Two Taxis, a Security Check, and Some Hearburn

I’m just about over the jet-lag. The few days before we left Istanbul were filled with more visits, more goodbyes, little sleep, and much packing.

Still, as tired and somber as we all were, we said goodbye to our doorman and his wife, standing together on the sidewalk in front of our building on Ergenekon for the last time. The owner of the next-door taxi stand even teased Meredith (who is a Galatasaray fan) by saying “Fenerbahce!”

We arrived at Ataturk Airport in time with our six suitcases and all our carry-ons (big and small). It took two taxis to bring us and our luggage to the airport. We accumulated a lot of stuff in the nearly 10 months we lived in Istanbul. Not to mention the souvenirs we were carrying for family and friends.

Our flight left over a half-hour later than scheduled. We arrived in Frankfurt, Germany with barely an hour to catch our connecting flight to Chicago. We had to pass through security again (having gone through twice in Istanbul) then walk through the maze-like halls to the gate. The four of us scanned our tickets and passports. My passport beeped and I was told “they” had been looking for me.

I was then greeted by a man from the U.S. Department of Homeland of Security who proceeded to ask me why I had been in Turkey and where I had traveled. It was very weird. My wife was more upset about it than I was. As we boarded the plane, Stephanie suggested I needed to do a FOIA to find out what the government had on me.

The flight to Chicago was long, especially since Meredith needed something every five to 15 minutes it seemed. “I want to watch something else!” she would shout, headphones on her ears. And I would be roused from my not-so-restful sleep to help her in choosing something else to watch on the LCD screen in front of her. She didn’t sleep until maybe the last two hours of the flight, while Henry didn’t sleep until the last hour.

While going through Passport Control at O’Hare, I was again flagged and taken for questioning by a security guard. The guard asked me where I was originally from and I explained that I was from the Chicago area, that I grew up in Northlake “the town south of this airport.” I was not put in a separate room, but in an open area far from the luggage carousel. There I waited several minutes before another man questioned me along the same lines as the man in Frankfurt.

The cynic in me thinks that could have simply done an internet search and up would have come my Twitter feed, Linkedin profile and this blog. The blog would have told them that A) I was in Istanbul with my wife who was there on a Fulbright Fellowship and B) no, I did not travel anywhere outside of Turkey. Or maybe they had done that and simply wanted to confirm that I am who I say I am. Who knows? No one was hostile toward me so I remained friendly and chatty when answering the questions they asked.

We spent the next few days in Chicago visiting with family and seeing a few friends. I gorged myself on various forms of pork, giving me heartburn for three or four nights.

On Tuesday, after a long round of luggage-Tetris, we got in our car and my wife drove us back to Michigan. My wife had to drive because while we were away my Michigan driver’s license expired. We did not fit all of our luggage into our Honda Civic. We’ve left behind some luggage at my sister’s and several pieces of clothing (sweaters and winter coats) at my parents’. We’ll return in a month to get it all.

In the few days we’ve been home we’ve been visited by many friends, which has been fantastic. The kids are excited and happy to be sleeping in their own rooms in their own house.

We’re slowly unpacked our suitcases. We’ve pulled some things out of the boxes in the basement. We have too much stuff and are now looking for any excuse to donate or throw much of it away.

We also acquired a three-year-old gray tabby cat from a friend who was fostering him. We’ve named him Suleiman.

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With the cat, it looks like we’ll still be taking trips, but they won’t be lasting for several months.

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Tulips in Göztepe Park

I’d say Spring has arrived. We took a trip yesterday to Göztepe Park in the Kadıköy neighborhood of Istanbul. We were hoping to meet up with some friends. That didn’t work out. No big deal. We spent an enjoyable afternoon in a beautiful park.

Because Spring in Istanbul means tulips. Lots of them. The parks all over the city are filled with them. Tulips came with the Turks from Central Asia. According to Medieval Musings,

For most, the tulip conjures up visions of the Dutch landscape–canals, windmills, and fields of blooming flowers. These popular and diverse flowers, however, had their beginnings in Central Asia, and were brought within the reach of Europe by the Ottomans. Although widely cultivated in imperial gardens, the tulip was immortalised in Ottoman culture in a different form, as a motif widely employed by the imperial workshops during the reign of Suleyman ‘the Magnificent’.

So it’s not a surprise that tulips are still a very important part of Turkish gardens and life.

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As you can see, the tulips (and pansies and hyacinths) are clustered in well-shaped pools of color. Göztepe is one of the best (if not the best) parks in the city. There is a separate section that is rose garden (which is currently not in-bloom). Rare is the weekend day, when the flowers are in bloom, that there is not a wedding couple posing for photos.

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In addition to these beautiful flower beds, there are all kinds of playground equipment to play on. And this giant caterpillar.

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Our kids love this park. But it is a jaunt to get to from our apartment in Şişli. But the ferry ride across the Bosphorus is a nice excuse to take in the Istanbul skyline and drink tea.

When the kids became hungry we ate a late lunch at a cafe across the street from the park. We had intended to walk down Bağdat Street but Meredith tripped and banged her knee pretty hard. So took a taxi back to the ferry port and headed home, where we iced Meredith’s knee and the kids passed the rest of the afternoon watching Phineas and Ferb videos on my laptop.

Thundersnow in Istanbul Without Boots

The first snow of the season fell the other day, wreaking havoc across the city. Here’s how it looked yesterday morning from our terrace.

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The snow had started falling the night before along with the rumbling of thunder. A very rare occurrence. The snow was so heavy it caused the Galatasaray-Juventus Champions League match to be suspended after just 32 minutes.

In the morning I waited with the kids for their bus to take them to school. The bus never came. We stood there for an half hour in the entryway of our apartment building watching other minibuses go by. I called up to wife and asked her to check with the bus company. She couldn’t get through to the bus company or the school. I brought the kids back upstairs. My wife was finally able to get through to someone at the school who confirmed that school was not closed.

I was going to take the kids to school then head to my Turkish class. But my wife Stephanie offered to take them so I wouldn’t be late for class. For my sake it was a good thing. For her and the kids’ it turned out to be miserable. The kids didn’t have boots. Not having boots turned out to be a Serious Fashion Oversight.

Stephanie walked the kids to the Metro where they rode up to the Gayrettepe stop. It took awhile for them to catch a taxi. When they did finally get a taxi, the driver refused to take them directly to the school because it required going down a steep hill. So he dropped them off at least a mile from the school in an area that was unfamiliar to my wife. (Taxi drivers can be selfish assholes everywhere.)

Stephanie led the kids to where she thought the school was. It turned out she was going in the wrong direction. They were all very cold, especially Henry. Henry had forgotten his winter coat at school the day before. I don’t know how you do that. But my son did. So my wife took off her long winter coat and put it around him. He tried to keep it from dragging in the snow and slush but that proved impossible not to do.

The kids, wearing gym shoes, had bitter cold feet. Stephanie at one point carried Meredith, who was crying.

My wife then realized they were a lost and asked two women on the street where the school was. The taxi driver had not dropped them off near any street near the school. Hence the confusion. The women were kind enough to walk her and the kids right to the front of the gates of the school.

They finally arrived at the school around 10am, just as one of the school minibuses was pulling in. My poor wife and kids; it had taken them a total of two hours to get there. My wife explained to the principal that if conditions were the same the next day the kids would be staying home. That’s when he explained that if it had been up to him he would have declared a snow day, but that he doesn’t have that authority. Even though it’s a private school, only the governor of Istanbul has the authority to close schools.

The school ended up letting the kids out early, at 2pm. The kids were brought home on the bus. We gave them a snack, let them warm up a bit, and took them to the mall to buy them snow boots.

While walking outside we were struck by white pellets from the sky. I thought the pellets looked more like sleet. But I learned a new term from Today’s Zaman: “graupel.”

Many İstanbul residents also noted the odd shape of the snowflakes — like miniature, lightly packed snowballs, not dense enough to be hail. Meet “graupel,” the small, foamy pellets that form when snow crystals encounter droplets of supercooled water. Supercooled water is extremely cold water found high in the atmosphere that doesn’t freeze because it’s pure. The moment it encounters something impure — like a snow crystal — it freezes rapidly, in this case into the fluffy little snow pellets that have blanketed the city.

When we walked into the Cevahir mall, we saw a large group of people (mostly men) standing near a cafe that’s usually half-full. Once I saw that the men were wearing red and gold and that they were watching two large flat screen TVs I realized what they were doing. The Galatasaray-Juventus match was being played. Our timing was perfect. I stood nearby as Sneijder scored the only goal of the match and the crowd erupted into cheers of “Cim Bom Bom!!!!!”

I then raced to catch up with my wife and kids on the escalator heading towards the children’s clothing stores. Henry was easy when it came to shopping for boots. He quickly found a pair he liked. They’re blue with a pattern containing all sorts of different sports equipment on them. Meredith kept shaking her head “no” at the boots we showed her. After what seemed like the 30th pair she said “yes” to a pair of very dark blue boots.

Afterwards, we took the kids up to the food court where we all ate some dinner before heading back home.

This morning, despite the cold and the slushy road conditions, the bus came on time and the kids went off to school without any misadventures. I went back up to the apartment write and took a little time to make a small snowman.

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What would winter be for us Americans without a snowman?

My Wife Is Also a Blogger: A Year Without Bacon

Some of you might not know this, but my very smart and witty wife is writing a blog of our experiences in Turkey. It’s called A Year Without Bacon: Our Expat Life in Turkey.  She is a professor of Sociology at Michigan State University who was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research in Istanbul. For a different perspective, below is a selection of some of her posts about her experiences here in Turkey. If you’re not following her take on our adventures, you should. Enjoy.

I Go to Asia to Bake a Cake, and Have My First Istanbul Car Wreck – The things a mother will do for her children.

Our Trip to the British Consulate – Sometimes we get invited to parties.

The Awesome Place We Will Never Go to Again – How we found an indoor playground.

Everything Is Paper, and Paper Is Everything – Her experiences getting a Residence Permit.

“It Could Happen to You!” Empathy and Scorn in Human Trafficking – The reason we’re here is so she can do research on human trafficking.

P.S. As we say in Chicago, if you can’t help your family, who can you help?

P.P.S. We have yet to eat bacon since we arrived in Turkey.

Cappadocia – Sinasos, Sobessos, Soganli, and Kaymakli

Our first day in Cappadocia was spent in the town of Ürgüp. We arrived in the morning, left our bags at the hotel, headed into town to explore a bit and eat an early lunch. Afterwards, we returned to our hotel, where we hoped the kids might nap. No such luck, though my wife had a nice nap.

A fantastic travel agent, who was recommended by the local Fulbright office, got us our flights, our hotel, our transportation from the Kayseri airport to and from the hotel, and the two day-long tours. We were lucky to have all of this put together less than two weeks out because we booked our travel during the week of Kurban Bayram, when pretty much the entire country of Turkey goes on vacation to celebrate the Feast (aka Eid).

The next day, Sunday, the tour bus picked the four of us up from our hotel at 9:30am. Our tour guide, Özay, was wonderful, providing clear explanations throughout the day of what we were seeing and their importance both culturally and historically. There was so much information that I know I’ve forgotten much of it.

Did I mention our kids were the only kids on the tour? This proved to be the case both of the days we did tours. We saw very few children on tours in Cappadocia. This confirms the belief my wife and I share that the two of us are not the most sane people.

I mean, who the hell brings their kids with them while mom is on a Fulbright Fellowship? We are the only Fulbrighters in Turkey who have brought their children with them. The other scholars on Fulbright Fellowships either don’t have children or have children who are college age or older. And then my wife and I wonder why our kids sometimes act like spazzed-out goofballs….

There was a young couple from Taiwan, a global expat couple who were originally from Morocco, and a couple from Chicago (all hetero). There were ten of us in total in what is called a “dolmus” here; the kind of small bus (larger than a van) the kids ride back and forth to school.

Sinasos

Our first stop was in the town of Mustafapaşa, This town was Greek until the “exchange” following the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War from 1919-1922. There are many things in Turkey called the “Greek [something]” be it a school, mansion, church, town, whatever. I attended part of the Istanbul Biennial in a former Greek school.

We saw the remains of a church that was given the blessing of the Sultan. Here is the plaque on the outside of the church,

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and its translation.

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I thought I had taken a picture of the church itself, but apparently I didn’t. You can go here to see what the church looks like. I think I was listening to our guide talk about the church.

Keslik Monastery

Afterwards, we saw the Keslik monastery. There are frescoes inside which are roughly 1000 years old.

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Our kids liked that they were the only ones who didn’t have to crouch down to go inside the winery.

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Sobessos

Next we visited a recently uncovered ruins of the Roman Era town called Sobessos. We saw the bath,

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and the church. The floor mosaics were in remarkable condition.

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Soganli

The bus dropped us off and our guide Özay led us on a walk through the Soganli Valley, providing us with grand views of the countryside and closeup looks at a few of the small churches that dot the hills.

This is the Domed Church, named because its top was shaped like a dome.

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Below is a section of the path on which we walked.

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After our walk through the hills and valley in Soganli, we ate lunch (also included with the tour). Though we had to order french fries for our kids because they wouldn’t eat the salad, the freshly baked bread, the lentil soup, the delicious local stew, the fresh honeydew, or the yogurt with honey. Their loss.

Kaymakli

After lunch we rode the tour bus to Kaymakli Underground City. This was the highlight of the two days. Henry and Meredith both said it was there favorite. The passageways seemed endless. There were also several places where us adults had to scrunch down while our kids simply walked through.

Özay grew up in the town where the Kaymakli underground city was located. He said he’d been giving tours of the underground city since he was 13 years old. He also said he and his friends used to play hide and seek in the caves. Someone from our group asked him if he’d ever gotten lost in the caves and he said, yes, just once.

The passageways were narrow.

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There were places for living, sleeping, their animals, and food storage. They even had a place to grind spices.

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A church.

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The spaces kept expanding, winding, and going deeper just when you thought there couldn’t be more to it.

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The wheel here was used in case they were attacked. The people retreated to the caves and used a lever to move the stone wheel and clock the passageway. There were many of these wheels placed near the entrances to the cave and even some well within, in case invaders managed to get inside.

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After being underground for an hour in the dark and dimly-lit rooms of Kaymakli, it was good to top off the day with a visit to a view overlooking Pigeon Valley.

Pigeons have played an important role in the region of Cappadocia for thousands of years. If you notice in some of the pictures I’ve posted these past few days, above many of the cave dwellings you’ll see small holes marked with white. These are pigeon houses. The people who lived in the region fed the pigeons and collected their poop (called “guano”) to use as fertilizer for their crops.

Next to the overlook is the Turkish Cappadocia Naturel Viagra Market. No, I did not buy anything there before we headed back to our hotel.

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China Debrief

One day in mid-September, I cleared out my laptop bag. I was going to put my laptop and some very early drafts of stories I’m currently working on into the bag in order to take them with me to a local cafe. What I didn’t realize is that I hadn’t even opened my laptop bag since returning from China. This is what I found.

Boarding passes, train tickets, museum brochures, zoo tickets, and one Alpen Fruit & Nut bar with Milk Chocolate. The Alpen granola bar is a surprising remnant from my ceaseless and frustrating attempts to find items at Chinese grocery stores comparable to items in U.S. grocery stores that my kids would eat. In this case, the Alpen chocolate bars were one of those. They cost roughly $3.50 for a box of six at the Carrefour. The Quaker granola bars the kids prefer here in the USA were not to be found anywhere.

Friends have told me that my wife and I are brave for doing the trip to China and bringing the kids. I always suggest that “crazy” is also a good characterization. I have no idea what our kids will take from the trip. As their father, my hope is that our trip to China will have at least broadened their understanding of this big planet on which we live.

Recently my son Henry said he liked the amusement park rides at the park. He was talking about the rides at Lu Xun park. It was the place where I learned that while in China you just need to barge your way in front of people, shout “Liang zhang piao!” and hand the ticket agent the money for the ride tickets. Otherwise, someone else will cut in front of you, leaving you holding your money waiting for a turn at the box office window that will never come.

(On a side note, I have to say that the word xing, meaning “please,” is the most useless word you can learn in Mandarin. I don’t think I heard it spoken once. The Chinese just barge in and start demanding and bargaining. To hell with pleasantries when you’re fighting for your own needs in a country of 1.3 billion people.)

With kids, the Chinese were very friendly towards us and quite curious. It definitely got my wife and I better attention in restaurants. I can’t help but think that they were a disarming presence. But sometimes the Chinese curiosity (especially what I dubbed the “Chinese Paparazzi”) was too much for the kids. After about three weeks, whenever a Chinese person would try to say “hi” to them, the kids would turn away from them. They were shutting down. Near the end of the trip, Henry said, “I can’t wait to go home, where I’m not famous.”

On the other hand, as difficult as it could be trying to take the kids around Shanghai, they definitely made many of our interactions with the Chinese easier. Without them, I was just another laowai who surely must be working for a western company in China temporarily. Most Chinese were surprised to learn I was not some kind of British  business person. I was surprised to be taken for a British business person.

Things I miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Walking – we walked everywhere, because we could. There is something freeing at times about not having to rely on a car to get you everywhere. Most Americans associate owning a car with freedom. That’s because the only way to get around the USA is by car. In China, between the public transportation, high-speed trains, and airline connections, you don’t need a car to get around. This is very similar to Europe.
  • Coco – Their bubble teas and fruity ice-cold drinks were perfect for hydrating and comfort on those hot and humid summer days.
  • Lilian Cake Shop – Those egg tarts are unbelievably awesome. Their other pastries are very good, too.
  • The Food – So many different kinds of wonderful regional specialties. The culinary adventures are near endless in China.
  • Museums – There are so many museums dedicated to showing so many different aspects of Chinese history. It’s an old and well-documented culture.
  • The View from Our Hotel Room – Waking up to that neverending skyline every morning was a thrill. Seeing it light up at night was a delight. At least when it wasn’t smoggy.
  • Adventure – Every day I had the sense that a new adventure was there to be had. Shanghai has so many things to see and do. As much as we were able to do, we did not get to see the aquarium, nor did we take a cruise on the Huangpu River. Maybe next time.

Things I don’t miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Beijing cab drivers – It is my sincere hope that I never have to see the look from a Beijing cab driver that they give you when you hand them your hotel’s card and they read the address, near some famous Chinese landmark (Forbidden City, etc.). It’s a look that easily translates to, “Gee I’ve never been in that part of town before. Forbidden City? What is that?”
  • Isolation – The experience was far more isolating than I could have ever predicted. I assumed the other professors would bring their families. They didn’t. So there wasn’t anyone to pal around with on our daily adventures in Shanghai.
    There were days when the only other adult I spoke English to was my wife. There were many days when the kids and I went out and about our business in Shanghai and never saw another laowai.
    There were weeks that went by when our kids did not speak to any other kids, because there were no other kids for them to talk to or play with. A two week trip is one thing. For kids, being each others’ only companions for six weeks in a foreign country and sharing the same bed is a bit intense. By the end of the trip, every single subway trip resulted in the two of them bickering and fighting. No day passed without at least a half-dozen squabbles or shouting matches. There was also the Highest Timeout in the World. Towards the end, I was tired of the fighting and the whining.
    Since we returned home, Henry and Meredith have gotten along much better.

Would I do it again?

If by “it” you mean travel to China in the same exact way in the same exact conditions, then the answer is “no.”

I don’t want the four of us crammed into a two-room hotel suite for a month and a half without so much as a hot pot, or easily available laundry facilities. (I could write an entire post on the challenges of doing laundry for four people at the SISU Guest House.) Two weeks? That’s okay. For a semi-long-term stay? Hell, no. I’d prefer a place with at least a stove, so we could cook our own food.

I don’t want my wife to experience the stresses and difficulties she endured while teaching in the Summer China Program. The trip was ultimately worth it, but let’s just say that many Chinese students have a far more open attitude towards sharing test answers than their American counterparts.

My wife and I do not regret the trip in any way. We are so glad we went to China. It was such a unique experience; amazing, exhilarating, baffling, frustrating, challenging, yet oh so rewarding.

I want to go back to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hong Kong. I want to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I want to go see Jiuzhai Valley-Huanglong National Park. I want to go see Wulingyuan National Park….I want to go back to China.

So I Ran That 5K

This past Sunday I ran that 5K I said I was going to run a few weeks ago; The Dinosaur Dash.

It’s the first 5K and the very first race I have run in. The skies were overcast and the temperature was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I warmed up by jogging around wearing track pants and a pullover. I took those off shortly before the race, feeling warm and loose.

The race also happened to fall on my birthday. So I was lucky to have a cheering section.

My two kids held up a banner saying “RUN DADDY!” They made it with a big assist from my wife. (Yes, my wife is that awesome.) I can’t think of a better site (or birthday present) than that when crossing the Finish Line on my first race.

It was a fun race through a beautiful campus. I felt good throughout and even had enough energy at the end to sprint to the finish.

Michigan State University’s campus is very pretty, especially in the Fall with all the leaves turning colors and the Red Cedar River meandering through. The course did a figure-eight, crossing over the river four times (if I counted correctly). I enjoyed the views during my run.

For the curious, my official time was 22:47.

I’m going to take the week off. Not because I feel tired, but because there’s a pain in my left ankle when I come down on it when going down stairs sometimes. It’s been bothering me on and off for the past week and a half. It’s not swollen. I think the tendons are fatigued or strained. It didn’t bother me during the race. It didn’t even bother me most of the day yesterday. I simply take it as a sign that this old body of mine doesn’t “snap back” the way it used to and needs a bit more rest than it used to need.