Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Not much to tell this morning. I got some sobering news from Florida about my dad's health, so I'm keeping an eye on that and debating whether to buy an airplane ticket for Christmas. Dave and I had decided to stay here in England because of the expense -- tickets at Christmas are ridiculously expensive -- but now I'm thinking I might just take the plunge and go, even if it's just me.
(Photo: Sculpture by Nic Fiddian Green at Economist Plaza, London.)
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
I am slowly getting back into the London swing of things. While I was in Istanbul I could not get the song "Istanbul not Constantinople" out of my head -- at least it's a good song, but it was still an earworm that was making me crazy. It has now subsided somewhat, a sure sign that I'm getting back to normal. (I almost always have a tune of some kind going through my brain, often subconsciously. At just this moment it's a k.d. lang song, "Sorrow Nevermore.")
This morning I'm off to a book store to try to track down a book for a student. The library ordered it from Amazon but it's on back-order and not due to arrive for more than a month, so I thought I'd try some local shops. It would be nice if she could have it to read during the winter break.
Here is a belated addition to the Wine Zoo -- Horny Owl from South Africa, which we came across in a wine shop on Sunday evening and bought solely for the amusing label. (I'm a very shallow wine buyer. I freely admit it.) Actually it was pretty good!
(Top photo: Doors near Bond Street in Mayfair, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.)
Monday, December 2, 2013
Yesterday Dave and I got up with the morning call to prayer, just before dawn, and by 11 a.m. we were back in London. Everything went smoothly, although we had to run to our plane because we spent a little too much time browsing around the Istanbul airport trying to get rid of our last Turkish lire. We bought one of those blue glass talismans to keep away the evil eye. Maybe it helped us catch our flight on time.
We spent the day on laundry, getting some rudimentary groceries and dog food, and collecting a very excited Olga from the kennel at 5 p.m. Apparently there had been another incident in which she destroyed a child's ball. I did not ask for the specifics.
When we got home from the kennel, Olga ate a special can of food and then immediately crashed in front of the fireplace, sleeping so soundly that I could stand over her with the camera and not wake her. She radiated happiness.
I felt the same way, falling in to bed last night. We ordered pizza and tried to watch "From Russia With Love," parts of which were filmed in a much-less-crowded Istanbul, including a famous scene in that cistern we visited. But I got so sleepy before the end of the movie that I gave up and went to bed, and slept soundly for nine hours.
And now, back to work!
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I walked six miles to take this photo. I'm not even kidding you. I saw these sidewalk telephones from the bus on our tour Friday and I knew I had to get a picture somehow -- so I got up early yesterday and walked across town to find them. I'm sure it seems silly when I'm surrounded by so much history and architectural splendor to fixate on two big plastic daisies, but anyone who knows me will not be surprised.
Then I braved a public bus to get back! I only had a vague idea what I was doing, but I found a bus headed in the right direction and risked it. The driver didn't even make me pay, probably because I didn't have the proper tokens or tickets or whatever.
I got back to Dave in late morning, and we set out for Topkapi Palace, the home of the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. First we stopped in an outdoor cafe near the Blue Mosque for some more thick Turkish coffee -- which I love -- and listened as the exotic, mournful call to prayer rang out from the minarets.
Topkapi is a large complex of buildings and courtyards, with lots of Arabic calligraphy and blue floral tiles similar to those in the Blue Mosque. That's Dave above in the Harem section, where the sultans lived with their many concubines.
We watched hooded crows bathing in a fountain, and had lunch at the palace restaurant, on a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus.
It was a beautiful clear day, and as the sun began to set in the afternoon we had amazing views of the city. Not suprisingly, Topkapi is positioned on the best real estate in Istanbul!
Finally, last night we went to a restaurant called Asitane, which serves traditional Ottoman Turkish food. The menu indicates that some of the dishes date back to the 1500s, though how accurate the modern interpretations are, I'm not sure. In any case, it was delicious -- I had chestnut soup, quince stuffed with ground beef and lamb, and a rosewater rice pudding for dessert. Getting there involved two cab rides, which stressed me out a bit given our adventure on Friday night, but everything went well -- we had reputable cabbies this time!
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Yesterday, Dave and I went to see the vast underground water storage cistern that Constantine built beneath old Istanbul in the fourth century after Christ. He used columns recycled from Greek ruins, including the giant heads of two Medusa statues. These days it's an immense underground goldfish pond, and quite impressive.
We took our second bus tour, this time up and around the natural harbor called the Golden Horn. I saw a few things that I hope to go back and photograph today.
We had lunch at the wharf near the Galata Bridge, where you can buy fresh frish grilled on the spot and served on a roll for about $3. A cup of pickled cabbage and cucumbers in beet juice (we think?) is available as accompaniment. It was a bustling spot with lots and lots of Turks -- particularly groups of loud, chatty women in head scarves.
A few girls approached us with a video camera and lists of questions, in English -- things like, "When did you come to Turkey?" and "What was your favorite sight?" They wanted to record their interviews with us. We said sure, even though their English was somewhat impenetrable. We think it was for a class assignment. In any case the questions were harmless and they did not pick our pockets.
We walked back into town through the Grand Bazaar, where we bought nothing.
Finally, we toured the grand Blue Mosque in the afternoon. It's a vast, carpeted space covered with tile, purpose-built as a mosque in the 1600s. It may be the first time I've been inside a mosque, despite my years spent living in Morocco -- there, non-muslims are prohibited from entering. I also recorded part of the call to prayer, in case you'd like to hear it.
Last night, Dave and I went to a popular seafood restaurant and had our first definitively negative experience in Istanbul. We tried to walk to the restaurant, only to find that the Google map on its web site is completely wrong -- it shows the location of a different restaurant with a similar name. (Better get that fixed, guys!) We walked around a bit, knowing we were close, but finally hopped into a taxi in front of the Ayasofya -- completely forgetting the line in our guidebook that says, "under no circumstances should you hire a taxi off the street in front of the Ayasofya." Turns out those taxi drivers are master conmen, and we wound up paying about $43 to go roughly three blocks, through both an unnecessarily circuitous route and a quick-change scheme whereby the driver took my 50 TL note and insisted I'd given him a 5 TL note.
I was so angry at myself for getting into this situation, but what could we do? I just got out of the cab and drank enough wine at dinner to ease the pain.
Friday, November 29, 2013
There are cats everywhere in Istanbul. They're often underfoot in cafes, looking disinterested but actually waiting quite avidly for a handout. Last night when Dave and I went to dinner, we saw no fewer than six lurking outside the door of the restaurant. We even saw several in Hagia Sophia, where we went yesterday morning.
Hagia Sophia (I'm using the Greek-derived name; it's Ayasofya in Turkish) was once the largest church in Christendom, constructed hundreds of years before the huge European cathedrals we all know so well. Construction began in 537 A.D.; it was turned into a mosque in 1453 when the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottomans. Now it's a museum, with an interesting mix of Christian mosaics and immense Islamic medallions.
The marble floors in Hagia Sophia are amazing, worn smooth and sloped by the footsteps of nearly 1,500 years.
Then we got on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses for a drive around the city. We took the huge suspension bridge over the Bosphorus to the Asian side, came back and got off at Taksim Square, the site of violent demonstrations earlier this year. It's a big, windswept concrete space and not all that scenic.
To escape the cold, we ducked into a welcoming-looking but overpriced restaurant called Kitchenette. (I am convinced they scammed us on the lunch check, but that's a long story.) I was amused to see that the plastic mats at the bottom of the men's room urinals all said proudly, "Made in the USA." Who says America doesn't manufacture anything anymore?
By this time it was starting to rain, so we grabbed some Turkish coffees at a nearby cafe -- I drank mine and Dave's, because he didn't love it -- and got back on the tourist bus. It was headed for Asia again, so we went back again. Asia, twice in one day, and the second time at rush hour!
Finally, last night we had a terrific dinner at a restaurant called Giritli, the haunt of the aforementioned cats. It began with an array of 21 different appetizer plates, called mezze, featuring various spiced and herbed green vegetables, fish, beans, eggplant and other starters, followed by a fish course and a dessert. We loved it -- an excellent Thanksgiving dinner!
Early this morning, the moon rose outside our window -- a perfect Turkish crescent. I watched it while hearing the dawn call to prayer from the nearby mosques.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
We're here! We arrived last night about 10:30 p.m. Turkish time, and promptly encountered a minor bureaucratic snafu when we were told we couldn't use British pounds to pay for our visas. (You've got to pay cash, but apparently if you have an American passport you can only pay dollars or euros. The Brits can pay with pounds. Why this is true, I have no idea.) So we darted over to a nearby cash machine and got some euros, and cleared the rest of our official paperwork with no problems.
We grabbed a taksi outside the airport and hurtled along a rainy expressway to the old city, the location of our hotel. So far that's pretty much all I've seen. The photo above shows the view from the hotel's roof terrace, with Hagia Sophia on the right and the Blue Mosque on the left.
When you turn around on the terrace, this is the view: freighters on the Sea of Marmara lining up to go through the Bosphorus. That's Asia over there across the water. We're technically still in Europe on this shore, as I understand it.
The hotel itself is smallish and hosts a regular menagerie of critters in public areas, like tiny colorful finches in cages. These guys sit by a window with a view of the Blue Mosque, which I hope they appreciate.
The lobby features a square, marble fountain containing turtles. When I saw them last night, I said, "Those are red-eared sliders!" Dave said, "How do you know that?" And the answer is, I have no idea -- just some random bit of knowledge I picked up somewhere, maybe back when I was a kid with a pet turtle of my own. (He wasn't a red-eared slider, though. He was a cooter turtle of some kind.)
Off to breakfast and exploring! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!