To The City, Always

The name İstanbul (Turkish pronunciation: [isˈtanbuɫ], colloquially [ɯsˈtambuɫ]) is commonly held to derive from the Medieval Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” (pronounced [is tim ˈbolin]), which means “to the city” and is how Constantinople was referred to by the local Greeks. This reflected its status as the only major city in the vicinity.
(Source: Wikipedia)

I sat down and counted recently; how many countries have I visited, and how many cities? I’ve never done this before, and I’ve never viewed arbitrary numbers with any importance. But just for curiosity’s sake, I did it. And I surprised myself. Twenty five different countries, and over a hundred cities later, it turns out, I’ve covered a lot of ground.

So when I say that Istanbul, Turkey is my absolute favorite… well, I like to think that has some weight.

Three years ago, I had an intuition that I needed to visit Istanbul. I was teaching English in South Korea, had a few open weeks in the winter, and I was playing around with ideas. The caveat was that it also needed to be a place my mom was willing to go—this was my pre-move-to-Germany mother. After some convincing, slash sending of low crime statistics, beautiful photos, and bringing up the fact that this would be the only time she’d get to see me all year, somehow I got my mom on board for a week in Istanbul and four days in Cyprus, to visit some of her friends. She’d never internationally traveled outside of a group or with my dad to Paris, so it was kind of a big deal.

Best intuitive feeling, ever.

Fast forward three years. My friend Lauren and I were planning a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan and Antalya, Turkey, and she brought up a desire to see Istanbul. I wish I could say I was gung-ho at the very mention of Istanbul, but that would be a lie. We already had plans to fly mid-trip, a thing I usually don’t do, and the thought of another round-trip plane ride in the middle of our ten days in Turkey sounded like a lot, especially to a place I’d already been. But it was a priority for Lauren, and it was cheap, so I agreed.

That’s how we found ourselves in the greatest city in the world, three days after a bombing targeted to a bus full of police, which killed 12 people, and two weeks before the devastating Ataturk Airport bombing (which, I’ll mention, we didn’t fly in or out of during our trip). It was also the very beginning of Ramadan and when the sun went down, the city was full of life and laughter, despite the increased police presence.

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Within minutes of walking through the historic district on the way to the hostel, my adoration for Istanbul hit me full force. Much of what we did, I had done before, but it didn’t bother me to do it again. And this time around, I had a fancy camera. Our weekend visit coincided with three other friends from the States, by chance, so our group of five, plus various international tag-alongs from the hostel, was a very different experience from the time I spent with my mom a few years prior.

I can’t explain, exactly, what it is about Istanbul that makes my heart sing so loudly, but I’ll at least give it a shot. In no particular order, the gems of Istanbul:

  • The call to prayer, ringing out in unison, all over the city. Different mosques have different singers, which cover different areas with distinctly middle eastern music, several times a day. Maybe I’m just a musically attuned person, or maybe I like the regular reminders that I’m not at home, or maybe it’s something subconscious and unable to be explained. Regardless, when the call to prayer begins to cover the city, I smile.
  • The winding streets and old architecture. The homes are old, some are taken care of, and some aren’t. Regardless, the abundance of porches, red roof tiles, colorful (or plain) tiled exteriors, numerous tiny mosques with comparatively tiny minarets, and the endless details on doors, windows, and everything in between make for an interesting walk, no matter where you go. Many parts of the city also wind in strange directions, making it easy to get lost—a good or bad thing, depending on your mindset.

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  • Cats, cats, and more cats. I dedicated an entire photoessay to cats last time I was here. I could easily do it again, but I’ll save you the cat overload and include just one picture.

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  • A bazaar of bazaars all over the place. The Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the local bazaar, a bazaar on the Asian side of the city, and I could go on. Shopping in Istanbul is a treat.
  • Can you believe I’ve waited this long to mention the food? Me neither. As a lactose-sensitive person, it was surprisingly easy to eat literally everything, because so much of it was made using goat cheese. Honey, fresh bread, olives, hummus, tomatoes and cucumbers, and Turkish Coffee were all regulars at the breakfast table. Spiced meat, rice, vegetable heavy combinations and baklava all joined the spread, later in the afternoon. Istanbul is also a great place for fish, or fried fish sandwiches if you’re on a budget. I could eat Turkish food until I exploded. Then I’d put myself back together again, and do it again.

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Despite the increased violence this year, the hostel was full, but it was very evident that tourism was suffering. Souvenir shops were mostly empty and the owners were extra aggressive (or insistent, in the more polite cases) in trying to drum up business. As much as I wanted to help, there was simply no way I could singlehandedly prop up the entire tourism economy of Istanbul, and so it was with a twinge of sadness that I passed by numerous under-frequented shops on my way around the city each day. This meant I was also able to haggle down to obscene prices for certain things, though, and when shopping at the Grand Bazaar, I took full advantage and walked out with some serious steals.

I can only imagine what tourist season looks like now, after not only an international airport bombing, but the attempted military coup and the iron fist being clamped down by the president. It’s a city that’s been through a lot in its over 2000 years of existence, including two name changes, four empires, and more than the average city’s share of strife, chaos, and change. I’m optimistic that the recent waves of unrest will be just another notch in a timeless city’s belt. I’d like the chance to return for a long while, maybe a chance to live there for a bit, or at least the chance to visit and walk through the historic areas again, then along the water, then across the bridge with the drifting smell of the sea. But if this marks the beginning of a long stretch of violence, I’m at least grateful to have been there twice. That’s more than I can ask for, when the world is proving to be uncertain and unpredictable, but always bittersweet.

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Photoessay: Paris in Spring

Oh, Paris. I didn’t have the most wonderful time. It took me three tries to find a croissant worthy of bragging about. I spent more time lost than found, and not in the good way. And maybe worth mentioning is the borderline dangerous fever I had for a few days while there. It all worked out in the end, though; I got some beautiful photographs and much-needed antibiotics in Germany the following week.

I’ve been playing around with isolating select colors in Photoshop, so these photographs are a little different from the usual.

 

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Searching For My People

Friendship is a fickle beast. One day you’re laughing hysterically, trying to catch your breath and the next thing you know, your friend asks you “how’s work?” and the only thing you can think to say is “good.” Other times you grow up together, attending mutual engagements but keeping your distance, and then a weird circumstance comes out of nowhere, pushing you two together (sometimes with a little alcohol) and it’s like new, vibrant people emerge from your previously static selves. And then sometimes, you meet someone, and it’s like putting on a warm, fuzzy pair of socks. It just fits. (And then your toes are warm, too!)

Over the years, I’ve often found that “my people” are almost always a bunch of dudes. I’ve always been the “cool girl”, the one who rolls with the guys and doesn’t make anyone wait for her to finish straightening her hair before we go out. It helps that my hair is naturally straight of course, but my gang of guys doesn’t usually last. Guys fall in love with me, I fall in love with a guy, we move to different places and it’s not so easy to just hang out (God forbid people put forth effort to meet up!) or any other myriad of circumstances often pull apart my group of friends within a year or so. I keep in touch with the occasional guy friend, but it’s not uncommon that the one-on-one contact throws off the friendship and it doesn’t feel the same. I can count the number of good guy friends I have to this day on one hand, but I can’t say the same for the number of male friend groups I’ve been a part of and fallen away from, eventually. I found the people I was most comfortable with just as quickly as I lost them, time and again.

My original (and forever) crew of dudes: my brothers.
My original (and forever) crew of dudes: my brothers.

In college, I really wanted to break that cycle. So I did what any sane, down to earth “cool girl” would do.

I joined a sorority.

Yep, one of those Greek organizations that stars in all of the USA college movies, the ones that get hammered in three story houses with balconies. I wore the letters. I did the chants. I even did the Halloween frat parties, although I dressed up as a “tree” on at least two occasions by wearing a green shirt, so clearly I wasn’t that into it. And, maybe to your surprise, I even had blonde hair. I was looking for my people.

You probably didn't see that coming.
You probably didn’t see that coming.
Alternative Caption: Pics or it didn’t happen!

And as is inevitable in a group of 60+ girls, I did find a few. We had a warm fuzzy socks kind of connection, we laughed, we lived together and spent a lot of evenings on the front porch with glasses of wine, talking about what we wanted from life one day. They were there for me when my heart broke and when I, more often, broke hearts and felt terribly guilty for it. They were there when I accepted my job in South Korea, I was there when they made plans to move across the country or into a different apartment for their final year of school. And on graduation day, I would have sworn we were inseparable. But the thing about fuzzy slipper socks is that they slip off just as easily as they slip on, and when they come off, your feet feel really really cold.

Two years later, the periphery best friends, the people I wish I could have spent more time with (but didn’t, because I was with my main ladies at the time) are the people that ended up sticking around. I thought I’d found my people in the sorority and I was right, but I just wasn’t right about who those people were. But just because I’d found friendships I could depend on and hold onto, doesn’t mean I actually had someone to hang out with on a Friday night. I was in South Korea. And in South Korea, I was looking for more of my people.

But they never came.

This is what causes me to hesitate when someone asks if I loved living in South Korea. This is why when you ask, “How was it?” I say “It was great!” or “It was an awesome experience,” instead of gushing on about how much I loved living there and can’t wait to go back. Because what I had hoped for, people I clicked with, never came. Old teachers left, new people arrived and yet I felt, to put it simply, friendless. I had friends and people to hang out with, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t feel quite as natural or deep as friendships I’d had before. I met some Korean girls that I got along with, but it was nothing like my friendships in the States and definitely nothing like my gangs of guys. After a while I began to forget what that instantaneous feeling was. I knew my friendships weren’t up to par with a “war council,” but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what that would be like, anyways. It had been too long. When I left Korea, I knew that as wonderful as my memories with friends were, I’d come out empty in my search for my people.

I offered him a place as my bestie, but it just didn't work out.
I offered him a place as my bestie, but it just didn’t work out.

A month at home, and spending time with those who used to be in the periphery but had now come center stage, confirmed that feeling. I then made it a priority to find some damn friends. So I put in the effort to meet other travel bloggers, starting with two lovely ladies in Pittsburgh. We were only able to meet once, but I’m fond of them, and more than anything else, it confirmed that I need to get out there and start meeting more of the people I converse with on Twitter. Nobody knock Internet friends, because they’re some of the best people I know.

A month in Spain. Couchsurfing, traveling and generally just meeting a shit-ton of people has been better for me than I would have ever imagined. It all started with Linda, whom I met on a tourist bus in Barcelona. We shared headphone jacks (her side was broken) and I was intrigued by her story, since you don’t see a ton of over-40 travelers who are interested in doing the same kind of things I am. We both do photography, we both wanted potatoes without the sauce, and she’s the kind of dreamer who’ll ask me to film her advertisement video pitch at a random ATM machine in the middle of a mall. As the trip went on, I met more and more people with whom I got along easily. I got to meet Olivia from Halfway Somewhere while in Madrid and we talked a ton about travel (surprise!), a subject many of my friends aren’t able to broach. Old friendships sprung back to life as strongly as they ever were, new people made me erupt with laughter within minutes of meeting them. Not all of my new friendships are people I’ll make the effort to stay in touch with forever, but some of them are. Somewhere along the way, while in Spain, I’d met more of my people. And now I can remember exactly what it feels like.

Getting along with people right away + food = a beautiful thing.
Getting along with people right away + food = a beautiful thing.

I’ve now spent a week in Dublin, Ireland and made my way West to the Aran Islands, where I’ll be working in a hostel for two weeks. When I first arrived yesterday, I was led up to a room where I met my roommates, two Spanish girls from Barcelona. Immediately we hit it off and the more that my true self comes out (read: WEIRD), the better we get along. Later, I met a guy from South Korea and we lamented over how much we missed Korean food, mostly bulgogi and pat bingsu. A coworker from France has offered up her time to teach me French pronunciation while I’m here. There were even several guests from Germany staying as guests that first night and we got to talk both in English and in German about tons of topics under the sun. We imbibed and danced and laughed, all of us together, and today I was able to share mate with two Argentines and other friends, an activity I adored while in Argentina. I’ve been here for 24 hours and I haven’t just found some of my people, I might have found an entire youth hostel of them.

While no one can say what friendships will last or not, I’m resting easily knowing that the people I’ve met here so far are fantastic and I’ve never fit in better. But when my two weeks inevitably comes to an end on these gorgeous islands (well, gorgeous when it’s not raining, but that’s Ireland for you!) I’ll be walking away with not just incredible friendships and hopefully some badass French pronunciation skills, but maybe someone I can say belongs on my war council. And at least for now, I’ve found my people.

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An Introduction to Spain in Barcelona

As “well traveled” as my relatives like to say I am, let’s be clear that I didn’t know very much about Spain before arriving in Barcelona. I didn’t even realize until about two weeks ago that Barcelona doesn’t speak Spanish as much as it does Catalan, a Spanish-y French-y language of its own. Thankfully most people are bilingual (if not trilingual) and can communicate in Spanish quite easily, but my “remember and practice Spanish in Spain” plan got off to a rocky, this-isn’t-Spanish-is-it start. So I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t know anything about Spain before arriving. During my five days in the city, Barcelona (and my Italian Couchsurfing hosts) taught me quite a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Spain is really, really old.

I can't tell you exactly what this is, but it is realllllllllly old.
I can’t tell you exactly what this is, but I can tell you that for once, this tree is the younger subject of a photograph.

Germany was impressive with its 15th century towers, but Barcelona blew those timelines out of the water. They have sections of an old Roman wall dating back to the 4th century, for example. Just try to even imagine life in the 4th century… because I can’t. That’s so old, it’s abstract. And there’s even remains of a temple dating from the first century BC, which is even more difficult to imagine. All I know about BC is… togas, right?

Lesson 2: What is a “Tapa”?

These are several tapas. All on one plate.
These are several tapas. All on one plate.

You might be like me in the sense that you understand that Spain has something you eat called Tapas and they are famous, but you have no clue what the hell that even means. Well, folks, the truth is a little anticlimactic. Tapas can literally be anything. It just means a small portion of food to be eaten with your beer (or other alcoholic drink of choice), like cheese, olives or ham.

Lesson 3: Tomatoes are for spreading.

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Tomatoes are not to be cut and consumed in slices, tomatoes are not to be squished into a paste and become part of a pizza (at least not all the time). No, tomatoes are to be cut in half and then the insides are to be dragged across pieces of toasted bread until it’s pink and delicious. Olive oil and salt as desired. (If you get the chance, try this. Simple genius.)

Lesson 4: Dancing is for everyone.

WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for "dance". I have so many questions.
WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for “dance”. I have so many questions.

I don’t really do nightlife. I definitely don’t do strobe lights, and I prefer my beers with laughter and for the grocery store price. Still, I took it upon myself to do research into Barcelona’s nightclub scene for the blog. Or maybe my Italian friend just invited me out and I said “Sure, why not!” When in Barcelona. In any case, first, the club we went to lacked strobe lights, which was a huge plus. Second, I was astonished by the variety of people in the place. Not just young high school and college-aged folks, but older twenties. And also some people in their forties, some married people, some single people, some dating people, some guy in a wheelchair, also a giant group of 50+ year old lesbians. Everyone came to the club, bought their overpriced drinks and then got down to the business of dancing, laughing, and generally just having a great time.

Lesson 5: It’s impossible to sleep early (unless you know magic).

Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my couchsurfing hosts.
Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my Couchsurfing hosts.

This was the case in Argentina as well, but people in Spain don’t eat dinner until it’s late; most restaurants are open and ready at 8 and people will eat as late as 11 at night. This means that even if you don’t go out on the town until 3am (see above), it’s still pretty tough to get back home, stop talking to whomever you’re with and catch some shut-eye before the next day rolls in. I love sleeping early and I adore waking up with the sun to enjoy the quiet morning hours, but in Barcelona, it just wasn’t possible.

I’ve only been in Spain for about a week now, so if I say anymore, it’ll become borderline presumptuous and pretentious, two things I’d really prefer not to be. I really enjoyed Barcelona, the balconies all over the city were breathtaking and I found the streets surprisingly easy to navigate, despite the insanity of several large roundabouts with ~8 streets coming out of it, all at different angles. I’m really curious to see whether I’ll like Barcelona more or less so be after seeing several Spanish cities; it’s hard to pick your favorite cereal when you’ve never tasted more than one kind. But regardless of what opinions I form later, I left Barcelona behind with quite a few fond memories, and not only of the tapas.

At the end of the day, Barcelona was the perfect introduction. Spain, it’s very nice to meet you.

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