Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Turkish toilets: a cultural experience.

Well, this is just a little cultural aside, to tide you over while you wait for some more profound experience to be posted on this blog.

So... Turkish style toilets. In a great many places, there are the toilets all of us Westerners are used to, although, in Turkey, you may be interested to know, you can't flush paper down the toilet. Instead, it goes in the bathroom bin. But that's not really that big of an adjustment to make.

Turkish toilets, however, are more interesting. Basically, if you'll forgive my crudeness, you must squat over them. And, since they don't flush, there is a little faucet next to the toilet and you fill a little bucket or pitcher with water and then sort of rinse out the toilet yourself. Also, it is Muslim custom not to use toilet paper, but to wash yourself after your bathroom experience. But don't worry; all the places I've been to have toilet paper too!

I don't know why the toilets are like this, but I think it must be good for building leg strength as you balance over a hole in the floor. So, any of you who are prospective visitors, be ready! And maybe bring some tissues with you, just in case!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A totally relaxing day

Today I enjoyed one of those days where you really have no worries and can just wander and sit around and feel good about being alive.

I had a slow start this morning, slept in and did a little of this and that in the flat. When Richie got home from his first day of work, we went out for a bit of lunch and he told me all about his day. But, since he's a working man now, he had to go home and do some lesson planning for tomorrow. So, I took myself out for the afternoon and enjoyed every bit of it.

I first went to this little tucked away place off of Istiklal Cad. Its a courtyard, surrounded by cool hippie type clothes shops and tourist knick-knack stores. I sat down at one of the little low tables on my little stool and finished reading From the Holy Mountain. I am so sad that its over. Such a great book. I was just sitting there, drinking my few cups of tea, slowly absorbing the words, just enjoying the feel of the book in my hands, visualizing these wild places in Upper Egypt, feeling the warm end-of-summer air, and pausing here and there to take in the buzz of all the people around me. It was such a cool spot to sit, and cheap tea too.

Then I headed home to check on Richie and get a new book to read. I wandered around a bit, and then turned down this little side street where a couple of musicians were playing outside of a small bar. There was a violinist and a guy playing the guitar and singing. Again, in my state of total relaxation, I just sat, soaked in the great music and sipped at my small beer (they didn't serve coffee or tea there). Now I'm back home again to get Richie to come out for a bit of dinner. Our gas canister for our stove has run out of fuel, and we're not really sure how to replace it or refill it, so tonight we go out. Sounds good to me. I'm far too chilled to cook. Or too lazy.

Anyway, that's it. Not very eventful, but so lovely. Its really great to be alive on days like this.

Tuesday nights: Greek music and dancing

So, Tuesday nights have now become Rebetiko Music nights. There's a little bar, literally a one minute walk from our apartment where they have this live music every Tuesday. A fellow teacher, who is Greek-American, introduced us to the event a couple of weeks ago.

Rebetiko is sort of a style of Greek urban folk music. It is also referred to as Greek blues music. I'm getting all of this information from Wikipedia, so if anyone who is an expert happens to read this and is disappointed by my misinformation, I apologize.

Anyway, the place is very lively once the music gets going. This past Tuesday, with the help of a little raki in my system, I asked a group of girls on the dance floor to teach me to dance. They said, they didn't know, they were Turkish, not Greek. I said, that doesn't matter to me! So, they showed me some nice hip and shoulder moves and a few hand flourishes and we all had a nice giggle, and PRESTO I can now dance Turkish style. I wouldn't say I can dance Turkish style very well, but its a start. I think that belly dancing I did in college is going to come in handy! Seems similar to that in some ways. Now I'm just going to practice every Tuesday!

He might not like me revealing this, but after a while, Richie even got up to dance. He sort of stood near our table to guard the handbags, but he was getting into it a bit. In a couple of weeks he'll be on the dance floor, leaping and swaying and going for it, Turkish/Greek man-style!

Friday, October 23, 2009

A good news day!

Well, it has been a good day for both me and Richie!

Today Richie was offered part-time work at a language school nearby, and he starts tomorrow. Now he is officially a teacher. I am very proud of him. Now finding more work should be even easier, because he's a part of the teacher club now. The only down-side is that its Friday night and he has to stay home and work instead of going out to celebrate. That will have to wait for tomorrow evening.

And my good news is that the language school that I work with offered me additional hours working with some business professionals at a company in Istanbul. The person offering me the position also said that if/when the hours become available, they may offer me a full-time position doing this instead of my current university work. He said that the pay and benefits would be the same or better. So, who knows? But in the meantime, Richie and I are much better off than we were yesterday, so I'm happy. I'm still waiting to hear from a couple people about one-to-one private lessons too, which would really be perfect. Then I can start planning trips to the hamam again!!!!!

Okay, that's all the news for now. I must go cook. I'm starving.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ortakoy Camii

Today I went on my first trip to a mosque (in Turkish, camii), which was pretty interesting. I had to walk up Istiklal Caddesi, to Taksim Square, on my way. There was some kind of protest again, as I could see tons of riot police around. I saw lots of people involved in the march or protest or whatever it was, but I have no idea what it was all about. All I could see was that a very few of them were wearing braided red, yellow and green headbands. This gathering seemed peaceful, and I think the riot police are sent out for just about everything, but it still feels a bit odd being in a place where riots and crazy stuff happen from time to time. No teargas today though, I'm happy to report.

Anyway, I walked to this mosque right on the Bosphorus. I had sat outside it before, during my first week in Istanbul, but I didn't go inside that time. Richie was at a job interview, so I was on my own. I wasn't exactly sure what the protocol for mosque visiting was, but I brought a scarf because I know women have to wear one in the building. When I arrived, I had to leave my shoes at the door. Inside, an old man gave me a long skirt to pull on over mine, which was just below knee length, but obviously not modest enough. Then I wrapped my headscarf around me, and walkd in


It was quite beautiful, but very different from my experience of churches. There was just one man praying in the corner, and the other four or five people inside were all tourists. There was a huge, and very low hanging chandelier, a sort of pulpit and a really high domed ceiling. One noticeable feature of a mosque is a sort of niche in one wall, which shows the direction of Mecca, since Muslims always pray facing their holiest city. The floor was carpeted and there were some beautiful and very large calligraphy plaques (I'm not sure what you should call them. They aren't really pictures.) It seemed odd to me, first that there are no seats of any kind, so when the place is empty, its looks sort of like a house that no one lives in. Secondly, I'm so used to churches being full of statues, little altars, candles, pictures of Jesus, Mary and saints, stained glass windows, etc. In a Mosque, there are no such things. Muslims don't have images of God or holy people because they believe that it is idolatrous.

It was strange to me, but I suppose that other Christians might have a similar feel in their churches. I wonder how Muslims think of their holy spaces, and how the mosque is tied in with worship exactly. Because Catholics believe that there is a physical presence of Jesus in a Catholic church, the actual building and space has its own importance. However, I suppose it must be different for Christians of other creeds who don't have this consecrated presence in the church, and perhaps it is similar for Muslims. And from my understanding, Muslim prayer can take place anywhere, so maybe a mosque isn't an integral part of Muslim worship, but is just a community gathering space. I hope I eventually make some Muslim friends who can teach me more about their religion and answer my questions.

So, after a bit of peaceful contemplation in the mosque, I headed over to a nearby cafe, directly on the water's edge and had a cup of Turkish coffee and read a bit of my book. I can't believe how warm it is still! It is still summer in Istanbul! I enjoyed sitting in the shade of an umbrella, sipping my coffee and enjoyed watching some ferries and other boats float up and down the Bosphorus.

I'm ready to live in the wild! Almost.

Well, we went to the market on Sunday, and I bought three fish, which may have been red mullet. They only cost 3TL for all three fish! So cheap! That's like 50 cents per fish!

So, when we got them home, I had my first fish scaling and gutting experience. Richie looked up instructions on the internet and sharpened the knives. Then I went to it. Not to be gross or anything, but it was pretty weird pulling out the guts of a dead animal. I felt a bit like I was in biology class. I identified some fish parts, including the swim bladder, which is this little inflated air sac in the fish. It felt cool. Okay, I am thinking this is probably too much information for many of you. I'll leave out the rest of the details.

Anyway, after all the trouble of this fish prep procedure, I intended to pan fry them whole, since we don't have any other way to cook fish. It was a disaster. The fish was way too delicate and basically just fell apart in the frying pan. So, we didn't eat them. I was annoyed, but decided not to freak out, since they were so cheap, and I feel like I learned some survival skills through this fishy experience.

Next time, I'm taking the fish monger's advice and getting the better quality fish. Then they clean and gut them for you, and hopefully they won't disintegrate while cooking.
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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some thoughts on Islam and Christianity....

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, a book by William Dalrymple called From the Holy Mountain. It is a travelogue about his journey through the Middle East, where he searches out the Christian populations, many of which are now dwindling in the place where Christianity originated. It is an excellent book so far, very readable, full of interesting personalities and vivid descriptions of places I'll probably never be able to visit but would love to see.

I've read some things about the relationship between Christians and Muslims in this part of the world that I've found incredibly interesting and thought-provoking.

For about 1500 years Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, formerly the territory of the Roman Empire and later, Byzantine Empire. I would say that much of this relationship was peaceful for your common Christian or Muslim, unlike the way things were in Western Europe where the Spanish forced out all the Muslims in the middle ages, or the way the European crusaders came to attack the Muslim Empire, where many Christians and Jews opted to live because it was a much more tolerant society.

One of the most interesting things about this book in my opinion is that it casts the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam in a new light. I'll let Dalrymple explain in his own words:

' Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity's Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation. When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies, they assumed Islam was merely a heretical form of Christianity, and in many ways they were not so far wrong: Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets.'

He continues, 'Certainly if John Moschos (Byzantine saint and cronicler of the Christian Middle East) were to come back to day it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is. Moreover the modern demonisation of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West's repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), have led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam. (Dalrymple, 168)

One section of the book I found particulary interesting, but in no way exceptional, talks about Mar Gabriel monastery in Eastern Turkey. Here the author attends early morning services with monks, nuns and lay people of this Orthodox church. He enters the candle lit church as the sun is just creeping over the horizon. There, nuns dressed in black prostrate themselves on reed mats on the church floor. Old monks with patriarchal beards chant in Aramaic, similar to Gregorian chant, but with an Oriental twist.

As the mass began, 'the entire congregation began a long series of prostrations: from their standing position, thge worshippers fell to their knees, and lowered their heads to the ground so that all that could be seen from the rear of the church was a line of upturned bottoms. All that distinguished the worship from that which might have taken place in a mosque was that the worshippers crossed and recrossed themselves as they performed their prostrations. This was the way the early Christians prayed, and is exactly the form of worship described by Moschos in the Spiritual Meadow. In the sixth century, the Muslims apear to have derived their techniques of worship from existing Christian practice. Islam and the Eastern Christians have retained the original early Christain conventions; it is Western Christians who have broken with sacred tradition.' (105)

The book is full of examples of Christians and Muslims praying to the same saints, in shared shrines, at the same time; of Muslim couples offering sheep to the Virgin Mary in thanksgiving for her help concieving a child or even, in the case of some Syrian cosmonauts, for a safe return from outer space. While there have certainly been conflicts between Muslim and Christian populations throughout history and in the present day, what I gather from this book is that such conflict is not inevitable. Many Christians and Muslims have been neighbours and friends for one and a half thousand years, and it is wrong for us to just give in to the idea that Christians and Muslims are just too different to get along and that Islam belongs in the Middle East and that Christianity is a European religion. Things are never so black and white. I have enjoyed having my horizons broadened by this book, and am eager read more. I really recommend this book!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Well, we had a pretty low-key weekend, which was nice after a busy week of teaching. I was pretty wrecked on Friday night.

On Saturday, Richie and I wandered around a nearby area with lots of second-hand furniture shops. We're looking for a couple of chairs to go with our new table. We found some chairs, but I think its the type of situation where you're supposed to haggle with people, and I just didn't quite feel up to the experience at the time. I think I might give it another go this coming weekend. I'm ready for the challenge.

While we were looking around at furniture, I enjoyed meandering a bit and really enjoyed taking time to admire some of the beautiful buildings around. Lovely decorative buildings, Ottoman designs I suppose. It seems sometimes like the last few weeks have been a bit of a blur, with so much going on and so many things to take in, and I feel as if I haven't had too much time to slowly digest all these new experiences. I loved just stopping to look at stuff, to really see things, to breath deeply, feel my feet walking along the cobbled streets, and see all the people going about their lives.

On Sunday we did our weekly shop at the Tarlabasi market, which was great. We even ran into a few of my fellow teachers. I felt a bit more comfortable with the whole noisy, lively, colourful experience of the market and was more confident asking for things, and even joking a bit, in very limited ways, with some of the stall vendors. One man, who I bought rice and bulgur wheat from, asked if we were 'Alman' (aka German) and I told him that I was American. Then he said, 'Bush, chok problem' which basically means 'very much problem' in a sort of literal way. Then he flexed his two arms like a strong man, smiled broadly and said, 'Obama, chok guzel!' which means, 'very nice! beautiful!' We had a laugh together, and shared a moment of universal understanding. We also bought some fish this time. We didn't know exactly what it was, but it turned out to be seabass, and it was delicious! All the fish are sold whole, and you just point to what you want. They have everything from tiny little anchovies, to the occasional whole flounder. We pointed out our two fish and the man picked the up and tossed them to his partner who gestured to us to ask if we wanted the fish cleaned. I was relieved, because I'd just noticed the fish weren't gutted or anything, and I was beginning to plan how exactly I was going to try and do that. I smiled and nodded and he proceeded on the spot to scale and gut the fish. Then he dropped the fish in a plastic bag and tossed them back to his co-worker, who politely handed them to us and took our 6 TL, which is about 3 euros or maybe like 4 dollars. Not too bad for two fresh seabass!

After our shopping, we headed north past Taksim Square to the military museum. We managed to get there in time to see the Ottoman military band, which was pretty cool. It was quite a spectacle and I enjoyed getting a tiny bit more of an image of what things were like in Ottoman times.

Scenes from a mural of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Mehmet Fatih, the Conqueror of Constantinople.

A cool-looking sultan.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Possibly the best thing I've ever experienced...

Turkish bath, aka hamam. Fabulous. I would love it if there was a way for me to fully convey the gloriousness of going to the hamam, but I don't think words will be enough. And, it being a place where people are more than half naked, I obviously couldn't take any photographs, which is a pity. I believe that going to the hamam will be my favourite thing about living in Istanbul. Here is my feeble, but nevertheless, very long description of the experience.

When you arrive, you pay at the front desk for what 'package' you want. We opted for the mid-range deal, which includes use of all the facilities, like hot pools, showers, the large marble gobektasi (a raised platform above a heating source), etc. The key ingredient however, is being washed by a bath attendant. Now, I think it may not be easy for the uninitiated to truly understand how fantastic this really is. Trust me, its fantastic.

But there's no room for being shy in the hamam! You walk in with only a towel and sandals. You are given a little package with some brand new bathing suit bottoms/underpants things, and told to put them on. Before you know it, a kindly, motherly half-naked, and usually rather plump woman comes and takes you by the hand, speaking a bit of English, 'Come, come, come. This way'. Then she whirls you around, and WHOOSH, she's just stripped you of your towel! Then she lays it out for you on the gobektasi, where all the other nearly naked people are laying about, steaming themselves and waiting for their turn to be bathed. You lay down and she proceeds to scrub you down with some warm water and an exfoliating glove/washcloth sort of thing. You can feel all your dead dry skin being scrubbed right off. It feel great and refreshing. Then with a pat on your behind, she tells you to flip over so she can get your other side.

Next, she does this little trick with something like a pillowcase. She must fill it with soap of some kind, some water and then air. Then, she squeezes the bag, and all these silky, luxuriant bubbles come cascading all over you. Oh, it feels amazing. So soft and smooth and light. Then, with her hands, she washes you and sort of gives you a massage at the same time. Pure bliss. Now, I don't think I've been washed by anybody since I was probably about 4 or 5 years old, and I'm guessing any one reading this is the same. You might think it would be a bit weird having a total stranger wash you, but let me tell you, it isn't in the slightest. It is extremely soothing and just feels great. I couldn't help but smile as I laid there on this giant warm marble stone, with my eyes closed, just soaking it all in. Then, she sits you up, and WHOOSH again, you've just been doused with fresh cool water, and your skin feels all tingly. Then she takes you over to this beautifully carved marble sink, sits you down and washes your hair. Another douse or two of fresh water, and she shuffles you along to the hot pools.

Now you're on your own, to do as you please, taking turns in the 36 or 38 degree pools (in Celsius). When you start feeling too warm, you get out and go to another little nook/room where there are more of the beautiful marble sinks, fill yourself up an intricately carved metal bowl with water and dump in over yourself to cool off. You can do this as much as you want. When you have finally had enough of the warmth, there is a room where you can take a break and have some water, tea or juice and chat away with your girl friends, about life, about men, about whatever.

I think I am going to try to find extra lessons to teach every week, just so I can finance going to the hamam more often. This whole bath house thing was invented by the Romans thousands of years ago and was something that most people frequently enjoyed, from Roman times into Ottoman times, to the not so distant past. Here it was an everyday part of life. Men certainly go to hamam too, but for women it had special importance because women spent so much time in the home. This was a chance to be free for a day, catch up with friends, have a day without domestic responsibilities, get out of the house.

As I sat soaking in the hot bath, looking up at an old arched brick ceiling that looked pretty ancient, in a building dating back to the 15oos, I couldn't help but think about the idea of progress, and how we seem to think history and development go in a straight line, where the past was worse and we are all much better off than people in the olden days. This might be true for many things, but I think a world without bath houses is in need of much improving!

Here is the link to the webpage for the bath that I went to. It has some pictures so maybe you'll be able to get a bit of a visual from those.

A weekend with Megan and Erin!

So, to backtrack a little, I had an amazing weekend. My lovely friend Megan and her travelling buddy Erin stayed with me and Richie for a few days as part of there European tour. I hadn't seen Megan in over four years, so it was a very exciting occasion.

It was a nice way to make our new home feel more homey, entertaining and all that. We had some lovely meals together, sampling the good stuff available in Istanbul. At a local cafe we had a Saturday night of tea, beer, kebaps, nargile smoking, and backgammon. None of us knew how to play when we arrived at the place, but we were determined to learn. A couple were sitting next to us, playing away, and we watched them out of the corner of our eyes for a bit, to see if we could piece together the rules. We couldn't. So, eventually, when his partner went to use the toilet, we asked him if he could explain it to us. He was very helpful and taught us most of the basics. We knew we were doing some things wrong, but we got a feel for the game and played lots of rounds. Myself and Richie had been to this place before, and there is a lovely friendly waiter there. Every time we walk by the place, he says hello to us, like we're old friends now. We finally had a formal introduction that night though. His name is Mehmet.

The next day, Megan, Erin and I went over to the Tarlabasi market, which seems to go all day every Sunday, in a nearby neighborhood. We had a great time attempting some Turkish and buying some lovely fruits, vegetables, spices, homemade olive oil, rice and chickpeas. We made friends with Ahmet the olive seller, and I ended up being convinced by him to buy one of his melons. He also threw in a few free pickled things, and taught me a few things, like how to ask for a half kilo, which I remember how to say, and a quarter kilo, which was too complicated for me to remember without writing it down. We also talked to a few people here and there, and made friends with some boys who enjoyed posing for the camera. It was very rainy that morning and we were decked out in rain coats. All the stalls were covered with huge tarps and awnings, and when the rain started pouring down, we had to dodge the deluge by standing underneath these. However, we quickly found out that we weren't really safe from the water there either. Every now and then, a tarp would be so full of water, it would suddenly dump all its contents on whatever unfortunate person was standing there. We nearly got drenched a couple of times. It added a bit of suspense to the whole shopping experience. Then we went home and made a tasty fruit salad and ate yogurt with honey. Yum.

Megan and Erin then went off to Aya Sofya, but I had to stay behind to do some planning for upcoming week of teaching. However, I did go to meet them just over the Galata Bridge at around sunset for the delicious balik ekmek, the famous freshly grilled fish sandwiches. After that quick dinner, we headed up through Sultanahmet to go to a Turkish bath for the first time! It was Cemberlitas Hamami. The building dates back to 1584 and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the city. It was commissioned by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of Murat III, and was designed by the great architect Sinan. This was so lovely and wonderful and fantastic that I'm giving it its own post because it deserves it. Read on!