I spent the second week of my vacation in Istanbul, Turkey – a quick two hour flight from Israel. I won’t talk about the security process but let’s just say it was … secure. Very Secure.
As a good academic, I did attend a number of sessions at the World Congress for Comparative Education Societies 2010. Happily, I got to see some of my favorite scholars and met a great deal of people from all over the world. The final total was something like 1500 participants from over 100 countries (don’t quote me). I was lucky enough to stay in the dorms for super cheap, and although the location was truly beautiful, I was dying to explore the city of Istanbul.
The Bosphorus University is set exactly where you think it is – at thetop of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. This provides an incredible view at every hour of every day, and you never quite get tired of photographing it! On our first day there, one of my roommates and I were lucky enough to befriend a student volunteer who took charge of our local experience. Thanks to her, we had waffles in Bebek, and our first Turkish coffee at a cafe by the University.
Additionally, I met a Turkish visiting scholar at Lehigh prior to my departure, and she was in Istanbul when I arrived. Through her, we learned a great deal of local history, and she pointed the way to delicious kebabs 🙂
As all good things do, our local friends came in threes and we also met with a Turk home on break from Northwestern in Chicago. He was brave enough to drive us into the historic district and help us bargain in the Grand Bazaar (an easy task if you speak the language, but a comedy otherwise).
Many thanks and much love to my new Turkish friends and their immense patience with our endless questions!
* food. If you know me, you know I am a freak for food. Let’s be clear – the Turks do not mess around when it comes to cuisine.
Our friends were so helpful in directing us to all the right places. Turkish tea, Turkish coffee, waffles, kebabs, kumpir, kunefe.. all the K things were, of course, delicious. Kumpir is an outrageously large stuffed baked potato. When I say stuffed I mean .. JACKED with cheese, peppers, vegetables, meat, and god knows what else. Kunefe is a dessert that involves cheese, phyllo dough and syrup – also glorious. While I did not have the taste for Turkish coffee – Turkish tea was right up my alley, served in small tea glasses and piping hot. Best taken sea-side in a small cafe in Ortaköy 🙂
* history / architecture. Boarding a bus and then the tram, when we hopped out into the historic district of Sultanahmet, I was blown away. It is colorful and crazy. The traffic is incredible. Bear in mind that there are 16 MILLION people living in Istanbul, and they are all driving cars. Some of the most creative driving I have ever endured, by far! Stina and I decided to hit the must-sees, which included Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. I also treated myself to a hamam (Turkish bath) in Çemberlitaş which was simply divine.
Hagia Sophia was a sight to behold – an incredible building with a long history, first serving as the cathedral of Constantinople back in the day. It is a humongous structure, and an architectural wonder. I enjoyed our trip to the Spice Bazaar (also: Egyptian Bazaar) in Eminönü. We had some hysterical conversations with shopkeepers and brought home loose leaf tea, Turkish delight and other trinkets.
* language Where is the English? For a country clamoring to be in the EU I was pretty shocked at the lack of English. Conference attendees carried around well-wrinkled pieces of paper with directions to the University typed in Turkish. When I left the airport, I presented a registration paper with the University’s address on it and four cab drivers deliberated over it without talking to me. After getting in the cab, the driver actually put it in his GPS and we still had to stop for directions! I had Hebrew floating in my head from the previous week, and not a prayer of picking up Turkish in five days time. Even in the touristy areas, the Turks hawking their wares can’t get past initial pleasantries. The shopkeepers do get a bit morecreative in their greetings: “Let me help you spend your money”, “Are you a top model?” and
“Your money is good here” among them. Some young faces in the Bazaar are students learning English as part of their University coursework in tourism – and they can string together sentences in a handful of other languages. While looking for scarves I overheard Italian, Spanish and French. Sometimes the shopkeepers like to guess at your nationality – and I have to laugh when they say phrase after phrase in different languages, hoping to snag your attention. What a way to make a living!
* tradition. Driving in from the Ataturk airport on the outskirts of the city, you can see a skyline dotted with the minarets of mosques. Not one or two, but dozens. They are small, medium, large – blue, green, white – all manner of buildings with the same recognizable shape. Five times a day the call to prayer is piped out into the atmosphere, and fades into the background. Mosques are open to anyone, and once you are appropriately covered up (head, shoulders, legs for women) – you are welcome to explore. It did make me feel a bit like a voyeur, tiptoeing around and watching people pray. Old men playing backgammon at tables by the Bosphorus are worrying prayer beads, and women are ducking into mosques for a quick minute. Walking throughout the city you can see a woman in a burqa, a teenager in a tank top, or a woman in a head scarf. It is a beautiful mix of people, religions and cultures.
As usual I am left with such a thirst for this country – to see more of it, meet more people, and explore. A return trip is imminent!