Saturday, September 17, 2011

Arrived home

As most of our readers may have gathered by now, we arrived home safely late on Thursday night, thus drawing this trip to a close. We had a truly amazing trip and I am tremendously thankful to all of those who supported us financially, through prayers and moral support, and by entrusting your family members to us. I was quite impressed with the students who traveled with us, and I think they are a credit to their school and to the families they came from. I felt honored to have a chance to work with them over the past month. The Turks we worked with also recognized their uniqueness and noted that this group was different from many they have worked with in the past. They appreciated the students for their genuine interest in Turkey and Turkish culture, and noted how impressed they were with the high standards the students hold. It was quite noteworthy to our Muslim friends, who also try to live in a way that is pleasing to God, that our students shared many of their moral standards, something they don't always see in American visitors to Turkey.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

And so it continues .... Please READ

Well, we arrived at the airport today, checked all our luggage, went through some interesting re-packing to avoid massive fines (and paid some), went through all the security and sat in the lounge only to find out our flight was delayed. This seemed OK, though our connection was a bit close, but we got a bit worried when they called all the business class passengers up to the desk and sent them away. Once the airline had taken care of business class they made the general announcement that our flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems, and everyone would need to find another flight or come back the next day. We called our US travel agent's emergency number, only to have it disconnect. We were not happy about this. It was 12:15 pm in Istanbul, but 5 am in Atlanta, so no one was in the office yet. It soon became apparent (amidst the general pushing and raised voices of passengers) that the airline wasn't going to rebook anyone's flights for today unless their travel terminated in New York. They told us that we would all miss our connections on any other flights, so anyone with connections would have to stay in Istanbul until tomorrow morning. We had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, we had all been saying we wanted to stay, but we had also already said our goodbyes and prepared psychologically to go home, so it was a bit odd. All in all, though, if there are mechanical problems with a plane, I'd much rather stay on the ground, even if it means a delay in getting home, and to be honest I'm happier chaperoning a bunch of students who are competent and confident about finding their way around and managing life in Istanbul than having them all run around NYC for the first time in the middle of the night.

The next problem was that the entire planeload of people had gone through customs and had already officially exited Turkey and had exit stamps placed in our passports. The Delta personnel re-routed us all back down into the arrivals area and back through customs again, where they took back the passports and canceled the exit stamps. This is apparently the official way to handle this problem here. It got us back into Turkey, but we have yet to see whether it will allow us to exit again. Presumably several hundred people will have the same problem tomorrow if it doesn't, though, so I'm hoping they have some sort of system for this.

Once we got through customs we retrieved our bags and a lovely Delta agent helped us receive a refund for surcharges on a heavy bag. We should be able to repack to avoid this when we go back again tomorrow. We were told that the airline was planning to put us all up at a hotel in Asia, but we weren't too excited about this because it would mean several hours on a bus each way and hanging out with a bunch of disgruntled airline passengers (we'd had a dose of the griping in the customs line already). We were also very blessed to have Ali and his office on our side. Even before we contacted them they were already tracking our flight and knew it had been canceled and had sent a van back to the airport for us with Hakan, who helped us navigate through the process of heading back to Istanbul. We had also paid for our apartments for a full 30 days (to get the one-month discount) but had only used them for 29, so we were all able to return to our original housing for another night. The students' apartment manager invited them all to dinner tonight, so we were greatly appreciative.

We have been told we are all booked onto the flight to New York tomorrow morning, and on to LAX after that. We are still in the process of confirming this with our travel agent, but will let you know as soon as it's confirmed. In the meantime, you should all expect that we will be arriving at LAX one day late at 8:26 pm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

And so it Ends

Here I am sitting in my room at 1:30 in the morning and it is the last night i will spend here in Istanbul. I am actually quite sad to be going not because i dread going back to California and starting another year of school but because i have felt so comfortable here in Turkey. Even though I dont feel like It is my home and I dont feel i am leaving any piece of my heart here I will dreadfully miss my stay here.

These last few days have actually been extremely busy but in a very relaxing kind of way. This week I had an art class where I was given an old page out of an Arabic script book and paints so i could "Illuminate" the manuscript. I painted a map of Byzantium and I have to say that i am very ple
ased with it. Unfortunately I do not have a picture.

Sunday was a partial day off so i decided to go to the Archaeology Museum again (I was not feeling good the first time) and take the audio tour around the Anatolian Civilizations exhibits. I love being around ancient things and felt completely at peace looking at the massive stone carvings, the Cuneiform texts, and the different types of Seals.

Later that evening we were under the direction of our wonderful school photographer Natan. I own a Nikon D90 but i have always been upset with it due to my lack of any knowledge regarding the art of photography but Natan was quite willing to help me understand white balances, apertures, iso, and shutterspeeds. Now that I have been taught the basics I am really beginning to appreciate my Camera to a greater extent.

Yesterday was Monday, and it was by far the busiest and yet most fun day iv had all week. We had a day off from classes, and at 9am a bus arrived to take us to the Black Sea unfortunately I was alittle late so I had to run after the bus as it was driving away to catch it. The water at the Black Sea is wonderful, it is not too hot or to cold, it is not too salty, it is really shallow, and the waves dont cause any trouble. I was surprised to find that it can actually be quite dangerous for ships and swimmers too far from shore. Xander offered to let us burry him in the sand so i turned him into a Murman/maid lobster. My artistic talents in sand
sculpting are quite less then my painting.

That night I went with a small group to attend a third Sema. It was completely different then the other two. I have always had a draw to the archaic and Turkish tourism really plays off of people with similar interests so they have tourists Semas made to capture the Mystery of Sufism by focusing on the whirling dervish ceremonies. This ceremony was not different in form
but in practice. The entire congregation sits facing the Sufi masters and they start chanting, then swaying back in forth. The words dont change but the intensity is always fluctuating until the air becomes thick with their voices. The Dervish takes place behind the congregation and dance with the same intensity as the others but they are not viewed as a spectacle but rather are a symbolic part of the ceremony symbolizing the spread of God's love. I really felt something at this one that the other two Semas were lacking.

The Unforgettable Meal: Going Out in Grand Fashion

So it's finally here. The last night here in Turkey. It has been an amazing trip filled with great memories. The underground city in Cappadocia, marbling class, cooking class ("cooking show" is probably a more appropriate title), making turkey sandwiches in Turkey, and fasting for Rammadan have just been a few of the memories that I'll never forget. Last night, another one of those unforgettable memories was created.
After coming back from the Black Sea, Matt, Carlos, Chelsey, Justin, Xander, and I decided to go to the restaurant, Meze, for dinner. Meze isn't just another restaurant though; it's the #1 ranked place to eat by TripAdvisor!!! I was pumped to say the least. We left the apartments around 8:30 pm and took the tram from Sultanahmet all the way to Kabatas, the last stop on the tram. Once we got off, we used Carlos' map on hi iPhone as our guide. However, after about 20 minutes we realized we weren't really sure what we were doing. So Matt started going up to random people and asking them "nerede?" and pointing to his phone which had the restaurant's address (a lot of people ignored us and walked away for some reason. Maybe we thought we were trying to sell something. hmmm....). After about an hour or so of walking around Taxim, at 10 pm we finally arrived! It was a really small place but it was packed. We each ordered an entree such as sea bass, sword fish casserole, lamb sirloin, and beef steak strips. Since the restaurant is called Meze, I decided to order some mezes to share with the whole group. A meze, from what I understand, is basically small appetizer dishes of vegetables and/or seafood. It's supposedly best served with alcohol but of course we didn't drink any. I ordered some ceviche, hummus, yogurt, and some green vegetable that tasted like spinach. Everything was delicious and we were very happy. They even gave us two desserts on the house. We were all happy until we saw the bill. Apparently, I had accidentally ordered 9 orders of mezes (I was actually wondering why the portions of the mezes were so big). We also found out that water was not free. Unfortunately, we found that out after many refills. This led to a considerably large bill. Despite this, I thought the food was amazing, the service was good, and it was worthy of the #1 ranking from TripAdvisor. All of these events up to this point definitely made for a memorable dinner. What promoted this dinner into an unforgettable night was the fact that we missed the last tram of the night. We finished eating around 11:50 pm and we found out the last tram leaves at midnight (I was actually the one who suggested to everyone that we should figure when the last tram leaves...When I'm the loudest voice of reason for a group, problems usually arise. Sure enough it did!) We ended up walking quite a ways (about an hour) to get back to the apartment. I was dead tired when we got back but it was totally worth it. Overall, it was an unforgettable end to an unforgettable trip.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Your reputation precedes you

Living in the neighborhood of Sultanahmet comes with its banes and blessings. We are undeniably close to many of the major tourist sites and to public transportation, but we are also close to ... well ... the tourists. One recent fascination has been with watching the cruise ship tourists who are bused up to Sultanahmet Square in droves to "visit Istanbul" in 3-5 hours. We've been here a month and in many ways feel we've barely scratched the surface of what is here, so the idea of understanding anything of significance in 3-5 hours seems particularly shocking. Today we met a taxi driver who complained vociferously about the huge white tour buses that are waved past the blockades of the square (the center of Sultanahmet has become a pedestrian zone except for the tour buses), while the taxis are all stopped above or below the square. Because the streets are so old and narrow and (sorry to say, but it seems apt), "Byzantine," the closing of the square to taxis has created a massive pile-up of traffic that has no way to move from one side of the square to another without wending its way through tiny residential streets.

Sultanahmet is host so so many people every day that it is probably inevitable that it has become infested with shops with intrusive salespeople all vying for the seemingly unlimited tourist dollars/euros/pounds, etc. A stroll through the neighborhood elicits calls of "where are you from?" "You very pretty. I make you good deal," the even more obnoxious "I know you are American!" or the strangely compelling "Are you from Seattle?" (I have to resist the urge to respond to this one in Turkish, it seems like such a peculiar question to me). Knowing some Turkish is a big help with all this, because most of these people are violating Turkish norms of hospitality when they harass people on the street. They manage to pull it off because they are speaking English, and they recognize that at least for Americans, norms of politeness strongly dictate that you must respond when spoken to. If I do respond to people, I try to respond in Turkish as much as possible, because it calls them back to Turkish norms. It's a lot harder for them to be rude in Turkish, because being rude is a violation of the Turkish expectation/duty of hospitality. Speaking Turkish calls upon that identity in a way that often makes people back off. I once had a hilarious conversation with a shoe shine boy who was extremely persistent in his demands (in English) to polish my husband's shoes. I responded to him several times in Turkish that we were not interested. Finally I stopped and faced him and asked point blank (in Turkish), "What's wrong? Aren't you Turkish? Don't you understand Turkish? I've already told you 'no' four times!" He completely lost character (for those actors among us). He could only keep up the brash and persistent role he'd taken on if he spoke in English. Once I insisted on a real conversation in Turkish he burst into embarrassed giggles and we both had a good laugh together.

Despite the feel of the area as a metropolis of its own, it is also a small neighborhood, where people know each other and talk with each other daily over tea. We intentionally found an apartment for the students that is out of the rush of Sultanahmet proper and in a quieter neighborhood, but to access public transportation, they must go through the area fairly frequently. In the throng of tourists we usually feel fairly anonymous, but in a small neighborhood people talk. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when people I had never talked with before started asking me (when I was alone on the street or with my kids), "Where are your students?" Tonight I got a particularly strong reminder when my family was walking past a man I had never spoken to before who stopped me and asked "Do you speak Turkish?" You must believe me when I say that NO ONE here ever assumes that an American knows any Turkish other than possibly "teşekkur ederim" ("thank you," which most Americans completely butcher, because it's a mouthful). I usually ignore or politely toss off the calls of shopkeepers, but this time I stopped and asked him why he asked. He made an excuse about how my husband looks Turkish (but of course he didn't ask my husband, which would have been a more appropriate thing to do if he really thought Paul was Turkish. Even more oddly, our son, who is Kazak and was with us, really IS Turkish from the perspective of most Turks, so he's the one who we're most often asked about). I mentally dismissed the man's response as a polite fabrication, but suddenly realized that of course he knew all along that I spoke Turkish, because this is a small neighborhood and people talk. We've been told by a long-time resident of the neighborhood that there is a strong neighborhood grapevine, and our group is one of its current discussion topics. For those who might find this frightening, I think it's neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it's simply a reflection of how social networks here work. One aspect of becoming a part of a community in Turkey, even in a very superficial way, is becoming known by the neighbors and becoming the subject of discussion on the grapevine. In many ways I'm grateful for the neighborhood grapevine, because it can also become a source of protection. Several years ago we had a few students who went back to the hotel to get something and then got lost on their way to meet back up with the group. They ran into a man in the neighborhood who knew exactly who they belonged with and where the group was at the time, and he took them to us and reunited them with the group. They had believed that they were anonymous and that no one could possibly know who they were with, but he started describing members of the group to them and they were quickly convinced that though they didn't know him, he knew exactly who they were. The reality of the neighborhood grapevine, also means, though, that it is very important to guard one's reputation. It's easy to get a reputation for being unkind or loose or bad-tempered, and that reputation precedes you and impacts the reception you will get in the neighborhood, even with people you've never met.

In this case, it was primarily a curiosity for people that I was clearly a visitor to Turkey but also clearly knew some Turkish. The realization that someone without an obvious need to learn the language would go out of their way to learn Turkish is both fascinating and flattering, and becomes, in itself, a source of conversation.


After our cooking classes, some of our students seem to be becoming gourmets. I suspect this may be because they are used to fast food and we are eating well on this trip (when the comparison is to fast food, it's not hard to eat well)! They have found their own share of fast food and/or food that is inexpensive and quick, but inexpensive and quick doesn't have to mean fatty and tasteless here, and they are taking advantage of that. Each small group of students has found their own favorite little restaurants and food stands for lunches on their own. One group has discovered that they can eat well at their favorite spot for 12 lira for 4 people (roughly $1.67 per person - not that I'm trying to set a new low for the standard budget for the trip lunches!!). They get a surprisingly good meal there.

One of my intentions in giving the students a fair amount of flexibility and freedom was to give them the opportunity to make their own connections and find their own favorite spots in the city. My own experience has been that I feel more of a sense of connection to the city and to the people in it when I have made those connections and found those places and people rather than having an "expert" take me there and tell me this is somewhere I should go or someone I should like. Part of the Istanbul experience is finding the corner grocer who gets to know you and consistently rounds your bill down or greets you like an old friend because you are a regular customer. For instance, my husband Paul went to our grocer the other day and discovered that he didn't have quite enough change to pay for all the items he had selected. The grocer insisted that Paul could take the whole order and said that he trusted Paul to bring the rest of the money next time.

Part of the ownership that the students are starting to feel for the city includes knowing their way around and recognizing where in the city they are and where they can go to get something done. They no longer feel like visitors but they are starting to feel like they live here. When I was perusing Facebook the other day I noticed that a number of them have changed their home cities on their webpages to read "Istanbul, Turkey." This is an amazing thing, because they really are starting to feel that they have a home here. I talked with Carlos this morning about this, and he said he has been surprised recently to realize that he really is developing a mental map of the city and is getting into the routines and peculiarities of the city in a way that lets him navigate a lot of daily life without help. It can come as a bit of a shock to recognize that you are the one giving directions to newcomers or that you don't have to ask for help to find the freshest cucumbers in the neighborhood or to figure out where and how to refill the minutes on your phone. When another group of your classmates want to meet up for shopping or tea, you can mention a place to meet and both parties know exactly where it is and how to get there.

But I digress ... back to being gourmets. The cooking classes were incredible. The teacher is a food critic and teaches nutrition in several Istanbul universities (although I think something may have gotten lost in translation here - she is certainly a chef and seems to teach this as well). She has her own column in the newspaper. The cooking classes made some spectacular meals, and some of us (myself included) who were not even in the classes discovered that if we timed our visit right we could drop by just as the meal was being served and mooch off the chefs (to the credit of some of the so-called moochers, though, there was an all-around openness to becoming a server or a dishwasher or a table clearer, in recognition of the good work of the chefs). We've been promised recipes, and are already planning a reunion dinner to cook them.

Someone in the group asked the cooking teacher what her favorite restaurants in Istanbul are. It turns out that she consulted on the preparation of the menus and recipes at Asitane (the spectacular Ottoman restaurant we went to last week) and some of her students work there. She also named two other restaurants that are her all time Istanbul favorites. Interestingly, tonight as my family was sitting down to dinner we got a call from a group of the students wanting the name of one of the restaurants. They had decided to venture out to try one of the other favorites, since they liked Asitane so much. I'm eagerly awaiting a report back from them on what they had. Anyone? Anyone?

Double delight

While we were traveling in Cappadocia, my husband and kids, who had stayed in Istanbul, decided to explore some of the "culinary backstreets" of Istanbul (a reference to a book I found a few weeks ago). I have long known that Güllüoğlu is considered by many to be Istanbul's best baklava, but haven't ever ventured out to their store in Karaköy to get the full baklava experience. Paul and the kids went while we were gone, though, and had a great time. They said in front of the store there were a lot of tables where people were eating. From a distance they just thought it was a cafe, but as they approached they realized that everyone was eating the same thing ... baklava!!! Inside the store two walls were packed with a variety of types of baklava for sale. They sifted through the choices and eventually opted for chocolate walnut (for Paul and Aydin) and pistachio (for Cait). Happily for the rest of us, they brought home a box of each and arranged to host dinner for half the group on each of the next two nights, so we were all able to get the full benefit of the baklava excursion.

Today the family and Rebecca were near the covered bazaar (most of the rest of the group had gone either to a beach on the Black Sea or shopping with Betul) headed for the booksellers' bazaar (more on that later), when I glanced up and noticed there was a branch of Güllüoğlu right there! Of course the kids charged right in, and we decided to get some baklava to take home. Since I hadn't been there before I started looking through the options for baklava. Sometimes I forget how much of the world here is comprehensible to me simply because of my knowledge of Turkish, and similarly how much my fellow travelers miss. I immediately spotted what seemed like an impossibility. Could it be? Kaymakli baklava??? Some of our regular readers may remember my previous post about kaymak, a sort of Turkish clotted cream made from buffalo milk. Lo and behold! Baklava with kaymak inside. This seemed like an impossibly rich concoction until I remembered Ali encouraging some of the group to spread kaymak on their baklava when we went to iftar at the gallery. Once Rebecca and the rest of the family understood what I was seeing, they were all keen to try it out. We had some after dinner tonight, and it was amazing! I had expected it to be horribly rich but happily the bakers seem to use a light hand with the honey and hold off on the walnuts entirely, so it actually works.

It's most unfortunate that kaymak spoils so quickly, or I'd bring some of this double delight home for our readers. Instead you are left to your own imagination. Sorry to disappoint you all. Perhaps you'll come to Turkey sometime? Barring that, though, we discovered today that Güllüoğlu has a branch in Los Angeles (Granada Hills to be precise). Who knew??? Road trip anyone?