co-sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society and the YIVO Institute, is a particularly appropriate way of commemorating New York’s day of infamy. I can’t help but recollect that it was on that black Sunday following September 11th that I broadcast the first installment of “The Frank Family That Survived,” the BBC Radio 4 documentary that ultimately led to the book. “This is the kind of story that gives me hope,” read one of the many emails I received after the London broadcast; I would like to think that it still is….

TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE OF SANDER’S SHELF:

I. A travelogue about a truly grand Grand Tour.

II: The joy of disconnectedness, or: Why I am the only person in the civilized
world who does not have a cell phone, including how my hearing impairment has helped me reduce the amount of noise in my sentient world, and increase my productivity.

III: Recent happenings in the wide world of Sander Media: The Frank Family marches on–Developments on the human resource front (munchkin alert!)…Plus! New entries from the dark recesses of the Sander archives.

So, without further ado, as Jackie Gleason used to say at the start of his variety show: Away we go!

I. Helsinki, August 25, 2007

[I recorded the following between slurps of coffee at a café overlooking my favorite street in Helsinki, Bulevardi, several hours before I boarded my flight back to New York, as a slinky new Finnish cable car whirred past, and a typically impassive Finnish couple necked at a table outside.]

With my “Estonian ambassador,” Anti Sarap, president of Dispak

And so here I am, once again, communing with a cup of super-strong Finnish kahvia and my fresh store-bought Aacdemica notebook, at the tail end of my latest, four-country
(Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany), six-city (Helsinki, Tallinn, Warsaw, Berlin, Hamburg, Tartu — don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Tartu!) tour of my ever-expanding
journalistic empire, tallying up delightful/sublime/epiphanic (etc.) moments to remember and savor…as well as the “please-someone-get-me-out-of-here-oh-I-wish-I-had stayed-at-home” ones….

Let’s start with the former.

-There was that Holy Cow moment, right across the street from here, at the Hotel Klaus K, formerly known as the Klaus Kurki, my home-away-from-home since I first began covering Baltica back in the distant year of 1991, when Suomi still had a “special relationship” (a.k.a. as “Finlandization”) with the Big Bad Russian bear next door, and there were exactly two decent places to dine out in the unapologetically dour, just-starting-to-get-cool Finnish capital, then hovering in its own cozy-weird-edgy cultural twilight zone between East and West, and I was working on my very first article about that yet-exotic land…

I felt a rough clap on my back and turned to find myself staring at the happily distended face of my long lost friend, Erkki Kallunki, culinary entrepeneur-cum-wild man-about-town, who remains the closest thing to a guarantee that one is about to have a good time — perhaps even too good a time. And so we did. I will leave the details to your imagination. And lest I forget: kiitos, Erkki! (Which brings me to Gordon’s Hot Travel Tip No. 1: Always learn how to say ‘thank you’ in the native language of any foreign country you visit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the face of a Dutchman or an Estonian or a Swede or a Pole light up when they heard me say dank u val! Or aitah! Or tack! or dzien cu! You can almost see them say to themselves, “At least this klutz bothered to learn a few words of my language.”)

-Then there was the “I-wish-I-could-bottle-this-moment moment” when I found myself having dinner with Zuzanna, the engaging, green-eyed Polish law student I’d met at an internet café three years ago, who had originally planted the idea of visiting Warsaw (my favorite new European city!) and whose email address I had thankfully saved. And now — shazam! — here we were, three years later, having a marvellous conversation over dumplings and wine in a corner of Magda Gessler’s, one of the great restaurants of Warsawza, in the heart of the extraordinary, completely restored Old Town.

-Then, there was the unforgettable moment when I first glimpsed the incredible Social Hyper-Realist, 50-some-odd-story birthday cake-like hulk of the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s posthumous “gift” to the people of then-Communist Poland, towering above the crazy quilt Polish capital in all its insane glory, from the rear window of the cab taking me to the Czarny Kot — surely the weirdest and friendliest hotel in all of Warsaw. Where else can one find a reasonably priced hostlery that offers such amenities as red stain sheets and a free wake-up nudge from an aging St. Bernard dog, as well as a lavish breakfast buffet which the generous management does not withdraw at the stroke of nine or ten? Where late-returning guests must knock on the window of the downstairs bar and wait for the bartender, who sleeps in the bar (with the St. Bernard at his feet) to yawningly open the door?

-Then, there was my happy-crazy reunion with my remarkable new Polish actress friend Magda, currently studying alongside my svenska protégé, Maria Arenlind at the Strasberg Institute in New York, in the sweeping, marble-lined lobby of the elegant Bristol, Warsaw’s wonderfully restored grand dowager of a hotel (incidentally, the ideal setting for a remake of Grand Hotel — yes, Hollywood, I am available! — complete with seen-it-all Jean Hersholt-like head concierge). Afterwards, we had a vodka and sausage at Bistro, the fantastic all-night, standing-room-only brasserie where Warsaw’s young and restless repair after a night on the town, and Magda introduced me to her “extravagant” (I think she meant exuberant) boyfriend, actor-cum-DJ Lucas, who was so excited that he accidentally knocked the glass of vodka out of my hand, and without missing a beat, went over and bought another and came back and continued to expound on this and that.

Warsaw after dark: the Palace of Culture and Science, taken from the back of a fast cab

-Then, there was the sublime moment when I took a turn off Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the elegant, shop-lined main thoroughfare that comprises the first part of the Royal Route. I found myself in a lush, well-manicured, slightly eerie, totally empty pocket park, which reminded me of nothing so much as the lush London pocket park in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” where David Hemmings accidentally stumbles upon a murder. I suddenly had this feeling that I sometimes get, like I am discovering the true essence of a city, when I’ve put away my map and I have only a vague idea of where I am. I sat down on a bench for a moment and thought about nothing in particular, except that I was far away.

I walked on, down a gentle slope, in the direction of the Vistula, the tear-laden river that divides this great-suffering-soulful survivor of a city, the same river where, to the shock and dismay of the Polish Home Army, Soviet forces stopped during the great ’44 Warsaw uprising, refusing to go to the aid of the tatterdemalion troops fighting the Germans, thus allowing the latter to overcome the valiant insurgent army, which then proceeded to raze the city on Hitler’s orders.

I ambled on and found myself in a vast, deserted Italian-style piazza. I looked up and I glanced up and behold! There was a huge, gorgeous mosaic clock, not to be found in any guidebook, looking down on me. As I found a quiet little bar and ordered a beer and some pretzels, and I could literally hear the minute hand of my own, internal clock slowing down; and for that wonderful, elusive, solitary moment, I rejoiced in the fact that no one could find me or text me or email me, and I only had the vaguest notion of where I was, and I didn’t care….

-Then, there was the heart-stopping moment when, I found Warsaw’s only, heavily-protected synagogue, nestled in a small wooded area in the middle of Warsaw’s labyrthine city center. I entered the chapel, deserted except for the cantor, pacing back and forth, talking furiously on his cellphone. I wandered into the adjoining room and lo! there was the rabbi, conducting a Torah study class. I thought here, in the center of this phoenix of a city, once the home of Europe’s largest urban-based Jewish population — here, too, Jewish life survives! I apologized for the interruption and walked all the way back to the Bristol in a daze, only to be interrupted by the bright, incongruous greeting of the concierge.

Yes, I loved Warsaw. Dzien cu, Zuzanna and Anna and Magda! Dzien cu, my friendly St. Bernard friend from Czarny! I shall return!

And by all means, friends, go to Warsaw!

(Speaking of tips: here’s another one, entres nous: if you want to experience Europe’s newest great destination, I strongly recommend that you take yourself to the amazing new Hotel Telegraaf in Tallinn, run by friend, Michael Stenner, one of Europe’s great hotel managers. I certainly had a few moments to remember there, including a really cool Master-of-the-Universe moment when I found myself lolling in the jacuzzi late one night, which then led to that rarest of moments — a moment within a moment. Suddenly, it was September 1988, and I was floating around the rooftop jacuzzi of the L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills, when I was working on “Serling,” and Roddy McDowell and William Shatner and all the famous actors and directors who had worked with Serling were returning my calls, and I felt like Los Angeles was literally at my bobbing, strobe-lit feet. Yes, that was a cool moment. Dankeschon, Michael!)

Olga, the Russian-speaking vice chairperson of the student association of Tartu University, Tartu, Estonia

-And then there was the moment, just last night at Helsinki’s Night of the Arts, when the revived and polished and super-cool (and, alas, very discovered) Daughter of the Baltic celebrates the end of summer (sort of a reverse May Day, when the city goes wild celebrating the long winter’s end), and the crowds were surging through the old cobblestone streets, and I somehow found myself at a party at a design gallery across the street from Tori, the restaurant belonging to my friend Erkki — which is where, if you recall, we came in.

I felt that for the past 26 days, I had somehow been riding a wave of good karma around the top of Europe, from Helsinki to Warsaw to Tallinn to Tartu — oh yes, I forgot to tell you about Tartu! Home of Tartu University, where I spent an eye-opening 36 hours, including three very memorable hours in the company of Olga T., the extraordinarily articulate Russian-speaking vice chairman of the student board, who explained to me what it is like to be a member of the second class Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. And what those riots about the government’s removal of the Soviet era Bronze Soldier back in April. And why, even though she is clearly a born politician, she said she could never run for office in Estonia, because, as she put it in her sad, matter-of-fact, precocious way, “I will never be loved by the people.” I hope she’s wrong.

-Then there was the moment in the park in Hamburg when this man kept tossing his little white dog a cloth ring, and the dog kept bringing it back to me instead of his owner, as if he knew me from a previous life. (Perhaps he did.)

-And the sad-sublime-knowing extended moment when I walked along the great harbor in Hamburg and I thought, now I understand where my father (who was from Bremenhaven) came from and why, he, too, loved the sea.

Final slurp of kahvia — last moment now, must start packing.

-Then, there was the yellow warbler-bright afternoon in Tallinn, the day after I took the ferry over from Helsinki to have lunch with my old former Soviet tank driver, now successful part-owner of Dispak, an Estonian firm that makes hand-painted bags, Anti Sarap, and his delightful girlfriend Anna. The sky was an impossible clear blue, we had a fantastic meal and conversation to boot, and I walked outside and found myself saying: “Where am I?”

Anti smiled, Anna smiled, and it didn’t matter.

You ask why I like to travel. Well, there you are.

To see more images from this trip go to Photography/Endless Summer (2007).

***

PART II: Tallinn, August 12, 2007

[As Stanley Kubrick might put it: How I learned to stop worrying and love my hearing impairment. Written during an extended ruminative moment at my favorite spot in Tallinn, the window counter of Bestseller bookshop-cum-café, on the fourth floor of the Viru shopping center, overlooking the atrium of this hyperactive fount of Baltic consumerism, as the busy, blank-faced Estonian shoppers emulate the Brownian movement, bouncing back and forth like random atoms--]

(TAKE ONE)

Anti and Anna

“What fresh hell is this?” Dorothy Parker used to snarl good naturedly when she answered her telephone. Precisely how I used to feel back in the day before my world went silent — or nearly so. What fresh hell is this? What happened to my hell? Gone, gone, for better or worse, with most of the rest of the “noise” in my life.

Because of my now decade-old severe hearing impairment, I am blessed — and cursed. Blessed because I don’t have to worry about getting calls from people I don’t know or who I don’t care to speak to. Blessed because, in this over-connected world, I am free to connect myself at will.

(TAKE TWO)

–I am, as I am sure you know, the last person in the developed world not to have a cellphone or a Blackberry. There is a very good reason for this: I am hearing-impaired. About 10 years ago, I lost most of my hearing.

To be sure, as many of you well know, my hearing wasn’t the greatest before that, but at least I was able to hear on the phone. Then, all of a sudden, as the result of a personal trauma (a break-up), I couldn’t — at least not without great difficulty. In quantitative terms, I went from having roughly 65% of my hearing to less than 15%, or pretty close to nothing. And as anyone who is hearing-impaired can tell you, hearing 80% or 90% of the sound conveyed on the phone is, essentially, the same as hearing nothing: it just becomes noise.

So I stopped “doing” phone. As you can imagine, it was and has been quite a passage, both in practical terms and emotional/spiritual ones. Can you imagine your life without a phone of any kind? Go ahead and try. I defy you.

Fortunately, about the same time, something called email came along. (There was a brief, very strange interregnum when I communicated via fax; smoke signals would have been easier). I became an e-mail exclusive person. This means that until I turn on my email, which I do several times a day, I cannot communicate with anyone outside of naval hand signal distance (the legacy of having served on a U.S. aircraft carrier in a previous life). And vice versa.

As someone who justifies his existence on the planet by dint of creating things, I confess I have come to regard consider my involuntary disconnectedness as not entirely a bad thing. Of course, I am aware of the fact that this may be a coping mechanism. But believe me, I’ve had time to think about this, and it’s those times when I am off-line and out of touch, when no one can reach me except with my inner muse — it’s those times when I really produce.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I miss the telephone (as it used to be called). I miss being able to call my mother or brother. I miss being able to hear my friends’ voices. I miss not being able to call the people in my life to crow about my latest triumph or commiserate about my woes. My definition of a true friend used to be someone I could call at 3 in the morning and not worry about waking him or her up.

But you know something? I also love it when I turn my computer off, because that’s when I can really be alone with my thoughts — creative, dangerous, and otherwise, and no one, no one, can penetrate my inner perimeter.

This is a difficult subject, but it’s about time that I address it, and it’s about time that my hearing-enabled friends and family know how I feel. That pretty much equals all of my friends and family, with the salient exception of my wonderful friend and former assistant Erin Geld, who is even more severely hearing impaired, who helped me weather this passage and showed me that it is okay sometimes to take your hearing aids completely out if one really needs to block everything out. I hear only the loudest sounds — and I mean the loudest (think massed artillery, chain lightning, etc.) — when I remove both of my uncomfortable, ear-chafing, buzzing inner ear hearing aids.

Am I glad that I lost my hearing? Of course not. God, how much I used to love “doing the phone” (however odd that probably sounds to you). And, as some of you who knew me back in my hearing-enabled days can remember, I was good at it. I remember being interviewed by phone back in ’92 by an all-night radio station in Phoenix about “Serling,” and I was having so much fun talking and taking calls from listeners that the host let me go past the allotted time for my segment, and we just kept rapping away, like two dueling banjos, planging away in the great American ether. “Hey,” I remember saying at one point, “we’re sculpting air.” “Sculpting air!” the host replied. “Wow! Sculpting air! I like that!” Yes, I was definitely in the zone that morning.

Long ago and far away–

Yes, I miss phone. And I miss the other privileges that go along with being hearing-enabled. I miss being able to go to a movie without difficulty making out the dialogue. (I recall it was while I was attending a showing of “The Out of Towners” in London that I realized how serious my hearing loss had become). I miss able to hear people, instead of just one person at a time, and only if I am looking directly at you. There is so much I miss about being a hearing-abled (ugh, that phrase) person.

But here’s a flash: I’m okay with it. However, it’s taken 10 years, because I know the difference between being a hearing-abled and a hearing-impaired person. I know what it’s like to hear. For a decade, I’ve defined my life in terms of how much lesser it was than my prior life.

And it was less.

But now — and I suppose this is akin to the transition that all late-in-life handicapped people go through — my life is just different.

In many ways, it is, indeed, worse. Not a day goes by when I am not reminded of my loss. either because of a conversation I can’t hear in its entirety, even though the person I am trying to hear is but a few inches away from me, or because one of my ears is painfully chafing from having to wear those damn hearing aids, or because I am talking too loud in public and can’t hear how [expletive deleted] loud I am.

But, you know something? In some ways, in some ways, it’s better — or perhaps I should say, simpler. When I wish to communicate with the outside world. And when I want to indulge my inner Garbo, so to speak, I can just shut the damn thing off and go sailing off into my wild blue inner yonder, where no one — not even you, dear friends — can call or text me or whatever.

Particularly over the last year or two, everyone has urged me to get a cellphone, so I can be wired 24/7 into the great, omniscient worldwide grid that connects all and putatively improves and expands the commonweal.

Well, here’s another flash: I’m thinking about it. But in the meantime I’m okay. I sort of like having total control over my aural/intellectual environment. Gosh darn, I like being able to turn the world on and off at will. There you are.

And I’ll tell you something else. It just so happens that the past 10 years have been the most productive years of my life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

The reason: there is just less noise. Also, sans phone, sans television — another thing I phased out of my life when I lost my hearing, for better or worse — I have a lot more time to create. And in the end, for an artist, for someone whose livelihood and raison d’etre is creating and producing articles, books, photographs, etc. isn’t time all one has, in the end, besides one’s God-given talents?

Think about it.

Believe me, I miss the sound of the unamplified human voice. I miss music. Sometimes I even miss television.

But I don’t miss the noise.

So, not to worry. I’ll get a cellphone, hearing-abled friends, so you can text me and I can text you when you are late for that meeting (or — zounds — I am). But don’t rush me. I’m okay.

Sander out….

***

PART III: The ever-expanding Sander Zone and other notes from Sander Media

Changing of the guard: Morgan Wylder (Cornell ’10), new keeper of the flame, ready for action

In case, you haven’t “taken a dip” in the ever-expanding Sander Zone, please do. You’ll note that, with 20-some-odd new additions from the Sander archives, most of them articles and essays from the pre-digital age that my assistants had to laboriously type “into” the site (sometimes, in the case of some of the oldest entries from my back pages, transposed from yellowing or torn paper) are, to coin a horrid analogy, are quite a bit deeper. Among the many new additions:

-Under ‘Style,’ you’ll now find my deathless profile of London “It” girls Tara Palmer Tompkinson and Jade Jagger, which I wrote for The New York Times in 1999 and 2000, respectively, when I was based in the Old Town.

-Click onto ‘Education’ and check out “The Teacher Who Inspired Me,” the compendium of mini-profiles of teachers who inspired such diverse prominent Americans as Ross Perot (who was so excited to talk about Mrs. Grady Duck, who inspired him, that he called me at midnight) that I wrote for Parade in 1994.

-Interested in my Travel jottings? Dive into the “Smooth Guides” I wrote for the Financial Times about Riga and Stockholm in 2000 and 2002, as well as a long essay about Finland’s second city, Turku, that I wrote for Scandinavian Review in
1999.

-There are also more selected, entertaining samples of my diverse unpublished writings, including a mind-boggling letter I wrote in 1972 to one of my Cornell professors under the influence of too much coffee (or something) accompanying a grievously overdue paper.

Withal, after three years, this site, which now contains over 50 separate entries and 125,000 words of text, plus nearly 200 photos, has finally become what I had originally envisioned — a “living” archive of my best written and photographic work from the past 30 years.

In coming months, expect to see even more fascinating, bizarre, hair-raising excerpts from the Sander files surface in this strange, sublime space, including excerpts from my most my first screenplay, “Epos,” an epic film about the Greek War of Independence, which I wrote with my friend and creative partner Nick Lambrou (and which seems to be inching towards a sale). Not to mention my next contemplated non-fiction about–well, you’ll see….

Enjoy — and, lest I forget, thank you for your support!

***

P.S. A changing of the guard, or: Munchkin alert!

Last but not least, I would like to take a moment to thank Fiona Kirkpatrick, the resourceful and charming freshman from Cornell and the Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts who was my senior assistant last year, and who did stellar work for me, as did her summer replacement, the coruscatingly bright and literate Carolyn Bonilha, as well as my swinging New York manager (as she likes to call herself), actress Maria Arenlind, who had the thankless task of accompanying me on my nocturnal, journalistic rounds and who has since moved on to bigger and better things (and who, the gods of cinema willing, you will soon see on the silver screen).

Bravo Fiona, Carolyn, and Maria! And thanks!

To these storied ranks, I would also like to welcome Morgan Wylder, the gifted and vivacious Cornell fine arts major who was my visual arts assistant last year and now becomes my principal assistant. Glad to have you aboard, Morgan!

Onwards and upwards!

Con brio,

GFS

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