Adventures From Turkey (Part 1)
I ended up with a middle seat which is normally an awful thing, but this row had extra legroom and on a ten hour flight, it's pretty essential that I can able to yoga myself into a ball to rest my head. It was the right move; those seats at the back of the plane look claustrophobic from where I'm sitting. – Also a win, I timed the snack cart just right so that I got not one, but two bags of almonds. Clearly, the universe is on my side.
So that you do not get the idea that all is rosy up here in the clouds though, did you know that alcohol is no longer free on international flights? I, for one, am appalled. On the other hand, the movie was pleasantly terrible. In my experience, planes are a fabulous place to indulge in bad movies.
Before the flight, I neither finished all the work I planned nor looked at movers / housing at the airport. I did, however, manage to get a pedicure. I am a strong believer in priority, you see. – Regarding the work: I am trying to sneak my very dear friend into a promotion (taking over as manager when I leave). So I transferred my stuff to her and sent a memo to the team putting her in charge for these two weeks (covert prep for permanent inchargedness). – Regarding movers / housing, the longer I wait, the more desperate those UT kids will be. I anticipate apartments for the price of a keg soon enough.
We are just settling in after our first day in Istanbul. It's 4:00 am here but I am wired from Turkish coffee and ready to pound out an entire manuscript about our first day. I hope you like meandering narrations and superfluous food details.
We met two of our hosts, Tevfik and Efe, at Mecidiyeköy Square and loved them immediately. Michelle, Kai and I took all of five minutes to start sampling the street food vendors, and between bites managed to ooh and aah over our first glimpses of Istanbul architecture. Thus auspiciously began our adventures in Turkey.
We walked to the apartment where we met up with Can and dropped our bags before heading back out for a stroll around Istiklal Street (this is a huge pedestrian area with shops, bars and restaurants that reminded me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona). People-watching here could fill endless hours with wardrobe commentary and cultural comparison but we had a mission: dinner or bust. The guys took us out for traditional Iskender which is sliced lamb with a tomato sauce and yogurt with bread (typing it out here sounds kind of meh but, I am telling you, it was killer). – Then they took us for dessert and Turkish coffee. We sampled nearly everything that the bakery had to offer and then sat back rubbing our bellies with satisfaction while Efe read our fortunes in the coffee grounds. Kai's involved sadness and a unicorn which is obvious nonsense because how could unicorns be anything less than fanfuckingtastic? Michelle will apparently bring luck to a great man or woman she is yet to meet. And I have two choices before me but I should not worry because both lead to happiness. I can get behind those kind of odds.
We walked around some more and cuddled baby bunnies that an old man was selling along with fortunes. Both turned out to be a bit tragicomic. The fortune predicted that I would do anything for love but that the one I love would leave me behind. Hmph! And then the adorable tiny fuzzy sweet little bunny peed on me. I would have fought if it were not so very funny.
We hit up two rooftop bars for gorgeous views of the cityscape at night and some Turkish beer. Then on the way home around 2am we tried another street vendor that rocked our world so completely, I'm not sure food will ever be the same again. What they call “midya” is an oyster stuffed with moist delicious rice, spices and what can only be manna from heaven. The guy cracks open the shell, squeezes a lemon on top and keeps helping them to you faster than you can slurp them down and exclaim, “sweet mother of god, that is good!” At only half a Turkish Lira each, I'm in danger of spending the entire two weeks decimating Istanbul's oyster population.
I'm glad we meshed immediately and completely with Tevfik, Efe and Can. They're warm and hospitable, full of information and questions, easy with affection and quick of wit. If they are representative of the Turkish population at large then this is going to be one amazing trip. 🙂
This morning we slept in, then spend the day meandering through neighborhoods on our way to the Hagia Sophia (quick reminder from history class: this was a Greek Orthodox Basilica from the 4th to 12th centuries, was briefly a Roman Catholic cathedral in the 13th, then went back to Greek before the Ottomans turned it into a mosque in 1453). I have sort of a thing for religious architecture and Kai is crazy for art history so we were all really really excited to see it in person. The Hagia Sophia is not just the epitome of Byzantine architecture but I think the dome (if not the whole structure) was the largest in the world for nearly a millennia. We had pretty high expectations.
Spoiler alert: it did not disappoint. The Hagia Sophia is the sort of place that stops you in your tracks when you cross the threshold. The sheer size of everything is breathtaking. (Or put another way: it was difficult to avoid saying “that's what she said” repeatedly as we discussed it's size in awe.) We wandered though, took a zillion pictures (Michelle), adapted the real life versions of famous mosaics we ' d all studied in school books and turned to each other every three minutes or so to say, “Oh my god, we're actually here!”
From there we went just a couple hundred yards to the Sultanahmet Mosque (built early 1600s), better known as the Blue Mosque for the stunning blue tiles inside. I do not know how else to describe the shade of blue than so completely tranquil that every part of me wanted to lay down on the plush prayer carpet and stare dreamily at the patterns overhead.
Afterwards, we were wiped and so came back to the apartment and watched the end of a football match with the guys (Tevfik's team lost to Can's). – Okay, my parenthetical notes are out of control tonight. I'll be better composed tomorrow.
It was a fabulous birthday as it turned out. We had booked ourselves on a food tour of the European side of Istanbul and it was so great that we might try to book the same tour on the Asian side before we depart. There is a food blog called Istanbul Eats that organizes them and they're the real deal. Small groups (capped at 6) for $ 100 each, on a six hour walking tour of the Old City. No attempt to pace ourselves mattered; by the end my stomach was arriving places six inches ahead of the rest of me. The quick rundown (so I can commit it to both posterity and my own memory) was:
– Tour of the bridges of the spice market and discussion of agricultural and fishing practices; tasting nuts, fruit and cheese; ofal shop where specialty butchers sell organ meat, brains, intestines and chicken. She explained that in Turkey it would never occur to a butcher to sell all parts of the animal; it is expected practice for everyone to specialize and stick that specialy so the guy who sells leg of lamb would never sell the sweetmeat as well (sweetmeat is a gland in the lamb's neck). – breakfast in the nook of an ally was bread, cheese and olives while we watched the tea guys work. Through the neighborhood, merchants intercom, phone or yell orders to this closet-sized kitchen where two men brew and deliver Ceylon tea and Turkish coffee all day. Everything is served in tiny steaming glasses because the largest sin a cup of tea can commit is to cool before you drink the end of it.- kokoreç: is sweetmeat wrapped in intestine and slow roasted over coals then diced and grilled with tomatoes, thyme and salt and served on fresh bread. We had fun here gossiping with the kid that makes them (he's putting everyone else out of business because he's the best, engaged to one of the richest girls in Turkey and can tell you which nightclub is the hottest in Istanbul right now). – lentil soup: all of the places we stopped in make a certain portion of food in the morning and stay open until it's gone (and have been doing so for generations). You can tell a good restaurant by its plain decor and limited menu (the best do one or two things magnificently and do not bother with anything else) .- pide: an adorably round middle aged man has been making this Turkish version of a pizza for over twenty years in his wood oven. It was fun to watch him work the dough with such pleasure and beam as we all tasted it. – turkish delight, helva and tea: We met the family that has been making sweets here since 1865 and then rested in the most romantic little courtyard of all time. It's nestled in an old metalworkers building and men from the neighborhood were resting and drinking tea while we explored the fabulously textured and colored spaces all around us.- döner: means spinning and indicating to that vertical spit of roasting meat that so many shops sell. This one was out of this world. The guy spends a couple hours each morning building a single döner layered with tomatoes, onions and fat and closes shop when he sells out. I can not remember ever eating such a perfectly balanced mix of flavors before. boza – this was a crazy applesauce-like thing made from fermented milklet and served with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. Considered a “drink,” it felt more like what would happen if a smoothie wrestled with a pudding.- lamb and rice pilaf with currents, pine nuts in phylo dough for lunch: impossible to resist even though we were full to capacity- baklava: made by an old woman in the neighborhood and hands down the best I've ever had. She makes it savory by being heavy on the walnuts instead of the syrup and the result is heavenly.
We wandered though the Grand Bazaar for the rest of the day and had total sensory meltdowns. A person could get lost in this maze of colorful wares for sell and men trying to lure you into shops. I felt like Jasmine the first time she ventures outside the palace gates in Aladdin. I did stumble upon some art that I fell in love with and so bought what would be my one “souvenir” from Turkey. I haggled him down as low as he would go and then dropped the birthday girl card for a final discount. Stoked to hang them in the new apartment!
We spend approximately half a lifetime trying to commute home. In the interest of frugality, we opted to metro instead of taxi but it was one of the most crowded rides of our lives. We were over it by the time we got to our transfer point and tried to taxi the rest of the way, but then the driver advised that traffic was so bad we did better to get back on the train. We grumpily hiked up an endless hill to the next station and finally got to Mecidiyeöy but the whole journey was close to two hours and by that point the only thing we could talk about was how great a nap was going to feel.
To say thanks for all their hospitality we thought it would be nice to clean up the house and supply the guys with toilet paper and paper towels (which can declared with agitated fists over head that they had run out of). So we stopped at the store then scrubbed the kitchen and living room from top to bottom. (They are the sort of bachelors that only wash dishes when they run out of clean ones so we felt like a little female touch would be nice.) I think they really appreciated it and now we can relax without crumbs and cigarette ashes on the table .)
We crashed for a few hours then got up at midnight, dressed for a night out and Can, Tevfik and Efe took us to the places where the cool kids hang out. We taste tested our way through Ortaköy and walked along the Bosphorous. Michelle and Kai indulged me when my new embarrassingly favorite song came on and danced in the backseat of the taxi with me to “Girlfriend” by (none other than Justin Beiber. We explored a neighborhood called Bebek and ate waffles covered in every kind of sweet under the sun. We crowded six people in a taxi where Efe recorded the night for posterity and everyone sang Happy Birthday. We ended up drinking on another rooftop in Istiklal, eating midya and “wet hamburgers” at 5:00 am and finally crawling into bed at dawn. Best birthday on record.
Let's see … what have I been up to? Since we went to bed at dawn, we slept all day on the fifth. Woke up in the afternoon, lounged and tried to figure out why the electricity was out, finally decided to take a cold shower, wimped out, left the house in a questionable state of attractiveness and took a ferry to Asian Istanbul. Across the Bosphorus, half of the city is considered to be on the continent of Asia where we had been on the European side until then. Can and Efe were busy, so Tevfik took us to the beach where we all drank tea and coffee and watched the sunset. It was one of those perfect moments where for the absolute life of me, I could not think of anything I would rather be doing. The sky was moody and full of patchy dark clouds over the brightest full moon of the year. There was some random lighting in the sky which inspired a round of Bohemian Rhapsody with Kai “Galileo” ing and me “Figaro” ing while Michelle “I'm just a poor boy” ed and Tevfik stared at us like we were crazy. There was a fireworks show in the distance and after a while, people started lighting and setting off paper lanterns along the shore (you're supposed to write a wish inside and send it into the sky). There were none for sale for us to join so we made wishes and tossed coins into the Bosphorus instead. (No, I can not tell you, silly.
Then yesterday (the 6th) we semi split up for our last day in Istanbul. I really wanted to go to a Turkish hamam (bath) so sent the better part of the afternoon steaming myself then getting scrubbed, soaped, massaged and exfoliated by an old Turkish woman in black lace underwear. I found this last part funny because when I went to Korean baths previously, they were the same thing. There must have been a memo. – The bath was really lovely and quite different from the Korean ones. There were no pools to submerge in for starters. In the Korean version, you're expected to soak in hotter and hotter water until you're poached before they start to scrub you. Here, it was a cylindrical domed room with stained glass windows overhead and a giant marble slab in the center. You wash and then lay on the hot marble until you're some cross between steamy and sweaty and and then the women (obviously men on the men's side) go to work. By the time it's all over, my skin is fresh and supple. I spend the rest of the afternoon making the group touch it and exclaim, “oh my, that is fabulous!”
We met up with the guys for dinner (crazy delicious food from the Black Sea region … finally I got my fill of fish) and then they took us to the bus station. We opted for an 11: 00p overnight bus to Selçuk because we would rather sacrifice sleep than valuable daylight hours in Turkey. When we stopped 9 hours later, Michelle and Kai tried to tip the renovation guy from the bus and I realized that I must have been the sole recipient of his über creepiness (he kept brushing against me and calling me baby), blech.
Ick-guy combined with sleeplessness and some mild stomach cramps and I was definitely a little on the grumpy side this morning. But it's a wonder what tea and gorgeous weather can do. We met up with Mehmet and Emre (father and son: our hosts in Selçek) then spend the day in the shade outside Mehmet's restaurant reading, talking and drinking. Once the afternoon cooled off, we went to Ephesus and had the kind of ecstatic fun that only nerds can have at historical sites. We were super lucky too because the entire place was deserted. When we came in there were still a couple tour groups but they left us behind as Michelle and I were climbing from one ancient ruin to another taking pictures. By the time the sun set and we had to leave, there was not another person to be seen. It was epic to say the least.
Tomorrow we head south.