Decking the Halls

IMG_20171203_185409_192.jpg

I am FINALLY feeling better after two weeks of being completely miserable with a nasty virus.  Once I started feeling human, my Christmas spirit kicked in almost immediately and I had to start celebrating.

20171203_112427.jpg

I made plans with friends to check out a Christmas Festival in Istanbul, even though the weather was about as un-Christmas-y (that’s a word, no?) as it gets.  It may as well have been spring.

20171203_143553.jpg

This was actually made out of gingerbread.

It was so cool to see people from all over the world coming together to celebrate Christmas in a place where the Christmas spirit just isn’t most of the time.  There were little stands run by people from Spain, France, Syria, Thailand…you name it.  There were Christmas cookies, handmade decorations, mulled wine, and all kinds of delicious food.

20171203_175414.jpg

I came home with quite a few treasures, including some homemade cranberry liquor and some great hot sauce, but by far my favorite purchase of the day was this set of hand-painted ornaments.  They are painted with a traditional Turkish tulip pattern and I am hoping to keep them forever so I can always have a little piece of Turkey with me at Christmas, no matter where I may be.

20171203_185052

Of course, my day would not have been complete without turning up the Bing Crosby and decorating the lojman.

20171203_184941.jpg

Wishing a happy holiday season to all.

À Bruxelles

IMG_1880.JPG

Our time in Brussels was short, but sweet.  I was immediately struck by the Christmas decorations, which were much more elaborate than any of the other cities we visited in Belgium.  Lights everywhere!  My favorite part was watching all of the shop owners stepping outside to decorate their windows.

IMG_1879.JPG

Since I was still feeling terrible and our time was limited, I had only one thing on my list: The Magritte Museum.

20171124_155659.jpg

I got really into Magritte’s art and the Surrealist movement in general when I was in college taking a French Lit course.  I love the playful juxtapositions and philosophical suggestions in his work.

20171124_160303.jpg

The exhibition was well worth the 2 Euro fee and I was surprised at how reasonably priced the gift shop was.  I left that museum with a noticeable spring in my step, in spite of my cold.

20171124_152936.jpg

We ended our last night in Brussels (and the last night of our trip) by strolling the streets looking at all the Christmas lights and hopping in and out of cafes, where my husband continued to sample Belgium beer and I tried to soothe my sore throat with hot tea.  I’m afraid I didn’t do Brussels much justice, but that just gives me a reason to go back.  Perhaps next time I’ll even bump into Stromae.

Ghent: Day to Night

20171123_143715.jpg

After leaving Bruges, I wasn’t sure if any other destination in Belgium could compare, but I was totally wrong.  Ghent turned out to be just as charming, if not more so in the sense that it was not nearly as touristy as Bruges.

20171123_164502.jpg

Ghent is a seriously overlooked city, full of life and personality.  Our adventure begin when we checked in to a cool little Airbnb in the red light district (yes, the red light district), smack dab in the middle of all the action.

20171123_161008.jpg

Ghent is by no means a bustling metropolis, but it had an energy to it that Bruges did not.  In fact, Ghent reminded me a lot of Moda, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul.  Every twist down an alley revealed a slew of delightfully hipster shops, quirky cafes, and plenty of pubs.

20171122_163722.jpg

20171123_152505.jpg

My Thanksgiving dinner

IMG_1863.JPGGhent is also the self-proclaimed vegetarian capital of the world (again…self-proclaimed), so it was nice to have some tasty and healthy options around.  One cafe in particular – BARISTA- has forever captured my heart with it’s unbelievable homemade soups and awesome orange chai lattes.  It also didn’t hurt that they offered me a free sandwich one evening right before closing that turned out to be one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

IMG_1828.JPG

We decided to focus on city walks during our time there since I was too sick and exhausted to manage much of anything else.  The coolest walk by far was the Illuminated Walk, suggested by the Ghent tourism board.  This walk is meant to be done at night and to showcase Ghent’s unique cityscape all lit up.

IMG_1826.JPG

IMG_1865.JPG

Ghent was such a stunning place, both by day and night.  If you find yourself passing through Belgium, don’t miss out!

IMG_1869.JPG

 

Bruges: A Magical Gingerbread Village

IMG_1784.JPG

After a seemingly interminable term, the fall break finally came and we took off to Belgium to catch some fall foliage and binge on waffles and chocolate.  I had seen many a magical photo of Bruges before arriving, but the photos really don’t do it justice.

20171121_121624.jpg

As if the charming alleyways, canals, and bright red trees weren’t enough, the whole town was also preparing for the holiday season with lights and Christmas displays.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by holiday spirit!

20171120_144155.jpg

20171120_144655.jpg

Bruges is a fairly small town, but it’s bigger than it looks and there is certainly no shortage of things to do!  We signed up for a free walking tour through Legends of Bruges and were not disappointed.  It’s one thing to wander through a city, but it is so much more meaningful when you can learn about its history and culture.  We had also considered doing the foodie tour because it sounded awesome, but unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold while we were there and simply didn’t have the energy to do more than one tour.

20171121_123428 (2).jpgOf course, it wouldn’t be a proper trip without sampling some of the local cuisine.  We tasted chocolate in every city we visited in Belgium, but this particular shop was our favorite.

IMG_1786.JPG

We also did a little pub hopping to taste some of the many excellent beers Belgium has to offer.  My personal favorite was the cherry-flavored beer that they only serve around Christmas.

20171120_162217.jpg

Another highlight of Bruges was the Frietmuseum, a museum dedicated to the history of fries (but don’t call them French fries while you’re there!).  It was such a fun and interesting museum.

IMG_1736.JPG

I had hoped to accomplish a bit more in Bruges, including climbing the Belfry (Belfort) to get a better view of the city, but my illness really slowed me down.  Still, I managed to squeeze in one last canal tour before we left.

20171121_163936.jpg

IMG_1761.JPG

In spite of feeling terrible for most of our time there, I really enjoyed Bruges – and I couldn’t imagine being there any other time of year.  The colorful leaves and Christmas lights definitely set the tone for the rest of our trip and made me feel excited for Christmas in a way that I haven’t since becoming an expat.

IMG_1763.JPG

 

 

A Weekend Long Overdue

IMG_1593.JPG

Fresh juice all day, every day.

Wow, I have really neglected this space lately…not to mention myself.  My life has mainly revolved around work for the last month and a half, which has not been the most exciting.  My husband and I finally mustered up the time and energy to journey over to Istanbul for the weekend for some much-needed interaction with civilization. IMG_1599.JPG We didn’t want to make any specific plans, so we just went with the flow the whole weekend long.  After hitting up one of our favorite cafes, we found ourselves wandering over to the iskele to take the ferry over to the European side of the city.  After all this time, crossing the Bosphorus still feels like such a magical experience each time.

IMG_1619.JPG

IMG_1629.JPG

Even though it didn’t feel like it at all due to the heat, the city was showing a few signs of fall.  After eating and wandering the streets, we ended up in Sultanahmet and decided to check out some of the museums we hadn’t yet seen.

IMG_1622.JPG

We stumbled into the Mosaic Museum, and for such a small museum, it was really impressive.  Even though the mosaics were from the Byzantine period, you could really see the fusion of east and west that has always been at the heart of Istanbul reflected in the imagery.  I can’t believe we’d never stopped there before…well worth the visit!!

We tried to visit the carpet museum as well, but we didn’t make it in time, so I guess that’s another plan for another day.

IMG_1653.JPG

Pancake breakfast!!

I’m hoping this is the start of a few more adventures and a little less self-neglect.

An Appointment in…Tirana

20171007_104641[1].jpg

Both my husband and I have been a bit hermit-like lately, preferring to spend our weekends playing video games in our pajamas over adventures in the city.  This is probably a symptom of our travel-heavy summer and the usual adjustment that comes with a new school year.  Still, we both caught a case of the travel bug this week after a particularly tiring series of after-school events and duties, so we scoured the internet for travel deals and settled on Albania.

IMG_1147.JPG

We knew next to nothing about Albania before we landed in Tirana, which, in this case, only enhanced my experience.  I was instantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, the beauty of the city, and the unique blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist influence.

IMG_1157.JPG

We got up first thing in the morning, ready to hit the ground running since we only had two days to experience the city.  Our first stop was Skanderbeg Square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.  The lack of crowds and grey skies made it seem all the more imposing.

IMG_1172.JPG

It was a bit chillier in Tirana than we had expected, so we found ourselves making frequent stops for cappuccino, which much to our elation was some of the best we’d ever had.  The cafe culture there alone is worth the visit.

IMG_1182.JPG

IMG_1181.JPG

In addition to great coffee and cool architecture, Tirana is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.  It seems like you can’t turn the corner without seeing some kind of sculpture, art gallery, or street art.  This piece I am standing on – the cloud – was a personal favorite.

IMG_1188.JPG

The vibrant and youthful atmosphere of the city is likely a reaction to Albania’s dark past.   In the 20th century alone, the country went from being a police state at the turn of the century, to a fascist state under the Nazis, to a communist state after WWII.  During the 40-year reign of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country suffered from widespread oppression and isolationism.  The monument above, known as the Pyramid of Tirana, was commissioned by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a monument to his legacy.  Ironically, it still serves that purpose, though his legacy is not one that is remembered fondly.

IMG_1198.JPG

View of Tirana from a bunker

Another of the city’s bizarre communist remnants are the preserved bunkers, built by Hoxha to protect the country from potential invasions – which never came to pass.  One of the bunkers has been converted into an art and history museum known as Bunk’Art, which takes visitors through the murky tunnels (both literally and figuratively) of Albania’s communist history.  Among some of the exhibits are the names of people killed in concentration camps, methods of torture used against citizens who opposed the government, and examples of how families were bugged by the police state.  The thing that blows my mind the most is that Albania was only freed from this oppression in 1990, the year before I was born.

IMG_1199.JPG

It is perhaps because of its dark past and decades of isolation that Albania is so seldom visited, though tourism is gradually increasing.  At the moment, it is a bit of a hidden gem, but I suspect in the next ten years, it will become a hot spot in Europe, much like Croatia.  I’m grateful to have seen it when I did.

IMG_1203.JPG

20171008_121213.jpg

I was totally blown away by Tirana and Albania in general.  The breathtaking view of the mountains below while I was flying away made leaving even more difficult than it already was.  It is another of many places that I know I must revisit.  I only had time for Tirana on this trip, but next time, I’d love to visit places like Berat or the Albanian Riviera to take in more of the country’s natural beauty.

20171007_123523[1].jpg

**As a side note, the title of this post comes from a song that has been stuck in my head all week.  Coincidentally, the song was recommended to me by a student after assigning the class to read the folk tale to which the song alludes…so there is a bit of a double allusion going on here.  Anyway, I feel like the song perfectly matches the atmosphere of Tirana…haunting and beautiful.**