“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Istanbul Day 4: Sulemaniye and Kebab Krawl

Note to self: Pace. Rest. Especially if mixing cold weather and/or jet lag. The weekend jaunt has been great, but even with Ambien I haven't had a full night's sleep since we arrived. And even though we didn't believe we planned an aggressive schedule, I really should have planned in some quality down time or even a few naps. I did fine in South America, but it was warm and practically no time change. Noted.

Today's lesson learned was also to take some advice from the locals, which we did. We were told by a few that we really should visit Sulemaniye Casii (mosque). Knowing we'd have a 3-hour kebab crawl that night, we tried to take it easier today. We took one more spin (or two) back through the spice market (honestly, there really weren't any spices there that I haven't already seen in Arab or Indian markets in Chicago) to wrap up our shopping list. The same carpet seller was still outside his stall. He spotted Carrie as I zipped through the crowd, but she gracefully shook him off with an empty promise to return. And good... We did the math last night, and even if I were to buy a small 2x4 kilim rug for half of what he was asking, I could still find a better bargain on a Turkish rug on Devon Street next to my own home. It wasn't worth it to come all the way here to buy something I could get for less than half at home. And with the change in jobs in a few days, I'm not about to throw good money away.

After leaving the bazaar we headed uphill to find Sulemaniye, and we did just in time for noon prayers. It was closed to visitors for the hour, so we explored the grounds, which had a spectacular view of the Golden Horn and around. The weather was pleasant and the grounds were beautiful and peaceful. There were very few tourists with us. That morning we had passed the Hagia Sophia on the way in, and the line was 10x longer than when we went. We picked a good day to head away from Sultanhamet and the hoards. When the mosque re-opened we went inside to a gorgeous, bright, airy, and cool interior. It was quiet and made for a good opportunity to sit and stare into space for a while. The mosque was built 600 years ago at the height of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan the Magnificent, and his body still rests in the cemetery outside. The building is in impeccable shape, as if it were brand new. Now normally I abhor visiting ancient churches in most cities, despite their history, because I despise the idolatry and wasted opulence. I don't feel this way about mosques. Ornately decorated, but no gold- or -silver statues, altars, or other paraphernalia that would have been better spent on serving the masses. I'm pretty sure I hopped on this soapbox in a blog entry last year. But I feel differently about mosques because they lack most of the aforementioned.

Upon leaving the mosque, since it was still near the end of the noon prayers, two gentlemen approached us with small containers and spoons, saying it was a Turkish sweet. With our American pessimism, we asked if they were free. Yes! So we sat and ate along with other mosque members who were also enjoying their treats. I'm not sure what it was, perhaps some cinnamon, apple, hazelnut, bulghar, to name a few. Another young man came around with napkins. A few women next to us were busily mixing more treats into small disposable dishes and putting them out on a small table for all passers-by to take. Help yourself. The few tourists that passed through were happily surprised, and other mosque members were still either arriving for more treats, or helping hand them out. It was like a Sunday church pot-luck, but out in the open for all strangers and not in the church basement. This isn't the first time (or tenth) that I've witnessed the generosity of the Muslim community and I was happy to see this in yet another country (also similar to the public Iftar in Egypt popping up in public places). While we were inside the mosque, Carrie remarked that it was time for food. When we stepped outside, viola! Allah provideth. That, or another example of the unending Turkish hospitality we heard so much about, and likewise continued to experience.

Outside the mosque grounds was a small row of restaurants, and knowing we had a long walk back to the tram, we decided to eat a full meal then and there. There was no English menu, so the waiter took us inside to the kitchen and showed us all the food available. We pointed out what we wanted, and he brought it to our table: meatballs with potato, tomato, eggplant, and rice in a tomato broth. Hearty and delicious as the day was getting cooler and we were seated outside. More tea.

We made a pit stop slightly out of the way to pick up something in particular for Carrie's friend, so we figured since we were in the area, we circled back to the Hippodrome which used to be Byzantine arena. In my in-going international treasure hunt, I found the obelisk of Tutmosis III. Poor Egypt pillaged by so many civilizations. At the end of the Hippodrome was the Column of Constantine, which was where the chariots would make their u-turn to race back to the opposite end. It doesn't resemble anything like an arena now, except a big public promenade. Finally it was time to call it quits for the moment and head back to the apartment for a rest.

About an hour later we headed up to the meeting point in Beyoglu on the mainland European side for the kebab crawl, organized by Istanbul Eats blog. We walked up Isteklal Cadessi which is the main shopping and nightlife district in the city. Forget the Old City full of tourists, this area was more European in feel with more locals and better style. I only wish we had more time to explore it. We met up at a Victorian-era hotel lobby bar, in which the kebab crawl group consisted of two other Chicagoans, from Lakeview no less! Also a guy from Los Angeles, a man from Columbia via San Diego, and two Danish friends. And our guide Megan, who was an American who taught in Vermont, moved to Istanbul, and is getting her PhD from University of Chicago. International indeed.

We hopped in a van which took us to - I am not kidding - 200 feet from our apartment. 45 minutes to get to the meeting place which only brought us back home. A good laugh! We have been staying on the best block for kebabs in all of Istanbul! It's a shame - but not - that the tourists a couple miles down the way have no idea about this area.

We started out at a joint that served up some tasty chicken wings, but the real star here was the liver and fat pieces with a side of onions sprinkled with sumac. Toss in a couple mint leaves and wrap with lavosh, and I had no idea that liver and onions could be so good! I went in for thirds. This is ok portent. I hate liver. I dislike onions. I have never, ever, ever liked them together. It's been probably 25+ years since I tried them, and I know my taste buds have change for sure. And how! But I'm positive this had everything to do with the seasoning and preparation. Is it most definitely not the American vision and version most might recognize (and avoid). If you didn't know it was liver, you would probably eat it.

Next we stopped at an another shop in this Little Urfa sub-neighborhood of Aksaray that served Urfa-style kibbe that had more spices to it than I was accustomed, but still delicious. They also showed us the wood-fired oven that baked the fresh flatbread served here. After a touch of tea as well, we were on to our next stop. This was pretty much a bakery that only baked one thing: flatbread. They supplied all the Urfa-style restaurants in the area with bread. This saves the other restaurants from keeping extra staff to make fresh bread. They buzz the bakery for an order and a runner delivers it within minutes. Literally order-to-delivery is minutes and still piping hot. They made us a sort of Arabic pizza called lahmacun, which was flatbread with minced spiced meat, pickled cabbage, lettuce, and a squeeze of lemon, rolled up and wrapped in paper. Hot and fresh.

Our final stop was at a place that made stellar eggplant kebabs. They were skewered with eggplant, fat, and meat, then when on our plate, mash it all together. Garnish wasn't necessary. We also tried a raw minced meat fixture which I can only describe as meat hummus. Spicy and tasty. Dessert was kunefe. I've had this in Chicago and didn't like it, but was glad I tried it again here. Finished the whole thing. Unsalted goat's milk with shredded wheat on top, toasted, and poured over with a sugar syrup, topped with a dab of water buffalo cheese. Because why not?

Oddly enough in this adventure, the path we took on the kebab crawl followed in the exact footsteps we took when we explored this neighborhood on our first night. We knew the tour would end somewhere around here, but we had no idea that the entire thing would be on our very same block. We probably share a rear courtyard with at least two of these places.

I am full. Stuffed to the gills. I need gills, because my stomach is pressing against my lungs and I'm short of breath. And here ends our journey. Our taxi picks us up in 4.5 hours. I have to pack. I have to snooze. I desperately look forward to sleeping on the plane because I need to rest. Despite all we did, I'm exhausted and want my own bed. And I wish I didn't have to go back to my last two days of my job. Trying not to think about it and looking forward to the next 4-day weekend that starts this Thursday before I begin my new job. But for now I bid Istanbul a hearty farewell.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Istanbul Day 3: The Bosphorus

We only had 3 full days in Istanbul and although we try our best to go with the flow and not pack too much in, we still end up exhausted by 7pm. It seems our common philosophy is "we probably won't be back any time soon so we may as well hit one more thing." Or maybe it's just me. Or it was the rain. Let's go with that.

One of our pre-set goals here was to have a weekend brunch. But based on our schedule, it was more like an early breakfast than lunch. We returned to Akendiz Hatay Sofrasi where we ate on our first night. The breakfast was inexpensive and the food plentiful. I recognized a few items from a typical Arab meal, but the rest was guessing. Overall, delicious. Much like in Paris, I am really digging having cheese with breakfast, but this time dipped in honey, swiped right from a honeycomb. There was haloumi cheese wrapped in phylo and fried, babaganoush, kibbeh, kefte, and other assorted goodies. These are not their Turkish names, but only how I know them in Arabic. Still, warm tea continued to flow, and we knew that with our next stop we'd need a full meal in us for fuel.

Up next: Topkapi Palace. I do believe this was the seat of the Ottoman Empire and the supporting Harem. The Palace isn't one building, but an entire complex. With that in mind, we set out locate the entrance. After 30 minutes of walking around the neighboring park, we hit a dead end. No entrance was yet in sight, although we could see the palace walls. We took advantage of the detour and took pictures of the Bosphorus which we had just seen for the first time. The morning weather was refreshingly cool with scattered clouds, so we did enjoy the view and park. I was slightly giddy about seeing the Bosphorus because for some odd reason it always stood out in my head in childhood history and geography classes. Eventually we did find our way back where we started, and had barely missed the entrance to the palace the first time. Knowing that the palace might pack in the crowds, so we immediately went to the Harem first to beat any future crowds.

Apparently the Harem is where women of good blood were brought into the palace as concubines, and as they produced heirs, their own status was raised within the palace community and the Ottoman administration. With the absence of human representations in Islamic art, the walls were lined with intricate floral and geometric tilework. The word "turquoise" was coined by the French when they saw all the blue used in Turkish tiles. Turk-like. Turquoise. Emerging from the Harem rooms we moved across the palace grounds to the museum rooms where we saw the emerald-emblazoned Topkapi Dagger and the 86 carat Spoonmaker's Diamond. The crowds were thick by this point, so we employed the tactic of throwing a couple elbows and blocking the squirmy kids that were pushing their way through.

Since we were already halfway to the neighborhood, we jumped ahead a few tramway stops to search for lunch in Eminonu along the Golden Horn waterway. The waterfront was a flurry of fisherman, ferries, and commuters. Plus me and my map which I haphazardly attempted to fold in the wind. Fail. Men were fishing off both the sidewalk and the Galata Bridge, and in the process of casting their lines, a few got caught in one another and a comic tug-of-war ensued. We walked the lower level of bridge which housed various restaurants, and picked one that looked especially cozy. In this area, the traditional fare is a fish sandwich so we both ordered up a cheap fishwich and some garlic sautéed prawns. This was my first attempt in ordering an whole meal entirely in
Turkish, and seeing as we did received exactly what I said, I'd call it a success. The waiter became chatty, and after we paid our bill and left a few coins for tip, he invited us to stay longer for some tea. We took him up on his invite, which may have been more than we bargained for. He proceeded to hand me his business card with his personal number on the back and said he gets off at work at 11. This never happens to me back in the States. Turkish hospitality or did we just leave a good tip? Or the fact that we're two female tourists alone is probably bait enough. After finishing our tea, we bade him goodbye and headed out.

Our next mission: continent-hopping on the ferries. We had a general plan. Apparently the one port I had in mind wasn't an actual ferry stop, but really shared a stop with the next one down, so for just 2 lira we joined the commuting masses on the Kadikoy ferry to Asia. What were we going to do in Asia? We'd figure that out when we got there. By that time it had started to drizzle and I was concerned about losing my footing again (damn Danskos, last time I wear them on long trips). We found a busy main thoroughfare and spotted some activity in side alleys, so we chose to explore further. Next thing we know, we're surrounded by auctioneers, fish stalls, and locals. As we passed another alley, we turned east and spotted a shish and tea lounge. Now after being a approached numerous times on the European side to visit a hookah parlor, we felt more comfortable in Asia moving on our own terms, since there were no tourist touts out hunting. We walked in and sat in the window seat that faced directly down one of the souk streets, ordered up a couple teas, and some apple tobacco. There were few people inside, our age, and one guy busily on his laptop. The main guy behind the counter reminded me of Comic Book Guy. No one really spoke English there, but a few basic words sufficed for everyone, and we relaxed inside for about an hour, out of the rain. At this point it was after 4 and it would be dark soon.

We head back out into the souk, which looked like everything fell off the back of a Chinese truck. Finding our way easily back to the port, with some adventurous street-crossing, we found the next ferry we wanted that took us further up the Bosphorus. Dusk was falling and we saw the city alight through the rain. We navigated correctly on the ferries, and connected immediately to the tram that brought us back to the European peninsula. Our next stop was back again in Eminonu and the nearby spice market. We didn't quite have the motivation to shop that we had yesterday, but we scouted the prices of a few items we still wanted, the realized we were famished by that point. The bazaar had a tiny kebab stand, and I picked up a chicken doner kebab for 2tl, wrapped in paper and grabbed a stool. Marvelous. But since it had been hours since our last bathroom break and we had more tea than we could count, a water closet was desperately needed.

I was pulled astray by a friendly carpet seller who educated us about wool kilims, carpets, and silks. We greeted each other back and forth in Turkish, and he then cheerily exclaimed in Arabic, and my adventure in languages was complete. I had no idea how handy Arabic would be in this town and was pleasantly surprised, fortunately. He said it was fine that we didn't buy anything from him tonight, but was happy to teach us about the Turkish craft, and we appreciated his efforts. As he was about to invite us into his shop, I told him we really were looking for one thing in particular: a restroom. He laughed heartily and waved for us to follow him. Around another corner, up a tiny winding stairwell, and into a restaurant that we didn't know existed, where he pointed out the loos. When we emerged, he walked us over to a window by a table, which overlooked the bazaar. It was as if we had our own private peep hole into the bustle of activity below. On so many occasions, like this one, we have learned that if we open ourselves for conversation with locals, there are amazing gems we can experience.

Stepping back out into the rain, we had one more stop to make, at a pastry shop that Carrie had on her list. It was a quaint little shop and we were happy to be out of the rain again. I did finally hit my mental wall, mostly from exhaustion, but the hot cocoa hit the spot and lifted me up again. Finally we were back on our way home again, barely able to mentally handle putting a plan together for the next day. So what do we have planned? Seeing as it was only 7pm and we were ready to crash, we need to pace ourselves tomorrow, since the Kebab Krawl is from 5-9. A mid-day rest may be necessary. We might head back to the spice bazaar, visit the nearby Sulemaniye mosque, and return to the apartment to pack before heading back across the river into Beygolu and Taksim and ride our first-ever funicular to get to the meeting point. More eats await!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Istanbul Day 2: One Thing Leads to Another

It is amazing what we can cram into a single day. As I write this, the windows are open, and a soft breeze carries the smell of assorted kebabs from the restaurants below. I am about to fall asleep at only 7:45. We have been active for the past 12 hours the day after getting off a flight and do believe we'll sleep like the dead tonight. If we can figure out how to keep this apartment below 85 degrees.

The morning started easy enough with a quick walk to the tram line where we headed into the Old City. The plan was to hit the Blue Mosque first because we knew it would close eventually for Friday prayers. Right on time, when we arrived at 9am, I pulled out my DSLR camera to line up a shot of the mosque. Epic fail. Something is wrong with the aperture. I left my backup Cybershot in the apartment, so I only had my iPhone. It would have to suffice for the morning. Happily, it does take good pictures, but I'm lacking features that adjust the lighting and depth of field.

At any rate, we continued into the beautiful Blue Mosque, which isn't really blue, but is only named for the decorative blue color on the tiles inside. There were only a few faithful in the mosque at the time, and furry of tourists. It was a vast space and quiet serene with the warm morning light streaming in. When we exited and headed across the park toward the Hagia Sophia, we stopped at a cart serving up breakfast breads and had our food on the run. We looked at our notes about the Hagia Sohpia and remembered that it was advised to return an hour before closing so the crowds are fewer and the light is better. Agreed.

Instead, we walked across the street to the way-to-easy-to-be-found Basilica Cistern, which was an ancient underground reservoir that fed the city. At least a foot of water was still present, occupied by happy-to-see-tourists carp that fed on scraps. I am convinced one of these fish ate Jonah. The space was amazing... Ambient lighting of the columns, eerie music, and the gentle drop of droplets hitting the ancient water. My regular camera would have had a field day, but the iPhone was holding up well in the low light. Ionic and Corinthian columns combined to form the architecture, along with re-purposed Medusa heads as two column bases.

Upon hitting street level again, we decided to mosey toward the Grand Bazaar, then return to the apartment to try to fix my camera, and head back to the Hagia Sophia. And this is where I am very glad we took the day with a grain of salt since a single event led to so many mini adventures. I like the turns life can surprise with.

As we walked down a side street toward the bazaar, I tripped on a gutter in the street. This is mostly my fault, not the gutter's. I am wearing Danskos, which although good for the feet, my ankles tend to take a surprising roll once in a while and send my tumbling. This time, in front of an audience, I went with it. Down I went, into the gutter, on the sidewalk, twisting my left ankle and my right knee. I sat there stunned for a moment because both hurt very much. Quickly, two older men from across the street ran over to each help me up on either side and walked me to their little table and chairs outside a shop. One offered me a cigarette (kind, but no thank you). As I flexed my ankle and knee, I was bruised but fine. No lasting damaged, I laughed and thanked them.

As I was standing up to check my balance and strength, I spotted a little bad that I wanted to hold some personal times. As I was inquiring with the shopkeeper about the bag, Carrie noticed some kebab skewers for sale that she knew my sister wanted. So I began to haggle for those, and at the end I got skewers for the price he wanted and my bag thrown in for free. As he was wrapping my purchase, I began talking with his friend who had stopped by the shop while on his way to the mosque. We were having a lovely conversation about our plans for the day, that we were headed to the bazaar to look for some jewelry. He said his brother and nephew owned a jewelry shop there and would be happy to walk us in and introduce us on his way to the mosque. Normally I am very tentative of a potential sales pitch or suggestion to follow anyone, but I was ready to roll with the day, so we agreed. We chatted about what we saw and were to see as we walked through the ancient cobblestone alleys. He highly suggests visiting Sulemaniye Camii, which I've heard from numerous sources.

It was great entering the chaos of the bazaar with him as we had a purpose and didn't look like lost tourists. We walked into his family's shop and I began looking at the goods after we were introduced to brother, nephew, and token old man friend in the corner. Since I developed a nickel allergy to cheap jewelry, I needed something pure. This was one of my exact goals on this trip, silver or gold. I found a lovely pair of basic white gold double hoops for everyday wear, and we worked out a good price. Our friend had to leave for Jummah prayers, so he bade us goodbye. Meanwhile the nephew offered us some tea, and their runner came back with apple tea for Carrie and black tea for me. We sat in the shop for a while, talking to each other about nothing in particular, sipping away from little glass cups. It was time for lunch, so he wrote down the name of a tasty place in the bazaar - Pedaliza - which we found alarmingly easily considering the bazaar is a living maze, and he also wrote down the name of a restaurant in Taksim that we may try on Sunday. While finding our way to the restaurant, the athan sounded again announcing Jummah. This is where I described to Carrie what was happening. Some people would make their way to a mosque. Most shopkeepers can't afford to leave their stalls for an hour, so in a section of the bazaar we were in saw many men set down their prayer rugs. As we looked down an inner street, men were lined shoulder-to-shoulder as far as we could see. The police blocked off that section of street to shoppers so the men could pray in peace. An hour later, all the bustle was back in the bazaar. I love the spontaneous sense of community that occurs with Muslim prayer.

On the way to Pedaliza we price-checked some other jewelry and lamps for reference, so while over a delicious lunch I established a budget on what I wanted to spend on a glass mosaic lamps. Following lunch of lentil soup, kebab, and stew, we ventured back into the main bazaar. The guidebooks and trip reviewers describe the place as aggressive, the shopkeepers too suggestive toward women, and overbearing. We found this quite the opposite. Really, if you're not interested in something, then don't respond, walk away. Eventually I scouted a few lamp vendors and walked away with a chandelier trio of some gorgeous colors. In the course of the day so far, I checked off nearly everything on my shopping list. I just have Kilim rugs and one other thing to find. We stopped to talk to another shopkeeper for a bit, a young man who was happy to talk to Americans.

We were laden with purchases so we chose to return to the apartment, settle our things, and rest for a few while I tried to fix my camera. No luck there, it's definitely in the body, because changing lenses did no good. Shortly after 3 we headed back out to the Hagia Sophia with the Cybershot in tow, which eventually proved of no use so the iPhone was back on duty. The museum was built in Byzantine times as a church but was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 25th century. I mourned the loss of my camera for a few minutes, as I would have had a love affair through my lens with this place, but I put it in perspective that I was HERE regardless. After some creative thought and acrobatics, I pulled off a few good shots. As the museum emptied at closing I had more liberty to finish some photography before we were ushered out.

Standing in the plaza pondering our next move, we were approached by a gentleman who joked if we wanted to buy a carpet (everyone claims to be a carpet seller here), but he was nothing but just a friendly man. We talked about our plans and he also gave us some recommendations. We of course spoke of food, and he applauded our choice of neighborhood for our lodging, saying that if you want doner kebab in Istanbul, Aksaray is where you find it. As a matter of fact, his favorite place is on our street. (Or isn't it always?) A cart vendor with a samovar stopped nearly, so our new friend described that it was a type of spiced milk with honey, orchid bud, vanilla, cream, and sprinkled with cinnamon, an ancient Ottoman specialty. We heard a Syrian man nearly haggle over the price of a cup, and when it came to us, the vendor tried to charge us more, until Carrie piped up that he charged the other guy less. Haggling at its best! We spoke with our friend a little longer, and got his suggestion for nearby kebab and a smoking parlor down the road. Our plan was to have dinner followed by some fruity tobacco from a hookah and hot tea.

As we were looking for food, another gentleman approached us and asked if we've been to the Madrasi yet, which was exactly the hookah parlor we were looking for. He offered to buy us some coffee there, but being the usual pessimists we are, we asked him to show us where it was and we'd see him there after dinner perhaps. I smelled a scam. He may have been as friendly as any other person we met, but I didn't want to run down our luck. So it was agreed, we'd meet there in an hour. We walked on further where we found a kebab smorgasbord in a plaza outside the bazaar, and each ordered a delicious spiced lamb and yogurt kebab wrap. Nom! However, we didn't pay attention to the prices in the menu, and the check seemed unusually high. I asked some English-speaking locals next to us to help explain, and apparently the meat is sold by weight. Ah. That was a big wrap. Still satisfied, we settled our tab. We may have hit our breaking point. It had gotten colder and I had no ambition to spend more money on a hookah and tea when we had free tea in the apartment. I wanted to be warm and in pajamas. There were pictures to upload and this novel to write.

And here we are. Tomorrow's plan is to head back to the restaurant we were at last night for their 8:30 buffet, then on to Topkapi Palace, followed by perhaps Sulemaniye Camii and the spice market, and maybe ferry over to Asia. We'll see how we roll tomorrow. We have only 2 more full days here and based on our track record to date, we squeeze in as much as possible while still rolling with the punches. We pray for another dose of marvelous Turkish hospitality, which has served us well so far.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Istanbul Day 1: There Is No Turkey in Turkey

At nearly 9pm at night Istanbul time, I should be falling over from jet lag. We napped on the last leg here and got a second wind. When we finally arrived at our apartment in Istanbul, it was nearly 5pm. Essentially for a Thursday, the day was practically over. We missed Thanksgiving! And that's a good thing. No pumpkin pie, no jello molds, no production, no football, no Black Friday rigmarole, nada. We skipped all of it. I should have thought of this years ago. The holiday isn't going away, but I can! This is how I will now make holidays disappear. By disappearing myself.

For flying out of O'Hare on the busiest travel day of the year, the international terminal was a breeze, nearly vacant. We had a fantastic fight to Amsterdam of only 7 hours. I would have been pretty upset at the guy next to me for continually leaning into my space and over the arm rest, but the poor dude was over 6' tall and he was just trying to counterbalance himself because he had to put his legs in the aisle. I wasn't going to add to his misery.

We didn't have a long enough layover in Amsterdam to be able to leave the airport, so we settled into a quaint diner for a hearty breakfast. The Dutch are so friendly! Everywhere in the airport they were delightful. I can't want for our layover on the way back so I can shop there. Tulip bulbs, slippers that look like wooden clogs, cheese, chocolate, and cute souvenirs. We also found a Dutch Kitchen we'll eat at on the way back. I would love to explore Holland and Amsterdam more, but not on this trip.

On the flight to Istanbul we finally slept a bit better, which gave us just enough energy and presence of mind to buy Metro cards, find our way into the city, meet the person to bring us to our apartment, and have dinner. 85 steps to the 5th floor of the building. No elevator. This is okay, because with the amount of eating we'll do this week, we'll need the exercise.

Our street is lined with kebab stands and restaurants. I haven't seen any tourists yet. This is exactly what we wanted, just to jump in with the locals and wing it. Some light language lessons in the plane and a bit of studying beforehand did help, and it was fun to practice on the waiters who would correct us and help us learn more words. We were just on our way out to dinner when we heard the Isha call to prayer. Beautiful.

Our dinner choice wasn't even a choice. We found a restaurant in the Rough Guide and on TripAdvisor that is at the end of our block. We knew it was one of the best. Oh boy, did it not disappoint. But here is where doing your homework comes in handy. As soon as we sat down, they brought over a massive tray full of about 20 small dishes. From there we selected 2. These were mezas, little appetizers. This doesn't mean you have to have everything on the tray. Just pick what you like. Kind of like when a restaurant shows you the dessert tray. I recognized a few things (and also a few to stay away from because although tasty, they weren't cooked, like dips), so we went with dolmeh and a fantastic bulghar blend with spices and spearmint. I basket of flat bread followed.

We then next elected to share a sultan kebab, which was meat, tomato, mushroom, and cheese rolled in bread, then cut and you dip it into yogurt that has a sweet dark nutty sauce on top. They were helpful in showing us the proper way to eat it. We also ordered kibbe, which hands-down in the best kibbe I have had in my life. When they brought it to us, the waiter placed it on our plates, cut it open down the middle, then drizzled a sauce into it. Oh dear mother of god. I could eat this every day. At the end they brought us tea and cookies, and a few goodies: a little booklet of the menu describing all the items, a little bar of olive soap, and a business card for a TripAdvisor comment. They have no worry, we always write travel reviews, which is how we also found this place!

We also learned on the plane the name for "breakfast" which is kahvalti, I believe. On the way out we saw a sign for their breakfast buffet. 20TL per person. That's $10. Our meal tonight cost us 68 TL. $34. $17 per person. Love it.

On the walk back we picked up some bottled water for the apartment (2TL for 4 or $0.50 each!) then wandered around the side streets. The doner kebab stands smelled marvelous and I WILL be eating from one of them these days. Plus hookah cafes, which sound lovely with some hot tea on a cool night. One of these days. Lots of other restaurants, I spotted a felafel cart with a large crowd, and more Arab eateries and stores. Since the place we ate at specializes in Hatay cuisine, including a few others around here, this explains the large Arab population. Hatay is a region in southeastern Turkey, which used to be part of Syria until the 1930s. Although I only learned a few Turkish words, being surrounded by Arabic means I have a backup language I can use to communicate and get food. I know more of that than Turkish. So this is a double adventure!

I'm about to take my Ambien in a few to curb the jet lag. Tomorrow we'll probably hit the ground running at the crack of dawn right after Fajr prayer so we can get into the Blue Mosque and Hagia Soohia before the tourist crowds set in. As for food... We're already planning on heading back to Akendiz Hatay Sofrasi for the Saturday breakfast buffet. Oh the food we will eat... And the pictures to take!