Archives for the month of: July, 2007

Hotel Street

My flight was delayed out of London (after three hours working through the flight transfer system, including being sent to the wrong terminal and waiting in the wrong line for an hour and a half). Once I arrived in Turkey, I followed the advice of the travel books and stayed up until normal bedtime. Nejat (Jonathan Kwan’s friend from USC) lives in Istanbul, and, at Jon’s urging, agreed to keep an eye on me.

I got to the hotel at 5:30 p.m., and Nejat was already there with his friend Turol. We had dinner at a place called the Green House, in a beautiful garden setting. The food was great. I was introduced to boreks, which are a yummy pastry filled with cheese, veggies or meat. After dinner we came back to the hotel and shared a bottle of wine at the rooftop café, with a view of the Bosphorus Bridge. There was a huge orange moon, and it was a nice ending to a very long day of travel.

Monday: I decided to set out to see the sights of the city. First though, I needed to exchange money. That is when I realized two things: it was hot as Hades (to me, so you know that’s hot), and it seemed as though everywhere I needed to go was uphill. I found a bank, and after along wait, during which someone cut in front of me to the “tsk, tsk” of locals, I got the cash. Then I walked back to the hotel, took a shower and changed before starting out again.

Hotel Lobby

Let me digress for a moment here to tell you about the hotel. It is right in the heart of old town, close to all the major sights, including the Hagia Sophia basilica, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the cisterns and the Archaeological Museum. It is clean, and the staff speaks English very well and is very helpful. Breakfast is free every morning from 7 to 10:30. The rooms are small, but the location and service more than make up for it.

So, I set out to see the sights. The Blue Mosque was amazing. Women have to cover their arms, and all folks have to take their shoes off before entering. It wasn’t long before I picked up my first “host.” He accompanied me into the mosque, answered all my questions, spoke impeccable English and was quite familiar with life in the States.

Blue Mosque

After the mosque, he explained to me that he and his cousin had a shop close to the
mosque. Would I come and look? The shop was right in the tourist section near the mosque and had beautiful things, but as it turned out this was a whole routine that got old by the end of the day. I entered the shop (very upscale) and received a glass of green tea – delicious. Then they encouraged me to buy overpriced jewelry. After getting out of there, they wanted me to go look at their carpet store.

Dummy me, I went because, supposedly, I could learn about the carpets to know what to look for. An hour later, after green tea and more than I ever cared to know about rugs, I freed myself and was on my way to lunch.

Bosphorus Bridge

After lunch I headed to the Topkapi Palace. It was amazing – huge, so old and still intact. It was filled with gems, carpets and art that were awe inspiring.

That night Nejat came to get me. We went to dinner at a very nice restaurant next to the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the continent of Europe to the continent of Asia. It was amazing. He ordered champagne to celebrate my first year as dean, and then we had a fabulous meal – bluefish, white wine, rice pilaf, assorted Turkish appetizers, grilled vegetables and a yummy eclair, covered with chocolate sauce.

Jazz Fest

Nejat’s mom had VIP tickets to the jazz fest, so we went and saw Latin jazz in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge (which puts on a light show at night) and a full moon above a beautiful mosque next door.

At one point, the call to prayer overlay the music from the stage. There was food and drink galore at the concert. Since we had eaten, we merely availed ourselves of the wine. The crowd at this event was made up of the beautiful people of Istanbul. It was quite a treat — lots of dancing and people-watching — and I got in late that night.

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SpicesCruise

Tuesday: I booked a tour which went to the spice market, the new mosque, and out on the Bosphorus on a cruise. The tour was a good idea because I was able to see a number of sights and get some great pictures.

Believe it or not, I met a guy from Mena, Ark., who knows Jake Looney (our former Dean and colleague).

After the tour, I returned to the hotel, picked up a mystery novel and relaxed. Later that evening, I took a cab over to Beyoglu and met Nejat for dinner. That area of Istanbul is funky, artsy and decidedly more Western.

After dinner (meat patties, salad, seasoned potatoes and local beer), we went to the home of two artists, actually an architect and artist. Both Murat and Fuat Sahinler are very well known, prominent artists. They lived on the top floor of a very old building that looked right out onto the Bosphorus, with an amazing view. We talked about politics, religion, the upcoming elections in our countries and our backgrounds.

Istanbul View

Afterwards, Murat offered to drive me (and Nejat) around the city because I had mentioned to him that the tours were all limited to tourist areas. So, off we went, careening through town, at times at 100 km per hour on city streets. Driving there is really crazy. We went far north to a local Kurdish tea garden and had black tea and toast (grilled cheese). Then we went to Murat’s studio. He has exhibited and lived all over the world. It was amazing! He gave me an art book of Turkish artists and autographed it for me. Then we drove back through other parts of the city and back to my hotel.

Dinner

Wednesday: I had a seriously fabulous dinner at the rooftop café here in the hotel. First of all, I ate overlooking the Bosphorus, which in and of itself is pretty darn special. The meal itself was also fantastic. I started with a very fresh salad with real, ripe tasty tomatoes, cucumbers, corn lettuce, mushrooms, topped with a shredded local cheese and lightly covered with a tasty dressing. That was followed by a chicken wrap, which was far from the American idea of a wrap. The chicken was wrapped around veggies and cheese and covered in a light sauce. It was served with (surprisingly) French fries, described on the menu as sliced potatoes. The service was doting. Dessert was a chocolate soufflé served with whipped cream and powdered sugar.

Istanbul Street

Afterwards, I moved to the outside area, in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque for an after-dinner aperitif (sherry). However, what I got was a cross between Baileys and a chocolate liqueur. In fact, it poured out of a dual bottle (I know this because the waiter came and refilled it – gratis – as though I needed it. During the whole meal, the music in the restaurant was of the “Quiet Storm” type, mostly R&B love songs with a few international ballads thrown in. It was a blast to eat a fabulous meal in Istanbul to Luther Vandross, Alicia Keys and Norah Jones. In fact, as I was enjoying my “sherry,” Norah Jones played against the backdrop of the nighttime call to prayer.

Earlier Wednesday I did a great deal of walking, not all of it intentional I have to admit. Whenever I travel, I have gotten into the habit of checking to see if I can get money before I need it.

Go Fish

So I walked to the bank and tried my ATM card to find that it could not be read by the Turkish ATM, which gave the message, “You cannot receive money at this bank.” This was a good thing to know before I needed to know it. So I went into the bank, and the manager suggested that I go to Citibank since it was American. Thus began the long, long walk. After confirming that my card did not work there, I set off to walk along the sea, because the day before when I was there, my camera battery was depleted.

I sat with the fishermen, got some great shots and then walked back through the park. I only had one issue with a “host” — a 75-year-old man who tried excitedly to engage me in Turkish for about half of my walk through the park.

Bridge from Asia

After that, I took a tour of the Asian side of the city, which was a disappointment except for the Summer Palace tour. The guide was a macho type who didn’t have much use for me and vice-versa. The good thing is I met Francoise (with an “e” she told me), and we decided to brave the Grand Bazaar together on Thursday. She was a Parisian who spent 11 years living in D.C and was a lot of fun, with a wicked sense of humor.

I told Nejat he had been a wonderful host, but since I was going to see him and his family the next day, I would hang out at the hotel. And that’s how I ended up having dinner with Luther, Norah and the call to prayer.

Nance & Francoise - Grand BazaarThursday: I began the day with coffee, homemade granola and watermelon (yeah, I know). Francoise met me at the hotel, and we headed off to the Grand Bazaar, which I later called the “Grand Bizarre,” and Francoise agreed.

We walked quite a ways — as it turns out, quite a ways out of the way. It was hot that day too. Did I mention it was as hot as Hades? Well it was. So we stopped for some apple tea, but it was not very good, so we chugged uphill to the bazaar. An older man (who was tough to lose – another carpet seller) got us going in the right direction and was going to be our escort until we were quite clear that we were fine. Francoise put his business card at a vendor’s stall because she was certain it had a homing device as he kept turning up. It worked!

We each had lists of what we needed to purchase and set out trying to find vendors with the goods. The grand “bizarre” is a covered crazy maze of stalls with vendors who are hawking their wares with varying degrees of aggression. It was air conditioned or not, depending on where you were.

BazaarOur tendency was to find the vendors who were the least intrusive and reward them with our purchases. You are expected to bargain, so we each played the tough bargainer for the other’s purchases. This turned out to be a pretty successful strategy. We even got delicious apple tea and free gifts from one vendor with whom we really bargained.

I was able to purchase the bulk of my souvenirs and gifts, and so was she. We wandered around looking, occasionally buying and finally escaping to the light of day. Four bizarre hours had passed. By that time, Francoise was pooped and I felt wilted, so we stopped and had a delicious meal at a restaurant on the tram line (the main drag for the Bazaar and sights). It was air conditioned, but the window was open, and the food was great. I had a Turkish pizza (recommended by Lonely Planet). Francoise had gyro-style lamb and veggies. We both drank tons of water.

Turkish FlagWe were going to try to see the Cistern, but with our purchases in tow, it was too much. Besides, it had closed by the time we finished our late lunch. We dumped our purchases in our hotels and walked around the neighborhood, up, down and round yonder. I took tons of pictures and we added our own color commentary as we walked. After about an hour, we said good night and agreed to meet the next day to go to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which neither of us had seen but which was highly recommended by the travel guides and locals.

Nejat called about a half an hour after that, and we agreed to meet at Beyoglu. I would meet his dad and mom and have dinner with his family. I caught a cab to Beyoglu. The driver tried very much to converse, but his English was sketchy and my Turkish worse. We went to the same place Nejat and I had dinner before, and his dad and Murat and Murat’s girlfriend were there. After a bit, Murat and his girlfriend left, and we drove to pick up Nejat’s mom. Both his parents were beautiful and urbane.

We ate at a very nice seafood restaurant in the Armenian section of town. The meal was a feast. First, the waiters brought olives and several varieties of cold fish — herring, snapper, octopus and a local fish whose name I’ve forgotten.

Dinner GroupThen there was hot calamari with a really yummy sauce; next, appetizers of meat, veggie and cheese stuffed pastries and then a wonderful salad that made me appreciate once again how fabulous a real tomato is. Finally our entrees came. I had grilled sea bass and his parents had sea bass kabobs. Nejat had blue fish, and, surprisingly, had two on his plate when it arrived.

The conversation covered the arts (Nejat and his dad are both artists), Murat, politics, religion, travel and studying abroad. Nejat’s dad, Ahmet, had studied in North Carolina as it turns out, and his Mom, Ipek, spent a year in Lincoln, Neb., during which time she often visited Iowa. We also talked about Ahmet’s and Nejat’s art and they invited me to come later in the week to visit their studio.

TramFriday: After I had a breakfast of watermelon and coffee, Francoise and I set out to see the Dolmabahçe Palace. Instead of taking a cab, we took the tram. After a few missteps, such as walking up to the wrong booths for tickets and standing on the wrong platform, we were on our way. We attracted a lot of attention, but everyone was courteous.

Palace EntranceWe bought tickets for both the palace and Harem tour and paid an extra six lira so that I could use my camera. The palace tour, as it turns out, was disappointing because you could only go in groups and they took 60 people at a time, so it was hard to hear the guide. The palace, with 365 rooms was built in Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles and also incorporates Ottoman art and culture.

Turkish SoldierThe Harem had 10 separate apartments for the official and unofficial wives. During the tour, it poured rain for the first time during the trip, so we picked a good day for the inside tour. In between the palace and Harem tours, we had to wait a half an hour, so we sipped apple tea in the café.

After touring the palace, Francoise had to meet her hubby, so we parted on the tram. I headed off to see the train station, which was the last stop on the Orient Express and had a small museum. Across from the station was a park in which a hundred or so day laborers gathered seeking work.

Street From there, I walked around the area, taking pictures of everyday street scenes and then hopped on the tram again. On the way back to the hotel, the tram went past an artist’s studio, so I went in to look and bought three lovely collage-style paintings. After that, I hopped back on the tram and spent an hour in the museum of Islamic and Turkish art.

Afterwards, I returned to the hotel. Nejat was able to meet later, so I decided to grab dinner. At the urging of the restaurant manager, who promised a special dinner, I had another wonderful meal on the roof of the hotel. Because of the rain, the evening was cooler, so I was able to sit outside and watch the sunset in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. The steak, which the waiter recommended, was perfectly seasoned and prepared, served with two ramekins, one of mustard and mayo and another with ketchup, dolmek, vegetables and red wine.

I ordered a small dish of vanilla ice cream for dessert with a Nescafe (all regular coffee is called Nescafe). My table overlooked the street (against the advice of my ROTC friends), and I saw the waiter walking down the street. The manager brought the coffee, and, after a while, the ice cream. But instead of a small dish of vanilla, it was a bowl of vanilla, pistachio and chocolate ice cream covered with chocolate syrup and chopped pistachios. That was a delicious surprise. On my way out, I asked the waiter where he had gone, and he told me that he went to purchase the ice cream. Now, that’s service!

JazzI called Nejat, who asked me to meet him at Beyoglu to go hear live music in Taksim. We walked around the neighborhood a bit looking at all the cafes, galleries and funky shops. In the middle of a large intersection, there was (the Turkish version of) an R&B band. They were playing “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” There was a pretty large crowd of young people dancing. It was surreal. Afterwards, we headed to the Nardis jazz club. It could have been any club in the Village. The people in the crowd were young intellectuals, he explained to me. One of the unusual things about it was that the crowd treated the music the way we would respond to a classical concert. There was almost a quiet reverence for the performers. Nejat explained that jazz was very respected and taken quite seriously, so it would be rude to be noisy.

We had arrived early, so we were able to get seats on the top floor looking down over the balcony. From there we could check out the crowd as well as the music group. The group was a trio — singer, guitarist and pianist. I got great photos and a video of the performance. They performed jazz standards, with Turkish twists. When we got ready to go, the singer stopped the music and called up, “Are you leaving?” I didn’t hear him, but Nejat told me, “He is talking to you.” I explained that, yes, we were leaving, and he asked if we would stay through the end of the set, so of course we did.

Midnight SnackAfterwards, as we came down and were leaving, he introduced himself and said, “I am so honored to perform the music of your culture. I hope you enjoyed it, and it was good.” I told him it was great, and I appreciated the fact that he too enjoyed jazz and was helping to spread its message to folks in Istanbul.

Nejat stopped at a street stall to purchase a snack. He walked up to the stall, grabbed what looked like mussels and started to munch. The vendor kept track of how many each customer ate. The second course of his snack consisted of a sandwich that Nejat described as sheep guts and sauce.

Election BannersFrom there we went to some clubs in the area. They were a mixture of dance clubs, meat markets and hipster bars (at least to my eyes). We settled on the rooftop of a bar that Nejat called punk, but to me was more like a bar for the intellectual, young and cool crowd. Several of his friends were there, and they were obviously very curious about what was going on between us. We had a beer there and crowd watched, and by that time it was 4 a.m., so we left.

Saturday: Since Saturday was my last day in Istanbul, I decided to walk around and get more pictures of everyday street scenes. I also hadn’t seen the Cistern yet, so I set out to do that first thing, and it was amazing. All I could think of when I was there was, “How the heck did they do that?” I was able to get some great photos by turning off the flash.

Fish MarketFrom there, I started walking and took pictures of cafes, construction workers and anything that captured, for me, the essence of the city.

I ran into Mehmet, who had a carpet shop and who I had seen at least four times before while walking around the Sultanahmet area. When he had approached me earlier, the first thing out of my mouth was, “No, thanks. I don’t want a carpet or a boyfriend,” and we had visited briefly about being hassled. Every time after that, he spoke, and I said, “Hi.”

So, on Saturday, he said, “Hi. I see you again,” and I said, “Yes.” And he walked with me, making me laugh and sharing insights about the city and the culture. To make a long story short (no, it ain’t that kind of story), I spent about four hours walking around with Mehmet, sharing his favorite spots and answering my (many) questions.

With MehmetWe had lunch at a fish restaurant under the bridge, and he helped me pick out and bargain for a few last gifts. Mehmet’s English was impeccable, and he had a terrific sense of humor. He wanted to have something more, and invited me to stay for dinner, to go to his house in the south of Turkey, but … He was a bit annoyed with me, but it just wasn’t that kind of trip. He even quoted the “what happens in Istanbul” line, but in the end, I went back to the hotel alone.

I spent the last night with Nejat, his family and my former law professor from Iowa, Adrien Wing, and her friend Lufftke, from Tunisia. Adrien was there for a class she taught and to perform a site inspection of another law school’s international program an hour outside of Istanbul.

ArtBut first I met Nejat again at Beyoglu, and we walked to his and his dad’s art studio. There, I met their art teacher, who gave me an autographed perspective of his work. I don’t know if you saw the article about the international artists from nine countries who were commissioned to paint pictures of the Grumman fighter jet, but he was the artist selected to represent Turkey.

We called Adrien, and, as it happened, her hotel was right around the corner, literally, from the studio, so she joined us, and we all had tea and talked culture, art and politics. Then we all went to another fabulous rooftop restaurant (off a narrow alleyish-looking street — you wouldn’t know it was there) with a view of the Bosphorus. The elevator was so small we had to ride up two by two. The meal was great, and I was glad they were able to meet Adrien.

Group PicAfter that, we parted from Nejat’s parents who went to get some ice cream, and we walked around taking in the night scene before going to a shisha bar to smoke apple tobacco, sip tea and visit. It was getting late, and my ride to the airport was coming at 7 in the morning, so we all said goodnight, and Nejat escorted me to the hotel.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip, and I intend to go back to Istanbul again soon. But next time I’d like to also see the resorts in the south of Turkey. Many thanks to my wonderful hosts for your warm, generous hospitality!