Istanbul Tips, part I: Planning a visit to Istanbul

This is the first in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrivalRestaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit

I could write a book on why you should come and see Istanbul, but enough people already have. If you already know you’d like to visit, this should answer some questions you may have and provide some guidance on how to get here. If you decide to come, you can find the link to an even more detailed document at the end of this one. Topics covered:

Where to Stay
Getting Around
Getting Here
Domestic Travel in Turkey


  • Istanbul is not as cheap as many people anticipate, but it’s still a degree of magnitude less expensive than most of Europe – with the unfortunate exception of alcohol prices, which are on par with London/New York/Paris. Ho[s]tels at all price ranges ($15 and up) can be found through all the regular channels, and there’s a rich selection of places on AirBnb. The main attractions can cost up to 10€ each, though considering their historical significance this hardly seems unreasonable.Public transport, Turkish food, scarves and ceramics are very very cheap. A cheap meal will set you back 3-5€; there are lots of pleasant restaurants where lunch/dinner will cost 15-20€, and the high-end stuff will cost 50-100€ per person.
  • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.5 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
  • There are ATMs and money-exchange places all over the place, including the arrivals hall of the airport, so no need to exchange money in advance.
  • Domestic flights within Turkey are very reasonable, usually under $100 each way and often much less. The bus network is also very comprehensive and cheap. In my opinion, you can comfortably cover Istanbul’s top sights in four days, so if you’re planning to be here a week or more, I’d definitely recommend getting outside of Istanbul. There are plenty of great trips that can even be done within a day, if you get the flight timing right, or more pleasantly over two.

Where to Stay

  • I used to live in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in what is one of the best locations for both visiting and living in Istanbul.

  • If you’re in town for a very short time, you might want to stay in Sultanahmet, where the bulk of the blockbuster tourist sights (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc) are located. Everything from hostels to boutiques to five stars is an option.

  • However Sultanahmet gets old quickly and I’d recommend staying anywhere in Beyoglu, which is modern Istanbul’s historic downtown area. Taksim, Galata, Cihangir, Pera, and Cukurcuma are all good areas within Beyoglu, and again there are ho[s]tels in most all comfort and price ranges.

  • If you’re looking for luxury Ciragan Palace (Kempinski) and the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu are the places to be. However, beware that the traffic between your hotel and almost all the sights will be pretty terrible, especially in the summer.


  • The amount of English spoken corresponds with how many foreigners tend to be in the area. In the tourist centers, you’ll be fine with zero Turkish. In Beyoglu, most people speak at least a bit of English. However, in most of Istanbul – and in Turkey as a whole – English is not widely understood. With about 5 minutes of effort, you can learn a few key phrases that will make navigation easy (all included in the document linked at the bottom of this one).


  • You shouldn’t have to change the way you dress. Shorts/short skirts will not be frowned upon except in the most conservative of areas (ones you probably won’t be going to anyway) and when visiting mosques.

  • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings and skirts below the knee are usually ok). Men are expected to wear trousers, not shorts, though it’s not quite as strictly enforced. Most mosques provide scarfs and attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.

  • Istanbul is not an overly dressy place and there are very, very few places that will turn you away based on what you’re wearing.

  • Istanbul makes San Francisco look like the Bolivian Salt flats. The hills are killer and there are lots of cobblestone streets. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Getting around

  • Public transport: Istanbul’s network of metro, tram, bus, minibus, shared taxi, and funiküler can seem confusing, but it is pretty comprehensive and very cheap.

  • Taxis are cheap IF you get an honest cabbie. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. This is another incentive to stay in Beyoglu or Sultanahmet, where almost all of the sites will be within walking distance or easy public transport.

Getting here:

  • is reliable, but tends to have more options and allows you to search on flexible dates. It’s worth checking both.
  • Istanbul has two airports,
  • Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Almost all discount flights go to/from Sabiha. No US carriers fly to Sabiha, but you could go there if you connect through Europe. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Why Ataturk is better: closer to the city center (~40 minutes to Taksim vs 60-80 or more from Sabiha Gokcen)
    • Why Sabiha Gokcen is better: lines at passport control are usually shorter, airport as a whole is easier and quicker to navigate

  • From the US
  • Delta, United, and Turkish Airlines fly direct to Atatürk from
    New York, Chicago, DC, and SF, and dozens of airlines will give you connecting flights through Europe.
  • It may be much cheaper to buy a round trip to somewhere in Europe and then fly discount from there (see below).

  • From Europe:
  • England: Easyjet flies from Luton/Gatwick and is generally the cheapest. Turkish Airlines also sometimes has absurdly cheap fares, especially for students, and you get miles, aren’t charged for your baggage, and almost always arrive at Atatürk. British Air is the only other conventional airline to fly directly to Istanbul from London. Pegasus has a good Gatwick-Sabiha Gokcen line with competitive but not rock-bottom prices. Excellent Turkish carrier Atlasjet started a London Stansted-Istanbul Ataturk line in April 2012.
  • Sun Express is a reliable carrier from Germania (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Condor flies from Germania, Sweden, London, and Barcelona. Pegasus is expanding quickly and has a great network of flights from Europe and also onwards to the middle east (Tel Aviv, Beirut).

  • Elsewhere:
  • Istanbul is a great hub for flights to/from the
    Middle East, Central, South and East Asia, and Africa. I hear the flights to/from India in particular are very very cheap.

Other Transport options

  • Seat61 is the best source of information on train journeys. I’ve taken the Bucharest-Istanbul and Sofia-Istanbul train with no hitches. Unfortunately the Thessaloniki-Istanbul line seems to be suspended until the Greek government has money again.
  • There are regular ferries from many places in Greece to the Turkish coast (Izmir, Canakkale) during the summer.
  • Dozens of overnight buses run from Sofia and they are generally quicker than the train.

Domestic Travel:

    There are many fabulous places to visit in Turkey, so if you’re coming all the way to Istanbul you might want to do some extra exploring.
  • Transport
  • Buses are cheap, comfortable, and comprehensive. They are usually the quickest ground transport between cities – you can get anywhere in Turkey in about 24 hours.
  • Trains are very slow (except the Istanbul-Ankara line) but can be scenic.
  • Domestic flights are absurdly cheap. Atlas Jet, Anadolu Jet, Onur Air, Turkish, Pegasus, and Sun Express will take you all over Turkey for $15-60 each way if booked in advance.
  • Where to go: oh, so many wonderful places to see. Check out Lonely Planet and see what appeals. The crowd-pleasers are generally Capadoccia and Ephesus, both of which I heartily recommend – though try to pick a season when Ephesus won’t be overrun with crowds. ** There are more elaborate descriptions in the document linked below, but a quick overview:** I’ve really enjoyed visiting the Mediterranean and Aegean coast (Olympos, Bergama, Afrodisias, and Pamukkale were highlights; Antalya was great out of season). Safranbolu, Amasra and Edirne were nice enough, but definitely second/third tier sights. The Syriac cities in the southeast (Mardin, Gazantiep, and Sanliurfa) sound fascinating. Ani on the Armenian border was my favorite site by far but there’s not much tourist infrastructure yet, so make sure you know at least some Turkish/have a phrasebook before you attempt this. 

  • Once you’ve decided you’re going to come for sure, you can find a lot more tips

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I recently met a photographer, Claudius Schulze, who shot a bewitching profile of journey carpenters or, as they’re known in his native Germany, Wandergesellen.

It made me wonder how Benedict, the carpenter I met when hiking the Great Wall, has gotten on in life. I had told Benedict about a friend of mine who got a Fulbright to go and build boats in Micronesia, and he said he liked the idea. I wonder if he ever made it to the Pacific. He doesn’t seem like the type to have a Facebook profile.
Claudius and his girlfriend ended up staying in my apartment when I was away on a business trip. They left one of the greatest host gifts I’ve ever received – a signed copy of his latest book on the island of Socotra and the following picture of the view from my roof: 
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Berlin’s mighty Hauptbahnhof, the largest railway station in Europe, embodies everything I expected of modern Germany. A soaring ribbed glass ceiling, somehow spotless, evokes old European grandeur. Underneath, a web of tracks and escalators whisks travelers from their croissants to their bullet trains with alarming efficiency.

Berlin’s trains used to go through the nearby Hamburger Bahnhof, now a contemporary art museum (or, in literal translation, Museum of the Present). A friend had recommended checking it out, but it was really the Guardian review of Carsten Holler’s ‘SOMA’ exhibition that caught my eye:

‘What could be more festive than spending a night locked in an art gallery with a dozen reindeer and a fridge full of psychedelic drugs?’

One might ask.

The Haupt- and Hamburgerbahnhof are minutes from each other on the malaise-suggesting Invalidenstraße. Unfortunately, my map-reading skills are about as functional as the Turkish justice system, and I somehow got lost – until, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a white colonnaded building with magic mushroom flags flying from the parapets.

Inside, the raw smell of reindeer dung and the spiderweb-meets-whale skeleton structure of the interior made me question, for a moment, if I wanted to stay. Apart from the mechanical sound or recorded birdsong, the hall was silent. I wondered if the reindeer – the centerpiece of exhibition – were alive or dead. 

Suspended above the reindeer’s compound were two pairs of identical steel cages, each joined by a set of scales. Giant sculptures of mushrooms hovered, like ugly UFOs, in a central display. 

I think it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. 
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More than half a decade ago (!), when I was living in Paris, I sang in a number of choirs. Like extracurricular organizations in every country except the US, their real purpose was not to come together to pursue an artistic/athletic goal. They were simply convenient excuses for drinking societies. The post-practice pilgrimage to the bar was always at least as important as perfecting whatever Bach cantata we were working on.

Mascotte (view at right) was one of the favorite drinking spots. One evening, an older member of the group pulled me aside. He asked me why an eighteen year old like me was in Paris and not in university, what I was doing with my life, why I’d left the US. As usual, I didn’t have very convincing answers.

‘It’s interesting… I figured I should make some money before college… I have no idea what I want to do with my life…’

He didn’t respond for a second. Then ‘You’ – the way he said this implied an intimacy that seemed presumptuous at the time – ‘you’ll become an expatriate.’

Years later, when I read The Sun Also Rises, I had a sharp sense of déjà vu. What I remember of that conversation in Paris was eerily reminiscent of a conversation Hemingway stages between two of his main characters. This is hardly surprising – Paris breeds the type of people who will quote literature as if it were their own personal insight. In Hemingway’s words:

‘You – you may not know it now, but you’ve become an expatriate. Not just for a little bit, but maybe for life. First you’ll lose touch with the soil. Then you’ll get precious because fake European standards will ruin you. You’ll drink yourself to death and become obsessed by sex. You’ll spend all your time talking, not working…’


And he saved the direst prediction for last: ‘You’ll hang around in cafes.’

I can safely report, on the eve of my one-year anniversary of being a full-time expatriate, that only one of these predictions has come true (IMHO). I write this from a cafe – where I am neither drinking nor talking, but working, or was until I took a break to write this.

Hemingway, I discovered recently, was not the only member of the American Literary Canon to have less-than-pleasant things to say about expatriate life. Truman Capote is less predictive and more judgmental:
‘Among the planet’s most pathetic tribes, sadder than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long, are those Americans who elect, out of vanity, or for supposedly aesthetic reasons, or because of sexual or financial problems, to make a career of expatriation.’

Some of my favorite expats on a recent boat trip. Not so sad.
The quote, from Answered Prayers, aka the novel that earned Capote a top space on the list of Literature’s Bitchiest, is predictably hypocritical. Capote spent years living as an expat before returning to New York to die an untimely death brought on by drink (proving Hemingway’s quote might have a little bit more to it).
The fact that I am neither a literary genius nor a member of the bonne monde probably has something to do with the fact that neither of these descriptions of expatriate life mirror mine. Great books will never be written about my exploits. On the other hand, at least I make enough money to pay my own bills.

So, back to working in cafes. One of the great miracles of modern life, up there with genetic engineering and the near-worldwide availability of Chilean Malbecs, must be the ability to work remotely. With my Outlook files backed up on a custom work-tailored gmail account, my documents stored safely in Dropbox, and access to my company’s archives through our FTP server, I can work anywhere that has a decent internet connection. Which doesn’t happen to include my apartment, where I can only get internet if I hover, creepily, outside my landlady’s door to piggyback on her wireless (an action she sanctions, and charges me for).
Of course there are benefits to being in the office, and I am most of the time. However, on days like today – when a precious Indian summer is providing a break from the dreadful Black Sea winter weather which seems to have prematurely set in – heading to the eleventh floor of a skyscraper just doesn’t appeal.

The flexibility to work anywhere my company is active – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Bahamas (?) – and my ongoing like-but-not-love affair with Istanbul (Chilean Malbecs present, but unnecessarily pricey) are combining to convince me that my days in this city may well be drawing to a close. Not before January, or likely even June, but I’m beginning to explore my options. These don’t, at the moment, include a return to the US. So, as I close my first full year of being an expatriate, it looks like it won’t be my last.

Go ahead and tell me this makes me more pathetic than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long. I won’t believe you. I think I’m right where I belong looking for where I belong.
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The fact that the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) chose the night of my arrival to stage a jailbreak in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, made me feel strangely welcome. I’ve never been much of an ‘escape to nature’ kind of person, so my decision to spend my summer vacation in the Pamir mountains of Badakhshan, the autonomous region of Tajikistan that borders Afghanistan and China, seemed slightly anachronistic. With 25 militant opposition leaders on the loose, though, surely my holiday wouldn’t end up being just a hike in the woods?

Well, of course not. But all in all the trip was surprisingly normal. Go to sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, freak out about how beautiful the scenery is. Eat some goat, avoid buying illegal rubies, and inadvertently hire a bloodthirsty member of the Kyrgyz nouveau riche to bribe your way across the border. It’s surprising how normal it all can seem when you’re in Central Asia.

I don’t have time to write down half the stories I’d love to tell but here are, at least, some pictures. The top of this post shows Joe, the friend who joined me on this trip, starting off on a hike from the village of Bulunkul, a frontier town of mud brick houses, yurts, and a surprisingly good volleyball team (the village children put my years of practice on the beach court in Frankfort, MI to shame). 

Just above is a picture of yours truly looking into Afghanistan from the remains of a 12th century fortress built to defend the Pamiris on the north side of the Oxus river from – well, whoever.

The Oxus, which runs from the Tibet most of the way to the Aral Sea along the borders of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, was one of the things that drew me to this region. A favorite professor of mine loved to point out how rivers are the great highways of civilization, carving passageways through otherwise impossible landscapes and linking each settlement with the next, progressively, until you reach the ultimate equalizer (the sea). Ancient Oxiana, the area which surrounds the Oxus, was the site of some of Alexander the Great’s greatest triumphs. His success over the Bactrians makes him the last (and likely also the first) western invader to win a land war in Afghanistan. The Oxus was also the corridor Marco Polo used on his way from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan and back. He presumably passed by – maybe even stayed in – the fort in the picture.

Today, the Wakhan valley which surrounds the Oxus is best known as a drug smuggling route and a mountain biking destination for those who wish they had been born in the fifties so they could be real hippies. For years it was too isolated and unsexy to attract much humanitarian aid, despite the fact that it is one of the poorest parts of the world. Its sole benefactor was the Aga Khan, a Swiss millionaire who also happens to be the spiritual leader of the Isamaili sect of Islam. The Aga Khan Development Network has established microlending programs, provided health care and training, and built schools to promote the economic development of the Pamir region. We met the children pictured above on the way back from the fortress, while they were playing in the yard by an Aga Khan school.

Our last stop before passing into Kyrgyzstan was Karakul, a salty turquoise lake that was formed by a meteor some 5 million years ago. Two girls we met on the outskirts of the village demanded I take their picture doing cartwheels and asked me to send it to them when it was developed – though the best address they could provide was ‘Anipa, Karakul, Tajikistan.’ They then followed us to the shores of the lake, whispering conspiratorially. I think they were wondering why my toenails were [painted] black. Will they now grow up thinking white women have gangrenous toenails? I hope not.

Our next destination was Osh, the biggest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. Osh was the site of bloody riots in June between the ethnic Uzbek majority and nationalist Kyrgyz. It was my first visit to a place so recently touched by violence, and I was unsettled by how little had been cleaned up or repaired. A pair of Poles I met in Dushanbe raved about the bazaar at Osh – the ‘best in Central Asia.’ Today more than half of the market lies in ruins, bombed out and pocked with bullets. Life goes on, of course, as the picture above illustrates. It’s hard to say where blame lies for inciting the ethnic conflict that erupted here in the spring – but apparently there is a video on youtube in which the ousted President’s son discusses with someone in the government how much to pay the mercenaries they are hiring to go down and kill anyone they can to try and undermine the current regime (they settled on $1500 a day).

The remains of the market in Osh

Most disturbingly, noone in this region thinks the violence is over. International Crisis Group issued their latest policy alert on the threat level in Kyrgyzstan and I happen to agree with it completely. A Pamiri student we picked up on our way out of Badakhshan asked how long we intended to stay in Osh and was glad when we told him we’d only be there a day or two. ‘Don’t come back in the next few weeks,’ he warned us. ‘Our driver is talking about how many Uzbeks he’s going to kill after Ramadan.’

It is a chilling thing to hand over money to someone who aspires to kill others and probably has already – but there was no way to get out of paying the price we agreed on at the start of our ride into Kyrgyzstan. I considered, for the first time, my responsibility in choosing a place like this to travel – a decision that put me in the position of needing to rely on people I found morally reprehensible to get around. It is a decision which conflict journalists must make every day. Does the knowledge one gains, and is able to share, make it worth it?

Getting there: As of this writing, there are two flights a week in and out of Dushanbe on Turkish Airlines. As the stablest capital in the region, it’s probably the best place to fly in and out of. 

Getting around: The Central Asia Lonely Planet is a great resource, but you really want to connect with travelers on the ground as soon as possible. Visit the hostels even if you don’t stay in them in order to get a sense of what roads are best. There is a daily flight to Khorog, the base for exploring the Wakhan Valley and the rest of Badakhshan, but you can’t make reservations and it is canceled in the case of bad weather. If you don’t catch the flight it will be an 18 hour ride in a 4WD. From Khorog to Osh, we hired a local driver, who wasn’t hard to find, for 25 cents/mile, or a total of about $250 for four days on the road to Murghab, the northernmost town in Tajikistan. His name was Ali but we called him Mr Bennett because he had four daughters. He arranged all our housing with friends of his along the way. 

On the road from Murghab to Osh – Joe’s smile is a bit forced

 From Murghab, we hired the aforementioned bloodthirsty Kyrgyz man with the help of a 12 year old who seemed to run our guest house (and was the only one who spoke English). He took us over the border to Osh for about $100, which covered the cigarette boxes which smoothed our way with the border guards.

The road through Kyrgyzstan

From Osh, we took a series of shared taxis back to Khojand, also known as ‘furthest Alexandria’ – the last city that Alexander the Great founded, if not the furthest east he traveled. From Khojand we took a flight (booked on the day of) back to Dushanbe to get our flight out.

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I recently noticed Blogspot has a new ‘stats’ feature that allows the blogger to see how many people are visiting the website and what brought them there. Among the search terms that will bring you to Gill Morris’s blog are:

buying marijuana in Istanbul
dating a Ukrainian man
Christians in Dongguan

I think this would be excellent material for the next time I play two truths and a lie.

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All hail the benevolent dictator

Foreign Policy, the rag founded by Samuel P. Huntington, has become a lot more fun (and less dignified) recently. First there was the whole zombie thing. It started with the innocent use of the word zombie (ie, reanimated corpse) to describe the proposed three-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis that was being bandied around back in January 09. Then, in August, there was the first of many blog posts by Daniel Drezner: how international relations theorists would cope with zombie attacks, soon followed up with March’s Dawn of the Theories of International Politics and Zombies and June’s Night of the Living Wonks.

Another favorite topic, after the undead, is failed states. They make for interesting photo essays – from Postcards from Hell to The Worst of the Worst (subtitle: bad dude dictators and general coconut heads) to Planet War. The one that stuck with me most, however, is Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical: a short exploration of the lavish real estate holdings of some of the aforementioned bad dude dictators.

Perhaps it just seems topical. I recently returned from Oman, home to the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos and his (estimated) twenty-four palaces. True, he’s had forty years to feather his nest, having deposed his father in 1970. And judging by the looks of his central palace in Muscat (left), I don’t blame him for trying again (and again, and again).

Oman is the second-largest country on the Arabian peninsula, and by most accounts its most beautiful. It’s remarkably peaceful, especially given it shares a land border with Yemen, is 21 miles from Iran, and hosts a large port in close proximity to Somalia.

I was there for two weeks on a business trip – long enough to learn three phrases in Arabic and meet two members of the royal family (one of which took the opportunity to extol, at length, the virtues of Russian hookers as opposed to Chinese ones).

Writing about economic development in the Gulf states, as I have since December, has been an eye-opening experience. With some notable exceptions, these countries were largely sand dunes populated by nomadic tribes until the middle part of the last century. What the Arabs have been able to produce in the last sixty years – albeit with a lot of help from guest workers – is nothing short of revolutionary. When His Excellency Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, less than a third of the country was literate, and its people either lived in a medieval-style fort or a tent (the remains of the former dot the capital’s craggy shoreline).

‘If you wanted to go outside at night, you had to carry a sword,’ my driver, Hashim, told me. He was born sometime in the fifties, though he’s not sure exactly when.

Today, 95% of the Omani population is literate and almost everyone speaks fluent English in addition to Arabic. The roads of the capital, Muscat, are wide and nearly traffic-free, there’s air conditioning everywhere, and the tap water is potable (which is more than you can say of Turkey). Life expectancy is in the 70s and the per capita income is $24k a year. Which, incidentally, is an order of magnitude greater than most of my American college-educated friends made last year.

There are two obvious reasons this kind of supercharged modernization was possible. First, the GCC’s rulers – absolute monarchs, or emirs, or sultans – have little need to pander to that pesky bourgeois notion of democracy, thanks to decades of oil-funded public largesse.

In true Maslowian fashion, the idea of democracy doesn’t hold much appeal to the generation who are experiencing life in a safe, stable country for the first time. I asked Hashim if he would like to vote:

‘Why would I do that?’ he said. ‘I live a good life.’

The only country in the region to make any concrete steps towards democratic rule is Kuwait, which formed its first elected National Assembly in 1963. The experiment has not been a smooth one. Critics blame the National Assembly for hamstringing Kuwait’s development through petty, corrupt, and/or incompetent governance. The decision in January to take over responsibility for all consumer loans – effectively, a bailout for some of the world’s least credit-worthy spenders – is only one example of how the short-term interests of politicians worried about reelection are trumping the long-term viability of the country.

I remember writing an essay about how democracy is self-evidently the best form of government back in sophomore year of college. It has since been lost to the sands of time (read: computer failure). I still believe it is, in theory. But subsequent courses back in the Ivory Tower – and, of course, being hit over the head with the disparity between the developing country I live in, a ‘democracy’, and places like Oman – have made me think a lot more about when and where democracy can be reasonably introduced.

Tocqueville thought democracy would lead us a future of equality and blandness. Robert D. Kaplan, in his excellent, if controversial piece on why democracy is bad for developing countries, has a slightly different vision. Kaplan believes our love of the bottom line will lead us to a globalized, and therefore anarchic, economy, which will necessitate tyrannical rule to restore stability. The tyrant will be The Corporation, or the Military-Industrial complex, as the problems of the world are too vast to be controlled by one bad dude dictator and/or coconut head.

In Oman, at least, the promise of democracy – the premise of democracy – is seen by many as dubious. The financial crisis has if anything strengthened the average Omani’s (and Oman-based expat’s) conviction that Sultan Qaboos’s measured approach to development is best for the country (the country continued to grow and saw a minimum or projects go on hold while neighbors like Dubai tanked). One man I talked to, the Dutch GM of a major oil company’s Oman operations, went so far as to call Qaboos ‘a philosopher king in the Platonic fashion.’

As an American raised by a Palin-loving ex-Marine (ex-Marine in the Palinic fashion?) on the good old fashioned values of hard work, industry, and disdain of the Washington establishment, I’m uncomfortable with Omani king-worship. And, for that matter, the docility of most of the people in the Gulf in the face of the abuses of their governments. Yet I also realize I grew up in a state that provided me free education, a childhood untouched by violent or arbitrary crime, and an environment where blog posts comparing politicians to soul-sucking zombies are laughed at and not censored.

I’m sure there are plenty of people doing fascinating work on human development. Some day when I don’t have 26,000 words of copy to write in a month I might have more time to get into it.

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A wise man once told me

September – my first ferry ride.

In the midst of spring (summer?) cleaning, I rediscovered a book that was part of the press kit at the IMF/WB conference here in October. It’s basically culture porn: close-ups of ancient sculpture, architectural marvels silhouetted in the sunset, rose-water-sweating baklava, the obligatory picture of blurry whirling dervishes. On the first page, an unattributed quote is printed in bright turquoise:

‘When you are far from it, you will search for it like a lover you cannot forget, a passion which leaves you wandering the crowded streets of other cities hoping, but never able, to find just a part of it…’

‘It’ is, of course, Istanbul, the city which I have now called home for nine months. The longer I stay here, the more puzzled I become at the corpus of literature dedicated to raving about this city. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I can open a newspaper without being reassured of just how lucky I am to live here.

Istanbul is by any objective measure a great place to live. The food is good, the weather better (at least nine months out of the year) and there’s plenty to do. There is a sense of excitement and edginess about this city that I can’t imagine exists other places, or at least not in the same form: where else can you live in such comfort while momentous political change is underway? (Beirut, or Tel Aviv, some might say, but those places are country clubs compared to Istanbul’s titanic sprawl.)

October: my first protest.

Yet despite all its charms, I haven’t fallen in love with Istanbul. Perhaps this is because love, like taxes, is something I’ve always assumed I’d figure out when I grow up.

But we have settled into a comfortable friendship, Istanbul and I. In recognition of my nine-month anniversary in this city, here’s a sampling of some favorite pictures from my first few months in Istanbul. Who knows, someday, I might even get around to writing about the story behind them. And, perhaps, realize that I’ve been in love with Istanbul all along. I think that’s how it usually happens in the movies.

December: my first visit to a church.

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I was not a cute child

Musing about Cairo in my last post led me to take a trip down memory lane via the scrapbook my mother put together from our time in Egypt. Witness, friends, the horror of my youth.

The tragically oversized glasses, the ‘Hard Rock Cafe Cairo’ shirt I stole from Edward, the manic gleam in the eyes, as if to say: ‘per aspera ad astra!’

Then there is the photo of me sitting imperiously on an obelisk, terrorizing our ill-informed tour guide Hani. I’ve added that to the previous entry, where it makes more sense.

But the crowning glory of my discoveries was this spreadsheet which I made for my family to study during the trip. This raises a number of questions: did I have any friends in elementary school? Did anyone in my family ever read it? Did the Egyptians really have a God for moisture?

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The Cairo-Istanbul connection

Cairo is so hot right now. Three of my coworkers have taken vacation there in the last month, as has Jennie, one of my fellow-sufferers in Hakan‘s Turkish classes (yes, I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to resume Turkish classes with my favorite quintolingual chainsmoker). And of course Kate was there in the fall, stealing the hearts of merchants and taking sublime pictures (scroll down for Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), as she is wont to do.

The review from these highly respected sources runs something like Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Paradise Lost: ‘it is one of those books the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. No one ever wished it longer than it is.’

Cairo is one of the great cities of history, and the pyramids, like PL, deserve a chance to cast their spell on you. But no one I know seems to want to go back to Cairo. It is disorganised, overrun, filthy. In Kate’s words:

‘I felt cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable [in the Egyptian Museum]. In fact, this is how most of Cairo made me feel. It drew many similarities to feelings and experiences I had in Damascus. The same dirty grittiness of that comes from thousands of years of inhabitance. The same overwhelming numbers crowding streets and buses. You could feel the oppressiveness of the poverty. You could see the differentiation between wealth and the lack of it. You could taste the pollution; the smog hangs over the city like a hot summer haze.’

I visited Cairo in 1998, when I was gripped by an Egyptomania so severe I taught myself how to read hieroglyphs. My family fondly remembers how I would correct our clueless guide, Hani, when he botched the stories behind my favorite temples and archaeological sites.

For my part, I have blocked this aspect of my childhood – obnoxious smartassery – from my memory. What I do remember, though, is disappearing into the upper reaches of the bazaar with my brother Edward one day and being offered a fistful of marijuana for about $5. Even in my childhood innocence I could tell that was a good deal (we didn’t take it).

Cairo’s bazaar was the thing that bothered my friends the most. The constant heckling, fear of bag snatchers, and wildly inflated prices do not make for a relaxing vacation. Jennie, who returned last week, had plenty of horror stories about the street scene, and shared some during one of Hakan’s smoke breaks.

‘Cairo,’ she concluded, ‘makes Istanbul feel as clean and orderly as Copenhagen.’

Petri, a forty-something Dutch businessman who recently joined our class, shook his head. ‘If you could have seen Istanbul when I first came here in 1988! It made Cairo look – well, not clean and orderly, but – I suppose cosmopolitan. You couldn’t walk a foot in Istanbul with your wallet hanging out of your pocket. You couldn’t see the other side of the street for all the smoke. And the hecklers would loop their fingers through your belt loops until you bought something from them.’

I was surprised to hear this. I know Istanbul has gone through significant changes over the last 20-30 years: take, for example, the fact that the population has gone from 2 million to 20 million. But to my mind the Istanbul of 1988 was a relative backwater, a faded ghost town when compared to its past and future vitality. What, I wondered aloud, changed between then and now to make Istanbul the relatively clean, European city it is today? Was there some mayor who cleaned up the streets, Giuliani-style, locking up the crazies and making the peddlers buy permits?

‘It’s much simpler than that,’ said Hakan. ‘People got richer.’

Could it be that straightforward? True, Istanbul’s population boom corresponded with a massive increase in Turkey’s wealth: inflation-adjusted GDP grew from $90 billion to $270 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998, and to $734 billion by 2008, according to the World Bank. The structure of the economy changed as well, with more than 15% of the workforce shifting from blue-collar jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to white-collar service jobs.

Yet the World Bank statistics never take into account the black market, which in Turkey is generally estimated to account for 20-25% of all economic activity. Nor does it seem likely that all of Istanbul’s 18 million new residents have managed to find jobs more lucrative than begging, petty theft, and selling fake sunglasses. But take a walk down any street outside of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s touristy center, and you’ll realize something must have worked. You’re more likely to be heckled in Harvard Square than on Istiklal Cd, Istanbul’s main shopping and nightlife artery.

Reason No. 25601 I’m glad I moved to Istanbul: it doesn’t fit the models I’m used to, and so is constantly intriguing. Reason No. 25602: I have too many pairs of fake Ray-Bans already.

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Back to Reality

The picture above, taken at a gallery opening we happened upon last Thursday, is taken from Kate’s latest facebook album. Kate the Intrepid has returned to Istanbul, having ridden through deserts with Bedouin, participated in a Muslim wedding, and guest starred in a Bollywood movie (well, as an extra), among innumerable other adventures. As she enjoys her (dwindling?) days of funemployment, she has more time to update her website, so I would urge anyone still reading this sorry excuse for a blog to check hers out instead.

I hope to be back soon, however, with tales of sprained ankles, the Romanian economy, and gypsy palaces.

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Why not? Part II

One of the joys of moving to a new city is the process of forming a social network. In my book, this joy is slightly greater than shots of antibiotics in painful places, and infinitely less than the joy of cooking.

Making new friends takes work. It involves treading a fine line between proactivity and stalkerville. Despite your best intentions, there’s a good chance that at least a few people you call or email – friends of friends, people you met out and about – will think you are nosy/presumptuous/offensive/annoying. Or hitting on them. But when the alternative is sitting alone at home, or going out with the delivery man who misinterpreted your friendly conversation as an unspoken invitation to ring your doorbell in the middle of the night, sending some awkward emails to people you barely know seems a small price to pay.

Especially when they so often yield great rewards. One recipient of one said awkward email has both become a good friend and pointed me in the direction of the Professional American Women of Istanbul, a networking group.

Despite a deep-seated mistrust of organised groups of women (borne out of a traumatic summer living in an all-girls cabin at band camp in my early adolescence), I decided to give PAWI a try. The first meeting I attended was at the Consul-General’s residence, a fortified mansion that looms over an innocent-looking little village a few miles north of the centre of town. I wasn’t sure what kind of people I would be meeting – ladies who lunch (here known by the code name ‘trailing spouse’)? Bra burning careerists? English teachers? – but took a cue from the name and tried to dress Professionally. The only problem was that I was still living out of the backpack I’d taken to China at that point, so the only Profession I could dress for was Starving Artist/Unemployed College Grad.

Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as the Professional American Women of Istanbul turned out to be an interesting, and forgiving, mix of the three professions I expected (trailing spouse, starving artists, English teachers), plus a healthy dose of lawyers, entrepreneurs, and executives. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Consul-General was a woman.

‘Her husband calls himself the trophy husband,’ one woman told me conspiratorially. ‘He’s quite the charmer.’

I didn’t know quite what to say to that and so made an excuse about being thirsty. In the line for tea, I found myself behind the only man in the room. Feeling friendly, I asked him, jokingly, if he was the trophy husband.

‘No, I’m not married to Sharon,’ the man said, without a trace of a smile.

‘Well, you don’t look like one of the caterers,’ I said. This too was intended as a joke.

‘No,’ again. He was not the greatest conversationalist.

‘So – what do you do here in Turkey?’

‘I’m the Ambassador,’ he said. Still no smile.

What kind of aspiring Turkey-based journalist does not recognize the US Ambassador? The answer is: a bad one. I attribute this bit of self-realization, and the career shifts it inspired, to PAWI.

I also have PAWI to thank for finally, finally finding a good answer for the question of why, for the moment, I choose to live abroad. Anyone who has lived abroad has had to contend with friends back at home who simply cannot understand why someone would choose to leave a country with stable democracy, free speech, and the best candy bar selection in the world (the case could be made for either the US or Britain in this respect). Truth be told, it’s a question many of us ask ourselves every day – see as evidence the fact that ‘Why Istanbul?‘ is one of the more popular tags in this blog.

To Maureen, who sat next to me at a PAWI networking dinner last week, the answer is simple. ‘The way I see it,’ she said, ‘is this: expats have a fundamentally different mindset to the rest of the world. While the vast majority of people exist in a world where ‘why’ is the most important and instructive question, we live in a world of ‘why not’. Why live abroad? Why not? Why Turkey? Why not?’

Maureen’s take on this question is not the first time I’ve noticed the usefulness of ‘why not’. Most memorably, it was the excuse a man named Giles gave me for moving to Gambia when I met him in the summer of 2008, which inspired me to declare 2008 my summer of ‘Why not?’ (see the blog I contributed to back then, complete with a ‘Why not?‘ post of its own, if you want more context). But Maureen’s explanation captures the zeitgeist of expatriate life in a way that has never occurred to me before, and which I will now never forget.

Photo: I walked down the street I used to live in last week and thought this cat had it pretty good. A spot in the sun, a sweet fur coat, a motorcycle: everything you need save opposable thumbs, really.

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Rest for the weary

There are a number of things I wished I’d known before I went to a hospital in Turkey.

First off, would it be too much to expect a hospital to have some saline solution, a contacts case, and a toothbrush and toothpaste if you end up staying the night? Apparently, yes.

Secondly, when given a thermometer, do not put it in your mouth. Doing so will invoke a string of expletives from the nurse, following which you will have to clean your own mouth out with soap. Thermometers go in your armpit. Or elsewhere.

Third, when you are told you are going septic, don’t sweat it. Back when I was on the crew team, the word ‘septic’ was the kiss of death. A rower traditionally goes septic when he or she has inadvertently allowed a blister to get severely infected. By the time you go septic, your body is in a state of shock and you have hours to live.

In Turkey, by contrast, when you are told you have septic tonsilitis, you have hours to live in the waiting room, at which point you will be admitted, hooked to an IV, and injected with antibiotics via an extremely painful shot in the butt. You will be then left to your own devices for about twelve hours until the nurse sees fit to send a round of antibiotics through the other butt cheek. In my case, this came at the rather unsociable hour of two am.

I woke up on the evening of my first day in the hospital without a fever and able to swallow for the first time in two days. By the time I finished dinner, I was feeling well enough to marvel at the bad taste of whoever decorated the hospital. My room was accessorized with a fainting couch and two Louis XV-meets-Saudi nouveau riche chairs, both upholstered in an executionary black and gold brocade (my friend Gregor was kind enough to volunteer his modeling talents to bring to you the photo at right).

My doctor came in soon after and I asked him what he thought could have caused my dramatic case of tonsilitis.

‘Did you have anything cold to drink on Monday?’ was his response.

I drink cold water every day, I responded. Was there anything else that might have made me sick?

‘I’m pretty sure it was the cold drink,’ he said.

(I am not the only person to encounter the Turkish phobia of ingesting cold things).

Diagnostic services aside, I found the level of care in the hospital comforting. It was certainly better than my only previous experience being hospitalized at Harvard. At the university with (arguably) the best medical school in the world, they routinely forgot to bring my meals, unless I surfaced from my delirium long enough to demand them. I’m pretty sure malnutrition might have had something to do with the fact that it took me twice as long to recover from a similar illness.

I’m mostly better now, though I still have to return to the hospital for injections and had to promise my boss that I would take it easy this weekend. Miraculously – or maybe it just seems miraculous to me – my $60 a month Turkish health plan covered the entire ordeal, something which I wouldn’t have been able to expect from my $500 a month US health insurance. All in all, a pretty painless process. Except for those shots of antibiotics. They were a real pain in the ass.

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Overheard in Georgia

I just returned from an eventful long weekend skiing in the Caucasus mountains with Laure and the rest of the Kiev crew. My lovely travel partner Anna W has saved me the trouble of actually having to write about this by giving a detailed blow-by-blow of the trip here.

In place of a coherent narrative, I will allow you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions about the country based on a playlist of songs we heard on our six day misadventure.

Teeny weeny string bikini – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (playing in the mashrutka (minibus) between Sarpi, the Georgian border town, and Batumi, Georgia’s main port on the Black Sea)

Oooh… you touch my tra-la-la – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (man’s cell phone ring tone, at a roadside stop on the way to Tbilisi)

She’s Got Issues – Offspring (on the ski slope in Gudauri. One of my friends in middle school once
put this on a mix tape he titled ‘Gill in Song’. Teenagers can be blunt.)

Smooth – Santana (on the ski slope. Another song I haven’t heard since middle school)

Joy to the World (in the restaurant of the nice hotel where the Kievians were staying)

It’s the End of the World as we know it – REM (immediately after ‘Joy to the World’)

Oooh… you touch my tra-la-la – Gunther & the Sunshine Girls (on the ski slope, 2nd day)

F*** a dog in the ass – Blink 182 (on the ski slope, 2nd day)

In short, an extensive list of the late 90s pop-rock and the sexually explicit. I’m still trying to figure out how to craft this into a good metaphor for my time in the country.

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A beautiful day in the neighborhood

You never know what you’ll find when you walk out of an apartment in Istanbul. Outside my apartment it’s a pretty safe bet that Dirty, the overgrown puppy that someone in my building leaves food for, will be waiting for a quick scratch behind the ears.

Dirty is a stray and so you can’t fault him for living up to his name; neither can you resist petting him when he fixes his tan eyes on you. Thankfully, most mosques have outdoor sinks for washing up, and there are three mosques on my way to work.

Further down the street, I might run into the day’s catch being delivered to Meyra, a trendy restaurant recently reviewed in the NYTimes’ 36 hours in Istanbul (the picture above is from the associated slide show – and happens to be the top of my street). The fish coat the back floor of a van – no packaging, no ice – and the cook picks from the silvery, twitching mess by hand.

There’s a fruit stand right after Meyra with an owner who greets me with a gracious ‘Gunaydın’ (good morning) every day, even though I never buy from him. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the moustachioed farmer with a donkey-cart full of vegetables at least once a week.

Next stop is the ATM, which dispenses money in four currencies. This is useful when you are paid in pounds, pay rent in euros, pay the credit card bill in dollars, and need Turkish lira for day-to-day expenses.

Last week, I came out of my apartment to find a tank and half a dozen policemen with automatic weapons. My first thought was: how did they get the tank up the steep streets of Cihangir? I’ve gotten used to the police and their fancy toys – the tanks are topped with water cannons instead of real ones, the automatic weapons often fire tear gas – but wasn’t used to finding them so close to home.

This morning the police were gone, but something else was different. It’s a cloudy day, like many this winter, and no warmer than usual, but the air has the unmistakable tang of spring in it. Here in Istanbul people associate seasonal weather with the seas which surround Turkey: Black Sea winters, bleak and rainy; Aegean springs and falls, with their calm and sweet-smelling breezes; and Mediterranean summers where the sun turns all the colors brilliant. The groundhog may have signalled another six weeks of winter back in the US, but we’re not waiting for the equinox here in Turkey – reason number 13,248 I’m glad I moved here.

Apologies for going radio silent. January is a dark, cold month not worth recording, save for an epic visit from my brother Robert and my friend Cory and the consequent road trip through southwestern Turkey, and a weekend trekking through slush with my favorite Romanian Greek English Parisian… but those are stories for another day.

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Hipsters, Conservatives, Defaulters (and anarchists!)

For someone who’s spent most of her spare time over the last five years traveling like a penniless bum, I’m very poorly read in the travel classics. I only recently got to Kerouac’s On the Road, that dated instruction manual for the would-be hipster. I liked it, I guess – who doesn’t like the escapism provided by reading about people more dissolute than you will ever be? – but it doesn’t make me long for America. The Road through Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Frisco sounds dull and sordid. Reading about how drunk they all are makes my head hurt. And the diet of apple pie and cheese sounds even less healthy than my current menu of kebabs and dark chocolate.

One thing I have been missing, however, is The Road. There’s just something about a change in the air and having everything I need in a backpack that I find intoxicating. It’s possible to get too much of it – I’d say I was drunk by the Ukraine and nursed my hangover for much of the beginning of my time in Istanbul – but the trip home for Thanksgiving was the equivalent of ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep. I’m ready to start drinking again.

That, and the pollution in Istanbul is getting to me. Artistic wealth, generous inhabitants, and baklava this city has in spades, but emissions controls not so much. My brother Robert is visiting and we spent much of Saturday walking through unexplored neighborhoods and hiking along the top of the 4th century Theodosian walls (the picture to the right is me talking to a dog in the slum next to the northern end of the city walls). Being able to wander aimlessly through centuries of history in a tank top in the middle of winter is a luxury I wouldn’t have even dreamed of in my four years of purgatory in freezing Cambridge. But, greedy as always, I would love to be able to spend the day outside and not feel like I smoked a pack of car-exhaust-flavored cigarettes at the end of it.
And so Saturday night Robert and I caught a bus to Edirne. The city was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the base from which Mehmet the Conqueror sent his army to take Constantinople in 1453. Today it is best known for being the border station to Greece and Bulgaria. Oh, and the annual oil-wrestling contests in which mostly naked men cover themselves in olive oil and grope each other. In the words of a friend who went last summer, ‘it’s like the WWF with lube and less clothing.’

The city that most travelers miss – because they are on their way to Istanbul or watching obese oily men perform their homoerotic ballet – has a lot to offer by day and not much by night. I’m taking the word of our hosts Batu and Mutlu (via Couchsurfing, once again) on the night part: there is only one club worth going to, they say, and even that is only really good because you can stop at this sweet kebab stand on your way out. We went. The club walls were covered in fake antiquities. Actually, given the archaeological wealth of this country, they may well have been real. As Eddie Izzard would say, ‘there’re a lot of them about…

By day, there are sublimely beautiful mosques to visit, immaculate streets bordered by crumbling houses to meander, and innumerable tea houses to sit at and discuss the future of Turkey. As a border city, it should come as no surprise that the West, and Turkey’s relation to it, dominates the conversation.

The general consensus among the Turks I’ve talked to is that the EU accession process is good for the country. Regardless of whether or not Turkey joins the EU, the process is stimulating reforms that have been a long time coming, such as a revision of the civil code to allow women to work without their spouse’s consent (passed in 2001) and reducing (though not eliminating) the amount of jail time you may serve for ‘insulting Turkishness’ (2002).

Mutlu, whose name translates as Happy, isn’t as overly enamored with Westernization as many of the Istanbullians I know. I imagine he appreciates the above reforms – we didn’t discuss them – but he thinks that Turkey is held back by the IMF debt it accumulated in 2001. Turkey can’t advance, he says, when it doesn’t have the money to invest in major projects. Turkey’s brave new future can only come about when it stands up to the Western institutions telling it how to spend its money. Presumably by defaulting on its debt.

As a fiscal conservative who relies on a sound financial system, I am obliged to say this is a horrible idea. A pragmatist, however, might say Mutlu’s take isn’t altogether crazy. Argentina, after all, massively defaulted on its IMF debt in 2001 – and then enjoyed an internally-financed growth rate of 8% a year from 2003 to 2007. Turkey’s GDP growth in the same period has hovered around 3% a year. A recent article in the NYT argues that ‘strategic default’ (granted, for homeowners, not countries) is beneficial not only for the defaulters, but for the economic system as a whole, because it encourages more strategic bartering.

It isn’t obvious to my brother, who has now been in Turkey for six days, that Turkey is a poor country. ‘This is confusing,’ he said as we walked through one of Istanbul’s lavish malls on Christmas day. ‘Isn’t this a developing country?’ The bus to Edirne, he noted, had better service than planes in America. A walk through some of Istanbul’s slums on Saturday might have tarnished the impression he was getting of Turkey if it hadn’t been the kind of rare gorgeous day that can make life in an uninsulated shack seem refreshingly simple, a la Walden Pond. Thoreau could have set up shop here, I found myself thinking, when we found a mattress inside one of the old watch-towers on the city walls.

I hardly have more cred than my brother when it comes to getting to know Turkey’s gritty side. The brushes with protestors around the IMF/WB meeting (‘A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)’) were dramatic, to be sure, but it’s not the kind of stuff that happens every day. I live in chic Cihangir, the traditional haunt of journalists and gentrified artists. The closest I’ve come to Istanbul’s underbelly is a few tranny sightings on Istiklal Caddesi, the modern city’s main drag, and the uncannily perceptive photographs of Sevket Sahintas.

A major factor in my lack of social conscience is my continuing unmastery of the Turkish language. Therefore, in the spirit of this time of year, I am making my first New Year’s Resolutions since 2002: I will learn Turkish, and I will get off the familiar paths I’ve already carved through this city.

To that end, I just emailed Hakan to see if I can enroll in evening courses for January. If I’m going to learn this language and this country, I figure I might as well do it with a chain-smoking anarchist.

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Noel Novelties

Oh, for the warm and fuzzy. The familiar texture of a flowery canvas couch with the cushions all chewed up by the family dog. The thinning oriental rug under sock feet. The sinus-widening scent of fresh pine broiling under plastic lights. A new book read in an old LL Bean vest, made back when they still used goose down for the filling.

Such are the familiar comforts of a New England Christmas, as shown in the picture my mother cruelly sent from our living room earlier today. I’m sitting in my new apartment, watching a thunderstorm over Asia, and worrying about the rain seeping in from under the door to the balcony, which is rotting the floorboards. Is this what they call growing up?

Two consolations: my brother Robert will be coming over to join me for the holidays, assuming he escapes the Snowpocalypse which has shut down the mid-Atlantic coast of the US; and I received my first Christmas present. A friend, back from Kabul, brought over the rather unique Bottle Burqa. Cheeky symbol of women’s liberation? You could call it that. Culturally insensitive? Probably. Sitting in pride of place on the living room table? Check.

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Crazy Christians!

When, last spring, I first thought of moving to Istanbul, I talked over the idea with Kate, who I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this blog. The logic went something like this: instead of moving back in with my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I would move somewhere where the rent is cheap and maybe get to know a new part of the world. It sounded logical, she said. It even sounded like fun. We flirted with the idea of moving over together, but as our summers took us in different directions – her to work in Boston, me to China and the former Soviet Union – it looked more and more like she would be starting work in New York City and I would be arriving in Istanbul on my own.

Which is what happened, sort of. I arrived in Istanbul and started to look for work, and Kate enrolled in a job training course. Or at least I thought she had until she wrote me and told me she’d found a good fare and bought a ticket to Istanbul.

Inside one of hundreds of cave churches

I didn’t manage to keep her in the city for long. Armed with a sturdy backpack and a sense of adventure that makes me look like a hermit, she set off for Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, or so was the plan last time I checked. But first she eased her way into life on the road by exploring Turkey.

It didn’t take more than a single entry on her blog to convince me to put my own pack back on. The fact that the correspondent I had been working with had decamped to Pakistan for an indeterminate period, and that flights to Capadoccia, where Kate was, were $30, sealed the deal. I left the next day.

Capadoccia, in central Turkey, has some of the most interesting geology on earth. Four volcanoes covered the region in lava a few millennia ago. Persistent winds wore the soft stone into cone-shaped towers, and rivers carved colorful gorges through layers of pink, white, and yellow lava.

From the 5th century onwards, Capadoccia became a refuge for early Christian sects deemed heretical by the orthodox church. They burrowed into the stone cones and, sometimes, underneath, digging subterranean cities with as many as eight stories. They eeked a living out of miniscule farms fertilized with pigeon droppings. To this day, it is said that a man won’t be taken seriously as a suitor unless he has a sizable flock of pigeons.

The most elaborate cave churches are covered in frescoes,
most of which date to the 11th century.

Many Capadoccia natives have capitalized on the exotic appeal of their homes by turning them into inns. I discovered Kate lounging on a bed of carpets on the deck of the excellent Kelebek Cave Hotel soon after I arrived. Though we were staying at the also excellent Kose Pension – on the roof, no less – she had, characteristically, already made friends in town. Ali, the innkeeper, was pouring wine liberally, and it was established that there was nothing that could possibly be done with the afternoon but watch the colors of the valley change as the sun set.

My second day, we turned to the serious business of exploring. Life in the underground cities could not have been much fun. The tunnels are tiny, designed so that attackers would be forced to move slowly and therefore killed easily. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but the little girl in me thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Cowboys and Indians seem so quaint compared to cave-dwelling heretics and pagan/Muslim/Orthodox crusaders.

The Goreme ‘Open Air Museum’ – a series of remarkable churches in the most widely-visited town in the region.

We didn’t have to guess at what life would be like in the cone towers because Ali invited us to his friend Apo’s place for a barbecue. As the lamb was grilling, Apo showed us his sumptuous (well, for a cave) living room. It was covered in Turkish carpets and tapestries, which I had expected, and had a wireless router, which I had not. Ah, modernity.

Most of Apo’s friends didn’t speak English, but I bonded with one who was playing a saz, a six-stringed lute-like instrument that is common in Turkey. He showed me some basic chords and we began to sing together, no doubt to the horror of anyone who was listening.

I had trouble falling asleep on my overnight bus home. From the center to Istanbul in the northwest is a solid eleven hour drive through the Anatolian heartland. Occasionally the bus would shudder to a halt next to a roadside stand that had appeared, unannounced, out of the surrounding blackness. A small crowd, usually old women, was waiting at each, clutching small cloth satchels and huddled against the late October chill. They shuffled on board, taking the places of a handful of equally wizened old women who melted into the night outside, and then promptly fell asleep.

I did manage to drift off a little past two, but woke with a start just past three. A woman the color of dusty hills and at least as old had fallen asleep with her head on my chest. She was wearing the drop-seam pants that have recently become fashionable (‘genie pants’) but are in fact native to this region. The story behind their origin goes something like this: one early Christian sect believed the Messiah could be born again at any time, so they had their women wear drop-seam pants that would catch baby Jesus II when he popped out. The pants would also help hide the baby in case Herod II decided to come try to kill him. Evidently, no one is going to notice you walking around with a baby tucked in your pants.

When I woke up again in Istanbul, the old woman had disappeared back into the countryside, far from the skyscrapers and housing complexes of the city I now call home. Reflexively, I checked for my wallet, but I really didn’t need to. As a Turkish friend explained to me, Turks protect guests in their country – they use the word guest, not tourist – with almost religious passion. This is changing in the increasingly developed tourist hubs of Old Istanbul, Izmir, and Troy, but I still feel safer in Turkey than in, say, Paris or New York City. Kate, meanwhile, continues to defy anyone’s notion of what is safe for a small blonde woman by hitchhiking around the Middle East. If I could think of a single place in the ‘west’ where she’d be as safe doing that I’d feel slightly more charitable towards the people who have managed to convince conservative America – make that most of America – that the Muslim world is full of bloodthirsty fanatics.

Getting there: Fly into either Kayseri or Nevsehir on one of several cheap flights a day from Istanbul’s airports, then take a 20 lira one hour shuttle to Goreme. By bus or car, it’s an 10 to 11-hour ride from Istanbul or Izmir. You could stay in the slightly more upmarket Uchisar, but we recommend Goreme for its range of accommodation options and proximity to the best sites.

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Reflections, directions

I’ve discovered that when you start working two jobs, you don’t have much time for blogging anymore.

But in much, much more interesting news, Kate Bloomer has been traveling all in and out of the middle east. I can’t get enough of her blog and photos. My friend since we were wee bairns and my best friend since college, Kate is a constant source of inspiration: if you take a look at her blog, maybe she can be for you too.

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Rise, traveller

(originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I first noticed him when he crossed the threshold into Hagia Sofia the wrong way. In Buddhist temples, you always enter with your right foot first and leave with your left foot. Since living in China, I’ve picked up the habit of watching how I enter religious spaces. He stepped in with his left foot first. I followed with my right.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia isn’t much of a religious space any more. The building has gone the way of the nation that surrounds it: an important seat of early Christianity, it converted to Islam and then a secular institution. The Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum was one of the things that drew me to Istanbul, but I’d put off visiting once I arrived because I was suffering from the Lonely Traveler’s Blues. Three hundred and sixty days a year I am happy to explore all the world has to offer. The other five, I wonder why on earth I have left family and friends in all the places I’ve lived, and hate the idea of surrounding myself with strangers in a foreign city.

It usually passes in a day, sometimes less, but my first few days in Istanbul proved especially trying. It was my own fault, completely. I’d come to the city without a Plan, armed with only a few distant contacts and ghostly potential job leads, and about a hundred different impulses but no specific reason why I had decided to stop in this city, of all places.

It had taken a massive effort of will to get myself to Hagia Sofia, especially when I found out the entry price was 20 lira, or $13, which was my daily budget. It was this strange man stepping over the threshold the wrong way that drew me in as much as anything else.

We followed tandem paths around the building, looking at the same mosaics in different order. I took pictures across the sanctuary while he took pictures of the dome. He wandered over to a window and nudged it open. I had to stand on a ledge to see out. In between the ancient buttressing, you could see the mosque Sultan Ahmet had constructed at the beginning of the 17th century. Some say he built it as a challenge to the old Roman Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, a very visual demonstration that the Muslim Ottomans could match or outdo their 6th century Christian predecessors. But why, I thought, would he have built a structure that looks so similar? In my eyes, the two buildings look like brother and sister: one dressed in pink, one in blue, but obviously from the same family.

Muslims call Christians and Jews ‘people of the book,’ like themselves. All three faiths believe in one God, arguably the same God. Just as the Christian Bible incorporates the Hebrew Bible as its old testament, the Quran tells the story of Abraham, and Moses, and even Jesus. The view that dominates western media, intentionally or unintentionally – that Christians and Muslims are fundamentally different types of people – makes no sense to me. Over the last two months, every fear I harbored of the rise of militant Islam has been countered by acts of extraordinary generosity and friendship. For every jihadist who is profiled in the news, there must be a million peaceful men, women, and children whose stories never get told. I can’t blame the media, though: they have to write what sells, and what sells is and always seems to have been violence and fear.

I made my visit to Hagia Sofia long before I was qualified to make any sort of judgment on the country or the people around me. On that day, I was still nursing my inexplicable Lonely Traveler’s Blues, though something was pulling me out of it. Certainly most of the credit must go to the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque, two indescribable monuments to human achievement which cannot fail to inspire. But part of it, too, was my silent museum partner.

We ended up talking, finally, by one of the toppled columns that litter the garden around Hagia Sophia like fallen leaves. I asked if he was Italian. I’d based my guess on the fact that he was wearing the kind of pointed boots I have only ever seen on gay men and Italians. No, he said, he was German, here studying Turkish, and what was I doing in Istanbul?

I don’t remember which of my stable of answers I gave him – interest in the Islamic world/medieval history/contemporary EU politics, desire to travel, lower cost of living, love of kebabs – but it was enough to start a conversation that continued for the next four hours. We visited the blue mosque and strolled through the garden outside the Sultans’ old harem. As the sun set, we stopped for tea at a cafe looking over the Bosphorus, the bustling strait of water which divides Istanbul’s European half from its Asian.

We parted ways soon after that, each pleading dinner commitments, though I know I at least could have easily missed the dinner I had planned. It was better, I thought, to leave things as they were. We’d had a lucky meeting of minds in the heart of old Istanbul, but we had separate lives to return to in the world outside. He was heading back to Germany in five days, I was hoping to find a job that would support me in Istanbul until I went home for Thanksgiving. At the last minute, he gave me his email address, but when I waved goodbye from the bus I was pretty sure it was the last time I would ever see him.

As my bus trundled up the European side of the Bosphorus, I looked at Istanbul with new eyes. Pale mosques, lit by spotlights, glowed yellow, and their reflections danced in the water. There had been nothing particularly remarkable about our meeting, but it revived whatever had been laying dormant since my arrival in Istanbul, and I was finally ready for the city.

Istanbul had apparently decided she was ready for me as well. I found an internship with CNN’s correspondent in Istanbul the next day and moved into a fantastic apartment in the center of the city a week later. My neighbors offered to show me around, had me over for dinner, and one, a Greek, invited me to his niece’s Christening.

And so the traveler part of me has gone with the lonely blues, at least for now. A new friend of mine recently asked how long I’ll be living here. I think I surprised myself as much as her when I said I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I will live other places, I’m sure, and might never call Istanbul home. I’m not even positive I’ll be returning after Thanksgiving. But I will always pass through here, and always be looking forward to my next stay. This is not a place that can be visited once.

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