Tag Archives: Istanbul

The world’s capital

If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

Napoleon Bonaparte

I couldn’t help but think this as I wandered through the streets of Istanbul once again. The once expansive stretch of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are hard to fathom, a fault I attribute to the failure of my Western education to properly acknowledge the importance of the great powers before the ascension of Western Europe. If we were to truly designate a city as the world’s historic melting pot, I’d doubt any other city would be such a serious contender as Istanbul.

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And so, we awoke to a rainy and cold morning in Istanbul, and met our guide Selahattin for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet, as the Turks call it.

Afterwards, we drove to the Fener neighborhood in order to visit the site of the Ecumenical Patriachate.

Above the Partriachate, we drove to the top of the hill in order to get a spectacular view of the Bosphorus! Selahattin also showed us a portion of the old city walls, which you can still climb up on today.

We also toured the Chora Church, which was just as stunning as I remembered it.

Next, we stopped at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is by far my favorite mosque out of all the ones I’ve been to so far. Sultanahmet may have its exquisite tiles, but there’s something about the quiet and reverence of the Süleymaniye Mosque that truly makes it feel like a holy place.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that specialized in southeastern Turkish cuisine before stopping by the Spice Market to try and purchase some Turkish Delights for my little brother.

For the rest of the afternoon, it was time to spend some time of the Bosphorus to see the city from the water!

After an extremely long and packed day, we headed to a local restaurant in Sultanahmet for dinner. It turns out the restaurant was actually connected to a long series of caves––part of an old Byzantine palace.

We walked  for a bit around Sultanahmet, where everything is lit up in all kinds of beautiful colors at night. We even spotted a whirling dervish!

At last, it was time for some much needed rest. Tomorrow, on to Prague!

Istanbul Part Iki

After a paper and presentation on Thursday for class, I know I’m not speaking for myself when I say that I was very ready to go on break. The shuttle picked us up at the apartment building at the ridiculously early time of 4:40 a.m. to take us on the 2-hour drive to Antalya, where the major airport is located.

At 7 a.m., the airport was packed—all sorts of tour groups were trying to make their way through the two-step security process and I was glad I had plenty of extra time. After getting to the terminal, Mara and I had some time to kill so we ordered breakfast at the café.

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Soon enough, I boarded my plane to Istanbul, excited to share with my parents the city with which I fell in love at the beginning of September. My flight was uneventful, though I was thrilled to get served a full meal (chicken sandwich, mint and yogurt sauce, and cherry cake) in the 80-minute flight. I only have good things to say about how marvelous it is that Turkish Airlines still gives you food on every flight. (And you get your first bag checked free! Take that, United.)

Once I got to Istanbul, I was determined to figure out how to take public transportation from the Ataturk Airport to Sultanahmet, the old part of the city where my parents were staying. I didn’t really have the chance to go out on my own while we were in Istanbul, and I also knew that it would save a lot of cash—6 TL versus 50-60 TL to hire a taksi. Armed with my printed map of the public transportation system, I struck out to follow the signs out of the airport to the metro.

I figured out how to buy these little plastic tokens from the jetonmatik, and easily boarded the train headed towards the center of the city. Then I had to transfer to the tram, squeezing into a crowded car packed with all sorts of people on their commute.

It was at that moment that I realized that, for the first time since I arrived in Turkey, I was truly surrounded by Turks. I was the only American around. There’s a certain amount of comfort and safety net that comes with a program like the one I’m on, where you take your classes with fellow American students and professors. But while this can be an excellent way to explore a country that might have otherwise been off limits for someone who doesn’t speak Turkish, it limits your opportunities to truly be immersed in a culture. Or to have uncomfortable moments where you have no idea what’s going on.

At some point on the tram ride, everyone got off the train and stood on the platform. I had no idea what was going on. I hadn’t heard any announcement, but everyone gave me strange looks when I was one of the last people staying in the car, so I also exited the tram. Some public transit employees walked through the car, and everyone boarded the next replacement train that came after 10 or so minutes. Luckily, since I was one of the last people to get off, I was one of the first back on. I was actually able to get a seat on the tram this time. Sometimes, ignorance pays off!

I got off the tram at Sultanahmet, and pulled out my Istanbul map to try finding out where my parents’ hotel was. It was then I realized that the map didn’t even have any street names on it. Yikes.

I wandered down the Hippodrome for a bit, lugging my duffel bag around as I tried to make sense of the landmarks around me. I knew that their hotel was somewhere near the Küçük Ayasofya, so I guessed which direction the water might be and headed through the maze of streets.

With a huge serving of luck, I was able to spot the minarets of the mosque, found the right road, and spotted the hotel. I got a key from the front desk and dropped off my stuff at my room. I didn’t have a way to contact my parents since they were on a tour, so I figured I would go back near the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque to pass some time.

I slowly wandered my way around the gardens of the Blue Mosque, circling around the monuments in the Hippodrome, and trying to seem like I was doing anything but wandering around by myself. After a half hour, I was ready to head back to the hotel to get out of the cold, but I just happened to spot my parents at the other end of the Hippodrome. At last!

I'm pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

I’m pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

It was fantastic to see them again, and I was so glad I was able to find them and join them for the end of their tour. We wandered around the Hippodrome, decided to hold off on the Blue Mosque since it had a ridiculous hour-long wait due to Friday prayers and cruise ships, and got lost once again in the Grand Bazaar.

After the end of the tour, we found a little traditional kahve next to this old Ottoman graveyard, where we had some tea as we had time to catch up on their time in Istanbul so far.

We then made it back to the hotel, where we arranged for dinner reservations at a fish restaurant under the Galata Bridge. Dinner was quite a treat!

We ordered a gigantic seabass for the three of us, and the restaurant cooked it in this mound of salt before bringing it to the table and setting it on fire in this elaborate show. It was so cool!

After dinner, we walked over to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street. The area was bustling on a Friday night—it seemed like half the city was out roaming down Istiklal. We even stopped for tea and Turkish coffee at a café.

And let’s be honest—after all the traveling and all the people I’ve met, nothing  beats spending time with your family.

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

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For centuries, Istanbul has been a thriving cosmopolitan city. Its location spanning East and West allowed it to attract all sorts of people from different nationalities, backgrounds, and faiths. Famously, the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jewish people after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Larger numbers of Christians, mainly of Armenian and Greek backgrounds, also made their home in the diverse city. With this in mind, we began today with a question posed by one of our professors:

Today, what is diversity on the ground in Istanbul?

This can be a delicate subject in Turkey. In 1923, around 15% of the population of Istanbul was non-Muslims. Today, it’s more around 1%. While the population of Istanbul was also much smaller in 1923, there was also a huge shift in population after that time period.

And so, with diversity as our lens, we began our morning with a walking tour of the Fener and Balat Neighborhoods of Istanbul, where many of the Jews and Christians traditionally lived.

First, we visited the Church of St. George (Kathedrikós Naós tou Agíou Geōrgíou in Greek or Aya Yorgi in Turkish), which is the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral. Since roughly 1600, it has also been the seat of the senior patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.

While the outside was fairly plain, the inside of the church was lavishly decorated—covered in gold and beautiful icons.

We then had time to walk through the neighborhoods.

Slowly, we made our way up the hill to the Chora Church, a beautiful old Byzantine church.

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The interior of the museum is completely covered with elaborate mosaics and frescoes. Interestingly, the church contains many depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as the annunciation of Saint Anne, Mary’s early life, and other stories that focus on her as an individual.

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Afterwards, we took the bus to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. We got there right after Friday noon prayer was getting out, so it was incredibly busy.

The mosque was built in 1458 as the first mosque built by the Ottoman Turks after the conquest of Constantinople. The mosque is right next to the place where Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the standard bearer of Muhammad, is supposedly buried in 670. As such, today the mosque also serves as a very important pilgrimage site for Muslims, particularly those from North Africa.

We shuffled with the crowd to peek inside the mosque as well as see the shrine. It was the first mosque we’ve visited that wasn’t a huge tourist destination, and it was interesting to actually experience the mosque with the worshippers.

Tonight is our last night in Istanbul, so we’re planning to go out and explore as much as much as we can before we leave tomorrow morning. Then, it’s on to Iznik and Bursa!

Turkey’s Next Top Model

An employee uses a kind of "fabric saw" to cut through many pieces of fabric at once

You’re constantly reminded of the importance of the sea everywhere you go in Istanbul. You catch a glimpse between buildings when you’re in the middle of town. You watch the incredibly busy channel from the shore, where one cargo ship after another passes through, loaded down with hundreds of steel containers. At tourist sites, you learn about the two empires that helped build this city, but particularly how their ability to control the seas enabled them to acquire such great wealth.

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And so, it was only right that at least one of our days be spent on this important channel. Today we took a ferry along to Bosphorus to Anadolu Kavağı, a town on the Asian side of the Bosphorus strait at the entrance to the Black Sea.

The trip took about two hours, so we had plenty of time to gaze at the beautiful houses that line the coastline. I even taught some people how to play Connect, a.k.a. the best game ever, which was how we got through many hours of car rides for Mock Trial.

Once in Anadolu Kavağı, we decided on a fish restaurant for lunch. Interestingly, fish isn’t too big of a part of Turkish cuisine, so it was nice to get something different for a change of pace.

After lunch, we had some free time to hike up to the top of the mountain to see the Yoros Castle that once guarded the entrance to the Bosphorus, which is commonly known as the Genoese Castle because it was under Genoa’s possession in the mid-15th century. It was an incredible view.

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We then took the ferry back to Beşkitaş, where our residence director had arranged for us a tour of clothing factory.

The company, called Miarte & Neri, produces clothing of a variety of styles to be sold in mainly Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. It was incredibly special to see the various stages of production—design, pattern making, sewing, and fabric cutting—as well as talk to the owner about how he runs his business. The owner talked about how he traveled to other countries to seek out pieces for inspiration, then brought them back to Istanbul to see what aspects they could incorporate into their own designs. At the location we visited, they created the model garments and cut the fabric for production. After that, the fabric pieces were taken to another location where they were fully sewn.

Later on in the program, we’ll be visiting a textile factory of a larger scale, which should often an interesting comparison between the two. Textiles, after all, are a huge part of Turkey’s economy—most likely the towels in your bathroom will have a “Made in Turkey” tag on them. Nevertheless, in the words of my economics professor, the textile industry “leaves wherever it touches”—as evidenced by the once huge textile industry in the United Kingdom or United States—because it requires such high labor costs. As such, Turkey will have to find other options if it hopes to continue to modernize.

Sign me up for the Sultan’s harem

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Passing through the entrance today at the Topkapı Palace, I smiled my simple merhaba and teşekkürler to the employee managing the gate. “Wow!” he responded. “You speak such good Turkish! I’m very impressed.”

I was pretty surprised at the response to the basic two words of Turkish that I’ve got down so far—I mean, all I said was “hello” and “thank you.” It made me wonder—do other tourists neglect to even learn a basic “hello” and “thank you” in Turkish to communicate when they visit?

We’ve gotten similar responses elsewhere whenever we try to say the few words that we know. I’m constantly frustrated that I don’t know how to say more, partly because very many Turks do not speak English but mainly because it prevents me from truly experiencing this country. Yet the sincere appreciation for our attempts so far has only further encouraged me to learn as much as I can.

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Today began with a visit to what our guide referred to as the “Mini Ayasofya,” or the Küçuk Ayasofya Parklari, a mosque nearby its larger version, but quieter and older. Unlike the Ayasofya, it still operates as a mosque to this day.

We then had to chance to explore the beautiful Topkapı Palace, which was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856). The palace grounds are beautiful, and we stumbled through room after room absolutely covered with intricate tiled designs and ornate architecture.

My favorite part was being able to wander through the various rooms of the harem, imagining how they might have looked like several centuries ago.

After lunch, we then passed by Istanbul University as we walked to the Sulemaniye Mosque. School was about to start, and the walkway was filled with various student organizations and private dormitories tabling to the new students.

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The Sulemaniye Mosque possessed a quiet magnificence of its own that in my opinion surpassed the Blue Mosque, with breathtaking geometric designs and its soaring domed ceiling.

We then took our little bus to the Jewish Museum, tucked away in the Pera district, because it had been closed when we had tried to go there earlier. The museum itself was tucked away in this little alleyway, and we practically had to climb through a construction site to get to its entrance.

The museum was small, but it offered a look at the lives of a particularly overlooked segment of Turks. It focused primarily on the Ottoman Empire’s acceptance of the Jews after their forced migration out of Spain. Interestingly, it did not include much information about the current state of Jews in the Turkish Republic.

Lastly, we visited the Istanbul Modern, which gave a much different interpretation of contemporary Turkish life. The collection was mesmerizing—some pieces were intriguing, while others were simply bizarre.

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My favorite pieces were all of the different videos they had––one showed four women talking side by side about their lives with wigs, another showed the artist trying to shout a question over the roar of jet planes, and another showed a woman slowly taking off some 50 scarves she had on her head.

Puzzling. But such is modern art, no?

Tintin in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar

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At the beginning of the summer, I read Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno, particularly because the book was set in two of the places that I’m going to this year—Florence and Istanbul. While it may not have been the most historically accurate novel, I was definitely excited to see the various locations that make up the setting for its climax.

On the drive to the old part of the city, one of our professors gave us some background on what she called the “three places of serenity” that we’d be seeing today: the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. On our visits, she encouraged us to take a moment to appreciate each space—and my, what beautiful pieces of serenity they were.

However, we first met our tour guide, Claire, at the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome was once a huge kind of sporting arena, where they used to hold chariot races and gladiator fights in Constantinople. Today, it’s a square named Sultanahmet Meydani, and you can see remnants of the original structure, such as the incredible Egyptian obelisk (originally brought to Constantinople in 390!), a Byzantine obelisk, and a Roman serpent column.

We then headed into the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish.

The Hagia Sophia was originally built as an Orthodox Church by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537. It then served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453—except for a period between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral. Then in 1453, the building was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum in 1931.

The scale of the building is incredible. The dome is huge—only slightly smaller than the Pantheon, yet much higher off the ground. The restored Christian mosaics along with the Arabic calligraphy create a fitting juxtaposition for the powerful history of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Then we visited the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground chamber that was used to collect water. The cistern was built in the 6th century, but today it’s been turned into this kind of “New Age” experience—spotlights illuminate the columns in the dark space and acoustic music softly plays from a speaker.

We also stopped at the Mosaic Museum, which houses mosaics from the Byzantine period from the original site of the Great Palace of Constantinople.

We stopped for lunch, and then it was time to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque by tourists due to the blue tiles from Iznik that adorn its walls.

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The mosque was built from 1609 to 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I (hence its name). While it is now a popular tourist attraction, it is still used as a space of worship. Accordingly, we came prepared wearing long skirts and carrying scarves to cover out heads. However, many of these mosques also offer various loaner scarves and skirts if you’ve forgotten to come prepared.

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The arches and geometric designs were beautiful!

After the mosque, we then stopped for a snack at a lovely café nearby. I ordered a frozen Turkish coffee. It even came with a chocolate spoon!

Then it was time to explore the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the bazaar, but it was certainly grand. The covered market is comprised by over 3,000 shops and employs some 31,000 individuals.

While you can get your pick of Istanbul souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar also has quite the selection of fake brand-name sunglasses, bags, purses, and watches. I was incredibly excited to find a Tintin in Istanbul shirt for my brother, and I also bought a pair of cheap sunglasses knockoffs since I accidentally left mine at home.

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As you wind through the maze of streets in the bazaar, countless salesmen pull out all kinds of tricks to get you to enter their shop. Often, they ask if you’re from somewhere like England or Germany—even when you might be obviously American—because they can get you into a conversation and then into their shop. Other times, they’ll call you out individually—our favorite line from one of the salesman was “Hey blond lady!” to Amanda.

On top of the aggressive salesmen, it quickly became fun to undermine each other’s attempts to get away from them. For example, after we brushed off a particularly aggressive salesman, Alex stopped and asked loudly, “Amanda, didn’t you just say you wanted a scarf like this?” Then as Amanda was being convinced to try on a scarf, she told the salesman, “Oh no, Shannon is the one who really wants the scarf.” Soon enough, we were trying on multiple scarves before we were finally able to get away.

Three cups of tea

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Each night, right after we come back from dinner, the evening call to prayer filters in through the street noise from our open window. It’s one of those stereotypical sounds you’d expect when you think of the Middle East, but I can’t put words to how special it is to hear it echo throughout the city. Yesterday, we were passing by a mosque on the ferry just as it sounded the call to prayer:

Call to Prayer in the Bosphorus Strait

Oh Istanbul, you enchant me more and more!

While so far we’ve been very much tourists, today we had the opportunity to truly appreciate the benefits of traveling through Turkey as a study abroad—using the city and its people as an educational platform.

After another wonderful breakfast at the hotel’s extensive buffet, we drove from the hotel to the Saliya district to visit Koç University. Koç University is a private, English-instruction university that was founded by the Koç Foundation in 1996. Since its founding, the school has had a long education with Georgetown, namely through exchange programs and its emphasis on modeling the Western liberal arts-style of higher education.

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The campus itself was beautiful, located high atop the hills overlooking the Black Sea. At the university, we had the chance to meet with both the university president and their director of international programs. We were able to learn about the history of the school, as well as the innovative programs they’ve launched to enrich Turkish higher education.

For example, Koç University offers very strong financial aid to each class of 900 undergraduates. About 40% of the students receive full tuition scholarships, and around 70% get some sort of scholarship. The university recruits from the top 2% of Turkish students, and partners with corporations to help sponsor the tuition of students from otherwise underrepresented districts in Turkey.

Another thing we discussed was how to promote innovation within universities. Traditionally, Turkish universities were not allowed to have their own patents, making them often unable to benefit from their contributions to their respective fields. However, more private universities, including Koç, have created ways to benefit from their intellectual property through foundations that put the profits back to the school. Due to this success, there is currently a law pending to allow public Turkish universities to own patents as well.

Turkish hospitality is the best—we were served some lovely tea during the meeting, and then they gave us some rosewater-covered Turkish delights as a farewell!

After the meeting, we had some time to explore the campus. The buildings—let alone the views—were beautiful.

We had lunch in their cafeteria, and then took the bus to meet with representatives at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. When we got to their building, we were taken up to the top floor of the building and into this absolutely amazing conference room. Look at this view:

During the presentation, one of the economists at the Chamber of Commerce gave us a basic summary of the role of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce—which is the 5th largest chamber in the world with some 350,000 members—then gave us an excellent presentation about characteristics of Turkey’s economy, namely how Turkey got out of the financial crisis so quickly and strongly. For example, Turkey’s GDP Growth Rate (% – Annual) went from -4.8 in 2009 to 9.2 in 2010, 8.5 in 2011, and 2.2 in 2012.

For an explanation of this trend, he pointed to five aspects of Turkey’s economy: a strong financial sector, private sector investment, the condition of Turkish public finance, diversification of exports, and a successful monetary policy.

Of course, the sliding Turkish lira, where the exchange rate has reached a new low of $0.50, might threaten this economic prosperity. While the Turkish central bank has said it does not intend to hike interest rates to defend this depreciation of the lira because they believe it is a temporary condition, this could be too optimistic.

Overall, the discussion was a great precursor to the two economics courses that I’m taking this fall. (And at last, those lectures of International Trade and International Finance came in handy!)

Yet again, we were served some pastries and more glasses of tea (this time two rounds!). I even got to take with me a stack of books with statistics on the Turkish economy—I guess for some ambitious free reading?

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We then took the bus to Mor Çati, an NGO for women’s rights near Taksim Square. It was one of the first organizations founded in Turkey to fight against violence towards women, and today runs a shelter for women along with promoting women’s rights through political activism.

The woman we met with was more comfortable speaking German than English, so one of our professors, Katrin, translated the discussion for us. We learned about recent developments in Turkish law regarding women’s rights then had the opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about the current situation in Turkey. One of the most interesting comments she made was how the Turkish state is quick in enacting laws to protect women, but slow in enforcing them. As a result, many changes end up being fairly superficial. Of course, this is a struggle for many feminists—the greater structural issues caused by patriarchy that infiltrate both politics and society.

After the meeting, it was back to hotel for dinner. I plugged in my new Turkish cell phone to charge, but about 5 minutes into charging there was a loud popping noise and the outlets stopped working. Luckily, the phone is fine, but the charger they had provided me doesn’t work anymore.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

Amanda and I went down to the front desk, and after about 15 minutes of very confusing pantomiming and trying to explain the problem, the manager told us he would get someone tomorrow to fix it. But until then, only our bathroom outlets work, so I’m currently sitting on the floor in the hallway so I can charge my laptop.

Tomorrow we’re in for the “greatest hits” of Istanbul: the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern, and, of course, the Haghia Sophia!

It’s tiring to make up these fortunes!

When I followed the protests in Istanbul in the early summer, I wasn’t sure what kind of country I would encounter when I stepped foot in Istanbul this fall. Yet today, we got a taste of what those weeks were like.

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But before that, I’ll start from the beginning! Our first stop on the itinerary today was the Dolmabahçe Palace, a beautiful and extravagant building that honestly rivals Versailles in terms of scale and ornamentation. We took the metro down to Beşiktaş, a district along the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait that bustles with all sorts of ferries traveling across to the Asian side. The palace itself sits right on the water, with breathtaking views of the water and over 45,000 square meters of palace rooms.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the palace, but its interiors were even grander than the outside. We were able to tour the main entrance hall, the secretariat’s rooms, the sultan’s apartment, Atatürk’s room, and the grand ceremonial hall.

We had to wear these plastic booties while in the palace so we wouldn't track in dirt.

We had to wear these plastic booties while in the palace so we wouldn’t track in dirt.

After the tour, we took a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul.

Once we got off the ferry, we ate lunch at the most amazing  restaurant near Kadıköy Square. The restaurant prides itself on offering specialty dishes from all across Turkey, and we were able to sample a wide variety of dishes. Out of all the delicious cuisine we’ve had so far, this one was by far the best meal.

We then had some free time to explore the nearby bazaar after lunch.

When we were walking to the restaurant, we first came across a concert and a couple groups of protestors marching down the street in honor of World Peace Day. But by the time we were leaving the area, the crowd was huge. There was a large crowd near the stage, and both the streets and ferries had been shut down to accommodate the protest. So, our only option was to walk about a mile and a half down the road to the nearest bus stop so we could get out of the area.

This walk had us walk right down the parade of protestors, which was slightly unsettling even though the protest was well-organized and it appeared to be cooperating with the police.

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There was a huge variety of groups at the protest, each with their own demands, although they all appeared to come out in support of World Peace Day. Our guides for Istanbul, Nese and Mehmet, tried to lead us as quickly as they could out of the area, particularly because many were protesting the U.S.’s proposed strike against Syria.

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After about 40 minutes of walking, we finally reached the end of the parade, and were able to cram onto a “domus,” a small bus by which you pay with cash. The domus operates on a kind of honor system: when you get on the bus, you pass up the bus fare to the front person by person, even if you’re crammed in the back.

We then spent the afternoon in Üsküdar, lounging on some cushions looking out at the water and the Maiden’s Tower, a small tower about 200 meters from the shore. We had time to rest and have some tea—or, in my case, a Coca-Cola since it was so hot.

PC: Lindsay

PC: Lindsay

Amanda and Alex also had their fortunes read by Nese. According to custom, once you’re finished drinking your Turkish coffee, you are supposed to read your fortune from the coffee grounds left over.

PC: Lindsay

PC: Lindsay

About halfway through Alex’s fortune-telling, Amanda asked if she could have her fortune taken afterwards. Nese responded, “Yes, but it’s tiring to make up these fortunes!”

Afterwards, we walked to another ferry stop, and took the ferry and metro back to our hotel. At the hotel, I checked the news to find out what the protests were about earlier today, and found out that there were more protests occurring in Taksim Square, where the police had blocked entrance to Gezi Park.

We were told to stay away from the area for the evening, but it will be interesting to follow any developments that come. According to the agreement we signed before study abroad, we’re not supposed to seek out ways to participate or observe protests. However, while safety is always a priority, it was exhilarating to experience a protest first-hand.

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PC: Lindsay

But to all my worried family members––don’t worry, I’m okay!

Eat your food… or it will chase you in your dreams!

With our first full day in Istanbul, it was time to learn a bit of survival Turkish. Turkish is a difficult language, where each sentence seems like a never-ending word with its endless suffixes attached to each word and a tendency to elide vowels. Nevertheless, we began to practice the basics: merhaba for “hello” and teşekkür ederim for “thank you.”

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

After breakfast, our group headed out into the city for our first full day of sightseeing. First, we took the underground metro to Pera, which is the part of Istanbul where most of the Jews and Christians lived in the city. The streets in Pera where lined with beautiful apartments and rooftop gardens.

We visited the Pera Müzesi (Pera Museum), a contemporary, privately-owned museum that opened in 2005 and offered a fascinating comparison between modern and traditional Turkish art. One of my favorite parts of the museum was an exhibit called “Direniyorsan senin olsun” (It’s yours if you resist), which followed the recent protests in Taksim Square. Lines of photographs taken from the protests where mounted on wire, and you had to duck around the photographs to walk through the exhibit.

 

Exhibit for "Direniyorsan senin olsun"

Exhibit for “Direniyorsan senin olsun”

The museum also had an extensive exhibit about the relationship between ambassadors and Ottoman art. It was a two-way exchange––Ottoman painters like Osman Hamdi studied in Europe and brought back Western-influenced techniques, while foreign ambassadors commissioned artists to help bring the Ottoman Empire to Europeans back home.

Osman Hamdi's famous painting "The Turtle Trainer"

Osman Hamdi’s famous painting “The Turtle Trainer”

After the museum, we walked along Istiklal Avenue, one of the major pedestrian walkways in Istanbul. The street is excellent for people-watching and completely lined with all types of stores.

I was surprised at how many brands I recognized from back home: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Gap, Nike, Zara, and even a Shake Shack! We had lunch at a restaurant along the street, and we were able to pick from the buffet what we’d like to eat.

The food was delicious, but most of us were unable to finish our plates, probably due to lingering jet lag. Our residence director, Nese, told us what Turkish mothers tell them when they don’t finish their food: “Eat your food or it will cry and chase you in your dreams!” Hopefully the nightmares stay away!

After lunch, we walked over to Galata, a neighborhood in Istanbul that traditionally was settled by the Genoese. We were able to climb to the top of Galata Tower, which was built in 1358 as part of the neighborhood’s walls. The tower stands over 70 meters tall, and there’s a precarious ledge you can go on to see a complete 360-degree view of Istanbul.

After the tower, we ended up back on Istiklal Avenue, where we then visited St. Anthony’s Church, a Catholic Church that is run by Italian priests.

We were also able to try Turkish ice cream for the first time. Turkish ice cream is stored in these metal cylinders which keep it extremely cold—the consistency is more of ice than of soft serve. It’s then served with this huge metal stick that the man uses to chip off pieces of ice cream for a cone.

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The ice cream vendor we visited kept messing with us––he kept moving the stick around so Alex couldn’t get the ice cream!

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Lastly, we visited Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the site of the recent protests that were in the news in May through July. Taksim Square itself is really just a plot of pavement near a busy intersection, and Gezi Park is a medium-sized park with trees and grass where lots of young people were hanging out.

In Taksim Square, the police presence was visible but quiet; at the time we were there, there weren’t any protests going on. In fact, it was hard to put the scenes from the photographs we saw at the museum to the bustling, unremarkable intersection that we saw.

After sitting and resting for a bit in Gezi Park, we took the metro back to textile district and headed back to the hotel.

Overall, I love my first impressions of Istanbul. It’s a fascinating city—the call to prayer echoes over women in hijabs and minidresses alike, just as they do over ornate old European-style apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers. It’s an interesting cities of juxtapositions—of the east and the west, of old and new—and it’s exciting to see it all in action.

Greetings from Istanbul!

With two flights, one crazy sprint through the Frankfurt International Airport, and 15 hours of travel, I finally made it to Istanbul. But first, my journey began with a long haul flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt on one of the gigantic new Airbus 380s.

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View from the window seat.

After 10 hours, two slightly peculiar meals of German food, and a couple of movies, my Lufthansa flight arrived in Frankfurt slightly ahead of schedule. However, I had to run from one end of a terminal to another and through security again in order to make it to my connecting gate within an hour. Luckily, my connection went off without a hitch and I was able to make my next flight.

For my flight to Istanbul, I soon discovered why it’s wonderful to fly foreign airlines: they still give you food! First, Turkish Airlines passes out Turkish Delights before you even take off. Then, even though the flight was just over three hours long, they served us an entire meal for lunch, with a choice of chicken medallions or beef kebab along with a small salad and dessert.

Once I arrived in Istanbul, however, the arrival terminal was pure chaos. I first bought my visa, then I snuck into the gigantic line that snaked way down the hallway. (I sincerely apologize to those whom I cut in line, but sometimes, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.) The line was ridiculously long—I waited 45 minutes before I got through passport control and headed over to baggage claim. With my tight connection and the huge wait at immigration, I was worried that my bag would be lost, but once I saw my purple behemoth suitcase circling around the conveyor belt, I wanted to dance and sing in honor of the lost luggage gods.

I exited the terminal, and after some searching, I was finally able to locate the other people in my pick-up group for a ride to the hotel, where we had dinner and finally got to meet everyone in the program this semester. Overall, there are nine students and three professors—hello, small class sizes!

We’re staying at the Fatih Hotel, which is located near Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul’s textile district. The hotel itself is surrounded by numerous showrooms, ready to sell elaborate ballroom gowns, suits, and wholesale clothing to retailers. After dinner, we wandered around the streets near our hotel, stepping over the trash that was left for pick-up—huge bags of fabric scraps, cigarette buds, and discarded thread.

As we explored near the hotel, the streets were empty, save for the occasional trash pick-up or fast food delivery motorbike from Pizza Hut. It the kind of surreal quality that quite fits when you suddenly find yourself in a foreign country for four months. And so it begins.

A somewhat blurry look at an alleyway in Istanbul's textile district at night

A look at an alleyway in Istanbul’s textile district at night.