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.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A taste of Turkey in 2010

Stuffed as we were with hummus and wild greens, hearty stews and succulent kebab, the sensible thing to do would have been to push our chairs away from the table and sigh. But the meal wasn't complete without just one more thing.

"You're ordering a walnut for dessert?" the newcomer asked, not bothering to hide her look of disdain. The waiter laughed. When he returned with the dish, he presented it with a flourish. "Your walnut dessert!" Our friend peered at the plate's content: Four small black olive-like orbs, glistening with syrup, accompanied by a dollop of thick cream. She poked her fork at one gingerly. "Just try it!" we insisted.

It's true that ceviz tatlısı, or ceviz reçeli, as it's also known, doesn't look, or sound, particularly appetizing. Take whole walnuts, soften their shells with slaked lime, then candy the whole thing. But the result is sweet, rich, and complex, something you want to slice into infinitesimally small pieces so it won't ever come to an end. Of all the great food I've tasted at Çiya, it's perhaps the most amazing. It hasn't failed to win a convert yet.

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As much as we expats like to complain about the lack of imagination shown at most Turkish restaurants, and the lack of interest among many Turks in other cuisines, Turkish food can be incredibly delicious. I had some of my most memorable eating experiences of the year in a rather unlikely location, the far northeastern city of Kars, perhaps best known as the dreary setting for Orhan Pamuk's lovely and compelling book Snow.

Though the town has few restaurants, and the region lacks the culinary reputation of Southeastern Anatolia, Kars gave me my first taste of roast goose (incredibly rich, if on the heavy/fatty) side, the best simit I've ever eaten (soft, fresh, infused with sesame flavor -- who knew it could taste like this?), a warm, almost gingerbread-y helva, the closest thing I've found to a homegrown blue cheese in Turkey, and a stuffed Anteplim pide so bursting with flavor (and so strangely reminiscent of a Thai chicken pizza) that I ate it two days in a row. It's also where I realized that all those traditional dishes such as etli taze fasulye that I dread seeing on the cafeteria menu at work actually have something to recommend them when made properly.

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Closer to home, I loved every moment I spent shivering by the Golden Horn in order to eat fresh, cheap hamsi (anchovies) and fish soup, an experience I wrote about in an end-of-the-year submission to Istanbul Eats' "Best Bites of 2010." Sitting in the same spot on a warm summer night, with a perfectly grilled fish and a cold beer, wasn't too bad either.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

That good-intention-paved road goes somewhere nice, right?

Yeah, yeah, resolutions are soooo passé. I got the memo. So taking my cue from a discussion in a writers' group I recently joined, I have three "intentions" for 2011. (Synonyms are awesome, aren't they?) I'm putting them out here on the off chance it might bring me a few ideas or tips, words of encouragement or nagging reminders of what I set out to do.

  1. Turn my collection of scribbled notes on everything from food to design to bird-watching into pitches and send them out.

  2. Reclaim my title as "the girl who actually goes out and does stuff" by getting back in the habit of trying new restaurants, going to more art exhibits and cultural events, and just wandering around in random neighborhoods. It's a big city, dammit!

  3. Start figuring out how to get to Iran and trace my family roots in the Urmia (Orumieh) area. All I've got to go on so far is Assyrian (Syriac, Nestorian, whatever) Christians in the village of Spurkhan (probably actually Supurghan). And that darn U.S. passport as a big strike against me.