Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013 - 1 comment

Istanbul Tulip Festival

Tulips are usually associated with Holland, but did you know that their fame actually first flourished in Turkey?  During the Ottoman Empire, they were cultivated for the pleasure of the sultans, and held such importance that the reign of Sultan Ahmet III (1703-1730) was known as "The Tulip Age."

Tulips are an important national symbol, and every April Istanbul holds a city-wide Tulip Festival.  I've been around for it in previous years and enjoyed the tulips on every median and in public parks, but this year was the first year I had a chance to actually head over to Emirgan Park, the main display site.  There were 270 different varieties on display there, amounting to 2.5 MILLION tulips in that one park alone!  (Can you imagine planting all those bulbs??)

I was in town on a layover last month and had just enough time to meet a friend (a Dutch one, no less!), hop a bus up the Bosphorus to Emirgan and take in an hour or so of the colourful tulip glory.  We barely made it through the first section of the park, but what we saw we loved!

I'm seeing a tulip calendar in the near future.....

Sunday, May 26, 2013 - 1 comment

Bureaucratic Blessings

"Do you play the lottery?"  

I ducked to meet the gaze of the man peering at me through his little window in the Foreigners Department at the police station.  

"No.  Why?"

He shuffled the papers in front of him and pulled one from a pink folder with my picture stapled to the front.  

"You should.  You might win something."  

I shrugged.  "My uncle used to play.  He spent a whole lot of money on tickets and never really won anything."

"But if you won something, you'd be happy, right?"

"Sure, I guess."  I was perplexed and a little impatient.  Did I really ride the bus an hour and a half down here to talk about lottery tickets?  

He handed me a piece of paper and said, "Write in Turkish 'Evrağın aslını aldım' - 'I received the original document' - and put the date and sign it."

"The original of which document?"

"The one I'm about to give you."  He waved another piece of paper.

I was not enjoying this game.  

"But I'm going to get my residence permit, right?  You said on the phone there was no problem...."

"No problem.  You'll get it."

 "Okay...."  I signed the paper and handed it back to him.

"You said you'd be happy if you won the lottery, right?"


"Well, you've won!"

Now I was really confused.  A brief thought flitted through my mind: Have they started giving out lifetime residence permits to every 1000th applicant?

He was laughing now, clearly enjoying the suspense.  He handed me the paper he'd been holding with a grin. 

"Remember when you came in to apply last month and you asked why there were two different fees instead of one?"


"Well, it turns out I made a mistake and overcharged you."  He handed me the paper he'd been holding with a grin. "Here is your winning ticket - you've won a 308 lira refund!"

I let out the breath I'd been holding.



"Wow, thank you!  That's amazing!"

He proceeded to tell me to head over to the tax office and file for my refund, and that it would be in my account within the week.  I left shaking my head, my (usually low) faith in the system just having shot way up.

The next day, having gone down to the tax office to file for my unexpected refund, I headed back down to the police station to pick up my newly extended residence permit.  Lo and behold, the system had smiled on me once again and when I checked the expiration date, I found I'd been granted five more months than what I'd applied for, and I didn't even have to pay anything extra!

I normally hate the foreigners department at the police station - crowded line-ups, pushy Russians, dirty toilets, and the eternal bus ride to get there in the first place.  But this week, it shot way up in my books!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - No comments

Hen Party

Approximate reproduction of a conversation I was (involuntarily) in the middle of while getting my pre-summer pedicure a few days ago.


“Did you hear the fight last night?” asked my kuaför, Ayla Abla.  

Let the salon gossip begin, I thought.

Her neighbour, Ayşe Hanım, leaned forward in her seat on the couch beside me, immediately taking the bait.  

“How could I not?  It was right outside my kitchen window.”  

“So much yelling!  I’m sure the whole complex heard it.   Güler and her chickens....”

“Selma had had it up to here with them pooping on her porch.  She’s right, too.  What business does Güler have raising chickens in the complex anyway?  You’d think we lived on a farm, all that squawking....”

“Did you hear her say she was just ‘airing out the chicken coop?’  Right, airing it out for three days...  Other foot, please.”  

I shook the soapy water off my left foot and placed in on the towel on Ayla Abla’s lap.

“She knew she was in trouble, that’s why she was out there sweeping up their little presents.  In the dark, all secretive - as if Selma wouldn’t hear her broom!”  

She was picking up speed now, her eyes wild. 

“And, boy, she caught her red-handed!  Serves her right.  Dirty birds....”

“You cut your toenails short again!  Honey, I’ve been telling you many years now?  Six years!  Don’t cut them so short!”

“I like them short.”

“You’ll get ingrown toenails!  Don’t cut them so short.”

I shrugged and reached for my tea.  Ayşe Hanım un-paused and saved me from further lecturing.  

“That Güler, she thinks she owns the place.  I wonder if Selma filed a complaint?  She said she would.  If it happens again, Selma should collect up all that poop and stick it on Güler’s front porch - wouldn’t that be funny?”  

She cackled at her own mischief and carried on.

“You know what I just thought?  Oh, what a horrible thought.”  She rubbed her hands together with glee.  “Selma has daughters.  And Güler has a son.  What if he married one of her girls?  Then Selma and Güler would be dunurs!  Can you imagine?”

Ayla Abla roared with laughter.  I was grateful she put down the foot-file until it passed.

“Pretty girls, too,” Ayla Abla added between giggles.  “It could happen.”

“If this were the old days, that’s exactly what would happen.  No one marries their neighbour’s daughter anymore, though.  It used to be enough to know she could cook and clean and had a pretty face.  Now they wander all over town looking for girls.”

Ayla Abla nodded in agreement.  “They want options now, kids do.  And freedom.  No one gets married at fifteen anymore, not like we did.  My daughter wants to wait until after university to think about getting married.  Heck, I want her to wait til she’s thirty.”

“Imagine, though,” said Ayşe Hanım, pulling us all back into the daydream.  Selma’s daughter and Güler’s son.  Then those two could fight for the rest of their lives!  And, just think” - she was on the edge of her seat now - “they could have the wedding in that empty lot out back.  And the chickens would all wander around amongst the guests and poop everywhere.  And Selma would start yelling at Güler because it got all over her shoes while she was dancing.  Oh, the fight that would break out.....”

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013 - No comments

Railroad Ramblings

Trains really are my favourite way to travel.  You get to see the countryside and all the little towns you wouldn’t see from a plane (or even the highway) and you skip all the traffic and sorting directions and motion sickness you (at least I) deal with in a car.  Plus, there are all sorts of interesting people to look at and talk to.  Good deal all around.  

The only inter-city train I’ve taken in Turkey is the one from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria.  I did that twice for visa runs back in the early days.  That one goes at night, so you can’t see anything, and you have to stand outside and freeze at the border in the wee hours of the morning, which really isn’t my idea of a fun outing.  

Some of my most memorable train trips have been from Beijing to Western China (try using a squatty potty while the train is rocking back and forth!) and the time my mom and I took the Amtrak from Seattle to Yuma, Arizona to visit my grandparents when I was ten.  We made friends with a Brazilian lady and her daughter who hardly knew any English and we played and “talked” for much of that forty-one hour trip.  Apparently I got the “cross-cultural communication bug” at a young age.  :)

Right now I’m on the Selçuk - İzmir train, having popped in to see a friend at her guesthouse on my way to visit other friends in Izmir.  (Most people come to Selçuk for Ephesus - I come for this joyful lady.)  It’ll be a bit over an hour and I have a seat, so it should be a pleasant ride.

It’s spring in the Aegean - much more so than at home where we’ve crossed into summer and most of the wildflowers have already dried up.  The Ege (Aegean) is blooming pink and white, with bougainvillea trailing down the south sides of houses and squat, fuller palm trees than the ones we have.  It’s always had sort of a “vacation” feel to me - not the “sun and sand” my town is known for, but more the “barbecue and çay on the balcony and laughter into the night” feel of my friend Mehmet’s village.  Maybe it’s because I only ever come out this way when I’m on vacation.

It’s been a stormy day, and while the rain has stopped, the sky is gray and the clouds low, making the poppies and bougainvillea stand out all the more beautifully.  I love watching the fields fly by - row upon straight row of crops that seem to curve and come alive as we whiz past.  Not so many silvery olive trees here, but lots of vineyards in this drier climate.

The towns we’re passing through feel a lot older to me than most where I live.  Perhaps it’s just that most of our older buildings - save those inside the fortress walls - have been torn down to build high-rise apartments.  I guess, too, Izmir has been a “modern city” for a good hundred years, while my city has only boomed in the last twenty.  We’ve got Roman ruins and mega-malls, but not much in between.

Most of these neighbourhoods along the tracks are poorer and run down, so there are more of the decrepit, colourfully painted cement houses that I love - peeling green doors, crooked blue shutters, purple iron gates, rainbows of laundry strung across terraces under terra cotta roofs.  

Turkish flags wave as we pass, a high percentage of them sporting the face of the great Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, increasing steadily as we approach “Gavur İzmir” (“Infidel Izmir”), the great bastion of secularism.

It’s approaching evening.  Outside the window, men are on their way home from work or crowded in the cafes, drinking tea and playing backgammon.  Women pull their loaded carts home from the pazar and boys play football in empty lots.  The scruffy man across from me has clearly had a long day and is sprawled out across two seats, amusing the rest of us with his snoring and his dreamland exclamations of “Aboooooooo!”  

I love the old stone buildings at the railway stations, with their wooden benches outside by the tracks for waiting.  They look just how I imagine they looked fifty years ago, before bus and air travel took over.  I can easily picture Ahmet, Yasemin and Rüya from “Hatırla Sevgili” getting off to buy a snack on their way up to Istanbul.  

Sometimes I try to see the passing sights with new eyes - fresh, like they were before shepherds and headscarves and döner shops became familiar fare, before this land became home.  I remember what it was like my first time here, traversing the country by bus, nose glued to the window, taking it all in.  Back then I didn’t know a pomegranate tree from a fig tree or have a clue how to render grape leaves an edible delicacy.  Every trip to the store was an adventure, and every new town a treasure trove waiting to be unpacked.  

Today, traveling a route I’ve never traveled before, I feel like I’ve recaptured just a little slice of that wonder...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday, May 05, 2013 - 1 comment

Ten Cups of Happiness

I dearly hope my body decides to be Turkish instead of Canadian tonight and let me sleep in spite of the massive amounts of çay I’ve consumed today.  

This morning we went up to “the breakfast district” with friends for brunch.  There is a spot where the city stops and the forest starts that is known for its fabulous köy kahvaltısı - “village breakfasts.”  There are a dozen or so restaurants in which one can settle down in a hut or a tent for a long, leisurely brunch - a popular weekend activity, especially when the weather gets as hot as it’s been.

We didn’t get up there early enough to score a hut, but we found a nicely shaded wooden platform with a low table surrounded by cushions and settled in.  And then came the food!  The table was so full, we had to hold our own plates on our laps.  The bazlama - a sort of dense flatbread - was fresh from the oven and stuffed with cheese.  Olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red peppers, fried potatoes, two kinds of cheese, honey, several jams, eggs with sucuk (a cousin to pepperoni) and greens -  Everything a Turkish breakfast should be!

They brought the çay in a semaver (samovar) with a pot for the dark tea keeping warm on top and a spouted urn full of water on the bottom.  The way we ended up sitting, the “menfolk” were the ones closest to the tea, and we had a good laugh over the fact that this meant they had to serve the women.  In this culture, çay is always the women’s job, so this was a special treat.  One used to work in a hotel and the other ran his own tea house, and both are very servant-hearted, so they were gracious refillers.  :)  Not one to ever say no to a cup of tea, I stuck with it until the pot was empty and drank a good five or six cups.

Today being my day off and the evening being gorgeous as it was, I decided it was a balkon sefası sort of a night.  The best translation I can think of for this is “balcony delight” - a warm summer breeze, the wafting scent of honeysuckle, sanat müziği (a style of older, melancholy Turkish music) and endless cups of tea.  This beloved activity usually involves a crowd of family or neighbours and a whole lot of laughing and talking over one another, but after a week full of people-time, this introvert is more than happy to enjoy it alone.  

As the setting sun was turning the sky pink, I was sitting up here on the terrace enjoying “A Suitable Boy”, the mammoth novel I’ve been delightedly plowing through.  The evening call to prayer set off a night of wedding festivities all around the city.  From my perch I’ve spotted fireworks in five different places and I can hear competing music and microphone announcements from at least two of them, punctuated by the occasional celebratory popping of gunfire.  

Fireworks junkie that I am, I am constantly slamming my book shut and running to one side of the terrace or the other, straining to catch a glimpse of the explosions of colour in the sky, feeling alternately defrauded when they are blocked by a nearby apartment building and tickled when the booms echoing off the hillsides are coupled with a sky full of glitter. 

Having already drank an Oregon Chai earlier in the evening, I had decided I didn’t need any more hot drinks tonight.  But round about 9:30, my inner Turk won out, telling me that a balkon sefası without çay is simply wrong.  So off I went to brew a pot.  And, yes, it did make the picture complete.  As of 11:30 I am five cups in.  I’ll likely regret it when I’m still lying awake in two hours, but for now, I am thoroughly happy to be accompanying the wedding music with the tinkling of my tea spoon.