Monday, June 21, 2010

Istanbul, Turkey


The last week has been a whirlwind of mezze, baklava, roasted chestnuts, the biggest stuffed baked potato I have ever seen, and some kickass lemonade. For five days Willie and I discovered some of Istanbul's finest offerings, focusing on food but also exploring a few sites, bazaars, and side-streets. Some highlights:

Roasted Chestnuts: Street vendors sell food all over the place here, from mussels with lemon, to sesame pretzels, to bananas, to corn on the cob, to arabic ice cream, to fresh cherries, to turkish delight, to fish sandwiches and to roasted chestnuts. My favorite has been the roasted chestnuts. They, along with market vendors, restaurant advertisers, and pretty much anybody selling anything, has been unfortunately misinformed that the correct way to solicit customers is to say "yes, please," as in "yes, please would you like some chestnuts?" often followed by an address of "lady," as in, "hey lady, get out of my way." Willie and I started saying "no, thank you" in reply, just for symmetry's sake.

Baklava: Compared to baklava I have tried elsewhere, this baklava is pure heaven. It's crunchy, it's nutty, and it's completely soaked in honey, but without being sticky- somehow it's just juicy. There are lots of types of sweet pastries, but my favorite was the walnut baklava. I also tried chocolate-coconut baklava, which was interesting, but not quite as good as the real stuff. My favorite store to get it from was Koska, which is actually a chain of baklavalaris here in Istanbul.

Turkish Delight: It took me a while to try Turkish Delights. I have never really liked it, but finally, Koska was giving them out for free and I found that I quite liked it, especially the varieties with nuts and coconut shavings. The vendors always want you to buy by the kilo or at least half kilo, and get exasperated when I request just a few squares.

Mezze: Willie and I had mezze for practically every dinner while we were here. My favorites: dill/parsley hummus, okra with tomatoes, eggplant with tomatoes, yoghurt with garlic and parsley, and walnut/tomato paste. We realized after a few nights of getting ridiculously full that we were each eating at least a full breadbasket each.

Stuffed Baked Potato: One day Willie got lunch at the Istanbul Modern art museum's cafe, but after all of our eating escapades I wasn't yet ready for another big meal. So, I waited until later that afternoon for lunch, and ended up eating a massive stuffed baked potato. They carve out the potato and mix it up with butter and then put the potato back in the shell. You can choose seven toppings out of about twenty, and I had, among other things, cheese, mushrooms, ketchup, spicy corn, mixed vegetables, and a few other unidentifiable items. It was the most disgusting and yet simultaneously light foods I had eaten. A baked potato, light? I guess all of the toppings helped even out the load.

Lemonade: Our search for lemonade and other refreshing beverages of the like took us to cafes and restaurants across the city. We had ginger-mint-lemonade with delicious apple cookies on the side which was especially refreshing, fresh mint limeade, and your everyday average lemonade. A couple times we ended up at Starbucks, partially for the familiarity of the drinks and decor, but also because it has some of the comfiest armchairs and undeniably the best air conditioning in this city. God knows how hot it was midday.

We saw the usual sites- Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, etc. but also took the time to go to a few of Istanbul's less-visited locales. This brought us to a franchise of Boston-based The Upper Crust, apparently a massive success here in Istanbul and possibly the only non-Boston location of the chain. We had several public transport adventures, and once stood on a bus for twice as long as it took walking. The subway system uses tokens, not tickets, and they're usually bright red, plastic, and look like toy money. One day we spent hours in the Istanbul Modern, possibly the best modern art museum I have visited, ever. The quality of the art was outstanding, as was the design of the museum, but I think what made it so good was the art's simultaneous relevance to Turkish culture and history and its independence from any collective stereotypes. I tried going back today, but it was closed Mondays.

A very "Turkish" experience, I guess, had to do with pants. Yesterday morning Willie departed to return home to Boston after five months of being abroad (!) and for the first time I was on my own in Istanbul. It was so hot that I had been wearing shorts and skirts during the day and at night, so when I got on the subway to buy a bus ticket to Cappadocia, I thought nothing of the shorts and tshirt I had on- nearly exactly the same outfit I had worn with Willie a few days earlier. I got a lot of weird stares, but I couldn't figure out if this was because I was a woman alone, a Westerner in a predominantly local area of town, or something else. It became pretty clear when a random middle-aged guy came up to me and started yelling in Turkish, gesturing at my legs. Apparently, while it's okay for a tourist woman to wear shorts when accompanied by a guy, that is not the case when you're traveling alone here. The only pants I had were black skinny jeans- not ideal for soaring temperatures- so that evening I set out to find pants. Naturally, my height made this difficult- I have never bought a pair of pants that fit me without having to cut the legs shorter. So after finding pants, I attempted to find a tailor. I went into a suit shop and a chain clothing store, and nobody knew where I could find one. I finally went into the United Colors of Benetton, where a very nice man from the store walked me around the corner to a tailor, helped me negotiate a price and pinned the pants for me. He may have received a referral commission, but I was grateful nonetheless.

It was interesting that the man who yelled at me was not the only person to attempt to communicate with me in Turkish- a woman today had a whole conversation with me in Turkish, and all I did was grunt and nod and smile as I did not want to embarass her by admitting that I had no idea what she was rambling on about. Later that night I changed into pants, and my ambiguous foreign?/local? identity became further ambiguous.

I'm finally off to Cappadocia- Goreme- tonight after a failed attempt at the journey yesterday. In Turkey, apparently, there are men's and women's sides of buses, and all of the women's seats were sold out yesterday. Hopefully more pictures soon, but until then...


1 comment:

  1. I totally feel like I am there, and other than the 'lite' baked potato, everything seems totally amazing!!!! I love reading your blogs!!!!!!