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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Under the Sun in Bodrum

Our final trip in Turkey was to Bodrum, a place that has one industry: tourism. It’s a beautiful location filled with hotels and resorts. There are plenty of activities that can be arranged like scuba-diving, parasailing, and trips to the Greek island of Kos. Or you can do a whole lot of nothing under the sun, which is what we had planned to do.

We’d had enough with tours of old prominent places and wanted to end our time in Turkey indulging in something that was simply fun. That didn’t stop our Turkish friends from telling us all the things we MUST SEE AND DO.

We love our Turkish friends but we ignored them this time.

We stayed at the Bodrum Holiday Resort and Spa, an all-inclusive resort for families. There’s an aqua park with four water slides, a “relax” pool, an enormous pool where you can swim and play water polo, a beach area (wooden piers jutting out into the clear blue sea from the rocky coast), a volleyball court, a kids’ playground, and much more.

In Bodrum we never heard anyone speak English with an American accent. (We also never heard the Call to Prayer.) At the resort there were plenty of Turks (of course), Brits, Germans, French, and Russians. The latter look the least happy despite being in a warm place on the Aegean Sea with lots of sun. They don’t even smile when they pose for pictures.

Our daughter doesn’t often smile for pictures but she just turned six and she’s uncooperative when it comes to posing for photos and going to see interesting places.

Here’s Meredith being unhappy about going to the Castle in the town of Bodrum.

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It turns out that Castle is closed on Mondays.

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Here’s how Henry, Stephanie, and Meredith looked when we found out that the Castle is closed on Mondays.

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Monday was the only day we ventured off the resort grounds. It was disappointing that the one thing we had planned to see was closed. We didn’t plan very well. Of course, we didn’t plan anything beyond plane tickets and a hotel reservation. The reservation was made with the help of some Turkish friends.

We ate ice cream at the marina,

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and shopped for souvenirs with little luck despite all the shops selling nothing but souvenirs.

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The three full days we spent in Bodrum were spent swimming in the pools, enjoying the aqua park with its water slides, swimming in the Aegean Sea, getting our vitamin D levels boosted, and eating. Whatever we didn’t finish eating was eaten by the birds.

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Here’s the view from the resort.

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Here’s the main pool.

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It’s a truth annoyingly universal at resorts that if you put your towels on several chairs next to the pool early in the morning, you can wander away and eat a leisurely breakfast, go back to bed, go snorkeling, whatever, and those chairs are yours no matter what.

I hate that about resorts. It suggests a vigilance and competitiveness that ought to be ABSENT from a vacation. Despite that petty behavior, we had a wonderful time. We always managed to find a free chair or two wherever we went.

One the kids’ favorite things about the resort was the daily ice cream service between 2:00pm and 6:00pm at Cafe Turk. The cafe also provided cookies and tea. Often the kids ate ice cream and cookies. Who can blame them for liking that so much?…Who am I kidding? It was one of my favorite things about the resort.

Stephanie, for her delayed Mother’s Day gift, went to the spa one afternoon where she was given a Turkish bath and then a massage. Afterwards, her skin glowed like pearls and she felt rejuvenated. The woman who gave her the massage was from Thailand but had worked in Bali for many years. She told Stephanie she has serviced many Americans in Bali but that Stephanie was the first American she had serviced in all the years she’d been working in Bodrum.

For all we know, we might have been the only Americans in the resort. Not unlike our experiences in a few other places we’ve visited in Turkey.

After our stay at the resort in Bodrum we were ready to return to Istanbul and say goodbye to the city we’ve called home for 10 months.

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Wistful Panic

Wistful : adjective, full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy. – Merriam-Webster’s dictionary

That’s what Stephanie and I are feeling these days as we prepare to move back to the US. Her fellowship is up. Which means the money is running out. Which means we can no longer afford to stay here. The end of our adventure is very close. One week from today we board a plane for the USA.

Besides, the kids want to go back to their home and their friends in Michigan. We can’t believe they’re about to finish their school year, a year in Istanbul making friends from here and all over the world at their international school.

We’re also feeling a bit stressed. There’s the cleaning. There’s the sorting through the kids clothes and toys. There’s the packing. There’s the rushing around to see friends and do things we haven’t yet done. There’s having a birthday party for our daughter. There’s bringing Krispy Kreme doughnuts to our son’s class for saying “goodbye” to all his new friends. There’s an all-day end-of-year school field trip for the kids. There’s a trip to Bodrum. And there’s still work for my wife to do…So I tell myself,

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And then I go back to being wistful.

“Just one more year,” I’ve been telling people, and I’m not kidding. For all of its faults and all the madness it can inspire, Istanbul is an amazing city that is wholly unique thanks to its history and mix of cultures and people.

We say goodbye to our friends over lunch or dinner or coffee, or over the phone or even over the Internet. (And we continue to store up on movies and TV shows a la Turka.)

As we turn our attention towards home, we think about family, friends, and pork and Italian beef sandwiches and Mexican food. Yet, we wonder how and when we might come back to this dynamic city.

BTW, this is what the Merriam-Webster page looked like when I opened it.

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Bana şaplak at means spank me. It’s a dating site of some kind as far as I can tell. I don’t know whether it’s specifically for spanking aficionados.

In addition to all the things I’m going to miss about Turkey, I’m going to miss these silly kinds of things.

Video Games and Ice Cream

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People have often remarked to my wife and me how well our kids do at traveling. I would like to think it’s because we’ve instilled in them the importance of being respectful, patient, kind, curious, and all that. But the fact is, kids (especially small kids like ours) don’t care even a tiny bit about history or culture.

Sure, they get to climb on old ruins like they did in Ephesus and Miletus, and climb down into an underground city in Cappadoccia. But for the most part, telling them that something is 1500 or 2000 years old briefly gets their attention and then it’s on to something else.

Still, the question is: how do we keep our kids from melting down and freaking out when we’re on a tour?

Bribery. Usually taking the forms of video games and ice cream.

There’s all kinds of parenting advice that appears to have been designed for children that were created under some impossibly ideal lab-like conditions where they do what they’re told and better behavior is merely a short timeout away. Or that getting them to try new foods is as simple as gentle prodding or the tried and true take-it-or-leave-it method.

These are not our kids.

Our kids are picky eaters. So picky that they skip lunch three or four times a week at their school; days when plain pasta (or rice in the case of my daughter) is not on the menu. They’re not allowed to bring their own lunch. Their only choice is what’s on the menu. Can you say “stubborn?” So when they arrive at home here around 4:30pm they’re tired and famished.

In Trabzon we managed to keep them alive on french fries, plain pasta, the small pancakes at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, ice cream, sour cherry juice, and American Children’s vitamins. Children’s vitamins in Turkey come in the form of syrup, which our kids will not drink. Gummies or Flintstone-style are not available here. We’ve had to buy vitamins through drugstore.com, ship them to family, who then bring them when they visit. We also bring along snacks on the trips: peanuts, dried mango, and almonds.

We recognize that if we can’t get the kids to appreciate even a sliver of what is important about something we’re seeing, they’re going to be bored. You can allow them to be bored for only so long before they take it out on you. Long bus rides from stop to stop, listening to a tour guide talk, is not an ideal way for a child to spend a day. So Henry plays his Nintendo 3DS and Meredith plays Minecraft or Where’s My Perry? on my wife’s iPad.

And thanks to these ever present ALGIDA ice cream bins in Turkey, we know that for the price of a few lira we can keep the kids happy for the time being. FYI, “mutluluğu paylaş” translates roughly as “Share your happiness.”

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.

Trabzon Day 3: The City Itself

Our very nice hotel, Novotel, was equipped with a pool, spa, direct access to the public beach, and next to a large outlet mall, among its many attributes. It’s also located eight or nine kilometers outside the city of Trabzon. This means it’s a 40 lira ride via taxi to the city. Trabzon may be a small city of 250,000 people but taxis are expensive. Far more expensive than in Istanbul. Especially when you consider that for the trip to and from Sumela Monastery we were charged 35 lira each for my wife, our son, and me. And it’s an hour drive up the mountain.

For our final day in the area we took a taxi into town to explore at a leisurely pace.

The Church of St. Sophia is often touted as one of the Trabzon’s main attractions. It’s on the west side of the city. We didn’t bother to go. It used to be a museum. It’s no longer a museum. The current AKP-led government converted it to a mosque a few years ago.

(Something you ought to know about Turkey: the government controls all the mosques. They build the mosques and they determine who serves in the mosques. They approve the Friday sermon read out in every mosque across the country. You can’t just build your own mosque or church or synagogue. A new church hasn’t been approved for construction in several decades. It’s not a theocracy so much as a state with a large religious branch of government.)

If you want to see the Church of St. Sophia in Trabzon, there’s no way to find out it’s opening hours or if the many mosaics and frescoes are on view. They’ve allegedly been covered with curtains.

So rather than drag ourselves and the kids to one end of the town and back without a guarantee of being able to get a look inside, we decided to save ourselves the hassle.

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Instead, we went to Ataturk square, ate lunch, and visited the Trabzon Museum. It’s just off of the main pedestrian street Uzun Sokak. The museum, in an old mansion built for a wealthy Greek businessman in the late 19th century, contains many artifacts found in the region, including a bronze statue of Hermes that was flattened.

When we had finished exploring the museum, we stopped at a pharmacy to buy some contact lens solution. Stephanie had forgotten to pack her case. We were low on solution anyway, and all of the solution packages come with cases. Unsolicited, the pharmacist gave our children some balloons.

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Then we walked down to the seaside.

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The kids played on a playground in one of the parks while Stephanie and I sat and drank tea. When it was getting close to dinner time, we walked back up to the square and hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel (for roughly 40 lira).

We’re glad we came to see that area of the Black Sea coast. It’s quite beautiful. But I think our next trips will be much more laid back. My wife and I are thinking Bodrum and Antalya, and being lazy on a beach.

Trabzon Day 2: Sumela Monastery

On Wednesday we visited Trabzon’s main attraction: Sumela Monastery. Without a guide because there are no English-speaking guides to be found in Trabzon during the tourist off-season.

We were picked up at 9:45am by a well-dressed, handsome young man in a small hatchback car and taken to the office of the tour company where we boarded the van. This was as the tourist agency had arranged for us. The bus wound its way through the winding, hilly, narrow, cobblestone streets of Trabzon picking up people here and there and then headed out of the city…until it reached our hotel at 10:30am. Where we picked up a young couple (who we found out later were from Dubai).

That’s right, we could have simply waited at the hotel to be picked up for the half-day excursion, and saved us and the young man some time and gas.

The former Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary is perched on the side of a mountain in what is now a national park. The road to the monastery is winding and steep. I told my wife, “See, we could have easily rented a car and done this ourselves.”

“Yeah, right.”

Judging by the number of cars with license plates that read “Touring and Automobile Club of the Islamic Republic of Iran” making their way up to the monastery, I’d say it was doable. There were many tourists from Iran making the trip to the monastery.

The toddler in the front row of the van puked once on the ride up to the monastery and once on the way down from the monastery. The driver had to make an unexpected stop on the way up as the father of the puking toddler had to dump the plastic bag filled with puke into a garbage bin outside a small shop.

On the way up the mountain we stopped next to a waterfall where we took several pictures. Here’s Henry and me.

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From there we could just barely see the monastery way up on the mountain side.

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Then we stopped at a point that provides a good view of the monastery as it clings to the mountain side.

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The small parking lot for the monastery is a 300 meter hike from the monastery entrance. It’s a path that’s, thankfully, fenced and rises up and down several times and is overgrown with tree roots in some spots. The kids liked climbing those.

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The monastery is a wonder of beauty and engineering. The frescoes inside the chapel are in excellent condition. If you look closely you can see where the current frescoes were put on plaster placed over even older frescoes. This is one of those cases where I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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There are the usual gouged-eyes when the people came in and freaked out over all the eyes. So there plenty of eyeless apostles, saints, and whatnot. (You can never underestimate the power of human superstition, whether it’s the belief that depicting human eyes is evil or that vaccines cause autism.)

The kids did some goofing around.

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Stephanie posed with the enormous landscape behind her.

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When we had finished exploring the monastery we went to the gift shop. We bought ice cream for the kids and tea for myself. We sat at a table and enjoyed the view over-looking the valley below.

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Back at the hotel, when we asked the kids what their favorite part of the day was, both Henry and Meredith said eating ice cream at the monastery. Yes, ice cream. We take them to the Black Sea coast, show them the beautiful countryside, take them to one of the most unique monasteries in the world, and their favorite thing was ice cream.

Why are we dragging our children all over Turkey?