Sunday, December 27, 2015

Keep It All the Year

Since our return on Wednesday, we've been celebrating the season nearly nonstop. We really had to dive in after eight days of no carols, no trees, no Santas, no advertising of Christmas of any sort. As with elections, Christmas with minimal buildup is infinitely more enjoyable than it is after six weeks (or two years, if we're talking elections) of being beaten over the head with a media mallet.

We dove right into Christmas Eve at Klauser and Sue's, where we drank bubbly and ate dates stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, scotch eggs, mince pies, and pork pies, much to my delight (the champagne) and Ben's (the eggs and pies) and, of course, Phil's (all of it). We watched the Kings College Cambridge Christmas Eve carolers and a film of the last part of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, which we'd seen at the Royal Opera but only partially, due to our box seats. Ben was amazed to realize that Mercutio was actually fighting another person on stage left when he was stabbed to death.

On Christmas Day, we returned to Rosslyn Hill (a mere .8 miles from our hotel) for Christmas lunch. It was a remarkable production -- beautifully staged, delicious, and perfect in every regard. We had champagne and hors d'oeuvres, watched the Queen give her Christmas Address, and exchanged presents. Sue and Klauser gave us our very own stockings with our names on them, stuffed with lovely thoughtful gifts of every sort, from a squirrel nutcracker (which we tried out later, with riotously messy results) to yummy sweets.

We then moved on to roast goose and bangers, sprouts, red cabbage, roast potatoes and parsnips, and cranberry sauce, accompanied by a marvelous Bordeaux. There were Christmas crackers, and we tooted a very bad rendition of "The First Noel" with the whistles we found inside. Dessert was flaming Christmas pudding and brandy butter sauce. (Sue somehow managed to avoid setting her head on fire.) We had to walk a little afterward to avoid coma, so Sue took us around the neighborhood in a light rain.

As the day was to end with the Christmas series finale of Downton Abbey (none of the five seasons of which Ben had seen -- or wished to), we repaired back to the hotel for a rest, then walked again to the flat. To our shock, there was laid out a cheese course, Sue's Christmas cake (a fruitcake that died and went to heaven), Sauternes, more bubbly, and single malt scotch. The latter was required to keep Ben in his chair during the two-hour Downton special. By the end, he was nearly in tears. We are pretty sure that his emotion was the result of the deeply affecting storyline rather than unbearable boredom, but we thought it best not to ask.

Our first Boxing Day in England took us to Kew Gardens, west of the city center. ("Plantastic!" Ben exclaimed.) We staggered around the garden, admiring the 1840s greenhouse, the Japanese pagoda, the small aquarium, and the treetop walk. We thought we were hallucinating when we saw parakeets -- but apparently they were a few of the Kingston Parakeets, of which there are somewhere between 6,000 and 50,000, according to the always-accurate Internet. Apparently the originals either escaped from the set of the African Queen in 1951, got loose from an aviary during a 1987 hurricane, or were released by Jimi Hendrix  sometime in the 1960s. After that, we were ready for a beer and Chinese food.

And now it is our last day. Laundry done, bags sort of packed. We've seen In the Heart of the Sea, about the Essex's encounter with the whale that became Moby-Dick. Phil and Ben have been back to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles. In a fit of fearful symmetry, we've had our last meal in the same Indian restaurant where we ate on the day we arrived.  Tomorrow morning Ben will go on to Paris and we will head to Heathrow. At least there will be no snow in Wassaic (I hope)! (Note: WRONG. Damn.)

We have had an indescribably wonderful time. From island-hopping (Mallorca, Malta, Sicily) to Phil's and my first visit to Asia (Ben claims the food is better in Turkey than Mongolia). From making new friends (we'll see you soon, Cynthia!) to hosting a plethora of gracious guests in the dread Bunkbed Room. We're indebted to the London Programme for making the visit possible. And to Nick and Laurie for keeping an eye on the plumbing and making sure our house didn't burn down. And most especially, we are grateful for the kindness, generosity, and innumerable good times Klauser and Sue have shown us. You've made this sojourn more fun than we can say, and we will miss you more than we can say. I feel somehow that London has become one of my heart's homes, and that is all because of you.

See you, once again, on the other side...

...we resolve to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived. -- Moll Flanders

Our final pubs (a total of 44, plus revisits!):

olde indeed
in Kew Gardens, right at the tube station
the last pub


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sacred and Profane

Here are some things we’ve observed and appreciated about Turkey:
  • Everyone we’ve met has been unfailingly kind, helpful, and friendly.
  • There are at least as many stray dogs and cats as there are people.
  • Both landscapes and edifices are breathtakingly beautiful.
  • The roads are excellent, and pretty well marked.
  • Most ladies' rooms have the option of sitting or squatting.  You may use your imagination as to my choice. (No, please don't.)
  • Raki can be dangerous in large quantities.
Our last three days were spent on the Aegean coast, taking in the ancient Greek and Roman sites. We stayed in the charming fishing village of Foca, which was remarkable in that it had almost no ruins at all (except for part of a castle wall). We arrived late in our rental car, found a seafood restaurant (all the restaurants are seafood, all offering the day’s catch at approximately the same price), ate heartily, had a raki, and collapsed.

In the morning, we headed out – late again – to Bergama, aka Pergamon. The site is perched atop a mountain with a road full of switchbacks (we blessed our automatic shift); no buses were allowed to go up the road and people on tours had to take a cable car to the top. Built by the Greeks, starting in the third century B.C., it flourished as a Hellentistic acropolis, and then was taken over by the Romans.  
Once there, we discovered that we were nearly alone in the site, except for the ubiquitous Chinese tourist group or two that we encountered everywhere in Turkey. This vast complex included an enormous amphitheater carved into the steep side of the mountain
with views of the town and farms below, and temples to Emperor Trajan, who seemed to have declared himself at least a demigod, and to Athena/Minerva (including a library that was emptied by Mark Antony and given as a gift to Cleopatra). The weather was warm and sunny, and we were so thrilled to experience the beauty of the place and its views in peaceful solitude that we spent the whole afternoon wandering around in a kind of classical daze.

Another fishy dinner – though Phil bravely ordered something called Shepherd’s Casserole that turned out to be mutton -- more raki, a good sleep, a massive
breakfast, and we were ready to head to Ephesus. As this is one of the most famous and important archeological sites in the world, we were again startled to find we were nearly alone. Apparently, late December, in the midst of political standoffs with Russia and Syria, is a good time to vacation in Turkey.
Unlike Pergamon, which is an acropolis, Ephesus is an entire town, with well-preserved marble streets, ruins of wealthy Romans’ townhouses complete with floor mosiaics, temples, baths, a brothel, a beautiful library with an amazingly well-preserved façade, and an amphitheatre twice as big as Pergamon’s.  In fact, there are two amphitheatres, one that was used for political meetings.

There was also a public toilet, built in a square so that the users could, I suppose, chat with each other while doing their business.  Like Pergamon, Ephesus was first a Greek and then a Roman town, given to the Romans by a Greek ruler who died childless. It was built at the seacoast, though later it silted up, so it’s now pretty far inland. Cleopatra and Marc Antony vacationed there in the winter (we follow a long tradition, obviously), and Cleopatra’s sister was murdered there.

We spent a good deal of time searching for the Roman statue of Priapus, supposedly housed in the brothel complex, but were disappointed to learn that he and his fabled organ had been moved to the local museum. So instead we moved from the profane to the sacred
and set off for Mary’s House, the reputed home of the Virgin Mary after the death of Jesus. According to legend, she went off with John (the Evangelist?), who had promised Jesus he would take care of her, and settled on a stunning hilltop not far from Ephesus. Her house, built of stone, is small and cozy-looking; inside, it is now a chapel, and people of both Christian and Muslim backgrounds make pilgrimages there. The location was utterly peaceful, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that this truly had been her home.
We passed a sign for the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, and Phil, who can’t pass a sign for a historical site any more than he can pass a church with an open door,  turned down the bumpy road. In both Christian and Muslim tradition, the legend surrounding them is that they were either imprisoned for their beliefs or fled from a tyrant and went into the caves in the grotto, where they slept for up to three hundred years, guarded by a dog. The site is a series of caves and stone caskets --  rather eerie.

Despite the many rocks, steps, and fallen columns, Phil only tripped twice on our visits to these ancient sites. This dismayed Ben, who had earlier observed of his incessant clumsiness, "The comedy writes itself."
More fish for dinner! And it was just as fresh and tasty. Our waiter was a Kurd who, as with most people with whom we talked, lamented the state of affairs in the country. He told us it was very difficult to be Kurdish in Turkey; there is a lot of prejudice. (Never, in any of these chats, was Ergodan mentioned. But his face is on posters plastered on the tallest building in any town, and one feels he hovers over conversation.)The fish heads are thrown to the multitude of cats that hang out  around the harbor, well behaved and well-fed. There was more raki as well, though I passed it up – I think there’s a raki cut-off point beyond which it may be fatal to stray.*

Because Turkish Air had forced us to change to an earlier flight, and Phil’s cold had flattened him a bit, we only spent a little while the next morning strolling along the paved waterfront of Foca, gazing at the fishing boats and the tiny fish in the crystal-clear water, dodging cats and petting dogs, before loading up the car and heading to the airport. 
 And thus, Turkey.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

*The following event occurred when Ben and I were having a raki at the local bar: an extremely beautiful couple sat down next to us and started to chat. Turned out they were soap opera stars filming nearby. They joked about how they were married on the show, and he said they would soon be married in real life, which apparently was the first official news she'd heard of it. She seemed not displeased. And then she asked if Ben and I were man and wife. Use your imagination here to picture the hysterical laughter, humiliation, and pleasure this question produced. It was, of course, the highlight of the trip for me. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

No Country for Old Women

Cappadocia may be the strangest place I’ve ever seen. Its main draw, tourist-wise, is bizarre rock formations created when volcanic ash hardened into a soft rock called tuff and was covered in places by lava. As the lava wore away, the soft rock underneath was exposed to forces of erosion that sculpted it into fantastic pillars, cones, and columns. In some places, the rock itself is the draw. In others, it is what local people living there did to the rock.

Our hotel was in a cave. I’d hidden this fact from Phil and Ben, and the look on their faces as we
pulled up (after quite a while lost, of course) made me very happy. Built into the elevated rock wall in the town of Urgup, the hotel was extremely comfortable and truly unique. Our host gave us tea on our arrival and told us that he used to be a mixologist, winning awards for his cocktails in Washington and Brazil. Now, apparently, he is a hotel owner married to a Muslim woman (he is Kurdish), and he no longer shakes or stirs. He pointed us toward a nearby restaurant, where we had the best meal of our vacation. Phil’s dish was a lamb stew baked in a clay pot that was broken to release its contents. Our waiter was quite pleased that we recognized the music playing – not a Turkish local, but Canadian/Scottish folksinger Loreena McKennit.

Phil continued his self-destructive awe at the beauty of Turkey by whacking himself on the head twice and walking into a traffic cone, bruising his shin. But again, that was because there was just too much to look at to waste time staring at the ground. In the outdoor museum of Goreme, we wandered through a thick, cold fog that had glazed every tree branch and grass blade with silver, gazing at the churches and hermit caves carved into the fantastically shaped tuff. In this site, there were monasteries housing desert fathers, and also places where hermits lived outside any religious order, depending on the kindness of the community to survive  Some of the Goreme churches were decorated with frescoes from the tenth century that have survived the centuries virtually intact. As we walked (up many, many flights of stairs; my legs were getting very tired), the sun began to struggle through the fog, creating eerie, beautiful light effects. By the time we’d seen everything, the sun was shining brightly, though not warmly (it was not much more than 27 degrees all day).
After Goreme, we drove through scenery that is nearly impossible to describe but made us think of a cross between Star Wars (part of which was filmed nearby) and
Dr. Seuss. We passed fairy chimneys, which look like arrowheads (or male organs), once believed to have been inhabited by fairies, and conical rocks, and pedestal rocks, tuff with slabs of lava perched on top. We were heading toward the Ihlara Valley, having heard that there were more strange rock formations there, many of which had been carved into churches.

We pulled into a parking lot in the tiny village of Salime (population: 8) and were immediately greeted by a guide, a man who, along with his wife and baby, are 3 of the 8 villagers. He showed us the town’s thirteenth-century mosque. It was in a building
that looked like a shed, but inside it was strewn with layered carpets and decorated lavishly. Then he took us up the very steep (my poor legs!) hill behind the village to see the Salime Cathedral, a stone church carved into the side of a conical lava tuft, with surviving frescoes. I didn’t actually go in because it would have involved sliding down a rock hill and balancing over a narrow rock bridge. My inner physical therapist insisted I wait on the other side, but Phil and Ben took photos.  Our guide lamented the state of business, echoing the Istanbul silversmith’s earlier claim that the political situation had had a terrible effect on tourism.
We drove on to the gorge where the other churches were located and were disappointed to find that we couldn’t drive along it (well, I was disappointed); we had to walk. It was 400 steps down and a much crueler 400 steps back up. I went about 200 steps, marveling at the views, before deciding
that if I went all the way down I wouldn’t be able to return. Phil and Ben continued to the bottom of the canyon, where a chill river ran and frescoed rock churches dotted the cliffs.

That night we returned to the same restaurant. It was just as good a second time, and the waiter put on Loreena McKennit for us again (we are all very fond of her music). We’ve discovered a Turkish liqueur called raki, licorice flavored, that is mixed with water to become cloudy. It’s much like Greek ouzo and a very nice way to end a meal.
We checked out regretfully the next morning, pretty sure we’d never get the chance to stay
overnight in a cave again. We were headed for Kaymalki , an underground village carved out of tuff that went down 8 levels. I am not a huge fan of caves, but this sounded interesting; people had lived there since the 8th century in the Byzantine era, and possibly much earlier. We forewent a guide and started out alone through the labyrinthine tunnels, well-lighted and well-marked. We passed rooms used for food storage, church worship, and living. The ceilings were quite low. Then we got to a tunnel, barely wide enough for a standard American and high enough only for a five-year-old child. Bent double, we got through the tunnel, and a second one. And then we reached a third tunnel, the height of perhaps a three-year-old.  Ben claimed I turned a much whiter shade of pale. I know I started to shake. I couldn’t do it. There was no way. I turned back, leaving the boys to forge ahead. On my return, I passed two guides who scolded me (but became much kinder when I said my back couldn’t manage it) and a group of Turkish women who giggled at my pallor and streaming eyes.
I recovered outside with Turkish coffee (maybe a poor choice for relaxing), while Phil and Ben finished their walk. Phil didn’t see me at the café and was convinced I was lost inside the cave
complex. He begged the officials to allow him to go in search of me, like Orpheus seeking the lost Eurydice in the underworld, while Ben sauntered to the parking lot and found me sitting in the sun.

By the time we reached the town of Uchisar with its remarkable Byzantine stone castle, built into a giant pointed mound of tuff, I was more or less recovered. The castle is not really a castle, but a refuge for townspeople who dug channels and tunnels and rooms in the rock to escape invaders during the Byzantine period. We walked all around the castle; the fog had crept back, turning it to a giant ghostly tuft of meringue above the plain of bizarre rock hillocks. During this day, Phil showed his awe at his surroundings by bashing his skull once and cutting his hand.
We didn’t take a camel ride or go up in a hot-air balloon (two favorite pastimes in the tourist season), but we found Cappadocia strikingly beautiful, unearthly, and more than challenging enough  -- for me, at least.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Flying to Byzantium

We’re in Asia. In the airport on the Asian side of Istanbul, to be exact. It looks pretty much the same as the airport on the European side (though we had to go through TWO security checks here, with just enough time to repack our toiletries and computers in between), but we’re about to fly to Cappadocia, which should be very different indeed.

In the meantime, Istanbul.
Phil was so astonished at this glorious city that, so far, he has tripped over cobblestones, fallen off curbs, and walked into a metal pole. It’s forgivable – Istanbul is quite astonishing. Our hotel had a view of the Blue Mosque from its terrace.  At night – when we arrived – seagulls circled its minarets , wheeling and flashing white in the moonlight. After settling into our room, we strolled
out and stared agog at the Mosque and, facing it on the opposite side of the square, the Hagia Sophia, built as a church in the time of Justinian and Theodora and repurposed as a mosque when Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453.

We found a seafood restaurant with a roof terrace, enticed in by the owner, who told us his seafood was the freshest and promised us free baklava. The food was good, and we fell into bed and slept for ten hours – awakened briefly, at dawn, by a very loud call to prayer from the minarets of the Blue Mosque. It went on seemingly for hours; every time we dozed off thinking surely it was over, it would start up again.

In the daylight, after a big and delicious breakfast, we visited the two mosques. The Blue Mosque, built in 1609 by Ahmet I, is still used for worship, so we had to remove our shoes (the floor is piled with enormous rugs) and I had to cover my head to enter. Its interior is massive, with the blue tiles that give it the name visible high overhead and every inch of the interior ornamented with designs in paint or colored stone.  Worshippers were visible in the front section; tourists were confined to the rear.

We walked across the square, passing a dozen dogs sleeping in the grassy sections. We’d noticed these dogs – mostly lab or shepherd mixes – the night before, and learned that Istanbul has, for hundreds of years, had a problem with large numbers of stray dogs. After the city sent a thousand or more to execution in the 1930s, outraged citizens forced officials to take a different approach. Each stray is now spayed or neutered and vaccinated, microchipped with a medical history, and adopted unofficially by a person, family, or business that keeps an eye on it and feeds it regularly. The dogs are all sweet and placid and seem not to mind their oddly indeterminate status, even in the rain.
In the Hagia Sophia, we were even more stunned. Here, sixth-century Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman art decorated the soaring edifice with friezes, tilework, mosaics, paintings, and odd shields with Arabic writing on them. On the upper tier of the mosque/church, there are wonderful views of the lower level and glorious mosaics of Christian themes from the sixth century. We wandered around for a long time, looking upward until our necks ached and our stomachs told us it was lunchtime.

Not far from the main square we found the Grand Bazaar, also created by Mehmet II. It is a maze of alleyways beneath a beautifully painted roof, filled with stalls selling rugs, jewelry, scarves, leatherwork, glass, and ceramics. Every merchant in every booth tried to convince us to buy. Some of our favorite attempts:

                “Come in my shop! I’m not Osama bin Laden!”

                “Spend some money on your honey!”

                “You dropped something – oh, it was your smile!”

                “What else will you do with all your money?”
It was far more laid-back than markets in Morocco, though the merchants were somewhat desperate – between the off-season and terrorism, their business had been very bad. A certain amount of Christmas shopping was completed. We met a fascinating Syrian silversmith whose exquisite work harkens back to Sumerian cuneiform; he lamented the plight of his country and astonished us with his ability to name our astrological signs and exact birthdates.

We stopped in a kebab house and ate a huge lunch, and then Ben talked us into smoking a hookah (the family that smokes hookah together…well, is quite decadent). It was mint flavored tobacco, and Phil declared it “very relaxing.” I impressed all with my ability, left over from a misspent youth, to blow smoke rings.

After a rest in our room, we wandered out in search of dinner, and found a restaurant where we could sit outdoors under a heat lamp (it was about 50 degrees and damp). Phil ordered a dish he’d seen in a restaurant in New York – fish baked in a carapace of rock salt. It came enflamed, and with plenty of drama the waiter cracked the shell open and removed the moist, delicious fish. (The bill also included some drama, at least for me.)

The next day, fighting colds, we again slept late, and then headed off in the rain to the Topkapi Palace, which Mehmet II built for his residence when he took the city. It was the first place we visited that was crowded, but it was so gigantic that the crowds weren’t oppressive. In the museum section, we saw Moses’ rod (which parted the Red Sea), King David’s sword, part of John the Baptist’s arm, and bits of Muhammed’s beard. We passed through tiled, painted room after room, each more beautiful and extravagant than the last, including one meant only for storing turbans, with turban-shaped openings in the wall. Finally we moved into the harem, where the
caliph and all his wives, children, concubines, and eunuchs lived.  The eunuchs were assigned the task of guarding the harem.

In the afternoon we walked along the tram line to the Spice Market, another bazaar but this time focusing on spices, candies, and coffee. More presents were achieved. The smells of cumin and roasting coffee made us realize we were starving, so we walked to Galata bridge, linking the old part of the city, Sultanahmet, with the newer part. It curves over the point in the Sea of Marmara; on one side is the Bosporus and on the other the Golden Horn. The tram and cars drive over the top part of the bridge, and the bottom part is all seafood restaurants. We chose one and had an excellent meal,
stopping in the middle to go look in horror at the – flocks? pods? murders? – of jellyfish in the water.
We had a half day left in Istanbul, and we took full advantage, rising early (for us) and going out to see the Basilica Cistern from the time of Justinian, where the water for the palace was kept. It was amazingly well-preserved, strange and spooky and beautiful, and the water was full of giant carp. The dozens of columns that support its roof include one with a marble carving of Medusa; she is placed upside-down so as not to turn viewers to stone.

We passed by the carpet museum, and I had to go in; carpets play an important role in the book I’m working on. This is a new museum, and its exhibits of carpets from the 14th to the 18th century were gorgeously displayed.

There was time for one more visit; Phil and Ben went to the Mosaic Museum, while I carried on shopping at a tiny bazaar outside it. I’m a little sorry I missed it; it featured a huge mosaic that was the beautifully preserved floor of the great palace of the Byzantine emperors, dating from just before Justinian and Theodora. It covers nearly 2000 square feet and depicts exotic animals fighting and scenes of hunting, with 150 different animal and human figures.

Now we’re headed to the town of Urgup, which promises its own beauty, mostly natural. We could have spent a lot more time in Istanbul, finding it a fascinating blend of history, myth, and legend -- perhaps manifested mostly clearly in the fourth-century Column of Constantine, built by the Christian Roman emperor and said to have buried at its base the axe that Noah used to build the ark and the oil that Mary Magdelene used to anoint the feet of Jesus.