Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day Three: Got Your Nose

Quick! Don't think about elephants! So, what are you thinking about? Elephants. Such is the case with me. In my desire not to offend anyone in my host country, I'd looked up things not to do. I read the list and decided that I didn't use any of those gestures, so I was safe.

A bit of background and observation: Pebbles is pretty intimidated by Istanbul. My intrepid travel partner has turned out not to be so intrepid. Very, very surprising as she lived and studied in Italy and traveled through Europe pretty extensively at that time. She finds the men very intimidating. And there are a lot of them. I didn't find them intimidating, not nearly like I did the Italian men when visiting Italy, who could be both vocal and handsy. Not a lot of women, excepting tourists, out on the streets. All the shopkeepers are men. All the waiters are men. And as their cultural tradition, they stare perhaps more than we Westerners are accustomed to. And if we are close to a shop or a restaurant, they want us to spend our money there. I mean we are obviously Western (most pegged me as German, rather than American until I spoke) and are there on vacation which "means" we have money to spend and they want us to spend it with them, either on goods or services. The bottom line on this is that she refused (initially) to 1. return to the Grand Bazaar and 2. eat in an actual restaurant. The truth is, by the afternoon of day three, she was "done" with Istanbul and was looking at other places we could easily visit. Turns out this feeling faded and by the end she was wishing we had more time, but on day three, having to spend the rest of the week in Istanbul was a bit much for her. To her credit, she was giving this her best shot. She wasn't being whiny about it and she was really trying to make it a good experience for me, but she wasn't having a good time at that time.

I let the aversion to the Grand Bazaar last a bit, as it was an overwhelming experience when we went on the busiest day at the busiest time and it was our first exposure to Turkey. It was the first thing we did upon arrival. It was a bit too much to take in at that time. But I did want to eat at a restaurant, so I was firm with her and told her that I wanted to eat out, I didn't care where, and we could go where ever she felt most comfortable. What made her uncomfortable re: restaurants were the "barkers" outside - the men who would thrust a menu in front of you and insist that you come in to dine and wouldn't really take a "No, thank you" as an answer. But as I saw it, we weren't treated any differently than any other tourist.

So we headed out, rather tensely, I might add, to find a restaurant. We headed down the street from our hotel into the Kumpaki fishing village and found restaurant row - a beautifully lit roundabout, complete with a fish fountain with restaurants spoking off on every street. Dining al fresco, Turkish style. Pebbles speed walked us up and down the streets while I followed behind. She wasn't happy and I wasn't happy. After leading us past all of the many restaurants, all with "greeters", she just led us back to the hotel. It's probably a good thing, as in all of my tensing up, I had balled my hands into fists in the "got your nose" manner and thus, was flashing the "F.U" sign in Turkish. And I think at least one other time during the trip, in an attempt to communicate, I may have given the "thumbs up" sign - which here, means "good", and there, means, well, not nice things. Sheesh - this is what happens when hillbillies travel.

We ended up with more pistachio "happy" rolls for dinner that night, I think.

The morning of day three took us to Topcapi Palace, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me. There are really three areas to see at Topcapi - the Harem, the administration buildings and the museum-like displays. We had read the guidebooks and headed immediately for the Harem once inside the Palace gates. What a lucky break. We got to tour the Harem with a very sparse crowd. There were times where Pebbles and I would be the only ones in the room. Being alone in the space really allowed us to absorb (better) what we were seeing. We could take our time and discuss what we were seeing. It truly makes for a different experience. Yes, the harem was AMAZING, but I don't know that it would have affected us both that way had we been in the usual conga-line of people moving as a centipede through the sites. This insight is an important take-away from the trip. Throngs of people can really change the feel of an experience.

We took tons of pictures in and around the Harem. I really lack the words to adequately describe the grandeur, the tile work and the "foreign-ness" of the place - it was just so, well, intriguing. The pictures will have to tell the tale. The whole idea of Sultans and wives and concubines and eunichs. Definitely a trip highlight and we got it right. It was a rainy day, which kept the crowds down early and our trip was on a non-weekend. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. We spent hours on the Topcapi grounds, touring buildings and then trying to see some of the displays of amazing jewelry and weaponry, but the crowds had grown to big and it was really pretty impossible to get a good view. If I were planning this trip again, I might even move it back another week or so in October. After the weekend crowds died down a bit, it was certainly a less crowded experience - although the median age of the travelers shot up dramatically.

We headed back onto the main tourist drag, where Pebbles picked out a self-serve cafe for lunch. The food was quite good. I had roasted cauliflower and roasted chicken. She made the best choice of a fabulous moussaka, followed, of course, by more baklava. Discovered that our neighborhood sweet shop charged far less for their Turkish "delights" than did the main drag. And speaking of the traditional Turkish Delight, I tried some, but didn't much care for it.

We puttered around the main drag area and then headed back to the hotel. Pebbles is very fond of her afternoon nap. Actually, she is very fond of her husband. If we get back to the hotel early enough, she can Skype-talk (no video) over wifi with her husband, so we found ourselves back there most every afternoon, which was okay.

On evening three, we did have plans. I again requested a dinner out and she agreed to give it another go. I don't know if we would have had these issues had we stayed closer to the main tourist area. However, our location did turn out to be one of our favorite things as we settled in to Istanbul. Again, I said we could go to any restaurant of her choosing. So we headed out again and again we made the walk down through restaurant row. This time, however, I kept a smile on my face and my hands in my pockets. She turned us around and headed back towards the hotel, but this time she said she'd spotted a nice space a block or so back. So we hiked back up the hill a bit and walked into what was going to be one our loveliest memories of Turkey - this new restaurant space that had just opened that day. And I say space because the dining area - a mere 8 tables wasn't in a building. It was in an area between two buildings that had a floor and had a roof, still with holes for may possibly contain skylights one day that basically just covered the area. It had exposed brick on both sides and was dimly, but beautifully lit. Each table had candles and votives were stuck into any crevice in the exposed brick. Warm and lovely space. We walk in to get a table and the owner immediately apologizes - because of the rain earlier in the day and the holes in the roof, all the chairs are too wet to sit in - and asks us to wait. He goes somewhere else, next door, I guess, and brings back some dry chairs.

And we have our first traditional Turkish multi-course meal. The owner brings out a large wooden tray with lots of little dishes on it - probably ten or more - and explains about each one. This is the meza course. I chose spicy, roasted eggplant and Pebbles chose a purslane in garlicky yogurt. We shared, of course. For our main course, she chose the calamari and I had the shrimps in garlic butter. Again, we sampled each others. Her calamari was fabulous - some of the best we'd ever had. My shrimp was good, but in the face of the calamari, was average. Of course the meal was accompanied by, not the bread basket, but the bread barrel! Lots and lots of bread is served in Turkey, at every meal and it is some fine stuff. Ha, I just realized I covered the Harem in Topcapi Palace in about a paragraph and I'm rambling on and on about the food. Doesn't take an Einstein to figure out why I have a weight problem! ha.

Anyway, back to the menu. We ordered a Turkish coffee. While I don't love espresso, I loved Turkish coffee. My guess is they served it to us medium sweet. It was thick and had a good-dark-chocolate taste to it - that delicious combination of bitter and sweet. Again, served in beautiful little cups. And as a gratis treat, the restaurant brought us out their signature dessert and the owner wouldn't tell us what it was. "Just be surprised" he said. It turned out to be an indescribably pumpkin thing. It was pumpkin was cooked way down and then combined with sugar (cause the Turkish love their sweets) and cooked into almost a paste. It was served by the small scoop, had a walnut and some creme inside and was garnished with ground nuts. A yummy complement to the Turkish coffee. And this meal and this interaction sort of turned the tide for Pebbles. Talking about food and receiving such a lovely experience from the owner of this restaurant so close to our hotel caused her to feel much more comfortable. We ended up going back to this place three times, each time having a wonderful experience. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

Still uploading/tagging photos here

Next up: Roxie gets (semi) naked.


  1. So I can relate to Pebbles being overwhelmed in Turkey - and I LIVED in Europe for 3.5 years. Paris? London? Rome? Piece of cake.

    Turkey & Morocco were both extremely intimidating to me. I felt overwhelmed a lot of the time I was there...the culture is just SO different from Europe.

    Anyhow, I am enjoying reading your travels & would love to hear why you decided on Turkey when you get a moment. And the food sounds AMAZING!!!

  2. The culture differences and personal space issues can be a challenge. Glad you allowed Pebbles the room to work through them. You really are good travel partners!

    I did not know purslane was edible! I wonder if it's a different variety than what I pull out as a weed around here? If I can turn it into a cash crop I might be able to retire next year and just let the weeds grow!

  3. Has Pebbles ever been to Little Italy in NYC? Because your restaurant row in Istanbul sounds just like Little Italy with the food barkers!

    So glad you were able to finally get your dinner out and settle in. I'm taking this trip vicariously through these blogs, enjoying them so much.

  4. Since you ended the post with that pumpkin dessert, I thought I'd add a yay! I had something similar at a small place in Santa Cruz that has since closed. But we had the best food there and the night ended with pumpkin very similar to what you described.

    My friend Jennifer was born and raised in Trinidad. She taught me that when wandering streets and having men stare, we have to choose not to see them. Or she taught me NOT to see them. It was something she learned as a young girl in Trinidad. She said American women are trained differently. Like we are afraid and demure and scared but when you grow up where she grew up, with a strong mother, her mother taught her and her sister to ignore those stares and act as if they don't exist. The lesson was more involved initially though very helpful to me ultimately.

    I must have been to big for those tiny Italian men. Either that, I took her lesson to heart when I was there.

  5. Another amazing installment. Glad Pebbles was able to get beyond the restaurant thing...interesting what sets people off, right? So happy that the owner gave you such wonderful meals! And I lol'd over your noting the description length of the meal vs. the harem room. We are who we are! :)

  6. Sounds like you are handling this all perfectly. I've never been a very good traveler and have only been out of the country a couple of times!

    Enjoy your trip!

  7. When I went to Brazil - the "OK" sign means FU.
    So all the time I should have gone with "thumbs up!"

  8. Im loving these long descriptive travel-log (hmmm is that misspelled?) loving vicariously posts!

    my parents just got back from their Turkey jaunt on tuesday!


We'll try this for a while.