Offbeat Ottoman Charm: Beylerbeyi and Kuzguncuk

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We just finished our THIRD weekend in a row of having to be on campus to work and holy crap am I burnt out.  Every now and then, I don’t mind the excuse to catch up on some housework and play video games, but I definitely didn’t move halfway across the world to play video games in my lojman.  While we were a little tired after our duty session at the Open House day, we decided to push through the fatigue and make the trek out to Istanbul for a little contact with civilization.  It took a taxi, two metros, a bus, and a good deal of walking to get there, but we managed to make it before dark and it was well worth the trip. When we go to Istanbul, we tend to spend most of our time in Kadıköy out of convenience, but we were craving a change of scenery.  We decided to check out some of the highlights in the neighboring district of Üsküdar.

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We got up early Sunday morning for some good spinach and potato börek  before heading to  Beylerbeyi Palace, used by sultans as a summer home during the Ottoman era.  It was an unbelievably gorgeous day – sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and warm enough to get by with just a light jacket.  We wandered through the gardens and stopped for a coffee in the cafe while waiting for the English tour to start.  Once it did, we were two of only four people on the tour!  We more or less had the place to ourselves.

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Unfortunately, since photos aren’t allowed (and the tour guide was watching us like a hawk the whole time), I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the interior…but it is beautiful in a very eclectic way.  Much like Hagia Sophia, it is representative of Turkey’s confusing cultural identity: vibrant colors mix with Rococo architecture, Arabic script contrasts with French floral  vases, and ornately carved wooden panels lay behind fairly derivative Euro-style paintings.  It was hodgepodge in the best way.

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After finishing our tour, we walked along the water to Kuzguncuk, a beautiful, peaceful little neighborhood that was once home to many Greeks, Armenians, and Jews in Istanbul. The houses there are unlike most that I’ve seen in Istanbul, with their brightly painted exteriors and Ottoman designs.  We had fun just wandering through the streets admiring the architecture.  Kuzguncuk is also known for its great selection of cafes and restaurants – especially breakfast joints.  Since we had already eaten breakfast, we opted for a light lunch at a vegetarian restaurant and it did not disappoint.

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Since it was such an incredibly beautiful day, many artisans were out in the streets selling their wares.  I picked up this little beauty, made of fake leather and quite unique compared to most of the street jewelry I’ve seen.  The center features an image of the Maiden’s Tower.

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I wish we could have stayed longer, but honestly, I’m just glad we got out!  It’s amazing how much there is to see in Istanbul…we could probably live there a lifetime and not see it all.  I love living near such a beautiful, sprawling city.

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“Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day.”

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View from my living room window, from which I will be sulking all weekend.

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

It was a promising Friday; not a cloud in the sky after a grey and frigid week.  I had reservations at a rather nice spa hotel, poised to spend a relaxing weekend away with my Valentine.  I should have known this scene was just the calm before the storm, much like the  deceptive vision of Inverness poor Duncan never could see through.

Can you tell I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Shakespeare?

We loaded up our bags and headed to the train station, asked for two tickets to Eskişehir, and…

Bugün yok.” (There aren’t any today.)

There was a tiny sliver of me that wanted to scream and shout until they gave me my way (which the guy behind me did for about thirty minutes after being told the same thing), but to be honest, I’ve just been here too long.  I know that this is how Turkey works.  Sometimes the menu lists 30 items when the restaurant only serves 3 of them; sometimes the website says the seats are there and the train station tells you the opposite.  Consistency is not a strong cultural value here and I’ve learned to accept that.

Without saying much, my husband and I calmly walked across the street to drown out our sorrows in lahmacun.  The circumstances may have sucked, but I couldn’t have asked for better company.  We embraced an attitude of self-schadenfreude and let the day be what it was.

Alas, “what’s done cannot be undone.”

***For a more upbeat ending to this tragedy, check out Sir Ian McKellen as Macbeth here.  My students are always so surprised to see Gandalf in such a different light.***  

A Trusty Travel Companion

dsc_0176I’ll never forget my first trip abroad.  I had just turned 18, and although I had wanted to get out and see the world my entire life, I really had no clue what to expect.  I packed a huge suitcase full of ridiculous outfits that were hardly suitable for any of our plans and two travel journals (in which to chronicle my adventures in broken French and Spanish).  To be honest, I didn’t love that trip.  I was culture shocked by the overly forward French men, didn’t love the people in my group, and realized very quickly that carefully structured group tours  were not my jam.  Still, I learned a lot of unexpected lessons on that trip and my thirst for travel remained intact.

Fast forward to now, and I am still learning and growing with each trip we take.  One thing that has definitely improved is my packing skills.  I still would not consider myself an expert, but I’ve gotten better and better at knowing what to take along and what to leave behind.  This year especially, I’ve stumbled onto one handy little item that has been a life saver on multiple trips now:  the blanket scarf.

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These babies go for 10 lira (roughly $2.50) on the streets of Istanbul and are worth every penny (kuruş?).  I initially bought one because I was freezing one afternoon in Kadıköy and they looked really warm (which they are).  However, I’ve discovered that these bargain accessories are so much more than what meets the eye.

First of all, they’re great for plane rides.  We’ve been on many red eye flights, most of which have not provided blankets…and even when they do, they usually pale in comparison to my blanket scarves.  They are generally pretty water-resistant, so they have been great as makeshift towels or covers to protect things from getting wet in the rain.  I even used one to protect my 3rd degree sunburn from the heat in the Maldives.  Rain, shine,  or snow, these cheap rectangles of fabric have become my best friends.

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What strange things do you swear by on your travels?  I’d love to hear.

The First Year: A Survival Guide

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It always helps if you stay caffeinated.  Also, don’t be surprised if they can’t figure out your name at Starbuck’s.

The first year of teaching is never easy.  Being a first time expat is also never easy.  Put them both together and you have a recipe for panic.

When I look back on my first year, both as a teacher and as an American living in Turkey, I am inclined to both shudder and laugh maniacally at how chaotic it really was.  I don’t even have the words to describe it properly.  Let’s just say the highs were high and the lows were low.

I know that no two people truly have the same journeys, but in the event that this advice reaches someone in the thick of it, wondering if they’ve just made the worst mistake of their life, it will have been worth the time spent writing it if it helps.

Expect to feel lost and overwhelmed

Sometimes just hearing someone else say they were lost and overwhelmed in the beginning is enough to make you feel better because you realize that you are not crazy and that you are not alone.  Everything will seem a little batshit in the beginning because it’s all new.  Often, schools abroad are less structured than what you might be used to in the U.S. or similar countries.  You may have no curriculum.  Things might change every ten seconds and then change again.  Rules and policies may not seem logical to you.  Accept that this is normal and that you are going to have to learn to deal with it.  Some of the changes will forever drive you nuts and some you may come to embrace.  That’s part of the frustration and beauty of choosing to step out of the comfortable bubble of your own culture.

Let go of the non-essential

The first year is always a trial by fire.  Give up anything that feels like too much or adds nothing to your life, even if it’s only temporary.  I remember feeling a tremendous amount of pressure because I wasn’t doing enough.  I wasn’t planning fast enough, or grading fast enough, or reading enough, or keeping in touch with people back home enough, or learning Turkish fast enough…so many things were piling up.  Just stop.  If it’s stressing you out, it’s not worth wasting the energy on…at least not at that moment.  Let some things go and take things one day at a time until you get used to all of the changes.

Take care of yourself

On the other hand, don’t just let yourself go.  The first few months, I made the mistake of spending all my time working because I wanted everything to be perfect.  In doing so, I completely neglected myself.  I stopped cooking, I stopped exercising, I stopped pursuing hobbies…all in the name of work that never ended.  While it’s a good thing to be a dedicated teacher and to take the time to improve wherever you can, that is not the only thing that you are and it’s a good way to burn yourself out very fast.  Don’t forget that the work will never be over.  There will always be something else you could have done better. Let it go. You need and deserve to spend some time just being yourself.

Find a support system

I can’t emphasize this one enough.  If not for the friends that started the same year I did, I probably wouldn’t have survived last year.  The best case scenario is working for a school that has some kind of mentor system, or at least having a few experienced teachers at your disposal.  Unfortunately, our situation didn’t quite work out like that, but our fellow newbies ended up being our second family, and together, we made it through.  Ask for help, exchange ideas, and have fun  doing it.  It makes such a difference having friends and/or colleagues who can understand what you’re dealing with and can make the bad times seem not so bad.

Go out and explore

What’s the point of moving across the world if you’re not going to enjoy it?  Have adventures and live it up.  If you’re going to work hard, you might as well play hard too.

Get to know the culture

And this goes for both the school and the country it’s in.  Learning all of the nuances and “unspoken rules” of a new place can be tricky, but it’s essential.  Figure out what’s really expected of you.  Study the language.  Understand what is and isn’t offensive.  Make friends.  Try new things.  Engage with locals.  You’ll never feel at home if you don’t.

Remember why you’re doing it

At the end of the day, it’s really about the students because they are the reason that teachers stay teachers.  I truly love my students and I love teaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  Keep that love going, even when you are ready to pull out all of your hair and throw in the towel.  Too often the little bureaucratic details of a school can stand in the way of the stuff that really matters.

Sometimes it’s not about the place; it’s just about the day

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever received on being an expat, so I’m passing it on.  If it’s a bad day, just let it be what it is.  If you need to lay on the floor for a couple days crying and eating ice cream straight from the carton, so be it.  There will be bad days, but there will be good days also.  Remember that we all have bad days, regardless of where we live or what we do for a living.  Get yourself through the bad days however you must and rejoice in the good ones.

Know that it gets better

With time and experience, most things work themselves out eventually.  I can’t say when exactly, but after a little while, you will experience a moment that feels like breathing for the first time after an extended period of being underwater.  All of the sudden, things that used to get under your skin will go by unnoticed.  Things that were once so foreign will seem familiar.  You will feel more and more like yourself.  It takes time, but it does happen.  Just be patient.

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Emerging as a very happy second year expat teacher

 

A Village Stroll

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Both my husband and I are on duty this weekend, which means it will be a relatively quiet one full of cleaning, laundry, junk food, binge-watching, and…work.  Honestly, I don’t even mind because we’ve been on the go quite a bit recently.

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The place where we live and work is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which can be both good and bad.  I love the peace and quiet because it allows me to concentrate on my work during the week and you can’t beat a sea view (Seriously.  I can see the sea from my bedroom.  It’s unreal).  On the other hand, since we don’t have a car here, I find myself missing the convenience of walking down to the grocery store or hopping in the car to go to a drive-thru like we did back in Kansas.  It’s not a big deal, since we can call a cab and get to the nearest mall (where we do our grocery shopping) in about 15 minutes, but it can definitely be a bit of a hassle after a long day at work, which usually means eating canned tuna for the third day in a row.

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I love, love, love long walks, especially in beautiful weather…and we are lucky enough to only have half days on Friday, so I was pretty eager to get outside after school.  We weren’t really up for the whole Istanbul thing since we both had duties, but we didn’t particularly feel like staying on campus either.  Also, it was a liver for lunch kind of day, which is definitely not my thing, so I was starving.  We were tired of the mall, having just gone a couple of days before, so we decided to hit up the sprawling village of Muallimköy, a ten minute walk from the campus.  The word in the office was that they’d opened a new Çiğ Köfteci over the summer, so it was a date.

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The whole chilly weather/new school year vibe had me feeling nostalgic for my student days.  Everything just feels so new and exciting and full of potential.  I’m still waiting for some pretty red leaves, although they don’t seem to get as vibrant here in autumn as they do back in the States.  Still, the weather was seriously awesome.

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Sooooooo good!

Çiğ Köfte is seriously the best…and now only ten minutes away!  I’m so stoked.  I will definitely be a regular customer.  Afterward, we stopped by the bakkal for some Magnum ice cream bars for dessert and then stocked up on some snacks for our subsequent binge of Orange is the New Black.  A perfect Friday afternoon if you ask me.

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Galata Kulesi

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We kicked off the Bayram by crossing off another item on our Istanbul bucket list:  climbing to the top of Galata Tower.  It’s one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do, but have never bothered because it’s usually ridiculously crowded and there are too many other interesting things in Istanbul to waste that kind of time in a line.  With the holiday, most people have ditched the cities for their hometowns, so it seemed like the perfect time.

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I’m seeing every day how my efforts to learn Turkish are paying off.  When I asked for tickets in Turkish, instead of getting the usual yabanci price, I got tickets for both of us to go up to the tower, plus the simulated helicopter ride downstairs for what it would have cost for one person just to see the tower.  Harika!

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As expected, the views of the city from the top were spectacular.  We tried to time it at sunset, which we did pretty well, though the sky was a bit cloudier than I would have liked. I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.

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The helicopter simulation, while a bit kitsch, was a nice little addition to the tower tour.  Basically, it was a miniature iMax theater with 3D goggles that took you on a virtual tour of the whole city, highlighting all of the famous landmarks.  My favorite part was the mist when they feigned diving into the Basilica Cistern.  We weren’t allowed to get photos, but I would definitely say it’s worth adding to the agenda if you’re already going to the tower anyway – especially if you get the “Turkish” price.  I loved walking through all the winding tunnels down to the bottom!

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We rounded off our evening with some tasty falafel wraps (pesto + grilled eggplant + falafel = heaven…who knew?) and a stop at a juice stand before heading back to our hotel for some light reading by the window.  That makes me sound 25 going on 80, but I’m totally fine with that.  🙂

I’m looking forward to spending a couple more days in the Galata area before flying off to Italia!

Full Circle on the Turkish Riviera

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Everything felt familiar and unfamiliar all at once as I stepped off the plane into the hot summer sun.  I confidently asked the woman where I could find the bus to Konyaaliti – in Turkish.  When I had come here nine months ago, just one week after I had first landed in the country, I could barely stumble my way through a conversation with a dictionary in hand.

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We chose a hotel close to the beach for easier access.  On the way, we passed our favorite ice cream shop and the seafood place that had tried to rip us off the last time.  We dropped our backpacks off upstairs – considerably lighter than the carry-ons we had had with us before – and walked across the street to join the hoards of people at the pebble beach.  We walked farther until we could find a little space of our own.  We stretched out on the tiny rocks to soak in the sun for a few moments before testing the water.  When I felt ready, I inched forward and let the cold waves crash into my toes, and then up to my ankles.  It was exactly as I remembered, and yet, totally different.

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Antalya was my first real taste of Turkey.  Having only had been here a week before our first holiday, I didn’t have time to process anything before that.  All of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes wove into a web of sensory overload that would come to form the first imprints of my new country in my head.  Going back to that place only made me realize how much I didn’t understand then and how far I’ve come in this journey.

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Tavla, cay, and nargile

Turkey is a place that takes some time to fall in love with and even longer to understand. Even after nearly a year, I still don’t fully understand it.  It’s the kind of place that can push you to the edge of madness one second and then pull you in by the heartstrings the next.  It hasn’t always been perfect and it’s never been easy, but being here has made me stronger in ways I never could have imagined.  Turkey has made a better person out of me.

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Rafting at Köprülü Canyon

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With beautiful weather and the end of the school year on the horizon, we decided to hit the great outdoors on one of our last weekends in Turkey.  Tickets were cheap to Antalya, so we decided to head south for some sun, sea, sand, and water sports.  We settled on the rafting tour because it seemed to have good reviews and the picturesque waters surrounded by forest were simply too good to resist.

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Even though it was a long bus ride through the middle of nowhere,  I loved the convenience of being picked up from our hotel and it was a good opportunity for a much-needed nap.  The turquoise waters were a welcome sight to my drowsy eyes when we arrived at the main rafting hub.

After getting fitted with a life jacket and helmet, we were herded back onto our respective buses to an area with some rocky cliffs and several small waterfalls.  The main attraction at this stop was the 5 meter cliff jump into the freezing cold rapids.  Being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I had to go for it; my husband was perfectly happy to watch me torture myself from the bridge.  At that point, we had all been advised to leave any phones or cameras behind so they wouldn’t get damaged in the water, so I don’t have any photos of my jump…but it was epic.  And freezing.

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I did manage to get a photo that the tour guides took of us at the waterfall that we had to pay for at the end because I was a little bit of a sucker for it.  It looks like shit in this photo of it, but the actual picture is good.  I just wish I could’ve had a digital copy instead.

The next part of our trip was when things got very interesting.  We were split up into groups of roughly 8-10 people in our rafts and the one guy who could speak decent English went went a large group of German tourists (because he could also speak German), so all of the non-Turkish and non-German tourists ended up with some newbies leading the tour. Their plan was to try to guide us in English, but it turned out that my Turkish was actually better than their English (seriously….when the hell did that happen!?), so I ended up translating for a good portion of our trip down the rapids.  To be honest, I didn’t mind…I can always use extra practice!

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I was also a sucker for this photo of our team!

The trip down the rapids was WAY more energetic than I had expected.  They had us doing team chants, hopping up and down, and splash attacking other rafts!  They even would occasionally hop out and pull one of us into the freezing cold water.  Definitely not a trip for those looking for a slow, relaxing float on the water, but we had a lot of fun.  We even stopped and had a nice lunch of grilled corn, chicken şiş, bulgur, salad, and watermelon, which was a lot better than the usual pre-made sub and chips that normally comes with this type of trip.  Honestly, I could have spent all day out on the water.  Next time, I’d love to go with just my husband and I in a canoe or kayak.

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It was a day well-spent and pretty great value for the cost.  The whole trip, including all equipment, lunch, and shuttle to and from the hotel was only about $35 a person.  I highly recommend it for anyone who’s an outdoorsy type who doesn’t mind getting pulled into cold water a time or two. 😉

What the world needs now…

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It’s been difficult to post lately.  Life has been a little heavy.  Between end-of-the-year stress and goodbyes and the recent tragedy in Orlando, I’ve felt uninspired and out of sorts.  I’m working on doing some self-reflection, meditation, and a dash of creative therapy so I can find a way to infuse the world with some much-needed light and positivity.

One thing that really lifted my spirits recently was a Turkish cooking lesson with some dear friends here at the school.  It was one of those perfect rainy days to be inside with food on the stove and some good company.

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First, we learned how to make mercimek çorbası, a simple and delicious lentil and vegetable soup that tastes extra awesome with some red pepper and fresh parsley.  Honestly, this could have been a meal in itself for me.

Next, we made a sort of eggplant moussaka dish that our host could not really find the name for, but it was amazing, so we just rolled with it.  It mainly consisted of fried eggplant and tomato and also included some onion, garlic, ground beef, and spices.

There were mucver, cheese, dill, and zucchini patties.

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Kısır, a tasty bulgur side dish loaded with spices, tomato sauce, and lots of fresh herbs.

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And my favorite of the night – sarma.  These were just as fun to make as they were to eat. There was something so relaxing about filling and rolling the vine leaves over a nice, long chat.  I think sarma therapy needs to be a thing.  Also, the end result is fantastic.

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The meal was extra epic because it’s currently Ramazan – the Muslim holy month where most people fast from sun up to sun down- so everyone is ready to eat when iftar (the breaking of the fast) rolls around.  We enjoyed some special Ramazan pidesi with our meal and followed it up with some kadayif (a syrupy dessert) and tea while we watched the Iceland vs. Portugal football match and debated whether or not Ronaldo is actually a robot (I mean…the man’s face doesn’t move).

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The epic iftar table

There have been moments lately where the world feels like a doomed and confusing place and it can be difficult to remember all of the things I have to be grateful for, most notably all of the amazing people in my life.  In just a couple of weeks, I will be celebrating my second wedding anniversary, and the week after that, I will be flying home to see my family (with whom I can’t wait to test out these new recipes!) after almost a year.  These are the things I don’t want to lose sight of as these difficult days float by.