Monday, December 26, 2011

The year's best bites

Crispy, buttery trout, fresh out of the pond at the Has Bahçe motel in Hasankeyf, served on a cold, rainy night and simply but perfectly prepared.

A breakfast table heaving with sweet and savory pastries, homemade fruit preserves, pungent olives, and the freshest cheeses at the Panorama Otel in Bozcaada.

Plump khinkali and rich, cheesy khachapuri with a view of buses pulling in and out of a poorly lit station at Cafe Euro.

Spicy stir-fried beef with kimchi and all the right trimmings, eaten upstairs from a Korean karaoke bar near Taksim Square.

Melt-in-your-mouth custard-filled Laz boreği at the Black Sea meyhane Mohti.

Stuffed mussels and garlicky greens on a cobblestone backstreet under hanging vines in the seaside town of Ayvalık.

These are just a few of my "perfect little dining moments" in Turkey this year, the ones that came back to me while deciding which experience(s) to choose as my Best Bites of 2011 for Istanbul Eats. My guest submission, "Beating the Meyhane Blues," was published today, putting me in the esteemed company of food writers Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia and Katie Parla of Parla Food. Here's to more good eating in 2012.

Photo of the decadent Bozcaada breakfast by my traveling companion Tracey H.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Weekends at the office

Unlike any office in which I've ever worked, the headquarters of Borusan Holding is eerily tidy. Nary a stray piece of paper mars the crisp white interior, where the few framed family photos and coffee-table books placed just so seem more like movie-set props than actual personal belongings.

"Everyone has to gather up their things before the weekend," a security guard explains, confirming my suspicions. I wondered if the owners of the one pad of Post-It notes and the one empty water bottle I spied on desks would get their pay docked this month.

On the weekends, this corporate office turns into a museum, allowing visitors to walk through its hushed hallways and executive suites to peek at the company's contemporary art collection and -- no less a draw -- inside one of the most distinctive buildings along the Bosphorus.

Built beginning in the 1910s, the Perili Köşk's red-brick turret soars alongside the second Bosphorus Bridge, affording sweeping views across the strait that, strikingly framed in the building's many windows, often threaten to overshadow the art on display in what Borusan touts as "Turkey's first office museum." Seven new acquisitions, all video/multimedia works, are given their own screening area, while the current selection from the Borusan collection (dubbed "Segment #1") is spread throughout nine increasingly vertiginous floors of offices and meeting rooms

A smartly chosen mix of works in different mediums, the collection appears to contain very little that could potentially offend workplace sensibilities, though many pieces are bold in color, size, or placement, and generally pleasing to the eye, if not particularly challenging to the mind.

With no more than around 15 works on any given floor, the nine stories of art aren't nearly as daunting or exhausting as they may sound, but just to be on the safe side, fortify yourself first at one of the many all-day breakfast places lining the road below nearby Rumeli Hisarı, which are packed to the gills on weekends.

At Rumeli Kale Cafe, a tea server squeezes through the crowd as voices echo off the wooden walls and metal ceiling in the narrow dining room, its tables overflowing with little plates of cheese, olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes; single-serving frying pans with eggs and halloumi cheese; baskets of olive-studded bread; and dishes full of tahini paste and big slabs of thick cream soaking in honey. It's the kind of breakfast that will keep you full until well after dinner time.

TO VISIT: The exhibits "Segment #1" and "Seven New Works" are on view until December 11 at Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul's Sarıyer district. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday only, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras. Bus 42T will get you there from Taksim Square.

Rumeli Kale and the other breakfast places are just a few meters south along the water. Go as early as possible to avoid the rush, and bring a good book for when you inevitably get stuck in traffic on the way back.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Drinking with the enemy

Upon returning to San Francisco after my first trip to Istanbul, I had an impossible time convincing anyone how hard it was to find decent coffee in Turkey. "But what about Turkish coffee?!?" they would say, incredulously. "Didn't the Turks practically invent the stuff?"

"Fine, fine," I thought. "If you like having half of an itty-bitty serving end up as sludge in the bottom of the cup, go right ahead. But I'm talking about coffee -- a nice warm brewed cup of Joe that you
can put your hands around and sip every last drop. Besides, Turks all drink tea anyway. They think 'kahve' translates as Nescafe! That's what it said on all the little kiosks in Sultanahmet: 'Çay (Tea) | Kahve (Nescafe).'"

Since that trip 10 years ago, Starbucks has surged into Istanbul, with three outlets on İstiklal Caddesi alone, and been followed by a Turkish imitator, Kahve Dünyası ("Coffee World"), as well as other coffee options. But Nescafe is still ubiquitous, with a "cappuccino" mix and 3-in-1 packets with "extra cream aroma," "extra coffee taste," and chocolate and hazelnut versions. Never having managed to acquire a real taste for either Turkish coffee or tea, I would grudgingly opt for my old nemesis when offered caffeine-related hospitality. When drowsily waking up in my seat near the tail end of a night bus ride, I actually even enjoyed it a little bit. The sweet artificial taste started to mingle in my mind with watching new landscapes go by as the sun rose.

It wasn't until I started working at a local newspaper, though, that the relationship began to get out of hand. To get me through the afternoon deadline crunch, I started stocking Nescafe packets in my desk drawer -- all I had to do to get my fix was run down the hall and get some hot water from the dispenser. I no longer begrudged it its bad taste and god-knows-what ingredients. I started to look forward to it, just like the equally (and rightfully) maligned Efes I couldn't wait to drink after the madness was all over.

I don't work at that job anymore. I could just break up with Nescafe (and Efes, for that matter). But when I went to buy a cup of filtered coffee at an event yesterday afternoon and was told there was none left, I just shrugged and shifted over to the Nescafe line. It sure as hell ain't coffee, but sometimes (there, I've said it) it hits the spot.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Appliance angst

Many years ago, over Thai food in San Francisco, I talked to one of my best friends about her unexpected anxiety over buying appliances with her then-boyfriend (now husband). They have a rock-solid relationship and were already living together at the time. What was the big deal about jointly owning a washer? But at a point in our lives when furniture still meant your college roommate's old hand-me-down futon, there was something a bit too, well, heavy about these hefty purchases, something a bit too "adult."

When I moved to Istanbul, I pared down what I'd acquired over the post-college decade (which, for the record, never included any appliances larger than a toaster), returning to a transient state I've kept justifying over nearly four years with the idea that I might not be here that long. Then, last month, I decided to abandon shared-flat living and get my own apartment.

Here in Turkey, unfurnished apartments are just that -- no refrigerator, no oven, nada in the way of what is called beyaz eşya (white goods). I'm considered lucky because my new place came with curtains and some light fixtures -- even some light bulbs. A bit of panic about the weightiness of appliance-shopping once again set in. It seemed so permanent, not to mention confusing. But with the help of a dear and trusted friend, I managed to muster up the courage to go shopping...

...and last night two men appeared at my door with a refrigerator and an oven. After crossing the threshold, they set down their bulky loads and carefully slipped shower-cap-like blue plastic booties over their shoes to protect my newly cleaned floors. They maneuvered the goods into the kitchen, told me how to set the fridge's temperature and clean its interior, showed me how to use the oven with its fancy press-button starter, and noted I needed to replace my gas hose. Then they left with a "Güle güle kullan" -- use it happily.

Does this mean I'm an adult now?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

For every thing there is a season

Deep-red pomegranates hung heavily from countless trees along the Mediterranean coast in early October. Two months earlier, women sat by the side of the road in the Aegean town of Ayvalık, selling bags full of freshly clipped squash blossoms, delicate yellow flowers soon to be stuffed with rice and spices and served on local tables.

Traveling around Turkey, it's easy to see what fruits and vegetables are in season. Meat and fish too have their special times of year, with restaurants sticking handwritten signs in their windows to announce the arrival of hamsi (anchovies) or goose. Even in Istanbul, where you can get imported Granny Smith apples or out-of-season strawberries in large supermarkets, produce stands and carts overflow for a few weeks or months with the best of what's growing right now -- juicy cherries in the peak of the summer heat, tart citrus fruit to ward off the late fall chill, hearty brussels sprouts in the dead of winter.

Though what people eat around the world -- including in Turkey -- is becoming increasingly homogenized, food's link to a particular time and place seems stronger here than back in the United States. People many generations removed from rural life will readily tell you with pride that "their" village makes the best cheese, grows the tastiest apples, or is without a doubt the place to get superior pistachios. At the end of summer, the baggage areas of long-distance buses heading to Istanbul from all corners of Anatolia are full of evidence of this devotion -- canvas sacks of nuts and crates of fruit, carted back by visiting city dwellers who won't accept any substitutes for the true tastes of home.

NOTE: From famine and hunger to organic gardening and vegetarianism, bloggers around the world are writing about the past, present, and future of food for Blog Action Day, an annual event that seeks to focus attention on an important topic such as water, climate change, or poverty. Register online and get blogging to join today's global conversation about food.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Famished in Phaselis

Schedules may often be more like suggestions, "no"s may sometimes mysteriously turn into "yes"es, and procedures may change from day to day, but if there's anything you can count on in Turkey, it's that there will be a dolmuş (private minibus) going where you want to go, and that when you get there, someone will be selling something to eat.

So there was no reason to doubt the Lonely Planet Turkey guide when it said you could buy snacks at the site entrance to Phaselis, the ruins of an ancient city set along three small bays on Turkey's Mediterranean Coast.

"Snacks," though, turned out to be a cooler of sodas and a few overpriced candy bars. My faith in the certainties of Turkish travel badly shaken, I bought a Twix bar and headed onward. I had spent three hours on the dolmuş to get here; there would be no turning back in search of tost.

The ruins and beaches, fortunately, were exactly as advertised.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cellular confusion

Despite their many and long-held animosities, Turkey and Greece have a lot in common. Not that either of them would admit it. When I visited Athens a few years ago, people often stiffened noticeably when we told them we were from Istanbul, and then insisted we absolutely must try "Greek baklava," "Greek coffee," or "Greek kebab" -- all of which tasted pretty much exactly like their Turkish counterparts.


See my toes? They're in Turkey. That island offshore? That's Greece.
The similarities are so strong that while riding in a minibus on a winding road hugging the cliffs along Turkey's Mediterranean coast, even my cell phone got confused about exactly where it was.

"Sayin musterimiz, yurt disi operatorden sinyal almakta oldugunuz icin Turkcell Dunya tarifesi ile ucretlendirilmektesiniz," read the first in a barrage of text messages explaining call and SMS fees in Greece and touting the "avantaj" of Turkcell's international calling packages.

Dear customer, you are getting a signal from an international operator and will be charged Turkcell World fees...

The nearness of Greece is particularly keenly felt on Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, where places like Ayvalık, Bozcaada, and Kalkan retain the distinctive architecture of their historical "Greek quarters," if not the residents, relocated in the population exchange of 1923. Near Fethiye, an entire town, Kayaköy, stands empty, its stone homes never re-inhabited after their owners were forced to leave. Continued saber-rattling today over Cyprus and an Aegean territorial dispute are further proof, though, that closeness doesn't always lead to comity.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Up the stairs and back in time

With its clean-swept sandstone steps and lush, well-tended foliage, this little neighborhood staircase could be located in any number of warm-climate, well-to-do communities around the world. I could easily see people in Los Angeles, or maybe Santa Fe, or even somewhere in Spain, walking up these stairs after work, and going home to one of the handful of houses lining the steps on both sides.

What these imaginary people wouldn't find at the top of those doppelgänger stairs, however, would be what these particular steps led to: a 2,000-year-old Lycian rock tomb, carved into the hillside above.

There was a pretty nice view of the sunset from the top too, but those aren't quite so unusual outside this beautiful and history-rich stretch of Turkish Mediterranean coastline.

TO VISIT: This tomb, and some less-well-preserved ones nearby, are easy to get to from the town center in Kaş, though you won't find any signs until right at the base of the steps.

Go up from the town square on Uzun Çarşi Cad. (you'll pass an impressive free-standing sarcophagi dating to the same era on the way) until you see the big Phellos Health Club on your right. Turn left on Likya Cad. and continue uphill until you reach the tombs.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

İftara davet

Amid the general hustle and bustle of a 550-plus-person-capacity ferry traveling to Istanbul on a Saturday night, a few people quietly unwrap take-out packages of food, arranging each item carefully on the plastic table in front of them and then turning their focus intently to the flat-screen TVs hanging above the boat's lounge. Onscreen, a flashing countdown clock ticks off the minute iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, begins in each of Turkey's provinces, moving from east to west with the setting sun.

While cars speed down Sıraselviler Caddesi in central Istanbul, two men open up a Tupperware container on the back hood of a taxi parked at the curb, ready to share a simple meal when the evening ezan rings through the air.

On a back street in Nişantaşi, a pair of security guards scurry outside with a small table on which to lay their iftar meal in the dimly lit courtyard in front of their workplace.

Unlike in countries where dawn-to-dusk fasting is nearly mandatory, and people adjust their schedules to a more nocturnal rhythm, these small scenes in Turkey are carried out following a normal workday, next to people eating, drinking, and smoking as usual. This year, they also occurred amid increased concern about an "iftar divide" between rich and poor in the evening Ramadan meal. Though the debate could perhaps be compared to the annual appearance of pundits in the United States saying the "real meaning" of Christmas is being lost under a pile of wrapping paper and empty eggnog cups, the wrestling over whether lavish meals defeat the spiritual purpose of Ramadan also has a strong thread of social justice running through it.

Image from the program "İftara davet" on 24 Haber.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The tale of the disappearing tables

Tucked as it is down a sparsely populated, dimly lit alley on the second floor of a unremarkable-looking building, it's often hard to tell if there's anyone home at Mohti. Pushing open the door tonight and peeking my head inside, I saw only the usually gregarious owner of the cozy Black Sea meyhane, hunched over a laptop in the far corner of the room.

"Are you open?" I asked.

"We're open, but we don't have any customers," he said, rising to shake our hands. "It's because of Asmalımescit... I'm sure you know about it."

We did. For the past month, tables and chairs have been forcibly removed from sidewalks and patio areas at bars, cafes, restaurants -- even closet-sized kitchens serving up scrambled eggs for breakfast -- throughout what had been central Istanbul's liveliest district. Rumors still swirl about what sparked the "masa operasyonu" (table operation), as the Turkish press breathlessly dubbed the ongoing events in Beyoğlu. Had the business owners failed to pay the required bribes? Had the country's teetotaling prime minister, enraged at the sight of people drinking on the street, himself ordered the crackdown? Would it all blow over after Ramadan?

Whatever the impetus, streets that used to be pulsing with people into the wee hours of the night are now empty of everything but stray cats and some old plastic bags blowing through like synthetic tumbleweeds.

"It's very bad, all black and white. No middle way," I said, shaking my head sympathetically. Yesterday, the progressive news site Bianet reported that 2,000 people have lost their jobs due to the sweep, which hit businesses during the busy summer months, when Istanbullus live as much of their life as they can out of doors. Mohti never had any outdoor tables, but has been abandoned along with the rest of the area.

"We don't really have a menu right now. I'll just bring some things and if you don't want them, I'll take them back," the owner said, even more solicitously than usual.

Out came a small plate of tangy cheeses. A large bowl of salad tossed with mint and hot peppers. Fresh-baked Georgian börek with potatoes. A savory pancake made from brined hamsi and shredded vegetables. Baked palamut, de-boned at the table. And, finally, a plate of watermelon slices.

We didn't send anything back. After politely declining a cup of Turkish coffee to top the evening off, we left the restaurant, as empty as it was when we came in.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Better things to do with a can (or bottle) of Efes than drinking it

Make a row of clanking "wind chimes" for your garden:

Gülpinar, Turkey

Cut it into strips and turn it into a model airplane, as in this Efes-sponsored art exhibition:

Via: My Modern Metropolis

Stack up cases containing 72,000 bottles in a pyramid shape inside an art museum, then invite visitors to climb the sculpture and consume its contents:

Photos: KW Institute for Contemporary Art

The artist, Cyprien Gaillard, described the work as a commentary on the destruction and displacement of the Pergamon Altar at the original "Efes" (Ephesus, to most tourists). I call it a clever way to get other people to drink your Efes beer for you.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The original Twitter*

A dear friend back home recently ran across a postcard I had sent from a long-ago work trip to mining-blighted rural West Virginia and wanted to read the message I had penned back to me over the phone. The trip had made a strong emotional impression on me and I cringed inwardly at the thought of hearing what banalities my eight-years-earlier self had seen fit to pen. Surprisingly, the few sentences I had jotted down really seemed to capture the feelings that my time in and around Whitesville, WV, had evoked.

I know I've written my share of trite "XXX is beautiful, wish you were here" notes on the back of postcards, but the chance to pair a few pithy -- but funny, heartfelt, informative, or otherwise meaningful -- words with an appropriate keepsake picture keeps me firmly in the camp of those practicing the lost art of postcard writing, as a recent New York Review of Books essay described it.

Travel blogger Doug Mack complained, and rightfully so, about essayist Charles Simic's seeming contention that the doddering elderly are the last keepers of the postcard-writing flame, but the piece is otherwise a loving tribute and the flurry of comments it inspired show that postcard fandom is alive and plenty creative.

On my first trip abroad, writing postcards gave me a reason to linger in dauntingly sophisticated-seeming cafes or bars without feeling so horribly lonely and out of place. It's sent me poking through dusty shops in small Turkish towns for something to remember an obscure destination by. Perhaps best of all, it's led me to some very memorable places: An imposing concrete monument to Soviet bureaucracy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (top); a battered and weathered trailer in Dead Horse, Alaska (above); a grandly renovated 17th-century caravansaray in Mardin, Turkey (left). All post offices.

* Props for the post title idea to "james," a commenter on the NYRB article.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Opportunism amid tragedy

While everyone else* has been praising Norway's compassionate, measured response to the horrific massacre it recently endured, some Turkish officials have been appallingly quick to try and use the deadly attacks for their own political gain.

EU Minister Egemen Bağış -- a man a Turkish colleague joked is considered "the village idiot" amongst his European peers -- was first out of the gate, essentially arguing less than a week after the bloody deaths of 76 people that the tragedy could have been prevented if only stubborn old Europe had seen the error of its ways sooner and let Turkey join its club.

"The seeds of hatred and racism that have triggered these attacks can be destroyed by Turkey’s EU membership," Bağış told the semi-official Anatolia news agency. "[The] EU cannot ignore its responsibility by solely condemning the attacks or releasing messages of sorrow."

Even while purportedly expressing his condolences to Norway, the minister apparently couldn't help but get in another dig -- this one at Norway itself for allegedly not taking seriously enough demonstrations led by supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, during a visit by the Turkish prime minister. "We have seen the point this tolerance has reached today," Bağış said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç jumped on the bandwagon Thursday, raising the specter of confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik's Internet-acquired bomb-making skills to defend an online filtering plan that has been roundly criticized as an infringement on free expression.

Opposition parties, usually quick to denounce any perceived slight by government officials, thus far seem to be letting these blatant bits of political opportunism slide.

* Admittedly, I'm really only following the Turkish news these days. Any bad behavior been spotted among politicians from other countries in response to the Norway attacks? Or have any Turkish news outlets called Bağış and Arınç out on their comments?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Stop the presses

In a room full of journalists, there's nothing unusual about avid monitoring of one of the numerous newsroom TVs. But sometimes there's a obvious change in the air, and it's immediately clear that what's being broadcast is not just the latest football score.

One of those moments hit today at deadline, sending me scrambling to open my online Turkish-English dictionary to translate the one, crucial word I didn't understand in the TV tickertape: "istifa." As in Genelkurmay Başkanı Orgeneral Işık Koşaner istafa etti. Turkey's top general has resigned.

Even before the rest of the top brass followed suit, this was big. Though Gen. Koşaner may have held roughly the same position as U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, the latter tendering his resignation would not have nearly the same impact. Turkey's military has long been a powerful counterbalancing force to its government, a contentious relation that has seen the armed forces mount a handful of coups when it felt the country needed to be set right, and numerous high-ranking officers more recently jailed as part of controversial coup-plot investigations -- what prompted the top commanders to quit in protest late Friday.

There was no time to think about the potential ramifications with new stories to write and edit, new photos to find, breaking news to be posted on the website, and a good chunk of the front page to be redesigned. An hour later, the paper was out the door, flawed, most assuredly, but not missing the story everyone would be talking about tomorrow, and for some time to come.

* Photo by waferboard / Creative Commons.

Monday, June 27, 2011

San Francisco Saturday Night

Long, low-slung cars race down Mission Street, their drivers honking furiously while their passengers wave Mexican flags out the windows. Girls in body paint and butterfly wings pass boys in hot pants and headbands on the corner, reeling slightly from drinking in the sun. On the table, an amber microbrew and a plate of pulled pork, pimento mac & cheese, and collard greens with ham hocks, served by a forgetful Rastafarian. On the agenda, cheering men in tights, metal Ts, or just a sweat sock and an American flag as they air guitar their way to humiliation or glory. It's good to be home.

Monday, May 30, 2011

New and tasty things I've tried recently

Even if you've figured out that there's more to Turkish cuisine than just kebabs, it's easy to feel after a while that there's nothing new under the sun, culinarily speaking. The seeming boom in Black Sea restaurants in Istanbul has been a bit of a revelation -- I can't remember the last time I went to a Turkish restaurant where there were so many completely unfamiliar items on a menu. OK, just three or four, but still! And sometimes, if you look hard enough, even the most traditional spots can hold a few surprises.

  • Tahinli pastry -- Something like a cinnamon roll with a thin coat of peanut butter between each layer. (Possibly an Armenian recipe.) At a small, nondescript take-out bakery on the shore road in Beşiktaş.

  • Kaygana -- Reminiscent of a crepe, an omelette, and a potato pancake, but made with kale, leeks, and hamsi (anchovy) filets. At the Black Sea meyhane Mohti.

  • Gelincik suyu (poppy juice) -- Ruby red and refreshing, if a bit of an acquired taste. Can also be served hot in a tea-like form. No narcotic properties that I could discern. At a cafe on Bozcaada.

  • Kabak ezmesi (pumpkin dip) -- Creamy and just a bit smoky. At Zübeyir Ocakbaşı.
Know of any other little-known sweets, snacks, or meals I should try to track down?

NOTE: In other food-related news, I've got a guest review of the fabulous restaurant Lokanta Maya up today on Istanbul Eats, the best website in town for people who love to eat.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

Though the weather isn't quite sure yet if it's summer in Istanbul, the tourists definitely are. My tram rides over to the old city for my Saturday-morning run along the Marmara Sea are so full of German, English, and other languages that I sometimes find myself surprised to hear a conversation in Turkish. Four massive cruise ships docked along the Karaköy shoreline are a regular sight, as are unfurled maps and perplexed expressions.

Like most anyone who lives in a popular tourist destination, I sigh at the arrival of the summer hordes. (Though I was once among their number, I never would have blocked the sidewalk like that or made such loud, dumb comments, tabiiki.) But occasionally they offer a good reminder or two. I'd walked in the shadow of this gold-trimmed outcropping dozens of times on my way into or out of Gülhane Park without sparing a single thought as to what it might be. Recently, though, I saw some tourists staring at the ground beneath it and took a discrete peek as they passed.

A plaque I'd never before noticed explained that this was the Parade Pavilion (Alay Köşkü), the sultan's favored viewing point to watch ceremonial processions make their way down this wide boulevard before it became clogged with carpet shops and "authentic" Turkish restaurants. The caged windows kept the unwashed masses from catching a glimpse of his majesty -- or, surely more importantly, his majesty's ladies. As the trams and tour buses rumbled by, for a minute I could almost hear the clip-clopping of horses and the steady stamp of Ottoman soldiers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bravo, güneş!

Perhaps everyone was just in a laudatory mood after spending the afternoon cheering runners (myself included!) as they passed the finish line set up in the little town square during the first Bozcaada Half Marathon and 10K Run. Or perhaps it was an island ritual little observed by big-city dwellers.

In any event, a few hours after the run concluded, as the warm early summer's day began to draw to a close, caravans of cars headed to the far side of the island. There, a long stretch of rocky cliff near a row of wind turbines overlooked the ocean, offering an unobstructed view of the setting sun.

In groups and pairs, people chatted and drank wine and snuggled up and plucked out a few tunes on a guitar. The blue and gold sky turned to shades of pink and purple as the sun dropped toward the horizon, casting a long glowing reflection on the Aegean Sea. When it finally dipped out of sight, everyone applauded.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Around the world with 40 travel bloggers

I don't think of myself as a travel blogger, really. The blogs of people who spend all year (or many years) on the road seem as far removed from my life in Turkey as, well, my life in Turkey probably does for many folks who've never lived away from home. But my musings on learning a foreign language, trying to understand a different culture, and, yes, sometimes traveling were apparently enough for me to qualify some while back for Lonely Planet's "Blogs We Like" program -- later dubbed the "Blogsherpas."

I stayed on the margins of the group for some time, occasionally reading a discussion thread here or tagging a post there, until I saw a notice seeking contributions to an e-book. Intrigued, I spent a few hours on the terrace of my pension in Ayvalık (for once, I was actually traveling at the time) putting together two pages of photos and text that I felt represented my blog. Thirty-nine other bloggers -- expats, adventurers, and family travelers -- did the same.

This week, the final product, the free e-book "Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers," has been released, full of inspiring photos and commentary on destinations from Alberta to Uganda. As Lonely Planet put in it their writeup of the book, it "explores our beautiful world from street level through the eyes of travel bloggers." I hope you'll find a new blogger or two worth following in its virtual pages.

NOTE: The Blogsherpas also have a World Travel lens on the website Squidoo, where you can read the latest posts by bloggers from around the world, all in one place.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A wide-eyed look at an Uzbek bazaar

In late March 2004, two suicide bombings tore through the Chorsu bazaar area in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, killing 15. I found it hard not to think about this while touring the sprawling market eight months later, but if the vendors and other shoppers felt any nervousness about a potential recurrence -- or tension due to a then-ongoing dispute over selling licenses and regulations -- there were no obvious signs of it amid the bustling trade on a crisp November afternoon.

The outer rims of the bazaar were filled with rickety stands and itinerant vendors selling staple items of modern life -- watches, belts, sunglasses, clothing, cassettes -- while the covered area at the core of the market held foodstuffs of all sorts. Squash and pomegranates were splayed open to display their colorful interiors. A rainbow assortment of candies for the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Ramadan fasting period spilled out of their sellers' stalls.

We dipped our fingers to taste honey dripping from a knife and spices sold out of canvas sacks as nearby vendors sat and churned huge vats of a marshmallow-like substance and offered tastes to passers-by. From another stand, we sampled what looked like balls of dough, but turned out to be tart rounds of cheese.

(From a Nov. 8, 2004, journal entry.)

- - -

NOTE: Other Lonely Planet bloggers share their experiences -- wide-eyed like my early encounter, savvy, or quizzical -- with market cultures around the world in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: The Marketplace, hosted by Kiran Keswani of Indian Bazaars.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pieces of a whole

"23 countries, 23 nations, millions of radically different people, united by a water mirror..." That's how the artists behind the Mediterranean Quilt project defined the Mediterranean Sea in their call for photographers living in those nearly two dozen countries to submit a set quartet of images to be "stitched" together into a photo quilt showing the variety of places and people who share this one body of water.

When Antalya-based blogger (and excellent photographer) Melissa Maples wrote about the project earlier in the spring, I thought for sure I'd find time to submit some images of my own. Neyse... Not only did I miss the deadline, it turns out I haven't spent enough time on the Med to have the required four images of sea, coast, city, and people from its actual shores. The four photos below thus share the project's spirit but come from Istanbul and elsewhere in this country too multi-faceted to be defined purely as Mediterranean while having too many common traits with its neighbors to ignore that symbolic sea.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The more things change...

It would be a lie to say that traveling and living abroad hasn't changed me at all. Instead of walking around lost until my feet hurt, too embarrassed to ask for help, I now readily make inquiries – in a language I speak only bumblingly, no less. I chat up complete strangers just because they happen to be speaking Turkish in France, or English in Turkey. I like to think I have a broader perspective on world events and increased empathy, but know that working in a foreign culture has also forced me to develop a more stern and assertive side. My elbows have become sharper from fighting to get onto buses or hold a place in line. Desperate and otherwise-unsatisfied desires for tamales and Thai curry have turned me into a cook. Perhaps strangest of all, I've become a runner in a country a fellow American expat once dubbed "the land the YMCA forgot."

But.

There's always a “but,” isn't there? When I moved to Istanbul, I fantasized about making a fresh start, about trying something totally new, about shedding my responsible skin and becoming the heedless, adventurous kid I never really was. Instead, like a homing pigeon flying unerringly back to its coop, I've wound up with a desk job, a reputation for earnestness, the same bad habits, the same fear of flying, and all the same worries that I’m not doing enough with my life. I left many things 7,000 miles away, but for better or worse, I can't seem to run away from myself.

NOTE: Has travel made you a better person, a worse one, or not changed you at all? Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' answers to this question in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Has Traveling Changed You?, hosted by Nina Fuentes at Just Wandering.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Going back to Berlin

What I remembered most about Berlin was the cranes. They towered over the city, sprouting from blocked-off squares and empty lots and half-finished buildings. It was almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and to a wide-eyed visitor, the city still seemed to be in the messy middle of ripping itself up and starting again. The ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stood amid broad and empty avenues; the crumbling path along the remaining part of the wall, painted with faded murals, was eerily deserted. Berlin's scars had not yet healed, and in the scant day or two I spent there on my first trip abroad in 1998, I was moved by the way there seemed to be an agreement not to cover them all up.

When I had the chance to return in 2010 to cover an environmental conference, the cranes were gone, their work done. People strolled through parks, lined up to see the view from the Reichstag's glass dome (top right), rode their bikes along the spruced-up East Side Gallery (bottom right), ate Thai noodles in sleek restaurants, and drank in a beer garden in the shadow of an abandoned-department store-turned-prison-turned-artists-collective. I was saddened to learn that latter spot, the Kunsthaus Tacheles (left), is at risk of being shut down, and I could see how people who had loved Berlin through its tough times might feel that its gritty uniqueness has largely been lost. But coming from crowded, grimy Istanbul, it was hard to see much to dislike in this green, cultured, cosmopolitan -- and completely transformed -- city.

While wandering one day, I found myself in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate, a former barrier between East and West Berlin and an iconic symbol of the fall of the wall. What I saw there, though, looked so small and sedate that I had to ask at a nearby souvenir shop to confirm that it was actually the place I remembered. The area around the gate, like so much else of central Berlin, was attractively refurbished, pedestrian-friendly, and rife with outdoor cafes. I wanted to like it, but I didn't. I missed seeing cars whip between the once-barricaded columns, emphatically demonstrating that people were free to move and the city was one again.

NOTE: Revisiting favorite places can be comforting, vexing, or bittersweet. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences with return visits in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Going Back, hosted by Natalia and family at No Beaten Path.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Expat environmentalist

The Middle East environmental news site Green Prophet recently interviewed me about my "experiences as an expat environmentalist," including what brought me to Turkey in the first place, what challenges I've encountered in trying to maintain a "green" lifestyle abroad, the most serious environmental problems facing Turkey, if there's any good news here on the eco front, and (sigh) how my Turkish is coming along, among other interesting questions.

Check it out: "INTERVIEW: Treehugger Blogger Jennifer Hattam Talks To Green Prophet About Turkey"

UPDATE: My former colleagues at Sierra magazine nicely highlighted the interview on the Green Life blog I founded way back when: "Catching Up with a Former Sierra Editor." Thanks, guys!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Peeking inside the Aya İrini, and into Anatolia's ancient past

Marriages, divorces, broken betrothals, inheritance disputes, the selling of slaves, even the arrest of a spy -- it's awfully juicy material to be found in faded etchings on small clay tablets. Though they may not have the aesthetic grace of a well-crafted jug or bowl, or the obvious intrigue of icon-like animal figurines, these early records of the drudgery (field sales, donkey transportation fees) and drama of daily life in Central Anatolia some 4,000 years ago are perhaps the most compelling part of the exhibit currently on display at the Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul.

Even if you're not interested in ancient archaeological discoveries, the awkwardly named "Foreword to Anatolia Kültepe-Kanesh Karum: Assyrians in Istanbul" is worth a visit for the chance to peek inside the Hagia Eirene (Aya İrini), a mini-version of the more famous Hagia Sophia that's typically closed to the public. But unlike many such exhibits where endless rows of coins and pottery are displayed with little more than a date on the label, some effort was made here to interpret the findings from Kültepe (Karesh), an 18-level dig near the modern city of Kayseri, for a general audience.





The first written documents in Anatolia, those little clay tablets can be thought of as the beginning of history in the area. They also reveal the somewhat surprising fact that women in the settlement had legal rights and could sign business transactions -- abilities probably no one was willing to try and keep from women tough enough to guard their homes against robbers and collect from debtors while their merchant husbands were away. Equality only went so far, though: A man could take a second wife in the event of infertility, which was considered solely his first wife's fault.

Also striking were some examples of the extraordinary longevity of good design. A clay colander c. 1880 BC looked pretty much the same as the metal ones in today's kitchens, while a pair of gold hoop earrings from 1700 BC could have been the first pair I wore in high school.

Not addressed, however, was whether users of stamps bearing the image of a double-headed eagle -- a common motif apparently symbolizing "the meeting of East and West" -- were soundly mocked for resorting to cliché.

TO VISIT: The exhibit is on view until March 28 at the Hagia Eirene Museum in the Topkapı Palace Garden in Istanbul. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

We're number 5!

One hot day in the summer of 2008, I was sitting at a popular viewpoint overlooking central Athens, taking in the city's sprawl, when a man struck up a conversation by asking where I was from. "I'm from the United States, but I live in Istanbul," I said. He grimaced. "What are you doing there? Are you a student?" I told him I was, which was mostly the truth at the time. "Don't tell me you're studying Turkish," he said with evident disdain.

"Actually, I am," I replied. "I'm going to be living there for a while so I think it would be good to learn the language."

"But why??" he pressed. "People only speak Turkish in Turkey."

Politeness (and awareness of the not-so-friendly feelings between the two countries) kept me from uttering the obvious retort: "And they speak Greek where else, exactly?"

According a recent post by Mavi Boncuk, a treasure trove of Turkish and Ottoman trivia, that snarky response would have been justified. With 220 million speakers around the globe, Turkish ranks fifth in the world, after Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi -- and ahead of Arabic. Yep, I was surprised too. From the site:
Turkish is a member of the Turkish, or Western, subgroup of the Oghuz languages, which includes Gagauz and Azeri. The Oghuz languages form the Southwestern subgroup of the Turkic languages, a language family comprising some 30 living languages spoken across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia.
In case you're curious, Portuguese and Bengali follow Arabic on the commonly-spoken list. Greek is nowhere to be seen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Blog banning roulette

First it was YouTube. Then WordPress. Then Google Docs and Maps. Then YouTube again. Or maybe it was the other way around. It's awfully hard to keep up with all the websites that have been banned in Turkey, even in just the three years I've been living here. So-called "Web 2.0" sites seem to create some of the biggest problems as Turkish law appears ill-equipped to deal with the fact that the content on a single website can be created by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of users -- if just one of them insults a revered historical figure or pisses off a rich creationist, it's no skateboarding dogs for anyone.

Somewhat inevitably, the wheel has spun again and come up Blogger. This time around the ban, which comes at a moment of increased concern about press freedom in Turkey, seems to be the result of a simple copyright spat, although Google (the parent company of both Blogger and YouTube) and Turkey have a testy history that may or may not play a role.

Migrating to another web service that might just as well get blocked five minutes from now doesn't seem like too appealing of an option, so for the moment I'm just going to stay put on blogspot and see how things shake out. If you're in Turkey and want to keep reading my blog (which I hope you do!) and others hosted by Blogger, try one or both of these tactics that have been suggested as a way around the ban:

  • Sign up for the RSS feed of sites you like (that link goes to mine), and ask your favorite blogs to switch to showing their full posts in RSS feeds if they're not doing so already.

  • Follow the "Don't Touch My Blog" (Bloguma Dokunma) campaign on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates and work-arounds.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Top 10 travel moments thus far

  1. Bobbing in the warm sea at sunset after a long bus ride in Costa Rica, feeling the grime wash away and my cramped-up body relax.

  2. Padding in my socks around the massive tiled courtyard of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, white pigeons swirling over its gleaming turquoise domes.

  3. Running through the cobbled streets of Beirut’s Hamra district, cheered on by students and watched over by soldiers atop tanks as I completed my first 10k.

  4. Dipping my fingers in the Arctic Ocean and watching small icebergs float close to shore after a day interviewing inhabitants of bleak native villages.

  5. Stumbling on a circle of men listening to a Kurdish storyteller sing traditional tales in Diyarbakır, Turkey, and being invited to eavesdrop over tea.

  6. Clambering through a crumbling power plant and sleeping in a jail cell during an overnight photography workshop on Alcatraz.

  7. Scrambling away from a charging camel along with a crowd of local spectators at a camel-wrestling tournament near İzmir, Turkey.

  8. Seeing the way Picasso explored themes and ideas in sketches and ceramic works at the Picasso Museum in Paris and feeling like I had a glimpse into thought processes never revealed by the masterpieces.

  9. Looking down into a bubbling red volcanic crater while making the 18.5-kilometer trek over Mount Tongariro in New Zealand.

  10. Returning to Istanbul after my first trip out of the country since moving there and feeling like I was coming home.
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The things I carried

I spent my first trip abroad staggering under the weight of a backpack that might actually have been bigger than I was, lugging separate guidebooks for countries I would spend at most a few days in, the contents of an entire medicine cabinet, and a month's worth of socks and underwear.

Since I still put my foot down at doing laundry on vacation, I'll never join the ranks of those who travel light. But I have trimmed down a bit since then.

Out quickly went the money belt, the portable locks, the ugly "travel towel," and, eventually, the dozens of rolls of film. A mini Ziploc bag of assorted meds still makes the cut, as does the flip-open alarm clock that's been digitally ticking since 1998. (It now stays at home on trips to places where my cell phone will work.) So does my Swiss army knife, though it's seen most of its travel action slicing bread and cheese for make-shift meals.

For long travel days, I have favorite pants (smart but comfortable) and a favorite fleece (the interior pocket is conveniently passport-sized). Since I really, really hate flying, plane trips require an iPod of favorite songs, perhaps a sentimental piece of jewelery as a good-luck charm, and Dramamine with which to knock myself out. (Ambien has been suggested as an upgrade.) And I'm still a sucker for a print guidebook, though I try to keep it down to just one per trip.

NOTE: What piece(s) of travel gear do you never leave home without? Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' must-have items in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Travel Gear, hosted by Vago Damitio of Vagobond.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Masters of painting at the Pera Museum

An older woman collapses into the arms of a stoic young soldier-to-be, their farewell watched by dozens of fellow peasants inside the crowded barn. Hanging alongside this massive canvas, a smaller painting is suffused in the crisp light of a clear winter's day. The picture shows two boys, one wearing an over-sized army coat and hat, beside a freshly dug grave. Its title: "Orphaned."

The juxtaposition, though not entirely unexpected, caused me to gasp slightly, experiencing the rush of emotions that good -- and well-curated -- art can provoke. Wrenching moments are not in short supply in "Scenes from Tsarist Russia," one of the current shows at Istanbul's excellent Pera Museum. A bride sobs, covering her face in her hands, on her wedding day to a much older man. Families escape with a few scant belongings from a village fire. A dying woman sits in a garden, staring off into the distance. Other paintings draw a smile: women celebrating a rural "hen night," a boy being distracted from his studies by the sight of a girl in the window across the way.

Though the local media has been falling all over itself to herald the Pera's other current exhibit, "Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera," people in the know had told me the 19th-century realist paintings from the State Russian Museum were the real find. Many were powerful indeed, combining fine brushwork with emotional sensitivity. But the fiery stars of 20th-century Mexican art are worth spending time with as well, even if you think you're already very familiar with their work.

The show, though small, artfully juxtaposes examples of Frida's famous self-portraits with photographs, including some gorgeous shots by one of her lovers, that shed some light on how the way she perceived -- or wanted to portray -- herself both matched and differed from reality. Perhaps most moving is a sketch Frida made after a miscarriage, showing the lost child outside her body but still tethered to it, tears streaming from her womb.

TO VISIT: Both exhibits are on view until March 20 at the Pera Museum in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For the duration of these two shows, it will also stay open until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not-so-hidden history

Even though I've written before about street names that seem to have outlived their meaning, I'd never stopped to think about what my own street, "Havyar Sokak," might mean until I came across the word "havyar" in a newspaper story and thought to look it up. Apparently, I live on "Caviar Street." Is that something like "Easy Street"? (Hope so!) Was caviar once processed around here? Or was it home to rich people? Or Russians? Another mystery I'd like to solve, someday...

When I posted a Twitter message about my "discovery," a blog friend wrote back to say that she had lived on "Piggybank Makers' Very Steep Hill" in Istanbul. Of course I had to look that one up... only to find that it was Kumbaracı Yokuşu, an indeed very steep street I've walked on many times without a single thought to its origins.

Know of any other interestingly named streets, in Istanbul or elsewhere, that I can add to my collection?

Monday, February 7, 2011

'To Şeref!'

To life, to health, to honor. The ritual words shared as glasses clink seem to have the same essential meaning around the globe. During a wine-drinking session last night, however, a Turkish friend put a new-to-me spin on the local tradition of toasting with a hearty "Şerefe" (to honor). Rather than a joint wish for those gathered together, he said, it's a pledge: To protect the honor of fellow drinkers even if having a few too many causes their lips to loosen or their eyes to wander.

In other words, what happens at the rakı-drinking table stays at the rakı-drinking table.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You can't take it with you

Amid growing unrest in Egypt, the Turkish prime minister grabbed the spotlight (and no small part of the glory) on Tuesday with his strongly worded call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to meet his protesting people's "desire for change." Sounding a philosophical note, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reminded the 82-year-old Mubarak that "We will all die and be judged by those who remain" -- seeming essentially to say, You know all that power you acquired through corruption, repression, and brutality? Well, you can't take it with you.

Or, as I learned is said in Turkish, "Kefenin cebi yok."

The shroud* has no pockets.

Seeing a familiar construction repeated in Turkish -- "ikinci el" (second hand), "havalimanı" (air port) -- often reminded me, as I was learning the basics of the language, that these words I don't give a thought to in English were once upon a time created by someone who had to ponder, "Now what should we call this place that's like a port, but for things that fly in the air instead of boats?"

Discussions at the copy factory about how to translate different phrases and ideas have likewise made me a bit more attuned to the fact that metaphor is not inevitable. Sure, it seems obvious to talk about the "heart of the matter" or the "heart of the country," but it could just as easily be "Eski şehrin göbeğinde" -- in the belly of the old city. The stomach, after all, is much more centrally located in the body than the heart.

* Islamic beliefs call for a body to be washed and wrapped in a shroud before burial in the ground.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Settling in, in a once-strange land

Not long ago, I sat down to watch the popular Turkish film Issız Adam (“Solitary Man”). As the title character ducked into a small shop on the winding street where some of my friends live, or chatted with diners inside a restaurant where I’d eaten with coworkers, I felt the same warm sense of nostalgia one might experience while looking through vacation photos long after an enjoyable trip. But in my case, the stores and streets and scenic views were all still just outside my front door.

After three years of living in Istanbul, the things that so gleefully widened my eyes as a tourist – the skyline full of minarets, the man selling vegetables from a horse cart, the labyrinthine backstreets of Eminönü – have inevitably faded into the background of day-to-day life. Somehow seeing these same sights on film, contributing to other viewers’ romantic notions of the city, momentarily made them fresh again.

Settling in is not exotic. It’s not exciting. It doesn’t create the same rush of sensation as travel. Instead, it’s being handed half a mandarin to eat while I pick out my produce, or chatting with the butcher about the best cut of meat for a particular dish. It’s knowing what the latest crowd of demonstrators on İstiklal Caddesi is protesting, and being able to laugh along at some of the onstage banter at a rock show. And when I do travel, it’s realizing that all my reference points have shifted to relate to my new home.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A 'second' take on Turkish art

Flip, flip, flip. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Flip, flip, flip. Stamp, stamp, stamp. The hands move fast on seven wall-mounted flat screens, mindlessly shuffling through paper in a way familiar -- and likely at least a little bit funny -- to anyone who's spent time hacking through the bureaucratic tangle at any of Turkey's many müdürlük (directorate) offices.

Across the way from Ali Kazma's video installation (titled "O.K."), a small grouping of museum-style cases hold drab-looking documents, including the Turkish Constitution and the country's Law on Intellectual and Artistic Works -- each spiral-bound on both sides.

This kind of sly humor is too often lacking in Turkish contemporary art, which I generally have found to be overly obscure, self-referential, or hammer-to-the-head blunt. There's plenty in ARTER's "İkinci Sergi" (Second Exhibition) that falls into those categories as well, but it's a good step up in accessibility from the new art space's first show, "Starter," which I wandered through in a daze after being drawn in by the super-cool inflating/deflating green tank in the main-floor window, unable to connect emotionally or intellectually with a single piece. OK, the dismantled piano looked kinda awesome, but the point escaped me.

"Second Exhibition" has a similarly eye-catching piece in its "shop window," Ayşe Erkmen's installation of colorful hats -- a work I thought was just fun eye candy until I learned that the building used to hold a milliner's shop, and that the hats themselves are reproductions of a 1920s style by a local woman still practicing the trade.

TO VISIT: "Second Exhibition" is on view until March 13 at ARTER on İstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district. The gallery is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday stroll: Istanbul's Ottoman chalet

I'd visited Istanbul three times, and lived here for almost a year, before I ever got around to poking my head inside Dolmabahçe Palace, the "modern" home of the late-Ottoman-era sultans. I can't say I thought I had been missing out on much. Sure, there's a 4.5-ton chandelier, and the minibar hidden inside a hollowed-out book is pretty damn cool. But it was hard to get excited about a place where everyone apparently spent all their time sitting in uncomfortable-looking straight-backed chairs on the far sides of large rooms from each other.

Still, operating on the small-museums-are-better principle (and mindful of my beginning-of-the-year vow to Try More New ThingsTM), I decided to take a Saturday stroll to one of Istanbul's lesser-known palaces, Yıldız Şale (Chalet). Part of the Yıldız Palace complex in peaceful hillside Yıldız Park, it's got a charmingly tasteful wooden façade that wouldn't be out of place on a Swiss ski slope, but couldn't be further style-wise from the typically over-the-top Baroque mish-mash of furniture and decor inside. Like its bigger cousins, the şale can only be entered on a tour, by visitors whose shoes are encased in shower-cap-like pink plastic booties, but this particular tour is led by an affable fellow who sits around chatting and drinking tea until he decides there's enough people for a group (in this case, four).

As we walked through the quiet, empty, and dimly lit rooms, it felt less like passing through a stage set a la Dolmabahçe than being let into a home (OK, a really big home) that had been evacuated suddenly and then completely forgotten about. Fun facts:

  • The Ottomans apparently thought being "modern" meant slapping together a bunch of different European influences -- French furniture, Italian wall treatments -- and throwing in a banquet hall richly decorated in Islamic motifs for good measure.

  • The eager-to-impress sultan tacked on another wing to the şale every time Kaiser Wilhelm II came to town. The German emperor never had to sleep in the same bedroom twice.

  • A 400-meter-square carpet is really, really big. And apparently has to be made in the room it's meant for requires knocking out an exterior wall to install. Tough to get up the stairs and in the door otherwise, I guess.

  • Barbaros Bulvarı used to be a little country road, with green space all around. This is no surprise, of course, but it blows my mind anew each time I see a picture of Istanbul (this one in a ceiling painting) looking so bucolic.
I think the şale may also have been the first building in Istanbul to have electricity, but don't quote me on that one. There's always something that gets lost in translation.

TO VISIT: The Yıldız Chalet (Şale Köşkü) is located at the top of Yıldız Park (it's a bit of a hike) in Beşiktaş, across from the Çirağan Palace. Regular admission is 4 Turkish Liras. Tours are given in Turkish and happen when they happen. Open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter (October through February) and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Closed Mondays and Thursdays.