Istanbul & Camp Gramp: Day 1

In Istanbul:
Adam and I have been in Istanbul for about 24 hours now, and we’re having a blast. Our hotel is lovely and very close to the cool stuff. We switched rooms and now also have working AC… A distinct improvement. Yesterday we had dinner and wandered.

Today was Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern.

Hagia Sophia (pronounced Haiya Sofia) was the real final reason I wanted to go to Istanbul. Anyone who has read anything of Constantinople in the age of the Emperors has read of Hagia Sophia. Perhaps it was Justinian’s glimmering mosaics reaching up to the heavens, or the crowning of blinking emperors still dressed in the chains of captivity. Perhaps it was stunned awe of barbarian emissaries who wondered if they had actually died and gone to heaven. Maybe it was the astonishing plunder and despoiling of this great cathedral by the Christian Crusaders. Or that last, desperate mass when the Christians of Istanbul crowded Hagia Sophia to pray as newfound “cannon” technology destroyed the walls that had protected them for over a thousand years, against countless hordes of would-be invaders. Regardless, Hagia Sophia stands at the center of Constantinople as it was.

The domes of Hagia Sophia
The domes of Hagia Sophia

I had seen what I considered to be copies — St. Marks in Venice foremost among them. St. Marks takes your breath away, a glittering gem reaching with gold tessarae to the impossibility of Pentacost. I couldn’t WAIT to see the original. Ah, Hagia Sophia! You break my heart! There are still glimpses there, of what was. A mosaic of Jesus and John the Baptist with wild and unruly hair catches the imagination. The porphyry columns stand magnificent in their purple. The tops of the pillars are carved with impossibly delicate vines. The expanse of the dome is breath-taking. But for the most part, the mosaics are gone. There is peeling paint and plaster where there were once endless rich scenes. The dome echoes hollowly. There is no music or incense left. Giant 19th century Islamic calligraphy changes the flow of the building. But mostly, there was little left of the beautiful lady on the hill but her shell. I knew better, but somehow I expected to be able to see more.
John the Baptist and Jesus in Hagia Sophia
John the Baptist and Jesus in Hagia Sophia

We left a little disheartened, although perhaps we shouldn’t have been. The vast streaming hordes of tour groups didn’t help, I think. But from there we went to the Basilica Cistern. Istanbul is dotted with cisterns. This one was build by the Romans, around the age of Constantine. It was dark, cool, and very mystical. The portrayal was well done, with dim lights highlighting the lovely symmetry of the ancient cistern.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern

It was discovered by the Ottomans over a thousand years after it had been built when people had wells in their homes — from which they drew living fishes. We wandered through the cistern, to the cool drip of the subterranean waters. At the very far corner were two enormous Medusa heads, set askew. There are theories as to why they are there, but no certainties. Under normal circumstances, they would be hidden below the water, menacing the fish who still swim there. The craftsmanship, age, mystery and loveliness of the cool cistern combined to make it one of our favorite spots.
Ancient Medusa in the Basilica Cistern
Ancient Medusa in the Basilica Cistern

We’re planning to round out the day with a visit to the Turkish baths.

We went to the 300 year old Turkish baths at Cagaloglu. (Pronounced Jailalu.) I have a lot to say about the experience, from my point of view. Perhaps surprisingly, I found it an intensely feminist and liberating experience, as well as a very nice massage. Unlike American massages, you actually do get cleaned. There’s something quite amazing about being soaped and scrubbed. It was a profound and moving experience for me, although that may have as much to do with what I brought to the experience as anything else.

Tomorrow, I think Topkeki Palace.

The food is excellent, the weather lovely, the city is bustling and ancient, and the carpet salesmen are persistent, to understate the

The food was really, really excellent. Really. YUM!

We love you guys. We miss you, but not enough to wish we were home. Mom, give those boys of ours kisses. Do they miss us?

Meanwhile, back in the States:

I am reminded of the Christmas story about the person who spent a small fortune on the toy and the kid wanted the bike. I took the kids to the beach this morning. Let me say up front that Brenda warned me not to do that, but did I listen? Thane is, indeed, a lemming — “water” — Wow, can that kid move. But note, I made it to Revere beach and back. That is to be lauded in the navigating area. The bad news is, Thane slept on the way home. The knowledgeable know that means he did not sleep when he got home.

The afternoon task was to make the Camp Gramp shirts. Tie-dye. However, that was for doing when Thane was asleep. Even I wasn’t dumb enough to do that with Thane awake.

Right now they are entertaining themselves with no adult imput — they are fascinated by the baby monitor system. They dash from room to room sending messages on the system. I hope it wasn’t supposed to be a secret!

Time to put some water in the swimming pool.

I have beautiful grandchildren!

Love, Gramama

The morning has dawned on Full Day One of Camp Gramp. Last night we ate mac and cheese with hotdogs and grapes. Then the troops watched a Scooby movie and an episode of Sponge Bob and went to bed, but not to sleep right away. In fact, talking and giggling happened long enough that people were hungry again. I put on my frowny face and told them to go to sleep — which sort of worked.

One cannot complain about 7 a.m., I don’t think. I am sorry, Adam and Brenda, Thane is watching TV with them right now. I am really trying not to corrupt the youth, but …

Today we will go to the beach in the morning, and this afternoon, when our little helper is asleep, we will make our Camp Gramp shirts with tie-dye! How is that for gay dissipation!

Thank you for sharing your children with us!

Love, Gramama

I was smart enough to do the dyeing in the basement and the dye will wash off little hands before you see them. A fun time was had by all. We can open them and wash them out tomorrow night after Thane goes to bed. Call me a coward, we did the tie dye after the 20 month old went to sleep.

Dad had a wonderful day — almost $400 and lots of good information (Note from the Editor: my dad runs a historical picture business called Memories Made Digital. He stayed behind for the local old-timer’s picnic). He sounded excited. He will be here tomorrow morning and an extra set of hands will help.

Oh yes, if you have to go to the bathroom and it is DESPERATE, you can go to the Police station even though you are terrified. And the police officer will come out and give you a badge to stick on your clothing. Then you can discussion how police officers can help you.

How peaceful it feels. I think I will go take my shower and read for a few minutes before I check out for the night. Right now they are sleeping, getting ahead of me on the energy front!

Peace be with you, Gramama

Constantinople, not Istanbul

Today I bought tickets for Istanbul.

In August, my husband and I will have been married ten (10) years. That seems momentous somehow. How can I possibly be old enough to not only be married, but to have been married a DECADE. So although this isn’t the time of life of the greatest free cashflow (hello daycare!) sometime last summer I decided that we would go.

In our decade of marriage, we’ve really had three kinds of travel vacations: family, beach and exotic. Family speaks for itself. That’s our backpacking, trips to Victoria, hanging out in Atlanta, etc. That usually happens once or twice a year, although perhaps not this year. Beach? We’ve made three of those. We went twice to Cozumel, Mexico — once before we had kids and once when I was pregnant with Grey. We really like snorkeling. When I was pregnant with Thane, we went to Belize to snorkel there, which would’ve been more fun if I hadn’t been wrestling with a herniated disk.

Three times, we’ve done “exotic” travel. When Grey was about 6 months old, we went to London because I’d never been and because (I think really) I wanted to prove to myself that my life of adventure wasn’t over because I’d procreated. Grey threw up about 6 times a day every day we were there. We have not traveled internationally with kids since. For our honeymoon, we went to Greece. We spent two? Three days in Athens? Then another blurry 5 or so on the island of Aegina, discovering that we liked snorkeling together and could be entirely content with a schedule that had us both reading two books a day. Then, in 2004, we went on a trip that was the best week of my life. We went to Vienna for a week. Ah! What can be said! There were museums and weapons and friends and Hungarian Goulash and alpine meadows and fortuitous pfeiffer-steak and it was just the best week I’ve ever had. We took a train through the alps to Vienna, because I had longed since my sophomore year of college to gaze up at the glimmering tongues of flame of the Pentecost, writ in gold, on the mozaic-strewn St. Marks, where Giovanni Gabrieli wrote music to fly over the heads of worshippers. And we did. We stood in St. Marks and heard music and saw mosaics and it was amazing.

We have figured out, with this scope for comparison, those three exotic and three beach vacations, that the journeys of the mind (and museum) are more worthwhile. Beach vacations are fun. It’s enjoyable to read and relax and snorkel. But it’s like the difference between candy and a meal… the nourishment of the other travel is so much greater. It may not give quite the quick hit, but it’s worth it.

On reflection, the destination for this adventurous 10th anniversary trip was decided by a pair of books, the Sarantine Mosaic series by Guy Gavriel Kay. I read them in Victoria last summer. In college I’d taken a course in Early Christian and Byzantine Art, and amazingly we’d studied Byzantium as part of it. I’d loved it. I drank it in. I dragged my new husband to every church I could find in Athens, including quite a few that were by no definition Byzantine. These two books really touched on an authentic feeling of what it was to be Byzantium (although it’s a fictional setting, it’s clearly Byzantium. I highly recommend the series. Keep your eyes open for Procopius!) And I wanted to dig deeper, and drink more fully from that history.

So it came together — a journey to a place of great history and depth. Byzantium. Constantinople. I want to stand in Hagia Sophia, great wisdom, and see what she has become and imagine what she once was. My husband has placed a vote for The Sinking Palace. We’ll be staying at a hotel that overlooks the Bosporos. I’ll likely bring along the Iliad, and perhaps we’ll make a day trip to Troy.

Can we catch lightening in a bottle? Can anything ever be as amazing as Vienna was? I don’t know, but it seems like there’s no better place to find out than Constantine’s New Rome.