Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In Transition

At the airport I felt like I was about to make the worst decision of my life. I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling of being pulled away from everything I knew and had grown accustomed to. It had become my new normal and I was stepping in to a new life where I didn't know a thing. The entire trip was not only physically draining but also emotionally. The on flight films didn't help with trying to hold it together either. After hours of breaking down in to tears over the loss of a relationship, of the fear of moving to another new city and most of all the realization that I was moving even further away from family, whom I had been craving more of lately, I finally arrived at the airport.

Signs are in English as well, phew!

I had to check in at the airport hotel because I arrived so late and the company employing me couldn't pick me up at that hour. The hotel looked nice enough, till I realized my room had no window.

Don't panic! I somehow manage to sleep, most probably because of exhaustion. The next morning, a rep from the university is there early to get me and transport me to another hotel where I will stay until I can find a more permanent solution. No window! Again. Is this a Chinese thing, because of the number of people, have they turned broom closets in to rooms?

I ask if I could get a room with a window and I get looks as if I've asked for a crown and staph. I can deal with a room with no window, I shouldn't be spending a lot of time in my room anyway. I'm in Shanghai. I should be exploring. It's fine, I could deal with it. This was just the beginning of the oddities of China.

Within a few days of arriving, me and a few other teachers, manage to find apartments. I end up in an apartment with three colleagues who over the course of the year become witnesses to my highs and lows. Unbeknownst to them this was the year I was going to make some serious changes in my life. This was going to be the year that I come out a stronger, bolder person, not willing to take sh*t from anyone.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Shanghai or Bust!

I find myself packing my life in a very unexpected way, and moving to Shanghai. A country I never thought I'd move to, China, is now going to be home for the next year. I don't feel like I'm done with Istanbul nor am I even near being done with turkey. But this change is important and almost necessary. I'm usually very pragmatic but this time in my life I need a change that presents the opportunity of completely changing the course of my life. Yes, I am one of those who believes that change is always good. In fact I sometimes make those risky decisions because those situations render the best changes, life changing and memorable.

Am I ready for what China has to offer? Absolutely not. But that's what makes it so great!

The person I was supposed to be moving there with has decided to walk away in pursuit of other women. Do I feel stupid for thinking this one would be different? No. Am I embarrassed that it's another failed relationship? Somewhat. I am not a fan of the social pressure to have my sh*t together. I am trying to find my way in life, without any handouts. It isn't easy. What I do know with absolute certainty is that with every failure the one thing you can count on is clarity of what you have learned. After you grieve, you reach a moment when what needs to happen next becomes unavoidable. That's how I'm feeling these days. I have to get in touch with myself. I can't keep losing myself in relationships. The realization that I need to be in charge of my future is becoming more apparent. If I'm truly honest, I've also been choosing emotionally stunted men because I don't want to commit. As cliche as this may sound I need to commit to myself first and make sure I put my emotional and mental health first. China is one of those places where things will be different and it will force me to reflect on patterns and habits and hopefully have the courage to break the cycle.

There is comfort in making similar decisions over and over again. There is security in having a general idea of how the next six to twelve months would turn out. Change one thing in your life and the effects ripple, and I'm about to embark on a relatively big change in life hoping the results rippled will put me more in tune with myself and help me get my sh*t together.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spring in Kadikoy

The first day of spring marks the beginning of a new season, the blooming of new life and the beginning of a new year in some cultures. It is also my favorite time in this city. The Bosphorus sparkles as if millions of diamonds were scattered atop a bed of sapphires and emeralds. Trees bear the first signs of tiny leaves budding from the branches and the sound of birds chirping is even more clearer. 

Today the sun shines bright over my neighborhood of Istanbul, as if it were on display; illuminating the previously darkened nooks and crannies people walked so quickly past during the damp and harsh winter. I can hear the hum of people out on the street from my window. The first day of spring in Kadikoy is not to be missed and this beautifully sun lit day could in no way be spent sitting at home. 

Turks, very similar to the Italians, have already perfected the art of lavishing during the day for absolutely no reason and offer no apologies for it. In Italian it’s known as ‘il dolce far niente’. And, today, there is even more of a reason to do just that. To luxuriate in the warmth of this spring sun, as you breathe in the crisp cool air. 

As I walk out I realize all the cafes are buzzing with chatter; orders for tea, coffee and pastries are being hurled at the wait staff. But I want to start my day by indulging in my favorite breakfast treat. Gozleme. The thin layers of dough perfectly filled with your choice of potatoes, seasoned minced meat or spinach and cheese, or any combination thereof. The best place to get it made exactly the way you like it has to be at ‘Organik Cafe’ located in the Osmanağa neighborhood at 32 Yoğurtçu Şükrü Sokak. A family run business with fantastic home cooked meals, made fresh to order. Even though my mom doesn't know how to cook Gozleme, if she did, I imagine it would taste like this! The special thing about this place is that you can request to get ‘Manti’ (Turkish Ravioli in a garlic yogurt dressing) sauce poured on top of the Gozleme and indulge in a medley of flavors. 

Following this decadent breakfast I make my way up to ‘Bahariye Caddesi’ for some window shopping and people watching. The Bull statue is definitely one of those places in Kadikoy from which everything starts and ends. The street I’m after does just that. Starting at the Bull, I walk up Bahariye, weaving through the groups of women and men. Looking at the shops flanking this street you could literally be anywhere in the world; Carls Jr., Starbucks, GNC, Mango, all catering to the metropolitan shopper. But you’re immediately transported back to the city, with the calls of freshly baked ‘simit’. After some window shopping, I make my way towards ‘Antikacilar Çarsisi’  which is Kadikoy’s Antique market located on a side street between ‘Bahariye Caddesi and Balik Pazari’ (Fish Market), which the area is so notably known for. 

A good place to start, and close to where I want to be, is ‘Tellalzade Sokagi’. With a scattering of antique shops selling second hand furniture, books, instruments, little knick knacks and an abundance of odds and ends, there is plenty to search through. Other places to venture off to if you’re in search for some relics/treasures would be ‘Dr. Esat Isik Caddesi’ and of course ‘Moda Caddesi’ itself; home of the infamous ‘Kadiköy Antikacilar Çarsisi’. You can spend hours rummaging through the selection of dust ridden, weather worn, tattered antiques as shop owners let you wander and drift off to a time when the item was new and in its full glory. 

Once you have filled your hearts desire of antiques, you can head across ‘Sogutlu Çesme’ to get to a restaurant serving up some of the best food from the Black Sea region. Lunch at ‘Cadde Karadeniz’ near the Bull is the place to try rich, home-cooked specialties from that part of Turkey. Located pretty close to the Bull at 67 Sogutlu Çesme Caddesi, ‘Mürver Çiçeği Sokak’ the service is great and the food is sumptuous. I have never been to that region myself, but friends from there have said the food at this restaurant is pretty close to it. They usually have daily specials on the menu and the wait staff is always happy to make recommendations. It isn’t the cheapest meal you can get in Kadikoy, but it definitely is one of the tastiest.  

If you’re in search of a drink, anytime of day, then the place to be is ‘Saklibahce’. A hidden gem, in my opinion. The unassuming entrance from ‘Balik Pazari’ leads you to a garden which could easily have been mistaken for a courtyard of the apartments surrounding it. This is the place to take a break from the crowds and the noise of people and scooters whizzing by. Drinks are reasonably priced and the service is great. However, I don’t recommend spending money on anything other than fries or nuts. People don’t usually go here for the food, so it’s best to avoid items that might not taste they way you expect them to. But a plate of fries and a beer suits me just fine on any given day! The garden is partially sheltered by lattice woodwork covered by thick vines, which is meant to keep it cool during the humid summer months. But on a day like today, beams of sunlight shoot at the stoney ground all around, illuminating the cracks and weathered stone that have probably seen better days.  

As restlessness begins to kick in, I decide it’s time I search for some silver jewelry, which I love to collect. My ever growing collection of rings and bangles weighs heavy on my wallet, but that has yet to stop me. This city is the place for silver, if you’re a junkie like me. This is the place to look for unique pieces with intricate engravings of floral and paisley motifs. Silver shops are scattered around the main shopping area of Kadikoy but some of my favorites can be found on ‘Mürver Çiçeği Sokak’ (the same street as the ‘Cadde Karadeniz’ restaurant), and a corner shop at the end of ‘Balik Pazari’ street called 925 Silver & Accessories. Of course there are many more that you come across during your wanderings that haven’t warranted a website or an official listing; mainly because it usually is a one man operation with the craftsman selling his unique designs out of small shop, with barely enough room for him or his tools. This is where you get to practice your bargaining skills. I have found that these shops tend not to rip you off because they aren’t frequented by tourists as much, and the sellers aren’t selling their merchandise at ridiculously marked up prices. 

If you feel like you have had your fair share of shopping, walk down to the pier to burn off those extra calories and make room for a noteworthy dinner which will, indefinitely, leave you wanting more. The original ‘Çiya Sofrası’, offers a selection of decadent regional foods from around Turkey that are quite palatable. Some of the meals include eggplants stuffed with minced meat, chickpeas in a yogurt based sauce accompanied by freshly baked bread, and a Turkish style soup and salad bar. The original restaurant is located at 43 ‘Güneşlibahçe Sokak’, not far from ‘Balik Pazari’ and the vegetarian version of the chain serving equally delicious cuisine is nearby. On the corner you’ll find Çiya Kebap serving some of the best cuts of meat grilled to succulent perfection. During the warm summer months, their outdoor seating is almost always at full capacity with people hovering around, waiting for a table. The food here is unrivaled and is on all those ‘must’ lists for people coming to Kadikoy. 

After a dinner fit for the Ottoman kings themselves, I am ready to call it quits. But I take the long way back home, with the view of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia illuminated in the distance, I feel truly lucky to call this city home. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Oh Istanbul!

Once you start traveling to different cities around the world, you are of course exposed to different cultures and food, but one of the most interesting things you discover is how other people live. For me, watching locals go about their lives in a uniquely wonderful way is captivating.

At a cafe near the port of Kadikoy, overlooking the Bosphorus, watching the people around me I notice a young couple sitting at the table by the water, gazing into each others eyes as they whisper to one another. The boy gently holds the girl's hand and leans in to say something that she finds pleasing as the corners of her mouth curl up into a soft smile. A group of elderly gentlemen, sit back in their chairs ordering multiple rounds of tea while smoking countless cigarettes. They talk about a multitude of things, often nodding and shaking their heads, while they fiddle with rosary beads looped between their fingers. Their conversations are sometimes broken up by brief chuckles or moments of silence as they look out upon the Bosphorus. Never once do they allow their voices to get too loud or their laughter to disturb the other patrons. 30 something girlfriends, in floral summer dresses and leather sandals, sip cups of Turkish coffee between bouts of giggles. With slim cigarettes held between their fingers, their hand gestures tell a story which intrigues me.

This is the Istanbul I love. The Istanbul overflowing with generosity, passion and chaos.

Today, it is the chaos of this city that I want to write about. For those visiting, you may not encounter these quirks. However, for those of us who have chosen this beautiful city to reside in, these quirks become topics of complaints far too frequently.

The following is a list, in my opinion, of the things one must accept to live with when choosing to live in Istanbul.

10. Turkish pride can be overzealous. Every piece of history is somehow always linked back to the Ottomans :)

9. If you're at a restaurant and don't want the waiter to take your plate away, you may have to hold on for dear life. They are notorious for clearing away plates even before the last bite hits your mouth.

8. But if you ever want something repaired or official work done, don't hold your breath. It will happen when the person in charge is ready to do it.

7. Foreign women will be stared at and/or hassled by Turkish men. This may in fact hold true for all women in Istanbul.

6. Living in this city is expensive and every year the cost of living continues to rival that of any other major city in the world.

5. You can never get peace of mind in Istanbul. There isn't a park bench, side street or dark alley that isn't uninhabited.

4. Urban sprawl is out of control. Obnoxious skyscrapers, gated condominium blocks, and shopping centers are sprouting up all over the city. There is no end.

3. People walk right in to you, as if you weren't there to begin with. More often than not, they will expect you to get out of their way. Don't fight it. Just weave through the crowds like everyone else!

2. This leads me to my next point. Everyone is in a mad rush. There are cars, buses, minibuses, taxis, and motorcycles all fighting for space on the ever expanding network of streets and highways. No one follows the rules. It is very normal to see a six-lane traffic jam on a two-lane street.

1. The worst part of traffic in Istanbul, has to be the always aggressive and crafty taxi driver. The municipality had to set up a hotline for customer grievances to deal with complaints regarding over-charges, unsafe driving and refusals of service. Proceed with caution!

If you can make peace with the afore mentioned common complaints many who live in Istanbul have, then we welcome you with big smiles and generous hearts!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Art of Turkish Coffee

Drinking Turkish coffee is the oldest and most honored tradition in the country. It is a great excuse to socialize with friends and/or perk yourself up in the afternoon. But it is vastly different from the 'Tall, Non-fat Latte with Caramel Drizzle' you find at the many coffee shop chains. As a result of modern technological comforts, anyone can brew a cup of Turkish coffee at home or work. However, I am paying homage to the ritual-like act of brewing it and drinking it the time-honored way.

There is an art to preparing this rich and fragrant drink. Coffee beans (usually a medium roast) are finely ground to a powder like consistency in brass grinders.  These fine ground coffee beans are then placed in copper boiling pots with a hammered exterior, which are narrower at the top and have long handles. A very small teaspoon is used to mix the coffee with water and sugar (if preferred) over hot coals. The coffee pot is brought to a boil gradually and then taken off the heat. This step is repeated a few times to allow the flavor and aroma of the coffee to fully mature. The copper pot itself usually prepares enough coffee for two servings which ensures a fresh palatable taste every time. Many independently owned cafes in Istanbul still use this method of preparing coffee not only because it is preferred, but also because the meticulous preparation represents great history and tradition Turks are so proud of.

Traditionally, the coffee was served in small porcelain cups which didn't have handles but were instead placed within a larger metal cup with a handle, lid and saucer that encased the porcelain. These metal accessories were beautifully engraved with floral motifs. Nowadays, some cafes continue to serve coffee in a similar fashion. However, for the most part, it is commonly served in small porcelain cups and saucers with varying styles and colors of the infamous Iznik patterns. Accompanying the full bodied and ever so slightly aggressive cup of coffee, is a glass of water and a delightful piece of 'Lokum' (Turkish Delight ~ a fragrant piece of jelly served plain or filled with dried nuts or fruits).

The art of Turkish coffee doesn't end there. After a leisurely drink, in true Turkish fashion, someone will offer to read your cup. At any cafe, at any given time, if people are drinking Turkish coffee, you will undoubtably see someone at the table reading the coffee cups. The layer of coffee grounds left at the bottom of your cup provide for an interesting cup reading. The drinker flips the saucer and places it over the cup, while holding the cup and saucer firmly with both hands, moves it 3 times in a circular motion, then the drinker flips the cup and saucer towards themselves so that the cup is upside down on the saucer. The cup is then left to cool. Once ready, the cup is lifted to reveal patterns created by the coffee grounds and the reading begins. Images of different objects and animals are interpreted, secrets of the past are revealed and predictions of the future are made.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

maps, silver and tea

On the spur of the moment, two single girlfriends decided to explore Izmir over a weekend. I have grown to love spontaneaity and I was super excited for this trip. Living in Istanbul is fun, exciting and you can discover new places every weekend. But it is equally easy to get stuck in a rut and become a slave to the daily grind. As of late, I was itching for something new, for something exciting, for anything to get me out of the city. Izmir was the perfect place. We had been talking about visiting the historical sites of Ephesus and enjoying the easy life of Izmir for a very long time. Within 5 minutes of me walking into one of the many travel agents that line the main street of Kadikoy, we had bus tickets and a hotel booked for the weekend.

After 9 grueling hours on the bus, we had arrived in Izmir at 2 am. Now, coming from Istanbul, we were apprehensive to be walking around the city at that hour. The streets downtown were abandoned. If it were Istanbul, we would be holding on to our bags real tight and speed walking home. But in Izmir, it felt different. It felt safe. The air smelt so clean, the streets were not lined with trash and the men we came across at 2 in the morning, didn't even notice us walk by. One elderly gentleman helped us out with directions and we were both taken aback by how polite he was and his lack of aggressive mannerisms.  Living in Istanbul makes you skeptical about a lot of things and a lot of people. Everyone always talks about how nice people are and how progressive the city is compared to the 'Bul and you don't realize it until you get there.

Having read great reviews of the 'Kemeralti pazar', we were expecting to see something similar to the multitude of 'pazars' (markets) found in Istanbul. It is massive and very easy to get lost in the alleys that break off into even smaller passages. You can shop for anything and everything there and an added bonus is that the prices are lower than Istanbul. However, we were left wanting more which probably had to do with the vast variety of markets we have been to in Istanbul. Not giving up, we kept on walking through the maze of sparkling fabric stores, antique shops and tea and coffee cafes looking for a hidden treasure. Then we came across Kizlaragasi Hani, a not so hidden treasure, that many travel blogs and sites don't talk about.

Kizlaragasi Hani (an old inn converted into a shopping market) is paradise if you love everything handmade. From handcrafted silver jewelry and leather goods to organic soaps and other little trinkets. The market itself has a very rustic feel. Small shops are like coves in the aging brick structure. The brick archway entrance leads to alleys lit by the fluorescent and yellow lights shining from shop windows. Brightly colored fabrics and tapestry hang from the walls, interspersed with beautifully crafted Turkish lamps twinkling in red, gold and violet. All the little passages lead to a courtyard where people sit on wooden stools around wooden tables sipping tea and freshly brewed coffee. It is the perfect spot to take a break and admire the beautiful architecture around you. The courtyard itself is shaded by a canvas tent with colorful tassels hanging off all four edges. Terra-cotta roof shingles jut out right above the first floor of the building, but the brick structure continues to a second floor offering more cafes and restaurants. While sitting in the courtyard, you notice pairs of rectangular windows lined all along the inside of the building. Each window is framed by a deeper red brick which form domes at the top. All the exposed brick and lack of ornate decorative painting is evocative of the Byzantine Empire. The simplicity of the structure is beautifully contrasted by the colors seen in all the small shops.

After a few well spent hours, we decided to make our way down to the pier. After a few wrong turns,  I gave in and let my friend pull out her trusted map that she had used intermittently throughout our day. Despite my efforts of getting her to relax and see where the path leads us, she won. She pulled the map out of her efficiently packed handbag filled with suncream, wet wipes, antibacterial gel and tissues, flattened out the folds and wrinkles and proceeded to identify our specific location. Her aim was to get us out of the maze I led us into. Bless her! I don't know what I would have done without her. A couple of minutes, a cigarette and a couple of frowns later she knew exactly how we needed to get to the waterfront.

On the way to the pier, we stopped at the 'Saat Kulesi' (a.k.a. Clock Tower) at Konak Square. In the open square, the beautiful Ottoman architecture really stands out. At the base there are four brass water taps with large marble basins, frequently used by the locals to cool off during the day. In the evenings, the tower lights up with an amber glow, beautifully displaying the carvings, etchings and domes of the structure.

The Izmir's city center is fairly small and easy to navigate through (especially if you've got a map) and it wasn't long before we arrived at the pier. The infamous Konak Pier has a fairly large modern structure housing designer shops and restaurants right on the water. Walking along the pier itself is lovely. The waves crash against the rocks and water sprays up on to the sidewalk. There are many cafes and restaurants all along the water in a neighborhood called Alsancak. In the evening, everyone comes out to this area. The best part of the night was Alsancak Barlar Sokagi (Alsancak Bar Street). Bars and clubs, one after another, line the narrow cobbled street. Music blares from every opening, drinks flow from every bar and people are sitting, standing and dancing everywhere. With a great vibe, it is the place to dance the night away.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

untouched beauty

Turkey is a beautiful country with landscapes that range from rugged snow capped mountains protecting the character of small cities from urbanization, lush green highlands with varying species of animals and birds, to gold sandy beaches with sparkling water attracting tourists from all over the world. Orchards of figs, apricots, and cherries are what you could come across in your travels; along with olive groves nestled in the valleys of mountain ranges. Every city I have visited has been beautiful and charming in its own way. It is almost impossible to compare one to the other because they are so different. When people say Turkey is diverse, they mean the diversity of the Turkic peoples, with so much history, culture and food to experience first hand, there will never be enough time to spend in each region.

Yalova is a dream for thrill seekers. It offers hiking and trekking, mountain biking, skiing in the winter, hot springs which is what it is renowned for, and coves and roaring waterfalls for everyone to enjoy. The Samanli Mountains are just 2 hours outside of Istanbul with miles of coniferous forestry waiting to be explored. Of course not everyone is interested in the outdoors but I do recommend a visit to admire the diverse beauty of the landscape this country has to offer.

A relatively short ferry ride will transport you to the outskirts of Yalova province at the edge of the rolling mountains of Samanli. Coffee colored dusty trails, bordered by low growing plants sparsely sprouting pink and purple flowers, wind up the foothills and into the mountains. The trails can be tricky with old thick roots jutting out of unexpected places, covered by mustard and rust colored fallen leaves, distracting the eye from what is really there. Slivers of sunlight shines brightly through the cracks in the dense wall of leaves and branches, exposing the moss covered tree trunks standing tall and proud. As you go deeper into the forest and higher up the mountains, pushing low hanging branches out of your way, you are simply in awe of the untouched beauty around you.

Around a rolling hill, behind a fortress of pine trees, I came across a waterfall in the gorge between two hill tops leading down to a narrow stream, flowing into town. Water spilled over the steep rocky walls of one of the hills and cascaded over dark grey boulders haphazardly thrown around this ravine. The rocks glistened as sunlight danced around the cracks and slid off the smooth tops, beautifully exhibiting the erosion over the years. Crisp white froth poured down over the rocky hill into the pool of water at the bottom, where I stood, enjoying the cool splatter of water against my skin.

For the foodies (myself included), a variety of fish marinated in a medley of mouthwatering spices, grilled, sauteed or fried can be found in the many small towns. Grilled chicken or meat served on a bed of rice with organic vegetables and freshly baked bread is a staple in almost all regions of Turkey. For a quick meal, I suggest 'lahmacun' or Turkish pizza. Freshly kneaded dough is rolled out into thin oval shaped bases which are then topped with spiced minced meat and finely chopped tomatoes. Once baked in a brick kiln, it is served with wedges of lemon to squeeze on top, sprigs of parsley and thin slices of onions. This thin crispy delight is so affordable and delicious, it becomes challenging to stop at one. The piece de resistance for me is a plate of 'bal kaymak' for breakfast. This is a plate of rich clotted cream made from organic milk served with fragrant honey poured over it with a side of toasted bread. In the land of milk and honey, nothing comes quite as close to perfection as 'bal kaymak' does.