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Archive for the ‘Turkey’ Category

Ready to go Home. When can I come back?

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

It is the eternal question for the traveler.  Or for me, anyway.  I want to go home.  But how long before I can come back?  Anyway, at the moment I really have no home.  I just spend my last 16 lira on a glass of white wine at the Istanbul airport.  But there is more lira where that came from.

My last few days – with the exception of Saturday – were quite full.  I did the things I wanted to do.

At the Grand Bazaar, I bought my nephews Aladdin slippers.   I got hit up a lot more the second time, without Ugur, but it was all good.  The guys in there were not quite as intense as the ones that followed me around the streets outside the Hagia Sophia.  I got a lot of compliments and I bought what I went for.  One kind of funny thing: I went into a shop in the book and art part of the Grand Bazaar to have a look.  The guy in there started telling me about this woman he had in Soho New York.  She was rich, Jewish and wanted to have sex all the time.  She was a bunny, a dog, a monkey in bed.  I have absolutely no clue why this guy was telling me all this.  I asked him if he goes back and he said “no she took all my energy already.”  On that note, I said sayonara.  You should have heard the way he went on about this woman.  Craziness.

I love the Grand Bazaar.  There are all these trippy nooks and crannies.  I would love to really get in there and explore one day.  But you have to be in the right frame of mind to tackle something like that.

I sat in a lot of cafes.  I walked and walked.  I walked to Ortikoy one day and then hopped on a ferry not really knowing where it was going.  It took me to the Asian side.  Then I hopped on another one, kind of knowing where it was going.  The ferries are only two lira a ride – a little over a dollar.  So it is easy to just hop on them and ride around.  I loved being on the Bosphoros with those magnificent views of the Galata tower on one side and all the mosques and craziness on the other side.  Yesterday I hopped on another ferry to go to the Chora church, it is a church with a lot of Byzantine mosaics and some medieval frescoes.  It was not so easy to get up there – and coming back, I walked and walked (this seems to be the story around here.) But it was worth it to see the mosaics.

Speaking of mosaics.  This whole time in Istanbul I have been searching for anything Theodora.  Theodora was the wife of the emperor Justinian here, in the 6th century.  She is one of my favorite people in history so I wanted to find a copy of the mosaic of her that is in Ravenna or SOMETHING Theodora.  But there is nothing.  They don’t even know who she is here, it seems.  I did see a hotel Theodora and found a paperback novel based on her in the Virgin Megastore, but the book looked really dumb so I did not buy it.  I guess I will have to go back to Ravenna to get my Theodora fix.

Over the weekend, in my neighborhood just down from Taksim Square and also, over by the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, there were so many people out.  Just massive quantities of bodies.  It was akin to when I was at the Vatican the day after the Pope died.  I would stand against a wall and just watch the people walk by as the call to prayer sounded.  It seems, that I can be invisible again, which makes me very happy.

One day I saw a girl in a white full-on burka with a bit of a raised skirt and white Converse high-tops.  I left my Converse sneakers here.  It was time to let them go.  I put them by the garbage and I hope some homeless person can use them.

This was such a different kind of trip.  Everything was so full on in my face sensory wise.  Even quiet Cappadocia.  I’ll even remember the dogs howling outside the Elif Star caves.  I’ll remember that I never turned on a TV (though, I did watch Project Runway Season 1on my laptop.)  I’ll remember how I got used to the precariousness of it all.  Most of all, I will remember the people I met.  They are unforgettable.

I’ll post some pictures when I get back. I can’t tell you how weird it will be to be at the Four Points Sheraton at LAX tonight. But, Onward.

Taksim Dream

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

It is a beautiful Saturday morning here in Istanbul, and I am feeling very lazy.  There are no clouds and the sky is blue and I guess I should be out cruising on the Bosphoros or something instead of just looking at the skyline from my little terrace.  But I know myself.  I am not going to be doing any cruising today.

I have seen so much since I returned to Istanbul on Monday.  It took a day or so for me to get used to the neighborhood – mainly, it took some time for me to get use to the insane number of stairs you have to climb to get around here.  Want to go to the grocery store?  100 steps up.  Come back up from the tram?  100 steps up.  Then there is another 75 steps up to my apartment.  Chez stairmaster.  The stairs in the streets are nuts.  They are of different heights and sometimes there will be a giant chunk of them missing.  It is important to keep your eyes on the road.  There is a special God for children and drunks, but the God for drunks in Istanbul is the most all-powerful.  Otherwise there would be a lot of dead drunks around here.

Up the street is Taksim Square, an insanely busy, totally nutty place.  In addition to the God for drunks there is the God who protects the people who cross the street in front of giant moving object (buses, taxis.) I try to cross at the light, but sometimes it seems like there is no light.  Rome is about as orderly as Portland Oregon compared to Taksim Square.  One night, when it was raining pretty hard and I wanted to go somewhere but not too far, I went to this bar in the hotel Marmara in Taksim Square.  They have these floor to ceiling windows on the second floor which I had spied on one of my first days here.  I totally wanted to go there and have a glass of wine and look out at all the people.  The service was snooty beyond belief and they overcharged me a couple of lira but the chair had a high back and I stared out in total comfort at what seemed to be about 213,725 people crossing the streets, going up and down the stairs of the metro, and so on.  I will never forget that hour I spent in that high backed chair.  Come to think of it, there are many things about Istanbul that I will never forget.  There are many moments that are seared into my memory forever.

Like some of the art I saw at the Istanbul Modern the other day.  It was suppose to be free on Thursday according to my Lonely Planet Guide, but it was not.  It was 7 lira (no biggie) but then to add insult to injury the woman taking my money tried to shortchange me.  I handed her a twenty and she asked if I had two lira.  As I was digging for it she handed me three lira.  I just stared at her.  She stared at me.  Finally she handed me another ten lira.  Lady, I hear they are hiring at the Vaporetto tickets offices in Venice. Maybe the money is better there.

Anyway.  At the Istanbul Modern they are showing an exhibition of women artists.  And let me be the first to say, the women artists in Turkey are… well, a little pissed off I guess.  You wouldn’t call this art beautiful, you’d call it striking.  You’d call it “seared in your memory” art.  One artist took a picture of her own soiled sanitary napkin while she sat on the toilet.  There’s an image I won’t soon forget.  She also made a movie where she sits on top of a TV set and tries to get off (in the masterbatory sense.)  Another artist made a movie where she dresses scantily and hangs out in front of a brothel with a sign “for sale” in front of her.  Lots of dudes check her out.  There was a lot more.

After I left the museum I took the funicular up to Taksim Square to eat some lunch and then walked the length of the main street here, Istiklal Caddessi, down to the Galata Tower.   There is a wine shop and bar down there called Sensus so I stopped in to check it out.  The manager and a couple of the staff were trying to put together a plastic Christmas tree with a glue gun and it was kind of hilarious.  I like the wine bar in my neighborhood, Rouge, a lot better.

I kept walking down the hill, passing through an area where they have many shops selling all manner of musical instruments.  Musical Instrument Land, I call it.  Then down at the very bottom, just to the west of the Galata bridge, I found myself in Hardware Store Land.  I have never seen anything like it.  Dozens of little stores, stores with just power saws, stores with just water pumps, stores with boat hardware, stores with just bolts or just nails.  I think those guys trying to put together that Christmas tree should maybe head down there, as I am sure there is a shop that only sells the proper equipment to put together cheap plastic Christmas trees.  I walked down past some paint shops to the river.  I used to live in a boatyard for awhile when I was a kid.  On a boat.  It reminded me of those days, a little, down by the river just west of the Galata bridge.

The thought of climbing back up the hill was not exactly making me crazy with desire so I took another funicular thing which I thought would take me to Taksim but only took me back to the Galata tower.  That was a total waste of three lira.  I consulted my map and walked in the direction that I thought was home.  I passed the gorgeous Italian embassy and walked through Antique Shop Land. Then I somehow ended up on Istiklal Cadessi again, which was absolutely not my intent.  Getting lost close to home isn’t so bad though.

What else?  I went to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar with my new friend Ugur, who lives a couple of doors down from me.  The Grand Bazaar is an amazing structure.  The part I got lost in when I first got here is not the Grand Bazaar – I got lost in the maze of streets that are also a bazaar, but not the Grand one.  I loved the little tea places and cool storefronts in the Grand Bazaar.  It was like stepping into a different century, in some ways.  I am going to go back there to take some pictures, because I did not take any with Ugur.  He also took me to the spice bazaar and to a place for some really good sandwiches.  My sandwich was only four lira!  It makes me realize that I have been spending a lot more on my food than most of the locals do.  Well, at least the locals that hang out in the market.

And yesterday was Topkapi Palace day.  I was fully expecting to be followed/asked questions/harrassed down there, but no one ever bothered me.  Amazing.  There were a lot of people there – many tour groups and even worse, SCHOOL groups.  Ugh.  I enjoyed myself – it is like the Alhambra in Spain on crack – but I can’t even imagine what it must be like in the busy months, when it is REALLY crowded.  I am glad I am here in December and I can visit all the Must-Dos so that someday I can come back in the warmer months and just hang out.

Last night I made dinner for my landlord and his wife and my neighbor Ugur.  My landlord is Italian and used to live close to me in Venice (but we did not know each other there.)  My neighbor Ugur was introduced to me by my friends Harriet and Alan in Santa Barbara.  It just so happens that Ugur lives just down the street from my little apartment here in Cihangir. I put out a little spread of meze, and served my grandmother’s lamb and green beans dish with rice pilaf, and put out some great cookies I bought at a bakery here.  It was a great evening and I always love to cook for people so I am glad I had that opportunity here.

I only have a few more days left.  More later.

Goreme Dream

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

My last day in Goreme was clear and cold.  I slept in, again, and stopped for a cappuccino at Cafe Safak, again.  My plan was to have a kick back Sunday.  But I did want to walk a little, so after my cappuccino I walked up the road towards the Open Air museum, and then off the road to the “church of the evil eye,” off the main road about a 10 minute walk.

As I headed out of town I picked up a little friend.  A very cute, very sweet dog started following me and I could not shake her.  I kept telling her I had no food, nothing to give, but she just looked at me and kept on.  She was my dog, for a little while.  On the main road we encountered a few other dogs and all of them were very mean to my friend.  I don’t know what happened to this poor doggie in the past, but she is very fearful of other dogs, and they can smell it.  We walked together off the main road on a dirt road where my new friend checked out some local birds and cats and I thought about living in Goreme.  It was quiet and peaceful, and warm enough that I could take off my coat.  As we approached the church though, it appeared closed.  There was a sign on the door but also a big giant dog watching us intently.  The church was about a football field away, but I did not want to go up there and risk my new friend getting bothered again.  So I turned around to walk back.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw something big and fast barreling down behind us.  It was the big German Shepard from the church, and she was on top of my friend before we knew what hit us.  The German Shepard was practically ripping my friend’s neck out with her teeth and my poor doggie friend was whimpering and crying something fierce.  After a minute the German Shepard got off of her and my friend ran behind ME, cowering and shaking.  So I am in between the fierce dog and the scared shitless dog.  Somehow I was not scared, which is weird for me because usually I would be the scared shitless one.  I just wanted to get my friend away from there in one piece.  So we slowly walked back down the road.  A caretaker came out of a little house by the church and hollered for his dog.  A little late I might add.  Dude, curb your animal.

After all that excitement I decided to walk up to this tourist bazaar place by the Open Air museum to have a glass of wine in a little cheesy wine and food kiosk there.  As me and my friend walked through the first part of the bazaar an Asian tourist took a plastic wrapped snack left over from his breakfast out of his pocket for her.  Bye bye Doggie Friend.  It was nice knowing you.

While I was in the cheesy food bar/shop the woman who squeezes pomegranates and oranges for the tourists outside came in. She speaks no English (except orange, pomegranate, and juice) but we somehow manage to carry on a conversation.  She lets me feel her big muscle from pulling down the juicer handle.  I show her pictures of my nephews and she shows me pictures of her daughter.  She is lovely.  Not all the people in the bazaar are so happy.  I watch a guy who sells tablecloths get totally pissed off at some Asian tourists.  He screams at them.  “I already told you the price five times. Get out! Go!”  The the tourists flee, back to their bus.

The rest of my day was restful.  Hung out at Cafe Safak for hours, blogging and drinking wine and talking to Ali and the other people in there.  I meet a guy who works for a military subcontractor in Kuwait, and his Turkish girlfriend.  He tells me about this place he works that truly sickens me.  Things about slave labor and other horrors.  He is, himself, disgusted.  I tell him he needs to get away from that situation and his girlfriend agrees.  Why is our government allowing this?  I feel sick now, just thinking about it.

But other than that it was very nice to hang out in this cafe with the comings and goings of many nationalities, the lovely winter evening sneaking up on us.  I went and had one final dinner at my little table at Seten, and in the morning, back to Istanbul.  Goreme touched my heart and I want to go back someday.

Another Ali

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

In the end, its not going to matter how many breaths you took.

It only matters how many moments took your breath away.

– sign in the bathroom of the Cafe Safak, Goreme, Turkey

Yesterday I slept until 10:30 AM.  My bed is so comfortable and my cave room so… womblike that it was not a problem to sleep and sleep.  And I am not a person who sleeps in easily.

Of course this meant I missed breakfast and the yicky instant coffee served by the Alis at the Elif Star.  I love the Elif Star but definitely not that coffee.  I went out in search of a decent coffee.  And that is how I found the Cafe Safak and the other Ali.  I tried to go into two other cafes, both advertising cappuccino, both closed, for the winter or whatever.  I had passed by the Safak but it looked like they were cleaning or working on the sliding glass door.  It was out of desperation that I poked my head in and said, simply, cappuccino?

Well it turns out Ali is a coffee fan and made me what is, without a doubt, the most awesome coffee I have had in Turkey.  As I drank it Ali, and his friend who was helping him do whatever with the door (who was another Liev Schreiber lookalike – swarthy) sat down at my table with their breakfast.  Ali offered me a piece of his Gozeme, a sort of tortilla like bread with cheese inside, fried to a crispy goodness.  Again, I felt that I was not in a cafe but at a friends kitchen table.  I asked Ali and his friend why everyone around here seems to speak English.  They told me there are many Americans and Australians that come for extended periods, and they sort of grew up with these kids.  Ali spends a lot of time in Australia.  I commented that it could be easier to learn with an Australian girlfriend, and the friend piped in “or an American girlfriend!”  Bummer that I am old enough to be his mama.  At this, Ali said, “I say, the best way to learn a language is to touch tongue to tongue.”  Is that romantic, or what?

I had to leave Ali and the cafe because I wanted to take a bus to the neighboring town of Urgup.  I wanted to go there, if for nothing else than comparison purposes.  But Urgup left me cold, because of my warm fuzzy feeling about Goreme.  Urgup is bigger, and I walked for a while, through a big outdoor market, through a bit of the town, and had a glass of wine in a totally cool wine bar with some neat art in it.  I did not have a lot of time as the last bus left Urgup at 4 PM.  Someday I will go back there and stay a few days – I am sure I will love it then, when I can get to know it better.  But I was happy to get back to Goreme.

I stopped in at Cafe Safak and had a glass of wine before heading back to the hotel.  Ali plays great music, has a great crowd in his place, and knows my name, even in this short time.  I can totally see living in Goreme for awhile and hanging out in the Cafe Safak.  But at this moment, all I can think about is the za’atar and oil and bread at Seten, and my little table waiting.  So, I head home to drop some stuff and then go back up to Seten for an early dinner.

I am welcomed warmly again.  “Same table?  Same chair?” the owner asks me.  I think maybe he is keeping it for me.  This time, I tell the same girl who has served me twice, to choose for me.  She picks a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (this time a reserve) and the most expensive thing on the menu – a plate of grilled chicken, lamb chops and meatballs with rice.  She did not choose this because it was most expensive – she chose it because it was the BEST.  Mi dio it was tasty.  The wine is about $30 and the meat about $18.  I am sort of blowing a wad at Seten but I don’t care.  There is a Korean family eating near me, and the two little kids – a boy and a girl – keep going to play by the fireplace.  They are really cute.  The little boy tries to karate chop his sister and says HI-YA!” just like my nephew Ryan does when he plays the Wii.  The little girl wants my candle to play with – she asks me a couple of times “if I am done with it.”  She is bored with her brother but he takes it in stride.  They all live in Istanbul because of daddy’s job.  After I finish my dinner the owner brings me a dessert, on the house.  It is a plate of dried apricots soaked in a syrup, two little pieces of pumpkin, and the best dried fig I have ever eaten.  There is some whipped creamy cheese on the side.  I leave, after shaking hands with the Koreans and promising the owner to come back the next night, into the coldest of night air.  In the past months at home and in Europe, I have been wheezing a lot.  On my way down the hill, it dawns on me that my wheeze is totally gone.  I can sleep, and I can breathe, here in this remarkable town of Goreme.

Salih and the Alis

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

It turns out I need not have worried about the heat in my room at the Elif Star caves.  I think maybe the room had not been booked for a few days, so the heat was not on.  Once I got that baby going it kept warm inside, even with the heat off during the day.  I almost did not want to get out of bed, it was so snug and comfy in there.  But I did.

There are two guys who run the Elif Star caves – both named Ali (I think.)  They are both very nice.  I asked for a coffee and one of the Alis handed me a menu of some breakfast items I could have.  I ordered eggs and one of the Alis brought me scrambled eggs on top of bread, and a basket of bread with some delicious jams.  Unfortunately my coffee was instant coffee.  Blech. I had crap coffee at the hotel Sarnic in Istanbul too.  Good thing I brought some Peet’s French roast with me, for when I have an apartment.  Anyway, while I was eating breakfast a movie started on the TV in there, one that I had a hard time breaking away from.  I think it was from the sixties (though one of the Alis said 1950, or 1955, but he doesn’t know this stuff like I do).  It was black and white and set in Istanbul.  A guy who’s job was to take people around in sort of a bus/cab combo falls in love with a schoolgirl.  She has long blond hair and an angelic expression; he is very suave looking.  He gives her a ride in his cab thing and gives her a note which she reads and then crumbles up and throws on the ground, but of course the friendship/love continues.  He drives her around Istanbul in a sort of sixties travelogue and there is a lot of her looking at him all Botticelli-like.  She has an evil aunt though, with a tight black bun for hair, and the aunt brings her to buy some fancy clothes and then gets her engaged to an older businessman guy.  There is an engagement party, and a short separation but during my second horrible instant coffee she runs away and goes to stay with the cab driver and his mom, where she learns to cook his favorite dish.  I think the scorned businessman was going to track them down and cause some havoc, but it was time for me to leave the TV and the Alis and see what else was going on in the world.  One thing I did learn from one of the Alis is that here in Turkey they have got rid of any cigarette smoking on TV, so where the cab driver is smoking, his hand is all blurry.  Weird.

I left the hotel and started to walk up to the Goreme Open Air Museum about a kilometer out of town.  It is an incredible walk through an amazing landscape of sculpted rock formations that through the centuries, people have lived in.  The museum is a smattering of these formations became churches in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries – but even before that, people were living there.  I was absolutely blown away by this place.  When I first got in, there was one tour group (French) and a handful of other tourists.  By the end though, I was almost completely alone.  There are a number of tiny churches in the caves with frescoes in various conditions.  My favorite was the “apple church” – a tiny, tiny space with the most beautiful, colorful frescoes.  I cannot believe that they are in such good condition.  Sadly, in many of the caves vandals have scratched out the eyes of many of the saints and Mary and sometimes Jesus.  There is one cave with Byzantine imagery instead of religious figures.  The place is just jaw-droppingly amazing.  And to have these churches to myself… well lets just say it was worth freezing my butt off walking home from dinner, just to have this remarkable experience.  I loved it.

I was on my way down the hill to eat some lunch somewhere when I walked by a taxi and a guy who offered to take me around to some places in his taxi, for 25 Turkish lira.  He would take me to the Love Valley to see the rock formations, to some other place, to a pottery place, and it would take an hour and a half.  Hmm.  To be driven around in a taxi for an hour and a half for only about $13?  I am totally in.  My drivers name was Salih, and he did not speak so much as grunt a lot.  He took me to Love Valley first, and while he drank a tea or whatever with one of his cohorts at the little bar there, I walked along the edge of the canyon.  It is a stark, stunning landscape with these truly strange mushroom things poking up high out of the earth.  Then Salih took me to another place to see a view, I am spacing on the name but there were a number of tourists there; Salih told me to follow him, and took me up a hill away from all the tourists.  Well, Salih is maybe 60, but he walked up that hill so fast he may as well have been 21.  I tried to keep up but at the top I was huffing like I had just completed a triathalon.  Salih, of course, was fine.  And the view was incredible and there were no other people up there.

This is where it gets kind of funny.  Salih took me to a carpet place!  Aha, the catch!  Once there I figured what the hell and went on in.  A really nice guy showed me around and the making of the carpets and told me how people come to Istanbul all scared because they have been harrassed so badly there.  I saw the whole process and looked at the carpets and of course did not buy one, but the guy was cool.  It is easy to say no when you have no house in which to even put a carpet.  He did show me a huge carpet and said, when you buy a house in California, maybe this one?  (About $6500.) I wish.

After that Salih brought me to a pottery place, where I saw some people painting in the most half ass way imaginable but I still bought a few things in there.  Then Salih took me home.  All in all, quite an adventure.

I worked for a couple of hours in the common room of the Elif Star and then, not having any lunch, decided to treat myself to another dinner at Seten.  When I walked up the owner opened the door for me, and I said I am back.. and he said “I am very happy! Same table?” It was wonderful to be welcomed like that.  I ordered a better bottle of wine – again from Turasan but a blend of two local grapes that I am not going to remember right now.  One thing I had loved about Seten the night before was, they bring out a piece of plain bread, and a piece of garlic bread, and a little dish of olive oil and a dish of za’atar – a spice mix.  You dip the bread into the oil then the za’atar and it is oh, so yummy.  I could just eat that, but I ordered too much food – a starter of cold green beans stewed with tomato and a beef saute on an eggplant puree.  Once again, my lovely server kept my glass at exactly the right level and once again, I left with half the bottle, to drink a glass in my cozy room watching Project Runway.  Heaven.  I am falling in love.

Tales from Different Strange Planet

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

When I booked my ticket from LA to Istanbul back in July, my plan was to stay in Istanbul the whole time.  But many people told me I must visit Cappadocia, east of Istanbul and almost the center of the country.  All I really knew about Cappadocia was that they have a weird landscape of these sort of mushroom shaped (or penis shaped, according to some) stone formations sticking up out of the ground.  And I knew that many of the accommodations were in caves.

But that is about it.  I didn’t even read about Goreme in my Lonely Planet guidebook until I got here.

I had booked before I got here in the Elif Star caves, which my friend Letha had told me about.  They set up a shuttle from the airport and sure enough when I got out there was a guy holding a piece of paper with my name on it.  The shuttle made several stops and we drove through the flat, desert like Turkish landscape, through the city of Nevsehir and on to Goreme.  When we got to the Elif Star caves one of the owners, Ali, came out and helped me to my cave room on the third “floor” of the caves.

The room is really cute, very basic, but I was a little concerned at first because it was freezing in there.  Ali told me the heat would come on after sunset.  Brrr.  I headed out into the cold day.  It is about a five minute walk into town, and I was hungry so the first place I passed that said “wine, 5 lire” I stopped.  (It was pretty quick.)  The woman who opened the door looked like one of the women I would see selling puppies or fresh corn in bowels of the Budapest subway but she bellowed out in the most friendly manner, “welcome! How are YOU!” I had a glass of white wine and some chicken kebabs and rice.  The food was just OK – but she was so nice, and the wine went down so easy, that I didn’t really care.

After I ate I walked around Goreme a little.  It is not huge and I started to get worried – what on earth was I going to do in this place for three and a half days?  I did not know at that moment that I would end up completely falling in love with this little town, with the surrounding landscape, and with some of the people I would run across.

As I walked, I passed by a little wine bar called “Red Red Wine” so of course I wanted to go in there.  I poked my head into the dark space but there was no one.  As I was walking away one of two men, about sixty I guess, called out to me.  He said “I am working!” and I said not to worry I will come back later.  They were sitting next to a little canal in the sun.  I kept walking and found another place, with a terrace upstairs, and decided to drink something and read my guidebook.  There was a guy inside who said I should not sit on the terrace because I would freeze my whatoogee off (well, that is not exactly what he said, but you get the drift) but it was actually kind of nice up there, as long as you didn’t take your coat or hat off.

I walked around the town a little more – I think I had pretty much covered it, but on my way back to the hotel I passed by Red Red Wine and as I walked by one of the men I had passed earlier, who were now in the bar, jumped up and opened the door for me.  I went in and sat at the back of the small room and ordered a glass of white wine.  The men were just starting a movie on a fairly large flat screen TV, Dragonball 2.  They asked me if I wanted music or movie, and I said don’t worry about me just keep watching your movie.  So the three of us watched Dragonball 2 in the dark room, me drinking my wine, the men drinking raki, the local beverage of choice.  I felt like I was in someone’s living room watching the only thing on TV on a slow winter day.  I was part of the two men’s universe, just for that moment, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.  After the intensity of Istanbul, I felt like I was in the twilight zone, but the good kind.

As I was leaving (there was only so much of Dragonball 2 I could take – it was pretty silly) the men offered me a raki and when I declined one of them told me to at least taste his.  I did, and it was good – a very light anise taste.  At this moment I am not sure they were even open at Red Red Wine.  I think maybe they just let me in for a little while.

I went back to my room – still freezing – and went down to the common area of the Elif Star to check email and do a little work.  The heat in my room came on, thrilling me to no end. Then it was time for dinner.

To date, I had not had a really great meal in Turkey.  I’d had a couple of decent things to eat at Sofa in Istanbul, and also a good pizza at Faros in my soon to be neighborhood of Beyoglu.  But the rest was pretty much just OK.  In my Lonely Planet I read about a place called Seten, up on the hill above my hotel, where they are making traditional dishes and have a decent wine cellar.  So I headed up there in the freezing cold night.  I mean, it is FREEZING.  Brrr.

At Seten, I was greeted warmly and shown to a cute little table sort of set in the back with some pillars separating me from the rest of the room, right next to a fireplace.  Love it already.  I asked about some wines on the list but I think the owner did not really understand me (understandably) and he sold me a bottle of Turasan Cabernet Sauvignon, which was the cheapest wine on their list.  For dinner I had a starter of little filo pastries of cheese and spinach, and then a plate of “Kayseri Manti” – tiny little raviolis stuffed with meat.  I sat and read “Istanbul – The Collected Traveler” and observed my fellow tourists. There were three other tables – a four-top of Americans (loud), a six-top of Venezuelans (I know they were Venezuelan because they were on my flight and I saw their passports, also loud) and a two-top with two Chinese girls (amazingly, also very loud.)  I did not care that it was so loud, until the very end.  The Americans had a long conversation about rabbits, the teenagers in the Venezuelan group were playing with an app on their IPhone where you can say something and it will translate into Turkish, and the Chinese girls were obviously feeling the effects of the one glass of red wine they each drank.  A young girl working in Seten, who was lovely and very sweet and reminded of me of one of the best friends I have ever had, Lisa Wood, kept my wine glass at the half full for the two hours I was in there.

Back out into the night, I left through a different door and managed to get slightly lost, though briefly.  It was a little scary due to the fact that it was about one degree outside.  You do not want to get lost in this kind of cold.  But I retraced and found my way back and was soon all snug in my cave where I drank the rest of my bottle of wine, ate some chocolate and watched the first few episodes of Project Runway season one.  How fun to be all snuggly in bed in Turkey and watch my old friends Austin Scarlett and Jay McCarroll.  I am not worried about how I might spend my time in Goreme.  Not anymore.

The Art of Not Being Invisible (and other stories)

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Sometimes I get overcharged

That’s when you see sparks.

Radiohead – “The Tourist”

I’ve used this Radiohead line many times in my life, but nowhere did it ever suit me better than my first few days in Istanbul.  Now that I am sitting in a tiny cave room in Goreme, with the sound of a howling puppy in the distance and the occasional car, I’ll cover my last day in Sultanahmet.

After my last blog post I went to dinner at this place called “Sofa” which is a sort of comfortable bar/café with food. On my way I only made one wrong turn and some guy helped me and asked if I wanted tea but with my “no thanks”  he was totally chill.  Quite refreshing.  Once I found Sofa I sat at a table sort of hidden from the assortment of guys at the bar and ordered up a red wine and a plate of lamb with a sort of yogurt sauce.  It was simple, and really good.  Not blow your mind good but GOOD.  The sauce was kind of like beef stroganoff or chicken paprikash sauce.  I want to try this one at home.

While I was there four middle aged French women came in for happy hour cocktails.  They had one and then ordered another but they tried to haggle.  They first said “two for one?” to which the bar guy said “no.” Then they asked for a lira off, and he said no.  But I think he upgraded them to a drink that wasn’t a happy hour drink for the same as a happy hour one.  That is, if I understood it correctly.  I know they definitely did not get two for one.  They should visit Tijuana next time.

My days in Istanbul I had a lot of trouble sleeping.  Usually I am ok after the first night but not this time.  The result was that on this day I slept until 11 AM and had to force myself out of bed.  By the time I got out of my room and had a cappuccino down the street it was nearing noon.  I went to the Blue Mosque but there was a prayer time starting, so I could not enter.  On my way in I got hit up by an innocuous salesman who once lived in Seattle and has a daughter who is a brain surgeon or similar in Atlanta, Georgia.  He got quickly to the point – he has a shop with carpets, jackets, ceramics and something else which I am forgetting now.  It was the Grand Slam of Turkish products.  I extracted myself as gracefully as I could and started walking to the Hagia Sophia, but then I saw the hop-on hop-off bus so I hopped on because a) I thought it might wake me up and b) I wanted to get my reduced two-day ticket’s full value.  I didn’t get off, I just rode it around for an hour and a half and boy did it wake me up.  Nothing like 40 degrees with a wind chill of 2 degrees riding on the open second story of a bus… ah, refreshing.  I sat on the opposite of the bus to get a different perspective.  One thing I did notice was, at the edge of the old city walls in one part, there are a number of vegetable gardens.  I don’t know if they are community gardens or businesses or what, but it is so cool that they are there, right next to these ancient city walls.

I got off the bus and I was awake as all get-out.  I tried once again to go to the Blue Mosque, but once again, closing for a prayer time. I was getting hungry anyway so I went back to Sofa because I knew exactly where it was (only made two wrong turns) and ate some Cacik, which is a soupy dip (or maybe it is a soup, but I just thought it was a dip) of yogurt and cucumber with several pieces of bread. That was enough to hold me for awhile so I went on to the Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia (which has as many spellings as “cichetti” – I’ll stick with this spelling) is a church built by the emperor  Justinian in the early sixth century.  I love the history of Justinian and I have a sort of unnatural obsession with his wife, Theodora.  But more about her at a later date.  I was completely blown away by the vast space that is the interior of this place.  It is huge – like St. Peters Basilica huge.  There are simple chandeliers over your head, and giant disks with Arab writing on them above (you can see them from the back on the second floor.) What amazed me was the emptiness.  There are no statues, so pews, no stone tomb carvings to accidentally step on, no place in which to put a euro or light a candle.  There are mosaics scattered here and there, some on the second floor, which you get to not by stairs but by a stone switchback path. I bet Theodora once walked on those paths.

I was lucky – there were not too many people though I did have an encounter with a Chinese tour group and one of the tourists accidentally clocked me on the head with his huge tripod.  I kept it in perspective with a non-tour group Chinese couple I had asked, on the way in, what time it was.

Her: “you mean the local time?”

Him: “No, she means the time in China.”

All of us: (Giggle)

I was enthralled with the Hagia Sophia and I do believe it was in there that I finally started, since I got to Istanbul, to breathe.  I walked fast, to the Blue Mosque to see if I could go in before they closed.  Of course, some dude starts trying to talk to me.  Now, I was walking, not engaging him, and basically said at least five times  “I am going to the Blue Mosque, it is right there, I want to go before they close.”  He kept saying I will show you where it is (like it is hard to miss),  I will get you to the entrance (like I hadn’t already been there twice today,) then can we talk?  NO.  Honestly, I wanted to throw darts at this guy.  Back off.

I was able to get there, and get my shoes off, before they closed and there was hardly anyone else in there, which was awesome.  It was quite dark inside, because of the waning light outside, just lit up by more of those chandelier things. The feeling inside is ethereal, the air seemed almost smoky because of all the blue tile and the electric light.  It must be amazing when there are prayer services in there.

Next to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, which was a huge rectangular area where the Byzantines and later the Ottomans had chariot races and other events.  Of course I wanted to visit.  While in Sofa, however, I was reading my guidebook and found out that I had already walked right through it several times.  Doh! I guess I just figured there would be a charge.  But no, it is all out there in the open for everyone to see.   It is a pleasant open space, with some obelisks and a cool atrium with some mosaics in it.

Since I had only had my yogurt/cucumber soup/dip and bread lunch I decided to eat dinner early and then head back to the hotel because I had some work to do .  I had seen, on the busy street Divan Yolu just outside the Hippodrome a restaurant called Faros, which is a local chain.   I ate at one near Taksim Square the day before and I liked it, so decided to check it out.  I sat inside next to a picture window and while the food was just so-so the people watching more than made up for it. It is not a wide street but trams travel on it, and at this hour (about 5 PM) they were packed.  I watched all manner of people walk by – tourists (some of them being followed with guys talking, glad it is not just me), families with cute little kids (and some with giant strollers), old men arm-in-arm, and so on.  I saw a lady in a full on burka, and I thought, I’d like to wear one of those sometimes.  How cool it would be to be invisible.  I used to think I was invisible.  In fact I pride myself that I can wander around and be invisible.  But here, I am definitely not invisible.  Then again, neither is the lady with the burka.

Enough for today.  Cappadocia tomorrow.

Tales from Another Planet

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

It is 6:13 PM, and outside the call to prayer has just started.  It is loud.  I guess that instead of church bells, this is how the locals keep track of the time.  No bell, only this beautiful voice wafting through the air via who knows how many giant speakers.

No church bells here.  Only a voice.  Now that is something I never thought about before.

Anyway.  After my Orson Wellesian evening last night, I got out with the full-on intent of Getting My Bearings.  Before I left I also had a humorous encounter with the lady that cleans the rooms.  In the hall I told her I didn’t need her to worry about my room. She was very jolly, and not just because of the no-cleaning thing, I don’t think.  She asked where I was from (everybody seems to do that here) and then she told me she was from Sofia, Bulgaria and went on about how beautiful Sofia, and the Varna are and did lots of abbondanza finger kisses as she talked.  When I said goodbye she said “Goodbye! I love you!” OK lady, if you were looking for an end of stay tip, you just succeeded, and brilliantly.

I left my hotel which is very close to the southern waters edge and decided to walk around the bottom tip of the peninsula and then head back in to go to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.  While walking I passed a place with a bunch of tourist buses, and some guy started talking to me.  It was not a tourist attraction, but a place that sells leather jackets.  The questions… where are you from? Where is your boyfriend?  How long are you in town for?  Do you want to look at some jackets?  Can I give you my card?  You will come back, promise? Oh, by the way, there is a shortcut to the Hagia Sophia through my shop!

Finally I extracted myself and made my way to the Hagia Sophia, but I never actually made it into the main part. I visited the Sultan Tombs off to the side of the massive main structure – five small buildings with vibrantly colored ceramic tiles inside, and simple sarcophagus on the floor – sometimes a lot of them, sometimes very small. Like baby small. They are all what look like simple green tents with a little sultans hat sticking out.  All the ornamentation is on the walls.

Walking to the main entrance of Hagia Sophia I saw the hop-on hop off bus that takes you around and you can get on and off to see different places.  I was interested so I went over there.  Got the sales pitch from the guy in charge, but when he said it was 20 euros I said that is too much.  Which it is, really, since the buses are running on a winter schedule, and there are hardly any of them.  So he said OK 15 euros.  And I said yeah but it is 12:00 and there are only buses until 4:30.  OK I will make a special deal for you! He said.  2 days for 15 euros.  How much is that in lire?  I asked.  Cause I can only figure out what the dollar/lire ratio is, at this point in time. 40 Turkish lire, he said.  OK! I said.  I hope that was low enough, my trying-to-teach-me-to haggle friends.

I learned many things on the bus one of which was, last night I was not circling the Hagia Sophia for hours last night – I was circling a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MOSQUE. LIKE A MILE AWAY.  No wonder everything was so whackadoodle.  Note to self, and others – a lit up extremely tall pointy thing is not a good landmark in Istanbul.  They are everywhere, and will mess you up.  On the bus, looking at the map, I saw in great detail where it all went wrong.  I went out of the bazaar to the north, not the south, and thought I was in my general neighborhood.  NOT.  I could have totally taken a cab and not been 30 feet away, as was my fear.  Oh well, more mind-expanding travel trials and tribulations to round out my resume.  It was beautiful outside and also, freezing as hell on top of that bus.  I got off at Taksim Square to eat something and get back to a normal body temperature in a trendy place with a small movie screen (showing a hot blonde news reporter on the Turkish MSNBC) obscuring the pizza oven.  I would rather see the pizza oven.  Wouldn’t everybody?  Anyway I didn’t hang too much in the Taksim area after that because I will be there for eight days next week.

Coming back on the bus, I saw many burned out buildings, old ladies smoking cigarettes and (I think) playing cards on the street, several hundred near-traffic-accidents, the old city walls (which are incredible – ancient, yet sort of just there – because they were there, and continue to be there. No fuss at all) and just outside the walls lots of cemeteries.  Oh and you fans of swarthy dudes – Istanbul, I think, may be the capital of the Swarthy Man.  More than Sicily even, and that is saying something.

Leaving the bus I got hit up by yet another guy asking where I am from then trying to sell me carpets, a tour, etc.  I have to learn to ignore these guys, but it is hard.  I was thinking I could just say, when they ask where I am from, that I can’t say because it is “classified” or “THEY won’t let me” or something Orson Wellesian (any ideas?) But now I have decided, I can just wear my headphones! As soon as I hear the telltale “hello! Where are you from!” I will just keep walking and bop my head around like I am listening to Daft Punk or something.  It is extreme I know but I am not going to buy any carpets, hence, it is only these salesmen that I am looking after, in the long run.  Of course, me being me, I allowed some sincere cafe owner wearing one of those old fashioned shriner/Turkish hats to corral me into his place to have a glass of wine (mostly because I wanted some wine.) He sat down and we talked for some time – he has lived in Malaga, and Sweden, and Finland, and some French people came in and he busted out in some perfect French and sold them wine, tea, and some giant iron kebab skewers to take home.  I was very impressed.  Try to get an American guy to stand on the street with a hat like that and try to talk to people about how fresh your food is.  Also, though I told him my name, he kept calling me Kelly, which is what I always tell people my name is when I really don’t want them to know.  Hmm.

I did not get too lost today.  But I think, in the future, I will put in this blog about Turkey, a la Bridget Jones:

Times I got asked where I am from by a guy who really did not give a shit: 5

Wrong turns: 15

Trying not to look too closely at Swarthy Guy: 20

Trying not to look to closely at all the other guys: 642

Looking at my phrasebook to see how to say “white wine” then chickening out: 3 (I will get over this, eventually)

And so on.

Blind, and In The Dark

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Oh this crazy life.  2 hours on a bus from Santa Barbara to LAX, 6 hours at LAX, 12 hours on a plane to Istanbul, 1 hour getting out of there, a wacky drive into Istanbul, and then, basically, the last five and a half hours IN Istanbul.  It is 11:30 PM.  I am exhausted beyond belief.  Yet, somehow not exhausted.  No, really, I am exhausted.  Anyway please excuse me if I make some spelling errors.  It is the exhaustion/not exhaustion.

For many years now I have wanted to visit Istanbul.  But when I finally made the plan to go, I didn’t really follow up with my normal obsessive/compulsive reading and planning.  Mostly because I was doing so much traveling I didn’t really have my normal year-plus to obsess.  I know something of Turkish history mostly because I know so much about Venetian history and they are very intertwined.  I know about Doner Kebabs.  But I don’t know how to say thank you.  Well I didn’t, anyway, until about an hour ago.

I actually did know to get a visa before going through passport control because of the fine folks who told me about this in advance.  Passport control was funny. Don’t mess around in the Non-Turkish line – let your eyes stray for one second from that official when he calls you and you will have all manner of nationalities yelling at you MADAM! LADY! GO! (This did not happen to me, but it did to several other jet lagged ladies.) It was pretty mellow getting out until I emerged from baggage and customs into the most insane waiting area I have ever experienced.  My hotel sent a guy in a car, who was to hold up a sign with my name on it.  Well you know when you get into a waiting area and there are usually five dudes with signs?  In Istanbul, there were hundreds of people cramming together to wait, and at least a hundred signs.  A hundred!  Somehow, I spotted my sign but as I started to wave (scream) the guy turned around and started walking away.  I caught up with him, and then he led me out, me pushing my cart through an insane obstacle course of people, carts, playing children, wheelchairs – and of course he was like eight feet tall, walking like a city person with no jet lag.  Whew.  That was a little nuts.  My driver took over the cart pushing when we got outside – he probably was sick of me lagging.

So then we were off and I watched the scenery instead of the traffic – boy, there sure are a lot of restaurants here!

Checking in, the manager of the Hotel Sarnic brought me a much needed glass of Turkish white wine (absolutely delicious!) and a plate of really good cheese cubes.  I kind of unpacked and then immediately went out for a walk.

This is where things got kind of haywire for awhile.  I seriously do not know what I was thinking when I set out on this journey.  I thought, well, I need to walk for an hour and check some stuff out, then go eat then get a good nights sleep yada yada yada.  I left the hotel and next door is a restaurant and a young man was smoking outside.  He said come in and eat, listen to some music.  I thought they were part of the hotel, so I said no I have to walk, maybe later.

And walk I did.  In boots with heels (you know how many times I have worn these on the first night on a trip and totally regretted it?  So many it is kind of hilarious) for many hours, on rough streets, the same streets, some dark, some lit, some with sketchy looking characters, some with cafes where the people inside were surely laughing because I had already walked by 45 times in the last two hours.

In a nutshell, I got insanely, horribly lost.

The cool thing is, tomorrow I will be like, oh, I know this place, and it is daylight!  But tonight it was very dark and the only map I had was the one the hotel gave me (stupid, stupid, STUPID girl for even thinking this was going to work).  I walked along a very cool street with many trams and shops and cafes but then somehow veered off into the Grand Bazaar.  Well, I am sure this behemoth of retail (4000 storefronts!) is all nice and cozy in the day, but tonight?  Me and about 200 dudes wrapping up the days work, also about 400 cats and a lot of garbage.  I did not see one woman there.  99% of the shops were closed for the day. And it is a MAZE.  I could not get out.  I was not worried about the dudes or the cats, I was just worried about actually finding my way OUT.  Eventually I did though, to the Hagia Sofia, which is this massive building.  OK cool.  Except for the next hour, I kept going in circles around it.  Kind of like the Colosseum in Rome.  It was always there.  Over and over.  I was getting worried. And, to be kind of honest, wishing there was a wine bar on every corner like there is in Venice or Paris. Have a glass of wine, use the empty glass to magnify the small print on the map, etc. That kind of thing generally saves the day for me.

I knew I needed to get to the Blue Mosque because the hotel was around there and I finally did but I must have made 70 concentric circles around that freeking thing (and it is BIG) trying to figure out where the hell I was.  Now you might wonder, why not hop into one of the 8000 cabs that passed by me in the night?  Excellent question.  I should have, except I was scared to.  Not only scared of getting overcharged but scared that the hotel would be 30 feet away.

I did ask a few people.  A policeman gave me the wrong directions.  A dude with a big cart full of fruits told me to walk to the tram and then take a left.  I did, but he must have meant for me to continue to ask directions.  The good thing was the tram stops had good maps.  I was scrutinizing one when a guy came up and asked me where I was going, if I lived here, etc.  I was nice but kind of said I can figure it out.  I saw him down the street and he followed me and offered to walk me, but I said no that is OK.  I think I would rather be lost.  He was from “the Black Sea” and he had a black eye.  He asked if I wanted a tea. But I kept going.

Thankfully the bus map was pretty good and I got almost to the hotel except for one wrong turn, and there was a guy in front of a carpet shop that asked if he could help.  I was very close and he was very nice – of course, I guess he was trying to sell me a carpet. He invited me in for tea and I said no I have to eat and this other, older guy said WE WILL BUY YOU DINNER. Sigh.  I really just want to get home.

I went around the corner and saw the young smoking guy that I had seen when I first ventured out at 6:30 this evening.  I was so happy to see him.  I swear, I have never been so happy to see a stranger in my life.  I may as well have had rockets on my heels I went into that restaurant so fast.  It was 9:30 – I had been searching for home for about 2 hours at that point. I was the only one in there, except for some of his family.  He brought me another glass of delicious white wine, and a little plate of different spreads for bread – yogurt with chunks of pickle, hummus, some tomato stuff.  Then I had lamb on eggplant puree.  He sat at the next table and talked with me the whole time.  I asked if it was bad manners to talk with one’s mouth full in Turkey, but he said no.  He is quite an amiable guy.  Really nice.  He comes from a town in the east where they have a lot of Hittite excavations.  He showed me some pictures on his computer – he is very proud of his town, and of his heritage.  His family business is also tours, and I think I will take one of the boat tours they do.  He invited me to go see Turkish folk music tomorrow.  I am not really sure I am ready to take on something like that – not on the second night.  Though, it could be totally awesome.  I just need to get my bearings a little better first.

In the daylight.