Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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Noah, Enough With the Pudding Already!

Ever stop to think about what Noah fed his family once they disembarked from the ark? It's not as though he'd had a chance to plant and harvest crops, and his kitchen cupboards weren't exactly stocked, or even standing. As the legend goes, for their first dry-land meal, they gathered up all the leftover nuts, grains and bits of fruit still in the galley pantry and cooked them up into a sort of pudding, and that's how they kept from starving.

Here in the land of Ararat, every year in the month following the Sacrifice Festival, it's traditional for each family to make up a big pot of aşure ("Noah's Pudding") and then take bowls of it around to share with friends and neighbours. Every housewife has her own recipe that she swears by - a varying combination of grains, wheat, beans, nuts, dried fruit and sugar.

Once "aşure making week" rolls around, the pots start boiling and the doorbell starts ringing, and soon an entire shelf in the fridge is full of bowls of the stuff. Each bowl has its own personality - as distinct as the cooks themselves. Emine's is soupy - mostly wheat and chickpeas, while Aydan Abla's has lots of crunchy bits, and yummy pomegranate seeds sprinkled generously on top. I've never made my own, but if I did, it would probably involve less wheat and more chocolate chips, not keeping very close to the story of "what they had on the ark." :)

I suppose if one wanted to amuse oneself, one could set up a booth in the complex parking lot and do taste tests to see whose is the most well-loved...but that might not be the best thing for neighbourhood relations, being that these recipes are well-honed masterpieces of great pride. There are strong opinions about these things, you know.

All in all, aşure is a point....but it's also pretty....texture-y. I can only handle one bowlful per year, and I'm done. Thankfully my roommate likes to warm it up and eat it for breakfast, sorta like a porridge. It's a good thing, too, cuz just when the bowls were empty and she thought she'd finished her aşure-duty for the year, yesterday the doorbell rang....

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010 - 1 comment

Have Power Outage, Will Improvise

The last glowy bits of pink in the western sky are somewhat muted by the smoke rising from hundreds of soba chimneys, and the scent of coal and burning wood fills the air and mingles with the call to prayer, marking the onset of twilight. I'm outside on our terrace, bundled up in my coat and those little gloves with the finger holes, which I am sure were invented precisely for people like me who are determined to sit outside and squeeze every last drop out of a good sunset.

Today was a sunny treasure of a day, most welcome after the uncharacteristically freezing week we've just been through. Sunshine means hot water, straight from the tap - no bucket showers or boiling pots on the stove for dishes. And it means laundry that actually has a shot at drying the same day it is hung! I celebrated the appearance of Mr. Sun by cleaning the terrace, barefoot in a t-shirt (!), squeegie-ing away the remnants of a week of storms. It seems every tree in the neighbourhood had seen fit to generously deposita shower of gifts on the tile, and that, coupled with a thick layer of that red dirt that tends to fly around in the air here, made for quite the mucky mess. It took me and my trusty squeegie twice as long as usual to make that balcony shine, but the hope of an afternoon read under the open sky was more than enough motivation for the job. Days like this are not to be squandered.

Stormy days here usually mean a succession of power outages, and this week was no exception. I must say, I am grateful to live in a country that, at least in this half of it, has pretty reliable electricity most of the time. I am far better off than many friends who plan their days around the hours their part of the city has power. When we first moved here, there was road work being done, sewer lines being laid, water pipes being put in, and for the better part of a year, hardly a day went by without a water or a power cut. Back then it was closer to an annoyance than an adventure, but now, especially if it is accompanied by some satisfying thunder and lightning, I am usually more than game for a good spell in the dark. Unless, of course, I have online orders to place or something half-cooked in the oven.

So, like I said, no complaining here, but I thought it'd be fun to give you a snapshot of a day without power, and the creative improvising that springs forth as a result.

This past Thursday, the power was off for much of the afternoon, so when it came back on, knowing we were in for a doozy of a storm that night, I made my preparations for Round 2. I had a whole slew of baking to do for various Christmas and birthday parties on the weekend, so I got the oven going right away, praying that the power would last long enough to bake two cheesecakes. (Which it did - with a half hour to spare!) I charged up my laptop battery (thankful for my 8 hour Mac!) and had every possible recipe I would need for the next two days open in multiple tabs so that even if the lights were out, I'd still be able to mix up ingredients and make the things that could be made on the gas stove. (These tabs would prove to be the modern day equivalent of a cookbook by candlelight!)

I took a break from my baking frenzy to have some supper, and I turned on the TV for some company. (My roommate was away for the week.) And just about the time when Fatmagul was reading Kerim's letter after he left for the airport, theoretically exiting her life forever, the cable started to go out. "Drat!" I thought. "I'll have to catch those scenes online later." (It's important to keep up with these things, you know. :) ) This, and the wind that was beginning to howl outside, were my cue to go turn on my (electric) heater in hopes of heating my room up before bed. Shoulda thought of that sooner - I only got in about five minutes of hot air blasting and then, just like that, pitch blackness. And no more heat.

I lit enough candles to keep me from bumping into things and then layered myself in long johns, extra socks, and a ski hat to keep from freezing to death in my bed. (This is the Mediterranean - these houses are NOT made for cold winters!) Then, the question of how to spend the rest of my suddenly darkened evening. Finishing the cookies was out. Skyping anyone was out. I amused myself by seeing which neighbours had candles burning in their windows, journaled a little by candlelight (feeling very Jane Austenesque) and then decided that, rather than hanging out with the Gilmore Girls for a few hours, I should take this rare opportunity to abandon all sense of a need to finish "just one more project" and get some extra sleep. Trouble is, while I love a good storm, this one was the closest thing you can get to a hurricane without actually being one, and I was suddenly not so thrilled to be home alone in the dark. The wind was whipping the rain against my windows so hard, I expected one to shatter, and actually contemplated moving my bed to the middle of the room, just in case. The thunder was the kind that reverberates in your sternum, and I could see every lightning flash even through my tightly closed eyelids. Telling myself it was impossible for a three-storey cement house to be lifted off the ground by fierce winds in the night, I settled into my Heavenly Father's arms, comforted myself with the sound of His booming voice, and eventually fell asleep.

Awakening to a still-standing house, a lack of shattered glass on my bedroom floor, and, alas, still no elecricity, I boiled my way to a cup of coffee (thank goodness we have a French press instead of a coffee maker!) and set to work on getting the house clean for the gathering we were having later in the day. Vacuumless, I tamed the floor with a broom, and then boiled water to do the dishes. That's the tricksy thing about our hot water system. It's solar-powered, so when there's sun but no power, you can still get hot water once the sun's been up for a few hours. When there's nothing but clouds, you go for plan B, which is (if you have lots of time) to flip the switch that will heat up the tank in an hour or so, or (if you are in a hurry) you boil water in the kettle we keep in the bathroom for such events, and you take a bucket shower. But when you're lucky enough to have a no-sun, no-power day, you go for Plan C, which is to boil water on the (gas) stove, Little House on the Prairie style.

Bucket shower successfully executed, and with Christmas carols singing from the battery-operated iPod speakers, I set out to finish the last of the baking that needed to happen before the guests arrived. Cookies now being officially off the docket, I made what turned out to be a deliciously wise choice and made some stovetop mint fudge instead. You gotta know how rare and valuable this fudge was. Every ingredient was from the "stash cupboard" - the one where we keep all the imported ingredients that we've hauled over from Walmart and only permit those who pass the Appreciation Test to partake of. Mint chocolate chips, sweetened condensed milk, mint extract, snowflake sprinkles. Seriously amazing.

Right around lunchtime, I heard the beep of the phone and the whir of the heater coming to life, and I knew that we were back in business. Glad as I was to get back to emails and photo product orders and "business as usual," I do kinda enjoy the "pioneer aspect" of having to make do without electricity. After all, it wasn't SO long ago that people got along with woodstoves and lanterns and iceboxes just fine. Then again, they weren't trying to buy all of their Christmas presents online.... :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

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Merriment on Hold

There is a strict rule in our house about when the commencement of the celebration of Christmas is officially permitted. My roommate’s birthday is December 1st, and there shall be no listening to carols, decorating of trees or making of gingerbread men until the 2nd. Normally I am chomping at the bit, ready to unleash a torrent of merriment as soon as it’s legally allowed. But this year, December 2nd has come and gone, and I’m finding myself screaming, “Stop the calendar! I’m not ready!”

It’s not even so much a thing of having been too overwhelmingly busy to think about writing Christmas cards (though that is definitely the case) or even the fact that Christmas isn’t celebrated here, and the halls of the malls are far from decked. I think it’s more that I didn’t feel like I got to savour autumn long enough, and I’m just plain not ready for winter. The calendar may not be on my side, but the weather sure is. It’s still, for the most part, t-shirt friendly during the day, and the leaves are still fluttering from the trees in cascades of red and yellow. The last few months have been so incredibly packed with work and activity, and silly sentimental me feels like I need to slow down and enjoy just a little more pumpkin soup and leaf crunching before I’m ready to switch into wassail sipping and snowflake snipping.

A few weeks ago, some friends asked me to do a photo shoot for their family Christmas cards. They went with the theme of “Merry Mediterranean Christmas” and we built ourselves an adorable little “sandman” on the beach, complete with a scarf and a toque, a carrot nose, and seashells for eyes. Bundled up in their Christmas sweaters, they got quite the amused glances from the bikini-clad passers by who stopped to watch them posing for pictures. Our little sandman was proof that what Christmas “feels like” is a result of where we grew up. For me, having lived much of my life in Canada, the classic Christmas scene is a cozy house with candles in the windows, a wreath on the door, lights on the roof and a snowman in the yard. But if I’d grown up in, say, Australia, it might look more like a row of picnic blankets on the beach. And now, living in Turkey, it’s up to us to merge the two and make Christmas happen for ourselves, cuz it certainly isn’t happening around us. And while last year, by this time, I had a tree up in my room and was decorating cookies and playing elf and making presents, this year my heart just feels like it got stuck in November.

I have this calendar that I keep as sort of a scrapbook, and every day I write something or stick a little memento in that day’s square. And last night, as I attempted to find my floor under the piles of (clean) laundry and various project stacks, I realized that I’d been so busy, I hadn’t even switched my calendar over December yet, and it was already the 8th. It was high time to flip that page and decorate the top part with something Christmasy....and yet something inside me resisted. It was like by admitting it was December, I was being disloyal to fall. And not only that, it meant I needed to get out the decorations and put on the carols and enjoy as much of “Christmas” as I could, cuz like it or not, it was coming. And I know that once I get into the Christmas spirit, I’ll want to stay in it for a good while, and I can’t very well keep the house full of holly and snowflakes and “O Come All Ye Faithful” through the end of January, cuz I might drive certain other people in the house crazy.

So, in the end, I reluctantly put on the year’s first Christmas music and got out my Christmas scrapbook paper and I sipped my peppermint hot chocolate and made myself a happy December calendar page. And with that, coupled with the bag of Christmas blend I’d picked up at Starbucks in the morning, I declared the beginning of the Christmas season in my heart. On the weekend, I’ll put on Bing Crosby and break out the decorations and kick the baking into high gear. But in the meantime, I think I might go collect just a few more autumn leaves.....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 1 comment

Misty Bosphorus Morning

Istanbul's ferries are God's gift to commuters - an interlude of magic in the midst of an otherwise hectic day. You may have just rushed out of the house, held your footing through traffic on an impossibly crowded bus, run for the ferry only to miss it by five seconds (as I just did)....and you know that waiting for you across the water are exhaust fumes and errands and thousands of people with thousands of elbows all about to wrestle their way onto the same train as you...

But for those blessed twenty minutes as you cross from Asia to Europe, there is nothing to do but sip your tulip-glass of tea and drink deeply of the city. The Bosphorus Bridge snuggles deeper into its blanket of mist, begging for "just five more minutes." The seagulls above and the jellyfish below glide silently in tandem, putting on a show for the watching passengers. The city's grand mosques stretch their arms to the sky and the Maiden's Tower gives a dainty yawn.

I love starting my day with Istanbul.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

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The Shadow that Obscured the Istanbul Sun

Me, a Starbucks mug (full, ironically, of Nescafe - gasp!), a shady grapevine and the seagull-speckled Marmara Sea. The sunshine sets the ferries agleam, the autumn colours climb the city walls, and birds and cats and car horns compete for airtime....It's a proper Istanbul afternoon.

Too proper, perhaps - complete with a morning explosion in Taksim Square. We saw the news just after landing in the airport and were as horrified as the rest of the crowd pressing in to read the headlines. A suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a police stand, killing himself and wounding upwards of twenty. The swarms of police and ambulances as we passed by the scene two hours later on the bus stood out in cruel contrast to the otherwise gorgeous sunny Sunday.

There is much in my heart, but not much I can write here. Riots and violence in Taksim aren't so uncommon. But a suicide bomber? As eastern wounds appear to bleed westward with greater intensity, maybe I have too rosy a view of my enchanted city. I'd like to think of this as an aberration, not a growing trend....

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010 - 1 comment

Strangers in a Downpour

I love the communal aspect of a good storm.

In Istanbul, it means a well-choreographed dance down the street, everyone dependent on everyone else to raise and lower their umbrellas at the appropriate moment so as not to gouge out any eyes.* Fogged-up ferry windows obscure the gray Bosphorus as 1500 strangers are unified in their state of soakedness and their need for a steaming cup of tea. Last week, on more than one occasion, the foreboding rumble of thunder sent me running to grab my laundry from the line, and I was amused to look out on the surrounding apartments and see a dozen other women doing the same. And here, on vacation with my mom in Kapadokya, we shared in the joy of a torrential downpour last night. With the power out and the sky falling, we rounded up some candles and enjoyed the storm from our pansiyon room window. When the rain showed no sign of letting up, we scrapped our dinner plans (no electricity in town, either) and headed upstairs to the terrace to huddle with the other guests around the woodstove and watch as the lightning lit up the unearthly Kapadokyan landscape. The chef had grilled fish for some other guests and kindly set us up with the extra food, and just as we lifted our forks, the power came back on. I almost asked him to turn the lights back off cuz we'd been excited to dine by candlelight!

Rain is a great equalizer. No matter who you are - rich or poor, student or businessman, tourist or local, getting caught in the rain is getting caught in the rain. Unless you have a generator, a car or a glass bubble you walk around in, it soaks you to the bone and interrupts your plans and offers an opportunity for unexpected delight and unforseen friendship.

*R.J. - "The Umbrella Dance"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 3 comments

Eavesdropping on a Wedding

(image courtesy of

Accompanied by the tinkling of spoons in tea glasses on nearby balconies and the sound of airplanes transporting sunburned tourists home, I can hear a wedding in full swing. A lively melody fills the night air, punctuated by alternating bursts of fireworks and explosions of celebratory gunfire.

From my spot on the terrace, I can’t see the festivities, and I can only make out the glow from the fireworks as they flare and fizzle behind the house across the way, but still, in my mind, I can picture the scene. Fifty rented white plastic chairs arranged in a circle in a vacant lot, a string of white lights marking the perimeter. A car is backed up to the edge of the scene, trunk open to expose a set of powerful speakers blaring whatever music tickles the front-seat DJ’s fancy. A group of twenty-something guys sporting shirts as shiny as their slicked-back hair and a cluster of teenaged girls with that “fresh from the coiffeur” look pretend not to notice each other as they groove in their segregated huddles. Little girls wearing lipstick for the first time mimic the motions of their big sisters while little boys in clip-on bowties alternately play hide and seek among the long-legged crowd and try to sneak bites of cake from the plates of the old aunties who are too busy gossiping to notice.

The only detail uncertain in my mind is the bride herself. Is she dazzling in her beauty, her eyes reflecting the joy of marrying the neighbour boy who locked her in the cowshed when she was nine and snuck a kiss there when she was sixteen? Or is she trembling behind all that makeup as her parents marry her off to the ugly cousin with the promising job and the violent temper? Has she finished her education and decided it’s time to settle down, or is she a frightened teenager who has left her village in the east for the first time in order to become the second wife of a widower twice her age?

Perhaps she is the bride I saw on my walk this morning, all dolled up in lacy white, whizzing by in a pickup truck, likely on her way to the photographer. I only caught a glimpse of her face, but what I saw there was enough to make me wonder if she’d woken up to this first morning of the rest of her life with a heart full of exuberant anticipation or quiet, resigned terror.

I sit here alone, eavesdropping on her wedding and so wishing it were mine. I long to trade my independence and the solitude of my rooftop for a man to make dinner for and a mosquito net full of kids. But the truth is, in some backwards way, I chose this empty terrace. Unlike so many girls in this world, I’ve had the freedom to have standards and preferences, to be picky, to “hold out for the best.” I wait impatiently for the day I get to say, “Yes,” but I’m still here because I’ve been afforded the chance to say, “No.” But what about that white-frosted bride whose fireworks are my Saturday night entertainment as I sit here with my chai and my starry sky? Does the wedding music that fuels my girlish dreams also mean the death of hers?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

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Sugar Festival Recovery

I realized today that it's been almost a week since I've visited any Turks or had any neighbours over. It's not for any lack of love - in fact, I miss them - it's more that I needed an "introvert vacation" after the holidays! Ramazan finished a week and a bit ago, moving us out of the month of fasting and into three days of feasting. Or, rather, sugar binging.

Normally on the first day of the holiday, everyone gets all dressed up and goes to visit their oldest relative, and then over the next two days they move on down the line through family, friends and neighbours. Since most of our neighbours are "foreigners" (meaning they are from other parts of Turkey, as opposed to being locals), no one really as any relatives nearby, so all the visiting happens within the neighbourhood. Everyone cleans their house from top to bottom, makes up a bunch of sweets (usually baklava) and then alternately goes visiting or welcomes guests into their home.

We live in a smallish complex - maybe 25 families - so the way the migration pattern goes, you may run into the same neighbours four or five times over the holiday by the time you've been to their house, had them at yours, and bumped into them at multiple other houses. Each visit might last an hour or less, which makes for a lot of repetitive small talk and rehashed neighbourhood gossip by the time you're done, but still, it's fun to make the rounds and see everyone.

Here's how a visit usually goes. Doorbell rings - in Turkey, this generally means a terrified chirping bird sort of a sound. Guests are welcomed in, and everyone greets everyone else. For me, this means shaking hands with the men, a kiss on each cheek for the women, and a kiss to the hand, followed by pressing it to my forehead, for anyone old enough to be my grandparent. Then the youngest girl of the house goes around the room and pours lemon cologne on everyone's hands and offers each person some candy. (I scored this year cuz we have a temporary roommate who is 3 years younger than me! Still, I had to do my share of work.) Then come the pleasantries, asking back and forth about each person and their relatives. (I found it amusing to hear the same people ask each other the same questions at multiple houses over the weekend.)

Next, either Turkish coffee or tea are offered, and plates are piled high with syrupy baklava or sweets. Zeynep Teyze in the house on the corner has a reputation for making amazing baklava, so many of our friends cheated this year and put in orders with her instead of making their own. I can't tell you how many times we were served Zeynep Teyze's baklava! :) I'm not usually a fan, but it's growing on me.

I have no hope of ever being able to make baklava like a Turk (it is a dang lot of work to roll out all those paper-thin layers of dough!) so I stuck with things like shortbread and brownies, and that seemed to go over well. We had storebought baklava on hand, too, to round out the sweets plate.

We were spared from making tea during the holiday, partly cuz it was hot and most visitors weren't staying long enough to brew a pot, but also cuz we had a gas leak in the back of our stove and had to shut it off. (Gee, I was really disappointed!) Serving fruit juice was a relief....for a few days, until a friend fixed the leak. (They were appalled that we had gone without tea for several days....little do they know that we pretty much only make it when they come over!) But the day after the holiday was over, we had "several" of our closest friends over for most of the day, with various combinations of kids coming and going, meaning that we had fifteen people in our house for like seven hours. That is a lot of tea, let me tell you! Turkish tea glasses are small, downed in a few gulps, and expected to stay topped up and piping hot....meaning the "younger roomie" and I were back and forth to the pot on the stove every ten seconds. And then when tea time rolled into dinner......let's just say at the end of the night, we were wiped. And wishing we had a dish washer!

The plan that night was to watch the World Basketball Championship Final (Turkey vs. USA) with one of the families that was over, but I informed them that if they wanted to watch it at our house, there would be no tea service, cuz I was gonna be glued to the game. Yeah. We watched it at theirs. :) (America beat us and got the gold, but we were still so proud of our boys for making it further than any other Turkish team ever has - way to go, 12 Giant Men!!!)

After four solid days of socializing and pouring tea and filling plates and smiling and chatting, I felt richer in my relationships, more in love with this culture.... and also completely spent and exhausted. Hence the hibernation in my house for the last 5 days. A few nights ago, I woke up from a nightmare where guests came knocking on the door at 3 AM demanding tea and sweets, and all of us were running around trying to serve them and not let ourselves fall asleep standing up.... After a week of productive photo-related work and then a nice day off today, I think I'll be ready to pour some tea and swap stories on the balcony tomorrow. They must all wonder where we've been hiding ourselves. Then again, they haven't come knocking either. Maybe we aren't the only ones who had a post-Sugar Festival crash.....

Sunday, September 12, 2010

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A house divided cannot stand...but Sport is the great unifier.

It's a historic day in Turkey on multiple fronts. We've just come out of Seker Bayrami - the "Sugar Festival" that marks the end of Ramazan, and all weekend over baklava and tea, the conversation has centred around today's Referendum. Turkey is headed to the polls to decide whether or not to change the constitution that has stood since the coup of 1980, and the vote has, naturally, caused months of debate and controversy, and turned into something of a party war. Essentially, a "yes" would mean more democracy, which everyone would agree is a good thing, but the trouble is that there are dozens of items included in the package, and some would give the current Islamic-leaning ruling party new levels of power, which terrifies the nation's secularists and motivates many would-be "yes"es to vote "no." And round and round we go.

Ironically, though, on a day when the nation is split down the middle on matters of rights and politics, last night's glorious basket with a half second left gave our 12 Dev Adam (12 Giant Men - the national basketball team) a victory over Serbia, meaning tonight we face the great USA in the World Basketball Championship Final! In Istanbul, no less! And the "evet"s and the "hayir"s (the "yes"es and the "no"s) shall gather in living rooms and cafes and cheer with one voice, "Turkiye, Turkiye, Turkiye!"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - 2 comments

Enticing Autumn

I am usually ready for Autumn right about the time summer starts. It may sound blasphemous to some, but as long as you let me wear flip-flops and eat ice cream year round, I could really skip the sand in my bathing suit and watermelon strings in my teeth and go straight for the leaf-crunching and hot chocolate. Fall is my most favouritest of seasons and I wish she would show her lovely face a whole lot sooner than she does.

Every year about this time, I begin a little ritual I call "Enticing Autumn." It usually commences with me defiantly wearing jeans on a shorts day in hopes that Autumn will notice me and decide to grace us with her presence early. Of course, last Wednesday when I did this, it was 40 C out (104 F) and deathly humid, but still, it felt satisfying to take my stand against the sun.

On Saturday, I stepped the enticement up a notch by making a big pot of vegetable soup and a pear-apple-cranberry crisp, hoping to tempt her out of hiding with the irresistible aromas wafting from my kitchen. (Maybe if I hadn't eaten the crisp so fast, she would have shown up for leftovers?) And to top it off, I spent a chunk of my rest day scrapbooking my "Autumn in New York" day last November while sipping Oregon Chai and watching old Gilmore Girls episodes. (I know there were four seasons in Stars Hollow, but for some reason that show always makes me feel fallish!)

While this sweltering summer is still claiming centre-stage (for now!) I like to think that my "enticing" is starting to take effect. Yesterday was only a "two shower day" (instead of the usual three - it's the only way I can stand to be around myself.) When I crawled into the rooftop mosquito net under a gorgeous moon last night, for the first time in months I wasn't drenched in sweat. AND I even had to scrounge for my sheet at around 4 AM cuz it was breezy enough to cover up! Cause for celebration!

I can hear all you beach-bag toting, tank-top wearing nay-sayers out there telling me to bite my tongue and get out there and make hay while the Mediterranean sun shines, but I stand firm, face tilted to the sky and continue to sound the call: "Hurry up, Fall!"

Sunday, July 11, 2010

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Road Trip Chronicles #6: Amasra

Seeing as I am taking off for a new adventure in the morning, I figure it is high time I finish documenting the last one - especially since we've been back from the Road Trip for almost two months now! That's the trouble with this country - there are just too many things to see!

So....Amasra. Lonely Planet told us it would be "the prettiest little town on the Black Sea Coast," and while I haven't explored enough to check their facts, I think it definitely deserves that honour. We took a little day trip up from Safranbolu, following winding mountain roads through lush, rain-soaked mountains and past goats and hay bales and fruit stands out to the seaside gem of Amasra. If I were to choose a spot for a vacation house in a cooler spot in the summer, this would be a prime candidate. The town itself is a peninsula with a seagull-speckled rocky cove on one side, sandy beaches on the other, and a walled-fortress-turned-neighbourhood with the most incredible view of the sea. And there were plenty of ice cream stands - a requirement for survival.

We started with a stroll down the promenade, which was lined with little old teyzes (aunties) hawking everything from fresh fruit to handmade olive oil soap to Coke bottles full of pickled peppers. I have this horrible habit of being a "Teyze Defrauder" - stopping to chat and take pictures of their crinkled faces and colourful offerings without ever really intending to buy anything. Sometimes my compassionate (guilty?) side gets the better of me and we end up with a car-full of dried apples and pumpkin seeds, due to my inability to break the heart of anyone wearing village pants and a headscarf. Then comes the head-shaking from my cupboard-purging roommate who doesn't appreciate my need for eighteen different kinds of snacks..... :)

Following a trek through the gates of the Byzantine fortress walls and up to the peninsula's best vantage point, we headed down to a little restaurant for the only appropriate meal in a town like Amasra - grilled fish. The salad that preceded it was one of the best culinary works of art I'd seen in a long time....

As we were getting ready to head back to Safranbolu, I was feeling the intense need for something to cure me of my afternoon dragginess, and as if by magic, a coffee shop appeared! (I have a special sort of radar for these things.) He made the caramel sauce look so pretty on top, I couldn't sip it until it had been appropriately commemorated. :)

Thus concludes the Black Sea portion of our Road Trip. On to Konya!

Sunday, July 11, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles #7: Konya

"Gel, gel, ne olursan ol, yine gel." (Come, come - be whatever you are, just come.")

- Hz. Mevlana

Partly out of necessity, partly out of curiosity, we heeded Mevlana's call and spent the night in Konya. Home of the mystical poet Persian Mevlana (aka Rumi), the whirling dervishes, and my personal favourite, Konya Sekeri (a confectionary treat), Konya is a city in a category all its own. Konyans pride themselves on their city being a shining example of Islam, and the general attitude is that all of Turkey should be like Konya. As a result, the spiritual atmosphere is one of extreme conservatism and piety. Religious pilgrims come from far and wide to see the tomb of Mevlana, giving it an air of something akin to Mecca, complete with all the "religious souvenirs" you could possibly want. Check out these prayer beads - each one is the size of my fist!

We donned our headscarves, checked out the sites, snapped some photos, and decided we more more than ready to get outta Dodge. Being in a city that had that stifling sense of darkness over it made us even more excited to cross the mountains and come down towards the sea and the sunny sight of HOME!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles #5: Safranbolu

It was only fitting that an evening rain greeted us as we pulled into Safranbolu. A little drizzle - or, better yet, a proper downpour - is a crucial ingredient to that cozy Black Sea ambience I'd been looking forward to this whole trip. I first experienced (and it is an experience) Safranbolu in 2004, and no town has ever enchanted me more, before or since. (I know, I know, I say that about every place I visit - but I really mean it this time!)

Arriving via the grim steel town of Karabuk, Safranbolu catches you by surprise - a storybook treasure nestled in a perfectly green valley. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy families - mostly artisans - built gorgeous mansions of sun-dried mud bricks and wood. The houses in the main town, sheltered by the mountains, were used as winter homes, and most families had a second summer residence further up the hill In Baglar where the humidity is less and the breeze is...breezy. There are over a thousand well-preserved konaks (mansions) dotting the hills and the valley, and the town's charm has earned itself the honour of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We found ourselves a cozy restored mansion-turned-hotel (complete with room key-chains in the shape of Safranbolu's wooden houses) and after some delicious manti (like tortellini with garlic yogurt sauce) for supper, we settled in for the night. (Sitting here writing in the sweltering Antalya summer heat, it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we were actually grateful that our hotel turned the heat on at night!) I went to sleep anticipating a day of being wooed and delighted by this little town, and I was definitely not disappointed. Sometimes I had to remind myself that we weren't walking through an elaborate movie set, and that the people strolling the narrow streets, plying their wares and offering their tasty treats were real people with real lives behind real doors, not just actors following scripts meant to charm our socks off. But with the artisans still creating much as they did in Ottoman times, the gingerbread-houses gracing the hillsides and the friendlier-than-should-be-legal characters we encountered around every corner, sometimes the line between fact and fairytale was justifiably blurred.

One of our first encounters of the day was with the firinci (baker). I stopped to snap a few shots of him taking his (pleasingly sesame seed-less) simits out of the oven, and he responded with enough samples to keep us full til lunch.

We were the first customers to enter Nuriye Abla's shop that morning, meaning that whatever we bought would bring her extra blessings. Not ones to shortchange anyone in the area of abundance, we stocked up big time on gorgeous wooden candle holders and bowls - perfect sizes (and prices!) to bring home as gifts. She insisted that we stop in and see her husband in his workshop where he makes everything they sell. "Look for the guy with the huge belly!" she said. We found him without any trouble at all. :) I loved the way his workshop smelled just like my grandpa's, and was especially intrigued by the lanterns he makes by poking holes in hollowed out squashes!

The nearby "ironworkers market" also gave us many tempting treasures to look at... (One can never have too many pretty Turkish coffee cezves, right? You never know, I might need to make ten cups at once one day!)

One of the refreshing parts about being in Safranbolu was the fact that they served some local specialties that were different than your standard Turkish fare. Instead of the usual doner and kebaps, there were things like yogurt and walnut covered pasta and meat-filled grape leaf wraps (as opposed to the rice-and-spice variety we have down here.) My favourite culinary experience, though, was the tray of Turkish coffee we were served when we needed a caffeine fix partway through the day. Not only did we each get our own cezve full of coffee, but there were rose petals and Turkish delight on the tray, and little thimbles-full of blackberry juice, and our water glasses had coffee beans floating in them!

One of the distinct features of Safranbolu is its old kervan sarayi - a resting place for camels and camel-riders as they made their way along the Silk Road that ran all the way through Central Asia from China. This one has been converted into an elegant hotel, but I could still imagine it full of stinky animals and jolly-with-wine men.

In the courtyard of one of the mosques sits this ancient sun dial. As we stopped to glance at it, a little old man who could only be described as "spry" leapt up and began to explain its workings and features. He was so excited, you'd have thought he was the one that designed it!

I was way excited when we stumbled upon a little gallery where a new photo exhibition was opening that afternoon. The name of the collection was "They Were Young Once, Too" and it highlighted crinkly-faced residents from the local nursing home. I loved getting to talk to the photographer and see how much he'd gleaned from these wizened old souls as he worked to capture the fiesty spirits and the tall tales that live on inside of those withered bodies. Highlight of the event: meeting the kaymakam (a local governmental official) and receiving a "marriage proposal by proxy" as he offered me my pick of the town. I shall never complain of a shortage of options.... :)

One of the most fascinating parts of the day was our visit to the Kaymakam House Museum - an old mansion where the rooms come to life with (slightly creepy) mannequins acting out scenes of the everyday world of an Ottoman official's family. It was fun to see the fancy costumes they would wear for wedding parties and the low cushions used for sitting and dining. For the sake of modesty, there were grates on all the windows so that the women could look outside without being visible from the street. My favourite bit was how between the selamlik (men's quarters) and the haremlik (women's quarters) there were spinning shelves built into the walls that allowed the women to serve the men the food without being seen. Oh, and who could forget the bathtub that sits inside a cupboard in the wall?

Apparently it was also customary for the most luxurious of the homes to have indoor pools - not for swimming, but for the purpose of cooling the rooms and "making a pleasant sound."

One more town to add to the list of "one day I'd like to spend a month or two here....." I'm going to need a very long life.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday, June 06, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles, Chapter Four: Afyon

Imagine you had a beloved friend that you hadn't seen in years. Once or twice you'd passed by her house on the bus, but time never allowed you to stop in for tea, and so you were left to press your nose against the window and imagine what it would be like to see her, to hear her voice, to listen to her heart....

That pretty much sums up the relationship I have with the town of Afyon. The first time I encountered her, she both frightened and intrigued me. But once I'd spent a week in her presence, she won my heart. And I've been dreaming of her ever since. I returned once a few years ago, but just for a day, and all that did was whet my appetite for more. Every time I take the bus home from Istanbul, it makes a stop at the Afyon station, and it's always torture to be so close and not be able to pop in and see my dear friend. But this road trip afforded me a long-awaited opportunity, and even though it was just for a few hours, I was out-of-my-tree excited to roam those colourful streets again. The town boasts a huge, imposing fortress set on the top of a massive rock. In its shadow is just about the most delightful Old Quarter you'll find anywhere in the country, with twisty streets and wooden Ottoman-era houses in a rainbow of colours. While at first glance, the place has an air of indifference, I have experienced in the past those precious moments where a smile, a cup of tea and a dictionary are all you need to form a friendship, if only for a day. And those streets are ever extending an invitation: "Come explore me, come hear my stories, come find out what's behind my shuttered windows and bolted doors." And I, for one, am happy to oblige!

Afyon's true name is "Afyonkarahisar," which means "Black Fortress of Opium." Poppies grow like crazy on the plains surrounding the town, and a third of the world's legally grown opium is grown here. But among Turks, Afyon is not known so much for its opium as for its kaymak - a thick, clotted cream. An inset in the Lonely Planet chapter on the town, entitled "Cream From Contented Cows" tells the story:

"Afyon's opium farmers rarely use the drug themselves, but they use every other part of the plant. The poppy seeds are sprinkled on bread and pastries, the tender leaves are good in salads and the leftover opium plants are fed to the cattle. The cattle become very contented and produce rich cream in abundance."

And rich it is. My favourite way to enjoy kaymak is in Turkish Delight. I always grab a sample at the bus station when passing through, and this time I tasted an amazing new (to me) variety - kaymak lokum rolled in coconut with Nutella inside - seriously amazing. I kinda finished off the bag before we'd even made it out of town...

The first time I visited this town, a violent, ethnic-hatred-inspired riot took place right outside our hotel within the first few minutes of our arrival. What a welcome! I remember watching from an upstairs window, feeling confused, intrigued, and a bit afraid.....thought likely not as much as I should have been. In the days that followed, we tried to sort out what had happened, but being that we couldn't speak any Turkish, we couldn't make out anything from the newspapers, and no one we asked was at all eager to talk about it.

Now, seven years later, with more background on the history of the city and a much deeper understanding of the situation in the nation, I was able to put some pieces together. Back in 1922, during the War of Independence, Ataturk and his army defeated the Greeks there in a battle that turned out to be a decisive turning point in the war. The Turkish Republic was born just a few months later, and Afyon has a proud place in history as a result. Approaching the town, we saw several war-memorials and a giant statue of Ataturk looming on a mountaintop. The spirit that forged the Republic is alive and strong today, and with it, it seems, comes the intolerance of those who are different that characterized the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the nation of the Turks. Such a conservative and fiercely nationalistic city has no sympathy for the minority group that lives in the eastern half of this country, nor for their grievances or their prisoners. Slogans we saw (and can now understand) scrawled on walls around town echoed the hatred I saw on the street that day, and the sense I got as we wandered about is that this is not a place that embraces outsiders easily, if at all.

We arrived in the evening and collapsed in our ghetto little hotel room, and after a good night's rest, were ready to take on the town. Our hotel didn't include breakfast, so we grabbed some apples and peanut butter from the cooler and then set off in search of tea. As if in keeping with the town's inhospitable facade, we walked and walked and couldn't find a single place to drink tea! (Trying to find a tea shop in any Turkish town ought to be like trying to find a Starbucks in Seattle, so this came as an odd surprise.) Finally we came across a pide (pizza-ish dish) place and asked if they had fresh tea, which they did. We enjoyed a few cups as we brushed up on our Afyon history (courtesy of the Lonely Planet) and then got ready to hit the town. And we were humbly surprised when, because we were his first customers of the day, the owner wouldn't let us pay for our tea! Okay, phew, we were still in Turkey after all!

Feeling less like unwelcome guests and with a much happier taste in our mouths, off we went to the Old Quarter. Now THERE is a place that makes my heart come alive! Besides the fact that it brings up all sorts of great memories of the friends with whom I first discovered it, around every corner is photo after photo just waiting to be taken. We spent a few hours roaming the streets, me never tiring of trying to shoot the same old staircases from a fresh angle, always trying to coax the hidden beauty out of the cracked walls and crooked old doors. Perhaps the current inhabitants are more aware of the drafty windows and the mold and the cockroaches, but when I look at those old houses, I see them for glory I know they still possess, and I am enchanted.

We came across a couple of interesting scenes during our wandering - almost as if they had been staged and were just waiting for someone to show up and appreciate them. (Pick me, pick me!) The first was the "kececi" - the maker of felt. The whole street was strewn with sheep's wool, and the guy was more than happy to show off his various felt creations. This one is a sort of coat to keep shepherds warm when they are out in the hills, and it doubles as a blanket to keep the sheep warm when they are giving birth. (At least I think that's what he said...accent was kinda tricky, and I am not up on my shepherd vocab!)

The town was apparently the second most important dervish centre in the Ottoman Empire (next to Konya, which we saw later on our trip) and the Mevlevihane Mosque boasted an impressive little whirling dervish museum. Members of this mystical sect of Islam studied and lived in these quarters, and the museum showed various scenes of them eating, praying, copying the Qu'ran and performing the mysterious worship-dance for which they are famous.

It must have been kite-making week at the local school or something, cuz everywhere we went there were kids running up streets and down hills trying to get their colourful creations airborne. I sat watching these two kids in particular, impressed with their determination to get theirs to fly. I was was especially drawn to the old man in the shadows, watching him as he watched them, filled with nostalgia and memories of his childhood, and probably wishing his knees were stronger so he could go run with them, too.

Afyon, once more you have drawn me into your mystery, capturing my imagination and yet still holding me at arm's length. You've afforded me shy glimpses of your beauty, but your pride demands that you keep me at a distance. I long to know your true heart, and to share with you mine. Perhaps when we've had more time together, you'll get up the courage to open your doors....