Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Ešte! Papaj!"

These words have been my Christmas. They mean "more" and "eat," respectively. Basically, I am discovering what it´s like to be an only grandchild. Mamama, who is essentially my Slovak grandma, has been putting plates of food, especially desserts, in front of me continuously for the past two days. I am well on my way to gaining approximately 21 pounds.

I am spending Christmas in Slovakia with relatives, my cousin´s family. I was in Bratislava from 21 to 24 December, and since then I have been in Levice, which is southeast of Bratislava, about 40 minutes from the Hungarian border.
The past two days have gone really well, though, considering our only language connection, Juri, who I am staying with in Bratislava, has been visiting friends in Levice. Through a mix of very broken Slovak, German, and English, the grandparents and I have been able to communicate quite well.

Today we went into Hungary, to a small town called Esztergom, to see a big church. It was very pretty, and the museum part contained a lot of cool, old, gold-plated relics. Then we went to a pool, not really sure if it had mineral spring water or not. But it had a hot tub of sorts outside, so that was fun, to just sit out there with all the oldie Slovaks and Hungarians and look up at the completely white-gray sky and think about how my life is interesting. And how I ended up in a ghetto pool near the Hungarian border where I would be hard-pressed to find anybody who could speak a word of english.

Tomorrow is back to Bratislava, where I will hit the post-xmas sales in one of the biggest malls I have ever been in, then onto Vienna, where I can finally realize my Christmas break dream of sitting in a cafe reading, though I may have finished all three of my books by then.

Veselé Vianoce!

Istanbul III

On Saturday, we had a late, laid-back breakfast at a nearby cafe with one of Kate´s housemates, Sahzene. Then, the three of us got on a bus, a rather lurchy experience, and went along the Bosporous, up past the first-ring suburbs, to the Sabanci gallery. They had a huge exhibit on Abitin Dino, a Turkish artist active during the 50s and 60s. It was a relaxed afternoon. It was also the first time I had seen the sun in probably about two weeks. And, just for the record, I have not seen it since.

On the bus back, Kate called a friend, Julie, to see what she was up to. Kate told me that she was at her friend Mike´s, which was decorated with lots of Uzbek stuff, and that I would like it. So we grabbed a sandwich and headed over to Sultanahmet. That was when my one not-so-wonderful taxi experience happened. I wasn´t nervous for my life at all, but it was so lurchy it made me wish I didn´t have a full stomach. Like most drivers in Istanbul, he would gun it, then two seconds later, stomp on the breaks to avoid hitting a person or a cat.

It ended up that Mike´s place was a hotel. And that Mike is a 65 year old guy who co-owns the hotel and deals in antiques/rugs/other Central Asian collectibles. We had an enjoyable evening drinking wine in what Mike calls his "museum." Kate saying that I would like Mike´s place was more than a bit of an understatement. It is a medium-sized room covered in things he collects. There are tassels and laterns all over the ceiling, rugs on the floor, walls, and in big stacks, and a few racks of clothing, etc. etc. It was awesome! I decided that until Uzbekistan is safe enough for me to visit, this room would have to stand in. With its semi-dim lighting and the wonderfully bring Central Asian colors, it could just as well be the real thing.

On Sunday, we took up Mike´s offer to go to an antiques market in Uskudar, on the Asian side. We had breakfast at the hotel, then hopped on a ferry with some other Americans: Katherine, Gretchen, and Ethan. The wares were in a space that was configured like a small mall, with tiny stores selling only antiques. It was really cool; we saw some beautiful items. The winners were a big set of wooden doors from the "far East," elaborately engraved and painted turquoise. They were 3000 USD. After poking around the market, Mike, Kate, and I bought vintage sunglasses. Mike bought 11 pairs! Almost all of them were 20 YTL, really cheap. I came away with 2 pairs of RayBan wayfarers... now if only there was some sun to necessitate sunglasses.

After a huge, delicious meal at Kanaat, which Mike thinks is one of the best restaurants in Turkey, we went back to the hotel. Kate and I had intended on going to see the Suleymaniye mosque, but we were sidetracked by wine and good company. I also got to see quite a few of Mike´s rugs, as a few customers came by while we were hanging out. Plus, missing the mosque is a great excuse to go back!
Sorry I didn´t add any photos, I am not on my own computer right now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Istanbul II

Looking back on my days in Istanbul from Sunday the 9th:
My head has been spinning nearly non-stop during this trip. Istanbul is so wonderful! One little thing, though: on Thursday, I was frustrated because I kept getting approached by guides. As I learned, though, that only happens around the touristy areas. When I went to Topkapı Palace on Friday, everything was fine.

Topkapı was amazing (ha, there's my word again)! I figured nothing could beat the Sultanahmet Mosque, but Topkapı might be able to. I got the audio guide, and while it wasn't outstanding, for 10 YTL (about 5€) for Topkapı and the harem, it was worth it. The architecture was pretty. In the old treasury (the whole thing is set up as a museum), they have various articles like turban pins and daggers with emerald-encrusted hilts. And the biggest diamond ever after the Hope diamond. It was seriously large, something like 60 carats. Well, I just made that number up, but I may be close. Also of note was the summer pavilion/ circumcision room. Very beautiful tiling inside-- I took an inordinate amount of pictures. Oh well, everybody else was, too. Then, of course, there was the harem. It was just stunning; it seemed to somehow strike me as it was intended to be low-key and elaborate at the same time. I know that sounds weird, but what I think I mean is that the gorgeous tiling everywhere that I was (and still am) so in love with was semi-commonplace at the time. If that makes any sense. Anyway, walls were tiled floor to ceiling, and then there were the ceilings. I will stop on Topkapı before I start repeating myself.

I then met Kate for lunch in Sultanahmet, and then we went to the Grand Bazaar. I don't care if only tourists go there, the Grand Bazaar was cool. I read that a lot less hustling happens there now than used to. It showed, but of course there were still plenty of men saying, "you want a scarf?" The first little shop we went into was the perfect experience. Kate was looking at some bracelets at a shop with plenty of Central Asian items, and the owner, Aziz, came out and invited us in for a tea. He was the sweetest guy-- I am serious, before anything else, he just looks nice. We had tea with him, his sister, and a German girl who was staying with them for a month. He and Kate chatted, and I pretended like I wasn't in awe of the entire situation. I found a necklace that I really liked, and Aziz said I could have it for 75 instead of 98 YTL (40/60€). I left it at first because it was the first place we went to, but later, I went back to grab it. I think it's really unique; I didn't see anything else that came close in the bazaar.

After that, Kate and I did more talking to people than buying things. It was great, the bazaar was not very crowded, and I started to sort of understand Kate's conversations! After finally finding some scarves we liked, we hit the trail. We ate dinner at a place up by the Galata Tower, called Enginar. Cool place with good food and an attractive waiter. We had some mezas, which are like Turkish tapas, and beer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Istanbul I

Istanbul was wonderful! I have alternately described it as amazing, gorgeous, awesome, and beautiful. I think you may get the idea: I'm full of hard-to-articulate praise. I could talk, and write, I'm sure, about my Istanbul trip for as long as I was there, so I will try to do it semi-concise justice through a few blog posts. While I'm working on those, be sure to look at my pictures. Yes, I went a little crazy with pictures of tiles, but they were beautiful! The urge to whip out a camera at some of the tourist sites in Istanbul is often irresistible.

Here's something I wrote to my mom the day I arrived:
"Obviously i haven't really seen any of Istanbul, but it is full of character, I can tell, and the minarets are calling people to pray. The streets are all really narrow and everybody's honking. I think it will turn out to be like a Middle Eastern NYC.
I could burst I am so excited to be here."
That comment about NYC turned out to be a little off, but I think it gives a good idea of what my first impressions were like.

From Thursday:
Istanbul is beautiful and overflowing with character. It is the real deal-- grimy, with broken down sidewalks, beeping cars, unreliable trams, and guys just standing outside their shops on a rainy day out of boredom. I think it's a little like NYC, but without any polish. Seriously, even the touristy areas aren't obviously touristy (well, at least not in December). I got in yesterday, and after an almost two-hour trip, I arrived at my friend Kate's. It's really nice to see Kate-- who would've thought two years ago, when we were in Beginner's Turkish (at U of T), that we would be meeting up in Istanbul, with me in Berlin and Kate living here? We had a good, but non-Turkish dinner at a cafe, then went to a bar for a glass of sour cherry wine. Then we went to what Kate calls "her steps," which provide super view of the Bosphorous and the city.

Today I went to the Sultanahmet area, which includes the Sultanahmet (or "Blue") Mosque, Ayasofya (Haghia Sofia), and Topkapı Palace. I went to the Blue Mosque first. It was so amazing, the tiling in that place, that it's hard to believe it's real. And that it is as old as it is. I just stood there and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes at a time, and then moved to another place and did the same. It's incredible and so lush, especially in the colors (especially the blues). Ah, wonderful. I was bummed that I couldn't get good pictures due to it being big but not particularly well-lit. But it was gorgeous. I'd like to be able to go and take it all in whenever I wanted.

Then I went to Ayasofya. It's even bigger, and from the outside, it's more impressive, but the Sultanahmet mosque is more regal. The Ayasofya is now a museum, because it is not a working mosque anymore, and I thought it was pretty well done. It looks a little shabby inside, it's showing its age (originally built as a church between 532 and 537 AD). It also showed its age in the artwork, which is not as detailed. However, since it's a museum, there were lots of different things to see. Like tiles.

I also went to the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum. It was great, seemed to be very unassuming but ended up having a very large collection. The Korans were stunningly gorgeous. They were my favorite part (and one of my favorite things from the whole trip). The intricate designs around the words were amazing.

Alright, you are getting a taste of what my vocabulary has devolved to. More in the coming days.