Sunday, December 28, 2008

Overheard in SF

A girl crossing Mission Street, talking on her cell phone:

"I think I needed to have sex with her to see it from her perspective, you know?"
Though it's been disorienting (and sometimes annoying) to be able to once again understand all the chatter going on around me, I have to admit, it can also be quite amusing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I can see for miles...

When I lived in San Francisco, anytime I ventured out to the suburbs, I was amazed at how wide the streets seemed, how far apart the buildings, how big the sky... After eleven months in Istanbul, I now feel that way about San Francisco itself. What I remembered as tiny alleys seem wide enough to drive a semi down, what I thought of as busy streets feel practically deserted. It's still lovely, though, even in the rain.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


In just a few minutes, I'll be heading out the door of my Istanbul daire (apartment) to start the long trip back to San Francisco, my first visit home in almost a year. I'm excited, of course (friends! food! drinks!), but also a bit anxious, for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint or explain. I was discussing this recently with another ex-pat, who said that "you know you've changed" from your time abroad, "but you don't know how" until you go back. I guess I'll find out soon. I hope it's for the better.

Monday, December 8, 2008

All about Eid

The first day of Kurban Bayramı in Istanbul is kind of like Christmas in any big American city--the streets are eerily empty--except with fewer angel and Santa Claus icons (OK, none) and a lot more animal slaughtering.

This morning, I received the following texts* from a friend who had gone down to the largest local kurban kesim yeri (sacrifice slaughtering place):

10:30 am Dude found slaughter central for tbashi
10:33 am its down by bilgi on the mannekin street. Hfs. Im sure it prolly will still be going if there are any sheep left. ugh
10:33 am So many heads
Kurban Bayramı (Eid Al-Adha in Arabic) is the feast of the sacrifice, commemorating one of the more sadistic stories shared by the three Holy Books, in which God tests Abraham's obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son--then sends a sheep as a last-minute substitute.

Alas, I wasn't able to get down to the livestock death camp until afternoon, when only a few cow carcasses were left to be chopped up and distributed to various families. Yellow tents full of manure, hay, and, now, blood, had been set up right by the main road to hold the animals. A few scraggly sheep were waiting across the street, hoping no last-minute shoppers would show up. Blood mixed with water ran down the gutters as people hauled their bits o' bovine down the hill in plastic bags. One man frantically called out for another bag as his friend struggled to keep his grisly slab of meat from slipping out of the ripped one he was carrying. A make-shift pulley system at the top of the hill held the remains of two cows, surrounded by spectators, including a group of children.

A couple of the boys started talking to me, the only foreigner around, and I asked them if they would have a big holiday meal that night. "Yes!" one replied, pointing to the gory scene below.

If you want to see what they were looking at, read on, but I wouldn't do it during dinnertime...

(P.S. Sorry about all the dead-animal pictures lately. I guess it's just that time of year 'round here.)

* Another amusing, though less gory, missive from a different friend read:

12:50 pm There is a cow right by your apt! T

More photos:

The scene below the kids:

And across the street:

Cleaning up the big kurban kesim yeri at the end of the day:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

There oughta be a law...

Oh, wait, there is, or was: Until this past spring, the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code made it illegal--and punishable by imprisonment--to publicly insult "Turkishness" or the "Republic." (Now, under the April amendments, this only applies to purportedly more specific jabs at the “Turkish Nation” or the “Republic of Turkey.")

Though limitations on free speech (especially when they affect our ability to watch funny videos on YouTube) are of course no laughing matter, us yabancı smart-asses have found plenty of humor using this to cry foul at a variety of minor slights that we see as being very un-Turkish:

No çay and ekmek on the table at our favorite breakfast place within five seconds of sitting down?

Why, that's practically insulting Turkishness!

A pide delivery joint that doesn't offer mercimek çorbası?

How can they still be allowed to operate?!

A restaurant closing up shop before 10 p.m.?

May as well haul 'em off to jail now!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Teşekkür gününüz kutlu olsun!

I am, I think, a typical American (read: hypocrite) in that I like to eat meat--especially, mmm, pork--but I don't really want to know where it comes from. It comes from the supermarket, right? In nice, clean little packages of breasts and fillets, hold the sesos and the cabeza and the ciğer (unless, maybe, it's deep-fried), and especially the işkembe. Shudder. To be honest, even handling the packaged cuts of meat makes me a little squeamish.

But, it's Thanksgiving, and if the fact that none of the ex-pats left in town can cook isn't keeping us from celebrating with a turkey in Turkey, nothing will. (We'll be feasting on Saturday, however, since some people have, like, "real jobs" and stuff. No four-day weekend for them here.) So I found myself at the tavukçu ("chicken guy") today, picking up the bird I'd ordered last week. Since I'd made a big point of asking, "Can you completely clean it? Remove all the feathers? Remove all the stuff that's inside?"* and he'd responded, somewhat unconvincingly, "Of course, of course! All you have to do is cook it!" I was a bit taken aback to see the turkey hanging from a ceiling by a hook, with feet, feathers, and all. Its head, or whatever was left of it, in a nice nod toward delicate sensibilities, was covered with a little cone of cardboard.

The tavukçu then slapped my köy hindisi ("village turkey") down on his cutting board, picked up a big knife and proceeded to cut off the head and feet, stuck his hand inside the carcass to pull out the guts (insisting on returning the "delicious" liver and stomach once he'd severed them from the rest of the gunk), and held it over a propane burner to singe off any remaining feather bits. I tried to explain how, "In America, the turkey is already ready. No head, no feet..." He nodded, and smiled, and kept working away.

* I do love that one of the ways to say "remove" in Turkish is yok etmek, "to make non-existent."

More pictures of the tavukçu at work:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Akbil ve ekmek

Generally, it's pretty easy to find the things you need--or some approximation thereof--in Istanbul. When you want a new faucet, you go to the faucet district. Need some towels? Oh, hey, there's a whole row of stores selling the exact same ones. But, occasionally, you need to look in some unlikely places.

I recently filled up my Akbil (a kind of electronic bus pass) at a little sidewalk stand selling loaves of bread.

And when I need to send a fax, I walk up the street to a store where the walls are full, ceiling-to-floor, of cubicles holding various colors of yarn and boxes of pantyhose. The fax machine sits in one of the cubicles, surrounded by stockings.

Now if only we had that classic American quirky-combo--Chinese food & donuts.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Worst. Customer. Service. Ever

I was just making some calls for a friend to computer service centers here in Istanbul, most of which don't seem to have any English-speakers on staff. Which is all understandable and şey, since, you know, we live in Turkey. What was really irritating was the one whose recorded message said,

"For English, press eight."

And then when I pressed 8, said,

"Yanlış numarası." (Wrong number.)

And then, when I tried to wait for an operator, said

"Operatör meşgul." (Operator busy.)

And hung up.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's morning in America

Well, actually, it's not. It's the middle of the night in America. But it's morning in Istanbul, and as we watched the sun rise over the Golden Horn, we also watched Barack Hussein Obama, the next president of the United States, give his acceptance speech.

I'm exhausted and wired and still a bit in shock, and so grateful for all the Turks who have never given me a hard time for being an American--who in fact have responded with surprise and pleasure, even during this dark period for our country--and for the good company in which I watched this momentous occasion. Thank you, America, for not letting me down.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

En patriotic ülke hangisi?

While Greece has it all over Turkey in the eating-a-plate-of-pork-while-drinking-a-tasty-beer department, our neighboring country falls a bit short in terms of patriotism.

Earlier this week, I took a quick trip to Kos, one of the Greek Dodecanese islands, to stock up on cheap alcohol renew my tourist visa. On Tuesday, Greece happened to be celebrating Oxi ("No") Day, a holiday that commemorates the country's refusal to allow Italian troops to come into Greece during World War II and its subsequent entrance into the war on the side of the Allies.

In the early afternoon, there was Greek dancing on Eleftherias Square in Kos Town, performed by school kids in their uniforms and adults in traditional costume, but what I noticed most was the paltry amount of flags:

Compare and contrast, if you will, with the scene in Beşiktaş in preparation for Republic Day in Turkey:

Say what you will about anything else, the Turks know from flag hanging.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How do you say 'treehugger' in Turkish?

For all of you who think I'm just sitting around drinking coffee and surfing the Internet all day, I'll have you know that I've managed to parlay that into something resembling a regular writing gig, or, as I like to call it "blogging for beer money" ... As of about a week ago, I'm the official-ish Istanbul correspondent for the popular environmental website

I'll be writing 3-4 times a week and focusing largely, though not exclusively, on developments in Turkey and this part of the world, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Already I've blogged about ice-cream delivery by bike in some of Istanbul's chicest neighborhoods, problems with garbage collection in the city, a photo contest for images of Turkey's trees, and the country's first organic market. Check it out if you're so inclined.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Trafik çok kalabalık

When I first came to Turkey, in the spring of 2001, there were billboards along the highways telling motorists, "Içinizdeki Trafik Canavarını Durdurun," or "stop the traffic monster inside you."

Traffic in Istanbul, the most populous city in Europe, with an estimated 10-15 million residents and ancient (literally, in some cases) infrastructure, could certainly provoke road rage on the best of days. Throw a little Ramadan, when everyone heads out to visit friends and family, into the mix, and well...

Yesterday I was waiting for a bus between Arnavutköy and Kuruçesme, on the always-crowded shore road that runs along the Bosphorus on the European side. When a bus finally came, it was too full to stop. It was a beautiful day, so I decided to just start walking until another bus came along. About 3 kilometers later, I arrived in Ortaköy--and passed the same bus, sitting in traffic. It didn't catch up with me again until Beşiktaş, another 2 kilometers down the road.

Amazingly, unlike the Hornapalooza we encountered on the toll road back to Istanbul from Edirne a few months ago, the drivers were all sitting silently in their stopped cars.

Perhaps the traffic monster, if not the traffic, has been calmed a bit. Or perhaps everyone was just too sedated from all the holiday feasting to even bother.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Silah Bayramı

For some silly reason, I thought that Şeker Bayramı, the three-day holiday at the end of Ramazan, was the time when children get all hyped up on sugar. Based on my wanderings today through Fener, Fatih, and Aksaray, some of the more conservative--and hence, one would think, observant of religious traditions--neighborhoods in Istanbul, it's actually the time when little boys run wild in the streets, shooting off cap guns at each other and at random passers-by. Of course, there might be a connection between that and the candy.

High Turknology

Even though we're thousands of miles away, all the ex-pats here are still avidly following the U.S. presidential race--perhaps even more keenly than we might have before since we can see firsthand what political developments back home do to the perception of America (and Americans) abroad.

After a night out at a meyhane and then one of Istanbul's many identical Efes-swilling establishments, I was really in no shape to stay up until 4 a.m., when the first presidential debate was aired in these parts. So Saturday afternoon I found myself venturing out into the rain to watch a taped screening hosted by my local chapter of Democrats Abroad, whereupon I encountered perhaps the best example yet of what my friends call Turknology: a video projector stuck to the ceiling with packing tape. Amazingly, it stayed up there for the full 90+ minutes of the debate.

Now, when people talk about Turknology, they're usually complaining about slap-dash workmanship, the kind that leads to just-"fixed" roofs springing a leak and things like that. But there's also an element of ingenuity and unbridled optimism to it that I (of course--I've got a bad reputation over here for such thoughts) find quite charming. Sure, the ambition is not always, or even often, matched by accomplishment, but people are always trying to find ways to get stuff done. Unoccupied car blocking the middle of a busy road? Pick it up and move it along to the side. Rain pooling on top of a tarp? Poke the bottom of it with a stick. (Never mind the people standing nearby.) A couple of yabancıs buy too much furniture and try to stuff it all in a taxicab? Have one of them lie on top of the furniture in the back seat! (No thanks, I'll walk.)

I actually feel a bit put out now when people don't try to find a make-shift solution to a problem. When I went to Bulgaria at the end of April, I got up to the door of the once-a-day bus to a monastery I really wanted to visit, only to find that the bus was full. The driver just shrugged and drove off and I walked away thinking, if I were in Turkey, they would have let me sit in the aisle, hang out the door, tied me to the roof... When there's Turknology, there's always a way!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ayakkabı boyama

One can (and, too often, does) complain about the lack of things in Istanbul--favorite foods, easily accessible parks and beaches, a second type of beer--but one cannot complain about being able to get a nice shoe shine for $1.62 while watching ferries ply the waters of the Golden Horn and the sun set on the Galata Tower.

Under the bridge
Under the bridge
Originally uploaded by mission75

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I want candying

I can't believe it's taken me this long to notice that the sign on the end of the snack aisle at Carrefour, yabancıköy's favorite supermarket, reads:

Hmm, it's getting close to happy hour... I think I may be more in the market for something from the "salty" and "boozing" aisles...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ain't no party like a Çukurcuma party

About an hour and a half ago, I heard an amplified voice broadcasting greetings from my living room. Or at least, that's what it sounded like. Turns out the neighbors are having a party. When I saw a few folks decked out in suits and cocktail-type dresses, I was hoping it would be a wedding or something else interesting to watch, but it seems to be just the standing-around-in-the-backyard kind of party. With very, very loud Turkish dance music.

Update: Now at least there's some dancing to go along with the dance music...

Friday, August 15, 2008

İstanbul'da kalmak istiyorum

While filling out my request for an absentee ballot (no way I'd miss any election, much less this one), I had to decide whether to classify myself as a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S. "temporarily" or "indefinitely." Though it's just a damn form, it felt a little momentous choosing the later. With almost 7 months in Istanbul under my belt, even a year abroad is starting to seem like a very, very short time. I've met the major first goal I set for myself, completing a six-month series of language classes, and although my Turkish still needs a lot of improvement, I also need to move into phase two--seeing if I can find enough work to sustain myself here. Wouldn't want to have lied to the government, now would I?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Belly up

Sports bar, originally uploaded by mission75.

Lefty O'Doul's. The Bell in Hand. Pshaw. Youngsters. This is what a historic sports bar looks like. Part of the ruins of an inn on the outskirts of Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port city, this room is decorated with mosaics of athletes on the floor. Since no self-respecting haven for weary travelers could be without a pub, and since buildings of the time were often decorated according to their function--the mosaics at the fishmongers' shop have a piscatorial theme, for example--I can only conclude that this was the spot to toss a few back and talk about last night's game. Or, er, gladiatorial match.

(Though it doesn't have the cachet of the Colosseum or the Vatican, I think Ostia Antica is an absolute can't-miss for any visitor to Rome. An easy metro ride out of the center, it's an extensive and well-preserved ancient city--some call it a "mini-Pompeii"--that you can explore in near solitude, really getting a sense of what life of the time might have been like.)

So, how 'bout them Centurions?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Turkey 101

Before I left for Istanbul, but after I had made my plans known, one of my dear friends told me how she had pulled her car over to the side of the road one day to listen to an NPR report about Turkey. And other friends have passed along articles they've read, asking what I think. I love the idea that I'm bringing this strange country I love a little closer to the people I love. But the news developments here are admittedly hard to follow. (I'm racing to catch up myself.) If you've been hearing little snippets about headscarf bans, judicial coups, lawsuits against the government, falan, falan (etc., etc.), here's a handy little primer from the latest Economist*:

Flags, veils and sharia
Behind the court case against Turkey’s ruling party lies an existential question: how Islamist has the country become?
* Yes, I read the Economist now. I also cook, take my cell phone everywhere, and can carry on multiple IM conversations while texting. They say travel changes you, but somehow that's not quite what I had in mind...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting the picture

It's taken living in Turkey to break me of my eco-unfriendly habit of getting receipts from the ATM. Since the lira figures on the receipts don't match up with the dollar amounts coming out of my U.S. account, there doesn't seem much point. But even if I hadn't already made the switch, the supremely awesome guilt trip laid down by local bank Yapi Kredi would have done the trick: When the ATM asks whether you want a receipt or not, the "yes" and "no" options are accompanied by cartoon images of, respectively, a lush little forest and a pile of tree stumps. Subtle!

In other news, making photocopies is apparently haram (forbidden) on Sundays.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Screams in the night

I do not know the first thing about how futbol is played, but I must admit that the screams (and now gunshots) from my neighbors when Turkey is playing--and winning!--are intoxicating. Anyone want to volunteer to teach me a thing or two?

Friday, June 20, 2008

California pride

There's a lovely, if ridiculously expensive, little wine store up the street in Istanbul's yabancı köy (or "foreigner villager," as my friends have aptly dubbed Cihangir) that actually stocks such exotic delights as Brooklyn Lager and Ravenswood wine. But at $25 a six-pack or $65 a bottle, respectively, I generally walk straight past these tastes of home to grab whatever bottle of Italian table wine is on sale this week.

Today, though, I lingered a bit and noticed that while most sections of the store are labeled with the flag of the wines' country of origin, the American section bears (no pun intended) the standard of the "California Republic."

I employed my usual combination of crappy Turkish and excessive hand gestures to tell the man working the counter that I was from California and that I liked the flag. He replied that Americans in general are "antipatik" but Californians are "sempatik." Why, thanks, Istanbul. I love you too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Twin cities

I didn't do much to help my own case when I posited to friends that Istanbul was basically San Francisco East (far, far east), and then posted pictures of my new city covered in snow. But I stand by my assessment--now more than ever.

It was the lovely light in both places, and the graceful topographical dance of hills and water that first led me to make this comparison. Since spending more time in Istanbul, I've seen how both cities enjoy a good party and a good protest in equal measure (though any Istanbul'lu would surely be appalled at how early the streets of SF roll up at night). But these days they share some less alluring qualities as well, from skyrocketing real-estate prices and a revolving door of unaffordable restaurants to pants-less vagrants moaning in the streets.

All Istanbul needs now is Gavin. He would fit right in amongst the Turkish men--they could bond over their shared love for hair gel and womanizing tendencies--and maybe he could do something about one of the major dissimilarities: Turkey's atrocious record on gay rights.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Mixed messages

To say Turkey is full of contradictions is a cliché, but if there wasn't truth to that, people wouldn't keep saying it. And the combination of a population that's reportedly 99.8 percent Muslim with an ostensibly secular state (occasionally kept that way by force) does produce some doozies.

Last week saw liberal Turks and the European press dismayed at an article published by the government's directorate of religious affairs that recommended what it saw as proper sexual conduct for women. (Personally, I'm at least halfway there, as I've got the eschewing-perfume part down and I must say I look pretty darn cute in a headscarf.)

But while one branch of the government was advising women that they "should not show their ornaments and figure and that they should cover in a fine manner," another was promoting tourism to Turkey with this ad. Keeps life interesting, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ne zor

Turkish food, while tasty, does tend toward repetition. This "caution" from a travel article about Lebanon in the (purportedly) English-language daily Today's Zaman perhaps lends a little insight into the Turkish culinary mentality:

Cuisine: You will have no problem finding delicious food that appeals to your taste buds in Lebanon. The one factor that might be a little difficult is the abundant use of spices and distinctive sauces.
Yes, those abundant, distinctive flavors are to be avoided at all costs.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bizim ödülümüz

Yesterday, I literally went up a level at Dilmer, the language school where I've been studying since my arrival in Istanbul. Whether by coincidence or design, each subsequent class has been on an increasingly higher floor of the building, and for all the hard work it took to get to level 5 (and to climb all those darn stairs to the 6th floor), we were rewarded with this view:

A bit distracting, değil mi?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hey, it's that guy again

No blog about Turkey could be complete without a post about Atatürk and the occasion of gazing upon his false teeth seems like a good enough excuse for mine. Founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk is basically to the Turks as JFK and the Pope rolled into one would be to American Catholics. No home or business is complete without a framed photo of him on the wall, not even the smallest park could be without a statue of him, and it's actually against the law to say anything bad about him. (Hopefully noting that the amount of gold in said teeth wouldn't impress an Uzbek doesn't fall into that category.)

In addition to cutting quite the dashing figure, Atatürk really did influence modern Turkey to an insane degree with his insistence on turning it practically overnight into a "secular," "Western" society--the meaning of which is hotly debated still. I mean, the guy even made everyone in the country take a last name. (Humbly dubbing himself "Father Turk.") And I personally owe him a debt of gratitude because without his changing the alphabet from Arabic to Latin-plus-a-few-spare-letters, Turkish would be even harder to learn.

Now about those teeth. You can find them at the Atatürk Museum, a nondescript pink house in Şişli where the great man apparently laid his head for a time. Also on display is some dirt from the town where he was born, various outfits and accessories, and an entire room of commemorative stamps: Atatürk lost in thought while smoking! Atatürk's mom! His adopted daughter, Turkey's first female pilot! Atatürk looking out the train window as it brought him closer to his people! You get the idea. But if you're half as fascinated by this whole business as I am, it's still worth seeing for yourself.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Yazın hüzün

Yalnız bir kişi için İstanbul'un güzelliği bazen çok fazla tahammül edebilir.

Sometimes this city's beauty is almost too much to bear alone.

Ev hanımın olmak istiyorum*

I wish I'd taken a picture of the lovely salad I made for the little dinner party I attended last night. Or the banana bread I baked for the morning boat trip this past weekend. Or the kick-ass potato and kale soup I made last week for no reason at all. Now no one is ever going to believe how domestic I'm getting over here, an unexpected, but not-unwelcome side effect of being on my own, trying to save money, and having a vastly reduced selection of good restaurants around me. Between the cooking, the baby-holding, and the laundry hanging-out (dryers aren't exactly de rigueur here), I'm turning into a right proper housewife. Now I just need to learn how to iron. Whatever it takes to snare the Turkish man of my dreams. (Şaka yapıyorum, şaka yapıyorum!)

* The first time I came to Turkey, seven years ago, a guy working at one of the hostels where we were staying told our friend Ana that she would make a good housewife. He seemed to think that this was quite a high compliment. So Ayla taught us how to say this, one of the first Turkish phrases I ever learned: "I want to be your housewife." Alas, I've yet to have occasion to deploy this gem.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oh, a Turk... well, why didn't you say so?

Sad, but perversely funny story from my hometown paper today:

Asylum case reopened on transcription error
(05-14) 15:54 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- When Svetlana Grigoryan was presenting her case for political asylum in the United States, she testified through an interpreter that a crowd of people attacked her family in her native Armenia in 1995, badly injuring her and killing her 13-year-old son, "because my mother was a cook." ...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Local angle

Even though I know news outlets often demand a local angle on international stories from their reporters, it always bothered me when papers back home would highlight the handful of Americans who lived or died in a disaster that had affected thousands. I don't know if it makes me feel better or worse to see that the Turkish papers do the same: Yes, 23,000 to 100,000 people are dead in Myanmar, but at least those 50 Turks are OK.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sabahleyin Boğaziçi'nde deniz gezintisi

Today, I tip my mimosa glass to the U.S. government (I know, I know, how often do I say that?!) for not only providing me with a beautiful, and dirt-cheap, Bosphorus cruise this morning, thanks to a diplomat friend, but helping fund my lifestyle with the tax rebate check it deposited into my bank account this week.

Thanks, fellas. I'll be sure to use the cash to help stimulate the economy...of Turkey.

More photos from the water after the jump...


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hoş geldin, David!

The Istanbul ex-pat crew has a bebek in the family now, Matt and Jes's adorable baby boy David Abraham, who we all excitedly welcomed to town on Saturday.

(Photo by Christy Q)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bir Mayıs

There was no dancing around a ribbon-bedecked pole here yesterday. In Istanbul, May 1st is a day to bring out the heavy artillery. (Then again, when isn't that the case?)

It was sunny, beautiful, and very, very quiet as Ayla and I walked up Istıklal Cadessı to Taksim Meydanı, the massive central square in Beyoğlu where protests for workers' rights have been banned since 37 demonstrators were killed in 1977. With probably 75 percent of the shops along the way shuttered, the workers' groups had, in a strange way, achieved part of their goal: making May Day a holiday, at least in this part of town.

It seemed unlikely, however, that they would be able to fulfill their declared intention to march on Taksim, which was completely encircled by fencing and guarded at every possible entrance by mobs of riot police, as well as snipers (ahem, sharpshooters) on the roofs of nearby buildings. I read later that there were 30,000 police patrolling Istanbul.

With area schools closed, tourist season already seemingly in full swing, and transit closures keeping many people at home, there were plenty of gawkers watching the cops watch the empty streets.

And with the square so heavily guarded, what protesters there were ended up in the side streets, including those of the hotel district just northeast of the square, giving coffee-sipping tourists quite an eyeful. (And at least one group of heavily styled and shopping-bag-laden women a noseful of tear gas as they tottered along the cobbled street in their high heels.)

So, we heard some chants, got some whiffs of gas, and called it a day, not realizing that the real action (such as it was) was right up the street from my house!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What I learned on my trip to Sofia

1. Don't go to an Orthodox Christian country on Easter weekend
When even Dunkin' Donuts is closed, you know you're in trouble. The town was dead as a doornail. Sure, I've been living in a Muslim country, and my Protestant peeps back home all celebrated the holiday a month ago, but this little oversight made me feel like the kind of cultural ignoramus everyone expects Americans to be. I hate that.

2. Every city park should sell hot donuts and cold beer
Istanbul is particularly lacking on both counts, but even my fair San Francisco is uncharacteristically prudish about the drinking-in-public part. Point for Bulgaria.

3. Cyrillic is like, really, really hard
I generally avoid restaurants with photos on the menu like the plague, but I sure would have loved to find one in Sofia! It was humbling to look at menus and wall signs and train schedules and not even be able to recognize, much less understand, a single word. I could walk past the place I was looking for two or three times before realizing that I had actually found it, since my map and guidebook had everything written out in the Latin alphabet, while all the signage was... not.

(On the flip side, finding myself continually thinking, "I wish I could just ask this in Turkish!" made me realize I'm coming along better than I thought with my language classes. I was besides myself with happiness to come back to the bus station for the return trip and be able to stow my luggage with a quick "Çantam otobuse koyabilir miyim?")

4. The call to prayer sounds awfully forlorn as a solo act
There's just one little mosque in all of Sofia. When the call to prayer began, I kept expecting the chorus to grow, but it sounded thin and lonely with no others to join in.

5. Nobody does spike heels and painted-on pants at church like the women of the former Soviet Union
It's an especially nice touch when the gold of their shoes reflects the golden glow of the candles they're carrying. You don't see that at Eyüp Camii. No wonder one of the Russian churches had a sign indicating, along with the usual "no cell phones," "no cameras," "no food" symbols, what could only be interpreted as icons for "no mini-skirts" and "no backless tops."

6. Pork is really, really tasty
Especially when it's stuffed with bacon and blue cheese. OK, I already knew that last one. But in this case, absence really did make the heart grow fonder.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pazar günü

It's kind of funny that in a city where you can walk for blocks without finding a store that sells anything other than pipe fittings, you can also buy live fish and
children's clothing at adjacent stalls. Not to mention head scarfs, underwear both immodest and enormous, SpongeBob SquarePants sweat pants, and a "Girls Just Want to Be Fun" t-shirt. (No, that's not a typo--at least, not my typo.)

Today was Çocuk Bayramı (Children's Holiday), and I'm not really sure what that means, except that I got the day off from school. On the recommendation of Phil Bey, I trekked out to the Fatih street market, which was possibly even more crowded than Eminönü. After taking a couple of laps, I heeded one of the many calls of "beş lira, beş lira, hepsi beş lira" and plunged into the sea of women snatching up completely random t-shirts. With so many people pressed up against the table, you could really only examine what was within arm's reach, but fortunately the vendors had concocted an imaginative solution to this problem: Every few minutes, they turned the whole heap of clothes over like a compost pile and tossed it to another part of the table. Voila! A brand new supply.

Connoisseurs of t-shirt slogans will surely be disappointed that I opted against buying the "Angel Fashion Ref Forever Glamour Lucky Girl" or "It's good to have a journey with Mr. Perky" models. (Let's take a vote on that last line, shall we: Is it a sexual innuendo or a druggie one?)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ödev yapan kız

Bir gün (someday), I hope I'll be to read and speak some Turkish without having to mentally convert everything into English first. Of course, that will deprive me of the fun of making literal, word-for-word translations like this one:

"The accident-making men are sad."

(That's "Kazar yapan adamlar üzgün," for anyone who's playing along at home.)

Hemen, kahve içen kız okula gideceğim.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Goin' places

I just booked a bus ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria, for my first trip out of the country. I can't believe I've been here almost three months already. Am looking forward to getting a couple more stamps in my sadly empty new passport. Plus, I hear they have pork there.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Canım için avuntu

Originally uploaded by mission75

When I'm feeling stressed or down, I'm drawn to the Galata Bridge, where the views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn never fail to soothe the spirit.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Those who know me can vouch that the last way I would probably describe myself is as "an American." I'll proudly claim my San Francisco and California roots, but patriotism is not exactly my strong suit. So one of the things that's been interesting about being away from my country of origin is realizing how much I've been unwittingly marked by it. My generally unfailing punctuality is one dead giveaway, as is my nagging tendency to want to cross streets in an orderly manner, at stoplights and between well-marked white lines. (The latter habit I've made great strides toward breaking, as trying to follow it in Istanbul would mean I'd still be waiting at the corner with last week's groceries.)

More challenging to confront is the gravitational pull toward "productivity." For the first time since I was 17, I don't have a job, and though this does not pose any practical difficulties at the moment, it does open up a philosophical cans of worms. Who am I without a job? (I still say "gazeteciyim"--I am a journalist--even though I'm one without a outlet for my byline at the moment. For me, after all, that career has always been as much a way of looking at the world as a way to earn a check.) What am I accomplishing? What am I contributing?

Though to me those are all very personal questions, many people here have told me that they are also "very American." If I have the opportunity to not work for a while, they say, I should enjoy it, explore new things, stave off the 9-to-5 for as long as possible. I don't think I'll ever shed the desire, the drive to accomplish things, but I hope I can expand my definition of what that entails. And not just to make it less obvious where I hail from.

UPDATE: I'm apparently not the only expat who feels this way. This American woman who's been living in Scandinavia for 32 years puts it well:
"When you're an American living in America, it's one thing but when you live abroad in another country, in certain ways that feeling becomes even stronger because you realize that things that you think are individual characteristics are actually national ones so you identify even more strongly with your nationality."

Monday, March 31, 2008


Hey, how'd that happen? I completed my second level of Turkish classes on Friday, and here's the proof. My class went out to a lovely lunch afterwards, then I took myself to see an inspiring photography exhibit, and of course there was some celebratory Efes drinking after that. Haydı, kutlayalım!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Aynı değil

I haven't been here long enough to miss much about my life back in the States, but I can already say with certainty that reading the Sunday New York Times online, even while drinking a decent cup of coffee, is just not the same as curling up on the couch with the real thing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Beş lira, beş lira, buyurun!

Alışverişten nefret ediyorum (I hate shopping), but I do love wandering around in Eminönü, where everything from sweaters to watches seems to be 5 YTL.

It starts in the passageways underneath the busy waterfront roadway, where I swear yesterday I heard one guy call out "Altı lira, buyurun," before he was drowned out by a chorus of other guys undercutting him. (Buyurun, by the way, is pretty much the world's most useful word. It can mean welcome, here you go, have a seat, come over here, and who knows what else.)
Shopping in Eminönü proper is as kalabalık (crowded) as an American mall the day after Thanksgiving. Except the mobs are outside, pushing strollers and carts of merchandise over piles of freshly torn-up asphalt, picking their way through mud and around the guy using a blowtorch in the front of his shop, stopping to examine wares laid out in the middle of the street, and getting out of the way of the occasional driver crazy enough to try and plow his car through all of this.  Oh yeah, and it's like this every day.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

İlkbahar başlıyor

On a rare tatil günü (holiday) from class, I crossed the Golden Horn and explored the areas around Eyüp and the city walls. As you can see, it was a perfect day for it.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Hoş geldiniz, günes!

Fishing seems to be a pretty democratic pastime in Istanbul. On sunny days, you'll find old men, young couples, even whole families casting their lines off of bridges, piers, or, in this case, the sidewalk, with empty yogurt tubs or water bottles full of wriggling fish behind them. My favorites are the iş adamılar (businessmen) in their suits, collars loosened and cigarettes dangling out of the sides of their mouths as they wile away their lunch hours.

Catch of the day

And yes, this is the same city that was covered in snow 10 days ago.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Little victories

It shouldn't be that exciting to have figured out how to get bottled water delivered to the apartment and add minutes to my phone, but it is. I fumbled and bumbled with the language, but I got it done. I even made a little (very little) small talk with the water guy, although at first I thought he said he had children in the neighborhood, when actually he'd lived in the neighborhood since he was a child.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I had a funny experience yesterday at Koç Taş, a Home Depot copy-cat located in Europe's largest mall. I was looking for a door stopper and, not knowing the right word, mustered my courage to go up to one of the employees and fumblingly ask, "Pardon, bir şey kücük... kapı... açık... kapalı... var mı?" (Basically, "Do you have a small thing... door... open... closed?") while pointing at the ground.

The guy thought for a minute and then responded, in what sounded like the phony French way we pronounce Target "Tarjay," "stohper?" Uh, yeah. What he said.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Çok garip

Maalesef (unfortunately), commentary on my Turkish classes probably makes for tedious reading, but they have pretty much consumed all of my brain space at this point, mostly with trying to learn the language, and sometimes with puzzling over the sheer strangeness of some of the exercises.

Sure, it's useful to be able to say "Sinemaya gitmek istiyorum" (I like to go the movies), and if you're angling for a job in one of the many Turkish bureaucracies, you might want to learn "Evlenmeden önce, senin soyadın neydi?" (Before marriage, what was your last name?) But tell me, please, when one of these sentences might come in handy:

"Benim annem gençken çok zayıftı, şimdi biraz şişman."
(When she was young, my mother was very thin; now she's a little fat.)

"Senin kulakların eskiden çok büyüktü. Şimdi küçük, ne yaptın?"
(Your ears used to be very big. Now they're small - what happened?)

I am, however, pleased that I finally figured out how to get my keyboard to type all these wacky characters.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hava karlı

Snowy nightAt 2:30 a.m., İstiklal Caddesi, the popular pedestrian thoroughfare in my neighborhood was full of people having snowball fights and making snow angels in the street.

I live in Istanbul and it's snowing. Somehow, right now, that's enough.

Snowy night 2

Friday, February 15, 2008

Adamlar ve kadınlar

So far there have been a couple of "day-in-the-life" stories in my Turkish-language workbook, one about Ahmet Bey (Mr. Ahmet) and one about Fatma Hanım (Mrs. Fatma). They're very similar, but I think there's some subtle contextual differences that I'm not picking up on yet...

They both go to work every day.
He's a doctor.
She's a secretary.

They both do things after work...
He kicks back, then goes to a bar.
She goes shopping and makes dinner.

...and on the weekends.
He reads, listens to music, watches TV, and plays tennis.
She does the cleaning and the laundry.

I can't quite put my finger on what I'm supposed to be learning here, but I think I need to go wash, cook, or sew something.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I've moved

...from one rapidly gentrifying, hipster-ridden neighborhood to another, or so it seems. After staying with my friends Ayla and Simon for my first couple of weeks in Istanbul, I've found a room to rent in nearby Çukurcuma, a neighborhood that my 2007 TimeOut Istanbul guide refers to as "a quiet Beyoğlu backwater" and a "shabby chic antique district." Last week, these same antique shops were featured in the New York Times travel section:

Day Out | Cukurcuma, Istanbul
A More Intimate Grand Bazaar
Forget the Grand Bazaar. If you want to return from Istanbul with truly memorable souvenirs, head over to the winding streets of Cukurcuma, the city’s funky antiques district, where you can get anything from camel saddles to decorative brass faucets from defunct Turkish baths.

Just call it the Mission District East--way, way east.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bu bir pipo değil.

We've spent the better part of the last two days in my Turkish class pointing at desks and asking if they are chairs.

"Bu bir sandalye mi?"
"Bu bir sandalye değil, masa."

I've also learned that there are not kangaroos in India ("Hindistan'da kanguru yok.") or camels in France ("Fransa'da deve yok."), and that in Turkish, "there is no discrimination." This last bit of wisdom was from our öğretmen (teacher), Mehmet, in response to a student's question about whether the word for a profession was the same whether the practitioner was male or female.

There may be no discrimination in the language, but I've decided (in my latest cockamamie theory) that language is at the root of the country's sexist attitudes. For our homework today, we also started learning verbs. A noun is often made into a verb by adding the suffix -mak or -mek. For example, düşün is "thought"; düşünmek, "to think." And then kız is "girl" and kızmak is... "to get angry." Makes sense, right? We'll just get a new word for getting angry and gender equality will reign over Turkey.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


One of the things I noticed immediately on my first trip to Turkey in 2001 was the omnipresent Turkcell logo.

Rather inexplicably, the country's main cell phone provider has chosen to identify itself with what looks like a be-tuxedoed banana slug. Since that strange creature was also my college mascot, it made me feel right at home.

Now, thanks to Ayla, I have a Turkcell of my very own. Here, they call voicemail "SekreterCell." As the Turkcell website* explains, it is "just like a private assistant" who will "save the message of the person that called you, when your number is busy, or when you can’t answer it." Quelle nouveau!

You also have to tell your phone that you want to divert missed calls to your "secretary" -- it's not the default option. When I get a little fancier, I may try out one of the assuredly hilarious prerecorded greetings, like "Funny butcher," "Listening to you, honey," or "How we used to stay with our moms." Either that, or the theme from The Godfather.

* UPDATE: Sadly, this feature, or at least the hilarious description of it, appears to have been discontinued...