A Travellerspoint blog

March 2010

the bipolar metropolis

sunny 12 °C

Fact: Humans love to define things. Relationships, jobs, countries, movies, personalities - we categorize everything and it makes us happy. That is why Istanbul is such an anomaly: it is both developed and impoverished, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. These subtleties can be boiled down to one singular contradiction: this metropolis is both European and Asian, and it changes every day. For example, today was a particularly Asian day, the result of which is the upside-down tulip on my head. But I will get there.

Since I arrived here at the end of January the part of my brain that defines things has been short-circuiting trying to figure this city out. I would spend a day wandering the cobblestones of Tunel on the European side and feel certain that the city is European. Small cafes, expensive bars full of beautiful people, high fashion, folks speaking European languages, boutiques of every single expensive designer I can think of (which actually does not say a lot as I don't know many!), Burger King, Starbucks, etc etc etc - everywhere you look the charm and hustle and bustle of Europe is visible. Those are good days, the days when you are convinced that people are truly good and the glass is half full. I love going to the European side for the rush of 'this is SO AWESOME' that hits unexpectedly. Common triggers include the fishermen on the Galata Bridge, Istiklal by night, and stumbling upon the Galata Tower while meandering through the winding streets in Beyoglu.

Then there are Asian days, marked by language-based misunderstandings and otherwise known as 'school days.' I spend an hour (each way) on a crowded city bus heading to and from the easternmost edge of the Anatolian side of Istanbul where my university is located. Every day the bus is packed with people, some of whom have yet to learn the merits of personal hygiene, and grinds through honking exhausting swerving budging nerve-racking traffic. At first I loved it because the chaos and sweet smell of diesel exhaust reminded me of my trip to southeast Asia, but I'm over that now. Now I just fight the feeling that I'm choking to death in a big, stinky sardine can. School days are spent at Yeditepe trying to navigate campus and the cafeteria with nothing but Turkish spoken or written anywhere. Ironically its reputation is that of one of the best English universities in Istanbul. I think not! Anywho, these days are slightly more trying than days on the European side, and the chaos of the bus and disorganization of school often has my glass half-empty by the time I return home.

Living in Moda, though, provides a lovely mixture of Asia and Europe. My neighbourhood is quiet and residential with the sea one short block away, including a running track along the Sea of Marmara with views of beautiful keetans and the Princes Islands. Heaven! The Kadikoy street market is a 5 minute walk away and full of fresh veggies, fish, olives, cheese, flowers, soap, coffee, dried fruit - it's like Granville Island on speed. Then the Rexx movie theatre, Mango outlet, and Bar Street are just a few minutes past. People speak enough English for my purposes and don't try to rip me off as earnestly as they do on the European side, but if that's where my mood takes me the ferries are also less than 10 minutes away. I love my little EurAsian village!

Today though, my village was hilariously Asian. I had to pick up my student buss pass (which loyal readers will recall was first attempted on my birthday aka my worstday) and get my hair cut. Once I successfully got to the bus pass building during working hours all I had to do was drop off a form and 5 Lira then wait for my card to be made, total time: 8 minutes. Somehow in this time I managed to strike up a conversation with the family beside me who spoke no English but thought I was hilarious. Once their laughter subsided into smiley blinks the man on my other side took me under his non-English wing so I would not mess up the complicated process of sitting and waiting. He thoroughly explained that I had to sit, which was impressive as it was all communicated with gestures and finger-pointing. I think I freaked him out though because I got up to offer my seat to an older man - that was not in my instructions! Clearly I was a live wire in need of assistance, so he got up and waited with me then walked me all the way back to Kadikoy. I must appear really incompetent in this country.

On the walk we literally had nothing to talk about as neither of us spoke each others language, which of course made it hilarious. I have no idea what the heck he was talking about, but he chatted and gesticulated away, laughing and sometimes pointing at me then laughing some more. He could have been saying anything. I thought for a while he was telling me about how beautiful his wife was (relief! he's not a creep!) but then he said 'donar kebab.' What rotating meat has to do with his wife, I have no idea, but I went with it. The whole experience was so bizarre and funny that I accepted his invitation to go for cay. We sat there for about 15 minutes. How absurd! We were out for tea and couldn't communicate at all! Finally we figured out a fun game of pointing at arbitrary things and saying they were nice. Flowers - guzel. Tea - guzel. Mosque - guzel. Weather (pointing up) - cok guzel. Alas all random things come to an end and we parted ways soon after. I bid him adieu and escaped into the crowds after he asked for my phone number as I don't think his donar kebab would have approved!

On my wander back home I stopped in a bakery to check out the goods. Quickly recognizing my blank stare, an English-speaking baker was summoned and easily sold me on a traditional Turkish dessert. He described it as similar to a cake, but smaller and harder. It was chocolate and covered with slivered pistachios. I eagerly asked for one, justified it as a cultural experience, and soon found myself eating a chocolate pistachio cookie. Dammit! Totally fell for it.

Last on my to-do list was my hair. I was in dire need of both a cut and colour, but terrified of the dye job. You would be too if you could see the number of dye-disasters walking the streets. From the back girls look like pumpkins a few weeks after Halloween: brassy, dark orange, and frightening. I will pay any amount to avoid looking like an accidental jack-o-lantern so decided to go to an expensive Western kuafor this weekend. Today my task was just a cut, so I chose the salon at the end of my block. Following the theme of the day, no one working in the shop spoke a word of English so I showed them what I wanted with magazines and standard miming of the words 'little' and 'cut.' I think the cut itself is good, but the blowdry is straight out of That 70s Show! Is the curl-out coming back or did they play a joke on me? Kudos if they did, I can't stop laughing! I have an upside down tulip on my head!

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What better timing to meet Vero and her friends tonight. I really hope my recent flashee is there because I will undoubtedly impress them all as a true ambassador to my hood, complete with bizarre Asian hairstyle.

Posted by LeiCran 08:09 Archived in Turkey Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

Hot to Trot. (or not)

sunny 15 °C

Living abroad and traveling is about reinventing yourself. You can try on the best parts of people you meet and blend them with elements of your own personality to create a different persona on a daily basis, if you so wish.

On Saturday night as I went to meet Vero and her LSE friends in Sultanahmet I was using my own proclivity for drinking and fun and channeling the elegance and sophistication of career-woman who lives in Istanbul to create my persona. I had all the required elements of a damn cool chick.

Confidence: check.
Tickets to a concert in Taksim: check.
Favorite caramel leather boots: check.
Faded black denim jeans: check.
Recently purchased floral-print tank top: check.
And most importantly, black leather jacket circa 80's MJ: check.

Hair down, face on, drink and iPhone in hand - I was ready to take this city's dance floors by storm.

En route to the ferries I was feeling like hot shit in leather. That is, until my homicidal boots with zero tread threw me down a small flight of marble stairs. Down I went, almost recovering on each step in a slow motion tumble that must have been uncomfortable to watch. The length of the ordeal was such that I had time to think to myself: "the taller they are, the more awkwardly they fall." Tru Dat, inner voice. I landed on my knees, my drink fizzed everywhere, but my precious iPhone was unscathed, praise Allah. A Turkish lady saw and said something which I assumed was 'are you ok' so in my best 'that was not embarrassing at all' tone of voice I explained that I was fine. Realistically she was calling me a fool for texting/drinking/strutting when I should have been focusing on walking. The resulting hole in my jeans was lass painful than the humility of realizing I will never ever be able to fake sophistication at any time ever, hard as I try.

The rest of the way to meet Vero I held fast to the fact that no one had seen me fall down so I could still try to fake sophisticated. For all they knew I had bought those jeans with a hole in the knee. The spell of the leather jacket was not yet broken - I could still trick people into thinking I was cool!

Once I arrived at the hostel I tucked into the loo for a quick pee before making my grand entrance, only to have a guy open the toilet door at probably the most revealing moment possible. A very cute guy. A very cute guy whose eyes popped out of his head before he slammed the door and laughed hysterically for a few moments and all went silent on the other side.

Oh yeah, you're supposed to lock these contraptions called doors. What the hell is WRONG with me?

No problem, I could still be sophisticated. I added a strong sense of denial to my checklist and I was all set. That cute guy was most likely leaving the hostel soon anyway and would never cross my path. Well no, of course that's not what happened. It is me after all, and the universe seemed out to prove that acting sophisticated was a hilarious exercise in futility. Mere seconds after an exciting reunion with Vero and her friends she introduced me to my accidental flashee, who happens to be even cuter when you have more than 1 second to see his face, French, and doing a thesis at LSE on the economic development of gastronomy in Lyon. A food-related thesis! Can you spell Call Me? Too bad he was a puppet in the universe's elaborate plot that night or maybe I would have had a crush instead of wanting to assume the fetal position on Istiklal every time he spoke to me.

In the dolmus on the way back home all I could think of was taking off my suicide boots, transforming back into my unsophisticated self, and getting into bed with Taco, my childhood teddy bear/travel companion. You see, the beauty of traveling and reinventing is this: in the same way that coming home is often the best part of going on a trip, there is nothing more satisfying than stepping back into your own, well-tread shoes at the end of a long night.

Posted by LeiCran 02:45 Archived in Turkey Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (1)

Dating

I'll show YOU conservative.

sunny 10 °C

Turkey's population is 99.8% Muslim. This fact has many implications for daily life, the worst of which is the lack of bacon or pork products of any kind (although sometimes the meat tastes similar, only to be described simply as 'meat.' Suspicious). Culinary misfortune aside, another part of life that has been affected since moving here is dating.

Keep in mind this writer moved to Turkey from Ottawa, otherwise known as Nomenawa, so it is not as if her dating status has plummeted from Hero to Zero by any means. This is not to say she has had no opportunities - to be clear, many Turkish men have expressed interest through comments on the street (the best was, 'I wish I was your horse!'), creepy stalker messages on facebook, and once using a discarded Visa receipt to find my name. Wonder why I didn't call? Creeep!

You would think that after living in a city with little to no attention from the male species and moving to a city where men practically worship me I would become a dating machine, like an Energizer bunny that runs on complements and dinners instead of batteries. I wish! Instead, quite counterintuitively, I have retreated once again from the dating world (by choice this time!) and at best have become a conservative dater.

You are probably laughing and picturing this ironically, a gal who ONLY kisses on the first date. Think again dear reader! For it is so much worse than that. Last weekend I went to see a movie with a nice Turkish guy I had been out with a few times, and some other friends. We snuck bottles of wine into the theatre and drank our way into our own colourful Wonderland. The combination of Johnny Depp in makeup and drinking in public was exhilarating, and in my excitement I allowed the Turkish fellow to advance to the hand-holding stage. Big mistake, it was way too soon for such a bold move.

The thing is, over here there are some common misconceptions about both foreign women and blond women. I am both, cause for celebration in Canada but for a headscarf in Turkey.

To Turkish men blond hair is the mark of an Eastern European woman freshly liberated from oppression and poverty of the Soviet Union and desperate for a better life. Large numbers of these women came to Turkey after the end of the Cold War and soon found that their slim physique and blond hair made them exceptionally desired by Turkish men. It was common for these beautiful, blond, Russian women to enter the sex trade, and thus the stereotype was born.

Clearly though I am not Russian nor a natural blond so that outdated belief is not preventing me from dating. The real reason I become more like a nun as each day passes is because some Turkish men have picked up on a key characteristic of some western women and developed disturbing dating habits as a result.

You see, compared to conservative Muslim women, liberal western gals are seen as morally loose. We are more inclined to sleep with a man we have no intention of marrying, sometimes even after a very brief courtship (if you can call a tall raki a courtship). This belief is so prevalent that social norms have developed that are actually quite horrifying. A Turkish man will date a western woman and sleep with her for practice so that once he marries a good conservative Muslim woman, who has of course been saving herself for marriage, he will be able to better please her in the bedroom. It's horrible - and it's true! I have heard many stories of this happening and was even warned by my Turkish roommate that men think this way about foreign women: 'easy sex.' I heard one story of a German girl who dated a Turkish guy for two years only to hear through a friend that he had recently been married to an unfortunate, oblivious Turkish girl. His parents had met both women and were in full support of his two relationships: one for marriage, and one to practice for marriage.

I suppose the discrepancy between these two groups of women is much the same as it is in Canada: there are the girls who guys try to take home from the bar, then there are the girls who guys try to take home to their parents. In Turkey it is disturbing that the dividing line is based on nationality rather than neckline, and appalling that parts of society condone infidelity and dishonesty as practice for a conservative partnership.

So back to holding hands. The thing is, if anyone tells me to do anything my first instinct is to do the opposite, regardless of how silly it is. It is completely immature but it seems I am hardwired to try to be the opposite of how people expect. This trend began early. Before my age was in the double digits I had shown everyone that I would not conform by inventing bizarre hairstyles, wearing pajamas to school, and performing the role of Prince Charming when my grade 2 class performed Sleeping Beauty. (Side note: technically my first kiss was with Laura Nairn when we were 8, for the sole reason that no one thought a girl should try out for the part of the prince. We weren't told to actually kiss but someone told me it wasn't necessary so of course I deemed it so).

Anyway. You can imagine my reaction to the notion that all western girls are easy but make good practice for the relationships that count. It is almost enough to make me demand a proposal of marriage before I allow any further hand-holding. At the very least all I can think of are ways to show him how un-easy I can be. Case in point, holding hands after hanging out a few times was WAY too soon.

I predict my dating experiences in Turkey will remain similar to those in a nunnery, but I am ok with that. After all, how can a relationship blossom when you constantly wonder whether he sees you as his ball and chain or batting cage? I see myself as more of an antique convertible anyway: flashy, spontaneous, full of expensive fuel, and speeding away from this bizarre dating scene, of course going the wrong way down a one-way street.

Posted by LeiCran 15:33 Archived in Turkey Tagged living_abroad Comments (4)

Liberation in a Burqa

You heard me.

overcast 3 °C

Misconceptions about Islam are rampant in this post-9/11 world. Many people subscribe to clich├ęs without knowing the basic tenets of the world's newest major religion, or its origins. For example, did you know that the word Islam means 'peace through submission to God?' Didn't think so. Allow me to tell you more.

Islam began in 622 AD when the archangel Gabriel revealed God's message to the prophet Muhammad. His message was for Arabic Bedouin tribes to abandon tribal deities and worship one God. Muhammad used his charisma to gain the good favour of tribal leaders and eventually went to the Kaaba in Mecca and destroyed the tribes' idols, demanding that they be united in a monotheistic society. The story continues on from there and Islam gains in popularity until it reaches 1.5 billion people as it stands today, but at the root of it all is the Prophet and his simple message.

Up until his death Muhammad readily reminded his followers not to worship him. He did this for the same reason he destroyed the idols and did away with the Christian notion of a clergy: his message was that God alone is worthy of worship. Furthermore, in the Qar'an Allah is given 99 names to avoid followers worshiping the name of God itself. They really drive this point home.

Respecting this, Muslim artists who depict Muhammad never draw his face because doing so is dangerously close to idol worship. Thus, Muhammad can be identified in Muslim art as the man with either no face at all, or a white veil covering his features. This is why the Danish Muhammad cartoon was so particularly offensive to Muslims: it assumed the features of the Prophet. According to the Qar'an, this is one of Islam's biggest no-no's. I know what you are thinking and I completely agree. It is fascinating.

One thing not mentioned in the Qur'an, however, is the burqa. A symbol of oppression to some, a right of expression and freedom of religion to others, the burqa has become a contemporary issue in Islam despite its omission in the Holy book. According to my top secret informant, Wikipedia, the origins of the burqa predate Islam. Back in the day they were used by both sexes on the Arabic peninsula as a way to shield ones face in the desert. Women of child-bearing age found another important use: to blend in with older women and lessen their chances of being kidnapped during tribal battles. In a Bedouin context a burqa is genius and makes perfect sense, but in today's world women of child-bearing age hanging out in the desert can rely on other ways to stay safe, such as the rule of law or bear spray. So why does modern Islam require modest women to play peek-a-boo out of what is essentially a big black tent whenever they leave the house?

I think I know the answer. Baklava.

Have you BEEN to Turkey? The food is ridiculous. How many of these delights were around when Islamic leaders were deciding on social norms remains unknown, but today there is a very strong case to be made for wearing loose clothing in countries with food as rich as it is here.

Women in burqas can eat whatever they want! What greater freedom is there in this world? They need not know the pains of jean shopping or the horrors of browsing for bikinis after months of hibernation in the Canadian winter. Unknown are the mathematics of calorie counting or the notion of 'ambition pants.' What peace may be found found when carbs are not the enemy, one can only imagine.

Some women's rights groups and the French government in particular have condemned the burqa as a form of oppression. While outlawing it is fraught with problems one can definitely see their point. I wonder, however, if forcing conservative Muslim women to fit into western society's conception of 'free,' might in fact make them slaves to the ideals, and ideal waistlines, of the west. This is not to say that all Muslim women who don a burqa are overweight or have poor eating habits- but they could!

How ironic that Sarkozy and others cry oppression when these women may be the most free (in a strictly culinary sense) out of any of us. Certainly if I could rewrite the social code for Canadian society I would deem love handles the new D-cup and baggy lululemons the new skinny jean. There may be something to this whole burqa thing after all. Indeed, one of Islam's most hotly contested symbols which began in the desert may be maintained a millennium and a half later by dessert.

Posted by LeiCran 05:46 Archived in Turkey Tagged educational Comments (2)

The Worst Traveler Ever

with the best friends in the world.

sunny 2 °C

I am the worst traveler ever.

I do not give a hoot about important traveling things like schedules, and care a lot about unimportant fun things like watching hockey games and eating. Let me give you an example of typical Leilla logic that creeps out when I am left to my own devices. Today as I was on the bus heading toward the airport in London I realized I had not eaten a real British meal in my four days there, so opted for a massive British breakfast instead of the massive check-in line. The scrambled eggs were delicious and I had a real cappuccino (which is rare in Turkey, where I was headed), so I took my time, wrote some emails, people watched, etc, and when I finally meandered to the ticket desk they advised me to RUN because I was late and had only made check in by two minutes.

At this point you are probably feeling some sympathy stress, aren't you reader? Certainly a normal person would feel a little adrenaline and run as instructed, but this young writer thought, "well that worked out perfectly" and kept on meandering. What is wrong with me? I was sitting just around the corner eating eggs and almost missed my flight - and I was not even hung over! Somewhere between buying a magazine and checking out Duty Free (read, not rushing at all) I had a major realization: when it comes to traveling, I suck. I get so excited to get there, where ever there may be, that I do not think about much else. Forgetting my laptop in Canada is a painful case in point. Thankfully, though, I usually travel with friends who are exceptionally good at remembering those important things, leaving me free to entertain whims and spend a lot of time eating. That would explain why I always have so much fun but often have no idea where I am.

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So you see, being a bad traveler is one of those traits that sounds negative but is actually a really good thing, like someone who does not know how to diet because they can eat whatever they want. The silver lining on this cloud is so thick that it is essentially a silver cloud. I have loved life all over this wonderful world of ours with great travelers so I have never had to develop traveling skills of my own.

Take my latest adventure in Southeastern Turkey. My dear friend Emilie was SO excited to see Diyarbakir, Mardin, Harran, Urfa, Nemrut Dagi and Malatya that she had been organizing the trip in her sleep for the weeks leading up to it. She created a watertight time line that saw us visit biblical ruins from 9000 BC, explore the Kurdish capital of Turkey, climb a mountain to visit a UNESCO site in the snow - a site that is normally swarming with tourists but we had all to ourselves - and see a part of the country that many people do not know or understand, all in six days. Every morning she was literally bursting with excitement to get out and explore.

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It was a great pleasure to float on her coattails through such an interesting area, having loads of fun the entire way. It was the same as I toured South East Asia in 2005 and again this January in New Zealand. My friends tend to be amazingly organized yet somehow extremely fun people, it is the strangest thing.

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That is not to say, however, that I had no input in that Turkey trip. I organized the worst accommodation of the week in a damp, freezing cold, overpriced hostel on top of a mountain, one with shitty internet and a shitty laptop that we used to watch the men's gold medal game. Em and Paul, you are welcome.

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Not only did I suck at organizing logistics, I sucked at organizing myself. As mentioned, we climbed a mountain. It was a 24-km hike in blistering wind and snow, without a visible trail or any other tourists.

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For the hike my well-prepared traveling companions brought waterproof hiking shoes; I brought fake Nike sneakers with the warmth and waterproofing of slippers.

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They brought warm winter jackets; I brought a felt peacoat that weighed close to 20 pounds.

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While wandering through towns they practiced their Turkish; I practiced my broken English a la mime.

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They stuck to a responsible budget; I over-ate and over-tipped at every meal.

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They brought umbrellas; I trusted it would not rain.

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They were interested in the ruins; I wanted to goof off with locals.

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They could remember the names of the towns we were in - you get the point.

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The crux of the issue is this: having fun is the only thing I regard with seriousness, and while I recognize I should care a little more about what other people consider important, I just don't. To be perfectly honest, the ruins bored me - there I said it! - and I was happy hiking with cold, wet feet in my city coat. It makes for a better story anyway.

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Perhaps you are being gracious and blaming a lingering cultural fatigue for my lack of initiative. Unfortunately, dear optimistic reader, this is not the case because the trend continued this weekend in London. I was there for a job interview which quickly became an excuse to go to the Big Smoke and catch up with some of my favorite people. It is perhaps no surprise that I showed up inadequately prepared, requiring a quick game of dress-up the night before my interview so I did not go in bare legs and my going-out boots. I took zero scenic pictures aside from what ended up in the background by accident and did none of the errands I had planned.

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Instead, I went eating and drinking, led all over the town once again by hilarious and well-organized friends. It was the best weekend I can remember. Being a bad traveler has its merits.

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So you see, the very fact of my sucky traveling existence is tribute to how wonderful my friends are. As such I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of the best travelers out there: Boulles, Hoof, Ponch, Germ, and Shinderellie. Thank you so much for making me the terrible traveler I am today.

Posted by LeiCran 15:28 Archived in England Tagged preparation Comments (2)

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