Skip to content

Archive for

Paying the rent and the Foreigner Tax

Today I finally paid my March rent. It was due on the 15th, but when I tried to pay it the first time I was refused, after about 20 minutes of insisting that I have been paying this same bill since September, because I don’t have a kimlik (national identity card).
After talking to lots of Turks, somebody suggested that I might be able to pay it with a tax card – I do have one of those, from way back when I registered my car. I finally dug it out this morning and, armed with all of my identifications, went back to a different branch of the bank.
At Bank Asya, my landlord’s choice, you simply push a button indicating what kind of customer you are and want service you want, and then you wait. I just emailed my landlord to see of she has an account anywhere else, because unfortunately I always have to wait a very long time.
I’m obviously a yabanci (foreigner) with both hair and skin too light to ever be mistaken for a Turk. At this branch, there were two tellers offering counter service, both busy with customers when I drew my number. One finished then directly looked at me as the next customer waiting and busied himself with paperwork. I guess he didn’t want to have to try and speak another language. Another Turk arrived and, immediately apprising the situation, marched directly to the paperwork guy and completed his transaction in about two minutes. More customers showed up, drew numbers, and joined me in staring at Mr. Paperwork in disbelief. Finally the other teller finished and called my number. Almost immediately, the other guy continued on with work by calling the next number – thanks a lot, random Bank Teller Man.
I managed to go through the various presentations of identity and cash handover in about 5 minutes and all in Turkish. Meanwhile, Mr. I Can’t Be Bothered To Help a Foreigner was receiving a royal smack down from a little old covered lady for his attitude – karma is a bitch, man.

Zeugma Museum – the best mosaics ever!


I visited the Zeugma Museum on my weekend in Gaziantep.  Prior to seeing this museum, Volubilis, in Morocco, had the most striking mosaics I had ever seen.  Although it’s neat that at Volubilis the art is preserved in its original place, the Zeugma Museum has such an incredible collection that it easily surpassed Volubilis.  It’s billed as the biggest collection of mosaics in the world – pretty impressive, eh?  So, all of the these pictures were taken with my iphone, since my good camera was permanently water-damaged on an unusually rainy day at Volubilis (everything always comes full circle).  I’ve ordered a new one, and in one week to two months, the pictures on this blog should improve dramatically.  As you’re looking at the pictures, don’t forget that these scenes and designs are comprised of tiny tiles!

The museum is very modern, with interactive displays and a layout that doesn’t bore.  I have to admit, I get major museum-itis after about 45 minutes, which is why I’m always thankful when museums are small, have cafes, or frame beautiful views, so that I can take a break from looking at things.  Although I’m happy to spend an entire day being fascinated, I’m also amazed at how tiring simply checking things out can get.

But back to Zeugma – along with some fun interactive stuff, the museum has a clear layout, great signage, some projections that enhance understanding, plexiglass bridges that allow you to walk right over the mosaics, and multiple levels in which to view the art.  A bunch of tiles look really different when viewed up close and from far away, and only the most intricate are clear when you’re standing right in front of them.  I have a couple of close-ups below so you can see the effect.  The museum treats the big prize, Gypsy Girl, like the Mona Lisa, in its own special darkened room with music playing and a guard to ensure you don’t get too close to its multiple layers of security.  I’m not sure if any of this is required for the preservation of the piece, since it’s obviously survived the elements for so many years, but it does place the museum-goer in a position of wonder and respect when viewing it.  Plus, of all the mosaics, copies of “that girl with creepy eyes that are always looking at you”, as my friend Emily described her, adorns a wall in almost every business in Gaziantep.  She’s impossible to miss or forget.  Her eyes did follow as I walked the arc in front of her – creepy indeed.


Zeugma was a really old town, thought to be founded by a general of Alexander the Great somewhere between 400-300 B.C.  That’s right, the Macedonian civilization, one that I’m embarrassed to admit that I forgot about when discussing whether Macedonia was ever a real nation at my Balkans Class last week.  Remember both Alexander the Great and Philip the Macedon – yeah, they hail from Macedonia.  Some of these mosaics are older than the civilizations that we all studied.  It’s amazing that anything remains.  Zeugma was strategically located at one on the easiest fording spots of the Euphrates River and quickly became an important part of the east-west trade route.  Over time it grew dramatically, even to the point where it rivaled Athens during the Hellenistic heyday, and with its wealth numerous palaces were built.

In 2000, Turkey started construction of several dams along the Euphrates River.  This in turn spurred a rash of excavations of areas along the river known to contain this art before they were flooded forever.  Unfortunately they didn’t get to everything, and excavation continues, when there’s money and the water levels are low enough.

My favorite part of the museum was the cheeky descriptions of mosaics found around Turkey.  For one, Gaziantep has incredible excavators, and other excavators always have to call them in to rescue a mission.  The signs always said: “Thank god for Gaziantep!”  Second, there’s frequent talk of looters, robbers, and thieves – before the museum was founded those who had the public’s interest at heart were in constant battle against the various elements of the underground.  Many mosaics were destroyed by those looking for treasure under fish or other motifs in the designs.

Here’s a video you can watch to get a better idea (except that the narration is in Turkish).  Still, the scenery and pictures are really interesting.

Baklava Binge in Gaziantep

Would you go to a little town for a weekend just to eat baklava? This weekend, I went to Gaziantep, Turkey’s premier foodie town. The pride of the town is its pistachios and pistachio pastries, with baklava being the most well known. The town’s name used to just be Antep, which combined with the Turkish word for nut, fıstık, is how you say pistachio here: antep fıstığı. The city’s current name means Victorious Antep, since the town nobly resisted French occupiers during the War of Independence following WWI.

They say the pistachio orchards surrounding the town are blessed with special soil and air that makes the nuts and nut products so amazing. The town’s cuisine is renowned across Turkey – at the local culinary museum, they said Gaziantep’s girls are born cooking and never stop. I had doubts about the weather, since the brown air was full of dust carried by winds from Syria the first day I went out. While we were there, the weather changed every hour or so – I think we experienced every season each day.

There are nut shops and pastry cafes everywhere! Outside of the hotel, we were the only westerners wandering around the town. As I was travelling with Dennis, the Istanbul scholar, and his family, we got the usual surprised response when we spoke in Turkish. That also sometimes leads to discounts, and I think we got a good deal when we bought pistachios in bulk – now I have 2 kg to work through!  As we were walking, we noticed a group of men passing around a light barrel of red nuts like a hot potato. Everyone on the street stopped to watch. I wasn’t sure if it was a manliness competition or something else, so eventually I crossed the street and asked them what they were doing. The nuts, yer fıstığı, were some kind of red peanuts and pretty tasty too.

Turkish pistachios are smaller and open less than Iranian pistachios, which are the base for what grows in California. They also have a weaker pistachio taste but make up for it with a truly satisfying crunch and saltiness. The pistachios used for baklava are picked earlier in the season than the ones intended for eating; usually in August when they have a lower fat and higher protein content. The baklava and other pastries’ main flavor is the nut. Unlike most baklava I’d had before, the sweetness was so subtle that my teeth didn’t even feel it! Also, Turks use sugar syrup in lieu of honey, which I think may help to lower the sweet sensation. So, imagine a huge pillow of crushed nuts between buttery layers of phyllo dough – how much can you eat? We usually got the mixed plate, which included a square piece, a “carrot” shaped piece, and a crushed pistachio cookie, which was a little too nutty for me. Other diners at these places put down 6-12 pieces at a time! And I thought I could eat.

Besides the desserts, Gaziantep food is delicious. Cooking, along with the focus on fresh ingredients, is the pride of the town. We ate at regular kebab shops for lunch, and then at famous restaurants for dinner. The kebabs were all great – my friend said he had the best liver of his life at one of them. I thought it tasted just like liver, which I’ve never learned to love and therefore shouldn’t comment further.

At Şirvan, a restaurant recommended by an İstanbul foodie, I had Ali Nazik, which is a kofte served about an eggplant/garlic puree and garnished with a lot of yogurt. It’s a really old Ottoman dish and amazing. At İmam Cağdaş (the modern Imam, recommended by everybody, even other restaurants on the street), I asked for the eggplant kebab, but the waiter said it wasn’t the best season, and I took his recommendation for the Onion kebab. Beautifully grilled onions were served with ground beef and lamb kofte (like meatballs). The waiter assembled my first sandwich by taking off the outer layers of the onion, smashing the meatballs, then adding hot pepper and salt before rolling the bread like a burrito.  I didn’t realize a kebab could be so amazing!
In between the food and baklava, we managed to see a few tourist sites. I was really excited about the Culinary Museum. It was full of old cooking implements, most of which were too huge to imagine fitting into your kitchen – they were intended for large parties or feeding the army. It was a great exercise for my food vocabulary in Turkish – I didn’t know of half of the herbs or spices that were mentioned in English or Turkish.

We also checked out the War Museum. I think it’s meant for military history lovers, as most rooms are full of descriptive panels without much more to look at than words. Under the museum, however, caves with life-like displays illustrate how the town defended itself against French invaders.

Let’s all go back to Morocco!

A few weeks ago I was caught up in Oscars fever and downloaded some past Best Pictures from itunes.  From the scenery in one of them, Patton, I  started thinking about Morocco again. I immediately recognized some of the landscapes, including Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman city that still has fantastic mosaics.  It was as green in the movie as I remember it!   Although my trip to Morocco in January was the best one so far this year, I already have a loose plan in mind for when I go back.  Must-dos include camping in the desert and a cooking class.  What I’d love to do is figure out how to arrange a shipping container, or something like that, and buy lots of beautiful things – the colors and craftsmanship of furniture, pottery and carpets was amazing and I had to be very selective about what would fit in my backpack (the trip made me seriously reconsider my carry-on only travel mantra).

And then I found out that Williams Sonoma, in an effort to promote there Moroccan-inspired line, had a sweepstakes for a free culinary tour of Morocco!  I would have shared it with everybody here, but I just looked at the link again and realized it ended yesterday – I apologize for not getting my act together any sooner.

There are plenty of great ways to see Morocco though.  If you just want to do the Western side (where are the cities are) the trains are incredibly easy to use and taxis are cheap.  There are also plenty of tour companies that could quickly arrange a trip to the desert.   I went on a trip with G Adventures (formally GAP and similar to Intrepid) and my Nour, our amazing tour guide featured playing traditional Moroccan music on some of my posts, also offers private tours.  His site is

So, until I manage a return to the most exotic country I know, here’s a slideshow of the last trip. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We Were on TV!!!

On Thursday as my conversation group was starting, Bilge came in chuckling and said, “Sarah, I saw you on TV this morning!”  Wow – I felt like a celebrity, even though I just was part of a group of woman who sang on a morning program here.  It was fun to be on a real TV set, with the lights and cameras and microphones and random TV people everywhere.  Here’s the story, and the link, if you want to jump directly to the show:

Last fall I joined a choir, called Dostluk Korosu (Friendship Chorus), a group of international women living in Ankara who mostly sing Turkish folk songs. It’s a fun way to learn more about the Turkish language and culture, as well as meet really great people from all over the world. The choir is linked to the Turkish American Association, which also provides English classes and conversation groups and sponsors various charities and scholarships in Ankara. I’m also the leader of one of the conversation groups.

At a lot of traditional Turkish restaurants, a band will go around the table and sing on request, a lot like the mariachi bands in Mexico. The difference is that here the diners at the table, and sometimes the whole restaurant, will join in the singing! Laurence Bridges, a Belgian living in Ankara, wanted to learn some of the songs so she could sing along as well. I met her on a trip to the Black Sea Region this summer, and was impressed with her ability to sing along with the Turks at the campfire. She told me about the choir and eventually I joined – now I just need to go back to a folk restaurant to test my spontaneous Turkish singing skills!

There are two kinds of Turkish traditional music – halk (folk) and sanat (art). Actually, there are probably way more, as the Turkish population includes thousands of tribes of people with unique traditions. Over time, though, most traditional music was divided into folk or art categories. We sing a mixture and occasionally throw in western songs for holidays like Christmas. I like the folk music better, as it’s usually fun and upbeat. Almost all of the Ottoman music is about love, or lost loves, and has a slightly sad tone. In fact, the majority of all the songs are love songs.

So, on Thursday, we did a concert on a Turkish women’s show, called Biz Bize, which translates to We Us, or something like that. The link is below. The show starts out with a psychiatrist (the lady with the fun blond hair), then a Turkish girl who sings American songs, and then us. In between the songs are some directors from the Turkish American Association talking about the organization’s program. The soloist is Suzey, another American who studied voice at Brigham Young and, apart from our director/pianist Hamde, is the singing strength of the choir. We have 3 Americans, a Turk, a Belgian, a Danish, a Bosnian, and an Italian women, along with our Turkish director, Hamde, who is a professional musician. There are a few more women from other countries in the choir who couldn’t make it on Thursday.

To watch us on the show, click the link below, then click on 07 Mart 2013.  You’ll have to scroll to about halfway through (there’s no timer). And if you’re a mac user like me, you’ll have to download a plug-in to watch wmv files. Your browser should walk you through it.

I’m in the back on the left, near the piano. Amazingly, I wasn’t at all nervous to do the show. I think it’s due to the Navy training – once you have to explain complex physics principles to people who obviously know way more than you do, I guess singing a few songs is no big deal. Thanks, Navy.


Here’s the choir, waiting for our segment.


Some choir members talk with the host on the set.

%d bloggers like this: