Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011 - No comments

All in the Family

A Turkish family tree is a thing of complicated beauty. Whenever I ask a friend to show me how they are related to so-and-so, I usually get lost at the part where one cousin marries another cousin and their uncle becomes their father-in-law. To make matters worse (or better, once you’ve figured it out) there are specific names for every member of the family according to how they are related, so your brother’s wife is called something different than your husband’s brother’s wife, and your maternal uncle is different than your paternal uncle, and your uncle is yet another kind of uncle if he is married to your actual aunt. There is even a special word for women who are married to brothers.

Some of these “relative names” are also used when interacting with others in public. The words “abi” (older brother) and “abla” (older sister) might be used when, say, trying to get the attention of someone working at the veggie pazar, and you’d use the word “teyze” (auntie) when giving up your seat to an old lady on the bus. They can convey a sense of familiarity amongst friends and neighbours, or a sense of respect between strangers. You would most certainly never use a person’s first name without tacking on one of these titles, unless you were using a more proper “sir” or “ma’am.”

I recently caught a comical glimpse of how deeply this system of “respectful address” is engrained in the Turkish heart. On the news, they showed security footage of a man robbing a gas station convenience store. He burst through the doors, held a gun to the cashier’s head and said, “Abi (big brother), give me all your cash!”

You can terrify a man and steal all his money, but always, always do it respectfully.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011 - No comments

So It's NOT Just a Western Thing!

In my language lessons the past few months I've been reading through a book called "Bir Zamanların Istanbulu" - "The Istanbul of Another Time." It explains in colourful detail the daily life of "old Istanbul" in the days after the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Turkish Republic was being shaped. It's slow going, as each page has at least ten words for me to look up, many of them Ottoman and no longer in use. But for someone like me who has a huge crush on the Imperial City, it's a treasure trove of fun information. It covers topics such as which areas the various ethnic groups lived in, how household staff were organized, superstitions and legends, coffeehouse life and how marriages and festivals were celebrated back then.

Just today I learned that in the hamam (Turkish bathhouse) there were various patterned wraps worn to distinguish workers from customers, and people of one station or religion from another. I also learned a very useful phrase - "postu sermek." It literally means “to spread out an animal fur” and carries the connotation of a guest staying on and on with no apparent intention of leaving." Having been held prisoner by many a guest who was too comfy on my couch for my liking, this new vocab elicited an amused groan.

Last week, my language helper Ayşe Abla** and I were reading from the portion of the book about "misafirlik" - the rules and traditions surrounding visits and the receiving of guests. Books like this are always both enlightening and guilt-tripping, because they reveal how far short I fall from the high standard of “the Turkish hostess.” If Turks are famous for anything, it's their hospitality, and that is one of my favourite parts about living here... but it comes with its difficulties, too. While I may have learned “the right way to do things” (and believe me, there is a “right way”) I cannot say I adhere to the Turkish belief that “a surprise visit is more of a blessing than a planned one” or that “it’s up to the guest when they come, but it’s up to the hostess when they leave.” (As a guest, I’ve been held captive by that one on many occasions, and as a hostess I’ve often wished it worked in the “Go, go!” direction and not just the “Stay, stay!” one.)

I often marvel at how delighted my Turkish friends are when I show up unannounced, because I often have quite the opposite reaction, though I try not to let it show. Don't get me wrong - I love my neighbours, and I genuinely do enjoy showing love through hospitality. But sometimes putting on a second pot of tea while talking about recipes and ingrown toenails when I have a million things that need to be done by the evening is just unbearable. To my shame, I'll even admit to (once or twice) working in my room with the lights off and ignoring the doorbell if I'm in the middle of something I just have to get done. Apparently the task-oriented side of me is still very Canadian.

Loosely translated, here’s a sample of one portion we read in my last lesson:

“The host or hostess is obliged to greet a guest with a smiling face. Sometimes a guest may arrive in the middle of a day when you have so much work to do, you don’t even have time to scratch your head. You have a mountain of laundry on the go, you are in the middle of dusting and vacuuming, and your daughter and son-in-law are fighting up a storm. But they mustn’t let it show on their faces. Even if they’re out for each other’s blood, they must smile like they’ve just had a cup of sweet punch.”

The message is clear: guests take precedence over anything else you might be doing, and saying, “I’m not in the mood for company,” really isn’t an option.  No matter what’s on your to-do list for the day, you must open the door with a welcoming smile, invite your honoured guest into the parlour and give them all your attention, just as if the queen had popped in for tea.

So here’s the kicker. Just as we’d read this bit and I’d begun to tell Ayşe Abla what a bad Turk I am because I of the way I cringe when the doorbell rings in the middle of a crazy day, there was a knock at her door.

“Just leave it,” she said. I continued with my reading.

“Ayşe Ablaaaaaa!”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get it?” I asked. “I don’t mind.”

“It's Güler.**  I saw her as she came down the lane. If I let that woman in, she’ll interrupt our lesson, talk my ear off for half and hour, and criticize everything in the room. I’m not in the mood. Just ignore her - she’ll go away.”

Again , “Ayşe Ablaaaaaa.”

Finally she stopped calling, and we assumed she’d given up. Just then, Ayşe Abla told me to look out the window to where the Güler Abla was coming up the side of the house. “It’s reflective glass - she can’t see us. All the school girls use this window as a mirror to fix their hair on their way out.”

Güler Abla approached the window and, apparently not convinced that no one was home, called out again, “Ayşe Ablaaaaa!!!!” She knocked on the glass. Seeing the guilty look on my face, Ayşe Abla reassured me, “Don’t worry, she can’t see us.”

I turned to look just as Güler Abla cupped her hands over her eyes and leaned forward to peer through the glass. Whipping back around, I whispered through my teeth, “Now she can!”

Her eyes mischevious, Ayşe Abla slid her 60 year old frame ever so slowly lower in her chair and whispered “Don’t move! She’s looking at the back of your head.”

We sat there, frozen, until she finally either understood the situation or assumed we were pieces of furniture, and then dissolved into giggles as she walked away.

We laughed until our sides hurt, and when I finally caught my breath, I asked her, “What was that about never sending a guest away?”

“There are always exceptions,” She winked. Now, back to our book.”

**Names have been changed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011 - No comments

Love and Loss on Public Transit

I lost a very dear friend today. He was torn from me suddenly, unceremoniously, without the chance to properly say goodbye.

I went to fill my Akbil (Istanbul transit pass thingy) on the way to the ferry this morning, wanting to be sure it had plenty of money on it for a day of exploring and a trip to the airport. But the man at the booth informed me that they’re fazing the Akbils out and that in order to add money on, I was obliged to switch over to an Istanbulkart.

“Take your Akbil off your keychain and I’ll transfer your balance onto your new card.”

I struggled to pull it off my keychain. “Can I keep it as a souvenir?” He shook his head.

There was a long line of impatient commuters behind me. No time for sentimentality. Reluctantly, I handed over my little blue sidekick, and just like that, he ceased to be a part of my life.

It occurred to me hours later that I could have just eaten the money left on my Akbil, kept it, and paid for a new card, but as often happens when I’m operating in Turkish and under pressure, my mind doesn’t catch things until it's too late and the deed is done.

And now I am Akbil-less.

That little blue hunk of plastic has been my most faithful companion these past five years. Other friends have come and gone, gotten married or moved away, but my Akbil was always by my side.

He loved to take me out on the town. And the best part was, he always paid. Together we hopped hundreds of buses to places like Rumeli Hisarı to climb the fortress or Çengelköy for breakfast by the Bosphorus. We ran for countless ferries and dissolved into relieved laughter when we made it through the turnstile and onto the boat just as they pulled the ropes away from the docks. He took me to the Princes Islands to ride bikes by the sea and accompanied me on the metro to my photo exhibition when no one else was able to make it. He used to see me to school every morning on the train and always escorted me to and from the airport on the seabus. We especially loved riding the cable car up for coffee at Pierre Loti, the underground Tünel up to the end of Istiklal Street and the nostalgic tramway in Moda. There were few places in Istanbul we left unexplored.

When I moved away, in spite of it being clunky, I kept my Akbil on my keychain as a reminder to myself and proof to the world that I was truly an Istanbullu. It travelled back and forth with me to Canada, and came along every other time I left the country as well, so it would always be handy as soon as I landed back in my favourite city and needed to hop a train or a ferry.

And now this cruel world has ripped us apart.

I am now the begrudging owner of an Istanbulkart - a flimsy plastic card that will sit in my wallet, unseen and forgotten, until I have to pull it out and use it again on some future visit. We’ll get used to each other, I suppose, and eventually we, too, will have our own shared history of running for ferries and squeezing onto buses bound for interesting places. But today, every time I boarded a bus and pressed my card to the machine to pay my fare, I felt a pang of loss at the thought of my barren keychain.

It’s a lot like the time I left my beloved stuffed koala, Theodore, in a hotel room in Gatlinburg. George, my monkey-that’s-really-a-bear, was immediately there to take Theo’s place. I love him and all, but it has never been the same. You just can’t replace a Theo.

Rahmetli Akbil - my dearly departed friend - may you rest in peace knowing you will always have first place in my heart.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011 - 1 comment

How I Avoided Accidental Marriage in Mesopotamia

“Cehennem kadar sıcak, şeytan kadar kara, melek kadar saf, aşk kadar tatlı.”
“As hot as hell, as dark as the devil, as pure as an angel, as sweet as love.”

- proverb about Turkish coffee

Having lived in Western Turkey for five years, this normally latte-leaning coffee drinker has acquired a love for thick, sludgy, put-hair-on-your-chest Turkish coffee. But it was only recently that I discovered it had a darker, more surly cousin living out east. Served mainly in the cities of Urfa, Mardin and Diyarbakr, “mırra” comes from the Arabic word “mır” meaning “bitter.”

The making of mırra is an art form requiring skill and patience, the whole process lasting four to five hours. (This is not your Grandpa’s instant Nescafe!) First the beans are roasted twice, then ground more coarsely than their powdery Turkish counterparts. In a cezve (a special long-handled coffee pot), the coffee is brought to a boil two to three times over an oakwood coal fire, then transferred to a second cezve where more coffee is added, and boiled up to seven times more. It is considered done when it has reached the consistency of molasses and can dye the inside of a cup.

After a tasty dinner of local specialties like Mardin kebap (grilled lamb meat with walnuts) and kaburga doması (stuffed lamb ribs) at the Antik Sur Cafe in Mardin’s old city, I had the chance to take part in the age-old mırra drinking ritual. Our waiter brought out an intricately detailed copper cezve, blackened by the fire, and tiny porcelain cups without handles. He ceremoniously poured out the dark, cardamom-scented liquid, filling the cups only half full, and passed them to each person at the table, starting with the oldest and working his way down, wiping the rim of the cup between guests.

Sampling my first cup, I found the mırra to be light on the “pure as an angel, sweet as love” side and definitely more in the “hot as hell, dark as the devil” category. And let me tell you, it is appropriately named. When it comes to packing a bitter punch that will make you scrunch your face up in pained delight, mırra makes Türk kahvesi look like chocolate milk.

Apparently protocol dictates that each person is served two cups, but most in the group passed on seconds. I, on the other hand, considered this experience an eastern rite of passage and forced myself to accept, despite the distinctly unpleasant bite it carried. This wasn't the sort of coffee you'd sip from a frothy mug in the corner of a bookstore on a rainy day. It was clearly the drink of camel drivers and tribesmen, and how any Mardin female manages to sip with a ladylike look on her face is beyond me. Drinking it - and coming back for more - felt like some sort of traveler's triumph.

“The tradition surrounding mırra,” our waiter informed us as he handed me my third shot, “is that if after drinking it, you place the cup on the table instead of handing it back to the person who served it, you must either marry the server or pay for their wedding.” He explained that while this old custom is seldom still practiced, it used to be a way for the wealthy ağa of a tribe to help out a loyal servant, sometimes filling the cup with gold and sometimes promising his own daughter, or for a man to discreetly signal his interest in the pretty girl holding the cezve in her shaking hand.

Now all eyes were on me, the only single girl at the table with a cup in her hand. Downing the last bitter drop, I half considered setting my cup down just to see what the waiter’s reaction would be. He wasn’t bad looking, and I could think of worse places to live than one of Mardin’s terraced stone mansions....

Enjoying the game, he called out to the cook, “Abi, evleniyorum,” announcing that he’d found himself a bride.

Nice as a house with a courtyard and a few servants might be, he might actually have a ring and a veil in his back pocket, and I had no interest in acquiring myself a Mardin mother-in-law, so I placed the cup back in his hand with decided finality. With a good-natured smile and a slight bow, he took our cups and returned to the kitchen.

Dangerous stuff, this mırra business.

I’m rather positive the life of a Turkish bride is not for me. But if I start to get desperate, you might just find me standing over the coals, stirring a pot of liquid as dark as the devil.....

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - 1 comment

Mardin: Sneak Peek

I've been home from Mardin for almost two full days, and I've got a notebook full of scribbles that are dying to be turned into stories while the memories are fresh. But, alas, between catching up on all the sleep I skipped by getting up early to scribble those scribbles, doing mountains of laundry, hitting up the pazar and restocking the fridge, surprise guests who stay half the day, and all the other "catch-up" stuff that must be attended to when one returns from a trip, I have yet to be able to sit down and really write. Tomorrow. Tomorrow!

But, for now, here's a visual sneak peek at what the weekend looked like....

Looking out over the Mesopotamian Plain to Syria

Mardin: City of Arches and Alleys

"Mirra" - the Arabic coffee served in Mardin - is twice as strong as Turkish coffee, and seriously bitter. But it must be tried. :)

Courtyard of our hotel the first night. It used to be a kervansarayi - a lodging place along the Silk Road where stinky camels and stinky men could rest for the night.

The town of Hasankeyf is a historical and natural wonder, full of cave houses, a stone fortress, and a colourful cast of locals. It is set to be flooded when the government completes its plan for a hydroelectric dam, but there is a huge effort going on in an attempt to save the town and preserve its history.

The town of Midyat

One of the goals of our trip was getting to tour the house where Sila, a Turkish TV show, was filmed. My roommate had a slight crush on the main character and was very excited to tell us who lived in all the various rooms and where they ate breakfast.... :)

While we were at the house, a folk dancing group was filming a music video so we spied on them for awhile. They had to keep reshooting this bit cuz the handkerchief kept landing on the singer's face!

Our second night was spent in the Mor Abrohom monastery just outside of Midyat.

Driving into the village of Aynwardo was like going back to the Middle Ages...

Mor Gabriel is a Syrian Orthodox monastery that was built in 397, and it is the seat of one of Turkey's four bishops.

It took us some time to win our way into the hearts of the priest and nun caring for the church in the village of Zaz, but once the "doors of favour" opened up (good story to follow) they were happy to show us the ancient underground cave churches and offer us tea and stories.

We spent our third night in the Deyrul Zafaran monastery, which was by far my favourite of the ones we visited. It is one of the oldest continually operating monasteries in the world. Their hospitality was amazing - not to mention their saffron-cinnamon tea! We got to sit down with the bishop for some very informative and encouraging conversation.

Tomorrow I will (inshallah) finally get down to the business of organizing my notes and starting on some stories - one of the first of which will be titled "How I Avoided Accidental Marriage in Mesopotamia." Intrigued?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - No comments

Mardin Trip Prewriting: Passport to the East

(from Wednesday, Oct. 19)

We’re “just” taking a trip out east, but everything about this trip makes me feel like I’m heading to another country.

I had to laugh at myself as I loaded up my suitcase. I’ve got little bags of four kinds of snacks, as if we won’t be able to find food along the way, and all the fixin’s for coffee, as if we won’t be greeted with that classic Middle Eastern hospitality that will keep us on a perpetual caffeine buzz for the duration of the trip. I even had to remind myself that I won’t need an adaptor for my phone.

Perhaps its the “untamed frontier” photos I’ve seen of the vast plains stretching from Mardin down to the mysterious unknown of Syria. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that my Turkish won’t get me very far in a region where nearly everyone’s mother tongue is either Kurdish or Arabic. I have this delicious sense of anticipation that I am about to be dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar world where all the learned customs and rhythms, all the adopted bits that make up my carefully constructed Western Turkish self are going to be rendered completely useless. And I can’t wait.

There’s something about going to a new place that makes my senses feel more heightened and alive, like I’m actually experiencing everything I see instead of just “walking past it.” Flavours are richer, sounds more jarring, views more intriguing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere “new” in Turkey, and I am fully looking forward to having my senses assaulted, to really noticing the faces of the people I pass on the street, to new arched alleys to explore and dishes with unpronounceable names to sample. Armed with 16 GB in memory cards and my travel writing notebooks, I am ready to relish “the foreign” again.

I’ve done tons of research for this trip, but the more I read, the less I understand. I would venture to guess that the oldest building in my hometown couldn’t be more than 200 years old (if that), and yet this week I will spend the night in a monastery built in the fourth century. This is Mesopotamia we’re talking about. From the Sumerians to the Turks, civilization piled upon civilization, conquerors building upon the foundations of the conquered, sometimes absorbing, sometimes obliterating. This is a land that has hosted more vibrant cultures and witnessed more tragic bloodshed than my mind can comprehend.

A hundred years ago, this particular region of Turkey was nearly 100% Syrian Orthodox or Armenian, but with the dawn of the Turkish Republic, most of those “mysteriously disappeared.” Over the subsequent decades, all but a handful of those who remained were either driven out or fled to Europe as it became increasingly difficult to stay afloat on their “Christian island in a Muslim sea” as waves of Kurdish refugees flooded in from the mountains, their own villages the theatre of civil war violence. Still, there are tiny pockets of Syriac Christians that have managed to survive - many behind the safety of high monastery walls - and still others that taking their chances on the current slightly more favourable political conditions and returning to make a fresh start in their ancestral homeland.

I am so curious to see what life looks like when the minorities are in the majority. Will the reactions to this week’s attacks be the opposite of what they are out here in western Turkey? Will we hear church bells more than we hear the call to prayer? Will Turkish even be spoken in the streets?

And, most importantly, will the monks let me help in the kitchen?

Our time out east will be incredibly short for the amount there is to take in - not even three days total - and I am prepared for the fact that I know I’ll be disappointed because it just won’t feel like enough. We’ve been waiting five years for this chance, knowing that without a guy (and his family) along we’d be pretty limited in what we could do and where we could go, not to mention rather unsafe. Besides the conservative, male dominated culture and the infamous stone-throwing children in that part of the country, there have been two terrorist attacks on both civilians and soldiers out east this week, and while nothing has happened in the area where we will be, emotions - both Turkish and Kurdish - are sure to be running high.

Mardin is not Istanbul. It's not the kind of place where I’ll be able to get up early and roam around by myself with my camera. I keep reminding myself that as much as I’ll hate to be restricted by having to stick with the group and go at a pace that will likely be faster than my usual meet-the-locals-and-shoot-everything-from-five-angles-and-take-detailed-notes-on-it-all one, I’m lucky to be going at all. This will be an appetizer - just enough of a taste to fuel my imagination until I get to go back for longer someday.

I’ll just have to marry a patient man who is a curious traveler like myself and will be happy to drink gallons of tea while we meet every family in every village on the next trip. :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - 2 comments

Being Turkish is My Day Job

Here's a little insight into the identity crisis I live with daily..... :)

The course assignment for "Working With Transitions" was to write a chronology of what I did in a day, and then weave in another story from the past that an event/moment from that day triggered. I found it slightly awkward to include all the details of what I did and ended up skipping the evening cuz it was already long and that would have been unrelated. But...I like the final result!

Being Turkish is My Day Job

The music of little girl shrieks outside my window pulls me from the sweetness of my day-off slumber. I smile listening to my next-door neighbours’ kids bid their father farewell as he roars off to work on his motorcycle and roll out of bed, ready to embrace what I hope will be an uneventful day.

The Saturday fruit and veggie pazar opens around 8:30, and I always try to get there as early as possible to beat the crowds and get this errand out of the way so I am free to enjoy my day off. I load up the French press with some Cafe Verona, the strong aroma carrying with it the promise of a good day of lounging. As my coffee brews, I head back upstairs to get dressed. The question of, “What shall I wear to the pazar?” is always a dilemma. While there will be plenty of modern Turks there sporting jeans and t-shirts, my desire to blend in with the masses causes me to choose a pair of şalvar, the baggy, patterned pants that form the bottom half of the uniform of nearly every woman in my village. I draw the line at the crotch-to-your-knees version and opt for the more citified style, which look more like a pair of floral print pajamas than a skirt that has been sewn shut at the bottom. Today I go the extra mile with a knit sweater vest in hopes that it will counteract my blue eyes and get me in and out of the market without the barrage of “Where are you from?” and, “How did you you learn Turkish?” that can turn a quick veggie-run into an all-morning event.

I down my breakfast, strap on my helmet and zip off to the pazar on my electric bicycle. My journey takes me past several friendly faces – my language helper’s husband setting up chairs at his restaurant, Gulizar Abla putting whole chickens on the spits in the roaster at the butcher shop. A good third of the people I pass on the road are riding a scooter just like mine, though the blazing blue helmet my western conscience forces me to wear likely detracts from my “local score” considerably.

It’s early enough that the vendors are still setting up their stalls at the pazar, and several of the aisles are blocked by trucks piled high with potatoes, onions and trays of shiny cucumbers. At this hour, one must constantly be on the lookout for back-up lights so as not to meet an early death as a şalvar-clad pancake. I dodge a couple of stray tomatoes tumbling from the peak of a perfectly formed pyramid as a farmer artistically arranges his greenhouse-grown jewels. My toes are safe as the cart-toting teyzes – innocent old ladies in appearance, but often deadly behind the wheels – have yet to descend on the market. I make my way from stall to stall, sampling strawberries and squeezing kiwis, until I’ve checked everything off my list.

When it comes to getting in and out of the pazar quickly as an undercover Turk, I really am my own worst enemy. All those perfectly arranged rows of apples and colourful bins of nuts and dried fruits are too much for my photographer’s eye, and I can’t resist snapping a few shots. The camera, of course, cancels out the sweater-vest, and my cover is now blown. After a few minutes of chit-chat over what a Canadian girl is doing living in this village, and the obligatory photos of the grinning boys at surrounding stalls eager to be made famous “in America,” I make my way back to my bike. With several kilos of fruit in the baggage compartment, greens and onions swinging from both handlebars, and more stashed precariously between my feet, I set off for home.

Once home, I toss a load of laundry into the washer, and I get started on cleaning and putting away the produce, eager to be done with my domestic duties so I can get on with relaxing. After grabbing a quick bite, I hang my laundry out on the line, will the sun to shine long enough to dry my sheets by bedtime, and head up to the terrace to read. As I settle in with a history of the Ottoman Empire, I notice dark clouds gathering in the distance. It’s not long before it starts to drizzle, and I race down to rescue my clothes from the line before they are soaked. Having creatively hung my laundry from every available knob and railing, I make myself a cup of tea, head back to my spot on the balcony and settle in with my book.

Pulling my hood up over my head, I am determined to defy the impending storm – after all, I am from Vancouver. Rain is what we do best. But as the tempo intensifies and the individual drops merge into puddles covering every inch of the freshly squeegeed tile, I am forced to move under cover.

Resituated under the overhang, I sit back and inhale the scent of the storm, and a thought crosses my mind: “Perfect day for a Black Sea rain.” It is one of those moments where my nose recalls a memory before my brain does. The smell takes me back to a day eight years ago, long before I’d learned to speak Turkish or had a clue how to make grape-leaf wraps, when I was just a starry-eyed tourist, falling in love with the nation that would later become my home.

“Şemsiye,” the Antique Man said, pointing to his umbrella, and then gestured out the window of his shop to the downpour drenching the world outside. My friend John and I had formed one of those “phrasebook-and-sign-language” friendships with him the day before as we browsed through his trinkets and treasures, and he had invited us to come to his house for dinner. The deluge that had descended upon the Black Sea town of Safranbolu seemed like reason enough for a cancellation to me, but as a local used to the region’s wet weather, he seemed unfazed by it. So off we went.

By the time we had walked to the bus, ridden the short distance to the Antique Man’s house, and made a mad dash for his front door, all three of us were soaked to the core and shivering. His wife greeted us with the customary kisses on our cheeks as if we were beloved relatives she hadn’t seen in years, and then hurried us in to their cozy living room and sat us down beside the hissing woodstove. She rattled off a string of Turkish words to her teenaged son who was standing shyly in the corner, and he disappeared into another room, returning a few minutes later with some of his clothes for us to change into. The sweats I was handed were several inches too short, and I felt awkward and silly, but I was grateful to be dry, and when I saw the feast she’d prepared for us, I forgot all about my hairy ankles.

What followed was a golden evening of Turkish home cookin’, endless cups of strong çay, black-and-white family photos, and labourious conversations huddled around the dictionary, punctuated by celebratory laughter when we finally got our point across. As we donned our own clothes, long-since dried over the fire, and headed for home, I marvelled at the way this nation embraces its guests – even ones that show up on the doorstep looking like drowned rats.

The chirping of a bird jars me from my reverie and for a moment I am siezed by “day-off panic” because the bird’s song sounds remarkably like my doorbell. I groan, not wanting to put down my book and put on my hostess face. When I realize it is, in fact, an actual bird, I laugh at myself, struck by the fact that to a Turk, an unexpected guest is a joy and an honour, while to me, the sound of the doorbell on my day off is something I dread.

I picture Antique Lady’s smiling eyes and the way she fussed over us and treated us like royalty instead of the soggy North Americans that we were. She was thrilled to have her life interrupted by a couple of strangers. I realize that, no matter how perfectly I might serve my çay or how many pairs of şalvar I own, I still don’t have the heart of a Turk when it comes to unannounced guests.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revered founder of the Turkish republic, once made a declaration that is etched on plaques and statues of him in every town square in the nation: “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.” I wholeheartedly agree, Mustafa Kemal.

Just not on my day off.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011 - No comments

One More Cup

My blog is feeling neglected. Any spare time for writing these days goes to trying to finish up assignments for the travel writing course I'm taking, and sadly, even from that, I have very few finished pieces to post on here. They all seem to have filed for permanent residence status in the land of The Polishing Process. (I do promise more frequent entries as I make this more of a priority.)

To keep your appetite satisfied, though, I realized I never posted my (not winning) entry for the Travel Writing Scholarship Contest I entered several months ago, so for your amusement, here it is. The 500 word limit was a huge challenge for me, and I hated having to whittle out a lot of the more colourful details, but in the end, I think I'm okay with the finished product.

One More Cup

The ease with which the teenaged boy simultaneously poured precisely the right amount of tea from the pot in his right hand and water from the one in his left suggested that the lack of a daughter-in-law in the house had given him years of practice at this normally female task. Inhaling the steaming comfort emanating from the tiny tulip-shaped glass, I wondered if Laura and I should be trying to make a quick exit before we became candidates to fill the position.

Four hours earlier, we had set out on my recently purchased electric scooter for a picnic in the pine-scented sanctuary of Kurşunlu Falls on the outskirts of Antalya, Turkey. The pleasant journey took us past greenhouses gleaming in the late autumn sun, bearded men tottering towards midday prayers, and aunties knitting on porches, evidence of their culinary prowess spilling over the waistbands of their colourful şalvar. The return trip, however, had turned into a “foreign damsels in distress” tale when the bike ran out of power six kilometers from home. Like circus clowns in blue helmets, we entertained the passing locals as we wove and wobbled our way a little further down the road, Laura furiously working the “emergency pedals” while I gripped the handlebars and fought hopelessly to keep us from veering into traffic to our death-via-tractor.

To our relief, salvation appeared in the form of my bike’s black twin parked in front of a rundown shack at the end of a dirt lane. Where there was a bike, there must also be a charger! Dispersing chickens as we struggled into the overgrown yard, I sheepishly asked the boy who greeted us if we could plug in long enough for it to get us home.

With a flurry of electrical cords, bowls of sunflower seeds and chalky dried chickpeas, both we and the bike were set down to rest on a cushion of humble Anatolian hospitality. The collection of old couches and vehicles being devoured by the yard gave the impression that this family wasn’t the cream of this village’s crop, and yet their reception made us feel like we were sitting at the sultan’s table instead of on a sagging porch with plastic tarps for walls. The diminutive headscarved matriarch, having apparently trained her four sons uncommonly well, made sure the youngest kept our teacups filled. While their heavily accented Turkish, peppered with unfamiliar colloquialisms and unconjugated verbs, was a challenge for my Istanbul-trained ear, their friendly conversation made us feel more like welcome neighbours than imposing foreigners.

Two hours later, amidst repeated offers of more tea (but thankfully no offers of marriage), we thanked our rescuers and mounted the bike, wanting to make it home before night fell, and with it our reputations. But when, a kilometer from home, the needle dipped towards empty again and I made Laura get off and walk, she was wishing we’d stuck around for just one more cup...

Monday, August 15, 2011

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Lying Down in Green Pastures

There aren't exactly a lot of "lawns" in Turkey. Who knows when the next time will be that I get to lie in the freshly cut grass, surrounded by clover and wishers and bumblebees, staring up at the big blue sky. When you've got a million things to do but a window of 20 glorious minutes left til the dryer buzzes, you just gotta seize the moment.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Saturday, August 13, 2011 - No comments

Five Ways to Take a Bite Out of the Bosphorus

The Bosphorus from Beylerbeyi Harbour

Like the watery spine of an anthology of tales of ancient glory, the Bosphorus binds together the Asian and European sides of the noble city of Istanbul. Linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and, beyond that, the Mediterranean, it has been a much coveted and much fought-over waterway for millennia. But with the fortresses and palaces of the conquered and their conquerors now turned into museums of strength and opulence, the children of the Ottomans enjoy the Bosphorus as their playground.

A sunny day draws locals of all ages and classes to its shores for a picnic, a stroll, or a cup of strong çay (tea) accompanied by the soothing sights and sounds of the sea. Ferries ply their routes alongside tankers and fish boats, flocks of chattering seagulls trailing in their wake. Once isolated fishing villages are now linked by miles of seawall lined with alternating centuries-old imperial residences and modern villas. Waves lap against the sides of gleaming yachts while seasoned fishermen cast their rods, seeking to fill their buckets before the sun sets over the imperial city.

Venture away from the crowds and kitsch of the Historic Peninsula and explore the natural beauty and cultural riches of the Bosphorus, best experienced with a steaming cup of çay accompanied by one of Turkey’s myriad edible delights. Here are five “snacks with a view” that will let you relish the full flavour of the Bosphorus.  Afiyet olsun! (Bon appetit!)

1. Börek and tea at Çınaraltı in Çengelköy (Asian Side)

While away an hour or three in the shade of the towering plane tree at the Çınaraltı Tea Garden. The cafe’s leafy namesake is said to be over 500 years old and has thus witnessed the absorption of the quaint fishing village of Çengelköy into the metropolis of Istanbul. With its charming wooden houses, bustling bakeries and lively fish and produce vendors, Çengelköy has retained its “neighbourhood” feel in the face of urbanization.

Both Çınaraltı’s courtyard and window-walled dining room form the perfect theatre for watching the comings and goings of ferries and fishing boats or the setting of the sun over the Bosphorus Bridge. As it is permitted to bring in food from outside, locals like to pair their steaming cup of çay or Turkish coffee with a slice of börek (a flaky cheese, potato or spinach-filled pastry) from the Çengelköy Börekçisi up on the main road (Çengelköy Caddesi). A popular spot for the newspaper-toting weekend brunch crowd, Çınaraltı is perhaps best visited on a weekday, and makes a perfect stopover between visiting Beylerbeyi Palace and Anadolu Hisarı (Fortress of Asia) just up the coast.

How to get there: From the European side, take the ferry to either Kadıköy or Üsküdar. From Kadıköy, take the Beykoz dolmuş or the 15BK or 15 F bus. From Üsküdar, take the Beykoz dolmuş or the 15 bus.

2. Kanlıca’s famous yogurt (Asian Side)

While its well-preserved wooden houses, Ottoman fountains and the shady forest of Mihrabad Korusu are certainly worth a whirl, Kanlıca’s claim to fame is its “historic” yogurt. Immigrants who came to Istanbul from Bulgaria during the later Ottoman-Russian wars brought with them the recipe for this thick, tangy treat, and it has been a favourite amongst Istanbul’s residents for over a century. The yogurt is sold in markets around the city, but for the proper Kanlıca experience, head to the kiosk in the square by the docks and order yours loaded with powdered sugar - a tasty complement to the bite of the yogurt. This is one of the narrowest points along the Bosphorus and is a perfect spot to settle in on a bench and watch the ships glide past on their way to and from the Black Sea.

How to get there: From the European side, take the ferry to either Kadıköy or Üsküdar. From Kadıköy, take the Beykoz dolmuş or the 15BK or 15 F bus. From Üsküdar, take the Beykoz dolmuş or the 15 bus. The Bosphorus ferries from Eminönü and Çengelköy also stop in Kanlıca.

Sugared yogurt and çay in Kanlıca

3. Fish sandwiches in Istinye (European Side)

History and tradition may be in favour of the “balık ekmek” (“fish bread”) served by men in Ottoman costumes by the docks in Eminönü, but if you want to skip the tourist crowd and take in a spectacular Bosphorus view, head to Istinye. Climb aboard any of the bobbing boats-turned-restaurants next to the ferry dock and tackle a freshly grilled fish sandwich, served on a half loaf of bread and piled high with lettuce and onions. Looking back the way you came, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge spans the gap between Asia and Europe, while to the north, the Bosphorus winds out of sight towards the Black Sea. But be warned - if you get too absorbed in the view, you may find that a seagull has flown off with your lunch!

From Istinye, join the bikers, joggers, and sweater-clad dogs walking their bejeweled owners for a stroll south along the sahil (seawall). This stretch offers a great chance to admire the coast’s stately old wooden mansions, watch the weathered fishermen reel in their daily catch, or clamour around on a well-preserved bit of Ottoman history at Rumeli Hisari (Fortress of Europe).

How to get there: Take the ferry from Kabataş, Beşiktaş or Çengelköy, the 25E bus from Kabataş, or the 40 or 42T bus from Taksim.

Climb aboard "Helios" for fresh fish sandwiches (5 lira)

History with a view: the fortress of Rumeli Hisarı

Elegant coastal houses in Arnavutköy

Fishing nets

4. Kumpir and waffles in Ortaköy (European Side)

If it’s crowds and colour you’re after, Ortaköy is sure to please. With its iconic mosque posing proudly against the backdrop of the First Bridge, Ortaköy’s festival atmosphere is a magnet for those in search of something a little out of the ordinary. Stalls selling handcrafts, incense and quirky gifts compete with cotton candy vendors and street performers for space in the lively seaside plaza. Ortaköy is chock full of cafes and restaurants, but its most famous edible attraction is kumpir - a massive baked potato piled high with your choice of a dizzying array of toppings. In keeping with the “overstuffed” theme, follow up your spud with a waffle filled to bursting with various chocolate sauces, Nutella, fruit, nuts, and sprinkles. Since you’ll need the exercise, round out the experience with a walk down Çırağan Caddesi and check out the ornate beauty of the Çırağan Palace (now a five-star hotel), or hike the hill in Yıldız Park to see the luxurious last residence of the sultans.

How to get there: Take the ferry to Beşiktaş from Üsküdar or Kadıköy, the bus from Taksim, or the bus from Eminönü. The 25 E bus from the north Bosphorus (if you are heading back from Istiniye) also passes through Ortaköy.

Kumpir with the works

The mosque at Ortaköy

5. Sunflower seeds on the Üsküdar seawall (Asian Side)

On a warm summer’s night, crack your way through a bag of sunflower seeds and let the salty sea breeze cut the sticky air at “The Steps” in Üsküdar. With the fabled Maiden’s Tower standing regally just offshore and the spires of Sultanahmet’s mosques silhouetted in the hazy distance, this is one of the most popular spots in town from which to watch the sunset. Vendors will keep the çay coming, and men wander past selling kağıt helva, a round wafer-like treat. (Do have either your best stone-face or your change purse ready, though, because you are an easy target for the persistent beggars who also frequent this location.) Challenge a local to a game of tavla (backgammon) if you dare, or just sit back and let yourself be mezmerized by the twinkling lights of the Bosphorus ferries. Come on the weekend and you’re more than likely to catch a rainbow of wedding fireworks lighting up the night sky.

How to get there: Take a ferry to Üsküdar from Beşiktaş or Eminönü, or the 12a or 12b bus from Kadıköy. From the bus terminal/ferry docks, head south along the seawall towards Salacak.

Last catch of the day; Çengelköy

Sunset on the sahil

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

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Gotta Love Shutterfly

Just got a $10 coupon from Shutterfly for posting my most recent creation on my blog. Not a bad deal! :)

Thank You Noir Thank You 3x5 folded card
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