Day 1: Hagia Sofia, Hippodrome, Cistern, and Grand Bazaar

Check out that apse!

Check out that apse!


The Hagia Sofia (pronounced “Eye-Ah Sofia”) exemplifies how excellent architecture and sturdy materials can last scores of generations beyond their builders—it has stood tall and proud for nearly 1,500 years. One sign of its age are its enormous front doors through which the emperor would have entered: today, they are frozen in open paralysis, their bottoms locked in place beneath ground level by the buildup of renovations. After the Byzantines fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sofia switched over from basilica to mosque, and today it features a pastiche of Christian mosaics and seraphim and huge Islamic calligraphy medallions. All three are visible in the photo above. For many centuries, the Christian art was covered under whitewash due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative depictions in mosques. In some cases, the whitewash actually preserved the artwork underneath.

Exterior view

Exterior view

In the Hippodrome, the former stadium where Roman chariots raced and plebeians occasionally rioted, we once again saw the layers of history that characterize the Sultanahmet district. Several obelisks of various origins, including one taken from Egypt eons ago covered with beautifully clear hieroglyphics, were partially sunken into the ground a number of feet. After its glory days, the Hippodrome was demoted to a quarry/dumpsite. The accumulation of dirt raised its level many feet.

A brief side trip to Egypt. Now, who speaks hieroglyph?

A brief side trip to Egypt. Now, who speaks hieroglyph?

Speaking of glory days, I found the story of the so-called Basilica Cistern rather amusing. The great Byzantine emperor Justinian, who sponsored the construction of Hagia Sofia, also built a huge cistern under the city, supported by hundreds of columns. In later years, the Ottomans somehow forgot that this giant reservoir was there, and concluded that they were simply specially blessed because their wells were mysteriously always full. Today, the cistern is a drippy tourist trap. Just imagine a gigantic flooded basement and you’ll get the general picture!

Basilica Cistern

Or you can look at the specific picture.

Next we headed over to the Grand Bazaar. I felt a peculiar draw toward the place, because it’s half-dream, half-nightmare. Sometimes I’ll awake from wonderful dreams where I’m shopping in a splendid chocolate shop or picking out beautiful clothes from a heavenly Macy’s. Yet, in real life, malls cause me anxiety, and shopping tends to be a chore. In the Grand Bazaar, the tantalizing possibility of finding something rare and exotic meets the stressful reality of pushy merchants and thronging crowds. We found it nearly impossible to navigate so we definitely left some routes unexplored, but we did find a coffeeshop where we tried Turkish coffee (i.e. hot coffee sludge) and also salep, which we received more favorably. This hearty drink combines flour made from starchy orchid tubers with sugar and milk or water and comes dusted with cinnamon. As a winter beverage, it’s a good alternative to hot chocolate for warding off the cold.

I don't have a photo of Turkish coffee, but I think Medusa is a decent substitute.

I don’t have a photo of Turkish coffee–but here’s Medusa! She looks like she could use some salep…

Well, I’ll see you in day 2!

Dailyat al-Karmel

Druze five-color flag representing their five prophets.

Druze five-color flag representing their five prophets.

Frequently I hear reference to the “Druze village” on Mount Carmel, which summons a bunch of quaint huts in which the Druze peacefully paint pottery and bake their distinctive flatbread, which they serve topped with lebaneh (like sour cream cheese), tart zatar spice mix, olive oil, and fresh parsley. Driving through the sprawling “village” with its endless modern concrete apartments and houses, I realized my concept of a village didn’t quite match reality. We got off on the commercial strip, surrounded by souvenir shops and restaurants.

Dailyat al-Karmel is a town situated at the top of Mount Carmel, populated by Druze people. The Druze are a group that broke off from Islam over a thousand years ago to form their own syncretic religion. One of their tenets is obedience to and respect of the government wherever they reside, explaining why the Druze have fully participated in Israeli society, including serving in the military in the various wars. They are also known for their hospitality, which we experienced firsthand.

After walking up the commercial street, where you can find colorful textiles sold beside tacky statues (most notably a figurine of a seductively posed alien), we wandered onto a side street and found ourselves in front of a massive concrete domed structure. What was this place–a bomb shelter? A religious structure? No, it was a basketball court, as explained by the maintenance man who appeared to either guide us or shoo us off the property. Beside this odd dome were several tanks, apparently part of a war memorial. Sergey found this to be a romantic photo op.

Tanks near the giant dome

Tanks near the giant dome

Continuing our wanderings, I spotted a sign advertising Arabic coffee and we approached the building. To our surprise, rather than a café, we seemed to have stepped into someone’s living room. Sundry chairs stood around a large room, including stiff-backed chairs, armchairs, and couches. “Do you serve coffee?” we asked the man at the door, whose name was Zeedan. “Yes, yes,” he said, ushering us in. We sat down in some wicker armchairs and he poured us coffee in the usual miniature paper cups. Next came strawberries (in Israel, winter is strawberry season), and then baklava. Then he sat down beside us. This was unusual restaurant behavior, but he seemed to want to greet and talk to us. Unfortunately, the language barrier made conversation difficult beyond communicating where we were from, but at least we were able to write our names and notes in the gigantic guestbook he handed us, which had the notes of people from all over the world. It was strange to think that this sleepy town would be a crossroads for so many travelers, but nevertheless, the photographs cluttering the walls evidenced the acclaim of this town and this restaurant. One showed the president of Israel shaking Zeedan’s hand.

After some time chatting among ourselves, we decided to depart. When we asked for the bill, we were told it was all on the house. How very strange we felt not paying for our snack, and how charmed to be hosted so graciously, strangers as we were to Zeedan and his family! I guess that is wherein lies the secret to why this town can still be dubbed a “village”–despite the SUVs wending through its narrow lanes and the modernity all around, it retains a neighborly, hospitable culture.



My four-month saga of grad school applications is finally at a close! I’ve benefitted from a great deal of support en route. My parents reviewed every single one of my ten statements of purpose, and Sergey took on most of the housework while I was at work. Well, at least now I feel like I’ve retroactively justified the position I held in my senior year of college as “grad school application essay writing mentor”–having taken my own advice and used some of the handouts I designed in that role, I’d say most of my tips were pretty solid.

During my time as a mentor, I met with a young woman who was applying to 20 law schools to help her with the statements of purpose. I thought she was kind of crazy to apply to so many programs. Now I know that even 10 is pushing the limits of sanity. I can either feel very idealistic about the potential of higher education or cynical about the game of admissions. After trying to tailor so many boilerplate statements to make each program feel special–and calculating my GPA three different ways, obsessing over my CV formatting, trying to make part of my thesis work as a 20-page paper, and so on, I’m definitely feeling on the cynical side, as in, “Come on! I’m paying you $75 just to review this application, shouldn’t that tell you I’m actually interested in your program?” I think (and hope) that by the time the admissions decisions arrive a few months from now, I’ll have returned to the idealistic side!

The applications were not without their humor. For example, the password security questions got quite creative:

Security questions

What famous person would my mom want to meet? Where does my favorite cheese come from? Do I even have a library card? WHO AM I???

And did you know that in an effort to increase their publicity, many universities recruit celebrities as administrative assistants?

Eddie Murphy

Some application forms offered a very long list of possibilities for degrees obtained. I had some fun looking through the hundred names. I think my favorite choice was “Bachiller,” the degree awarded to very chill graduates of Surfer Dude U.

Mount Holyoke should offer this degree.

Mount Holyoke should offer this degree.

When I said humor, I also meant “frustration.” After editing my statements and writing sample until I was questioning every preposition, not to mention befuddled about the distinction between “like” and “such as,” I couldn’t help but feel a bit irked when the English department websites had obvious mistakes. I mean, just look at this horrendously unnecessary comma between “consistent” and “cooperative”! That is not a coordinating conjunction! Go watch Schoolhouse Rock!

Uncoordinated conjunction

And then there were the choices of interests, which often took the form of checkboxes in the application form. One school had the bright idea of limiting choices to only three interests, presumably because taking on students with wider-ranging curiosities would be too much work.

3 interests


Now I am left feeling that I omitted one key element of my experience from my CV: professional applicant. I hope that at some point, grad schools can unify around a single common application.

On a different topic from applications–appliances! Sergey and I have finally invested in some kitchen appliances, like the recent technological breakthrough known as “micro-waver.” I think that’s what it’s called, at least… We’re also quite excited about our new coffeemaker, a step forward from our current simple drip filter. This coffeemaker has a timer, so it can automatically start brewing coffee while we’re struggling to wake up at 6:30. Now when I stumble into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and foggy-headed, I will be guided by the comforting gurgles and familiar scent of percolation.

My Vanna White

My Vanna White

We are ready to make coffee for up to 12 guests, or a few caffeine-addicted ones (Mommy and Jasmine?).

Gettin’ hitched, part the last

Let us return to a day in the distant past: August 9 in the year two thousand and fourteen.  I had slept poorly due to a late night involving preparations and cake from my friends (delicious!); Sergey had slept poorly because I came to his room around midnight to give him a condolence card, waking him up.  He deserved some sympathy for marrying me, after all.  Despite the little sleep, I woke up fairly early thanks to my nerves and began to get ready.  This entailed thorough facial depilation, which took longer than expected.

I was running late, which not surprisingly caused me to do something quite dumb: attempting to carry my weak hotel coffee out of the bathroom with a handful of other supplies to be packed up.  Oh, and I was wearing my very white dress at that point.  You know what happens next: the coffee sloshes and dribbles down the skirt of my dress, to my absolute horror.  I ran to dab it off with napkins, and thankfully my dress had apparently been weatherproofed (and coffee-proofed) because most of it beaded on the fabric and came off.  But there was still a wet stain on the slip beneath the lace.  Poor Jasmine had to reassure me about ten times that it wasn’t visible before my panic was even slightly alleviated.

After a flurry of hair arrangement and last-minute packing, we were off like a herd of turtles.  We met Sergey, resplendent in his suit, waiting patiently in the hotel lobby for his belated bride, and then sped away to Wilmette in our vanousine.

Once there, it was a series of hugs and greetings.  Uncle Terry handed me my beautiful bouquet and I wrote out the pronunciation of the Russian vow and stuck it between the flowers.  Soon enough, it was time to take our seats onstage and enjoy the program, introduced by the Petersens, with music and readings by various dear friends.  And then came the vows.  I think we got double-married by saying the vows in two languages–that’s how it works, right?

I could give a run-down of the rest of our day, but I’m pretty sleepy, plus this is one of those times when images say it better.  I’m going to now attempt to post the beautiful video Mike put together of the photos he took.  So grab a coffee, put on your white dress, and sit back and enjoy!

Qahwa Rock

Considering that my closest coworkers are in the age range to be my mothers or aunties, I’ve received surprisingly little maternal advice from them.  Maybe it’s my “professional demeanor”–I seem like I’m thoroughly put together.  They told me I always seem so calm I make the people around me feel calmer.  A peaceful aura, a mellow soul.  I’m glad I cover up my neuroses so well.

But today, I’m alone with one colleague in the break room, taking the morning cup of coffee that I drink seven days a week around 10:00 AM.

She inquires politely whether I drink coffee every day, and how many cups.  Then she suggests I try to cut it out of my routine and limit myself to drinking it socially.

I’m not addicted, I assure her.  Dependency’s not for me.  I explain that I know the medical issues behind my daily cup.  For example, I know the half-life of coffee is five or so hours–which makes it sound radioactive.

But maybe I am a coffee addict?  I picture a grizzled alcoholic, clutching his bottle of gin and slurring out his defense to the bartender: “I’m not addicted.  I just drink it for the flavor.”  Yeah, right, buddy.

Do I believe you, or...

Do I believe you, or…

…do I believe you and your blushing face?

After viewing these images, I finally know why I’m confused and pale.

So, what do I like about coffee?  The caffeine, the heightened energy when I return to my desk?  The slightly bittersweet aftertaste on the back of my tongue?

Or maybe it’s all the happy memories it evokes.  You know who you are, the coffee drinkers I love.  The coffee milk you made for me when I was a kid and disliked the flavor of plain milk.  The cups you made me when we lived together sophomore year with all your equipment lined up on our bookshelf, worthy of a barista.  The sludgy Nescafe we drank in Santiago.  The mochas and lattes I got with you every Friday at the Thirsty Mind.  The cups I watched you sip first in wintry Massachusetts and finally in summertime Wisconsin.

So it might be a social thing after all.  I’m never really alone with my cup of joe in hand.


Maybe I just need a cute apron.

Maybe I just need a cute apron.

There’s nothing like baking to make a place feel (and smell) homey.  I was so proud when I successfully baked banana bread, despite the inscrutable dials on our oven and lacking measuring spoons.

Best served with coffee

Best served with coffee

Too proud, it turns out, because the goddesses of domesticity decided to punish me for my hubris.

It began with good intentions (which I hear pave a certain road).  I wanted to bake oatmeal raisin cookies for my Serving the Divine Plan group, which meets every Monday night to get our spirituality on.  By the time I started, I was already tired from cooking several pounds of my special peanut noodles, but I was determined.  Three mistakes ensued.

  1. THE EGG. The batter seemed too dry.  “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe the eggs here are smaller than at home.”  I stared at an egg.  It looked small. I cracked a third egg into the batter. Now, I know cooking can be an art, but baking must be a science.  Exact proportions of ingredients are key to success.  I knew it was wrong to add that egg, but knowing and knowing are very different.
  2. THE COOKIE SHEET. After dolloping my gooey, lumpy batter onto a cookie sheet, I ran into my second obstacle.  The  sheet did not fit into our oven.  Now, why we have a cookie sheet that can never be used is way beyond me.  My flatmate Deirdre, amused by my consternation, helped me to transfer the batter to two smaller sheets.
  3. THE HEAT. I had been preheating the oven for an hour (yeah, I know).  This was unintentional; I’m just a very slow baker.  By the time I was ready, the oven had reached a temperature somewhere between a kiln and foundry.  The racks inside had turned a threatening red.  In fact, even the oven dials were scorching hot.  Concerned about burning down my apartment building, I shut it off to let it cool down.  And then tried to turn it back on.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Nope.  Desperate, I sunk to my haunches, fiddling madly with the dials, a protective dishrag wrapped around my fingers, to no avail.

“I broke it,” I whined to Deirdre. “I told you I break everything I touch.”  When she tried to comfort me but couldn’t help but chortle at my fiasco, I played stoic.  “There are worse tragedies in the world than me not being able to make my cookies,” I said.  She paused to genuinely consider this point, then convinced me to use the neighbors’ oven.  I did.  She recommended putting all the dough on two sheets to make two giant cookies.  I did.

This was the result.  Please keep in mind that I was aiming for 30 cookies.


In the words of Prospero, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”  I’m still trying to figure out what utensil to use with my thing of darkness.  A small jackhammer would be useful.

Seriously, who else sets out to bake cookies and ends up breaking the oven?

Postscript:  No worries, the oven has been repaired.  I plan to bake some brownies soon–at a very low heat.

Baklava & Coffee


If I were to make a soundtrack for Haifa, it would include the Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish songs that spill through the windows of the apartment. There is a synagogue that I can see from the living room. Adherents in long black robes and big furry black caps come in and out. Yesterday it broadcast a soulful choral song, presumably during the Shabbat service. While I cannot understand the words to either the call to prayer or the Jewish music, it’s pretty special that people here observe their religion so audibly. Although the Bahá’ís don’t sing prayers over loudspeakers, I think the Shrine and gardens play a comparable role as a visible, artistic manifestation of our faith.

My orientation group took a walking tour of Haifa yesterday. We walked from the Bahá’í property down to the German colony, the old pilgrim houses, the resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum, the House of the Master, and then to Wadi Nisnas, the Hadar, and Carmel Center. These districts offer distinct shopping experiences, with the Hadar and Carmel Center offering a more typically Western experience with stores resembling Forever 21 and restaurants like McDonalds, whereas Wadi Nisnas boasts the limestone architecture and colorful marketplace of Old Haifa. This is where the Arab Christian community lives.


I enjoyed walking down the narrow streets of Wadi Nisnas, looking at the rainbow of fresh produce. There is a bakery that sells mountains of baklava in every imaginable shape. I couldn’t resist buying a box—anyone want to help me eat it? I also invested in some Arabic coffee, which is brewed on the stovetop. It smells delicious, with bits of cardamom sprinkled around the fine powder.


True to form, I must write a little about the wildlife of the city. Yesterday I made a new friend: a teeny yet burly yellow jumping spider who sat politely on my laptop for half an hour. I swear he was watching my screen, reading an online article along with me. Or maybe he mistook my cursor for a yummy ant.