Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 - No comments

If you're going to be a tourist, you may as well look the part.

(from June 27)

The flip-flops were a dead giveaway.
Yesterday, as I strolled the streets of Zurich in my breezy blue dress, they looked like part of the outfit.  But this morning, coupled with jeans and a hoodie, they just looked...American.  (Or Canadian, as the case may be.) 
I’d set my alarm for six, wanting to squeeze the life out of every one of my twenty-three hours in Zurich before I had to head for the airport at ten.  With visions of steamy espressos and gooey pastries dancing in my head, I’d set out from my hotel and boarded a tram for the centre of Aldstadt (Old Town.)   A glance around at the morning commuters made me scoot my plastic-clad feet further under my seat - all high heels or pretty flats, with only the occasional dressy sandal.  Even the stroller-pushing moms in jeans were still wearing nice shoes.  Not a flip-flop in sight.
I made a mental note to invest in a pair of “layover shoes.”  Apparently a light carry-on isn’t everything.  
Hopping off at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) I flip-flopped my way across a bridge over the Limmat River and headed up the promenade in search of a breakfast with a view.  My ideal was a charming sidewalk cafe near the water - preferably one that sold coffee and truffles.  I’d yet to check “eating Swiss chocolate in Switzerland” off my list of dreams, and this was my big chance.  But the locale had to be just right.
I passed a bakery almost immediately, and the scents wafting out the door were tempting, but there was roadwork going on right outside the front door.  Jackhammers weren’t a part of the scene in my mind, so I carried on.  The streets were nearly empty, with most stores and businesses not open yet, and I relished the near solitude as I made my way along the waterfront.
Motta, the next cafe I came to, was a classy affair - all tiny cups and gold lettering.  Its outdoor tables were filled with high-heeled espresso drinkers, and surely a price list to match.  Not the sort of place I’d feel comfortable shooting my coffee cup from twelve different angles.  Especially not in flip flops.  
I walked for several more blocks of shops and restaurants that wouldn’t be open for a few more hours.  By the time I’d reached the spot where the river opens onto Lake Zurich, my stomach was complaining and I was starting to think I wouldn’t find my much-fantasized “European cafe scene” before I got a desperate-for-caffeine headache.  I might have to settle....if only I could find something that was open! 
Just then, salvation materialized on the horizon.  There on a footbridge crossing back across the river, sat Marinello Picobello - a little kiosk offering plastic-wrapped sandwiches, individually priced fruit, and best of all, coffee.  The cheery Indian cashier whipped me up a latte and an apple strudel in a brown-paper sleeve and wished me a pleasant morning.  Take-out wasn’t precisely what I’d imagined for my breakfast, but it would have to do.  I could find truffles for dessert.  Plus, this kiosk came with a superb view.  I settled in on a bench overlooking the river and gratefully downed my strudel, taking in the mountains framing the lake, a beauty that hadn’t been visible in yesterday’s late-afternoon haze.  
Feeling sufficiently nourished and sugar-fied, I took my coffee across the bridge and back up to the park Tina and I had visited the day before.  It was too early for the chess players, but a few other early risers sat looking out over the city’s steeples and spires.  I found myself a bench and savoured the stillness and the view.  Museums and monuments are all fine and good, but this is my favourite way to connect with a city - something warm and steamy in my hand and a pretty spot from which to watch the world go by.
My introverted travel needs were met, but I still had my sweet tooth to satisfy.  Preferring “semi-informed ambling” to “smart phone directed zooming,” I wandered my way slowly back in what I guessed was the direction of Bahnhofstrasse (the main shopping avenue) via a maze of photogenic cobblestone streets lines with colourfully shuttered houses and chic boutiques just opening up.  I figured all roads led to the train station, and surely I’d find my chocolate shop along the way.  
I meandered down from the park through what I’d nicknamed the Gingerbread Quarter, pausing to shoot the occasional door or dormer, and emerged on the shopping street of Bahnhofstrasse, familiar from the night before.  A couple of turns later, I came out at Lowenplatz, and there it was, glowing in the morning sunlight and beckoning me to draw near..
A Sprüngli.
(My internal soundtrack played the Hallelujah Chorus at this point.)
I’d read about this place.  It rivals Lindt as Switzerland’s most famous confiserie, crafting pastries and artistic chocolate temptations and an array of truffles that would make Willy Wonka dizzy.  
When I walked in the door, I was grateful there were several people in line because it gave me time to drool over all the different flavours and try to decide which truffle (or ten) to purchase.  Bailey’s, Madagascar, Mint, Pistachio, Noir, Cappuccino - I wanted to try them all!   But my wallet wouldn’t allow for that, and I didn’t suppose my stomach would either.  I definitely wanted a sampling to go with my coffee.  And then I might want one or two on the plane.  And my mother, the one who instilled in me a passion for chocolate from birth, should surely have some, too.  And we might want to share with friends...
To multiply my dilemma of option-overload, there was a whole case full of Luxemburgerlis - Sprüngli’s own version of the popular French macaron.  I’d only ever seen these airy little delights in photos on fancy food blogs and I’d always been curious to try one.  And try one, I did!  Not just one, but I whole box!  (I brought most of them home, of course.  No, really, I did....)  
The line thinned out and the lady behind the counter was most patient with me as a Sprüngli newbie.  In her polite English, she recommended her favourites and helped me fill my little gift boxes.  Not that I needed much help.
“The truffes du jour today are Madagascar and Noir.”
“Okay, I’ll take one of each.”
“And the Salted Caramel is very popular.”
“Ooh, I’ll try one of those, too.  Oh, and a cappuccino one...”  
She reminded me of an English butler in her affirmations of my selections.  
“Excellent choice, miss.”  
(If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s buy chocolate.)
She rang up my purchases, all tied up with pretty bows, and then sent me on my way to the adjacent cafe section of the shop.  Not wanting to have to face any more complicated choices by looking at a menu, I just ordered the simplest thing I could think of - a cappuccino - and grabbed myself a bar stool by the window.  (Unfortunately, the “sidewalk cafe” experience came a la cigarette smoke, but at least I had a view of the street.)  
When my cappuccino arrived, with its mile-high foam and the name “Sprüngli” stenciled on top in cocoa, I opened my little boxes of sweets and set about deciding which ones I’d indulge in for my “second breakfast.”  After much deliberation (these things are important, you know) I selected a Champagne D’Or and a Cappuccino Luxemburgerli and a Dark and a Bailey’s truffle.  
That much decadence should not legally be allowed on a plate at one time.
Biting into a Luxemburgerli was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my life.  It was easy to imagine I was biting into a flavoured cloud, all sweet and airy, with decadent cream in the middle.  I’m not a champagne drinker, but the Champagne D’Or was definitely my favourite.  I loved the golden sparkly sheen on the meringue.  And that Dark truffle....wow.  The lady in the store had explained that the truffles of the day were made each morning with fresh cream, butter and ganache.  Its creamy, mildly bitter goodness did not disappoint.  
Alternating nibbles of my confections with spoonfuls of foam (to cleanse the palette), I decided I should definitely make a layover in Zurich an annual affair.
The click of my camera as I shamelessly documented my European Moment no doubt caused a couple of head-swivels from other patrons quietly sipping their coffee.  And as I “Mmmmm-ed” out loud over each new treat I popped in my mouth, a few more probably looked up from their news papers.  They may have even glanced disapprovingly at my flip-flops.  But I didn’t care.  I’d walked around for two hours to arrive at this moment.  It was mine and I was going to enjoy it. 
I can’t wait to find out what truffles taste like in my new layover shoes.....

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - No comments

Zurich: The Iconic and the Imagined

(from June 26)

There’s been this commercial on CNN lately where a businessman who lives in Central Asia (or the Middle East maybe?) goes on about how, when he needs a break from “the chaos” he loves to take his family on vacation to Zurich where “everything works.”  The storybook scenery in the ad had me excited about visiting, but I thought the way he went on and on about how functional and efficient the city was seemed a bit over the top.  

I stand corrected. 

I have never seen such an orderly place!  It ran with the precision of a well-crafted Swiss watch - trains, trams, bikes, cars and pedestrians all moving along in their proper lanes at their designated times.  Everyone knew their place and - maashallah - nothing crashed!  At tram and bus stops, digital signs listed which number would arrive in how many minutes, and little symbols denoted which vehicles were bike or wheelchair friendly.  What’s more, people actually waited for passengers to disembark before making their way onto the train - amazing!  (At home in Turkey, I’m always afraid I’ll get stuck in the train and miss my stop because some lady with eighteen shopping bags pushed her way on and blocked my exit!)

Oh, and the crosswalks!  There seemed to be one every 20 metres or so, and all you had to do to stop traffic is step up to the curb.  No button, no chirping bird - just automatic safe passage.  As a “Turk” who is accustomed to capitalizing on any small break in traffic and making a lane-by-lane break for it, this phenomenon was something akin to having magical powers.  I kept thinking I was about to break some unwritten rule and mess up the system, but if I did, I’m unaware of it cuz the Swiss were too calm and polite to make a fuss about it.
After my encounter with the Turkish couple in Migros (see previous entry) I bought a 24 hour transit pass for CHF 12.80 (13.40 US) from a machine at the airport.  This allowed me to ride any form of public transportation within Zone 10 (where the Old City is located) for the duration of my stay.  Apparently the Swiss still operate on the honour system, because not once did anyone check my ticket.  
When I boarded the train from the airport to downtown, I unknowingly got into a First Class car, while my ticket was for Second Class.  I realized it when a group of American tourists behind me were (loudly) discussing the fact that they’d done the same thing, and so I trundled off behind them, suitcase in tow, to find the Second Class car which, to me, still looked awfully First Class-ish with its cushy seats and little tables.  It took me a minute to figure out that I had to wave my pass in front of a sensor to open the sliding doors between cars.  It’s a wonder that my “steerage” pass didn’t set off an alarm as I made my way through the “uppity cars.”  I wonder what would’ve happened had I just stuck around in First Class.  Maybe they serve ice cream...or truffles!  Then again, “Guilty” is my least favourite flavour.

Disembarking at the bustling Hauptbahnhof (main train station), I easily found my way onto a tram, and off it again three stops later at Limmatplatz, just two blocks from my hotel.  I was surprised that the two young girls I asked for directions didn’t know English (thus disappointingly blowing my “everyone in Europe speaks English plus three other languages” theory), but with a glance at the address (apparently I was butchering the street name) they were able to point me in the right direction.

My top-floor room at the Casa Heinrich was decorated completely in white from one dormer window to the other - more modern homeyness than hospital-esque sterility.  It was something of a studio apartment, complete with a fully equipped kitchenette, and would make a great base for exploring the city in depth someday.  For being the cheapest one I could find (within the “safe for a single girl” range, that is) on Booking.com, but it was much more comfortable and classy than I expected.  Then again, as I was later told, “The Swiss just don’t do ghetto hotels.”  
Changing into what I hoped was a cute and “European-enough” dress (with the help of some tap water and the hair dryer to erase all traces of it having just emerged from a suitcase) I made my way slowly back to the train station to meet my friend Tina, who was to be my tour guide for the evening.  My bare legs stood out in contrast to all the “not yet dressed for summer” folks around me, but it was warm enough by this point in the afternoon, and at least I matched the degree of formality around me.  And, as Tina later assured me, “It’s Europe, not Turkey.  No one cares what you wear.”
Now luggage-free and looking the part of the carefree tourist, I took my time observing life in the streets of the Old City.  The buildings had a whimsical quality about them - nearly every window was framed by cheerfully painted shutters and many of the apartments had tiny balconies with curving wrought-iron rails.  There were far more bicycles than cars on the roads - quite a few Vespas and scooters, too - and men in business suits to women in high heels and skirts were making their way home from work on two wheels.  The place had a rather eco-friendly fairytale feel to it.  (Though I don’t suppose Hansel and Gretel would’ve gotten away with dropping their crumbs all the way home had they lived in Zurich - no litter in sight here!)

Apparently “green” isn’t synonymous with “healthy” in everyone’s books - I was surprised by the number of smokers.  (Then again, I was also surprised by the number of older women with streaks of indigo in their hair.  Even “proper” cultures have their exceptions, it would seem.)  On the tram to the station, the atmosphere was hushed.  Nearly everyone was wearing headphones and reading either a book, an iPad or a newspaper - everyone blissfully alone in his or her own little commuter world.  Well-groomed lap dogs abounded, as did streamlined baby strollers, and both canine and kiddos were remarkably well-behaved.  
To my eye, the Swiss definitely have “public sphere etiquette” perfected - a stable balance of “give me my comfort and my rights and I won’t step on anyone else’s.”  As one living in a country where individual rights are less than cherished, and the care of public spaces seen as “someone else’s responsibility,” I was particularly impressed.  I suppose that sort of utopia is not without a price, though, as Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in the world in terms of cost of living.  I can’t imagine most Turks being willing to pay higher taxes for fancy bike racks.  In my neighbourhood, all of our “street signs” are still just numbers painted hastily on telephone poles.
At the meeting point under the big clock in the Hauptbahnhof, I found Tina immediately, despite the fact that her crisp “I-work-at-a-bank” outfit meant that she blended in with her surroundings better than one would expect an American to.  Having not seen each other since a summer spent volunteering in Mexico seven years ago, we had much to catch up on - particularly the details of her upcoming wedding.  Half American, half Swiss-German, she moved to her father’s homeland several years ago, learned to speak Swiss German remarkably well, and got a job at an international bank.  After they’re married, her Yankee groom will be joining her in Switzerland where they’ll begin their life together.
Tina works in Zurich but lives about an hour away, and most of her “downtown experience” has been showing her fiancee around when he’s visited, so in some ways she was as much of a tourist as I was.  She was the perfect guide, having printed out maps and researched “photogenic spots” in Old Town that she know my camera and I would find charming.  
We chatted our way down Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most famous (and priciest) shopping streets in Europe.  Then we turned onto Augustinergasse into the “Ye Olde Switzerland” I’d pictured in my mind before coming.  This prestigious district was once encircled by the walls of a Roman fortress.  Cobblestone lanes narrowed and twisted in an inviting medieval maze that climbed a gentle hill and then descended gracefully to the banks of the Limmat River.  Boutiques, spas and law offices sat tucked away in four and five story gingerbread buildings, all decorated with a rainbow of shutters and dormers and even the occasional turret.

A steep stone staircase led us up into Lindenhof Park, and our huffing and puffing were rewarded with one of those shining “I’ve always wanted to see this in real life” moments.  A group of very solemn older gentlemen were crowded around a giant chess board as two of them battled it out under the shade trees.  Behind them, a mother watched in amusement as her little girl danced around a second board, struggling to arrange pieces half her size into a formation that looked more like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic than a proper chess game.

On three sides of the park, tall houses peered across a lane so narrow that their inhabitants could surely follow the progress of the chess game from the comfort of their living rooms.  We headed across the lawn to the east side of the park where benches and a low wall overlooked the Limmat River and the city beyond.  Clock towers and steeples dotted the skyline, the most remarkable of which belonged to the Grossmünster - the tenth century church that has come to symbolize Zurich.  (I’d arrived too late in the day for a tour, which just settles the matter of me coming back for a longer visit.)  Several bridges - some for trams and auto traffic, others for pedestrians) spanned the width of the narrow river, which flowed into Lake Zurich, sparkling just to the south.  

From the park, we made our way down to the river, crossing over to the promenade on the east bank and following it down to the lake.  As the church bells chimed five o’clock, the sun broke through the clouds, and the crowds on the boardwalk were rewarded with the warm weather they’d clearly been anticipating.  Teenaged boys with guitars, kids feeding the swans, kissing couples and those with their nose in a book (or in an iPad, as it were) lined the benches along the water while roller bladers, bikers and stroller-pushing moms wheeled their way down the shaded pathway.  Sidewalk cafes and designer ice cream stands were swarming with people eager to believe summer had finally began.  
We rounded out the evening with dinner at Tre Cucine where this “fresh-out-of-a-Muslim-country” girl was most excited about the ham and pineapple pizza.  :)  (I’m not even that much of a pork eater, but there’s something about not being able to eat it for months that makes me want to down some delectable “swine flesh” the moment I get that exit stamp in my passport!)  The setting of the sun made me wish I was wearing more than a summer dress, but there was no way I wanted to sit indoors when there was a proper European sidewalk table outside. 
When we finished up our craving-satisfying supper, I thanked Tina for giving me precisely the “Swiss evening” I’d been hoping for.  
I tend to build these things up so much in my traveller’s mind - “the classic this” and the “quintessential that” - and whether they are definitive of that location or not, they become so in my mind.  To me, “lingering at a sidewalk cafe” was the golden experience I’d anticipated making me feel like I’d really “done Zurich.”  Our outdoor Italian dinner had hit the spot in both edible delight and mental snapshot-worthiness.  My “iconic moment” was still missing a few ingredients, though - I needed coffee and chocolate to round out the picture.  As we both had to get up early, caffeine was forwarded to my morning bucket list.  I didn’t have to head to the airport until eleven, so there would be plenty of time for espresso and truffles.
As we parted ways on the Number 4 tram - Tina to catch her train home and me to continue on to my hotel - a group of tipsy teenagers who would surely be underage at home commandeered the back section of the tram.  So much for my notion of “perfect public etiquette.”  Their open beer bottles and raucous laughter marked, for me, the transition from the “clean and safe Zurich” of the daylight hours to the “nighttime Zurich” I’d been warned about.  I wondered if, perhaps, this scene was just as “iconic” as my romantic street cafe daydreams.
As their rowdy voices followed me off the tram and towards my waiting white room, I decided it was best to head inside before anything else could mar the fairytale Zurich I’d built up in my mind.  When it comes to postcard-shaped memories, I just plain prefer mine rose-coloured.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday, July 02, 2012 - No comments

Pick me up a few friends at the store.

I plunked my snack-sized container of caramel yogurt down on the conveyor belt at Migros and had just started trying to make sense of the Swiss Francs in my hand when I heard it.
“Bir şey unuttuk mu?”  Did we forget anything?  
Turkish!  The little old lady in front of me was speaking Turkish!  I’d only been out of the country for four hours but already the sound of the language of my second-home did something to my soon-to-be-homesick heart.  
I eyed the woman in the beige headscarf and her husband in his khaki cap, going back and forth in my head about whether or not to talk to them as the cashier rang up their groceries.  Will they think it’s great that I’m from Turkey, too, or will they just think I’m crazy for Turk-stalking in the Zurich airport?  Should I just let them shop in peace?
My “I’m one of you and I want you to know it” instinct won out.  It always does.
I touched the woman’s arm and asked her in Turkish, “Teyze, are you Turkish?”
She turned to me with wide eyes, clearly baffled as to how this much-more-Swiss-than-Turkish-looking girl knew her mother tongue.  
“Yes, canım, I am.  Are you?”
I smiled.  “No, but I’ve lived there for six years, so it’s practically home.”
She patted my arm, her eyes twinkling now, and told me how they were from Konya but had lived in Switzerland for years.  After the standard, “What are you doing in Turkey?” conversation came the almost standard question of “Which is more beautiful - Canada or Turkey?” to which I always reply, “They both are beautiful in different ways, but if I didn’t love your country so much, I would’ve gone home a long time ago!”  (This always satisfies them because I neither insult their homeland nor betray my own.  Canadians are nothing if not diplomatic.)
The cashier had moved on to my purchase by now, and as the slow-moving old amca (uncle) finished bagging their groceries, he shuffled closer to see what had gotten his wife so excited.   I paid my 89 cents and as we walked out into the concourse together, the woman filled her husband in on our conversation.
“We’re here to pick up our grandkids.  They’re coming from Turkey to stay for the summer,” he explained proudly.
Gözünüz aydın,” I replied.  (“May your eyes be bright” is the phrase said to someone being reunited with a loved one.)
“Ah!  You even know that!  You are just like a Turk!” he laughed.  “Canım, what is your name?”
I gave him my Turkish one.  
A smile lit up his wrinkled features.  “So you have become a Muslim, then!”
I laughed.  “No, it’s just easier for Turks to say than my real one.”
Taking my hand and patting it in a grandfatherly way, he launched into the pleasantries one must recite upon parting - “So nice to meet you, Go with God, Say hello to your family.”  
But his wife was clearly not through with this “kind-faced foreigner who knows our language” and kept peppering me with questions even after I’d kissed both her cheeks in farewell.    
“Where are you headed?  Do you have someone meeting you at the train station?  Are you sure your mother or father aren’t Turkish?”  
I happily answered all her questions.  As a Canadian who’s worked so hard at “becoming a Turk” and often feels like a foreigner when I return to my homeland, I was thoroughly relishing this “you’re one of us” moment.  And as a minority living in a land not their own, I have a feeling these two were enjoying the connection just as much.  
When her true Turkish teyze curiosity had been satisfied and more kisses dispensed, they headed for the arrivals deck while I headed for the escalator to the train station, all the while more “selams” to each other’s families being called out in both directions. 
I used to roll my eyes when my mom would talk to anyone and everyone in the checkout line.  Now I’m convinced she’s onto something.  And I know a couple of Turkish immigrants who I think would agree.

Monday, July 02, 2012 - No comments

Swiss-ing Gears

(from Tuesday, June 26th, on the plane)
Today I’ll finally see a long-held dream come true:  to eat Swiss chocolate in Switzerland!  Granted, I think the original wording on my list was “to eat Swiss chocolate on a picnic in the Alps,” but I think this definitely still counts.  On top of that, I’ll finally “deserve” the Starbucks Switzerland mug a friend brought me back from his trip to Europe ten years ago.  
This is the perfect “See the World on a Layover” day - 23 hours on the ground, minus a few for stowing my suitcase at the left luggage place and a few more for getting to the airport on time for my flight home tomorrow.  But the train and tram to my hotel look straightforward enough (this is, after all, Switzerland’s famed rain network - I expect it to run like, well, clockwork) and after a quick change into my cute new (and hopefully European-looking) dress, I should have plenty of time to explore Aldstadt (Old Town) and take lots of pictures.  
I’m meeting my friend Tina, who lives there, at 5:30 at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station.)  I think the idea of showing up in a cool European city and rendezvous-ing with someone under one of those big “meeting point” thingies in a crowded station is fun.  We’ll head somewhere yummy for dinner and then hopefully go somewhere cute for coffee, if it’s not too late.  The coffee is the part I’m most looking forward to.  To quote Dorcas Lane from Larkrise to Candleford, “Sidewalk cafes are my one weakness.”  :)
And then, after what I hope will be a good night’s sleep, I plan to get up early and roam the Aldstadt some more, as well as sit down at some charming bakery-cafe for pastries and coffee.  And, of course, somewhere in there will be the purchase of truffles.  Perhaps multiple times.
I’m always grateful for these “transition days” when I’m neither in Turkey nor at home, but just “out in the world.”  Helps me catch my breath and switch gears.  A little “espresso” in between the worlds of “Turkish coffee” and “Starbucks on every corner” is a very useful thing.  Not to mention a tasty one.

Monday, July 02, 2012 - No comments

My Life in Dolmuş Stops

Public transit in Turkey can be awfully confusing if you aren’t a local.  
Ferries and trains are logical enough, and buses in the bigger cities have made it harder for out-of-towners to get lost, with their fancy TV screens announcing upcoming stops.  But dolmuşes are another story.  
A dolmuş is (at least in Istanbul - it varies from city to city) a big yellow “shared taxi” that runs along a specific route and generally doesn’t go until its eight seats are full.  (The name “dolmuş” itself means “full” or “stuffed.”)  Fare is determined by how far you are going, so you have to tell the driver where you are getting off ahead of time.  When a dolmuş starts its route, the sound of the key in the ignition sparks a flurry of money being passed to the driver, along with shouts of “Two for Üsküdar!” and “How much to Bağlarbaşı?”  
When I first moved to Istanbul and was still trying to memorize the phrase, “At a convenient spot, could you please let me off?”, I used to always make a beeline for the back of the dolmuş.  That was the only spot where a non-Turkish speaker could remain passively safe.  The middle bench was the worst.  If you sat there, all the people in the back would pass their money to you and tell you where they were headed, and it was your job to pass this information on to the driver, and then hand the person’s change back.  Not knowing the names of all the stops, compounded by the occasional “mouth full of marbles” accent and the fact that I didn’t know how to say, “Could you please repeat that?”, it was easy to turn “Zeynep Kamil” into “Zen Camel,” incurring a bewildered look from the driver and frustration from the passenger whose money it was.  
A few months into living there, though, not only was I more confident in my Turkish, but I’d memorized the names of all the stops on my usual route and could shuttle coins and change back and forth with the best of them. I especially prided myself on the fact that when a “foreigner” or someone from out of town asked for directions, I was able to help them out.  I even started sitting in the middle seat on purpose.  On a bad “cultural confidence” day it could be a real morale booster.
A recent trip to Izmir, the country’s third largest city, found me riding a lot of dolmuşes on my own as I visited friends in different parts of town.  My now-close-to-fluent Turkish helped a bit, but I found myself back in that place of having to pass money up for people going to places I’d never heard of, and once again, I felt a little like a country-bumpkin in the big city.  
It was a relief then to head from Izmir to Istanbul and, once again, be back on my own familiar dolmuş turf.  I may not have lived there for five years, but that Kadıköy - Üsküdar dolmuş route is still second nature to me.  The prices have changed, but the stops are the same, and being able to courageously plop down in the middle seat and take an active role in the functioning of “the system” still gives me great pleasure.   
It was during that trip, as I took a dolmuş to Üsküdar to catch a bus up the Bosphorus, it hit me that the reason I know that route so well is that it is a veritable memory lane - a historical map of one of the best years of my life, and all the visits that have followed.  Nearly every stop holds some significance for me - either because it’s at the head of a street where a friend lives or it’s a sentimental landmark of some noteworthy Istanbul experience.
And so, here you have it:  my Istanbul life in dolmuş stops.  
My dolmuş runs along a 20 minute (depending on traffic) stretch of the Asian side of the city.  It leaves the Kadıköy iskelesi (ferry docks), passing the grand old Haydarpaşa train station and squeezes out into the craziness of Rıhtım Street’s traffic.  It dips under the train tracks and passes the spot where, until last year, the “Have you brushed your teeth today” billboard always sat.  Right about here is the wall with the “Amerika defol” (America, get out of here”) graffiti, usually accompanied by assorted posters advertising meeting of the Communist Party of Turkey.  This is the spot where, walking home from a doctor’s appointment a few years ago, I got caught in a protest march in which people from out east were carrying placards demanding education in their own language and had to make a quick exit passed the water cannons down a side street before things got heated, as they always do.  
Turning left, the route swings past Tepe Nautilus - aka “The Carrefour Mall” - where we used to put our language books through the metal detector and meet up with friends after school or on the weekend.  I’d always get a Beef n’ Cheddar from Arby’s (luxury!) and sneak it onto a table at Pizza Hut while everyone else downed their all-you-can-eat pizza.  It was here, too, that a friend once arrived to meet us in tears because she’d been followed all the way from her house by some creeper.  Adding to the frustration of the situation was the fact that, in her stressed state, her Turkish had gotten jumbled and she’d thrown a few extra letters onto a word, repeatedly telling him, “Don’t leave me!” instead of “Get lost!”
After the mall comes what I think of as the “sacrifice district” - a series of several roadside stalls where one can purchase a sheep or lamb to kill for the annual Sacrifice Festival or as a thank offering for a new job/car/baby.  My favourite was the one ram who, in the summer, always had his own sun umbrella to keep him cool while he waited to die.  
Next comes the “hospital district” - several public and military hospitals in a row - juxtaposed, ironically, by the Karacaahmet Graveyard.  It’s the largest in the city - so sprawling that several major roads cut right through the middle of it.  Both of my “grandparents” on my Turkish mom’s side are buried here, making it the cause of visits on religious holidays to pray and water the flowers.  I’ve always loved exploring this graveyard and its fascinating Ottoman gravestones with their pre-Ataturk Arabic script and funny headdresses.  I was alarmed once a few years back to read in the paper that some “revolutionaries” had hid amongst the graves and used this as a launching spot to fire a rocket at the nearby Selimiye Army Barracks.  I haven’t gone “exploring” there since.  
The stop at the last gate of the graveyard is Kapı Ağası, marked by a Byzantine-era pillar from what I assume was an aqueduct.  This is where we used to get off to go to lessons at our language helper’s first house.  Then comes Zeynep Kamil, through which one dolmuş driver took a detour to avoid a traffic jam.  It was raining like crazy and, in all our confusion over the fact that we’d veered off our known route, we forgot the container of “Sin in the Camp” (a wickedly yummy dessert made almost entirely from precious imported ingredients) we were taking to a party at our helper’s house.  Much weeping and gnashing of teeth followed.  
Next is Askerlik Şübesi, where soldiers with poised rifles sit bored behind sandbags while nervous young men line up on the street to register for their compulsory military service.  From here, we’d walk down past the carwash and some saint or other’s grave to the building where our language helper lived next.  And then one more stop up is Pazarbaşı, where I’d stop and pick up a few of those little dill and cream cheese-filled pastries and walk down to the house where that same language helper lived for the majority of our time in Istanbul.  She’s moved again since and is no longer on this dolmuş route.  Which is fine, since I am no longer taking lessons from her.  The commute to Istanbul would be a little much.  
Bağlar Başı is where we used to get off to walk down the hill to the friend’s house where we all lived at one point or another before moving in with our Turkish families.  Once, a certain friend (who shall remain nameless) commented on the pleasant sound of rushing water beneath the street, thinking it was an underground spring.  Had the smell of the sewer wafted up through the grate at that moment, she might not have found it so charming.  We didn’t let her live that one down for awhile.  (Okay, we still haven’t.)  
That neighbourhood and the house on Tıknefes Sokak (“Out of Breath” Street) bring back all the anticipation and unknown of those first weeks living in Turkey, when my new life stretched before me and I had no idea how to jump in.  I remember the smell of the hand soap in the bathroom, the sound of the whistle throughout the night that let us know the guard was patrolling the streets, and our first attempts at making breakfast burritos without tortillas.  We’ve got a bottle of that same soap in our downstairs bathroom now, and every time I wash my hands a great sense of newness and possibility instantly comes over me.  Funny how smells trigger memories like that.
The dolmuş takes a right at Bağlar Başı, heading uphill between the Islamic Theological Seminary on the right and the Orthodox Church and “Infidel Cemetery” on the left.  Just past the mosque is Capitol, the mall with the Krispy Kreme (!) and the Chinese noodle place.  (Can you see why I miss living there?)  
At the mall, you take a left down that little side street where the drivers always fuss about letting people off cuz it makes for a tricky lane change, and then take another left and head down the hill towards the water.  A ways down is the spot where the old AK Party headquarters used to be, where for an entire election summer the Prime Minister’s face loomed larger than life, accompanied by the slogan “Durmak yok, yola devam!”  (“No stopping!  Stay the course!”) which has since become a phrase I like to whip out at opportune moments to make Turks laugh.  
It’s at this same corner, just off the main road, that I went to my first Turkish wedding.  The guy I bought my cell phone from was getting married, and our common friend (my language helper’s husband) thought I’d enjoy the cultural experience.  What I remember most about the night was how irritated I was that only the wedding facility’s photographer was allowed to take pictures and how my shoes hurt my feet so much at the end of the night that I walked barefoot most of the way home.  
Down the hill just past the Kuruçeşme stop is the “religious grocery store” where being covered seemed to be a prerequisite for being a cashier.  Across from that is the building where I once saw a body on the ground covered in a white sheet.  I never did find out if it was a jumper or a murder.  I didn’t want to ask.
The lights at Fıstıkağacı were my first reference point after moving to the city.  If I could find them, I could find home.  That was “my stop” when I stayed with a friend my first few weeks there, and became mine again when I housesat for a friend (same intersection, different house) the summer before I moved away.  I remember being so proud of myself when I first learned how to say, “Please let me off at the lights.”  
Down a ways on the right is that impossibly steep staircase that I always enjoyed running down on my way to school in the morning that last summer.  I wasn’t so fond of climbing it again at the end of the day, though  - especially not in August.  (But, oh, the calf muscles I had when I lived in Istanbul!)  I always felt so bad for the old ladies living at the top of that hill.  Maybe one day they’ll put in an escalator.  
From there, the dolmuş passes the cargo place from where we mailed the bulk of our luggage when we moved to the south.  (And even then, the bus drivers complained about how many suitcases we were checking on.  They clearly don’t stockpile Thai sweet chili sauce and deodorant like I do.)
It’s just a few hundred metres from there down to Üsküdar, with its mosques and its Mado (fancy ice cream joint) and the iskele at which I’ve run for countless ferries.  From there, one can take another bus or dolmuş further up the coast or cross the Bosphorus to “the other side” (Europe) to see famous sites like the Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and the Dolmabahçe Palace.  For the thousands of tourists that tour the city on a hop-on hop-off bus every year, those are the most memorable icons of Istanbul.  

But as for me, the symbols of the city I most prefer are the ones that can be seen out the window of a crowded yellow dolmuş.