Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas in Cologne

I realized after the three-hour flight from Istanbul to Cologne that I used to spend that much time traveling by bus every day, so I added my new world-traveling trouble-free lifestyle to my infinite list of things to be thankful for. I’m especially thankful that I got to spend Christmas this year in Germany. I just read my Kindle for three hours, looked up when the plane touched down, and I was there.

My friends and I stayed at a hotel next to the Cologne Cathedral. That beautiful gothic cathedral was something to behold, both inside and out, containing treasures that date back to the tenth century. When I saw a man walk past the front, moving his cane from side to side, I thought of the Raymond Carver story, Cathedral, and how difficult it would be to describe this breathtaking sight to someone. My friend Kelley and I walked along the Rhine and over Hohenzollern Bridge at night and noted how different Cologne looks in the moonlight versus the daytime.

We felt right at home in Cologne and spent a great deal of time sightseeing and window shopping. The Christmas Market and most of the shops were closed, something we couldn’t wrap our capitalistic, American brains around. The town was full of consumers . . . er . . . people and there were very few businesses open. Luckily for us, the restaurants were open. The servers were congenial and drank freely on the job, a variation of customer service that came as a surprise.

I ate like a queen, and every bite I confessed to My Fitness Pal, an online calorie counter. Congratulatory messages popped up anyway, commending me on my willpower. No wonder I’m pals with my fitness pal. I can never go wrong, even after consuming a pork chop, a stein of kolsch, and a piece of cherry cake, which were all to die for. I also ate one green bean before remembering that I hate green beans, and that I did not come to Germany to eat green beans.

Ice skating was more difficult than I remembered and I ended up with bruises on my arms from slamming into the wall encompassing the skating rink. Atop the wall was a ledge where spectators outside the rink rested their glasses of beer and apple punch spiked with rum. I had counted on grabbing the ledge for support but that was impossible without perhaps crashing into all their glassware. 

Years ago, one of my friends observed that I made a sound like Urkel from the show Family Matters when a restaurant menu gave me a paper cut. I realized I made the same Urkel noise while crashing into the wall. I wondered if anyone has looked for Urkel-Merkel similarities, then decided I didn’t mind being compared to Urkel, and Angela Merkel shouldn’t either.

Slamming into these jolly people while making my Urkel noise seemed like a good way to make friends, or maybe even to discover that there is a gentleman who likes my style and doesn’t mind me crashing into him. He would have at least liked my scent. I was wearing actual mandarin and cardamon cologne I had just purchased at the 4711 store, where the original Cologne is sold.

Some people on the ice took to it so easily. I was impressed by the number of parents who could skate backward while helping their kids skate forward, or hold onto their kids’ hands while they flailed around. Ice skating isn’t for me, but that was just one lesson I learned while traveling.

I think next year, I will go somewhere in Europe the weekend before Christmas, so I can walk around a Christmas market when it’s actually open. That was the most important lesson I learned, but Cologne was still fun, even in hibernation mode. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Lady with the braid

My students gave me some kind of eye ailment for Christmas. I've been assured it's not pink eye, but I stayed home and drew a self-portrait today, not really wanting to go out. Notice I did not include the swollen, gunk-filled eye in my drawing. I took some artistic license with that, as well as the Princess Leia hairstyle. Amid all the Star Wars hype and women braiding their long hair in anticipation of the movie, I'm feeling something like the hair envy I felt in elementary school, back when I sat behind a girl and admired her perfectly straight, glossy black hair. Now I'm wishing my hair were long enough to braid into a crown. There wasn't much I could do with my short hair this morning, except make a small braid and hold it up with a barrette. 

I've been singing the song, "Lady with the Braid," a lot lately. I love the subtext of this woman coyly propositioning a man and over-accommodating him because she obviously loves him. The person who created this video seems to have a crush on Jon Hamm, but then again, who doesn't? I think if anyone sang this song to Don Draper, he would respond in a cool voice, "You're selling too hard." For me, the selling too hard is what makes the song endearing. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Near Death Experience

My heart is still beating fast. I’m drinking a glass of wine, wishing I had a shot of whiskey because tonight I experienced a near car crash while racing down an Istanbul street at a little before midnight. It’s half past one now. The driver, someone from my school, was able to dodge a city bus swerving into our lane by speeding up to avoid a collision. His car was between the bus and a wall and I’m pretty sure we would have gone splat, or crunch, or whatever onomatopoeia you care to imagine, if he had been a less capable driver. I screamed, “Jesus Christ!” which I consider to be interesting would-be last words for me, given that I’m not a religious person. But apparently, it’s something I scream when I’m really really scared.

This all happened because I locked myself out of my apartment. 

I realized I forgot my keys on the coffee table at home, but assumed the security guards on the campus of my school’s sister school had a spare. They had a lot of spare keys, none of which belonged to my apartment. As it turned out, I had to get in a car and travel way the hell out to “English teacher master key headquarters,” which is where I learned that almost being killed by a bus is not as romantic as Morrissey makes it sound.

For the past few days, I’d been feeling artistically stultified. I morbidly told a couple colleagues, “The artist inside of me has died.” I’m reflecting on my choice of words now that the non-artist rest of me almost died too. Life is what you choose to make it, so I’m choosing to see this experience as a wakeup call. I’m 32 years old and I’ve accomplished very little, as I see it. I’m well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and well-loved by friends and family, but I haven’t accomplished my dream of writing and illustrating children’s books, composing the short stories and novels inside my head, crossing the Gobi desert by camel and riding horses over meadows in Mongolia. I need to grasp the reins, not to mention a writing utensil. For both writing and riding horses, I love going fast. As long as I’m not being driven around Istanbul surrounded by a bunch of crazy, reckless drivers, I take pleasure in speed.

From now on, I will not say, “The artist inside of me has died.” I will say, “The artist inside of me needs nurturing.” And I vow to do exactly that.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

We'll Always Have Istanbul

My friends Kelley and Glenda went to Paris, Avignon, and Provence over the holiday and last night Glenda hosted a gathering at her place. She gave me a vintage postcard of a woman posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, and said it was totally moi. As per my request, she put on Sarah Vaughan, whose voice makes me melt and then I melted even more while listening to Glenda’s and Kelley’s stories about France.

My mom and I shared our stories about what we’ve been up to in the past couple weeks. We really have had an amazing time. We were thinking about going to Cyprus to get out of the rain, but our plan fell through, which was fine because the weather forecast lied. The weather was lovely and I only had to open my umbrella a couple times. On the Uskudar waterfront, my hat went off to the Turkish umbrella salesman who was trying his best to say “Umbrella” in English. “Oombra roombra” is what actually came out, but I understood him.

The highlight was perhaps our calligraphy class at Les Arts Turcs. Our instructors were funny, knowledgeable, and talented. After seeing videos of master calligraphers at the Sabanci Museum and seeing the hurried dashes of my own work, I realize doing calligraphy well is like a spider spinning a web. It takes time and you have to be relaxed and fully present to get it right. I mentioned to our instructors that my mom used to live in Istanbul in the 70s and they immediately associated that decade with hippies. They asked questions that began with, “Back when you were a hippie . . .” and said, “We love hippies.” Never mind that she wasn’t a hippie, but they seemed to like that idea so much, we hated to disappoint them.

At the Baris Manco Museum in Kadikoy, we met a nice man from Germany who said he was Baris Manco’s biggest fan. He briefly snagged one of the museum employees to take pictures of him worshiping before Baris Manco photographs, but she seemed a little freaked out, so I offered to take pictures of him, with his camera and mine.

Today at the Pierre Loti Café, a favorite place that we wanted to return to for old time’s sake, I bought a very interesting wall hanging on which a Turkified Barbie is holding a basket of fruit. I bought her for 15 lira and hung her in front of my kitchen door. Her name is Mutfak Fatma and she is the kitchen goddess. I was inspired by Baris Manco’s biggest fan to have my own photo taken of me worshipping her. I still want to return to France as soon as possible, but I’d say this holiday has been more than satisfying just exploring in my own backyard. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Turkey Day!

Giving flowers to Ataturk. 

Happy Turkey Day from Turkey! This rainy morning I’m waiting for my coffee to kick in before our Ottoman Calligraphy class. I hope I’m able to write something stylish, but if I don’t take to it right away, at least I will enjoy the practice of putting ink on paper. My mom just donned her gold Ataturk mask and decreed in a deep voice, “No more Ottoman Turkish.” We found the mask in a costume shop on one of Istiklal Caddesi’s side streets while looking for the Pera Museum. The wonderful reality of living in Istanbul is that while you’re looking for something, you’ll always stumble upon something new and interesting. I bought some costume props, which I will use in my teaching or save for next Halloween. After three months here, I’m convinced that living in Istanbul is excellent practice for life. Every day teaches you that if something doesn’t work out, another path will lead you toward something you didn’t know you wanted. Last night we got lost walking next to the Golden Horn, but we just trekked on. A full moon lit up the sky, so weirdness, such as walking across the Ataturk bridge during rush hour, and then catching a bus that took us back where we came from, was inevitable.

Learning to be more adaptable and solution-minded is just one lesson Turkey has taught me. Yesterday we went to a hamam and felt relaxed to our cores. The hamam was designed by Mimar Sinan and is a veritable feast for the senses. The women were predominantly European and didn’t seem to feel any insecurity. I’ve discussed with female friends women’s attitudes about their bodies and we decided that American women are definitely more insecure than women from other cultures. But then again, at least we’re not like Qatari women who can’t even get dressed and undressed in a women’s locker room. I’m so thankful to be away from those shaming attitudes toward women. In the hamam, all women’s bodies are a work of art and you don’t need to worry about judgment.

Lying on the hot tiles, I stared up at the domed ceiling dotted with star- and hexagon-shaped windows to let in sunlight, and felt as mesmerized as a baby lying under a mobile. A woman led me to an alcove and rinsed me by dipping a bowl in a marble basin and pouring warm water over me. She exfoliated my skin with a mitt and used something like a pillow case to miraculously create a mound of bubbles. I thought if I ever have children I would like to learn this trick to make bath time more fun for them. First, she bunched the bag up, then scrubbed it with soap, then shook it out, let it fill up with air and swept her closed hand along the length of the bag, and a cascade of bubbles came out.

I wondered while she was massaging me if she would make a gifted sculptor, so innate her knowledge of the female form must be. I thought if I were a sculptor I would get a part time job working in a hamam to hone my craft. What would happen if we gave every person who works in a hamam a block of marble and some tools and told them to free the human form locked inside? I think we would have some amazing sculptures.

Purple-tinted mom drinking a mystic Scotland. 
Hanging out with our friend Seda. 
At the Pera Museum, I was fascinated to see an exhibit on nudes by Turkish artists, and paintings commissioned by European ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire. Traditionally, making images of the court would have clashed with Muslim beliefs, which is why Islamic art is rife with calligraphy and carpet motifs, but thankfully, we have these paintings done by outsiders to show people today what royal life was like and what parts of Istanbul looked like hundreds of years ago. The Pera Museum is now one of my favorite museums and I will definitely be checking back when different exhibits open. 

We concluded our busy day with a stroll down Bagdat Caddesi, a bit of shopping, and Belgian beers. I like Bagdat Caddesi for its sophistication, but I have to say my favorite place in Istanbul to hang out right now is Karakoy. I love sitting at the artsy cafes with their eclectic décor. One café, Karabatak, is a paradise for lovers of French music and lattes.

It’s time to go out for breakfast and head off to our Ottoman calligraphy class. Until next time. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Magic Carpet Ride

My feet are touching down on my $15 fuzzy Ikea carpet, but are having adulterous thoughts about the Turkish carpets I saw today. My mom and I visited Sultan Ahmet, a gorgeous neighborhood popular with tourists. My mom took me to a carpet shop she had visited before called Ottomania. Sitting in the shop, drinking Turkish coffee and listening to a charming man educate us about carpets was a nice break from seeing hoards of people brandishing selfie sticks and hearing the insistent calls of salespeople: “Hello! Hello! You are my style, lady! Are you Germany? Where are you from? Do you want to change your life? You have beautiful smile!"

At Ottomania, my mom and I both fell in love with the same design, one that reminded me of a Gustav Klimt painting. The owner named a good price for two and offered to ship them to America or deliver them to me in Istanbul. Since I’m in no rush, I said I’d think it over. I went home and read the reviews of his store online, and they are all positive, so I may go back there and make a purchase in the near future.

We also went to the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, which is worth a visit, even though the woman at the ticket desk was rude and ignored us when we asked her questions. Still, we walked around and admired all the exquisite pearl jewelry in one exhibit and the Arabic and Ottoman calligraphy from some of the first Qurans in another exhibit. My mom asked me what perfume I was wearing and I said, “24, Faubourg. It’s what Princess Diana used to wear.” After mentioning Princess Diana, I thought it was a little trippy to be staring at one of Lady Di’s pearl and diamond tiaras in the museum. 

I bought my mom a plush Turkish towel from a shop called Jennifer’s Hamam. This Jennifer has become very successful as a Canadian abroad, opening up three stores and training a staff that is extremely courteous and knowledgeable. I enjoyed browsing the wonderful items in her shops and I think I’ll go back there someday. I have no shortage of towels, but now that I’ve heard the spiel about the superiority of Turkish towels, I want one for myself. A nice towel and a beautiful carpet. I didn’t need these items before today, and now suddenly I do.

Now I’m sitting on the couch next to my mom and we’re both writing and drinking mead. The mead is divine and makes me feel like royalty. It was a gift from a friend of ours who visited Warsaw, Poland. Thank you, Seda! This mellow buzz is the perfect end to my eventful, museum- and carpet-filled day. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Wandering around Istanbul

I promptly dashed into the first bookstore I saw on Istiklal Caddesi and showed the clerk the brochure from the museum my mom and I had just visited. The museum was an old house which had belonged to the Turkish author, Tevfik Fikret. He called his home the bird’s nest, or Aşiyan in Farsi. My mom and I listened to the audio tour, feeling so appreciative that it was available in English. (In my day-to-day life, I’m learning that English translations are a rare privilege.) I wondered why the museum didn’t have a bookstore. Some intellectuals and visionaries who helped design modern Turkey were referenced in the audio tour, but I always feel even more curious after visiting a good museum and expect there to be a gift/book shop at the end.

On Istiklal, the bookstore employee showed me where Tevfik Fikret’s books were, but said they weren’t available in English. I bought one of his books anyway, and I’m counting on my mom to be able to tell me what his poems are about.

Yesterday was a great day for shopping, in addition to learning about literature. I connected with my inner child and bought myself a doll dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing. My mom helped me name him Mehmetcek, which means “Little Mehmet.” She also corrected my pronunciation when I tried asking, “What is the price?” Apparently, I’ve been going around, asking merchants, “What is my fate?” and everyone was too polite to say anything.

The most surreal moment yesterday was seeing some very somber people dressed up in traditional Native American clothing on Istiklal Caddesi. Some women dressed head-to-toe in abayas with niqabs over their faces were paying to have their photos taken with them. “Where are we?” my mom asked, as if we’d just landed on another planet. I wondered the same thing.

We came home and watched Birdman and ate kumpir, Turkish baked potatoes. It was maddeningly windy outside, so I wondered if my whole apartment building might go flying. The weather will be rainy this weekend, so I’m considering a mother-daughter trip to Cyprus. Until then, we’ll try to enjoy the sun as much as possible. 

Mehmetcek and his new housemates, Olaf and Toothy. They live on a suitcase in the corner with a box of Kleenex as furniture.

Friday, November 20, 2015


A hop and a skip from my apartment lies a neighborhood called Kuzguncuk. My mom is visiting and resituating herself, figuring out where all her old haunts are or used to be. She lived in Uskudar in the 70’s. She speaks Turkish and knows her way around, navigating the cobblestone streets, mastering the various modes of public transportation, and appreciating everything in its historical context. She’s exhibiting a Gene Autry air of being back in the saddle again. Really, I think she should just move here. And I think we’ve discovered the perfect neighborhood for her: Kusguncuk. Its name means “little raven” and it reminds me a lot of my old neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Village.

We walked to the Bosporus, listened to the water lapping the shore and watched the passing ferry boats. The bridges were lit up in Christmas colors, whether Turks intended it or not. We ate at a restaurant called Metet. I ordered lentil soup and a chicken skewer and my mom lived it up with iskender doner kebab and ayran. I threw a piece of chicken to a stray cat and suddenly, we were surrounded by a whole menagerie of begging felines and an occasional dog. A cat with one eye sidled up to my mom. I felt guiltily amused sharing an inside joke with my mom that is still funny after 27 years.

When I was in kindergarten, the height of cleverness was winking and giving the thumbs up sign. I couldn’t wink so I pathetically had to hold one eyelid down, give the thumbs up sign, and wait for someone to notice how cool I was. Despite our mockery, the one-eyed cat decided he loved us and wanted to follow us home. We ducked inside a chocolate shop and we could see the poor cat out the window, winding his head around, trying to find us with his one eye.

Wooptee ti-yi-yo. Rocking to and fro. Back in the saddle again.
Kuzguncuk is like Multnomah Village, but cooler. The food is satisfying, the people are friendly, and the feel is multi-cultural and enlightened. There’s a big community garden, two synagogues, and two Greek Orthodox churches. After we finished our meal, with the one-eyed cat still looking enamored of us, the server brought us complementary Turkish tea. I said, “I think he must like us.” Then he brought us another round of Turkish tea. “He must really like us,” I said. My mom said, “What’s not to like?” I feel the same way about Kuzguncuk. 

Green Grass

Monday, November 2, 2015


I’m getting back into the groove of my Istanbul existence, setting up language exchanges with new Turkish friends, running on the treadmill so I can feel that I’m faster than a tortoise, if not a speeding bullet, and buying fresh produce from my local farmers market. I’ve been hoping to someday blend in with the locals, but at the farmers market, walking around with my friend Kelley, I bought a plump pomegranate and asked the man to cut it for me.  I snacked on seeds as we ambled along, plucking these delightful jewels out of their pockets with my crimsoned fingers. Judging by the stares and chuckles, I think the pomegranate is not a customary food to eat while walking around Istanbul. Well, I’m impatient and sometimes pomegranates are just too delicious to save for later.

At the gym, I seemed to have jets on my heels as I ran on the treadmill, and my exertion compensated for my nearly comatose holiday in Crete. On this beautiful Greek island, I think I genuinely did blend in with the locals. Life in Crete clicks along at the same slow pace that flows through my DNA. My friends and I walked around the atmospheric streets of Chania, ate gelato of diverse flavors, went to a salon where we permitted a handsome man named Theo to transform our hair. He gave me bangs, which I didn’t ask for, but his vision seemed to come from divine inspiration, so I didn’t fuss.

At night on the quiet island, I slept blissfully. During the day, my friends and I went to quaint restaurants and I felt so grateful that we all travel so well together. Good travel companions are a Godsend, let me tell you. I am very fortunate. I loved breathing in the fresh salty air and playing with scruffy stray dogs. The Greek people we met were so friendly. One adorable shopkeeper enthusiastically relayed her love of I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show. She was well versed in all the episodes and maybe she thought I would have been more familiar with that generation of American television, but I think I’m too young. When we left the Elia Hotel, the concierge gave my friends and me complimentary bottles of Greek liqueur.

Looking out to sea, I imagined what it might be like to be on one of those small boats trying to escape torture, devastation, and slaughter, but of course I can’t really imagine what that’s like for a Syrian refugee. I have an easy life. The waves were high, and I thought we must keep our hopes for a peaceful future even higher.

Back in Istanbul my friends and I hopped on the metro and I played with an adorable Syrian baby, who also received ample attention from his doting parents. It’s hard to imagine that baby and his sweet parents having to flee their home, like so many desperate people have been forced to do. I don’t know if they were refuges, but Istanbul has many refugees, so it’s quite likely.

My friends and I went home to our good jobs and nice apartments. I’m grateful that I can travel so easily and that I am welcomed most places I go.