Reflection on Turkey

My time left here amounts to 1 hour, and I am almost too worn out to even grasp the change that I’m about to make. Istanbul was starting to become a real home to me, and it seems like I’ve been here forever. I’m a bit sad that I gave up on staying here, because I began to make friends and settle in towards the end. But, I also am excited to see what my upcoming travels will bring.

 

I feel a lot older, and more stable, after my time in Turkey. I guess the way in which I most changed while here was in valuing myself and others. I am finding a core set of principles and behaviors that I consider to be “me”, and I am less likely to compromise those behaviors just because someone expects me to behave otherwise. I am more comfortable in standing up for my choices. And towards others, I am trying to devote more energy to helping people. This can mean something as simple as allowing someone else to be heard, and being truly invested in hearing about their life in conversation. Many people are interested in my life and my project, and I’m realizing that I have to give back by validating other people’s experiences, too. I have a gift for listening and motivating people, and I need to apply it more liberally.

 

And one big thing that I have realized is that a lot of things are going to happen over the course of my lifetime. I should enjoy them while they’re here and then let them go. You can’t get too caught up in this thing that didn’t go right, or that thing that was wonderful but didn’t last long enough. More stuff is going to keep on happening, and you have to be on your toes for it. Realizing this has taken away the antsy feeling I had before of wanting everything in my life to happen all at once.

 

I will have even more time to reflect in the upcoming 3 weeks of travel. Hopefully I can get some rest, but it’s not likely– these night trains are fixing to wear out my poor old bones more than they already are.

 

Dolapdere market

One of my friends took me to a flea market this weekend, in another one of Istanbul’s poorest areas, and for a big walk through Tarlabaşı. From him, I got a much clearer insight into the area. The market, which runs every sunday, brings together vendors trying to sell garbage and stolen goods. Literally, most of the items in the sale are either dug out of the garbage or stolen, and then sold on Sundays for cheap. Some of the finds in the market included cell phone parts, old books, clothes, tableware, and even an opened bag of diapers (ewwww was that from the trash?)

 

Down one street, we found a man selling stuffed oysters from a filthy aquarium. Next to that, there was a family burning some of their plastic garbage/merchandise in a rusty tin can in order to try and keep warm. The poverty of this place actually stings you as you walk through.

 

We took the scenic, Tarlabaşı route back to Taksim. My friend had actually lived here for a year, so he had some more insights into this neighborhood. He seemed to be pretty fond of it, and the parts he showed me seemed almost a different place from what I’d seen before. I witnessed some really sweet things. For instance, a lady lowered a bucket down from her window on a rope and asked some passersby to grab her a loaf of bread from the street vendor. And then we watched a really heartwarming moment when some little kids had accidentally kicked their soccer ball down a hilly street, and an old woman was attempting to kick it back up to them as they were cheering her on.

 

Our walk took us to the construction zone of Tarlabaşı. The government is trying to tear down this area to build nicer buildings. They don’t want such a run-down area being so near the main tourist area. This creates a problem for the residents, though, since there are a lot of squatters. This area used to be abandoned (I think after the war), and so people started living in the apartments for free. Now, those people were chased out, and the apartments stand empty, with imposing metal walls barricading entry to them. Though, there are still some people who bypass the barricades… we saw a man and a prostitute emerge from behind one of the walls.

 

People coming out of this area are treated almost like criminals. Police guard the border between Taksim and Tarlabaşı, where these walls are, and they search anyone they feel like searching. But a lot of normal people have to pass through this area in order to leave their homes. It must suck to be looked at as a criminal just because you live in a poor area. But, I guess that happens a lot of places.

 

First holiday season abroad

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I coped a lot better than I thought I would with being away from my family for the holidays. I worked on christmas eve, christmas, and new years eve; I had a roommate who yelled at me to turn off my christmas carols, and refused to turn on the heat in our house all season; and I didn’t receive any christmas presents. But I did watch Elf, and I went to some nice parties with new foreign friends who were also missing home. And I made them a batch of my family’s traditional broccoli cheese casserole, which was a great success.

 

One thing I found amusing was that New Years Eve in Turkey kind of resembles Halloween in the US. Not in terms of the costumes, but in terms of the behavior. One night of the year where you can excuse yourself for being obnoxious, drunk, and doing inappropriate things to people in the street. I was warned not to go out on New Years Eve; I heard horror stories of 15 men surrounding a woman and groping/raping her, people being stabbed, and other less extreme cases; but the bottom line was that people were pouring into Istanbul from remote parts of Turkey; some may have never seen a foreign girl before. Therefore, they were somehow “excused” for going crazy.

 

I saw some pretty funny behavior, and luckily nothing too menacing. At 5 pm as I was walking home from work, and there was already a drunk man swerving the sidewalks, leering at me as I neared him. This kind of stuff continued to happen all night, but luckily I had a house party to attend, and the times when I went outside, I was surrounded by friends. Police were swarming the more touristy areas. But hey, nothing too majorly bad appeared on the news this year, and we welcomed 2013!

Turkish delight

After all of these food posts lately, let’s talk about one thing I’m not so impressed by.

 

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Edmund sells out all of his siblings to a frickin’ witch in order to get some Turkish delight. So I picked up a box of rose-flavored Turkish delight today, expecting it to be life-alteringly delicious. It kiiiiiiind of just tastes like stale jelly beans.

 

Edmund, you disappoint me.

My top 10 favorite Turkish food experiences

 

  1. Zeytinli acma

I think that I have to put this on here just for the sheer frequency with which I eat these. A zeytinli acma is sort of like a croissant stuffed with olive paste. I grab one almost every day on my way to work– it’s often the only thing that I eat before dinnertime.

 

  1. Visits to the only pig butcher in Istanbul (and maybe in Turkey)

Since most Turks are Muslim, and they don’t eat pork, it’s awfully hard to find any pig products here. In fact, there is only a single place to find them in Istanbul. Ironically, in the poorest neighborhood of Istanbul, there is a high-end pig butcher selling salamis, hams, and any other pork products you could dream up. I never really thought I’d miss pork so much, but after being deprived of pork for so long, I just come in here to breathe in the forbidden aromas. But it’s another thing to actually buy it– at around 50-70 TL (30-40 USD) per kilo, I can wait.

  1. Adana durum + ayran

Out of all the different combinations of grilled meat and various types of bread and seasoning, the adana durum is my favorite. Skewers of lamb grilled and wrapped with spicy seasonings… mmm. Plus, there’s something kind of comforting about the open charcoal pits they cook them on.

It’s not complete without a glass of ayran– the salty yogurt drink of choice. I remember when I first tried ayran back in the US– I took one sip and spit it out. Just couldn’t conceive of a salty dairy drink. But coming here, I can see the need for this drink– the “fast food” sandwiches, like the adana durum, are impossibly dry on their own. But the flavor of ayran goes nicely with these wraps, and is almost inseparable from them.

 

  1. Balik Ekmek

There’s nothing really special about the flavor of these fish sandwiches with onion and lemon. The special part is being by the sea and feeling connected to it. Sitting along to the Bosphorus eating a fish sandwich makes you remember where you are, near this magical sea that calms and inspires at the same time.

 

  1. Yayla corbasi

Yogurt soup with mint and rice– it’s the best thing to eat on a rainy day, or when you’re feeling gloomy. The best comfort food I’ve found here.

 

  1. Cig kofte

Bulgur mixed with tomato and pepper paste, onions, lemon, spices. Sometimes its hard to feel like you’re eating enough vegetables here– everything’s about the meat and oils. This one’s got a fair amount of veggie flair, so alright.

The only disturbing thing about cig kofte is that it comes in the shape of someone’s fist. It’s kind of off-putting to know that what you’re eating was squeezed together in someone’s hand– and I doubt they were all wearing gloves. When I was little I used to take a slice of plain white bread and squeeze it in my hand until it became kind of like dough. I had probably picked my nose right beforehand. I guess this is kind of like that.

 

  1. Raki + meze

There had to be some booze on this list, so here it is. Raki, the tasty liquorice flavored alcohol, is still a favorite of mine, even though I’ve accidentally gone overboard just about every time I’ve drunk it. And then I just sit there eating all these cheeses and oily beans and eggplant… whatever the waiters bring past our table. Goodbye again, day’s worth of pay.

 

  1. The secret beef lokanta

Another thing that can be hard to find is beef. But I’ve located a top secret diner that makes beef stew, almost as good as grandma’s– Beyoglu Lokantasi near the border between Taksim and Tarlabasi. Luckily, they also make yayla corbasi, so this is the perfect place to go for some comfort.

  1. Dolma

One of my favorite foods, even before coming to Turkey, was dolma– grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices. But here, “dolma” can refer to many kinds of stuffed vegetables. The most notable ones that I’ve tried are green peppers and peppered cabbage. But in my opinion, the best dolma are still the classic stuffed grape leaves, especially when they add cinammon to the spices… mmm.

 

  1. Kumpir

Topping my list of yummy Turkish foods is the kumpir. This is a giant baked potato, with its insides mashed with butter and cheese. Then you go down an assembly line and choose from all kinds of toppings such as sausage, olives, couscous, spicy pepper spread, and a lot of other possibilities. I never thought that any of these things would be good on a potato, but the combination of all these random flavors is… incredible. It’s something that just must be experienced.

 

From all of these delicious foods (that and not exercising), I must have gained 10 pounds since I’ve been here. Well, maybe it will keep me warm in Russia. NO REGRETS.

Traces of the past

I had the most delightful day today. I slept in, and woke up just in time to make my reservation for a fine dining restuarant that Ive been dying to try. The place is called Asitane, and it is a well-known Ottoman style restaurant. They claim that they have extensively researched historical texts to try to reconstruct authentic Ottoman cuisine. The menu sounded so delicious that I was tempted to eat it, but I refrained and settled on ordering spice minced meat baked inside a winter melon. Oh my goodness, I want to die and be reincarnated as an Ottoman princess. The meal was definitely worth the full day’s pay that I spent on it.

After the meal, I decided to walk around in the neighborhood. I got a great surprise– I encountered the walls of Constantinople. I didn’t even know they were still standing. They stretch down as far as you can see, almost as if there’s still a kingdom behind them. I could almost imagine being there, and having my minced meat and melon served to me on a crystal plate.

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Further down, after the walls end, the neighborhood gets a little sketchy. It’s a very poor neighborhood, and I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. It was very interesting to walk through, though, because the neighborhood seems to be suspended in time. It was meal-time, and the wood-burning stoves were all ablaze. The blasts of face-level smoke that they sent out of their make-shift plastic-pipe chimneys was comforting in the cool afternoon. And as I continued, I came to an overlook with a view of the valley that I had just walked through. I stopped and had a tea, and looked at the details of all the streets below. I could see people converging on the mosques at prayer time, peacocks roaming around the streets, and a man pushing a cart of tea along the uneven, cobblestone road. It really is a pittoresque city.

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Next, I found my way back down to the main road, and I took it to a new destination: Eyup. Here, you can walk up to the old haunt of a famous writer, Pierre Loti. The walk up the hill goes through a forest cemetery, and it was one of the most peaceful places I’ve found in Istanbul. Tree-covered places are rare and welcome here. At the top of the hill, there is a cafe with the most delicious apple tea. Apple tea tastes like hot apple juice, but much sweeter. I’m not sure how they make it, but it’s the perfect thing to pick you up after you’ve been walking a long time.

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After all of this, I was tired, so I headed home for a long slumber. Thus concluded a very cheery, sleepy, satisfying Saturday.

On the horizon…

After putting the hard feelings I discussed in the last post behind me, I’ve been busy as a bee trying to plan my move to Russia. Getting a job was a real hassle– companies wanted multiple skype chats, lesson plans, essays, interviews where they quizzed me on grammar and classroom scenarios for an hour straight… I’ve never heard of a country with these kind of policies. I went through this boot camp interview process 4 times before landing a job.

After I got the job, the “fun” was only beginning. It’s going to take another month, at least, before I can make the trip. The visa process is a nightmare, and involves filing paperwork in Russia, mailing it here, filing more paperwork here, getting medical tests and setting up health insurance… man, they really are trying to discourage the weak-willed from coming in. They almost got me, but I decided to stick with this treacherous process because I had already sunk countless hours into it.

I’m not sure how my job will be, whether it will be better or worse than my university experience. On the upside, I know that I’ll have a maximum of 8 students per class instead of 25. My bosses are two nice older ladies who seem very kind and welcoming. But, it seems a bit like a teaching boot camp. A ton of hours, 6 days a week, and for a pittance. The city is Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad– let’s see what interesting history lies here.

But, before all of this Russia business takes place, there’s another really exciting opportunity awaiting me. On Wednesday, I will leave for a crazy 3.5- week trip around Central and Eastern Europe. I call it crazy because the itinerary is way too ambitious– 8 countries in 3.5 weeks. Basically, I’ll spend 2 days 1 night in one city, then take the night train to the next city, and stay again for 2 days/1 night. Sometimes I splurged and planned for 3 days in one city. The stops will include Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Croatia, and Serbia. Ahhh I can’t wait!!!!