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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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.

Visiting Iceland

Flashback 5th grade, Miss All-breath’s class: Ok kids, the big country is called Greenland, but it sucks. It’s just a big glacier and very difficult to live on. But notice this smaller chunk. It’s called Iceland and is really a cool place to live. It’s actually fairly warm and in about 10 years there will be a band called the Sugarcubes, then Bjork, then Sigur Ros will transform what is thought of as music in the world. So the moral of the story is don’t believe what the Vikings always say. Sometimes they lie. Like when I bought the 50 lb chunk of cheese from Vikings-R-Us and discovered it was really just plastic. Bastards…

Ever since that fateful day in Miss All-breath’s class I’ve wanted to visit this mysterious, fraudulently named country. It was one of my top goals when I moved to Paris in 2006. Fortunately the Icelandic economy crashed a few months ago and I could suddenly afford the trip. Sometimes Bush’s disastrous policies can lead to some good. An international economic crisis can mean good opportunities for travel.

In case you are wondering, we called her All-breath because she drank about a dozen cups of coffee and Tab soda mixed together every morning and her breath would make your hair stand on end.

So here I am eating muesli at my hotel on Sunday morning. The sun won’t rise for about an hour, which is a good thing. I’m going to grab my tripod and camera and photograph the rising sun over the shoreline. I’m sore from yesterday’s tour of the country. But mostly, I’m content. I’ve finally made it to Iceland and it has been wonderful.

The Icelandic people are very friendly and polite. The water tastes like candy. The air is crisp and clear. And the weather is cold, especially for this Californian, but it’s not crazy cold like Chicago or Buffalo. It’s certainly not Alaska or Montreal cold. It’s cold like the coffee you poured 30 minutes ago and thought, ooh coffee…

Speaking of traveling, my lesbian sisters need to get their butch and femme asses over here. Show some support for the new Prime Minister. Don’t expect Dinah Shore Weekend; but you will find an open-minded, friendly country that desperately needs your travel dollars.

Swimming pools

Everyone here swims. Reykjavik has a great Olympic swimming stadium that the city uses as a social area, exercise space, and relaxation. It costs about 1 euro to enter, that includes a locker/key. You can use the indoor Olympic sized swimming pool, but most head outside to swim or soak in heated water while their heads slowly freeze. I didn’t see the hot tubs during my first visit. There is a set of tubs with different temperature water next to the large sauna. You can soak those tired muscles and backs for hours in these while meeting the locals.
Iceland 2009
Today I am going to the Blue Lagoon. It’s like Salton Sea in California, only without the retching stench of rotting who knows what, decaying buildings, and fish bone shores. No, it’s like Salton Sea in that it was created as an accident.

A geothermal energy plant began pouring the cooled water they brought up from the deep below the surface into a shoreline covered in lava rock. This water contains all sorts of minerals, salts, clays, and mysterious healing goodies. People began swimming in this oddly blue pool and bragging about how wonderful it felt. Soon it became the “blue lagoon” with its clay sold in Nieman Marcus makeup areas.

Geothermal goodness

Icelandic Geothermal PowerplantAs a Southern Californian, I feel guilty taking long hot showers. First there is the ever-present drought. Add the energy needed to heat the water. Hot showers equal hot dirty sin in my mind. So imagine my relief to be in Iceland where there is unlimited water and it’s heated by the ground. No energy is used to make the water hot. It feels so good to take a sin-free hot shower.

I visited a geothermal energy plant yesterday. It’s what you would expect: big pumps, turbines, lots of pipes. It also had some interesting guides and even an earthquake simulator. Speaking of which: Where’s my earthquake? I miss them and was hoping to experience at least a 4-5 richter jolt while in Iceland. They have them all the time, but do they save one for me? Nooo.

Falling on my ass

I’m a city-slicker. A warm-weather city slicker. I spent 6 weeks in California this year to avoid the winter in Paris. This leads to my shoe collection. There ain’t a damn thing I own for walking on ice. I went to BHV but they don’t carry shoes for people like me that wear pontoons for shoes. So imagine me trying to walk on icy paths leading to waterfalls, geysers, and overlooks. Oh, it was entertaining! My ass is black and blue from falling all day. Combine that with a backpack and camera fanny pack and I am one tired, sore fool this morning. I think I fell more than the entire tour group combined. I was ready to just sit on my ass and skoot around like a beggar in a Flemish genre painting.

Icelandic food

It’s a good thing I’m a vegetarian. There’s some really gross meat products over here. There’s a shark dish that rots in the ground for three months to be dug up and allowed to aerate for another 3 months. They also eat dried sheep faces and ram balls. And this was before the country went bankrupt!

I brought some goodies from Paris in case the news reports of mass famine were correct. I brought some Poilane bread, clementines, and comte and mimmolette cheeses. Luckily I haven’t been forced to eating crumbs from the bottom of the bread bag. There’s plenty of food here. There’s also some nice restaurants that are quite inexpensive. I had a great mushroom soup an garlic bread for about 7 euros the first night and an Indian meal last night for about 10 euros.

I think I may buy some sheep faces for my friends in Paris. I’m sure they’ll enjoy them.

Search for the mythical Northern Lights

i went on a Northern Lights tour last night. It was doubtful they would appear as the sky was filled with clouds in Reykjavik. However, there was a very slight chance and what the heck.

Our tour bus made a quick stop at a Viking museum next to the Alcoa aluminum smelting plant. They had a mockup of a fantasy theme park based on northern European culture. We then went to the most western part of the country in hopes of escaping the clouds. Although there were gasps of potential wonder, we just stood around in the cold and took photos of eachother and the non-Northern Lit ocean.

Iceland Photographs

I’ve uploaded a bunch of photos to Flickr. I am trying to get used to the digital SLR. The more I use it, the more I think I prefer film. I also realized I ignored much of the advice I gave to my students.

I had my light meter set to spot instead of center-weighted, which requires much more care. I also kept forgetting to cover my eye pieced during long exposures, light can come in and change the meter reading. I didn’t buy a filter for my new lens and the lens got smudged. I forgot a grey card and/or to set my camera’s exposure and white balance to work with snow scenes.Oh, and I forgot to fully charge the battery. I still got some interesting photos and my trusty Panosonic point and shoot worked like a viking trooper.

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