Travel weary in Europe

I’m tired. I’m worn out. I’ve hit my travel limitations. Is that even possible?

I’ve logged a lot of miles in the past year and the last few months have been overwhelmingly busy as I prepare to leave Paris to live in the Bay Area again. My first year in Paris saw little European travel, so I had to make up for it in the last year. I’ve been capturing them in photographs and can go back in time via Flickr. Here’s a list of cities and areas my poor tired feet have visited
On the train

Iceland and Istanbul were two areas at the top of my list. Fortunately I was able to visit them and they exceeded my expectations.

Iceland

Blue Lagoon in Iceland
I visited Iceland in the middle of January, shortly after the economy took a major dive and the government officials decided to quit. I was a bit worried about what the country would be like, so like a good Parisian I packed some extra cheese and Poilane bread.

Iceland is an amazing country. I remember in elementary school learning about this island with the deceitful name. Oh those tricky vikings who mixed up Greenland and Iceland to keep visitors on their toes…

I didn’t walk around Iceland as much as I fell on my ass and subsequently dragged myself to a pseudo-standing position. I’m a city boy and my idea of snow/ice shoes are not recommended for a country covered in frozen water. Luckily I was able to soak my tired bones and bruised butt in their local swimming pools and the bizarre, yet relaxing Blue Lagoon. Soaking in an outdoor hot springs with cold mud on your face while the outside temperature is -3 degrees Celsius is something you need to experience to understand.

Do yourself a favor and purchase some music by Sigur Ros before heading to Iceland. There’s nothing like flying through the clouds and onto the island while listening to their music. In fact, I listen to Sigur Ros almost every time I fly.

I’d love to visit Iceland again. I will visit Iceland again! Iceland Air offers free layovers when you fly to Europe. This allows you to stop for a day in Reykjavik and visit the Blue Lagoon before heading to Europe and back.

Istanbul

istanbul at nightThere was an exhibition of Turkish artwork at the San Diego Museum of Art while I worked there. I can’t say this is what planted the seed to visit this country. I think it also was the compounding interest from everyone that has spoken about its mysteriousness.

Most of the areas I have visited are primarily Christian, the exception being Bangalore, India. Istanbul was the first Islamic country that I’ve been in and the vibe is definitely different. I am agnostic, so I have no preference for one religion over another. In fact, I’ve probably been in more religious buildings of various faiths than anyone I know (except Philippe). That being said, I had a great interest in learning about the Mosques and Islamic culture of Turkey. I also wanted to see the ancient mosaics within Hagia Sophia.

There are several things that stand out in Istanbul.

The prayer calls that punctuate the day become a rythm that you miss as soon as you leave the country.

The Turkish people are extremely friendly and outgoing. It’s actually a bit unsettling at first, as you may think everyone is out to scam you. At some point you accept the people truly are friendly and go with the flow.

I was perhaps a bit too trusting while in Istanbul, but it led to some great experiences. The first night I was standing near the Hagia Sophia and was approached by a local man who I expected was a scam artist. But I accepted his offer of a quick tour and he showed me around the area, the Blue Mosque, the columns, and Hagia Sophia. Yes, he did end up asking me if I was interested in buying a carpet, but he was ready to accept no as an answer. I enjoyed the tour and followed him to his favorite rug store.

The rug store assigned the art historian to me and we looked at about 50 carpets for well over an hour as we discussed color, history, symbolism, the construction process, and much more. I told them I was not interested in buying but would love to learn about the rugs as a work of art.

Needless to say, I bought a rug that day. It’s truly special and not something I would have ever found outside Istanbul. It’s a nomadic carpet that features the village the weaver grew up in. They say it was made by a single woman for her dowry, whether that is true or not I don’t care. It’s a beautiful rug and I’ll enjoy it for many years. It cost about $3,000.

The next day, after a long afternoon of walking, I met another man who wanted to introduce me to a rug store. I told him I had just bought one and wasn’t interested. I was, however, interested in finding a hamam to experience the true Turkish massage. I’d walked past a couple tourist joints but wanted to visit a place for locals.

He offered to take me to one if I purchased his entry as well. That seemed fair enough so we hopped in his car and headed to a small working-class neighborhood near the river. He told the hamam owner to give me the works and it did not disappoint. At some points I thought the guy was gonna leave permanent damage, but it was all worth it. The massage is given while you are laying on a warm marble slab. He uses soapy water instead of oil or powder. In the end you skin is squeaky clean and your body feels amazingly revitalized. The total cost for both of us was about 100 Euros.
Ted in Istanbul
I also got a tour of the city by one of my former Yahoo! co-workers. We visited Taksim square and toured the vibrant nightlife areas of Istanbul. There’s a great tower that you can visit to see the area. It’s where the first man flew, as he glided from the tower to the riverside below.

Finally, I met one other Turkish man that showed me several parts of the city, including Pierre Loti hill and the important mosque and graveyard at the base. I highly recommend visiting this area and reading the stories by Pierre Loti, a french author that fell in love with the city and its people.

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Taking a quick, and luxurious trip to Belgium

I’m sitting in first class on the Thalys train from Paris to Belgium. They had a great sale and the tickets were actually less expensive than second class. This has been a great trip and I’d highly recommend upgrading to first class on your next Thalys trip.

Here’s the difference:

  • Free wifi! I’ve finally caught up on some blog posts I’ve been meaning to publish
  • Electricity at each chair for the laptop
  • Reclining chairs and more leg space
  • Continuous supply of food and goodies. Just as I thought the food had come to an end they began handing out pink sugar nipples.

Many times you can upgrade to first class for around 10 euros. So look for that possibility and go for it. It’s dang nice.

A visit back in time to Istanbul

There were two places I wanted to visit while living in Europe: Iceland and Istanbul. I made it to Iceland earlier and this week I finally visited Istanbul. It’s a wonderful city and I could talk about what I saw and learned for hours. I’m going to cheat and let my photos speak for themselves.

A Visit to Belfast, Ireland

I booked tickets for Belfast, Ireland about 2 months ago. My mind was saying Dublin while my eyes were seeing really cheap tickets to Belfast. Somehow the two didn’t fully connect until after my credit card had been charged for a weekend in Belfast. I was left thinking “So… I’m going to Belfast, that should be interesting”.

I’m enjoying my whirlwind trips around Europe. Each is giving me context for what I thought I knew about a region. Belfast, is certainly a city that needs some context to understand. As a non-Irish American, my concept of Belfast was borne from news reports of the IRA and subsequent peace accord. I thought I’d be visiting a city torn apart by the “Troubles”, looking more like Athens, with its empty destroyed buildings, than London.

Belfast actually resonated with my experiences growing up in California. Belfast is exactly the same, though totally different than Southern California. In particular:

Similarity Belfast Southern California
Neighborhood vs. neighborhood violence and tensions Catholics vs. Protestants Bloods vs. Crips
Social and Political Murals as a tourist attraction Murals on houses about the “Troubles” Barrio Park murals depicting Latino pride and history
Working class neighborhood destroyed by freeway construction Sailor Town Little Italy
Icons of the troubled era now mainstream Gerry Adams Ice Cube, Ice-T
Cheap takeout food on every corner Fish and Chips Taco Shop

The Food

I really didn’t have much hope for the food in Belfast. Let’s face it, fish and chips, pub grub, and boiled meats are what they are best known for. The only thing I wanted to try was real Irish Soda Bread. The rest of the meals would be… interesting.

I had probably the worst meal of the year in a neighborhood outside Belfast. I should re-phrase that. I had the worst meal of the year that I actually finished. Finished while licking my fingers to appreciate the utter horror of a meal I was… savoring?
Gourmet Belfast food
I was on a bus going who knows where when I decided to get off at the next stop that had shops. I found a Fish and Chips stand that surprisingly had a veggie burger. I also decided to try the exotic sounding “Curry Chips”. Oh what a treasure was in store for me. I wish I could have photographed it, but I had to eat it on the street, in the freezing wind while waiting for the next bus.

The veggie burger looked good and I was really looking forward to it. I haven’t had one in a while. The first few bites were good, but I couldn’t place the patty. Finally I realized the veggie patty was a hash brown. Still, this wasn’t too bad, just a bit less than stellar.

The piece de la resistance was the heaping order of curry fries. Oh my what have I gotten myself into. Imagine big chunky fries, cooked but not crisp, with an otherworldly yellow tint. Now cover these with a “curry gravy”. I don’t know where they came up with this sauce. It was like water, corn starch, and curry powder, only greasier and with even less taste. No, that sounds too culinary. Think of a cross between curry and naval jelly. That would be more like it.

But when in Rome, act as the Romans. I was in Belfast and gosh darn it I was a fighter! I was going to show those curry fries who was boss. I shoved those fuckers into my mouth as I shivered on the sidewalk waiting for the infernal bus to arrive and return me to the hotel. I did it, I showed that yellow Styrofoam container of yellow sticks with yellow goo a thing or two.

Surprisingly, there was more yellow on the horizon.
The best pizza combo ever
The bus finally arrived and I had a nice journey back. It was  so nice that I missed my stop. I got off at an intersection that I recognized and walked by a pizza/turkish kabob shop. I glanced at the menu and noticed the Yellow Pages Pizza: Tomato, Cheese, Tuna, and Banana. My stomach full of curry chips did a complete somersault. Naturally I returned the next day to photograph the menu and get some cheesy chips.

The next morning I had a nice continental breakfast at the hotel and headed off for the century-old farmers market. I was expecting something larger and older, but the market was nice. There was an artist selling paintings for 30 pounds that looked somewhat interesting. However, I was on the hunt for soda bread and finally found a stand that had plain and fruity versions.

I wanted to buy some jams and sauces but they couldn’t be carried onto the plane. Check out the stands in this market for some great tasting jams, marmalade, and curry sauces.

They also had two stands serving whole roasted pigs. How is this even remotely appetizing? These deflated creatures look like a Macy’s day parade float on the morning after. Even if I ate dead animals this would be repulsive.

Comedy Show

I started Saturday with a tour of the central part of town and the docks. I stopped at the new Waterfront theater and found out there would be a private performance for a comedy show on the BBC. They couldn’t sell me a ticket but the lady suggested I return around 7 and there may be some open seats. Fortunately I returned just at 7 on the dot and sure enough an open ticket was available. I need to try this more often.

The Michael McIntyre Comedy Roadshow featured 6 comedians from around the UK, I believe most were from Ireland. I’ve never been to a stand up comedy show as I usually find them boring on the screen (except Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin). However, I found myself laughing much more than I expected.

At one point McIntyre was talking about salt and pepper being the leaders. All the other spices were jealous of their position on the table. He mentioned other leaders and at one point asked the audience to clap if they didn’t Google stuff; to prove Google was the “leader”. You guessed it, I was the sole person in the entire theater that started clapping. I was hoping he wouldn’t come back and ask why I don’t Google stuff.

“I work for Yahoo! and build search engines in my spare time” would have been my answer. What a pretentious answer.
Deail of a Belfast dry docks
I don’t use Google search. I hate how they assume I want French results when I’m located in France. Let me choose if I want local results. I also don’t use gmail for anything important, google toolbar, or google desktop search because I don’t trust them. I don’t trust what they are doing when they track your every move, document, and click. That’s just too much information.

Yahoo! collects info as well, but they are much more upfront about when they collect and share data. Who knows what Google will do in ten years when they have a complete history of your searches, emails, phone calls, friends, physical locations, etc.

The wharf

Belfast has an interesting wharf with an art walk studded with sculptures. The most intersting parts were the hidden vestiges of the life a century ago. There were two old dry docks hidden behind some large construction areas that had great structural lines. There were also two churches that were unfortunately closed. One looked like it hasn’t been open in a long time.

Sailor Town was a working class neighborhood with cheap housing and pubs for the men who worked the ships. It looked like it was a lively community. However, the city tore it into pieces to build new freeways and larger port access. This community is now a series of empty buildings, vacant lots, and some signs of rebuilding with an eye towards Yuppie condos.
leftovers in Sailor Town
This reminded me of Little Italy in San Diego. This Italian and Portuguese neighborhood was filled with tuna fishing families. The community was split into two during the construction of the large Interstate 5. The original families disappeared as the tuna fleets left San Diego. Little Italy is now a tourist area centered around the original Filippi’s pizza restaurant and surrounded by Yuppie condos.

Next to the wharf is the Cathedral Quarter. This neighborhood has been on the docket for renovation for many years. The restaurants and night spots are the only bright spot in a downtown that closes at 5 p.m. Unfortunately it is mostly upscale joints and you need to head to the outskirts to find a quick bite to eat.

The Belfast kids

How many times have you heard someone say “When I was a kid, we could roam the streets without a worry. Nowadays a rugrat can’t even play safely in their front yard”. In Belfast, the kids are given that kind of freedom and safety. Packs of roving rugrats run up and down the streets, ride the buses, play in the lots, parks, and basically make themselves a nuisance. Can you tell how much I enjoy being around kids?

To prepare for the trip I watched Henry Rollins do a spoken word performance in Belfast. He told the story of being scared of a bunch of Belfast teenagers walking towards him on the street. Rollins… scared? Give me a break. The angriest man in punk rock? Black Flag! My War! Search and Destroy! Henry Fucking Rollins was scared? I don’t believe it for a second.

But I started to see what he means. Every kid walked around like he had a chip on his shoulder. Especially when there were more than one around. I’d see the boys act as gentle as possible when with their mothers and butching it up as soon as they were away. I still don’t believe Rollins was scared. Personally I never felt threatened; more amused by the behavior.

The teenage girls need to go into a twelve-step program for makeup. Those bonny old lasses were tarted up like veteran hookers on a Sunday morning. Not to mention some really bad hair styles. It’s no wonder the little boys have chips on their shoulders.

The troubles

I won’t even begin to act as if I understand the conflict in Northern Ireland. I came to Belfast with some pre-conceived notions. I thought the IRA were the tough guys and the Protestants were more meek and hidden. That probably comes from being a protestant by birth, although I was raised agnostic and consider myself agnostic. I think of Protestants as mild-mannered folk, not very exciting, maybe even Scottish.

I was surprised to see the majority of the murals were Protestant. Further, the protestant murals were very militaristic and anti-catholic. To be fair, I looked for pro-catholic murals but couldn’t find more than a few. So there could be the equivalent set of angry murals on both sides, I just did not see them.

I met several protestants while walking through the neighborhoods. There was a strong sense of pride. They were also hesitant to give me directions towards the other side, several of them gave me directions that led me towards more protestant murals and away from the Catholic section. They even acted as if they didn’t know where they could be located.

I also came across one of the most passive-aggressive scenes I have ever seen. At first I thought it was a rubbish bon fire at the border of the protestant housing. Down the street is a tall wall separating them from the Catholic Falls section. This is the scene of many skirmishes over the years.

I didn’t realize until after I walked around the wall what the fire was doing. The entire neighborhood reeked of burning plastic, rubber, and melamine. It wasn’t strong enough to make you sick, but it was irritating.

In the Catholic section I came across the Clonard Monastery. The interior walls were covered with ornate mosaics. It was preparing for a candle-lit mass and I was torn between returning to see the mass and going to the comedy show. I usually find Catholic ceremonies to be tiring. They can be beautiful, but they’re so regimented an outsider has no idea what is going on. Still, the church must be magnificent with the candles lit. I spoke briefly to the priest. He was charming.

Next to the church is Bombay street, the scene of a fire bombing that became a turning point in the conflict. There was a somber memorial park that contrasted strongly with the previous, garish memorials I had seen in the Protestant neighborhoods.

I don’t want to sound like I’m pro-Catholic. I really don’t have a position and think that inter-religion hostility is a bunch of bull crap. Belfast’s regrowth and prosperity during the recent peace years will hopefully keep it from falling back into discord. I know I wouldn’t have made the journey 10 years ago.

I’m glad I accidentally chose Belfast over Dublin. I wouldn’t say it was a pretty city. I didn’t come back with beautiful photographs of the landscape, buildings, and such. However, it is an interesting city and you need to look beyond the big pictures and start looking at the small details. Belfast is more than the Troubles. It’s more than sectarian battles. It’s more than a city filled with pubs and an active port. It’s the people that make it fascinating, take some time to talk to the cab drivers, the people in the market, or those on the street.

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