Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Should Be Reading Mark Twain

"We came out from under the solemn mysteries of this city of the Venerable Past - this city which perished, with all its old ways and its quaint old fashions about it, remote centuries ago, when the Disciples were preaching the new religion, which is as old as the hills to us now - and went dreaming among the trees that grow over acres and acres of still buried streets and squares, till a shrill whistle and the cry of "All Aboard - last train for Naples!" woke me up and reminded me that I belonged in the nineteenth century, and was not a dusty mummy, caked with ashes and cinders, eighteen hundred years old. The transition was startling. The idea of a railroad train actually running to old dead Pompeii, and whistling irreverently, and calling for passengers in the most bustling and business-like way, was as strange a thing as one could imagine, and as unpoetical and disagreeable as it was strange."

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

The above quote was in a Munich, Germany museum. We visited Munich back in December for Christmas Market-palooza. One of the museums as well as the popular tourist site, The Residenz, had tons of artwork, paintings, etc. from Naples. One of the museums was even featuring an exhibit on the Campania region with photographs taken by George Sommer in the late 1800s. And we had fun finding photos in Munich that were taken from the area right by our house.
I have not read The Innocents Abroad, but it is on my Kindle. Now let's just hope I get to it before we leave Italy (not likely, but one can dream).

Friday, August 24, 2012

The 150 Year Church

One of Gaudi's finest achievements is La Sagrada Familia, a church begun in 1882 (Gaudi joined the team in 1883). Construction is still ongoing, due to be completed in 1926. Amazingly, the halfway point of construction was just passed, in 2010! La Sagrada Familia is full of unique, incredible details and perfectly exhibits a meeting of Gaudi's two loves of nature and religion. While I can certainly appreciate a beautiful church with paintings and mosaics and marble work and carved wood altars, La Sagrada Familia is something completely and utterly different, yet still a place that fills the spirit with glory.
The Passion (or Crucifixion) Facade faces west. Stark and striking, the sculptures are harsh and angular and sparse, meant to invoke a feeling of bones.

The simplicity allows focus and reflection, and the expressions show the emotion. This facade is in deliberate contrast to...
The Nativity Facade, a riot of sculpture with tons of nature scenes. This facade reminds me of the dripping sand castles I used to make as a child. Gaudi actually intended for all the figures to be painted in different colors. There is another facade under construction, so we did not get to see it due to the coverings and cranes, but it will be the Glory Facade (Ascension).
The interior is probably my favorite church interior of any I've ever visited. It is filled with columns meant to suggest trees, and with artfully placed natural lighting, the feeling is of standing in a forest. In some places, the columns are placed in a line, while in others, they wander organically. The columns are fluted and at the top branch out, meeting the next column. On lower levels, colored stained glass lights up the stone in oranges and blues and greens, while the upper levels allow natural sunlight to filter through the "branches."
The chandelier over the altar area is just as unique as the rest of the church.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fantastical Architecture

Barcelona is home to several buildings designed by one of the 19th and 20th centuries most amazing architects, Antoni Gaudi. His work is imaginative and fantastical, with curves and themes and mosaics. He was passionate about nature and religion, and these passions show in his designs. Below are some pictures of one his most famous houses, Casa Batllo, remodeled for a Barcelona family in the early 1900s, and photos of Park Guell, also built in the early 1900s as part of an upscale housing development on a hill overlooking the city. The housing development never really caught on, and today, the park is a lovely place to walk and enjoy views over the city of Barcelona.
Casa Batllo is nicknamed "House of Bones" or "House of Yawns." The exterior is striking, and the interior is filled with flowing, curving lines in walls, ceiling, and staircases.
Casa Batllo is made up of rooms surrounding an inner, completely open area which allows natural light from the ceiling to fill each floor. Blue tile work uses shades of blue to create a trick of the eye as the light grows dimmer lower down.
The roof line mimics a dragon's back and also features a cross to resemble a plant bulb as well as mosaic chimneys.
Park Guell, overlooking the city of Barcelona and the sea beyond.
Park Guell's Terrace features a curving, mosaic covered bench on three sides, a marvelous place to relax.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Barcelona Rewind

I have a few photo projects I'm hoping to complete pre-baby. One of them is labeling photos from our December trip to Munich and January trip to Barcelona. I pulled up the Barcelona pictures today, pulled out my trusty travel journal to jog my memory, and then flipped thru the journal over and over before realizing that I wrote nothing about Barcelona in it. Nothing at all. We went to Barcelona about two weeks after finding out we would have a child in a few months, and by the time that long weekend trip came about, I was in the throes of first trimester sleepiness. I slept for most of the trip. Nathan went out exploring on his own some. I managed to do a few walks with him in between napping. Then the morning sickness set in the day we left Barcelona, and I just neglected both the photos and the blogging. Rather than do a typical trip description, I'll just share several of the photos over the next two or three days.

Barcelona has amazing architecture
The Barcelona Cathedral has a beautiful cloister which also holds a pool with 13 geese. The geese are said to watch over the remains of a 3rd century, Christian girl, who, at age 13, was brought before the town's Consul. He was quite active in persecuting Christians, and the young girl, Eulalia, refused to recant her Christian faith. The Consul sentenced her to 13 tortures, including rolling her down a street in a barrel filled with broken glass and knives, and setting her on fire. She eventually died by either crucifixion or decapitation, depending on which story one reads. Her remains are in the crypt of the cathedral.
Barcelona has a huge, beautiful beach, and along the promenade, there were several sand castle artists who put real fire accents in their castles.
Our hotel was on the edge of one of the best markets we've ever seen, La Boqueria. Each stall was a riot of color, and one of the best things were these fruit juice stalls. One cup was only 1-2 euro and there were dozens of flavors of fruit juice mixtures. So yummy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

With Just a Screwdriver and a Hammer

For anyone concerned about our broken garage door, it is tentatively repaired. Those folks who were concerned include all of our friends here as well as Nathan's co-workers who heard about the problem. Because they grasped the seriousness of the situation in us not being able to get to the hospital located 40 minutes away should I go into labor. The folks who were not concerned include my mother, who is more worried about the fact that I might actually wear my baby in a sling on my chest rather than the fact that I may give birth in the street outside our home while Nathan runs around in the middle of the night trying to find some help. Our family in America came up with ideas such as calling a taxi in the middle of the night. Let me 'splain something - IF we could actually find a taxi company open and answering phones in the middle of the night, there is not a chance on God's green earth that we could actually get them to our house. In America, roads have names and things like street signs and when one tells a taxi dispatch on the phone, "Turn right at Southfork Road," you feel fairly confident that you have now had a productive communication which will end in a positive outcome for you. Plus, handy devices like a GPS will take a taxi driver straight to a specific address. Here in Italy, I would question whether or not we could first even get across our address to a taxi driver on the phone. And then, the chance that they would actually find our house is about nil to infinity nil. Friends with handwritten, specific directions including GPS latitude and longitude cannot find our house. We are not alone in this.  Going to any party will result in the entire guest list calling the host at least once on the drive to ask for further directions.

My best plan for a middle of the night emergency was for Nathan to ride his bicycle on the dark, unlit roads the several miles to the location where our Toyota was being kept. Should he survive this midnight ride, then he would return to pick me up and we would commence the 40 minute drive to the hospital. I did not have a plan in the event he was hit by an Italian driver and left lying in the gutter whispering, "Help, help" with me back at home going "hee-hee-ho, hee-hee-ho." Actually, I don't know if that's what I'd be saying because Nathan is in charge of what my breathing exercises are supposed to be. When that is the best plan we could come up with, it means we spent the weekend praying for no early labor. On Monday morning, I called our Housing office on base first thing to request that they get in touch with my landlord and explain why a garage door that does not open, leaving us with no access to transportation, needed to be fixed immediately rather than "domani" (tomorrow, and a typical Italian phrase that really means "later" - possibly tomorrow, possibly in a few days, possibly never).

Our Housing office was very reactive as they did indeed understand why this counted as only slightly lower than an emergency. They also could not reach our landlord or his mother, so they contacted the handyman (thankfully, I had his number in my phone from last week). He promised to be over no later than noon. And he was, along with one of the other handymen. They showed up at my front door carrying a screwdriver and a hammer, and somehow, those two muscled that garage door open - we have no idea how. I stayed upstairs and after lots of banging about, they called me down to show me the old, frayed cable in their hands and let me know they were headed off to purchase a new cable. They did indeed return, this time with the hammer, screwdriver, a wrench, and some sort of metal cutting saw...and a cable that is not the cable needed to repair our garage door. Naturally, the store did not have the proper cable. This replacement cable, rather than being lots of strands of twisted metal, is lots of strands of thread with some strands of twisted metal on the outside. The store will not have the proper cable for "two weeks, maybe a month." I returned upstairs, listened to lots more banging, and was finally called down to see a somewhat repaired garage door that lifts and lowers. The men explained to me that this cable is not as good, so it may/will break (the certainty seemed to change a lot from might to definite). If it breaks, I should call them. I did try to get more details, but the answers were all the same. The proper cable will come in later. This cable is not as good. It will break at some point, but they don't know when. One more repair job completed...maybe.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Five out of Seven

View of Old Town Istanbul from ferry
While in Asia, we took a ferry trip up the Bosphorus Strait to have lunch at a fishing village, located on the Asian side of Turkey just before the Strait opens to the Black Sea. In one day, we got to see the Black Sea and set foot on the Asian continent. With that, I can now check off continent number five out of seven on my visited list. Unless you are European and consider America one continent. Then my statistic is even better at five out of six. And if you are French and taught that Antartica is not a continent, then I'm home free. Five out five and done. I can stop traveling...(never!).

Our trip of the Bosphorus was a chance to relax, put our feet up, enjoy the brilliantly colored water, and even watch dolphins cavorting about - quite an idyllic break from our walking. The ferry meandered up the Strait, stopping at a few villages, then a longer stop at Andolu Kavagi. The entire town was about one block long and consisted mostly of restaurants serving the tourists who want to go to Asia. I have no problem being one of the masses in this case. As we pulled up to the dock, I was struck by a colorful fishing boat also docked and full of men sewing repairs on a net. So picturesque, which just goes to show how perspective changes everything. For the men, I'm sure they did not feel picturesque. They probably felt hot, sweaty, and tired. Or maybe they enjoyed net repair day at the dock with the fellas.

While eating lunch at our waterside table, we watched two young boys fishing off of an a moored boat and swimming back and forth to the dock. They seemed to be fishing for fun since they then used their catch to torment some hungry, desperate kitties advancing with determination (eventually, they gave in and gave some fish over, thankfully, as I was finding the whole situation a bit sad). The town itself was a bit boring after lunch, although had we mustered the energy to walk to the castle about 30 minutes away, then I'm sure we would have had some lovely views...but it was so darn hot and the path did not appear to have any shade. Returning to Istanbul, we again enjoyed the Turkish architecture of waterfront homes, and for the afternoon, visited the hamam - a relaxing day from start to finish.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ferragosto Woes

August 15 was Ferragosto, an Italian holiday that kicks off vacation time. Some families take the entire month of August for vacation, some take the week of Ferragosto or the rest of the month. But the actual day is marked, in these parts, with fireworks, closed businesses and trips to the beach. For those who cannot take a long holiday, then Ferragosto and the days following are their short holiday, so this year, the holiday days were Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Ferragosto is not the time to go to a market, try to eat at your favorite restaurant, go to the beach (unless you like traffic and crowds), or need a major repair. Naturally, we need a major repair.

Yesterday, Nathan went to work as usual. Later, I went down to the garage to leave for a doctor's appointment and found the garage door would only lift halfway. Our garage door is old, the motor is old, the whole thing acts up periodically, so I just kept opening and closing the door, giving it some pushes to help it along. Open, close, open, close - this went on for some time as in growing disbelief, I realized the door was actually broken, broken. Not just sort of broken. I am used to "sort of broken" with pretty much every aspect of our house - we have to turn the kitchen sink hot water on and off using the shut-off valve underneath the sink, the dryer works sometimes but not others and is on some sort of work schedule that only it knows, the A/C pipe that drains condensation water outside is clogged, so water spends all day spilling all over our back get the idea. But broken, broken is a real problem. Knowing I had about a five minute window left to now actually make my appointment on time, I called Nathan in a panic to have him tell me how to disengage the motor so I could hand lift the door. He refused to tell me, saying the door was far too heavy and I should not attempt it. He would come home from work to do it. At which point my tears started. With the garage door half open, I got into the car, started it so I could blast A/C and try to dry the rivers of sweat soaking my skin and clothing, and just sobbed and sobbed. Then I realized all the Ferragosto beach goers were back to parking on our street (after a parking ticket frenzy a few weeks ago), they could see into our garage as they wandered by with their towels and man purses, and it did not look good to have a running car in a garage with a woman slumped over the wheel. I did not take having a broken garage door well, mainly because I could see into the future, and the future looked like Ferragosto.

Nathan arrived, we realized the lifting cable had snapped on one side, and that meant he could not manually lift the door. With the lifting cable snapped, the counterweights that hold the door up have dropped. These counterweights are inaccessible behind the framing of the garage door. So we had one car out of the garage (thankfully) and one car stuck inside it. We can get by on one car easily. No problem. Except...we have nowhere to put that one car so that we can freely access it. Parking on our street is not an option since two friends came over earlier this week to go out to dinner, and in the hour and a half that we were one block away at our local pizzeria, they both had their windows smashed out. In addition, the police have been issuing parking tickets on our street, since technically, there is a no parking sign posted. Some friends who live up the street were able to house our car for one night, but our longer term option until the garage door is repaired is to park at some other friends' apartment complex (behind gates) two towns over from us. That will work fine, except let's say I go into labor in the middle of the night. The metro train by our house doesn't run after 9pm, so we have no way of getting to our car. And for daytime, Nathan will be getting rides to work, which means if I go into labor in the middle of the day, he will have no car, and I will have no car.

None of these options are workable at 38 weeks pregnant, so we spent all day calling our landlord. It's Ferragosto, so no answer. I decided to go to our Housing office on base in order to have them contact all numbers they have for our landlord. Our Housing office is staffed by Italians who get all the Italian holidays. It's Ferragosto, so Housing is closed. It finally occurred to me to drive to our landlord's hotel and see if anyone was around. And were they ever - the hotel is hopping for Ferragosto. All of Naples seemed to be at the hotel with one glaring exception - our landlord. I knew two people there staffing the place, but they did not grasp the urgency of my problem and did not seem inclined to provide me with any way to contact our landlord. The message, "I need access to my car for when I go into labor!" did not get across. The electrician who fixes a bunch of stuff at our house was there, so I explained the problem, and he came to take a look. This was the condensed version of our conversation:

Him: "You cannot open it manually. It's too heavy."
Me: Just staring at him, but thinking, "Mmmmm-hmmmmm. That's what I told you."
Him:  "I cannot fix it because the problem is not electrical. Fabio needs to fix it. Fabio is on vacation in the South."
Me:  "When does Fabio return."
And then I got the shoulder shrug. I knew it was coming and had been dreading it. "Maybe on Monday" was the very hesitant reply.
Me, pointing to our one car parked on the street:  "I cannot park the car on the street [and explaining why]."
Him: Staring at me, then the garage door, then back at me.
Me:  Staring at him, then the garage door, then back at him.

Note to self: Do not ever have a serious, but non-emergency, situation during Ferragosto. Also, do not go into labor before due date of September 3.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to Clean an Italian Home

I have a new favorite person in the entire world. With apologies to my family, my favorite person is now our housecleaner who started a four weeks ago. I love her. I love her so, so much. Anna comes every other week and makes my house shiny. She does things like dust the chandelier and tops of the fans, washes windows, and wipes the dust that is built up in between the radiator tubes. She also rearranges things to look a little nicer as she dusts. I have fun walking around the house after she's left to see what was not up to her organizational standards. Why, oh why, did we wait so long to hire her?

Many Americans living here have housecleaners. One lady (American with Italian roots) told me that is expected for us to hire one as a form of social welfare. Naples is a very poor city, with unemployment hovering around the 30% mark. Despite how little we might think we have, compared to most in this region, we are on the higher end of the socioeconomic scale. Thus, we should hire people to work for us in order to create jobs. Which reminds me of the most recent episodes of Downton Abbey I've been watching (if you don't watch Downton Abbey, immediately stop reading and go add it to your Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes watch list!). The thought that we were expected to hire help was just ludicrous to me, and since I stay home during the day, why on earth would we hire a house cleaner.

After two years of living here, I know why. Because Italian ladies know how to clean Italian homes. This is an undefinable, inexplicable concept. Sweeping and mopping should be the same everywhere...but it is not. Over the years, we have lived in houses with all types of flooring - carpet, wood, tile, and I've always been able to clean properly. Not so, here. One problem is apparently that I have been using the wrong equipment. Anna's most recent visit included her informing me that my mop does not work, and she will need to buy a different one for her to use and me to have in between her visits. (She said this very nicely and phrased it as a question, though, since I will be reimbursing her for said mop.). And while I think having a housecleaner is a very fancy development, before you think we are living too high a life, I should note that cleaners here are much less expensive than in the U.S., typically charging between 7-10euros per hour (roughly, $8.50-12.50).

As I've gotten larger, less mobile, and more swollen, and in preparation for post-baby life, we thought we would finally cave and try having a housecleaner. The Turkish hamam was temporal luxury. Anna is just pure, permanent decadence.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I Lied

I lied about my favorite activity in Istanbul being the Carpet Show. My favorite was the hamam (Turkish bath) visit. My friend and I were determined to fit in a hamam, and we'd read an article in Travel & Leisure about an old bath complex from the 1500s that had recently been restored  to its original function: The Ayasophya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. The picture looked gorgeous and the description listed sounded wonderful. We knew a hamam involved a washing/skin scrubbing and/or a massage and that hamams typically have a cold room, tepid room, and hot room. That was the extent of our knowledge. One late afternoon, we decided that the time was upon us, so we headed down to our lovely hotel manager with the name and address of this particular hamam. He informed us that this hamam required a reservation and promptly called for us, spoke at length giving our names, then hung up and said, "You must leave now, you have a reservation in 15 minutes." The hamam was just a couple of blocks from the hotel, so we grabbed our bags and headed out.

Upon arrival, we entered into a high ceilinged lobby with a fountain in the center, low couches along the center, sunken area, and wooden lockers and changing rooms behind carved screens. Everything was pure luxury. Since both a hot, sauna like room and a massage were out for me, I'd intended to just pay whatever fee there was and spend my time in the tepid room. But the front desk ladies had reserved for both us a slot that included washing and massage, and they assured me that I could participate. My friend and I were handed a thin towel (like the one I mentioned in the Grand Bazaar post) and a plastic bag filled with shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and scrubbing. We were directed to lockers to strip down all the way, wrap up in the towel, and then to meet a lady at the door to the back rooms. (This hamam was fully segregated - not a chance would I have been in my birthday suit in a mixed room!).

The lady guided us through the tepid room into the hot room, which had a humongous, marble slab in the center, beneath a glass dome letting in light. On the sides of the room were marble alcoves with gold faucets and buckets. We were each seated at a faucet, and the lady began pouring hot water over us, then instructed us to continue on our own. Just sitting in that decadent space with hot water to pour rather than a bathtub was luxurious. Then we each had a lady approach us. We were taken back to the tepid room, which was lined with a large, marble bench and more faucets. There, we had the top three layers or so of skin scrubbed off of us. My masseuse had me look down at all the skin she was scrubbing off, and it was not a pretty sight. That scrubbing down is one of the best experiences of this entire pregnancy. My skin has just been sooooo itch. My friend was taken back into the hot room for her massage, but my masseuse was ever so careful with me. She suggested that she provide a massage in the tepid room, and reassured me that the massage would be very gentle, and was she ever.  But first...the soap bubble cover. She filled a bucket with water and soap that smelled like Jasmine (but we later found out it was called Judas Tree), wrung a cloth into the soap, then flapped it about until a bunch of tiny soap bubbles formed on it, and those she wrung out all over me - much like a bubble bath without the bathtub. This continued until I was just one giant soap bubble lying atop a marble slab. Then the massage began, and as promised, she was very gentle, and she asked me every couple of minutes if I was okay. From starting in the hot room at the faucets until the very end, every time I had to move, she grabbed onto my arm in a vise grip that ensured if I stumbled, she was not about to let me go down. At the end, she had me wrap in a clean towel and escorted me back out into the cold room/lobby, where she served fresh and delicious lemonade.

From start to finish, the hamam experience was the utter lap of luxury. I'm not one for massages. I like the spa as much as the next girl, but I like body wraps and facials. NO massage. The hamam was completely different and instead, was a bit like a return to infancy, where someone is in charge of everything from bathing to wrapping you up in a towel. It was a chance to relax and let go completely, allowing other people to be in charge of my every move. A treat, indeed.
Because photos were absolutely forbidden (for obvious reasons), you'll just have to use the link above to see how impressive this hamam is!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Talking Turkey

Spice Market
My friend and I did manage to fit in a bit of sightseeing amongst our Grand Bazaar obsession. We walked around the Old Town, had an all too brief visit to the Spice Market (just as fascinating as it sounds), and hit the top spots of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

Interior of the Blue Mosque
Many of the mosques are open to visitors as long as it's not prayer time. We had a fantastic habit of arriving at the mosque just as the Closed sign was being set out, so we ended up visiting only a couple.The Blue Mosque is actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque...but there are loads of blue tiles decorating the interior, so it's more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. All over Istanbul, the tile work is simply stunning. Mosque interiors are no exception. Since living in Italy, we're quite familiar with the protocol of covering knees and shoulders and had dressed accordingly. In the Blue Mosque, however, we had to cover up completely with scarves we had in our purses as well as loaner scarves - we had loaner scarves tied around our waists that fell to our feet, scarves tied around our necks to cover our arms all the way to the wrists and scarves over the head as well. While the coverings worn by some Muslim women are quite beautiful, we looked like peasant women in from the fields for a day in the Big City. It was wall to wall crowds and stifling hot, so we spent all of about 8 minutes taking in the beautiful interior before escaping to the fresh air.

Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia, built around 350 (although the current structure was built in the 500s), was an Orthodox basilica for 900 years. In the 1200s, it became a Catholic cathedral, then went back to being Orthodox until the mid-1400s, when it became a mosque and was in use for the next 500 years or so. In the 1930s, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum, which is what it is today. Although it's not a museum as we'd think of one, but basically just an empty building one can walk around and enjoy the decorations. When it was converted to a mosque, it became the model of architecture for many other mosques, which I found to be a fascinating tidbit. And makes me wonder how the cathedral architecture of the 1200s and on in Europe diverged from these earlier, Christian churches.

We also visited the Cistern...actually one of hundreds of cisterns that are underneath the city, but this one is one of the largest. If you've read my post on the Piscine Mirabile, a cistern not too far from our house and serving the ancient, Roman cities in our area, then Istanbul's cistern looked much the same, only about four times bigger. There are walkways that held us above the water covering the floor (in which there are fish!) and led to the Medusa heads. In the back of the cistern are two Medusa heads turned on the side and upside down, respectively, and holding up columns. There is no definitive reason as to why the Medusa heads are there and why they are not right side up, but today, they make for interesting photos.
The Cistern

Absolutely amazing tile work everywhere we looked

And our final tourist site was a visit to Topkapi Palace, where mainly, we wanted to go to the Harem. I found out, much to my surprise, that the Harem is not what we think it is. While the Harem is where the women of the Palace lived, as well as the Sultan himself and the children of the palace, the Sultan did not have "access" to all of the concubines. In fact, for the most part, his mother ruled over the Harem. She and his Senior Wife picked his other wives or concubines, and the Sultan was allowed to have no more than five women with whom he could have relations. Since getting and then holding onto power was key, imagine the women the Mother and Senior Wife would pick...and what a backstabbing place to live the Harem must have been. We focused on the Harem, and the incredible tile work that covers every wall, and then hurried through the rest of the palace...and then returned the Grand Bazaar. That may sound shallow, but I've written in numerous posts about how my travel focus has changed. And for my friend, to an extent, as well. We get to see things like churches and palaces and castles all the time, and while each one is still special and still exciting to have the opportunity to visit, the pressure is gone to explore every bit of it and really make sure we're wringing out every last drop of the visit. We can visit a top attraction, take a look see, and head on, still feeling that we enjoyed the site. And for us, the Grand Bazaar was a much more exotic and unique attraction. Which is why you got a whole post on the Grand Bazaar, while all this other stuff is lumped together.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Carpet Show

View of the Blue Mosque and Bosphorus Strait from our hotel's roof terrace
How many husbands would say to their pregnant wives, "I don't want to go to Istanbul. You should just go by yourself." I can think of only one...mine. But as it turns out, a girlfriend had also wanted to go to Istanbul, the timing worked, and we had a great ladies' trip with lots and lots of shopping in the Grand Bazaar, which both of our husbands would have HATED! Naples has a direct flight to Istanbul, so we can get there in about two hours of flight time. And guess what Turkish Air gives its passengers in that two hours - a printed menu with food choices for the full meal they serve to you. And you get a free, checked bag. How quickly have I forgotten how pleasant flying used to be. Turkish Air just set the stage for the rest of the our vacation. I was expecting Istanbul to be super exotic, out of this world different. Instead, we found a clean, efficient, beautiful city filled with pleasant people. Walking the streets was like visiting any other large, nice city, except this one was filled with the calls of the muezzin five times a day.

A Grand Bazaar Portal
Our hotel, Hotel Nena, was right in the Old Town, just a couple of blocks from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and a phenomenal view from the roof terrace, which doubled as our breakfast room and held the best breakfast buffet I've had at any hotel, ever. My friend and I quickly agreed that our first stop on Day One should be the Grand Bazaar, just in case we needed some extra time there. And upon entering the portal, we fell into some sort of Ali Baba time warp in which time both sped up and slowed down. As we wandered the alleys, explored the nooks and crannies, found a "hidden" courtyard for a sit down lunch, stopped for Turkish coffee breaks, and yes, even attended "Carpet Show," we stumbled out of the exit that afternoon having spent over seven hours inside. Seven hours! Time twists on itself inside, just as we twisted in and around the maze of streets and shops.

By the early 1600s, the shops and alleys comprising the Grand Bazaar had been covered, making it one of the oldest covered markets in the world. It has over 60 streets and I've read conflicting accounts of the actual number of shops, but the range is from 3000-4000. Much of the Grand Bazaar today is touristy (with daily visitors in the hundreds of thousands) and sells cheap, low quality goods at inflated prices. We had to search for the good stuff, but we found it! Our lovely hotel manager had offered to tell us where to get the stuff we wanted at lower prices elsewhere in Istanbul, but part of the allure of the city is the Grand Bazaar and the magic that the name conjures. When I use my Turkish towel at the beach (a thin, lightweight, cotton towel rather than our typical, terry cloth towels), I am transported back into the time warp. What did we buy...enameled, copper earrings and silver pitchers and copper teapots and pillowcases studded with old kilim pieces and harem (genie) pants and Turkish towels and kilim pillowcases and gorgeous scarves...and since 80% of visitors to Istanbul return home with a carpet, we felt compelled to bow to peer pressure.

"Carpet Show" (our name) was one of our most entertaining events all week. We had in hand the name of a shop tucked away off the main streets and considered very reputable with his offerings. My friend was interested in buying a rug, I was not. And so began Carpet Show. But first, of course, we were provided with tea. The first carpet brought out was for show only - a modern, Turkish carpet knock-off created in another country and sold by unscrupulous dealers as a real, Turkish carpet. This was to "train our eyes" to see the difference - we studied the colors, the workmanship, and so on. Then came our options. Most carpets were a minimum of 35 years old and sourced from various tribes around the country in which they were dowry rugs - woven for a special gift upon marriage and thereafter, used only for very special occasions and usually as something like a table covering rather than a floor rug. The shop assistants laid out rug after rug after rug. We exclaimed, we looked at the map to see the regions of origin, we studied the colors and the knotting on the back and the technique used. My friend found a rug she loved, and then...despite the fact that I was NOT buying a rug...the shop assistants brought out a rug I fell in love with - a Noah's Ark rug (covered with animals) on a black background and woven by a tribe from Mount Ararat. How could I resist! So as not to be impulsive, we both agreed that we should wait until the end of our trip and make sure we were not under some sort of Grand Bazaar induced haze. And to check with our husbands since the rugs are not exactly inexpensive. The great thing about waiting was that at the end of the week, when we returned for our rugs, we got treated to a second "Carpet Show," just for fun. Then the owner of the shop took us to his museum shop with some incredible pieces of clothing and rugs and even allowed my friend to try on a very old, bridal jacket.
Our lunch courtyard
And here is why the trip to Istanbul being a ladies' trip worked out. Nathan had recently gone to Bahrain and purchased two rugs, so he'd just had Carpet Show of his own. When I returned from Istanbul raving about Carpet Show and how much my friend and I loved it, his response was, "Are you kidding! I hated it! I couldn't wait to get out of the store." At that moment, I knew that "Maybe you should just go by yourself," had been one of the best things he's said to me...this year, at least.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Nathan Goes Kayaking

While I was in Istanbul in June, Nathan decided to take our heavy, sit-on-top, plastic, tandem kayak out for it's maiden voyage in Italy. Below is the email I received from him:

[After a rough start to his morning, he] "set about putting the kayak dolly together. 
What a pain. It was like a Chinese puzzle - straps and extra pieces - a total disaster.  First, it took me an hour just to locate the parts in the garage closet (btw, everything is soaking wet and covered with slimy, fetid funk),  so the garage now looks like a band of gypsies sacked the place [editor's note: this is not a prejudicial comment, but rather a reference to some specific bands of gypsies who live here in Naples and are responsible for a great deal of pickpocketing and car break-ins at shopping centers]. 
Off I go down the crowded (i.e. beach trafficked) streets of Lucrino whilst dragging a 17-ft kayak (twice as long as most of the cars on the road). Imagine the stares! 
I get to the beach access point and am accosted by some schmuck who thinks it's his job to control who/what gets through. There are poles set up across the pathway under the tracks to prevent cars (and kayaks?) from getting through. However, [not so] remarkably, the tunnel is crowded with scooters.  He looks at my insanely huge kayak and simply shakes his head in the "no" direction. Pretending to not understand the Italian (and international) "no" gesture, I turned the boat on edge and shimmied through the poles and perilously past the line of incredulous ragazzi perched, smoking and/or making out, atop their scooters in the tunnel to the second set of barricades, on the beach-side of the tracks. This guy obliges and removes them since it's clear I am not going to acquiesce to their self-aggrandized sense of import. I'm in. 
But now I am faced with a sea of humanity positioned menacingly between me and the actual sea. There is no way I am going to get this boat in the water without crushing at least 143 Italians in the process. Add the awkwardness of 184,000 people who seemed to hush and stare as though I just landed on Earth aboard my 17-ft pointy orange spaceship.  If I could peel my humanoid face off and expose a reptilian countenance, I may have had better luck by scaring them off with a flick of my forked tongue and the jaundiced gaze of my lizard eyes. 
I dragged the ark to the far end of the public beach and found the narrowest part of the beach where I had to interrupt only one young couple's make-out session in order to put to sea. Lots of yelling and reluctant movements, but I was in the water. I hurriedly paddled off amidst what seemed like the ire of the entire Italian population and briefly considered paddling back to the States. 
So, there I was finally with some peace. Naturally, I immediately started wondering how I was going to get this boat out of the water. I resolved to paddle until the start of the Italy vs. Spain soccer match that was to air in roughly 5 hours. This was the impetus for my decision to paddle to Miseno - about 5 times further than was my intent when I [ahem] "planned" this odyssey. 
Notably, Italians in boats are much more civilized than Italians in cars. Maybe they were too taken aback by this unpowered, extraterrestrial craft and just elected to maintain a safe distance. Nevertheless, their conduct presented itself as courteous and respectful - ironically very alien itself, in this part of the universe. 
I paddled straight to the Baia castle and then hugged the coast all the way to Miseno (about 2 hours). Lots of people on the shore and scattered about the various breakwaters in Baia, Baccoli, etc.  Lots of quiet anchorages with people splashing around, making out, and lazing in the sun. Very nice paddle but for the constant staring, pointing, and general disbelief among the natives of this strange land I have only begun to explore.
I explored some coastal caves, lingered and eventually stopped on a beach in the Miseno harbor (next to the Guardia Finanza marina), ate an energy bar, and then headed back. The wind shifted and made for a long, hard paddle through the mussel farms (about 2 hours). 
Upon reaching the Lucrino beach, my fears were assuaged, and I found a spot to land and drag the boat up. My suspicion was at least partially correct and the beach was roughly 30% as crowded as when I left. Now, I had to field a multitude of questions about the boat, its wheels and why I do these things. The answer to how far I went was invariably received with a stout "MAMMA MIA!" and a horrified look upon their realizing that I may have actually come from another planet since I am capable of propelling my craft at least as far as Miseno. 
Getting up to the house was no big deal, I think because most people were home getting ready to watch the soccer match - still an hour away. 
I parked the boat in the garage, poured myself a deserved beer, and watched the natives in their second favorite activity - second just after making out on the beach."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Why We Pay To Go To the Beach

I grew up going to beaches along Florida's Panhandle. They are free, beautiful, and clean. We lived in San Diego. Lots of free, beautiful, clean beaches. Mississippi - close enough, Key West, yep. When we moved to D.C. and started going to the Chesapeake Bay, we noticed some towns had small beaches on the bay for which they charged a fee for non-residents. That was weird. Then we moved here. In Naples, there are only a few free beaches. One of them happens to be a block from my house. I thought this was fabulous until I realized just what paying for a beach spot gets me. For somewhere between 10-20 euros (roughly, $13-25), I get a clean beach, a toilet that may or may not be clean and may or may not have toilet paper/soap, a chair, an umbrella, a beach cafe for lunch, and in some cases, a shower or access to a pay shower...and men to walk around the beach, approaching my chair approximately 20 times in four hours to see if I want to buy a watch, sunglasses, sarong, jewelry, or tablecloth. Here is what you get at the free beach:
I think it's clear which side is free and which side is pay.
 I took this picture on my phone while having maternity photos taken by Renee Williams. She has a much better shot of it done with her camera (and her photography skills!). I think it goes without saying that beach maternity shots are done on the pay beach (called a lido or beach club) side of the fence!

In this blog, I try to be really honest about my feelings on living in Italy, and in Naples especially. There are highs and lows. There are things I like and things I don't everywhere and every aspect of life. I try very hard not to let the negatives outweigh the positives and affect my attitude. That said, Naples does not have nice beaches. We've spent this summer visiting beaches in every direction radiating out, from south to Sicily (and to the Cilento area last summer) to east to the Adriatic side of Italy to the islands off the coast of Naples and up the coast to an area called Gaeta. In every direction, one can find clean, gorgeous water and beaches. While Naples has some excellent lidos that keep their beaches raked of trash, you can't change the water quality. That takes a massive change by the entire Neapolitan society, who to this point, has not realized on a large scale that throwing garbage out of cars means garbage in the waterways, that sewage leaks can and should be controlled rather than just clucked over with a shoulder shrug (that's just how it is), and that if you are a free beach goer, you should still take your trash with you at the end of the day...because the next time you come to the free beach, you don't want to have to rake a spot just to put your towel. I love sitting on the beach, and I've done it here in Naples...I especially love being able to snorkel over Roman ruins, which is such a unique occurrence. is why I prefer beach trips out of town:
In Formia, about 1.5-2 hrs in traffic from our house. Clean, clear water.

Vieste, on the Gargano Peninsula (east coast of Italy). Even cleaner, clearer water.

Taormina, Sicily. The cleanest and clearest of all, like swimming in a salty water bottle.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Being Pregnant in Italy

Italy takes it's pregnant ladies very seriously. At least southern Italy does. As we waddle around, people actually move out of the way for us, or at least make some room on the sidewalk. This is a VERY BIG DEAL. In some stores, we have front of the line privileges. In stores where we do not get our own line, if observant cashiers see our bellies, they come to get us out of our place five people back to usher us to the front of a line (this actually happened to me at Ikea). In other places where head of the line privileges are allowed but there is no signage (like the post office), it's quite legitimate to walk up to the clerks and ask to go next (post office lines here are not like what I'm used to in States, as I've blogged about previously - one hour waits are typically the minimum, not the maximum, sometimes in sweltering, closed in rooms with no fans running). Family run stores in which prices are a little on the loose side give you huge discounts on your purchase...or don't charge you at all - for example, on a 100 degree day when your face is beet red and your clothes are wet with sweat, and you walk into a coffee bar to desperately request a large bottle of water. Strangers smile at you all the time. At the airport security line, you get ushered to the priority lane and may even be offered head of the line privileges in that priority line that only has three people ahead of you. In restaurants, you get extra food (at no charge) because you are "eating for two." When getting on the inner tube at the water park's Lazy River, the tube guy who has been throwing tubes at people suddenly stops his gathering of tubes to gently hold your tube for you while you lumber into it. Illegal parking attendants who are charging you to park in a public, free parking spot (and you DO pay him - he is watching your car to prevent break-ins) break into large smiles, offer their congratulations, and gently lay a hand on your belly to try to feel the baby move (I should note here that I really don't care at all when strangers touch my belly - they really just can't help themselves, and it's an expression of their joy at the life I am carrying, so I think it's sweet). Your eighty six year old landlady forces you to lay down on the sofa while she does heavy labor in the yard.

Each one of these things, I have experienced. I am not a very good pregnant lady. I don't really enjoy it all that much, and I often wonder why I can't just have an egg to watch over for awhile. And while I get the whole miracle of life idea as a concept, in actuality, the fact that there is an actual, miniature human being, with working organs and even fingernails, inside of me just seems, at times, a little creepy. But there are two things I enjoy very much. One is feeling Baby Girl kick. Which is an odd dichotomy from my "creepy" comment, but I don't have to make sense. The second favorite is the feeling of specialness the Italians give me anytime I leave my house. I like being pregnant in Italy.