Istanbul Tulip Festival

IMG_3465.jpgSpring has arrived.

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Every year in April,  colorful displays of tulips can be found all over the city of Istanbul.  More than a hundred varieties of tulips can be seen in almost any of the public parks.  After three years, we finally decided to see what all the fuss was about and we weren’t disappointed.  It made for a perfect afternoon and we couldn’t have asked for better weather.

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This is just further proof that spring is Turkey’s most beautiful season.

The Divided Capital of Nicosia

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On our second day in Cyprus, we decided to take a day trip to the capital, Nicosia, which is the capital of both the North and the South (although you have to go through a border crossing with your passport if you want to go between sides).

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We chose to stay on the North side and do the blue line walking tour, which is quite possibly the most interesting walking tour concept I have encountered in my travels so far. Basically, there is a blue line painted alongside the road throughout the whole city and following it will take you to all of the main sites and then back to the main gate.  I felt a bit like Dorothy following the yellow brick road.

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The path took us through historic neighborhoods, beautiful houses, church-turned-mosques (I’m such a sucker for architectural fusion), pazars, incredible street art, amazing hipster cafes, artisan shops, and ridiculously beautiful floral displays.  I could say more, but I think the photos speak for themselves.

Soaking Up the Sun in Girne (Kyrenia)

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It has been one hell of a winter, in every sense of the word.  We have had a lot of ups and downs these past few months, not all of which I am ready to share in this space.

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Spring Break was approaching, yet nothing felt like spring.  We were desperate for an escape, but even traveling can be stressful at times.  We were really at a loss this time around.

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At the last minute (literally the morning of the start to our break), we decided to fly to Northern Cyprus, an island country (that is generally not even recognized as a country) just south of Turkey.  We had heard good things about it from friends and the weather forecast showed nothing but sunshine, which was exactly what we needed.  We based ourselves out of the coastal town of Girne, also known as Kyrenia.

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North Cyprus is only a partially recognized state that is loosely affiliated with Turkey, and as such, I expected it to feel very familiar.  While Turkish is the predominant language of the region and there are similarities in the food, I was surprised by how much North Cyprus is not like Turkey.

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Really North Cyprus is like a younger, more relaxed, and more liberal version of Turkey.  English is much more widely spoken, the cities are much more international and diverse, casinos (which are illegal in Turkey) are pretty much everywhere, and alcohol is very cheap.  As I said, there are similarities, but North Cyprus is definitely its own thing.

IMG_3424.jpgWe didn’t make too many plans for our trip.  Instead, we opted to go with the flow and see what we felt like doing each day.  Our favorite thing to do in Girne was simply walk along the picturesque marina in the sunshine and then stop for a drink or two at one of the many seaside cafes.  We also indulged in a lot of good (yet reasonably priced) seafood; I was especially pleased by the abundance of delicious grilled jumbo shrimp.

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We also made it out to Bellapais, a small village up the mountain from Girne and home to Bellapais Abbey.  Unfortunately, the abbey was closed when we arrived, but we still managed to get a good look from outside of it.

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Since we booked everything so last minute, we didn’t bother to look into car rentals, although I wish we would have.  There are some amazing views along the coasts and through the mountains.  Just be aware that they drive on the left side of the road like in the U.K.

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Girne was a great starting point for our North Cyprus adventure, and if you ask me, April and May are the best times to visit.  The weather is beautiful (~80 degrees with cloudless skies), but the crowds are still relatively small, so you can have this little slice of paradise mostly to yourself.

An Ode to My First Passport

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A grainy photo of my old passport the day before I moved to Turkey.

Retiring my first passport was like saying goodbye to an old friend. I still remember getting my photo taken at Walgreens, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the prospect of finally seeing the world outside of small-town America.  I always found a certain comfort in turning to the first page and seeing my teenage self smiling back at me, full of dreams of faraway places.

My new passport is empty, and thanks to Turkish passport rules, the photographer refused to allow me to smile in my passport photo (in spite of the fact that said rule does not apply to American passports), so I look a bit more like a displeased psychopath than I do an eager world traveler.  Still, there is a certain thrill in all of the blank pages of possibility that will inevitably fill up with adventure (hopefully sooner rather than later – I am feeling the itch).

At the very least, I still have my old passport as a souvenir.  As I flip through its pages, I like to think that my 16-year-old self would be pleased to know that that passport would carry me to 27 countries, using every last page before it expired.  26-year-old me certainly is.

Fener-Balat

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Tucked away in the Golden Horn of Istanbul is an often-overlooked piece of history, just far enough away from the main attractions of Sultanahmet to go unnoticed.  The old districts of Fener and Balat – the old Greek and Jewish quarters respectively – have somehow managed to preserve their minority histories throughout many tumultuous centuries.

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As you walk along the coast from Eminönü, past the fishermen and heavy traffic, a different sort of skyline will come into view.  Along the sea, the imposing figure of St. Stephens, a newly renovated Bulgarian church made almost entirely of iron, shimmers in the sunlight.

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Across the bustling streets, Rum Lisesi – a Greek Orthodox church-turned-school overlooks the tangled network of alleys.  The old bohemian streets beckon you in a little farther with their numerous charming cafes and quirky shops.  Before you know it, you are standing above it all, glancing down at rows of colorful houses, dotted with clotheslines.

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It is a version of Istanbul unlike any I had ever seen before.  I don’t know why it took me so long to see it, but I know that I must go back.

A Mild Addiction

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I remember in the months leading up to beginning my journey as an expat, I naively believed that I would become an instant minimalist, forever moving through life with no more than a couple of suitcases. As it turns out, I can fill up an apartment remarkably quickly. For the most part, we have tried to avoid accumulating more than what is necessary to live comfortably. That being said, we all have an Achilles heel and ours seems to involve coffee mugs.

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It all started with this mug, a cool and thoughtful Christmas gift from my husband. Before that, we had been using drab, secondhand mugs left behind from previous teachers.

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Just a few weeks later, I acquired this amazing, nerdtastic beauty as a New Year’s gift from a student. When I asked him how he knew I was a Game of Thrones fan, he simply responded “I didn’t.” To this day, I wonder what it was about FIRE and BLOOD that made him think of me. In any case, I love this mug.

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Generally speaking, I’m not much of a Starbucks fan, but it is so ubiquitous that a frequent traveler can hardly avoid the place. I actually fell in love with the Istanbul “You Are Here” mug on an outing with friends and bought it for Dakota. When I went to NYC last summer, I couldn’t help myself.

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We bought these lovely Gaudi-inspired pieces on our trip to Barcelona and I just love them. Perfect for cortados.

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These were a cheap and frivolous purchase from our summer trip to Alaçatı. I love the colors and textures.

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Our most recent addition to the collection is this set of mini mugs that we purchased in Jordan. They are slightly larger than espresso cups and have very interesting designs.

Sometimes I look at our cupboards and lament the fact that we have so many damn cups we don’t need. Other times, I stare at them all one by one as I am reminded that each one of them carries a story with it. I can’t imagine parting with any of them and yet I can’t imagine packing them all in a suitcase. That is what is so hard.

The thing about being an expat is that you never really know when you will move on until you do. We have gotten so comfortable in this stage of life, but something in the air has been telling me that it’s time to start thinking about the future. I guess this is my way of recording this time and these memories while I am still in this moment. For now, I can enjoy my collection just a little longer.

Floating in the Dead Sea

IMG_3202.jpgAfter a phenomenal adventure full of hiking and camping through Wadi Rum and Petra, we were ready for a little R&R.  The final stop on our Jordanian journey – the Dead Sea- was perfect for just that.

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After a scenic drive along the King’s Way and through Wadi Araba, we were greeted with a hazy coast full of jade green water.  It was at least 10 degrees warmer in Northern Jordan than it had been in the desert, so we were happy to have a little sunshine in our lives.

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We had gotten pretty gross after all of the hiking and desert wandering and the campsites had offered pretty limited shower facilities, so we were ready for a slightly more pampering experience.  We got a pretty sweet deal at a spa resort (~$60/night – including buffet breakfast and a private beach), which seemed like the perfect way to end our holiday.

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Being able to float in the super salty water was an insanely cool sensation.  It was very difficult for me to abide by the one-hour-at-a-time rule because it was so relaxing.

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The next few days were spent swimming, floating, sunbathing, and enjoying some drinks in the sunshine.  It was the perfect end to a fantastic vacation.

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Some local brew

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An incredible sunset