Friday, August 31, 2012

Island Trek - Superstitions and Peace

 Princes' Islands

A lovely and kind co-worker at my new school invited me to join an expat group that she and a friend started - Travel Junkies.  This lovely and lively group of people from all nations and all walks of life join hearts and minds on occasion to travel to different sites far and wide and generally related to the Istanbul area. 

This particular day trip would be a ferry ride over to the largest of the Princes' Islands...Buyukada.  These islands have been the summer dwelling place of royalty and wealth for centuries.  At the top of Buyakada is a Greek monastery, St. George, of which there are many legends.  More on these in a bit.  The islands are a welcome respite from the frenzy of the city, and the cool breezes that slide in from the Sea of Marmara calm the soul and soothe the weary body.

Motor vehicles (with the exception of law enforcement &  utility workers) are forbidden, and transportation slows to the pace of horse drawn carts, donkey rides, bicycles, and the wonderful modality of leg and foot.

We boarded in Kabatas (main ferry port) with a group of folks from the US, UK, Trinidad, Jordan, Canada, Turkey, & other ports of call.  A happy group, we settled in for the hop over to our destination which included stops at the lesser islands.  I made the acquaintance of some new friends and watched in quiet fascination while the Simit sellers (men who bring around lovely platters of circular seed bread) mingled with the vegetable peeler salesman, and my personal favorite... the instant orange juice man.  OK, I have to tell you about this guy... he demonstrated for much of the trip as you can see.  For a couple of lira, (TL) you can buy his product which is this smart bit of plastic that you insert in the orange of your choice (yes your orange comes with the juicer) and you extract the juice and have a nice little shot of fresh vitamin C for your trip!

We arrive at our island and disembark in a frenzy... a heated frenzy.  The que for horse drawn cart transportation to the trail head of the monastery is blocks long.  Now, while I was somewhat disappointed, like much of everything I have learned here... do not dwell on disappointment... a positive outcome will result if only I am patient and accept the fact that I will NOT be riding in the cart drawn by two overworked and skinny horses.  This is the end of the tourist season, and I for a moment am glad my granddaughter Isabel is not with me.   She would not approve of the ribs that can be seen and the sores on the legs of these overworked beasts of burden that carry tourists in the blazing sun all day long up a steep hill.  It is evident that some animals are well cared for and loved, and some are not.  How like life! 

The drivers scoot their buggies up the hill quickly... like Istanbul... people here seem to have a sense when to get out of the way and when it is ok to to leisurely stroll across the middle of the street.

We walk past some old old homes that are clearly the residences of the privileged. I find myself intrigued by the stories these homes could tell... who lived here?  when?  why?  Some are now hotels, they are so grand.  We are on the island during Victory Day, a day somewhat akin to our 4th of July or our Flag Day.  Everywhere the Turkish flag adorns buildings, and buggies.  I have never been nationalistic and sometimes find patriotism to be akin to idol worship (as anyone who knows me well will tell you), but on this day, I do not mind the flags and the pride with which these lovely people celebrate their country. 

 As we climb up the streets, the grand houses fall away slowly, the views of the sea become more expansive and hills turn to pine and shrub forests.  I spot a healthy horse, no fence, reposing and munching... happy, I assume, to not be counted among the others laboring still to bring the hordes of tourists to the beginning of the cobblestone trail that leads to the monastery.

One White Beast resting
We walk, and walk and walk some more.  I hear our leaders, Susan & Ibrahim inform us that the road will lead to a cobblestone trail and that once there, we may choose to make the trek to the monastery or not.  Either way... we have walked an incredibly long way already... and from a distance I can see our destination, very high on a hill that is obviously quite a ways away.  I cannot believe that I will soon be there.  The Mediterranean glistens from far below as families picnic on the hillside.  The further up we go... the more peace I feel, but from an opening in the woods, I can see how much further we have to travel, and I wonder if I will be able to make it to this famed holy place.  There are legends and superstitions about the church, and the group begin to tell the stories they have heard.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back to Europe.... Food 2

You can see Haiga Sophia in the distance as we ferry back to the other side of Istanbul, stuffed, happy, but still yearning for more.  Why is it we always yearn for more?  In some ways, yearning is the human emotion that brought me here to this strange and dizzying land.  One more adventure, as if I haven't had enough of those.  Oh but this is Turkey, and I am, as many of my friends told me I would be... ecstatic most of the time about my new home.  Faith is imbedded in all of life here.  It is unavoidable.  One simply must pray when riding in a taxi on these streets & byways.  So many things about this place remind me daily of the need to trust in the maker of the journey.  If enternity is real, and I know it to be... then isn't all of it an ongoing adventure?  Certainly I yearn for a home nearer to rest and perfection, but in the meantime, I will not settle for slow death of age and uselessness.  I will "eat" life... "drink" in experience and new understandings and share these with friends of like mind and heart.
We approach the shores at a differnt place, Eminou, near Sultan Achmet Square with the mission of finding the famed spice market.  The shores were absolutely teaming with thousands of people with the exact same mission.  The long corridor was hot and the noise was deafening with hawkers of wares and people hollering back and children and a hundred different tounges exchanging words.  I have never been touched by so many strangers in so many strange ways in my life

I bought some sumac, and some saffron for less than $2.  Later I will use it for rice and vegetables.  It is interesting to think that the fortunes of many families and empires hinged upon the importation of these precious addtions to food.  Here they make tea from many of the spices and flowers.  I am looking forward to winter when street vendors sell a hot milk drink made with violet root.  Salep.

We stopped in an old hotel in the middle of the tourist district for drinks and more conversation, sharing each other's life stories in bits and pieces, laughing and enjoying the moment after haggling with a carpet dealer over a bag and a rug.  The call to break fast was approaching and we left for the main square of Hagia Sophia where families anxiously awaited the ok to eat and drink and break the month long day fasting.  This is signified by the appearnace in the sky over mecca of the crescent moon and star... not concidentally the symbols of the Turkish flag.

We hopped the metro and returned to Ortokoy and our neighborhood where the evening continued with our local square flooded with more people sending up lanterns and lights into the night sky while laughing and smoking and drinking into the night.  So lovely.  One would think we had enough food, but this day...

Bayram Secur comes for the express purpose of eating, ....sweets in particular. 

I bought a sweet, not sure what it's name is, but it is a nest of shredded phillo with walnuts, honey & pistachios.  It took me 3 days to finish it, just so sweet and rich.  I also bought fresh figs, which I had never tasted.  What a delight. 

Eventually we headed home past the still busy streets, passing braziers with burning coals to make the sweet Turkish tea, the Kebab stands, produce markets, bars, florists... still open near midnight and no sign of closure in sight.  This is were I live.   Next blog, I would like to introduce you to my neighborhood and some of its inhabitants.  



Sunday, August 19, 2012

Food in This New / Old Land

Asia  -  Yesterday, I met with some lovely new friends for a journey over to the "other side" of Istanbul.  We took a ferry not far from the neighborhood where I live.   For those who read this blog who are from Astoria, I have to tell you... looking at Asian Istanbul across from the Bosphorous Strait, is much like viewing Astoria from the Washington side, only on a MUCH grander scale.  Our group was comprised of myself, Suzanne, a southern woman from the US who teaches special education, Prags, a delightful man from South Africa who also teaches special education, Dominick, a secondary teacher from Northern Ireland, and a friend of Prags', Paul who is a priest and also from Northern Ireland.  An unlikely gathering that made for a most delightful day that began at 9 AM and lasted past the end of Ramazan and into the night of feasting and celebrating.

Suzanne always asks the question, "what is one mission you have for this day?".  I had no mission other than to be able to say I had finally been to Asia.  She was on a search for the best martini olives.  The guys simply wanted to go see the sights, though Paul did want to view the Hagia Sophia.

The markets on the other side are known for olives, cheeses and fish.  We found these and more.  
Yes, those are sheep heads, roasted and ready to go, complete with the eyes, which are considered a delicacy.  We did not purchase any of these.  We did however find a restaurant famous for it's mezes and quality of entrees.
Mezes are the Turkish equivalent of tapas.  Small appetizers that are bold in flavor and eaten family style.  This restaraunt delivered!  It was the very best meal I have had here.  We all went into the restaurant where the dishes were each explained to us.  We then chose a variety of them and sat outside where they were delivered to us in style.  A slow leisurely meal of new food.  It would be hard to choose one favorite.  We had two types of bread, one the traditional fluffy almost pita style and the other a very large puffy tortilla style.  These were served with a side of feta in mild chili oil.  My other favorite would have to be these little lamb meatballs, breaded and deep fried, then rolled in crushed pistachios.  I know, I know...but they were exquisite.  Okra in tomato sause, egglplant stew, falafal, stewed greens in yogurt, and special salads, which we were chastised not to eat until the END of the meal.  Oh thank GOD for food.  It was fitting that our festing took place at the end of Ramazan, a Muslim period of day fasting and contemplation.

 After reposing and rousing ourselves from satisfaction, we worked off some of our meal by shopping for a variety of non-food items.  The prices in the street markets are very affordable, and haggling is invited.  Dominick and Suzanne found a little cafe where they enjoyed a round of backgammon while I sipped some Turkish coffee.   

Thus began the first part of our day.  Next Blog... back over to Europe for the end of Ramazan and a trip into the spice market!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I have been here in the city of seven hills for 1 week now.  It is difficult to come up with the right words to explain the complicated beauty and surreal atmosphere of this place.  Istanbul sprawls herself over 7 steep and expansive hills.  This crossroads location and her inhabitants are both friendly and guarded.  The language (related to Hungarian) is not intuitive and is quick but poetic.  The streets are moving constantly with both speed and leisure, cars and buses careening up and down hills, around curves at breakneck speed dodging one another politely.  No one seems to ever become angry for long.  Or terribly concerned.

My apartment is wonderful, but a bit hot.  I have light and room and have been pleasantly pleased with the accommodations, particularly the lovely blue clear pool just outside my block.  The school grounds are beautiful and I have only a 2-3 minute walk to campus.  I like everyone I have met.  My new friends are Canadian, French, Spanish, English, Irish, Indian, South African, Turkish & Maldievian.  The Turkish people are fantastic!  Men give up their chairs on the buses and trams, strangers offer to help you find what you are looking for, clerks are patient and kind with my jerky Turkish.  Gracious people who seem to have adopted a live and let live attitude.  Burkas and Bustiers share the same space and no one seems to mind much.

I have come to love the calls to prayer that ring out over this city.  There is something ethereal about a city of 18 million inhabitants being corporeally reminded to recognize their maker.  While Islam is a faith of law & works, and Christianity is a faith of grace, I think each learns from the other in this place.  That brings me to the magnificent 8th wonder of the world.... the Hagia Sophia.  This structure built for worship has passed between the netherworld of competing faiths several times.  Built in a time before machinery to honor GOD, it now stands as a museum where frescoes of Christ, Mary, and the Angel Gabriel are neighbor to Koranic script.  It is a stunning place that inspires still... worship and deep emotion. 

 We also visited the Blue Mosque where worship still continues.  For me, the Hagia Sophia was stunning and moving, and it's sheer size brought me to tears literally, but for beauty and a sense of the sacred, the Blue was special.  I particularly loved the children playing on the carpet prior to prayer call.
I have taken so many lovely pictures, and missed out on some others because at times, it seems rude to snap a recording of a moment.  The very very chic young woman dressed from head to toe in Muslim dress, all pink, standing on the train platform,  the old Turkish couple walking slowly hand in hand with one another down the boardwalk, oblivious to the youthful action around them, the weathered fisherman who set his bucket of fish down on the floor of the bus...the young Turkish men who stand around smoking and guarding the bar where we go for staff gatherings.. all of these intimate snapshots in time of a people I already love.
This man for instance, who comes in the cool of the evening to  smoke and quietly observe the teams of people streaming by his spot on the hookah porch.
One little bit of absurdity to my life right now, here in Istanbul Turkey... I am sitting at a Krispy Kreme because my internet is not yet hooked up to my flat.  The grocery store attached to the donut shop has valet parking.  Across the table from me is a Spanish woman who has become a friend.  We are surrounded by feral cats... they are everywhere in Ortakoy.  In a bit I will lug my laptop back up an extremely steep hill, past a guard who will nod at me and I will return to my 4th floor flat, make some dinner, drink some Turkish wine, and dream of the end of Ramazan, when these streets will flood with families celebrating the end of fasting by giving one another copious amounts of candy while the prayer call goes out.  I love Turkey. 

There was nothing to worry about in the end, GOD is still in charge.

                              This man was sitting on his porch,
                              waiting patiently for sundown. 
                              He is my neighbor.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Endings Still....

Sitting in Astoria Oregon... a place some have observed seems like the end of the earth.  From this place the Columbia river surges toward the open sea.  A mighty bridge spans two lands just before the bar announces change with a fast and dangerous tide.  This is my transition place.

I let the dog go yesterday.  I don't want to see him again until I come back next summer.  Another leave taking that breaks my heart.  This animal understands me and loves me unconditionally.  He has been my traveling companion, my silent counselor, my bodyguard,  my friend.  I believe he's a gift from GOD, and now I have to trust that gift to the hands of the giver.  This TRUST will become my new unseen companion.  There are so many facets of my life that have now become unknown, unpredictable, unreasonably precarious.  Will the house be okay in the hands of the renter?  Will the dog and the cat remember me and keep me in their hearts?  Will my children be ok without me?  (Ha Ha Ha Ha)  Will my new apartment bring me peace?  Will I make friends?  Will I be good at this new job?  Worry worry worry worry worry

Oh my how we worry.  But this is my moment of I will move away from worry and cross over the river into absolute trust in the GOD that has created, guided, protected, encouraged, and LOVED me for all time.  Now is the point at which I must live out actively what I know to be true, that this GOD, the father of Abraham, Isaac & Jaycob, this great "I AM" has me and everything having to do with me in His hands.

Tonight I pack.