Back to school

I have now been in State College for a few weeks. The first week was a whirl of getting the apartment stocked and shopping for furniture. I also ventured onto campus for the first time; my previous tour had been a virtual one online while I was in Israel. Penn State’s campus forms a large rectangle; at its south end is the downtown. Campus has two major attractions: Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Shrine is apparently the second most photographed place in Pennsylvania, after the Liberty Bell. I have yet to pay homage to the Nittany Lion, but I have nearly circumambulated Old Main, which is a handsome replica of the university’s first building. A lawn stretches from Old Main to downtown, and I found that a flock of ducks likes to dawdle on the very edge of campus, near people waiting at the bus stop. (One day I was sitting at the bus stop and a lame duck—yes, a literal lame duck, not a congressperson—was quacking behind me. I wish I had a crutch to give it, but I’m no doctor, just a quack.) I would add a third attraction, which is the popular Berkey Creamery, serving locally produced ice cream and dairy products.

Week two was orientation, which involved the fearful task of meeting new people and trying to make friends. I did try to push myself in that regard. I have attended a grand total of four grad events requiring mingling, at which I’ve been able to show off both my lack of mingling prowess and my teetotalism. The first event was bowling night. It had probably been over a decade since I last stepped foot in a bowling alley. While I remembered the important aspects of the game—pick up ball, release ball, knock down pins—putting it into practice proved difficult. I was invited to join a team (alas, unfortunate team to recruit me). On my first few turns I managed to knock down nothing besides my self-esteem, but eventually, by developing my own method of tossing the ball, I managed to knock down a decent number. I think I might have even gotten a spare! While initially, I was thinking that it was unfortunate for the older grad students’ first impression of me to be my terrible hand-eye coordination, I realized the next evening that bowling had given me the opportunity to engage in short conversations with fellow bowlers with the option of watching the action when we reached a lull.

At dinner the next evening, there were no distractions. People broke into groups, impenetrable to a shy person, so I found myself frequently pouring myself cups of Coke to look like I was occupied. And I missed out on an apparently popular conversation topic sparked by the presence of lots of bottles of wine and beer, namely, alcohol. One acquaintance asked me what drink I would recommend…well, soda, of course. I have made one friend in the program thus far, and afterward, she told me I look very elegant even when standing alone awkwardly. (She didn’t say “awkwardly,” but it’s the truth.)

As an act of divine mercy, I was struck with a cold that weekend, which excused me from yet another mingling event, a party involving pizza and…a keg. The invitation said to bring your own drink if you didn’t want beer, and so I had anxious visions of myself clinging to my water bottle and hiding in a corner, the only sober partygoer. Instead, I had a quiet evening alone with my box of tissues.

This weekend, I again confronted my distaste for alcohol-centered events. My friend invited me to join the cohort (the group of first-year English MA students, of which there are seventeen) at a bar—we could get soda. And soda we did get, ginger ale in fact, in a very noisy bar where I could only hear the person next to me speak. My friend, who is from Taiwan, asked why people in America enjoy going to bars. “You are asking the wrong person!” I replied.

Finally, I attended a gathering of English MA students. This involved a brief bout of horseshoe throwing (before I gave up) and several hours of attempted mingling. Also, I made the mistake of assuming dinner would be ready when I arrived and showing up hungry. It was ready about two hours later, so in the meantime, I dominated a bowl of kale chips that happened to be in front of me.

Besides stabs at socializing with grad students, I have actually started grad school! While Mount Holyoke prepared me well for the academics, I’m still getting used to having all my classes in the three-hour, once per week seminar format, and spacing out the heaps of reading properly. Plus trying to learn Russian on the side in preparation for Cold War 2 (jk, just trying to get in touch with my husband’s roots).

The following is somewhat representative of the transition to life as a commuter grad student. One of my classes runs from 6:30-9:30, so around 5:45, I went to wait for the bus. As I was heading out, I heard some thunder, so I grabbed my umbrella. Then I was waiting by the bus stop…and waiting…the air was growing thick and hazy with the expectation of rain. And then it started to sprinkle. And then the heavens emptied themselves! I ran under a tree with my umbrella, but my legs and feet were immediately soaked, as was my poor backpack. I thought I saw my bus in the distance, but then I looked back, and it was gone. At this point I figured it would be difficult to attend class in my drowned rat condition, so I ran back to my apartment, changed, zipped up my raincoat, ran to my car, tried to figure out the windshield wipers, which I have never used in this car, and then drove downtown through the deluge to a parking garage, from whence I walked to campus as fast as I could. Somehow I made it only about a minute late! I think I disappointed my professor by my timeliness, because I had emailed an apology for being late after my bus fiasco. He actually arrived a few minutes after I did, and when he saw me, he said, “You’re here! I saw your email and I thought ‘good, I won’t be the latest one to class because of the rain.’”

Next time, I shall stick to my word and be late!

Like a cat in water

Admission: over the last month, I fell woefully behind in writing. There was so much to do before leaving the World Centre–boxes to pack, projects to complete, farewells to bid–that I simply could not make the few hours needed to complete this blog. So, these last entries are being written from within the purple walls of my home in Wisconsin, not from the Holy Land.

***

It might seem illogical for a couple with little interest in swimming to travel to a swimming hole, but once in a while, it comes time to explore something beyond the confines of our street. So, Sergey and I signed up for a trip to Gan HaShlosha National Park, more commonly known as Sakhne. People flock to HaShlosha from all over to shlosharound–I mean, slosh around–in the unusual turquoise waters of the pools, which are supposedly colored by natural minerals. So, after driving to the eastern edge of Israel, past vast sunflower fields bordered by low purple mountains, we found ourselves idling in a long line of cars, mostly filled with smoking Arab men ready to spend a smoky day with their grills, hookahs, and oh yeah, the crystalline waters.

After what felt like several hours of waiting, we finally made it to the parking lot. 9:00 AM on a Saturday and nearly no open spaces. Israelis take their weekends seriously, whether that means observing Shabbat or finding water to play in. We unfolded a towel and laid it on the dead grass on a hill beside the pool, from which point I surveyed the surroundings. Again, the main denizens of the water were Arab men, who had brought all manner of floating devices, including air mattresses. I had never realized that air mattresses could be seaworthy. The young men frolicked in the water, vying for spots atop the floaties, reminding me of walruses fighting for territory on an iceberg. Sergey remarked on the boyishness of their play–some of the men looking to be in their mid-twenties and above. Maybe the lack of women freed the men from putting on a display of savoir faire. Or maybe their playful jousting was actually for the benefit of the onlookers.

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be claimed!

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be colonized!

In almost all parts of the interconnecting pools, the water was over my head, and the shallows had other dangers (dead leaves, dirt, splashing kids). So, I spent most of my time perched midway down the steps into the water, letting my legs float like dead wood in the hopes of attracting the “piranhas,” as Sergey called them. These minnow-like fish enjoy snacking on dead skin, and they seem to get plenty of it from the hordes of swimmers, as it took a while for me to finally attract some. But once they came, they flocked. At the peak feeding time, I had at least fifteen fish giving me a pedicure. Their small beaky mouths tickled, but I stayed strong and still. (I can’t say the same for Sergey, who was reduced to giggling and squirming.) The fish were easily spooked. The slightest movement would scare them away, so keeping my legs immobilized became my mission. Of course, I couldn’t control the rambunctious people around me, who insisted on swimming, disturbing my piscine idyll. The fish seemed to sense even impending impacts–in the time between a boy’s leap and him hitting the water, they would race away from me.

Hungry fish

Just wearing my fashionable fish boot…

After I had my fill of the crowded park and the fish had full tummies, we headed home.

So, what do cats have to do with this story? Well, they also relate to our recreational activities.

When we moved into our apartment last summer, we became acquainted with several adolescent cat siblings, all with the same gray and white spots as their mama. Over the winter, they grew up, got hitched, and come springtime they were all pregnant. After they had their litters, we found a new hobby: kitten-watching. (Lest you scoff at our interest in strays, please remember that Haifa lacks cute rodents to observe–no rabbits, squirrels, or chipmunks…just rats, and once in a blue moon, a mongoose. Also, the feline families served pretty well as a compost solution for excess leftovers.)

One cat mama birthed a brood of three tabbies, and another had three distinct kittens: one completely black, one black and white, and one gray and white. If only she had an all white kitten, she would have covered the whole monochromatic spectrum!

Israeli wildlife

Israeli wildlife

I think the tiny black kitten was my favorite. It looks like a surprised bush baby, all shining eyes.

Feline bush baby

Feline bush baby

Day 6: A palace and a dervish

A few days after leaving Turkey, I had a dream that I was wandering in a vast palace covered with Iznik tiles. I think this was the result of our tour of the Harem of the Topkapi Palace and Tiled Pavilion of the Archaeological Museum, both of which demonstrated an artistic obsession with these intricately painted tiles.

Tiled walls in the Sultan's room

Tiled walls featuring calligraphy surround an ornate fireplace in the Harem.

The day had already turned gray and rainy by the time we got to the palace grounds. The palace is not a single building, but rather a giant complex of buildings around four courtyards. Every sultan made his addition to the complex as new needs arose. At one point 10,000 people lived and worked in the compound, so I suppose the crush of tourists actually helped us imagine how busy this place was when it functioned.

We started with the Harem, the section of the complex where the sultan’s wives and mother lived along with the eunuchs and concubines who tended to the women. Contrary to Western notions, the harem was primarily an administrative establishment, carefully designed to ensure there would be no squabbles over succession because of heirless sultans.

The Harem is the most decorated part of the palace, with many of those Iznik tiles coating chamber after chamber. After touring that part, we began our grueling expedition through sopping courtyards to see the treasury (lots of shiny jewels), the kitchen (unfortunately foodless today), and the armory. In the armory, I found myself suddenly intrigued by a thin sword on display and desperately needing to examine it up close for several minutes, which I assure you was not at all because there was a heat vent below the vitrine. We were amused to find the weapons arranged under signs such as Stabbing, Slicing, Smashing, etc. There were a fair share of funny elements to the palace besides the weapons: the sultan’s throne in his reception chamber appeared big enough to fit ten men side-by-side, the council chamber where the ministers consulted had a window grille above it through which the sultan could listen like a literal eavesdropper, and his mom’s room was located strategically between his room and the rest of the harem. Ah, the tough life of a sultan!

"So...cold..."

“So…cold…”

Hungry and wet from the drizzle, we proceeded to our next stop, the archaeological museum, which is actually a set of three museums. The visit started on a happy note when we found coffee that didn’t cost $10 a cup, approximately the palace price. Now, the café where we lunched had a decent selection with entrees, salads, and sandwiches—but once we had decided on our picks, stomachs growling, we were informed that out of the 20 choices on the menu, they actually only had dolma and pistachio cake in stock.

I guess this was a preview of the rest of the museum, which was under—you guessed it—restoration, and the starring items, such as the famed Alexander Sarcophagus, were off display. A bit perturbed, we made the most of the remaining sarcophagi and their occasionally belligerent inscriptions (e.g. “If any man disturbs this tomb, let him be smashed and his whole family crushed”).

We love history!

Up close and personal with ancient history.

We walked over to the museum next door where we saw…more tiles! In fact, this small museum is called the “Tiled Pavilion.”

Excited to see tiles!

Or “the Tired Pavilion”

Finally, after a detour in the sculpture garden, which is where the disenfranchised statues are left to suffer the elements, we went to the last museum: the “Ancient Orient.” Upon my approaching the entrance, I was greeted by a guard clearly communicating that my entry was unwelcome. Apparently, they chase everyone out 20 minutes before the museum actually closes. I convinced her to let us in for “one minute,” and after we cruised through Babylon, the lights went off. But I could not leave without seeing at least one famous item, the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest known peace treaty. The guards relented and flicked on the lights for us to get a brief look at the tiny cuneiform tablet.

And that concluded our day of odd museums.

With only a few hours left in Istanbul, we headed to the Arasta Bazaar, where Jasmine purchased a beautiful inlaid box and Sergey and I drank the shopkeeper’s apple tea. Then we happened upon an outdoor restaurant where a trio was performing—and, most excitingly, a whirling dervish was whirling!

Dervish

Whirling dervish, Sufi dancer, your skirts are a sheltering canopy, your eyes, divine ecstasy.

Entranced, we watched from the sidewalk, and then decided it was worth eating a freezing al fresco dinner to see him whirl. While I’m always skeptical of the authenticity of “cultural” activities in a tourist district, he seemed to be legitimately meditating as he spun, eyes nearly closed, apparently unconscious of his audience, including the paparazzi in the front row seats (us).

Finally, it was time to say “good night” to Istanbul. Our journey had reached its end.

Near Divan Yolu

City of 10 million people

burqa-clad women, bohemian men,

fish sandwiches scenting thousands of fingers.

East meets West

almost

separated by the strait of the Bosphorus

marble tongue of Marmara licking the cold cup of the Black Sea

and Black Sea pouring its dark contents into Marmara’s mouth.

Day 4: Mosques galore

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Dome of the Blue Mosque, which earns its moniker from the blue tones of its interior decor.

While mosques only require a single minaret from which the muezzin can voice the call to prayer, to show off his wealth and power, the sponsoring sultan of the Blue Mosque—Sultan Ahmet, who gave his name to both the mosque and the district—built six.

We visited Istanbul in “low season” for tourism, the time when the government implements its renovations and restorations of the various historical sights before the influx of visitors begins again with the return of warm weather. Indeed, nearly everywhere we went, we found huge tarps wrapped around walls and covering entire buildings, printed with explanations of the history of the place underneath and the plans for its restoration. The Spice Market from afar looked like an enormous tent, thanks to its veiling tarp. Hagia Sofia featured massive scaffolding inside, and the Blue Mosque featured a mere 5.5 minarets. The remaining 0.5 was undergoing reconstruction.

One minaret, two minaret...scaffolded sixth minaret is outside the frame.

Minaret #6 is currently in hiding.

The Blue Mosque might be the most renowned, but I have to be a mosque snob and say that of the three we entered, it was actually the least impressive. That should give you an idea of just how many gorgeous mosques populate Turkey, thanks to the sultans’ combined religiosity and profligacy!

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Note the giant chandeliers.

Our next mosque was the truly magnificent Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. The architect Mimar Sinan made massive and heavy structures appear buoyant and graceful. Like the heavenly ambience created by the stained glass windows and elaborate décor of Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was clear that the beauty of these mosques was designed to lift the spirits of worshippers to paradisiacal heights.

Mosques were usually surrounded by other establishments like bazaars and kitchens. We had lunch in a restaurant housed in the mosque’s former soup kitchen. When we walked from the stone-paved courtyard into a lofty chamber filled with untenanted tables draped in crisp white linen, we saw that we were the only customers. While I appreciate the quietness of an empty restaurant, at a fancier establishment like this, I prefer having at least a few other customers to distract the flock of attentive waiters from my plebeian etiquette.

“They’re giving us water for free!” I whispered to Sergey and Jasmine after the waiters had filled our glasses before we ordered. “Drink a lot!”

Our experience at this restaurant demonstrated the heights of excellence that a meatball can attain. In Turkey, “koftecisi” or meatballs are oblong patties of ground meat mixed with spices and herbs, then grilled.

We ordered meatball soup followed by meatball dishes. The meatball soup was a creamy blend of lentils, vegetables, and bits of meatball—just what we needed to warm us up after being buffeted by the damp wind. Then came our main course: Sergey got tender cutlets, and Jasmine and I shared…kebab sushi. The filling was made with meat and finely chopped pistachio, which had apparently been formed into a roll, then wrapped with a pastry. This roll is then sliced and the slices are grilled. The end result was delectable!

Alas, our little glasses of apple tea were soon finished and the meatballs gone; we had to exit our culinary cocoon. Yet, the restaurant was not the only gem around the mosque. We found some artisans making their goods–engraved platters and other metal trinkets. Their workshop also functioned as their shop, and after watching them demonstrate their craft, we bought several dishes engraved with gleaming floral patterns.

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter,

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter.

Day 3: Boating down the Bosphorus

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus Strait splitting the European side, which has most of the tourist attractions and commerce, from the Asian side, which is largely residential. We decided to devote a day to seeing more of this important strait, which offers the nations around the Black Sea their sole path of entry and exit to the Mediterranean via the Marmara and Aegean Seas—crucial for trade and navies.

We boarded the ferryboat that would take us on a 1.5 hour journey from the old city up the strait, past the bankside sprawl of Istanbul, to a fishing village called Anadolu Kavağı situated near the mouth of the Black Sea. After claiming seats on the topmost level where we could enjoy the warm sun and chilly wind, we peered down into the waters of the inlet, where cormorants plunged into the depths, and impassive, translucent jellyfish wobbled through the water, almost indistinguishable from the plastic debris that floated on the surface. Seagulls silently swooped above us.

I have way too many photos of seagulls!

I have way too many photos of seagulls…

The boat was docked near the bridge across the Golden Horn, over which the tram passes back and forth to the New District. Below the traffic on the lower, pedestrian level of the bridge, there is a row of seafood restaurants. At 10:00 AM their staff were just starting to clean and prepare for a day of customers, and we watched in amusement as they hauled up water from the strait below to swab the decks of their outdoor seating. In that act, I was reminded of how provident the sea and its estuaries are to coastal cities. Little wonder then that successive empires made this area the focus of their empires, surrounded as it is by a natural moat of generous and protective waters.

The bridge looks like it is buoyed by restaurants.

The bridge with its undergirding of restaurants.

After some time, the engine started purring and the boat pulled away from the dock. As we moved along, we followed the tour in our guidebook, spotting such sights as the European wannabe Dolmabahce Palace and its nearby mosque and clocktower, the Rumelian fortress dating from the 15th century, and several towering bridges across the strait, one for city traffic and one for “intercontinental transit.”

Eventually, the crowded urban area thinned out into areas of mansions with tall trees. In one such tree we saw a cormorant worshipping the sun, wings outstretched.

Sunbathing cormorant

Sunbathing cormorant on the bank of the Asian side.

When we would approach the shore to pick up more passengers, flocks of seagulls would attach as if magnetically to our boat and hover around. Perhaps the wake of the boat stirred up small creatures for their lunch, or maybe they hoped we would jettison our own food—in any case, Jasmine encouraged me to get some action shots of these birds. There were, in fact, several species of seagulls, ranging from a long-winged pterodactylesque breed with harsh eyes to a chubbier, smaller variety with the charm of a flying porpoise.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Now that I’ve started on seagulls, I must digress to another scene. Seagulls were not only present above the Bosphorus, but also all over the Sultanahmet. They careened past the eaves of our hotel as we ate breakfast on the enclosed terrace. More hauntingly, one night as we strolled around the park between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, we observed scores of gulls weaving like ghosts above the domes—like moths tethered to lights.

It's hard to see, but the white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque are seagulls.

The white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque (which looks like a yellow mosque at night) are seagulls.

Back on the strait, we arrived at the village. As we approached, we noticed two things: the ruins of Yoros Castle, our destination, on the peak of a hill, and the black-and-white clad waiters standing in front of their seafood restaurants flagging us down. As none of us care for seafood, we skipped the daily catch in favor of the village’s other specialty, lokma, which are syrupy balls made of a light dough deep-fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Deep-fried deliciousness.

Sticky and sweet deliciousness.

“Mmmm!” was our unanimous reaction to lokma. Yet this treat soon met a tragic end: as we walked away from the bevy of restaurants and hawkers in pursuit of the castle, I flung out my arm to point at a sign saying “Yoros,” just as Sergey was proffering the container of lokma to me. In the ensuing collision, the lokma scattered over the street like sticky marbles. I felt quite crushed by my role in this accident—as crushed as the lokma were soon to become under the tires of passing cars—but luckily, we were still close to the stand and purchased a refill.

Yoros Castle in Andalu Kavagi

The remains of Yoros Castle.

Up the steep hill we hiked, passing by a military zone protected by a high fence, higher and higher until we reached the surprisingly commercialized ruins of the Byzantine castle. We had to pass by another bevy of restaurants to reach our destination. While the castle was admittedly dull since we could not enter (unless we defied the law and scaled its crumbling walls, which some boys did), the summit of the hill did afford a striking view toward the Black Sea.

“Can you see Moldova from here?” I asked Sergey.

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look super hard and use your imagination, you can even spot Sergey's hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev)!

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look hard and use your imagination even harder, you can spot Sergey’s hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev) behind us!

Soon enough, our time on the Asian side was over, and we re-boarded our boat, which felt tranquil after our return hike through the surprisingly traffic-congested lanes of the village. We chose indoor seats and spent most of the return voyage in a half-stupor.

Maiden's Tower seen on the right.

Maiden’s Tower seen on the right.

Towards the end, though, I decided I had to go to the top so I could finally photograph one of Istanbul’s well known sights, Maiden’s Tower, which sits upon a small island. As we neared the European side, the setting sun set the cityscape aglow, smears of saffron light upon the minarets of countless mosques…and neon light upon the signs of countless seafood eateries.

Cityscape centered on Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Cityscape centered on the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Day 2: Time travel

Buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course a didgeridoo.

Dreadlocked buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course some didgeridoos

From the ancient buildings of the Sultanahmet area, we traveled across the inlet called the Golden Horn to the so-called New District. If you recall the protests that rocked Turkey a few years ago, you probably remember that Taksim Square was the site of demonstrations and police crackdowns. That square is at the end of Istiklal Street, where we took our tour of modern Istanbul.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Looking down Istiklal Street from the comparatively quiet square, we saw a river of people. This river only grew denser as the day progressed, reaching flooding point after dark. Occasionally, a trolley would part the crowd, but usually pedestrians packed the entire street. Clearly, Istiklal Street is the place to be on a Saturday. With the exception of a sartorial detour to a silk shop where I ended up with a green shawl, our walk primarily gravitated toward sweet shops, including Haci Bekir, which has apparently been in business for as long as the US has been a nation. There, we sampled pastries and stocked up on mini pizzas and, more importantly, Turkish delight.

Now, I haven’t always harbored much love for this cubic dessert, which has a chewy, gummy texture and traditionally features double-roasted pistachios. But there ain’t nothing like the real thing, and the stuff we get stateside is a mere shadow of actual Turkish Turkish delight, which the Turks call “lokum.”

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

After that, we tried Turkish ice cream, made with goat milk and some orchid product that is probably the same that goes into salep. Then we sampled almond paste and rose-flavored hard candy. Then we had to go to the dentist (kidding!).

Our healthy lunch completed, we finished Istiklal Street and walked further to see Galata Tower, which was constructed by Genoese merchants to assert their tower-building powers. Finally, we ended up beside the Golden Horn, where fishermen flicked their lines in and out of the dusky water.

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

The next day, we were able to get to know these waters even better.

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!

Turkey for three

Last month, Sergey, Jasmine, and I set off to Turkey for a whirlwind adventure. After reading Rick Steves’ guidebook nearly cover to cover, I had put together a brutal itinerary that would test anyone’s traveling mettle—there were just so many things to see in so little time! And now so much to write about! If I get a book offer, then I’ll be sure to include every single detail in the manuscript, but for now I’ll stick with the abridged version of our six days in this ancient land, starting with…

Day 0: After a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, on which we were treated to Turkish Airline’s “gourmet” airplane food, which they even allowed us to preview by passing out menus before serving us as if we were attending a fancy wedding, we arrived in the Istanbul airport. That was when I knew we had officially entered a different country: rather than the drafty buildings of Israel, which apparently chooses to ignore winter rather than react to it, the terminal was heated to the point of discomfort.

We met a person working for the airport transfer company, which manages rides from the airport to hotels, and noticed an apparent typo in his information: we were going to be taken to “Hotel Nomade” rather than the place we’d reserved, “Noah’s Ark.”

“Maybe that’s its Turkish name?” I speculated. Turkish is all Greek to me.

So, after informing him of the mistake, we got into a big van with a silent driver. Well, he was silent aside from phlegmy coughs and wheezes. In the old city, we pulled up in front of the correct hotel, with its “Noah’s Ark” sign, but something was clearly awry as shutters covered its entrance.

Wordlessly, the driver pulled away then backed his giant van all the way down another street, where he got out and removed our luggage.

“I guess that’s our cue?”

We disembarked. No hotel was in sight, just a restaurant packed with night owls, but then a man appeared and helped us with our luggage into a small building beside the restaurant.

“Did Noah’s Ark tell you about the situation?” he asked.

“The…situation?”

“They closed. Out of business—two days ago. They rebooked you in this hotel.”

At this point it was 1:00 AM, and we weren’t about to start researching another hotel, so we accepted the room. The triple was fairly tiny and bare, and one patch of the fake wood floor felt like it was going to collapse every time we stepped on it, but at least there were beds.

Then we noticed the bathroom. It had glass doors. Right in front of the toilet.

We did some research and found that this hotel was recently renovated under the guidance of a French designer. So, apparently this designer valued classy touches like glass doors over boring orthodoxies like privacy. In my humble design opinion, glass doors are good for places where you’d like a clear view, such as a garden or yard—not, you know, the toilet.

(Also, to compound the bathroom problem, through a vent near the sink, we could clearly hear our neighbor’s conversations when they spoke in or near their own bathroom. Nothing scandalous, but still–what did they hear us talking about? …Probably about the bathroom.)

Long story short, we spent nights one and two at this hotel after redesigning the door by draping it with the closet’s curtain, then moved to a better hotel a few blocks away. Never before had we been so happy to behold a blessedly solid, opaque door to the bathroom!

Animal Farm

One weekend, Sergey and I were invited to accompany some colleagues to a place called Hamat Gader. This destination boasts stinky hot springs that fill a giant bathing pool. Now, marinating myself along with flocks of sweaty strangers is not my usual cup of tea, but we figured this was a good chance to see some of the Galilee region.

We were right. The winter rains had turned the hills and valleys of Galilee a vibrant green, shining like an emerald in the morning light. En route to our destination, we stopped at the most scenic gas station I’ve encountered. The station overlooked a field where cows grazed peacefully beside white cattle egrets. Occasionally this pastoral scene was interrupted by groups of bikers who zoomed down a path through the field, startling the cattle.

Cows and bikers

Back on the road, after driving along the border with Jordan, we arrived at Hamat Gader. Sergey and I set off to explore the flora and fauna of the park. We found the predecessor of today’s pool, the ruin of a Roman bath.

Roman bath

After documenting the ancient bath, I was distracted by a flock of birds: white-spectacled bulbuls twittering upon some trees near the ruin. Beyond them, I could just make out the shape of a mysterious green parrot, gazing impassively into the surrounding hills.

Bulbul

Then came the unmelodic squawk of an itinerant peacock. We gave chase. Above the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we stalked him in pursuit of the perfect photo. He was not particularly interested, and gave us a final look of disdain before disappearing over the crest of the hill.

Peacock

After our nature experience, we had a decidedly unnatural visit to the park’s “zoo,” which seemed more like a hapless mess of cramped terrariums and odd combinations of chickens and gazelles. Actually, perhaps that mysterious green parrot I saw was an escapee of the zoo’s tacky attraction, a parrot show. Sergey and I sat among hordes of tired parrots—I mean parents—and their shrieking children to watch parrots, macaws, and cockatiels perform tricks like pedaling a bicycle across a tightrope.

And a parrot biking across a tightrope.

But the weirdest part was yet to come: the Alligator Farm. The farm consists of a series of enclosures tightly packed with alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and, strangest of all, gharials.

Pretty guy

These thin-snouted creatures look like something out of Dr. Seuss (especially the males, which sport a “sexy” bulb on the tip of their noses), but actually, they come from India, where they are extremely endangered. While at first their slender jaws seem like an evolutionary mistake, apparently the shape enables them to effectively hunt fish, and even to stun them with underwater jaw claps.

Rivaling the crocodilians in strangeness were our fellow visitors, who, clothed in bathrobes and flip-flops, apparently had emerged from the hot pool to cool down by strolling through the farm. I wonder what the crocs think of these oddly clad bipeds. Would he look good as a handbag?

Bathrobes

Soaking in the pool was…sulfuric. I was disappointed that afterwards my skin failed to sprout yellow crystals. What I will remember from this day are these comical snapshots of human-animal coexistence: spandexed bikers shepherding cows aside, and pink-skinned bathers walking between some of Earth’s oldest predators.

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.