Archive for the 'Istanbul' Category

A Taste of Holiday at Home

I took a cooking class in Bali when I was there in September. I love to cook, I love food, and I loved Bali. It like seemed a good way to spend three hours.

As it turns out, I also really love Balinese food. The prominent use of lime and ginger—coupled with the sweetness of palm sugar, the subtle tanginess of tamarind, and just enough heat to make you sweat—hit all my foodie sweet spots. The cooking class was one of the highlights of my trip.

Anatomy of a cooking class, Bumi Bali Cooking School in Ubud. September 2011.

However, I have yet to cook a single Balinese dish at home. Why haven’t I put my fancy culinary skills into practice?

I met a young Belgian bride at my cooking class who told me she and her husband learn to cook the cuisine wherever they travel. They then plan monthly date nights to make the food from their holiday destinations. “It’s little taste of holiday was once you go home,” she said. What a great concept.

I thought of her the other night as I ate Turkish takeout out of an aluminum bowl. It turns out that New York, in all its international culinary glory, has spoiled me from ever bothering to create international culinary brilliance on my own.

The best Turkish food I’ve ever had? Not in Istanbul. In Queens. Mangal Kebab in Sunnyside got me through grad school. I can also score a bottle or two of Efes, a Turkish pilsner, at the deli two blocks from my apartment.

Istanbul via Queens: lamb adana, home bread, some of the best baklava I've ever had. Washed down with the beer I was too ladylike and respectful to drink in Muslim Turkey.

I became obsessed with palak paneer in India. Minardirectly across the street from my office, does some of the best—complete with Bollywood music and Hindi newspapers. Check.

I’ve even found a pretty close match to the elusive Singaporean/Malay laksa. FoodParc’s new Mr. Wong’s Noodles does a red coconut curry broth that, with some pho, fried tofu, and add-on bamboo shoots transported me back to that first happy meal in Asia.

Fresh lime juice and curry laksa, my first (heavenly) meal in Singapore. Well, if you don't count the quiche at the Changi Starbucks. And I don't.

And at home in New York: Mr. Wong's red curry coconut broth. Not exactly laksa. But pretty darn close. And deliciously indulgent in its own soupy rite.

I will cook Balinese food. I will. I’ve even going to try to beat Mr. Wong at his laksa. I gloated to my cooking class compatriots that I didn’t need to smuggle back exotic spices because, in New York, we can get everything—even galangal root and kaffir lime leaves (Asia Market on Mulberry and Bangkok Center Grocery in Chinatown, if you’re wondering).

But, as any New Yorker will tell you, there’s a big difference between having it all and having time for it all. Even in the hustle of the holidays, I hope to set aside some time to sink my teeth—and my Santoku knife—into some sayur urab and a big steaming pot of opor ayam.

If I can’t find time to cook it all in New York, I have a plan. I will trudge around town, procure the ingredients, wrap them ever so carefully, and smuggle them in my luggage to a faraway land where they can’t be found. Iowa, where I will spend nine relaxing days at Christmas, is exotic in its inactivity, and I’m looking forward to sharing the taste of my holidays with the family I love.


Istanbul 2010: On Being American… and Blonde

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

I made one strategic error in preparing for my trip to Istanbul. I got my highlights done.

Istanbul’s a hard town for a white American girl to pretend to be a local. Even if I had kept my mouth shut, always hard for me to do, I stuck out like a sore American thumb. Or, as I learned with my hair freshly blonde, a Dutch, German or Australian thumb, all nationalities that restauranteurs shouted out at me as I passed them by.

One of the things I was really keen to do in Istanbul was stroll the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn and is full of seafood restaurants. It looked so innocent… nice little stroll… the freshest of fresh fish…

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

But on the day that I visited, a rainy March afternoon, I was one of the few tourists on the bridge. And I was obviously from some exotic nation where the women speak English and their blonde locks wave in the breeze. Everyone but everyone wanted to have a chat with the American girl. I experienced this in Sultanahmet, the heart of the tourist district, as well, so had devised a new strategy. When the touts asked me if I was American and tried to get me to stop in for a çay (tea) and a chat, I replied, “¿Cómo? Soy española,” and smiled enigmatically, feigning confusion at these strange English words they were speaking. I figured I’d put that long lost Spanish major to use.

This strategy served me pretty well. My Spanish accent is convincing enough, and as anyone who’s visited Spain before knows, there are plenty of true españolas rubias. Though there are Turks in the tourism industry who speak Spanish, they are far outnumbered by those who speak English.  But, in a lovely turn of events, my language skills got put to the test. After dodging every man on the bridge and starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, a lovely young Turkish gentleman stepped up to me and handed me his card with a rare non-aggressive smile. “Listen, I know all those people are trying to get you to come spend your money. My family, we have a very good restaurant here. I will give you my card. If you come back another day, if you are hungry, you stop by. If you would like to come in now to get out of the cold, I will give you some çay. But no pressure. You are my guest.”

If it was just his routine, it worked. I happily settled into a table with my sweet (and free) cup of tea. When I confided to my new restauranteur friend how I had been pretending to be Spanish, I was treated to, “Estoy aprendido español. ¿Quizás practiquemos?” I prattled away happily in my rusty Spanish for nearly an hour to my new friend.

At this stage, you have probably assumed that the man I’m photographed with at the top of this post is my dear new Spanish-learning friend. Alas, no. This guy, like all the other touts on the bridge, was busy watching me inside his competitor’s restaurant while I sipped my tea. He just wanted a photo with the American girl who spoke Spanish. Normally, I would have looked away and picked up my pace. Warmed, though, by a cup of çay and some human kindness, I obliged.

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

If You Thought Football Was Rough in England…


Absolutely brilliant article in last week’s New Yorker about the Turkish obsession with soccer, aka “football” if you’re anything but American. Sadly, you can’t get the full text on their site, but this blog post gives a few great excerpts, and if you’re at all interested in soccer and/or Turkey, I think it’s worth it to get your hands on a back issue.

To give you a little sneak peek: one of the leaders of the supporter club is shot in the opening section of the article, which is nothing out of the ordinary. Stabbings and gunshot wounds are all part of the pre-game for die-hard Turkish soccer fans.

I rode by the stadium of the team the article features, Besiktas, nearly every day on the bus from Uskudar to Taksim. Little did I know what I was missing…

Istanbul 2010: Markets

Acibadem Market, March 4, 2010

I love markets, both in New York and abroad. I once told a male friend, a European, how much I love strolling through local markets in whatever city I visit, and he couldn’t even begin to comprehend why. He actually though it was completely laughable. He’d never heard or thought of such a thing. I’m not sure if my penchant for markets is feminine, American, or both, but I find it an entirely creative experience. Farmers markets are among my favorite, whether the food is familiar and fresh or exotic and esoteric. I like to look, smell, grab what’s best, and scheme to cleverly craft something delicious—a whole that’s even greater than so many lovely parts.

Acibadem Market, March 4, 2010

Beyond food, the color, the people, the sights, and the sounds of a market are enough to inspire any artist. There are infinite songs, books, poems, and paintings waiting to be discovered among the stalls and wares. Istanbul’s bazaars on the European side are plenty famous, and have inflated prices and tourist hordes to prove it. These photos are more my speed, off the beaten path, taken in local markets I wandered through, with great joy, on the Asian side.

Kadiköy Markets, March 12, 2010


Kadiköy Markets, March 12, 2010


Istanbul 2010: En Route to Kiz Kulesi

March 4, 2010


I shot this on the coast of Istanbul’s Üsküdar neighborhood, on the Asian side, waiting to board a ferry boat for Kiz Kulesi, the Maiden’s Tower. We had just missed a boat, so had a good half-hour to sit in the fog and soak in the scene. Our destination, Kiz Kulesi, is draped in a variety of highly romantic legends of the Medieval variety. In one tale, a la Rapunzel with shades of Sleeping Beauty, the Sultan hid his daughter in the tower to protect her from a curse, only to watch her die in his arms after a snake snuck in with a basket of fruit, striking her with its fatal poison. Another more popular legend holds that a young woman lived in the tower, lighting its lamp to guide her lover Leander as he swam across the strait each night to see her. When, one night, her light went out, he perished en route.

All of these so-called romantic legends seemed a million miles removed as we sat on rocks in the cold, watching fisherman cast their rods and a lonely tourist shopkeeper gaze across the Strait. I remember and cherish this moment far more than the tour of the tower itself. Istanbul’s people, living their lives and gazing at their city in the light of today, hold far more allure for me than the epic tales of old.

Istanbul 2010: A Taste of Park Slope

A year ago today, I arrived in Istanbul, stop one on a 12-week journey around Europe that was a point of embarkation on so many levels. I’ll post photos and recollections over the next few weeks associated with places I visited on my trip.

March 3, 2010. Kadiköy-Moda Tram.

March 3, 2010, marked my Day One—a new country, a new culture, and new adventure. Being greeted by friends took the sting off a 10-hour airplane trip, and hitting the ground running with my preloaded transit akbil proved a valiant fight against jetlag. My friends took me first to Moda, a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul which Time Out compared to Park Slope, the Brooklyn ‘hood in which I had been living until 15 hours prior. It’s a small world.

Everything was different and new and all the same at the same time. On Istanbul’s Asian side, you quickly realize that this city, billed as cosmopolitan, is a very Muslim city. Everything’s in Turkish. Alcohol is widely eschewed in favor of çay. Head scarves abound. I slowly absorbed the differences in culture.

But, yet… there’s the posh olive oil store dedicated to variety upon variety of the foodie favorite. A pastry shop that had been running for more than 50 years, complete with the owners’ proud photos of his grandfather with Atatürk to prove it.

Day One. Absorbing, wondering, celebrating, and winding down with a cup of tea, a good friend, and a sunset in Moda Park overlooking the Sea of Marmara. A good start.

March 3, 2010. Sunset from Moda Park.



Use Your Words

Istanbul Skyline

I’ve called myself a writer since I was five years old. I have a vivid memory of writing a series of illustrated story books about the Rainbow princess and her tribe of valiant warriors, each of whom bore a costume in a color of said rainbow. Apparently, even as a child, I understood the power of franchising opportunities.

So, from a young age, I’ve been good with words. Able to express myself. Well-versed in getting my point across, in print, on the phone or in person. I’m a smart girl, if I do say so myself, and I can talk to just about anyone.

But that’s all in English.

When I studied in Spain in 2000, I first grasped the frustration of not being capable of saying what I was thinking. I spoke Spanish reasonably well, but in a 400-level literature course analyzing the poetry of Ruben Dario, I quickly realized how maddening the limits of my vocabulary were. (I still don’t know how to say “existential crisis” or “I believe the imagery in the third stanza symbolizes the enduring struggle between the Id and the Ego” in Spanish.) Incredibly frustrated, I finally announced to my professor one day, “I am not stupid. I sound stupid in Spanish, but I am not a stupid person!” To my credit, I’m pretty sure I managed to say it in Spanish. But expressing myself on that high of level, day in and day out, in a foreign language was absolutely exhausting.

But that was just Spanish. And I was wearing clothes.

I spent two weeks in Istanbul last year to kick off my trip to Europe, spending time with American friends who live there. I wasn’t planning on learning a lot of Turkish for my 12-day stint, other than the requisite “Merhaba” (hello) and “Tesekuleh” (which I know is spelled wrong, but hey, I’m pretty proud that I remembered how to say thank you in Turkish a year later).

My lack of language skills proved to be a bit more of a challenge than the average tourist faces, as I was staying on the Asian side, far away from the English-speaking tourism touts. I brought home nearly a pound of baklava from the corner bakery because I couldn’t manage to explain that I really just wanted one piece. The Turks’ famous hospitality and friendliness neatly accommodated my complete inability to communicate in most instances, but I felt consistently helpless and utterly reliant on the help of others. It’s a rather instructive place to be once in a while. I was loving every minute.

Until I went to the Turkish bath. A language barrier is all well and good when you’re trying to navigate the bus system, but try being naked. My friends, in an effort to make my experience authentic, save me from getting ripped off, and help me avoid the coed baths frequented by European travelers, sent me to a bath at a mosque on the Asian side. I went clutching a hand-drawn map with key vocabulary words: “massage,” “soap,” “men,” and “women.” And thank God for those last two, because the full impact of stumbling into the wrong door became evident to me when I walked out of the rain, through a beaded curtain, and straight into a room with a whole lot of large topless Turkish women just sweating it out.

Between my crib sheet and the fact that money tends to communicate pretty well all on its own, I managed to pay and be shown to my changing room without incident. The trouble came when I was down in the baths themselves. There’s a whole system to the thing: get yourself wet with water, but not too much, and not too hot, and don’t use soap,well, not yet, then go the sauna, but for how long?

When the people on both ends of a conversation are mostly naked, some of the normal coping mechanisms we use when communicating with someone in a foreign language are rather less effective. Subtleties of body language are overcome by–well, by bodies. One must be delicate when gesturing when one is talking to someone unclothed. Add to all that the general frustration of not being understood. It’s like I had a dream that I was back in that Spanish classroom, trying to wax intelligent about Dario poetry but I’d forgotten to get dressed. But I was awake. And still naked.

The bath lady was twice as frustrated as I, which didn’t help. There was a lot of yelling in Turkish. She threw some water at me, in what I sincerely believe was an intention to be helpful. Finally, a young woman about my age who spoke a little English gave me some pointers. During my massage (which was awkward all on its own; marble slab + soapy lather = slippery), my bather used some of her very few syllables of English to get me to roll over: “Laa-dey, move.” She said “lady” as if it had three syllables and followed up her command with some pretty brutal scrubbing.

Not the most relaxing experience of my life, but I left with the softest skin I’ve ever had, a new perspective on cross-cultural communication, and extreme gratitude for clothing as I conversed with Turks for the rest of the week.

I’d like to say that I stuck around, befriended my masseuse by the sheer power of authentic eye contact and learned Turkish vocabulary and scrubbing techniques from her over a nice cup of tea, laughing over our previous gaffes and learning to communicate in a language that transcended words.

I didn’t. I went to the mall. Yep, there are malls in Istanbul. (And before you judge, I will maintain that there was intense cultural learning in this experience, too. Have you gone clothes shopping in a Muslim country? All very modest. Great for tall girls, actually.) And then I drank a latte at a German cafe in the Turkish mall. (Starbucks was full.)

But as I drank that latte, I sat down and wrote about it all. Because sometimes you just have to use whatever words you’ve got. They’re never enough, words, but when used well, they inspire us to dig deeper and express the shadows of that which can’t be said. My words couldn’t make me understood at the baths, but using them helped me understand myself and my reaction to my surroundings a little bit better. And I think it’s that process of reflection that makes all the difference. Even if we’re too exhausted or not equipped with the resources to make all the dots connect, at least we’re giving it an honest try.

Even if I do sound like a stupid person in Turkish.


Where I’ve Been

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