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Grad School in Turkey, Take 2

Last week I finally started my second semester of grad school in Turkey.  I’ve been on break for almost two months, so it’s nice to get back to work.

In the process of registering, I found out that I’m a solid C student here.  Although I’m relieved that I passed, these aren’t the grades I’m used to and I hope that I can improve to at least a B average.  I don’t think blaming my grades on the second language will work for the duration of an entire degree.

Registering was much easier this semester.  My university is moving to doing everything online.  Last semester, we had to go to the department, pick our classes, and get various people to sign some forms before our classes were confirmed.  This time, we just had to log on to our student accounts, take an EU survey about last semester’s classes, pick the ones for this semester, send it to an advisor for approval, and show up.

Of course, I had never logged onto my student account, so I had to go to school to get my password.  Every time I go there, I run into other classmates, and wonder what they’re doing there.  The actual university campus is outside of town, in an area on the way to Eskisehir with all the other universities.  Graduate classes are held at the institute, located inside the city.  The professors’ offices are all at the university, so if registration is all online, why is everyone always at school?  I kept thinking I was missing something, something that was obvious to every Turk but somehow unclear to a foreigner like me.  Is my email confirmation not enough?  Am I really registered for classes? It turned out some guys were contesting the university’s requirement for a 3.0  GPA in order to write a thesis, and others were just nervous about the online process and wanted to make sure they got their classes.

My classes this semester are more interesting: Political Theory II (required, and the least-exciting), Politics in the Balkans and Caucasus, and Turkey’s Accession Negotiations with the EU.  Last semester I only took required classes, and since I’m not a big fan of discussing either theory or ideology, this term’s focus on less esoteric political science topics is a relief!

In a curious shift from last semester, two of the classes are in English.  I didn’t realize this when I signed up for them, but since I picked classes based on interest level, I’m sticking with them.   So far one class is entirely in English, probably because I am the only student, and the other is a hodgepodge of both languages.  It’s interesting and a good challenge for me to flip back and forth.

My schedule doesn’t quite lend itself to travel as well as last semester either – no more five-day weekends! Obviously that wasn’t going to last, so I’m glad I got all that crazy travelling in while I had the chance.  Now that I’m down to normal weekends like everybody else, I plan to take some day trips around Ankara and the middle Anatolia region on days off.  Last semester I found all the time stuck on planes and trains while traveling was excellent for reading and studying for class.  Now I’ll have to be a bit more disciplined.  Wish me luck!

Weekend in Bucharest

Last weekend I went to meet the Romania Olmsted Scholar, Claire, in Bucharest. She lives in Cluj, in the northwest corner of Romania, so we got a hotel room right downtown where we could easily walk everywhere. It’s right next to the National Theater, which has been in a state of reconstruction for a while. It’s also where a group meets to protest every night. From our window, it sounded like hundreds of people chanting, but whenever we looked out or walked by, there were only about fifteen people milling around with a police car off to the side.


the national theater, under seemingly permanent construction


view from our balcony


another view from the room

Since Claire and I mostly hang out with price-conscious students, we had fun indulging in luxurious cafes around the city. As a result, we didn’t really do anything touristy. Instead we ate, walked, drank, and partied! After getting our hair done, we met some friends for dinner, and while we pre-partied at a guy’s house our group grew to include Swedes, Norwegians, Romanians and a Moldavian – a really fun, truly international group! We all went to an Irish Bar in Lipscans, a newly renovated pedestrian area full of galleries, bars, and cafes. It was such a great time that some of us stayed out until sunrise.

Another night we ate at a restaurant serving traditional Romanian food. I had sauerkraut, eggplant salad, and sarmale, or stuffed cabbage rolls. It was all good, hearty peasant food but went well with the beer. The place was a bit touristy and provided frequent entertainment, to include dancers, a random guy with mime face walking around with a couple of parrots, as well as a couple of kids playing hide and seek. The German guy sitting behind us kept asking me “Is that your human?” whenever a kid crawled out from under our table.

The dancers started out with traditional Romanian folk, but later came out and did Romanian interpretations of swing and latin!

One day we walked to the Romanian Peasants Museum, which sounded pretty eye-opening to me, but unfortunately as it was Monday, the museum was closed. So we kept walking and visited more shops and cafes. Here are some of the random scenes.

Coming from Turkey, it’s always a thrill to be in a real European city, and even Bucharest, with its communist blocks, definitely has the feel. In fact, it used to be called Little Paris, and even has a replica of the Arc Di Triumph. Still, traces of the communist lifestyle were evident in trivial ways. One waiter was dumbfounded when we ordered all kinds of food that we wanted to sample. She stated that some of the dishes simply were not eaten together, and tried to convince us to amend our request. When we checked out of the hotel without the parking ticket, the hotel staff freaked out on us and could not figure out how we could get our car without the little piece of paper. With a little insisting we easily got our way, but we could tell that our argumentative manner of response was unexpected.

Istanbul Is Always a Good Idea

In the movie Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn said “Paris is always a good idea.”  That’s exactly how I feel about Istanbul.  I think Istanbul is Turkey’s Paris anyway.  With a population of around 13 million, it’s bigger than half the countries in the world, and has all the museums and neat shops that you’d expect with the kind of specialization that this population supports.  Luckily for me, it’s also just an hour’s flight from Ankara.

Mosques are everywhere - this is the Nusretiye Cami, seen from the Istanbul Modern's parking lot.

Mosques are everywhere – this is the Nusretiye Cami, seen from the Istanbul Modern’s parking lot.

Last week I took a quick hop to Istanbul to meet up with various friends.  It’s the first time I went to Istanbul and stayed alone, and due to the recent murder of a Staten Island women solo traveler, I couldn’t stop thinking about how a situation could go bad, and constantly considered my exit strategies (this is the first of many navy terms in this post – I hope it doesn’t confuse anybody).   The victim was Sarai Sierra, and if you don’t already know the story you can read more about it here:

I was slightly more aware of my surroundings because her travel habits are similar to mine: renting flats, meeting with locals, taking photography walks, etc.

Combined with the bombing of the Embassy in Ankara, it wasn’t a great week for Americans in Turkey.  Many Turkish friends reached out to express their sorrow about what happened.  Some, especially those involved in tourism, worried about how this would affect their best customers’ plans to travel in Turkey this summer.  Every Turk I met with told me to be careful, especially since my name was so similar to hers – they considered it to be bad luck.  I’m usually pretty careful when travelling, especially alone, and pay extra attention to my intuition, or what the Navy calls spidey sense or your reptile brain.

When walking back to my flat after meeting some friends off Istiklal Street, I was approached a few times by Turkish guys, also alone, who wanted to practice their English with me, or at least used that as their opening line.  I spoke to them only in Turkish, and eventually they all gave up.  I also only walked on crowded streets, even though it wasn’t the quickest way, so that I could scream for help if necessary.  Thankfully nothing happened, but I still felt uneasy until I locked the door to my flat.  So, lesson learned: next time, I’ll get my friends to accompany me back.  I also probably won’t stay so close to such a crazy nightlife area next time.

Since I was on my own for parts of the day, however, I took advantage of the time to slowly peruse some sites I had missed on previous trips: the Chora Church and Istanbul Modern.  The Chora Church is located in a pretty conservative neighborhood off Istanbul’s tourist track, so visiting is harder and takes a little more time.  I had planned on walking to the edge of the Golden Horn, one of the waterways that splits up the city, and then taking a ferry along the coast.  However, it was raining all day, and on my way down the street I slipped and totally wiped out, so in frustration I grabbed the nearest cab, which was about a fifteen minute drive and a great chance to practice my Turkish.


I almost forgot to get a picture of the outside of the church. Here is it from where my friend’s parked their car.

The Chora Church is considered to be the best surviving example of a Byzantine church and to have the most beautiful art, and I agree – the frescoes and mosaics here are simply breathtaking!  I had a cute black cat as my guide, so while playing with him I took my time taking in the art.  You need frequent breaks to relax your neck as the most impressive mosaics are on the ceiling.  Unique from other churches, this one highlights the birth and life of Mary in a series of incredible mosaics.

The church was originally built in the 5th century, and then due to earthquakes and other damage, it was rebuilt as it currently stands in the 11th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, it was converted to a mosque and all the frescoes and mosaics were covered with plaster.  It was restored as a church and became a museum in the 1950s with help from Dumbarton Oaks.  I mention Dumbarton for my DC area readers – you can visit the house museum, which focuses partly on Byzantine art, in Georgetown.

After visiting the church, I met the Istanbul Olmsted scholar and his family for lunch at Asitane, a restaurant we all wanted to try.  This was the best meal of the trip!  The restaurant focuses on Ottoman cuisine from the 16th century.  I had a chestnut terrine soup and a lamb stew with apricots, almonds, and prunes – all wonderful!  My friend got stuffed quince, which I think was probably the best of the options.  If you’re going to visit the Chora Church, definitely plan on a meal at this restaurant.

The Istanbul Modern is the city’s modern art museum.  It’s built right on the Bosphorous, and if you get tired of looking at the art, there are plenty of spaces with windows and balconies where you can watch the ships go by, an activity that I find endlessly fascinating.  The cafe also has a window-wall and balcony with an amazing view of the strait and city.  Currently the exhibits in the museum focus on Turkish artists, so it was a real learning opportunity for me.  Most interesting was the “New Works, New Horizons” Exhibit, which highlights the development of contemporary art in Turkey from the early 20th century. It was a refreshing change from the international collections that I’m used to seeing at the world’s modern art museums.

On my last night I met up with an old division officer from the USS Gary (FFG 51).  He broke from his hostel buddies to do the foodie thing, so we met at the Pera Palace Hotel for a tasting dinner at Agatha.  Apparently Agatha Christie wrote parts of Murder on the Orient Express while staying at this hotel!  Now I guess I’ll read the book.   The hotel is very grand and had several clubby type bars and tea lounges.  The restaurant Agatha is a more modern undertaking and located in the basement.  Although all the food was good, none of it was remarkable – the best part of the meal was the company, of course, followed by the wine – five courses of Turkish offerings, all of which were great.

Morocco’s Big Cities: Casablanca and Marrakech

Jemaa al-Fna Square

Jemaa al-Fna Square – Marrakech

We ended our Moroccan roadtrip in Marrakech! I was so excited – the city is so exotic to me that I wasn’t even sure how to spell it, which is rare for me.  Frankly, it’s a transliteration, so there really isn’t a right way, but it seems like spellcheck wants me to use ‘sh’ even though I like it better the other way.  I guess whatever goes, which is definitely the feeling I got in the city.  I’ve always wanted to see snake charmers, and knew Marrakesh was the place.   The square’s version was different than what I had imagined.  Instead of a guy with a turban playing some kind of pipe to get the snake to slither up from a basket, there were a few makeshift booths where guys had all kinds of snakes laying around.  If you got close enough, they would throw a snake on you, let you take a picture, then ask for money.  I thought I could overcome my fear of snakes, but after I saw the guys throw a snake on somebody, I kept my distance!  The square had other entertainment, including acrobats, musicians, and monkeys dressed as schoolboys!  From the square we entered the souq, which was my least favorite in Morocco.  Everything was geared toward tourists and I was done shopping by that point.

Across from the square is the Katoubia Mosque.  Its beautiful minaret towers over the city.  Inside the minaret, instead of the  stairs you would expect is a ramp for a horse to carry the muezzin to the top to perform the calls to prayer.  In the harem days, the muezzin was blind to prevent him from seeing inside the harem.  Its unclear whether the muezzin started out blind or if it was an occupational hazard of a getting a job at that particular mosque.  Most of the city is designed to prevent the regulars from getting a peek of whatever went on inside the palace walls.

Our tour of Marrakesh started with the Bahia Palace, which was built in the 19th century.  We started in the courtyard entrance, where there were five colors of bougainvillea planted, and about 25 charming cats milling around.  The first hall of the palace is the receiving area, also based around a courtyard.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all had their own waiting rooms, and each was decorated in accordance with that religion.  For instance, the Jewish room had a border of 6-sided stars and the Muslim room had a border of verses from the Koran.  Further inside, we saw the rooms of the four wives, their courtyard, and some of the rooms where the concubines stayed.  Did you know that once a woman entered the palace as a wife or concubine, she stays there forever?  Unfortunately most of these setups were political arrangements to keep a balance among the tribes, so these ladies didn’t have much stay anyway.  At least there were beautiful mosaics and painted ceilings to keep them company.

We also visited the Saadian Tombs, which were only re-found in the early 20th century after a western occupier finally realized the only entrance was through the mosque, where none of his kind ever entered.   Originally, they were built in the 16th century for the rulers and well-connected of the Saadian Dynasty.  The tombs are separated into women’s, men’s, and children’s areas, and each building is breathtaking in design.  The graves outside are believed to belong to servants.

My favorite part of the city was walking through the medina.  We saw more people in fun djellabis and other exotic clothes, as well as a few merchants hawking their wares, even though it was a Friday afternoon, when locals usually close shop for family time.

From Marrakesh, we took the train to Casablanca (only about $9!).  Although my generation isn’t quite as enchanted by the Bogart movie as our elders, because of the movie, or maybe just because of its name, the city has also always been incredibly exotic to me.  Currently, the city has vastly enlarged its port and is now Morocco’s boomtown.  It has a French colonial past, however, and a lot of the buildings retain the local or art deco style.


After checking into our charming hotel (lobby above) my friend and I took a walking tour of the city to check out the architecture.  A kid on the street practicing his English told us that we could pretend it was Miami, with all the white buildings and pedestrian boulevards.  I was so happy that it was Casablanca, and I was actually there, so I didn’t feel the need to mentally escape my surroundings.

Somehow on our walking tour we managed to get a little lost in the local souq.  This was the most bustling of all the souqs that we had seen in Morocco, possibly because Sunday afternoon is shopping day!  I only took one pic with my phone, but I think you can get the idea of the crowd and activity situation.  As we walked through the produce section, something hit my lower leg, and in the instant I was sure that a goat was escaping the butcher!  No, it was just a shopkeeper’s kid, crawling out from under the display table onto the street.  We had a good laugh at our mutual fright, and moved on.


On my last evening, to celebrate the trip, we had dinner at Rick’s Cafe.  It’s definitely one of the nicest places that I had been to in Morocco.  Although there’s no authenticity, the place harkens back to the luxury of a different era.  The film was actually almost entirely produced on a set in Hollywood, and not at all in Morocco.  Still, the idea isn’t much different than the Bubba Gumps or Planet Hollywoods all over the world now.  If you go, you can have dinner, drinks, or just sit and listen to the jazz, or watch the movie upstairs, where a clubby screening room plays Casablanca on constant repeat.

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