Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Public Transportation in Turkey

Yang enjoys a pit stop during our all-night bus ride

Some of our best adventures involved riding the public transportation in Turkey.  To travel from Istanbul to Antalya, we opted for a cross-country bus.  The stop was a hellish tram ride to the outskirts of Istanbul.  No one spoke English, but by pointing and asking, "Antalya?  Antalya?"  We managed to make our destination reasonably clear.  At 7:00pm we boarded a large van and were driven to another station on the Asian side of Istanbul where we upgraded to a very big bus.  This coach was deluxe-- comfy seats, bathroom underneath, television in the seatbacks (Turkish only-- so many shows about weddings!) and a cute little steward wearing a bow tie and serving tea and snacks.

Buses in Turkey have single-sex seating, so Yang and Ryan sat together and I ended up with a Turkish grandma.  She didn't speak English I don't speak Turkish, but she still spent a long time chatting with me.  The quality of sleep in moving vehicles is never great, but I was surprised not to be too exhausted when we reached Antalya.

On our second day in Antalya we decided to trek out to the ancient ruins of Olympos.  One of the hotel staff told us to go back to the main bus terminal and catch a bus there.  Again, no one spoke English, but by asking "Olympos?   Olympos?"  We were pointed to a very old van.  The van slowly filled and left the station.  We drove around for 30 or so minutes, dropping off and picking up in the middle of highways and busy roads, or sometimes in the middle of nowhere.  We drove on and on, and Ryan finally raised his voice above the Turkish music to ask "Olympos?"  The driver nodded and drove on.  We stopped again, Ryan asked "Olympos?"  The driver shook his head.  The next stop, a small convenience store in a very inconvenient location of nowhere, the driver said "Olympos!"  and let us out.  We walked into the store.  It was part 7/11 and part living room.  A large group of headscarved women sat around a long table with ancient bubbling pots.  Ryan asked the clerk, "Olympos?"  The clerk turned and spoke to an old man, then replied, "20 minutes."  We went outside to eat a small picnic.  Chickens clucked around our feet.  We looked down at the forested valley below the convenience store.  Eventually the old man emerged from the store and spoke to us in Turkish.  "Olympos?"  We asked.  He opened his van door. 

We bumped our way down some dirt roads, over dry river beds, past what appeared to be a hippie commune.  After 20 minutes or so the driver stopped, said something to us in Turkish and got out.  He came back with a young man.  "You need accommodation?"  He asked.  We told him no, and the old man shook his head and drove onward until we reached a very official looking park gate.  Three young men sat at the gate and asked us what time we wanted to be picked up.  Then they spoke to our driver and told him to come back at 5:00.  There was much gesturing of "five" with our fingers until he seemed satisfied and drove off.

One of the surprising things in Turkey is that everything somehow works, despite a complete lack of schedules.  The buses seem to operate completely by chance, and yet we never once got lost.  Our entire bus ride from Istanbul to Antalya cost about 20 Euros per person (or, about E 1.67/hour).  Our entire transport from Antalya station to Olympos' gates cost 6 euros.  I guess this is the triumph of capitalism?  Wherever there's a tourist who needs to go somewhere, an enterprising Turkish person will appear with a 40 year old van to make it happen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Turkish Cafe Culture

our favorite cafe in Istanbul
When I thought of cafes, I used to think primarily of Paris and Rome-- quaint sidewalk affairs with croissant and cappuccino and let's say a man dressed like a mime smoking a cigarette.  But Turkey has a cafe culture all its own.  Perhaps because alcohol isn't such an important drink in Turkey (as my elusive hunt for drinkable wine would suggest) Turkish coffee and tea has pride of place.  Tea is seemingly drunk at all times and was much better than any German/French/Italian cafe could muster.  Ryan and Yang seemed to mostly enjoy the coffee, though they do not recommend drinking the muddy sludge at the bottom.

The Turkish cafe is about more than drinking coffee, though.  You can smoke a nargile (hookah), though we generally saw only tourists like ourselves doing this; but the real deal is backgammon.  This is a seemingly simple game with endless combinations of strategy and luck.  It also can draw quite an audience, as we discovered.  Bored waiters seemed to relish the opportunity to walk past Ryan and Yang's game to mutter things like "Close the door!"  "No, no, here!  Pieces here!"

I was a late comer to backgammon and chose not to involve myself in the blood battle between Ryan and Yang.  I sat writing postcards, my pens and stamps spread across the table.  A waiter came and complimented my pens.  One of them asked if we could "change" pens.  He handed me his pen, I feigned skepticism.  "Does it work?" I asked.

"Of course it works!"  The waiter replied, "look at it-- very nice pen, very good color!"  I weighed it in my hand, wrote with it, and told him that it was okay for a trade.  He happily took my pen and went about his business.  I thought this was funny but found it even funnier 15 minutes later when another waiter came over to trade for the pen I'd just received from the first waiter.  We repeated the same charade, and the waiter seemed very happy.  This happened a few more times, and looking at my pens now, I have one that I originally took with me, and two from Turkish waiters.  I sat out of backgammon, but I seemed to have been drawn into a cafe game of my own.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Best Way to Stop a Tourist in Her Tracks

For years I've wanted to travel to Istanbul.  The name conjures up images of veiled belly dancers, hookah pipes, sultans in turbans, and open air bazaars.  Now that I'm back I can say it is and it isn't exactly what you'd expect.

One of Ryan's best friends, Yang Yang, joined us for this adventure.  He is a fun travel partner, always up for eating weird foods and climbing ruins.  He's also very outgoing, which is an asset in Turkey.  I forget, having lived in Germany for almost 3 years, that in many parts of the world, it's okay to talk to strangers.  One of the first things we noticed about Turkey was how friendly the Turkish people are.  I expected as much in the touristy areas where Americans are often viewed as dollar signs, but throughout Turkey we constantly met people who just wanted to chat with us.

In Istanbul we stayed in a quaint little place called "Hotel Peninsula."  It is run by the super helpful Rohat, who we spent a lot of time chatting with and taking advice from.  The hotel was in an enclave of backpacker hotels and cheap restaurants, as well as souvenir shops galore.  The employees of these shops and restaurants stand on the road and try to entice tourists to come in.  We heard many lines, and the line "Hello, I am here!"  became a running gag amongst us.  But there were many other creative and interesting lines:

"Hello lady!  Who is the boss?  I want to give you informations!"
"Hello!  How can I help you spend your money?"
"Hello!  Spend some money for your honey!"
"Hello!  It my job to say 'hello!'"
"Hello!  Do you have money?"
"Hello!  Come buy here!  You not buy?  That's ok, I still love you!"

And on the way to the beach one morning, when I was wearing a bathing suit cover up rather than long pants, I heard the line "Hello!  Is your dad a terrorist?  You are da bomb!"  We laughed and wondered if these lines actually worked on tourists, and we realized that at some level they do, because on our last night in Turkey, after much persuasion from a short man called Ounos, we ate at his little restaurant. It was low season in Antalya, and Ounos treated us right with large dishes of mixed curries.  Then he sat down to play backgammon with us.  He moved his pieces with concentration, and then got up from the table to chat up tourists, usually striking out.  I lost the backgammon, but it was an entertaining evening nonetheless, watching charming Turk trying to entice tourists.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Breaking news...French Car Company Kills Knut!

We received the above postcard from our Peugeot dealer a few weeks ago.  As you can clearly see from the poorly photo-shopped flower, it is spring time, which means discounts on oil changes.  It also means AGONY FOR POLAR BEARS.

For those of you who haven't heard, Berlin Zoo's beloved Knut (that's kuh-noot for you non-German speakers) passed away last week.  He was a troubled young polar bear, rejected by his mother and raised by a zookeeper named Thomas.  Last year Thomas died and Knut went through a rough period, rejecting sexy female polar bears, and-- this is my favorite Knut story-- after a misguided person jumped into his habitat, he donned the human's sweater over his head and wore it, we can only assume, to taunt the jumper.

Various news outlets are now reporting that Knut died from a brain injury, but isn't it interesting how I received this flyer from Main/Taunus Peugeot dealership two weeks before his untimely death?  Is my Peugeot dealer psychic?  Or, was Peugeot able to predict Knut's demise because they had a hand in it?!? 

Naked Time...German Style!

One thing I've never gotten used to whilst living in Germany is Germans' ease with nudity. There are naked parks, naked beaches, naked saunas, and naked-only areas in fitness clubs. My friend and I were once kicked out of a jacuzzi in a posh fitness club by a bunch of old naked men because we were wearing bathing suits.

But in honor of Valentine's Day, and me not doing half bad on my GREs, Ryan and I made the trip to Baden-Baden (literal translation: bath-bath) to partake in its legendary spa.

Baden-Baden is a famous old resort town in the Black Forest. Many came and still come to be healed in it's natural hot springs. Clutching my copy of Rick Steves' Germany, Ryan and I entered into our designated sides of the spa (it was a non-mixed day). Rick says to enter a changing room, strip, place all belongings in a locker, take a towel, and head into the spa. From there one goes through 14 steps, from steam room, to hot pools, soap massage, cooler pools, cold dunk, and finally being wrapped in a cocoon of sheets and taking a nice nap.

I got undressed and stowed my things in a locker. There wasn't a towel in the locker. I peeked around the edge of the lockers...I saw a woman in a bathrobe talking to a woman dressed in white. "Oh no!" I thought, "I'm supposed to have a bathrobe!" I hunted through the locker, and then in the dressing room-- nothing. I stood there in a naked panic, trying to decide what the least embarrassing option was. I opted for peeking around the edge of the locker and calling to the attendant that I needed a towel. But as I looked around the edge of the lockers, I saw a large, dimpled bottom. Never in my life was I so relieved. She was leaning casually against the wall. I decided to follow her lead, and stood behind her in a naked lady queue. The attendant came for us and exclaimed, "Oh, you don't have towels!"

The large-bottomed lady said, "Clearly not."

After that, I realized that there is no embarrassment behind the doors of the German spa. The naked ladies did all sorts of swimming, walking, lying around in steam rooms, and I was amazed by how quickly I got used to seeing naked people.

Germans always laugh at how prudish Americans are about nudity and sex. And I think they have a point. Going to a spa in Germany you shed a lot of hang-ups when you strip down. Maybe Americans would be a little more relaxed if they spent more time hanging out naked in hot springs. At any rate, whether you want to relax, ogle, or be healed by the magic minerals, Baden-Baden gets a big thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No Good, Rotten, Very Bad Week

Ryan and I have been thinking for the last few months that we want to move back to the U.S. We miss our families, our culture, and the opportunity to feel like we're a part of the community. I kept thinking as I learned German that once I was fluent, I would finally know what everyone was talking about. But I've come to the conclusion that while I know things about German culture, I will never understand it as an insider.

So we've been looking into options for moving back. Specifically I've been looking into Masters of Education programs at various universities. I have a handful of friends who have gotten an M.Ed. after studying another subject, and are now teaching in American public schools. After much hemming and hawing, Ryan thinks it would be easiest for him to transfer to Vancouver, Canada. So I've been chasing down email addresses and making contact at various universities. Finally this week I've gotten some answers, and they are of the French variety: "Non! Impossible!" Apparently because I don't have an undergrad in teaching, there is no possibility for me to get a masters. One school does have a one year teacher certification program, but not in the subjects I was hoping to teach. Also I might not qualify because I haven't taken any courses on Canadian history. I should have known that Canada would try to sabotage me. We've always been enemies.

On top of all that, I've been studying my @*$ off for the GREs, which I'm taking on the 18th. Monday I took a practice test: I scored 700 on my verbal section, but my math score was actually lower than the first diagnostic test I took. My score was so bad, I can't even bring myself to say it; but let's just say I think I now qualify for the "special" math class.

When I first moved to England with Ryan I had no idea what I would do for a job. At the time I narrowed it down to bar wench, historical reenactor, and American-to-English translator. Perhaps I should revive these options? I could now add to the list desperate housewife, real housewife of Vancouver, and aspiring novelist. (I think the latter just means sitting in Starbucks with a laptop and using an inflated vocabulary- right?)

So let's take a vote, what should I do with my life?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Weihnachtsmarkt Review

I know I haven't updated the blog since September...the thing is that this blog started as an Expat Chronicle, but I've lived abroad for such a long time it's starting to feel like old hat.  Ryan and I are just used to the oddities of living abroad; the endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy, as well as the more charming aspects like the holidays.

I'm enjoying my third Christmas season in Germany, and as a veteran of the traditions (which you can read about here) I feel inclined to offer an American perspective on Christmas Markets.  Our giant Frankfurt Christmas Market opened last week and Ryan and I took the opportunity to visit the Frankfurt Market as well as a smaller one in Bad Homburg, about 20 minutes north of Frankfurt.  In the past I've also visited several Christmas markets in Munich, Berlin, and the famous Nuremberg market, so I'm basically an expert.

Your first experience in a Christmas market is definitely magical.  Here are row after row of tiny cabins purveying all manner of German handicraft, good cheap food, and most importantly hot mulled wine.  The lights, choir concerts, and nativity scenes warm the cold night.  That is the epitome of the Christmas market experience, and if you're lucky enough, you could probably experience it several times.  But there is a downside of Christmas markets: freezing temperatures, insane crowds, horribly schlocky booths, and worst of all-- wet feet.

This year we prepared ourselves.  We donned long underwear, several shirts, and generally as many layers as possible, as well as water-proof hiking boots.  But my main weakness is always the crowds.  I don't know if this is because I come from the land of open spaces, where our nearest neighbors were several acres away, or if it indicates a deeper psychological problem, but I hate crowds.  I hate slow people walking in front of me, I hate people bumping into me; basically crowds drive me into an illogical rage..or if not rage, then definitely a grump.  So Saturday afternoon was pretty much the worst time we could've picked for visiting the Frankfurt market.  We managed to cross a few gifts off our list, but it was a bit of a headache.  Even my Nutella-covered waffle was cold!

Now Ryan is a genuine Christmas market fiend.  When he suggested heading out to another market after our Frankfurt experience, I thought he was crazy.  But we drove up to Bad Homburg early Sunday afternoon and had quite a different experience.  The market is much smaller, and located in a castle.  There are fewer booths, but everything was very high quality, and we found things we hadn't seen in Frankfurt or at any other Christmas market.  We also enjoyed a walk around Bad Homburg, including the castle grounds and the gigantic neo-Byzantine/neo-Romanesque church.  I have to say, I think this is my favorite Christmas market of all.

And I'm glad to know that after all this time, Germany can still surprise.  I don't know how much longer we'll stay here, but as long as we do I'll try to keep looking for new discoveries.