A Quick Jaunt to Bulgaria

Last weekend, I decided to do a mini solo trip to Bulgaria. As a foreign student in Turkey, we are required to get this thing called a residence permit in order to leave and come back to the country. To put it lightly, it is extremely annoying, expensive and time consuming to get. Because of this, I felt a bit obligated to use it to leave the country at least once. Bulgaria is only a 9 hour bus ride, so I figured I would just do an overnight bus and spend a couple days to experience a new country. I thought an overnight bus would be good because I would be able to sleep, but at around 2:30 in the morning, we reached the border and spent 2 hours at the border with passport checks and a luggage check. So by the time I reached Sofia at 8 in the morning, I was beyond exhausted. Unfortunately, I could not check into the hostel until 12 so I decided to walk around the city for a bit before I crashed. I walked to the national theatre, the center of the city and happened to ask for directions from a Bulgarian who spoke nearly fluent English and was eager to speak to an American. He told me a bit about the city and things to see and it really helped me become acquainted with the city. First I went to see Bulgaria’s Hagia Sophia (that is what they call it) even though it is probably 1/15th the size of the actual Hagia Sophia. It is a small church that has some underground graves that was built by Constantine. There were no photos allowed inside, but the graves were really interesting to see.

The next thing I saw was the Alexander Nevski church, the most famous church in Bulgaria. This church was much more impressive with high ceilings and gold inlay on the outside. When I went inside there were many people praying in front of a shrine of the Virgin Mary.

ImageI walked around the city and got to see the university and the Parliament building. I also saw a few swastikas around the city, which was a bit unnerving. Although I should not have been surprised since Bulgaria was under the Iron Curtain until 1990. Image I turned in pretty early that night since I had gotten very little sleep the night before. The next morning I got up early, anticipating a mid afternoon bus back to Istanbul to avoid the annoyance of the border at night again. I just continued to walk through the city observing Sofia, a much poorer and MUCH less crowded version of Istanbul. Here are some city sights:IMG_0856IMG_0860IMG_0867

My last memorable experience in Bulgaria was when I was walking around the bus station waiting for the bus to come. I was walking next to the taxi station and one of the taxi drivers on break said something to me. I do not speak a word of Bulgarian, so I just replied, “English” and the taxi driver said,” Deutschland? Heil Hitler!” I began to nervous smile and briskly walk away. I have read about neo-Nazis but never in my life had I experienced something like that.

Aside from the anti-semitism, the most shocking thing for me in Sofia was my inability to communicate. In Turkish, I am competent enough to have a conversation about where I am going and food, help, where I live and many things of the sort. In Bulgaria, I did not even know how to say hello or Thank you. That was a very uncomfortable feeling for me and it was heightened by the alphabet difference as well. They use cyrillic, so I could not even attempt to read the signs. Even after two days there I was craving the comfort of my surroundings in Turkey. I wanted to be back in my comfort zone. Never in a million years did I think Turkey would be my comfort zone.

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Christmas in a Muslim Country

Long time no see everyone! I have not done much traveling lately, which is why I have not posted in a while, but that is a sorry excuse and I apologize. I would like to share with you a little about my Christmas though. For those of you who do not know, I am Jewish and therefore never really celebrated Christmas. My family would usually go for a nice hike and then eat Chinese food, like all good Jewish families do on Christmas. But even though I did not consider the holiday that important to me, it saddened me a little to see the lack of Christmas decorations and experience the frenzy of trying to come up with the perfect gift and making plans with friends to celebrate. 99% of Turkey is Muslim, so most Turks do not even think about Christmas, other than the pretty lights they put up in Taksim. Luckily, many of my friends here were feeling similarly, especially the Europeans, to whom Christmas is like their Thanksgiving, in the sense that it is a time to get together and reflect on the year. One of my dear British friends, with an amazing apartment, decided to host a Christmas get together for those of us missing home during the holidays. We all went over early, brought ingredients for a dish and each cooked something to put on the table. Our host bought us all blinking Santa hats to really liven things up, and just to be extra cheesy, we played Christmas songs all night. ImageImageImageImageAfter a great night of eating, dancing and getting shushed by the neighbors, most people left by 12:30, but two of my friends and I stayed listening to more Christmas songs, finding youtube videos that make fun of German accents and laying on the floor until 5:30 in the morning. Even though I couldn’t be home with my friends and family for the holiday, it was an incredible night with many of my friends who I will miss dearly when I leave. 2 weeks until New York.

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A Very Gaziantep Thanksgiving

I know today is Thanksgiving in America, but last weekend I celebrated early with a few friends in Eastern Turkey. Two of my friends and I hopped on a plane to Gaziantep to visit three of our friends on Fulbright there. Gaziantep is about an hour from the Syrian border and therefore one of the fastest growing cities in Turkey because of the number of immigrants coming in. However, it was much more modern than I expected. There was a mall in the center of town that was four floors, glossy, with stores like H&M and Marks and Spencers and it even had an ice rink on the third floor. On the other hand, a few minutes from the city center, there were houses crumbling to the ground. 

Gaziantep is also known for its food, so of course it has a culinary museum, which we visited and bought some spices at. As we were walking back, we saw a window full of baklava and cookies so naturally, we stopped. This was no ordinary Turkish bakery. It had much more variety than I had seen before. Clearly, the owner saw us oogling at the treats and he gave us each a cookie with fig filling which was delectable. As we kept walking we saw bakeries every few meters and we stopped again when we saw a baklava bakery with what looked like an entirely green piece of baklava. Of course we had to try it, so we ordered it without really knowing what it was and after taking a bite realized that it was pistachio paste and sugar. Pistachio trees grow abundantly in Gaziantep which is also why they make so much baklava. But I did not really like it very much, it was much too sugary for me. As I said before, Gaziantep is known for its food, in particular findik (pistachio) and kebaps, due to the very rich taste of the spices in this region. One of the signature kebaps there is called ali nazik. it is chopped up eggplant with yogurt and a meat kebap on top. And let me tell you, it was amazing. 

To continue on the topic of food, (because really, who wants to talk about anything else?) our Fulbright friends had invited us over to their program director’s house where they were cooking an early Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday night. They had to order a turkey from Malatya (a few hours away) but they got it, and they made stuffing, candied carrots, german potato salad, gravy, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, mashed potatoes and the host even made homemade baklava. Needless to say, I physically could not move after the meal. Even though this is the first time I have been away from my family for Thanksgiving, I was thankful to share the holiday with people, especially people for whom it was their first Thanksgiving experience. ImageAfter a wonderful, relaxing weekend in Gaziantep we came back to Istanbul. Tonight, I was invited over to my 92 year old professor’s house for Thanksgiving round 2. Lucky for me, there was not as much food at this dinner, but there were at least 25 people there, most of whom I had not met before and quite a few Americans. I introduced myself to them, and we hung out together for the rest of the evening. I would say that making friends is sometimes difficult here, so when I feel like I click with people, it is a great feeling. After listening to a few of our professor’s incredible exploits in her younger days (she started the Turkish-American Women’s Coalition and it is now a 45 year old organization-she’s a hardcore Turkish feminist) we all went back to a bar in town and had some drinks.

And now for the obligatory holiday words of thanks: I want to start out by giving thanks to the people at both of the dinners this week, especially the one tonight, for coming together and celebrating. It is hard to be away for Thanksgiving, but being able to celebrate it with other people who are also looking for people to enjoy the holidays with makes it a lot better. And to the girls who I met tonight for letting me into their little crew, even though they already all knew each other. I don’t know if they realize how great it was for me to just begin talking to them and feel totally at ease and even be invited to hang out with them again, expressly because I do not have a group in the same way that they seem to. To all my other friends here, especially Hita and my Rock Choir people who make me feel like I can be goofy and weird and sad and who are always up to sing very loudly in a crowded restaurant.

To my friends back home who I miss so much and I cannot wait to see, you are the most incredible people. 

To my parents and my 7 year o 22 year old mad scientist brother who keep it weird real.

To the Geneseo crew and all of our shenanigans.

And lastly, to the IB. How I miss thee. 

Happy Thanksgiving!! and…… Happy second night of Hannukah!

 

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A Weekend in Cappadocia

Hello and welcome back friends. I just returned yesterday from an exhilarating and rather chilly weekend in Central Anatolia, Cappadocia to be specific, the town of Goreme to be even more specific. As you all know, my folks were still here, and we flew out to Kayseri on Thursday. It took me only an hour to get to the airport, which was a nice surprise since I was expecting to be in transit for at least 2. The flight only took one hour (by bus it is 12 hours) and then we got picked up by a shuttle at the airport to bring us to our hotel. On the ride to the hotel, it was very obvious we were not in Western Turkey anymore. The landscape was much drier and the rocks were not shaped like normal rocks. Many were conical and seemed to have some doorways in them. When we got to our hotel, we dropped everything off and proceeded to walk around the town of Goreme. It was quite a bit chillier than here in good old Istanbul, and I was not prepared for the drop in temperature. The town was lovely and we got more of an idea of the cave hotels that the town offered. We also discovered that a couple staying next to us was from the same area, one was from Poughkeepsie, only 25 minutes away from me at home and the other from Brooklyn. Small world.

The next day, we started out bright and early at the Goreme Open Air Museum, which consists of many churches that had been hand carved by Christians around 400-500AD to escape persecution from the Pagans. The rock is called tuff, and hardens when it hits air, but is very soft underneath the surface which allowed these rocks to be carved out. Here are some pictures of the museum:Image        Image

After the museum, we decided to walk back towards the hotel because my dad was not feeling to well and on the way we stopped at a pottery  seller, and in her driveway were two beautiful trees. One was a prayer tree where people tied their prayers on, and the other people tied on the evil eye to bring them good luck. Both were quite striking against the landscape.

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So my dad decided to take a rest, while my mom and I went horseback riding. Now, if you know me, you know horses and I do not mix well. I have always had a slightly irrational fear of horses and I do not know why I had a sudden desire to get on one at this point in time. But, we took a 2 hour trail ride through one of the valleys. Yes it was beautiful, yes the horse was relatively calm, yes I was still scared the whole time. After the ride, the ranch owner’s mother made us traditional Turkish bread with cheese inside and some sweet sauce to put on it, which helped soothe my stomach, but not my sore butt. That night, to try to make my body less sore, I decided to try a Turkish Hamam. Now, if you have never tried one, get up right now, book your flight to Turkey and as soon as you get off the plane go to a Hamam. A Hamam, for those of you who do not know is a traditional Turkish bath.

Let me start from the beginning. As I walked downstairs to the women’s level, I was greeted by the most adorable old woman ever. She began speaking to me in Turkish, and miraculously I understood a good deal of what she was saying. First, you have to take off all of your clothes in the locker room, then I went back out and the adorable old woman painted a green face mask on me with a paintbrush. Then comes 15 minutes in the sauna (they give you an iron cloth to cover yourself). I went at about 8pm and was the only person in the sauna at that point. Then I moved on to the shower to rinse my face mask off and then take a little dip in the swimming pool. The next part, the massage, was the best part. They lay you down on a heated marble platform and begin by scrubbing your skin until all the dead skin particles come off. My massage woman then came over with what looked like a pillow full of soap, then just squished it on top of me so I was all soapy and then proceeded to massage. My back is naturally pretty tense and at home I can usually rope one of my friends into giving me a back massage every once on a while, but not here, so this was glorious. I just lay there for a long time being heated and massaged at the same time until the sad moment came when it was over. I later realized that I should have brought conditioner for my hair, so I could actually complete the showering process, but I didn’t, so I then went back to the shower, back to the pool and back to the sauna. After I came out of the sauna, they sat me down on a chaise lounge and handed me a bright green apple tea and I just relaxed until I felt the energy to get up out of my mellow state. The whole process was about an hour and 15 minutes. So go. Now.

But anywhos, back onto the Cappadocian adventure. The next day we chose to go on an all day tour because the public transportation in the area is not very good and the tour showed us a lot in just one day. We began at Derinkuyu, an underground city 13 levels and 87 meters deep. The public is only allowed to go 8 levels deep for safety though. These tunnels were occupied by Christians looking to hide from persecution.Image This was one of the coolest things on the tour. It was amazing how they carved a city that housed over 22,000 people by hand.

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After the underground city, we were taken to Ihlara Valley which also had some churches in it. The thing I liked most about it though was the nature. There were trees and rocks and a stream, a nice change of pace from Istanbul and it sort of reminded me of home.

ImageWe had lunch on a restaurant built on top of the stream and the food was amazing (I had beef stew).

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The last stop on the tour was the Selime Monastery.It was this huge rock cut church that is still very well preserved and was really an amazing sight to see.

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The tour guide also told us that out of the window of one of the towers, we could see the “Star Wars Movie Place.” Yes, that is the name of it. Apparently, around the late 1960’s when George Lucas was scouting places to film Star Wars, he came to Cappadocia and wanted to film at this particular location, but the country was in political turmoil at that point in time so he was unable to get a permit from the government to film. We were told that he took many pictures of the site and rebuilt it in Tunisia, but it is still called the “Star Wars Movie Place.”

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At the end of a long day, our tour guide took us to a local store to do a tasting of some local Cappadocian foods. We got to try chocolate covered apricots and pomegranate tea and a lot of Turkish Delight.

The next morning we left bright and early back to Istanbul to face reality again.

                                       And just a couple more photos that I like.

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I would just like to conclude with a wonderful example of why Turks need better English translators.Image

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A Weekend with the Folks

Hello there friends. The past week or so has been rather eventful, and for the most part, enjoyable. Last Wednesday, a bunch of people from my rock choir went out to a rooftop bar in the neighborhood to support our choir leader, because he was playing acoustic guitar at the bar. We were one of the only tables there, but we cheered and sang along as if the whole room were filled. I thought I would share some photos with you, because it was a really amazing night with a bunch of my Turkish friends.IMG_0631  IMG_0639

Also, my parents arrived last week, and last weekend I stayed with them in Sultanahmet and did all of the touristy and some of the not so touristy things with them. First, we went to the Blue Mosque, which I have already been to, and then to the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is huge, much bigger than any other mosque I have been in. It is no longer a functioning mosque; it is now just a museum and they are doing a lot of renovations on it because the building is not in good condition. It actually used to be a church and then the Ottomans built a mosque on top of it but left many of the Christian mosaics.IMG_0663  IMG_0674

 

We also spent an afternoon in Taksim, observing Gezi Park where the summer protests occurred. We walked down the Istiklal among all the shops and Turkcell signs and made our way down to the Galata Tower. We also went to the top of the tower, which I have not done before, and of course I forgot my camera that time. From the top we could see all of the Bosphorus and all across Istanbul, which my mom said was indeed much bigger than Manhattan.

Saturday morning we took a boat cruise on the Bosphorus which took us from Eminonu all the way to the Rumeli Hisari Fortress that sits right next to my university. Unfortunately, I forgot how sick I get on boats, and was just praying for it to be over for most of the time.

One of the often looked over sights is the Basilica Cistern, which used to be the water source for Old Istanbul, and is now a museum below ground, dim lighting and eerie music and all. There are also two of Medusa’s heads as stands for two pillars that were brought in, though there is not a decided reason why.

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After the Basilica, we decided to go further off the tourist path and go to the Yedikule ruins, built first in the Byzantine period and added to in Ottoman times. But first, we were accosted at the exit of the Basilica by a carpet man that had apparently seen my parents every day since they had been here and of course took us to his friend’s carpet store. Now in Turkey, you really have to be wary of people who are friendly to you on sidewalks, because they are almost always trying to sell you something. So we get to the carpet shop, we are delivered some tea, and the carpet owner tells us that Bill Clinton was in his shop in 1999 and proceeds to show us his pieces. This one particular hanging my mom really liked, but was not looking to cut off her arm to pay for it, so she originally just told him she was not looking for anything to buy, but he kept asking her to set a price, so she told him 500 TL. He laughed and told her that it would sell for 3000 TL, but she would not budge on the price, expecting that he would just give up and not do it, but after a few minutes of him trying to get her closer to that 3000 TL and her not moving, he finally tossed the tapestry to his colleague and said “Paket!” which essentially means “Wrap it up!”

Finally, after leaving the carpet store very satisfied with ourselves, we made our way to the Yedikule Fortress.

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The next day we took a  ferry over to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, just to get a feel for the slower, more residential, less touristy part of Istanbul. We walked through the town and along the promenade next to the water. I saw someone with a dog standing on his shoulders. I literally ran after this guy to try to get a good photo; it did turn out a little blurry but I think you can get the idea of how awesome this was.IMG_0700

As we were walking back to the ferry along the promenade, I saw a small group of people with instruments and then heard one of them speaking on the phone in English, so I decided we should stop and see what they were going to play. They started to play a song in Turkish and their manager came around handing out flyers, and when he realized we were American, we had a nice conversation about the band and what they do. They are a group of artists brought together by their love of Jesus to perform in music, theatre, firethrowing, that kind of stuff, around the Middle East and Eastern Europe (ie. Kyrgystan, Armenia) and they are based in Istanbul. The band members were from Canada, Korea, California, New Zealand and the manager was from Iowa. I told them that they should come to the US and perform (tooting my cool student programmer horn). They had an amazing sound and were really such a joy to listen to, and an amazing story to hear how foreigners make their way in such a different culture. Some pictures of the band:

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After an exhausting weekend, I am relaxing by studying for two midterms, and going to more choir rehearsals. My parents are currently resting comfortably in Selcuk, going to Ephesus tomorrow, and on Thursday we are flying out to Cappadocia for another weekend full of adventure.

And now I will leave you with a couple amusing photos of my mom using the mock fitness equipment on the promenade in Kadikoy.

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Nature and Republic Day

This past week has gone by rather quickly because I did not have class on Monday or Tuesday. Tuesday, because it was Republic Day (Turkish Independence Day) and Monday because the teacher assumed no one would show up for class anyways. I did not have any travel plans for the weekend, so I decided to scope out a part of Istanbul I had never been to before, and as I can always do with some more green in my life, I decided to trek out to the national forest, Belgrad Ormani. A forest in Istanbul?!?! I know, it’s crazy. Istanbul is such an expansive city that it seems as if it should be many small cities instead of one big one.

When my friend, roommate and I finally made it to the entrance, we found we had to walk 2.5 km to get to the start of the walking trails, but when we did, it was worth it.Image

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Along the walking path we found a beautiful reservoir. At least, that’s what the sign said, but in my mind, a reservoir has walls around it and people aren’t allowed near it, but hey, this is Turkey. My friend Kaan wanted me to take some model-esque pictures of him by the water, so enjoy his beauty (and the nice scenery too).Image

 

 

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After a lovely day in nature, and a delicious kofte dinner, we made our way back to campus to watch the firework celebrations that were going to go off from the Bosphorus bridge to celebrate the holiday. There was a huge crowd gathered at the overlook on campus, many people brought beers with them to watch the show, and the girl behind me even had a muffin. At first, the fireworks were so small we could barely even see them, and I could hear grumblings in the crowd, “Why even bother?” “Is that it?” But then, the real deal started up. Huge fireworks, sparkly, bright, loud and much more impressive than the ones before. There were boats below the bridge shooting some off to get the correct symmetry. I tried to get some pictures, but they are not that good quality unfortunately.ImageImage

 

 

 

 

 

 

They even had fireworks in the shape of a moon and star to replicate the Turkish flag. We were all waiting for one shaped like Ataturk’s face, but it never happened. Even so, the finale was spectacular, possibly the best fireworks finale I have seen and the whole crowd cheered afterwards.

We felt too energized to go home afterwards so we went to the local bar and instead of getting all the alcohol money can buy, like a good Erasmus student should, we got a beer and a frappe to share, like the cool people we are.

ImageThis upcoming week I have a midterm in my Turkish language class, I have to get the dreaded residence permit (I hope I come out alive…seriously), and oh, MY PARENTS ARE COMING! WOOOOOOOO!

Until next time, beautiful people.

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The Magical Power of Starbucks and some Greenery

The past few days I have been feeling particularly out of sorts. Maybe it is because I saw an event that I planned go on without me, or maybe because I finally saw my brother’s face (albeit with some weird facial hair) for the first time in a long time, maybe I have just been spending too much time in my room. Whatever it is, it has been hard for me to get out of bed some days, trying to find a reason, a purpose for my day, knowing that no friends are waiting to see me, no one is counting on me to hound an annoying agent. Today was much the same. I finally left the dorm around 10:30am, and just began walking, in hopes of finding breakfast, not really sure what to do. I got breakfast on campus, then didn’t know what to do, so I took a bus to the second campus. Then, a brilliant idea flashed through my mind. Starbucks! I decided I would treat myself to Starbucks. Now you may be wondering why this was so delightful to me, and I will tell you. At my home university, we have a Starbucks in the student union and it is on the meal plan, needless to say, when I am there I get Starbucks, oh, about every day. So today, for the first time since I have been in Turkey, I got Starbucks, a delicious tall iced chai, for only 6 lira! (The “only” was sarcasm if you didn’t catch that.) And of course while I was standing at the checkout counter, something else caught my eye, muesli, their version of the Starbucks oatmeal I suppose. So of course I had to get that too. After eating my 12,50 lira Starbucks meal, and thoroughly enjoying it I felt slightly better and decided to take a bus to Besiktas, a more bustling area, about 30 minutes away. 

In Besiktas, I strolled around for a bit, stopping in a few shoe stores on the hunt for a good pair of boots, but alas, nothing to be found. I walked down by the ferry station by the sea and breathed in the sea air trying to ignore the many cops in the area. There is also a university called Bahcesehir (pronounced Bah-che-sheh-heer) in Besiktas, and I ran into their bookstore and took a look around. Their English section was not very big, but they had some good picks, so I sat reading for a bit, and on my way out I saw they even had some English magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. 

At this point, I decided I should start to look for a bus back in order to miss the rush hour and as I was walking back, I noticed a park, with trees, and grass. I made a B-line for the green and just sat down right on the lawn. I finally felt the weight lift. The presence of some nature, the green leaves, the softness of the grass, and the semi-peacefulness in the park was just what I needed today. I must have sat there for almost 30 minutes before I decided that I really should catch a bus. Now back in my room, I know that there is a little patch of green nearby that I can go to more often and feel more at peace.

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