Monday, May 31, 2010

Under the rocks and stones there is water underground

In Istanbul there is an underground water storage area the size of a large cathedral, nearly 1500 years old, with more than 300 columns stretching up and away in the dark, called the Sunken Cistern or Basilica. The ceiling drips and there are large, ghostly carp that appear and then slowly fade away again into the depths. The Sunken Cistern could be straight out of Tolkien's great Dwarf realm Khazad-dûm. We were on the lookout---the Balrog would have fit in perfectly.

Why yes, we were geeking out, maybe just a little, but what a cool place.

It's probably best we didn't know at the time that Sean Connery had 007-ed his way through the Sunken Cistern in the second Bond movie, From Russia With Love.

That really would have plumped up the geeking factor to unbearable levels. Nobody wants to see that happen.

As it was, we had far too much fun in there. The pillars had been brought from all over Byzantine Istanbul to create the Cistern. Some were quite unusual including two that were a particular attraction. Schoolmates of mine who've known me for a long time will get a laugh out of this next photo, as did the tourists going by who watched me set it up:

Poor Medusa and her sister. Here's one of the two. Not including me. (According to myth, there were three Gorgons, after all,)

The other has it worse; she is standing on her head and the column is plomped down on her severed neck. Yikes. Not a pleasant way to face the centuries.

To round out the experience, in case all the underground coolness of a place that could hold over 21 million gallons of water...and, before they cleaned it up, apparently was a dumping ground for everything including troublesome bodies, isn't cool enough for you, there is a dress-up and get your-photo-taken area. Bethy immediately wanted to be a Turkish Princess, and she talked Thomas into it as well.

When we saw how cute they were, well, we couldn't resist and Colleen and I tried out some sultry get-up ourselves, which was fun. I'll leave you with pictures from the kids' photo shoot:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Like a bird caged without a key, everyone comes to stare at me...

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. A place where the treasury is completely and utterly overflowing with the most emeralds you have ever seen (I don't care where you've gone!) and with so many gold this and gold thats, generally plundered from whichever warring amusement the sultans undertook, well, you've got the idea: the Ottomans gathered golden thrones like we pick up postcards as souvenirs of their latest war.

Then there was an exhibit of holy relics, amazing stuff. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph any of these things. What we could photograph was...ironically for an extra charge...

Harem (the opposite of halal) essentially means forbidden; no man other than the sultan could enter beyond a certain point, and that point was historically guarded by eunuchs. Yes, eunuchs. Ouch.

Quirkily, somehow it ended up that our little group worked within those same guidelines; only Colleen and I paid the extra fee to view the stuff of legend, the harem of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, all the way up to the 19th century. The kids and men stayed outside.

It was beautiful. It was elaborate. And, was disturbing.

The Harem is the most popular part of the Topkapi Palace for tourists by far. Part of me spent time wondering why the facination, but most of me was feeling like one seriously cranky feminist. Which is probably foolish, but couldn't be helped. It's not as if I know how the life of a concubine compared with that of an everyday woman back then. Probably neither was that wonderful. As far as I can tell, the life of a harem girl would be comparably luxurious, and they were educated.

I think the education was a double-edged sword; the girls were denied any semblance of free will after all, and their very lives depended on the whims of the mother of the Sultan, and of course the Sultan himself, and then they were pitted against one another. Intrigue, plots, poisonings, and the killing off of male heirs to the throne was the way of the day.

Would it not be cruel to educate these imprisoned girls, taken from their families at a very young age? Mostly Christian girls (it is illegal for a Muslim to enslave another Muslim), up to 300 of them, intelligent, and, of course, lovely. Three hundred. Three hundred girls whose main, if not only goal in life was to bear a son by the Sultan. And then make sure he ended up on the throne by any means necessary. That's...just...creepy. Not erotic. Creepy. Is it just me?

If the Sultan were alive today, and I was in no danger of, you know, having my head whacked off, (which they did a lot of) I'm pretty sure I wouldn't hesitate to describe him as a serious pig. That's the cranky feminist part talking, there. What most infuriated me was the verses from the Qu'ran, forever in tile, that spelled out his right to do whatever he did, in one of the Sultan's bedrooms, no less.

Tiled fireplace

But again, maybe that's just me. It's probably really bad to call a Muslim a pig, so I'll be backing off now. Even though one of the Sultans (Sultan Ibrahim I "the mad") had his entire harem drowned in the 1600s over a highly unlikely rumor that one of them was seeing a man outside of the harem. So, after torturing a few and getting no answer, he had them all tied into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus. All 280 girls. Well, that particular fellow only ruled 8 years and met his death by strangling. Lovely place, the royal court.

Which is not to say it wasn't physically lovely. It was. Unquestionably. Just...empty and a bit haunting. The tilework was unbelievable. The entire Topkapi Palace is actually a series of buildings around a green courtyard area, a small, royal city with a wonderful parklike feel to it. The Harem's true purpose was to be the the personal living area of the Sultan and his family. Having as many, or few slavegirls as he desired was each Sultan's choice.

Also of note was that the rooms were decorated in accordance with the Sultan's prefered sports team. Blues or Greens, apparently. This was MAN land for sure. You could also see rooms reflecting tastes from different centuries, moving from gorgeous Turkish patterns to more of what we might expect to see in a European palace, albeit with a distinctly Ottoman flair.

And cold. Very cold, I am sure, in the wintertime.

There were rooms upon rooms, which became something of a maze. Most of all, it felt like a cage, and honestly, I was happy to escape. And let me tell you, I am really, really happy to be an American woman here, today, and now.

Free to admire the walls of the harem, ponder their stories, and then leave them far behind.

Edited to add: This should not be read as an anti-Islamic or anti-male rant. Not at all -I'm fond of both of them. If anything, this is an anti-slavery piece. Please do not assign values of hatred to this blog as they have no place here. Not my style at all.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul not Constantinople

Our first full day in Istanbul which began with a simple breakfast (coffee, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, the everpresent bread and boiled eggs) overlooking the Marmara Sea, during which I scared off the poor fellow helping us.

All I wanted to do was to say that I liked the cheese and ask what kind it was. Unfortunately, he was from Afghanistan, spoke little or no english, (and apparently not much Turkish either, according to the other staff members) and for some reason I absolutely terrified him.

He skittered off, found reinforcements and hid out while his backup asked what my concern was with the cheese. After I apologised for any confusion and made my actual wishes known, he explained that what we were eating was ghost cheese.

I can only assume he meant 'goat'. You never know, though. He said it three times.

Simit seller stacking his wares

Another typical Turkish breakfast: vendors everywhere sell golden brown flakey twists of bread called simit. Kind of like a bagel, crossed with a croissant. Grab a coffee and one of these and you are good to go.

Our day's plan was simple: go see the sights. The most fabulous that Istanbul had to offer. Nicely, quite a few of those things were not far away from our hotel.

So, first was the Blue Mosque, whose proper name is the Sultan Ahmet Camii.

Built in the 1600s, it's huge, with domes upon domes and 6, count 'em, six minarets. It's also not blue. Funny thing, that. Apparently the "blue" moniker comes from some of the tiling inside, but really, the awe-inspiring thing about this mosque is how the architecture of the domes irresistably draws your eyes heavenward.

And if you thought the outside was lovely, wait 'til you see the inside:

The guidebooks and websites all say similar things: crowds, crowds, and more crowds. One even stated that it was hardly worth fighting through them to see the inside of the Blue Mosque. I was so pleased we went for it anyway. How could anyone want to miss this? Entry is by donation, the amount, or none at all, of your choice for heaven's sake. Money well spent.

At the entrance they give you a plastic bag and you pad around in your socks and cart your shoes (after all, Muslims kneel and lower their foreheads to the carpet to pray), and if you are a woman you've brought a scarf to drape your hair to show the proper respect.

Apparently I left my brain back at the airport (My excuse? At the airport we couldn't get any of our ATM cards to work in the cash machine and we needed Turkish Liras to pay for our visa into the country...we'd abortively waitied in many lines and finally found out they would take Visa for a visa if you really insisted, go figure,) and in a most brainless fashion hadn't brought my pashmina scarf out to the mosque. What the hey was I thinking?! (I have no idea.)

Though there were certainly plenty of bareheaded women, I settled for wearing my jacket with the hood up. Tourist in the 'hood. Classy.

Outside in the courtyard, we were quickly zeroed in upon by a man, "Uncle" Mehmet, who demonstrated much friendliness and quite remarkable knowledge of King County in Washington State. We had a nice chat.

However, when he begged us to allow him to show us Turkish hospitality we warily begged forgiveness and escaped, knowing that while there was the slimmest chance he was just being friendly, much more likely was that he was a tout, trying to get us into some sort of shop...or worse.

The shortest of walks away, past tour buses and trinket stands, is the Hagia Sophia. ( Sancta Sophia in Latin, Ayasofya in Turkish) On the outside she may not be as impressive as the Blue Mosque, perhaps, but inside, where the air is cool and the dome soars overhead, she is wonderous.

The original Hagia Sophia was built in 537 AD and was the largest church in the world for a thousand years. She had her work cut out for her, what with time, riots and earthquakes. Inside, over 30 million (yes folks, that does say million) gold mosaic tiles decorate her walls, especially the grand dome.

Hagia Sophia was a church until 1453 and then became a mosque. The beautiful Christian mosaics were plastered over, either thanks to Byzantine iconoclasm or Islamic belief against graven images. Either way, after the fall of Constantinople it became a mosque for the next 500 years, and additions like minarets were added accordingly.

Then, and this is one of the two really wonderful things about Hagia Sophia, it became a museum, and the now-revealed mosaics, displaying the Christian and Islamic side by side in a fantastic representation of the history of Istanbul. Here, Mary and Jesus and the Angel Gabriel are flanked by giant tablets with calligraphy from the Qu'ran. How wonderful is that? Beauty from religions, side by side, now for everyone.

The other truly wonderful thing about Hagia Sophia is her architecture. The huge dome, awe-inspiring in any age, had to be created from hollow bricks made of an especially lightweight clay found only on the island of Rhodes. The giant pillars supporting the dome are behind the walls, making it appear to float, defining and redefining architecture from then on.

I thought I was wowed by the ground floor, and then Mike told me I had to go check out the mosaics upstairs. Up narrow stone corridors, the floor smoothed by time and many footfalls, upstairs were more mosaics and gorgeous arching yellow ceilings and intricately carved pillars.

Back out into reality, it took a moment to adjust. Reality sank in, and we went for lunch. We visited Topkapi Palace, which I'll tell you about next time and then, hours later, we made our still slightly dazed way back home, following a different road. Coming the other way on that road came...Uncle Mehmet.

To give us an escape, Mike went with him. Where, we did not know, but Thomas went along too. For some reason this made me feel better.

As it turned out, Uncle Mehmet was a carpet seller, and as Mike pleasantly told him, "we're from Dubai, we know carpets." Thomas did his part by immediately beginning to roll out carpets just like any salesman, and in this way they freed themselves, amicably, before the rest of us could start reciting to each other the ominous warnings in the guidebook.

My personal favorite was the one about how anyone, particularly a man on his own, should never accept any beverage, even sealed, as it could have been injected with a hypodermetic of Nembitol, leaving the victim to wake up hours later with a terrible hangover and stripped of everything except, hopefully, their clothing. As it turned out, Mehmet only wanted to sell us a Turkish carpet. No harm, no foul, therefore a very rewarding day.

Recipe for simits, should you like to try a Turkish snack:


3½ teaspoon active dry yeast

Pinch of sugar

¼ cup warm water

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1¼ teaspoon salt

About 1 cup lukewarm water

2 tablespoon molasses

1 cup water


2-3 cups sesame seeds (optional)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ¼ cup warm water and let stand 10 minutes in a warm place until frothy.

Mix flour, yeast mixture, salt and water. Knead at least 15 minutes by hand, or 10 minutes by heavy-duty mixer, until the dough is very smooth and springy. Put the dough in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 2 hours.

Knead the dough a few times on a lightly floured work surface, roll into a log, and divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a tight ball and let rest under a slightly damp towel about 30 minutes.

Roll each ball into a 14 inch long rope. Hold down one end of the rope with one hand while twisting it with the other. Then form this twisted rope into ring, pressing and rolling the overlapping ends together on the work surface with one hand to seal. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rest 1 hour.

Dissolve the molasses in 1 cup water in a bowl. Put the sesame seeds in another bowl and set it next to the molasses water. Dip each “simit” in molasses water first, then in the sesame seeds, making sure the “simit” is completely and thickly coated with the seeds on all sides. Put it back on the baking sheet and let rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 550°F 30 minutes before baking. Put a few cups of water in an ovenproof pan and place it in the oven.

Take each ring and rotate it gently through your hands, enlarging it into a 7 inch circle. Place the rings back on the baking sheet and let rest for 15 minutes or until well puffed.
Bake about 15-20 minutes until rich golden brown in color.

They are their best eaten fresh out of the oven. They will be good all day. You can also reheat them wrapped in foil to freshen them.

Source: Classical Turkish Cooking – Ayla E. Algar

as published on Yelda's Kitchen

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Crazy....I'm crazy...

Oh, I do so love this guy, Mostly because he puts up with insanity, my utterly goofy ideas and wordiness, the way I talk faster than an auctioneer, and heaven help him, my sense of humor...

I realised I neglected to tell you a backstory about our trip. Set the tone. Indulge me?

Here we go.

Our flight to Turkey from Dubai was scheduled for 11:20 AM on a weekend morning.

Months previous I had signed up and paid for a 10K that was to be run the very same morning...starting, not far from our house, at 7 AM. The third and final in a series of races. I'd done two, wanted to do the third.

Now, with the flight secured, Mike couldn't believe I was even thinking about running before the flight and in that spirit gave me the my God, what DID I marry? look. No worries, I'm used to it.

Here's the math for your consideration:

Race starts at 7 AM. I run in it less than an hour, guaranteed, no matter how hot and humid the day. I hit the finish line and keep running through to the parking lot. 8 AM. No socialising whatsoever. Home by what, 8:15? Shower, despair of taking care of the sweaty race gear, but whatever. If everything was all packed and ready to go, the kids' clothes were all laid out for Mike to dress them...refrigerator cleaned out, I mean, what else would there have been to do? We'd still have a good 2 1/2 hours to get to, and on, the plane, right?

As it turned out, at about that hour I was still trying to find Eba the turtle, who evaded my efforts on her behalf completely and ended up having to subside on lawn and whatever vegetables the neighbors threw over the wall for her. I'd caught her the day before but then released her again when they weren't home to take possession.

Not being a dumb turtle and not wishing to be handled any further, she immediately went and buried herself somewhere and couldn't be found less than half an hour later. Mental note, next time, put her in a box or something.

Dumb turtle.

So, a few days before the event, when I informed Mike that I still wanted to run the 10K which happened to be a few hours before getting on the plane, and he gave me the look throwing up his hands it total exasperation, (despite my setting out my reasoning in a thoroughly measured and reasonable way---geez, he is tough!), he told me to ask 10 people, of my choosing, mind you, whether they thought the idea was nuts. No person with any semblance of sanity whatsoever would ever think of, let along do such a thing, he averred.

So...I asked Graham. I figured that would settle it. A devoted runner, to be sure, but also someone who thinks that 'on time' is the same thing as 'late'. And Graham said, to my great surprise: yes, sure, I'd run it. Why not?

This was a bad thing for Mike's argument. Emboldened, I asked another friend and runner, Nigel, veteran of business travel worldwide, and he said: well, of course you should run it.

A nearby runner, overhearing the conversation, threw in her yes vote too. Hmm, perhaps I wasn't completely insane...

I went back to Mike. Predictably, he blew up, in that loving caring way of his. If I were an evil woman, I would have thoroughly enjoyed watching the vein on his forehead throb, but of course, having someone to torment isn't the reason I keep him around.

That's what we had kids for.

So, Nigel's wife got into the discussion and fired off an "are you INSANE?!" email to me so hard I heard it land in the computer and feared it might have damaged the hard drive.

This helped Mike's case. Nigel, undoubtedly under the tutelage of his loving wife, mentioned that it might be better to start the vacation on a note. Mike insisted I must have posed the question to my consultants in a leading way, a most unfair and undeserved assumption. I did no such thing, and even if I had, he set the rules of engagement.

In an attempt to be a truly good wife, I asked some of his coworkers what they thought over dinner, and under Mike's eye they uneasily gave their opinions.

So, the morning of the flight, I had made sure all was done that needed to be done, except for the turtle, which falls under extenuating circumstances in my book. Not my fault.

I got dressed, hopped in the Jeep, and drove out to the racecourse.

Now, here the more sensible of you are screaming at the computer, WHAT?! Are you INSANE?!

We have already established that runners in general are kind of nuts, so this should not really be a surprise.


Can you believe it?

I showed up in street clothes, just to wish my friends luck, and to cast a wistful look over the course, (oh, hell, it was a nasty hot, wet day anyway) and then I went home, unplugged electrical devices, poured away the last of the milk down the drain, and looked for Eba some more.

See? I AM a nice wife. Or nice enough for my nice husband.

So it was without causing Mike's head to pop off or having to leave stinky running gear to mold in our absense, that we headed out to the airport. Practically a goddess, here.

Confession time: what truly changed my mind was a friend to both of us who pointed out that there was an unpronounceably named volcano spewing ash and grounding planes, and that there would be plenty of people happy to take our places on the plane to Turkey where they could then catch a train to the rest of Europe. Not a time to mess with the plane folks, in other words.

So it turned out for the best that I hadn't run. Even after we were safely at the airport, teasing Mike about it didn't go over so well, despite the fact that he'd gotten his way. My teasing was poorly timed, pre-coffee, so that might have been a factor. Then, during the essential application of coffee to parental units, Bethy went a little wild and dumped her fortunately not-too-hot hot chocolate all over her sweatshirt.

I did my best to wash it out for her in the ladies bathroom, and then tried, without any noticable success, to dry it under a hand dryer. We chased that up by accidently leaving it behind on a chair where I'd put it in a pathetic attempt to dry it a little more. Mike, unaware of the laundry situation, took the kids to the pre-boarding area, and I was momentarily out of the picture while I ran back to the coffee place to try and find Bethy's teddy bear which she'd left behind...somewhere (didn't find it, I still need to call lost and found), then had to beg my way back through the secondary security again to go get the wet sweatshirt...

Ah, family travel. Nothing like it in the world.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Now it's Istanbul not Constantinople

We're back. Six flights since I last checked in in with you, seven if you count the hot air balloon, and the continents of Asia and Europe, both of which we were able to visit without even leaving Istanbul.

But first, our cast of characters for the trip:

Mike and his Dad, Pat, who the kids (and I can't help myself, I do it too) call "Pa". Pa met us at the airport grinning ear to ear and holding up a sign with our mutual last name on it. That's the kind of guy he is, even after travelling all the way from Seattle to meet with us.

Mike's Mom, Colleen, the loving shutterbug whose photos I will be unabashedly and unapologetically using along with mine and Mike's for the rest of the series. And those kids of ours, of course, those awesome little adventurers:

and me and the kids.

Wait, did I say kids twice? Well, no matter. You know how it gets with children. They take up way more print space than their small size might imply.

After just a few hours on a plane, compared to the marathon flights Colleen and Pat had to endure from the States, we met up and emerged from the airport into the very different light of Istanbul. It is light with the clarity I associate with European cities, and you could sense from the very first moment how the city is positively steeped in history like a perfect cup of tea.

Unlike Dubai, whose seasons are Nice, Hot, Hotter, and OHmyGODgetmeOUTTAHERE, Istanbul was enjoying her gentle spring. At 21 C, exactly half the temperature we'd left behind (42C), the kids in particular were feeling a little chilly, but they, like they always do, acclimated after about a week.

Ersan, our driver, drove us in his rather distinctive eggplant purple Mercedes van to Buccoleon Palace in the Sultanhamet district, a small, tidy place of understated elegance overlooking the Marmara Sea, where trains went past frequently enough to delight Thomas but not loudly enough to disturb guests.

Outside were the narrow streets of cobblestones, inside the rooms were creamy and we had our own garden balcony, a prefect place to relax with a bottle of Raki. But more on Raki later.

Wisteria and the Turkish flag

Istanbul and the Marmara Sea

The first day we had little time to do much beyond exploring the immediate neighborhood, a place where the loudest thing was the frequent cats, where bread gets delivered to your window like this:

the windowboxes are flowering and along the streets parking spots are reserved for dusty, ancient cars by the careful placing of large used gasoline cans blocking any interlopers. No tour buses, just small stores and little places to dine modestly.

Except for us. We accidently were ensnared into a delicious but deceptive meal. Up flight after flight of stairs, we followed the proprietor who'd recruited us in off the street to a table where we could watch the light shift from day to blushing sunset over the city and sea. It was the sort of establishment where they brought first an enourmous platter of starters and then another of lovely seafoods to the table and you picked and chose from each according to your whims. You have a nice bottle of wine, you discover that clear burning anise flavored liquid known as Raki.

We, being no fools, had checked the menu prices, but faltered in our wisdom and fell easily into the trap of unstated market priced "you must try this" fish. That nubbly pink one in the back there.

We knew we were in trouble when the meal ended and the assistant waiter brought us the bill, apologised, stuttering, and fled before we'd opened it.

It's a bad sign when the apologise as they give you the bill. Perhaps we were fools. 600 Turkish Lira ($390 USD). No wonder he ran. What can you do, lesson learned. That's what they make credit cards for, right?

Both our hotel manager and travel agent were appalled. "You ate WHERE for how much?!"

Ah well. It was a very good and quite unusual fish, after all.