My Bazaar Treasure

When last we saw our heroes, they were lost in the middle of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, having sworn to Buy Nothing! and yet surrounded on every side by rabid carpet salesmen.

But before we can reveal the exciting conclusion to this mad adventure, we must first take a trip back in time to something that happened before our brave adventurers even left the United States.

Because I am easily amused, Dustin often sends me photos or articles that he thinks will make me smile, laugh, or say “hmm.” I get lots of great cat videos, comic strips, bouncing goats, and that one picture of the dog stuck in the hedge.

Dog in Hedge
Seriously. This is funny Every. Single. Time.

But one day, he sent me this series of pictures, with the following captions also attached.

I, also, had not realized how badly I needed a tiny city on my figure until I saw these rings. Stunning.

So I admired the photo, passed it on to a few friends, and then let it slip out of my mind for awhile.

Back to Turkey. With a name like Sevan Bıçakçı, is anyone surprised to find out he’s based in Istanbul? And with a husband as clever and awesome as mine, is anyone surprised to find out that he found out where the gallery is and planned a visit?

The moment we walked through the very nondescript door located on a tiny street in the old heart of Istanbul, I realized I was out of my league. Two formally dressed gallery assistants waited to greet us. Less than a dozen glass-fronted niches each displayed carefully curated, mind-boggling treasures. Dustin hadn’t told me what we’d find through the door, but the moment I looked into the first display window, I recognized the style.

“It’s like those rings you showed me! With the tiny cities inside!”

“It is those rings I showed you,” he replied.

The gallery assistant wanted to know what we were interested in. “Just looking! Haha, we can’t afford this stuff. Oh, er, is it okay to just look?” The woman’s scarf was probably worth more than my plane tickets.

Of course it was, she assured us. But she didn’t leave us alone with the treasures. She escorted us from display window to display window, explaining how the artist spent four months crafting each ring, carving out the tiny buildings, birds, and flowers from the back side of the large topaz (or other stone), then painting each by hand, in relief, from the inside out.

I do not know how the woman lured us into the back room, where I found myself seated with a cup of tea and a plate full of cookies, but there we were, being shown tray after tray of exquisite works of art which were all too fancy, too big, and too, too expensive for a peasant like me.

We spent an hour or so admiring their treasures and then ever-so-politely bowing out upon learning the price of the ring I’d finally pronounced as the most beautiful (the annual wage at my first full-time job was on par). We laughed our way back down the street, feeling pleased with ourselves for having come so close to such magnificent works of art, and promising ourselves we would some day be rich enough to buy one.

Fast forward back to this.

What could possibly have broken my resolve to slide through the bazaar without getting tangled up in the terrifying process of trying to actually buy something?

As previous paragraphs might have led you to believe, it was a ring. Perched in the middle of a large display of unremarkable rings in the narrow window of a small shop was a big, blingy ring with a tiny building carved into it.

“Do you suppose it’s one of his?” we whispered to each other. “Sure looks like it. I wonder how much one of his rings would cost around here?” “Haha! If you have to offer half of what they ask, just to get close to the real value…”

We moved on in search of the antique book stalls (which we never found), but the image of the ring followed us around. Later that night, as we packed our bags in preparation to fly out the next day, Dustin said, “We should have asked. We should have just asked how much that ring cost. Even if the price was outrageous. I wish we had asked.”

We packed a bit longer, pondering this missed opportunity.

“Our plane doesn’t leave until 1:30,” I finally volunteered.

Now the silence extended as we did the math. The bazaar would open at 9:00. We would need half an hour to walk there, and half an hour to walk back. At least half an hour to find the stall again and ask about the price. An hour’s ride to the airport, to be there at least two hours early.

We could do it.

And so the next morning, we found ourselves back at the stall of Dogan, my friend up there sporting the beard. I started by trying to stroll by casually, just another disinterested tourist. Not a tourist who had come back early specifically to look at a ring. Blasé. Bored. Unimpressed.

Istanbul Bazaar 5
Doo de doo. Don’t mind me. I’m not slobbering on your jewels. Doo de doo.

I was so successful that Dogan didn’t even come out of the stall to heckle us. We had to stick our heads inside and heckle him.

“This one is very beautiful,” he said, unlocking the back of the cabinet to pull out the ring. “Very unusual, very special.” (I see what you’re doing there, Dogan.)

With his permission to touch the ring (one asks permission to touch something that might cost as much as the down payment on a house), I put it on my finger and had to laugh. It was much bigger and heavier than even the big, heavy rings I had tried on at the gallery. Clearly made for a person with a bigger hand, bigger presence, and bigger pocket book than I.

But it was SO pretty.

Even if it was ridiculous, we had to ask. We had come all the way back just to ask.

“Soooo…” Casual. Nonchalant. Not really interested in buying, just curious. “How much does a ring like this cost?”

“Well…” Dogan starts. “You have to understand that this ring is very special, very unusual. And this is gold,” he said, showing me the inner lining of the ring. “And these are diamonds, real diamonds. See how many there are?”

Yeah yeah, I’m thinking. Get on with it. How many thousands of dollars do you want for this ring??

“This ring,” Dogan finally announces, “costs <censored>.”

My jaw dropped. I immediately closed it, and then hoped he’d interpreted my surprise as sticker shock. It was sticker shock, but the opposite-of-usual sort. The price he’d just named was not chump change, but it was a mere fraction of what I’d been expecting.

“It’s real gold!” Dogan reminded us, in the face of my surprise. “Real diamonds!” To him, these seemed to be bigger selling points than the astonishing building carved into the ring.

We thanked Dogan and told him we’d need to think about it. We hadn’t actually planned to think about it, so now we had a real conundrum. We put our heads together like a couple of cartoon bandits planning a heist.

“For that price, it can’t be real, can it?”

“Does it matter? It’s beautiful.”

“Can we afford <the price Dogan named>?”

“Wrong question. The question is, can we afford the final price?”

“What do you think we could talk him down to? The number already seems so low.”

“Well, what are we willing to spend on it?”

“If it’s real, we can afford his asking price! But what if it isn’t real?”

“If it isn’t real, it’s a pretty freaking amazing fake. I think it would still be worth it.”

“Particularly if those really are real diamonds.” We grin at the imitation of Dogan’s enthusiasm for the diamonds.

“It doesn’t have a maker’s mark. All the ones at the gallery had maker’s marks.”

“Maybe it was a really early piece?”

“Maybe it’s a fake.”

“But still an amazing piece of art.”

“It’s way too big to actually wear.”

“But it’s art!”

We went around like this for maybe ten minutes. The bargain of a lifetime, maybe, but think of how many dinners out I could have for that money!

And so I found myself having tea with Dogan as we rolled up our sleeves and got on with the business of haggling. Dustin said no to tea, but I read somewhere that it is the correct thing to do while negotiating over quality goods in Istanbul.

I sipped my tea (it was dreadfully strong), and we discussed the price of the ring. Such a high price! we said. Gold! he said. It’s the wrong size! we said. We can resize it! he said. I didn’t mean to spend this much money! I said. I’m just not sure! I said. It’s really nice, but…! I said.

He lowered the price for us three times before we settled. It was more than we’d hoped to spend, but at least he hadn’t managed to talk us into paying more than his original asking price, which is about what I expect of my haggling skills.

(Actually, at one point Dogan’s associate arrived, just in time to weigh in on the bargaining process. I fully expected him to say, “Dogan, you dolt! You forgot a zero when you told them the price! Deal canceled!”)

We waited for a very anxious half hour while they inserted a sizing ring that would make it possible for me to wear it. “Fifteen minutes!” they had said, when we told them of our impending flight. “Ten!”

(Pro Tip: Don’t try to bargain over how long something will take at the Grand Bazaar. You will not win.)

And thusly did the treasure become mine. Have I made you wait long enough for pictures?

I spent the rest of our trip with The Treasure (as it came to be referred to) tucked into a zippered inside pocket of the backpack I always wore, and found myself slipping my hand into the pocket often to make sure it was still there.

When we returned to the United States, I took the ring to several different jewelers to try and assess the authenticity, at least, of the claims that the ring was gold and diamonds. It turns out you can’t identify gold by sight, without chemical analysis, but all the jewelers I talked to agreed that the coppery color of the parts which were supposedly gold (the ring itself is silver – a point that seems obvious in retrospect, but which Dogan certainly failed to mention at the time) was very strange, and they would be surprised if it was gold. But they all agreed the diamonds are, in fact, diamonds. Rose cut, kind of a smoky color, and well set.

All of which is nice, but doesn’t actually tell me if the ring might be a real Sevan Bıçakçı ring. We tried to contact the gallery. Apparently they don’t use email addresses, but we did find a rarely-used Twitter feed that we sent a note to. Nothing yet.

So what do you think, internet? Have I found a legitimate treasure, or a really impressive (and still treasure-to-me) fake?

How a Non-Shopper Survives the Istanbul Grand Bazarre

I do not love to shop. My shopping philosophy bears much more in common with the men I know than with the women I know: identify what you want, go in and get it, exit as soon as possible. I don’t like to shop for the sake of shopping. I don’t like to shop around to compare prices. I just want to buy something I need or want with confidence that I’ve paid a fair price, then move on with my life.

But one does not come to Istanbul and skip the Grand Bazaar.

Our hotel host assured us that one also should not buy any of the following in the Grand Bazaar: carpets, scarves, clothing, jewelry, or anything. “Tourist prices!” If we couldn’t resist trying to buy something in the Bazaar, he instructed, we must not offer more than half of what the seller states as his opening price. “Maybe one third.”

Have I mentioned that I also don’t like bargaining? I feel like I’m accusing the seller of offering me an unfair price if I try to pay less (because that’s exactly what I’m doing, because that’s exactly what he’s doing). I want to believe that other people are fair!

That’s not how you play the game here.

Which explains why I was making this face right before we entered the Grand Bazaar:

Istanbul Bazaar 1.jpg

Excitement and fear. Because, despite what is apparently an actual shopping phobia, the Grand Bazaar is a remarkable historical building AND activity. The Bazaar was constructed in 1460 and underwent several changes until it reached its final form in the early 1600s. (They were founding Jamestown right about then, if you’d like an American history comparison.)

When I hear the name “bazaar” I imagine narrow streets that are crowded with vendor booths. Nuh-uh. Nope.

Swiped this photo from someone else’s blog post about the Grand Bazaar (it’s a good post to read if you DO like shopping – click on the photo to check it out) because we didn’t manage to take any of our own wide-scope photos of this nutty place.

It’s a building. The whole bazaar is inside a building. It’s a freaking mall. Built in 1460. And, in Istanbullian architectural style, of course, it’s beautiful. Look at those painted, arched ceilings. Wikipedia helpfully informs me that it has “61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops [2][3] which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.[4] In 2014, it was listed No.1 among world’s most-visited tourist attractions with 91,250,000 annual visitors.”

That’s a lot of people. But we’re here in April, and it hasn’t been a good tourist season for Turkey so far, thanks to political strife on the country’s eastern borders (which our hotel host was quick to point out is “the entire distance of Europe away!”).

The downside of a place called a “bazaar” not being very crowded is that there is a much higher heckler/tourist ratio, so that you really have to firm up your resolution to ignore the people hollering for your attention on every side.

(Incidentally, Turkish men LOVE my hair. If I thought I stood out in Paris, hoo-boy, let me tell you about Turkey. I got more compliments about my hair walking through the bazaar than I’ve gotten on all other things in my life combined. “Excuse me, please? I want to show you my carpets! Hey? No? But you have such pretty hair!”)

We had a map, upon entering the Bazaar, and every intention of using it to follow a pre-planned course through the streets so that we could see all the highlights. That plan went directly to hell about 30 seconds after going through the gate.

This map shows the inside of a building, guys.

We promptly got lost, and never ever got unlost. We wound up seeing most of what we wanted to see, but the booksellers section never did materialize.

I spent the first ten minutes inside having small, quiet panic attacks (I can’t begin to tell you how sweaty one’s palms get when the urge the flee is hemmed in by an endless labyrinth full of teacups, swords, scarves, spices, and five thousand Turkish men who just want you to take a quick look!). In the back of my mind, I thought it would be awfully nice to pick up a nice set of teacups, and maybe a scarf. Probably not a sword. But maybe some spices. I wanted to have all these things, but every time I considered looking closely at any item, my anxiety about the sales process scared me off.

To quell the growing sense of capitalistic dread, I had to decide to give up on pursuing an actual purchase, and decide to simple enjoy the bazaar as a spectacle. Having taken the pressure to buy away, the bazaar became an absolute marvel and an adventure.

A particular highlight was the antiques section in the very heart of the complex. We oogled astrolabes, the aforementioned swords, jewelry, armor, illuminated manuscripts, and every other manner of treasure you can imagine. Istanbul Bazaar 4Next up, find out how I wound up drinking tea with this guy in the middle of the bazaar.

My First World Wonder


Here we are, standing in front of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!

Ephesus Artemis 2
World Wonder Selfie!

Did you know the Great Pyramids are the only Ancient Wonder still standing? If you want to visit the other six wonders, you come to places like this and try to imagine what they might have looked like, or you go to a museum and admire the few bits that were “saved” by enterprising archaeologists of the past couple centuries.

The column you see in my pictures is everything that remains of the wonder know as The Temple of Artemis. Originally built around 550 BCE, the temple was burned down three times and rebuilt twice. By the time the Goths sacked it and burned it down in 268 CE, the area’s population had become predominantly Christian, so that the pagan shrine was left in ruins. Most of its stones and columns were taken away to become parts of other local construction projects, including St. John’s Basilica, local farm houses, and even the Hagia Sophia, all the way up in Istanbul.

The column seen standing in the photo is the stacked up bits that archaeologists found during excavations in the late 1800s. The bits don’t properly match, but they are all that remains of the temple in its original location.

Ephesus Artemis 1
My professional opinion is that the temple probably sunk.

Is your imagination failing you? Here we go.

Looks much tidier with more than one column still standing.

To see the other bits recovered during the excavation, one can visit the Ephesus Museum located in the nearby town of Selçuk. Namely, this beauty:

Ephesus Artemis
This is the picture you see next to the entry for “Pagan Idol” in most Christian reference books. It’s all those breasts. They make people nervous.

The statue of “the Great Artemis” is beautifully preserved from sometime in the 3rd century BCE. She’s also fascinating because she is a really unusual mixture of traditional Greek theology (the goddess Artemis, who was a virgin huntress) and local fertility cults (notably that of Cybele). In no other parts of the world did Artemis (Diana, in the Roman pantheon) take on this role.

And now it seems only fair that, having done a tour of the pagan temple, we do a tour of the Christian one that followed on its heels (and was built using an awful lot of its stones).

Legend has it that the Apostle John spent the last years of his life in Ephesus, as did Jesus’ mother Mary, whom he had given into John’s care before he died. Local Christians had constructed a small church in his honor very early, but when Christina emperor Justinian I learned that it was John’s burial place, he had a much bigger, more magnificent church built there.

Ephesus St John Model
We’ll start with the modeled reconstruction, this time.
Ephesus St John Plan
Here’s a little map, too, because I love maps. The dotted circles represent the ceiling domes.
Ephesus St John Overview
And here’s what’s left. This image looks into the center of the church, with the apse (area where the alter was, where the sermons were preached from) on the left, with St. John’s tomb straight ahead (in the space where you see the two low, white columns below the four big columns).
Ephesus St John Baptisery
Contemplating the baptisery.
Ephesus St John Baptisery 2
Deciding to get up to no good.
Ephesus St John Baptisery 3
Officially up to no good.

And then Dustin’s camera ran out of batteries, so we’re a little short on other detailed shots. Anyway, a sixth-century basilica is all well and good, but I wanted to see the really old stuff. Tune in next time for a tour of the actual city of Ephesus.

Awe of What’s New (and also very, very old)

Warning: this post is going to be a bit mooshy and philosophical. Rather than recounting the events of our first three days in Turkey (which Dustin has already done a nice job of on Facebook, if your’e interested), I am going to ramble about my impressions of what it’s like to be here. I promise to add some photos too, if you hang in there (or just scroll to the bottom), but I’m feeling so many things right now, I can’t help but toss this out there.

The feeling I have right now, being in Turkey for the very first time, is the same feeling I remember having as a 17-year-old, setting foot in France for the very first time. Everything is new. Everything is familiar, but just a little bit different than the way it is at home. Street signs are different shapes. Houses are built in different styles. Roads are different widths. The sounds, the smells, the hum of life around you – it all feels different and therefore somehow magical.

In the almost 20 years since my first visit to France, I gained a lot of experience with Europe. That magical shine wore away, changing instead to a kind of familiar otherness, comfort that can be quickly relearned with each new visit, like riding a bicycle. I can travel to France or Belgium or almost any other European country with the confidence that I will be able to handle myself well.

But Turkey… I might technically still be in Europe (for now!) but it’s all so new. I’m back to being the giddy teenager who shot 13 rolls of film in 20 days. The shapes of buildings and fountains and people are bright and foreign and fascinating and I can’t even soak them all in because there’s so much, another amazing sight around every corner.

And it’s old. I mean old. We’re practically in the Fertile Crescent here, guys. Civilization as we know it bloomed here. If the signs in the archaeological museum are to be believed, humans (or some of our nearest ancestors) have been living on the land now known as Turkey for 65,000 years. Sixty-five thousand. I mean, at that point they were still banging rocks together to make fire, but you can throw a stone from here and almost hit the place where written language was invented. Neolithic (late stone age) settlements existed in Istanbul as long ago as 9,000 years.

Istanbul’s existence as a city was established around 66o BCE when settlers from a Greek city-state arrived and founded Byzantium. A couple hundred years later, some Persians came along and took control. Then it was the Greeks again. Then the Romans. Then the Christian Romans (Constantine, to be specific, and now Byzantium becomes Constantinople). Then the Ottomans (and now the city becomes Islamic and started to be known by the name Istanbul).

Architectural and artistic remains from all these civilizations litter the streets, or in some cases are the streets. Ruins of city walls, palaces, churches, mosques,  monuments, markets. Houses and shops are built around or on top of foundations that are 2500 years old. The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in 573 and is still a functioning museum today. The only other buildings I’ve visited that can compare in age (the acropolis in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, etc.) are all in ruins. The ancientness of this place, the impressiveness of it, absolutely blows my mind.

My masters degree studies focused on the Eastern Mediterranean, which means I have significant background in the pre- and proto-history of this area (the parts when they were just developing writing techniques). To finally be able to set my eyes (and in some cases, my hands) on this history is so damned thrilling that sometimes I catch myself just standing there, gaping.

What’s become of this place, in the modern day, is no less fascinating. The piles of people (and cats!), the transformation of what is old and defunct into what is new and useful. Architectural styles from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, swirled and blended together. Muslim women wearing their hijabs (head scarves) along with shoes that might have come out of a boutique in Paris, looking as stylish and self-possessed as any New Yorker – other women wearing niqab (scarves that cover everything except the eyes) and keeping their eyes firmly pressed to the ground – other women with bare heads, looking like they’d be at home in Los Angeles or Deadwood. (Haha.)

It’s beautiful. It’s eclectic, eccentric, electric. I’m bobbing about in the middle of it, trying to soak it all in.

And now, before I move on to the pictures you really came for, a word of reassurance: we know there have been political tensions in the area and we have done/are doing everything we should to stay safe. In fact, the parts of Turkey we are in and will later visit are statistically safer than many large US cities. That being said, it doesn’t matter where you are, you can never know what might happen. We are being and will continue to be smart and cautious about our travels.

Now, pictures!

Tiled lions from Babylon! Yes, that Babylon. So beautiful. So old. So happy they found my phone after it tried to run away.

Turkey Ayasofia Selfie
The Hagia Sophia – 1400 years old and still functioning – sits in the background. It was built as a church, turned into a mosque, and is now a museum.
Turkey Ayasofia
It is a chunk of a building. When you put up a structure this magnificent with a dome this big in the year 537, it doesn’t get to be elegant on the outside if it’s going to stay standing for more than a millennium.
Turkey Ayasofia Selfie 3
There’s no way to convey in a photo the immensity of the inside of this building, or the awesomeness of its antiquity and beauty. You’ll just have to come visit for yourselves.
Turkey Ayasofia Selfie 2
That’s the central dome, about 55 meters above us. That’s 15 stories, give or take. Built in the year 537, let me remind you. (Okay, the dome was reconstructed in 562, but still. 562!)
Turkey Dustin Assyrian
Walk like an Assyrian.

Turkish food. You guys, it’s so good.

Turkey Kitty - Copy
Kitty. With some Byzantine sarcophagi someone just left laying by the side of the street.
Turkey Kitty 2 - Copy
Kitties in a tree.

Now things get random and uncaptioned, because I’m late for a date with a Turkish breakfast. Enjoy!

Turkey StatuesTurkey Lion GateTurkey SumerianTurkey Mosaic AyasofiaTurkey Mosaic Dervishes

All of Paris, in One Update

I have visited Paris five times (if you don’t count that one time I got stranded there on my way home from my study abroad program), and every single time I am happy to arrive again. This is the second time Dustin has arranged a surprise trip to Paris. On the first occasion he proposed to me (spoiler, I said “yes”), and this second occasion marks ten years of happy marriage (officially, as of the 21st).

Paris is a comfortable kind of foreign. We know (generally) its streets and its customs. We know a lot about its history and how to find a good meal. We know how not to be Those Horrible Americans making asses of themselves on the subways and in the cafes.

On the other hand, these days I remember only enough French to embarrass myself. Fifteen years ago (FIFTEEN!), at the end of my study abroad program, a French man in the Paris airport told me I spoke French beautifully. It’s been a downhill slide since then, the bottom of which was illustrated on this trip by the fact that I could not prevent Parisians from switching to English while talking to me.

No matter! We passed a beautiful five days in the French capital, visiting a few of the nooks and crannies I’ve missed on previous trips, munching on fresh pastries in the spring gardens, and toasting to ten years over meals fit for kings.

A few highlights:

We rented a tiny apartment on Rue St. Michel, just across from the Jardins Luxembourg, with a straight-on view of the Eiffel Tower. A perfect location and a perfect view.

Paris View 1
This is the picture I took off our balcony, trying to impress you all with how close the Eiffel Tower was. In this picture, it looks 600 miles farther away than it actually was.
Paris View 2
This is the picture Dustin took. And now you know why he takes all the pictures.

All of Paris came out to sit in the parks on Monday, which was a beautiful, sunny day after a long cold spell. The fountains were full of water and toy boats, the gardens were full of flowers and pigeons.

Paris Gardens 1

Tuesday morning was our first chance to sleep in, and we took advantage of it. Then it was off to find the day’s fresh pastries and hot beverages, followed by a guided tour of the Opera Garnier, the opera house made famous by Gaston Leroux’s (and maybe, more, by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s) Phantom of the Opera. Most of the tour was dedicated to the astonishingly beautiful architecture and design of the building (called a “palace” for its grandeur) as well as its history, but our friend le fantôme certainly got a mention. We learned that the lake he supposedly inhabited below the Opera does not exist, but there is a pool of water down there, intentionally built by the architect to counterbalance the negligible weight of the interior stage area against the immensely heavy marble outer portions of the building. Also, it’s full of goldfish rather than murderous musical savants.

Paris Opera 1
When one came to the Opera in the 19th century, it was to be seen. See me?
Paris Opera 2
The opulence of this place was out of control. Can you imagine it lit by candles?
Paris Opera 3
Inside the theater, with a background view of boxes and the controversial new (1960s) dome mural. No phantom present, but they were setting up for a ballet.
Paris Opera 4
The Phantom’s box. You can’t read it in the photo, but the plaque under the “5” clearly labels the box as belonging to the Phantom. It’s the most rented box in the building.

Dinner on Tuesday night was an accidental adventure, when I misunderstood the waitress’s explanation of what “rongles” were, confused “ris” with “riz” and managed to order myself a bowl of kidney and pancreas stew. House special!

Paris Food 2
So the meat parts were creepy, but the flavor of this dish was outstanding. I ate nearly all the vegetables and managed to eat enough of the meat bits not to completely embarrass myself.
Paris Food 1
And then we rewarded my daring culinary accomplishment with a Grand Marnier Soufflee, my first ever soufflee.
















Wednesday we headed down to the Catacombs, an ossuary established in an old system of mines after the cemeteries started becoming public health hazards in the 18th century. The remains of some six million Parisians are at rest down here, dating back to medieval times and beyond. It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of it all, but it was very impressive nonetheless.

Thursday, official date of our anniversary, we took a train down to Giverny, home of impressionist painter Monet. We got off the train in Vernon and rented bikes to cover the last six kilometers to the gardens. What a fantastic way to see that bit of countryside and town.

Paris Giverny Biking
First item on the agenda: find a good spot for a picnic lunch, featuring pastries from the Best Pastry Shop in Normandy.
Paris Giverny Biking 2
A very nice old man walked by, declared our picnic on the lawn “the most French thing to do” and offered to take our picture.
Paris Giverny Biking 3
This is me looking at my sandwich with adoration. It’s hard to explain how great a sandwich on really French French bread is.

We and six zillion other people then enjoyed a tour of Monet’s painting gardens and home-turned-museum. I’d visited once before, on a high school trip, but I don’t remember the gardens being anywhere near this magnificent. (Stand by for a LOT of photos.)

Paris Giverny 1

Paris Giverny 3
I hereby resolve to plant all the tulips.

Paris Giverny 2


(Look! I’m a flower!)

Paris Giverny 5
Mandatory photo in front of the bridge over the lily pond. It’s back there. Trust me.
Paris Giverny 6
This is a photograph, not a painting. Just in case you were wondering.

Incidentally, while we were in Monet’s house, I found a new stove for my kitchen.

Paris Giverny Stover
Dustin’s just measuring it to make sure it will fit.

Friday we headed to the Grand Palais, one of the magnificent buildings constructed for the same World’s Fair that produced the Eiffel Tower. They were hosting an exposition on rare books and art prints. Dustin teased me, going in, that we might have to buy another suitcase before leaving, but all we could afford to do was gawk. The manuscripts on display were incredible. Everything from illuminated medieval Bibles to letters written my Napoleon. I paid less for my house than I would have paid for some of those books.

Next stop was a tour of the towers of Notre Dame, a wildly popular tourist activity in Paris that I’ve managed to miss every single time I’ve visited. Dustin wisely scheduled it for after public hours, which meant we (our group) got exclusive time on the towers.

Paris Notre Dame 1Paris Notre Dame 2

The views were incredible, the gargoyles were delightful, but the very best was the bells. We only got to see the two in the south tower – Emmanuelle and Marie (catholic bells are named and baptized) – but boy, were they doozies. It used to take eight men to ring Emmanuelle. She is the oldest of the bells, cast in 1686. The other bells had dated to 1856, when they had been cast and hung during restorations after the French revolution, but they were recast in 2013, following 160 years of complaints from the choirs that the bells were ringing off-key.

Paris Notre Dame 4
There’s no scale, in this picture. That bell is about 4 meters tall and weighs 8 tons.
Paris Notre Dame 5
People who mess with Notre Dame’s bells are fed to this gargoyle.














The last stop of the day was for dinner in a restaurant called Dans le Noir, a dining experience that happens completely in the dark. It is staffed by blind guides who lead you through total darkness to your table, serve you a mystery meal that you cannot see, which you eat in the dark however you decide is best (I may have used my fingers a lot), and at the end, led back into daylight, you are shown the menu of what you ate. We don’t have any pictures (obviously), but the meal was delicious and the experience was absolutely fascinating.

And now, having gobbled down one last delicious pain au chocolate, we are en route to…. Istanbul! I am wiggling with excitement. Opportunity and exhaustion permitting, I’ll post slightly more frequent updates as this next adventure unfolds.

Glaciers, Part 3

Okay, okay! Last Iceland post. I’ll try not to post too many more pictures of rocks, but I may not be able to help myself. I really love rocks.

When last we met, our glacier-touring adventure had been foiled by mechanical difficulties, so we found some other adventures to go on instead. The great thing about Iceland is there are adventures everywhere. For example, we drove by a huge cliff face. A single car was parked in a pulloff, and I spotted tracks leading through the snow… into the side of the cliff. So we decided to go explore.

Iceland Crevice 1
The weather, at this moment in time, was utterly awful. It was rain/snowing and the wind was blowing about 7000mph. Getting to that crevice you see aaaaall the way back there was my life goal in this photo. 
Iceland Crevice 3
Worth it. The light made it in, but the wind and snow mostly didn’t.
Iceland Crevice 2
We tried to see how far back we could hike. In keeping with their Danger Tourism policy, the sign at the pulloff advised us we could hike back as far as we wanted, but eventually it would get so narrow we might get stuck. Instead I just got stuck on this snow boulder. It took me about five minutes to figure out how to get back off it without getting dunked in the stream below. 

Also, we went down into a lava cave. Lava caves form when huge quantities of fast-flowing lava cool from the top, leaving the crust behind while the rest of the lava flows on out, leaving an empty space.

The good news is I didn’t get too many pictures because taking pictures in caves is hard. This is the only photo of me in with lava rocks you have to suffer for now.

Iceland Lava Cave
That’s LAVA! Right behind me! Clearly not hot, anymore, but it very obviously used to be.

But back to glaciers. As soon as we realized our first glacier tour was foiled, we started trying to reschedule. Our accommodations for the night were in Reykjavik, so we couldn’t go back to Snæfellsjökull or to the big glacier over in the east, but Langjökull isn’t too far from Reykjavik, and their schedules had plenty of open tours.

The unique thing about tours on the Langjökull glacier is that they’ve carved out an ice cave way up on the ice cap, allowing people to go into the glacier to see all the layers and formations that make up the inner workings of a glacier. Honestly, I was not as giddy about that prospect as I was about standing on the top of the glacier itself, looking down from the crown of this monstrous, mysterious, earth-changing force, but the inner-glacier tour did seem like a nice bonus.

Have I mentioned that the weather in Iceland is fickle? Like, puts-Black-Hills-weather-to-shame fickle.

It was snowing when we woke up the morning of our second scheduled glacier tour. By the time we arrived in Husafell for our rendezvous at the base of the glacier, the sun was shining in patches, but the wind was wicked. The tops of the mountains were not visible, and there was no sign at all of the glacier.

But we hopped into our monster truck (ex-missile launcher, to be precise) and started rumbling up the side of the mountain. We stopped at base camp, just before the edge of the glacier and got out for photos and a quick chance to use the “ice toilets.” (Not actually made of ice, but you wouldn’t know that to sit on one.)

Iceland Langsjokull 1
Missile Launchers the whole family can enjoy, in weather that no one can. This was at the base camp, about 500 meters lower than the point on the glacier where we entered the tunnels. I had no idea, when this picture was taken, that it would seem tropical in retrospect.

Back in the truck to head to the glacier proper. Things got whiter and whiter. Here’s a picture:





Haha, just kidding, that was only a few blank lines of text, but it might as well have been a picture. I could not see where the snow stopped and the sky began because it was all the same color, and it was frickin’ freezing.

Turns out it was a really good thing we decided to sign up for the tour that went into the glacier, because anything that would have been scheduled on the glacier that day would have gotten canceled, canceled, canceled. (On the way back down after the tour, our guide said they would have even canceled our tour if they had known the blizzard was going to start so early. Never realized I could be so grateful for an 8-wheeled monster truck with deflatable tires and double-paned windows.)

Iceland Langsjokull 2
You can actually see it blizzarding in this photo, if you look at our faces. Behind us is nothing by the white void and the tunnel into it.

The insides of a glacier are SO COOL. (Also SO COLD. I think Dustin and I were each wearing 4 or 5 layers of shirts and sweaters, plus those parkas I’d been so worried would go to waste.)

Iceland Langsjokull 3
Groping the glacier. Did you know that glacier ice is not the same as frozen water? It’s compressed snow, which has completely different physical properties, including the capacity to hold water, to warp, flow, and chew mountains to rubble. 
Iceland Langsjokull 4
Peering into the crevasse. Crevasses form due to stress and pressure on the ice that causes it to shift and deform, tearing apart in places and reforming in others. 
Iceland Langsjokull 5
Look at that blue. It’s caused by the way water molecules distort light as it travels through them. (Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with air bubbles.) The tunnels were lit by LED lights cached behind the ice. It was gorgeous.
Iceland Langsjokull 6
Look, the mythical Dustin! He was in the glacier too.
Iceland Langsjokull 7
Ermagerd, we’re in a glacier!
Iceland Langsjokull 8

Now this next bit you’re not allowed to click on unless you promise not to judge, because when our guide asked if anyone wanted to sing in the ice cave, I wanted to say yes SO BADLY because – you guys! SINGING IN AN ICE CAVE! – which is not to say I really wanted an audience or really wanted Dustin to film it, or was in any kind of shape to perform, but since all of those things happened anyway, I might as well share. (Sorry it’s sideways. I don’t know how to fix that.)

YOU GUYS. I got to sing in an ice cave. They could have left me there doing that for a couple hours and I would have stayed happy (loss of feeling in toes not withstanding.)

But instead they made us go back outside into the blizzard, and it was really, really awful out there. They made up for it by feeding us hot chocolate once we were back in our monster truck.

Iceland Langsjokull 9
They heated the hot chocolates by sticking them on the radiator while we were inside the glacier.

So I didn’t get to stand on the top of a glacier and gaze at the grand expanse of ice and power, but I’d say what we got instead was a pretty good deal.

Now here are a few pictures of other random things we did and saw over our four-day stay:

Iceland Church 2
Here we are nearly getting blown away in front of the Hallgrenskirkja.
Iceland Church
Seriously. These people measure their wind velocity in meters-per-second. They predicted 40/mps winds this day (same day a the glacier blizzard). That’s about 90/mph, folks.
Iceland Houses
Just a couple old houses, sticking out of tufts of grass and basalt. Not sure how old. Iceland has been settled since around 900, but it’s a place where buildings don’t last. 
Iceland Rainbow 2
Bonus rainbow, with ocean, fjord, lava field, and snow storm.

Things we missed in Iceland that we’ll just have to make up for next time (ohhh, there will be a next time): We didn’t get to see any auroras because the hour of sunset and the clouds in the sky didn’t cooperate. We also didn’t get to see any puffins, even though there was one screeching of the breaks for a bird on the side of the road that turned out to be something else instead. Lastly (and most sadly), no volcanoes erupted while I watched. (On the other hand, I am now an expert on how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that blew its top back in 2010 and stopped air traffic all over Europe. I’ll demonstrate my skills for you when we get home.)

And now I’m in Paris and I can see the Eiffel Tower from my room and I’ll tell you all about that another time.🙂

Glaciers, Part 2

The marvels of Day 2 didn’t stop with glaciers, though I confess I spent the rest of the day peeking back over my shoulders to check on the glaciers as we went.

Iceland Glacier 5
Look! Do you see that thing?! It grows up ABOVE the mountain tops.

Our next stop was at the basalt column cliffs and black sand beaches of Reynisdrangur where Dustin let me drool on the rocks to my heart’s content. The formations are stunning and sometimes even alien. These rocks are literally the earth being created.

Iceland Rocks 4
Coolest columnar basalt cliffs I’ve seen to date. It doesn’t hurt that they’re above a black stone beach.
Iceland Rocks 3
Yep, the formation is just like Devil’s Tower.
Iceland Rocks Selfie 3
These photos never capture scale. Let’s just say there’s a lot of cooled lava above our heads.
Iceland Rocks 5
Do you have any idea how amazing this guy is to let me run amok on a volcanic island for four days?
Iceland Rocks 1
Lava rocks! I mean, seriously!
Iceland Rocks Selfie 2
Holes in cliffs, black sand beach, volcanoes everywhere.


And sometimes the rocks look like trolls.

Iceland Rocks 6
See them? They’re really tiny at the top of this photo, by the cliff on the horizon.
Iceland Rock Troll
And sometimes they look a whole lot more like trolls. This is a sculpture of Bardur, a giant who lived on the glacier here.

We finished our day in a cozy little guesthouse that served Swiss food for dinner and didn’t offer coffee in the morning. (Coffee is serious business in this country. We are still confused.) This was particularly difficult since the morning of Day 3 saw Dustin insisting we be on the road by 8am.

“It’ll be worth it,” he said, as I hauled my jet-lagged booty out to the car.

We headed up to the Snaeffelsness, a peninsula on the western coast of the country that is home to some of the most gorgeous coastal mountain scenery I’ve seen.

Iceland Rainbow 1
And rainbows. Sorry about the bad photo. There will be more bad photos of rainbows coming up.

And also this wooly sheep. He was on the road and stopped to say hi.

Iceland Sheep 1Iceland Sheep 2

Iceland Sheep 3
Uh… hey. Got any cookies?

Most importantly, Snaefelsness is home to the Snaeffelsjokull, a glacier covering a volcano made famous by Jules Verne as the start of the adventures in Journey to the Center of the Earth. And the best part was that there was a snow cat waiting on the side of the road when we pulled off.

Y’know that thing about the best laid plans? Well, occasionally they spring leaks in their heating systems and can no longer be driven up the sides of glaciers, even for people who have giant crushes on glaciers and really need to be driven up onto one.

And thus did the Awesome Glacier Adventure turn into the Glacier Adventure That Was Not To Be.

But Iceland is full of amazing things, so we pulled over to the side of the road and climbed into this volcano instead.

Iceland Volcano 1
Just another roadside attraction.
Iceland Volcano 2
Peering into the crater.
Iceland Volcano 3
Deciding to venture into the crater.
Iceland Volcano 4
I’m in this picture. Do you see me?

Next up, the conclusion of my epic glacial adventures.