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Rhodes For A Day (Reports From My Summer Adventures)

july  2013-07-12 at 10-58-25Earlier this summer to take a break from Turkey, Mom and I took a ferry to Rhodes for a day.  This beautiful island is less than an hour’s ride from Marmaris.  Rhodes is famous as one of the last holdouts of the crusaders, and it’s still very much a knight’s town.  It’s also a really great place for walking around.  On our way to check out some of the historical stuff, we found lots of winding cobblestone streets with arches, gardens, and pretty doors to keep us interested without ever losing the feel of the knights.  Also,  if you find yourself shopping-inclined, there are awesome little stores tucked away everywhere!

Eventually we got to the Archaeological Museum, whose courtyard alone is impressive and worth the cost of admission.  The museum is housed in the old hospital of the Knights of St. John, built in the 1400s.  Along with lots of way older stuff, you can see some of the weapons from crusader times. At first Mom and I were super-interested and checked out every room, but after so many amphoras and old bowls, even the most dedicated of us gets bored.

We breezed through the rest of the exhibits and rewarded ourselves with coffee and lemonade in a courtyard facing the museum, where we ran into scores of elderly American cruise ship passengers.

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My favorite part of the day, however, was a simple walk up the Street of the Knights.  This is where the headquarters and hotels for each country or principality’s knights was located.  Lots of coats of arms, churches, and courtyards – just amazing to see!

Of course, catching the ferry back was a little disappointing – I could have hung out on the island for a few days.

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Another Weekend In Istanbul

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Last month my best friend and I met up for a long weekend in Istanbul.  Since I have class on Friday and Girl Scouts on Saturday morning, Sara did all the big tourist sites on her own and then met me in Taksim Square late in the afternoon.  It’s hard to tell that the square was consumed by protests this summer.  Now it is clean and full of pedestrians going in every direction – a perfect spot for people watching while waiting on a friend.

We walked from Taksim to our apartment from airbnb, which was in my favorite neighborhood, Cihangir, while watching what we could see of the sun setting over the Bosphorus through the buildings.  As usual I got lost a few times, while constantly checking google maps on my phone, but this was an excuse for us to get a few more hills counted on the fitbit.  Istanbul has been known as the City of Seven Hills from way back when it was Constantinople, but after walking around a bit, I’d say it’s more like 7000 hills!

That night I took Sara to my favorite fancy restaurant, Asitane.  I’ve talked about it before on the blog.  It serves food from the historic Ottoman Palace archives, and is currently offering items from the fall menus.  There are so many choices of meze that we had a hard time agreeing on what to choose for the two of us.  Luckily, the portions aren’t huge, so you can actually eat most of what you order if you decide to go big!  We had a chestnut/lentil soup, green bean fritters, baba ghanoush, some rolls with mastic (a weird touch, but it works in the bread), and quail on eggplant, as well as a nice bottle of Turkish wine.  Sara was really impressed when the waiter offered us each a jar of quince jam as a parting gift – so Turkish to me, but a nice touch.

Sunday was all about the Bosphorus.  We grabbed a quick breakfast down the hill from our flat, then walked along the water to meet some friends at the newly opened Maritime Museum.  Because Sunday was also the anniversary of Ataturk’s Death, the streets were lined with people waving flags and wearing pins and hats in commemoration.  The entrance to Dolmabahce Palace, where Ataturk died, was mobbed with people going to pay respects.  We also saw a couple of interesting displays.  Here’s one made of baklava – that’s Ataturk on the left.

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The main exhibit hall of the Maritime Museum is full of galleons from the early Ottoman days to the end of the empire.  This is obviously where the renovation money went, as the rest of the museum is pretty disappointing.  Now that my Turkish is decent, I try to compare the info signs in each language.  On the panel describing the Ottoman’s sack of Constantinople, the English side was so bad that it actually didn’t tell the correct story!  This is pretty common all over Turkey but manages to disappoint me every time.  There are plenty of English speakers in the country to prevent these kinds of things.  Other exhibits in the museum, such as the much-touted Piri Reis map-making exhibit, are laughable with their lack of actual things to display.  It’s just a lot of panels and 3D video art that doesn’t quite fit the story.  Oh well.

Later we walked through a very lively part of Besiktas, and then took the ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadikoy.  The ferry, for the bargain price of 2 TL, is a great way to see the Bosphorus like the locals.  It’s usually a 20-30 minute ride and you get to skip the blasting bass music and weird sales pitches of the tourist boats.  At Kadikoy, we walked through the pedestrian area while Fenerbahce fans chanted cheers from restaurant to restaurant up and down the paths.  It was really impressive and one of those experiences of life in full blast where you just have to smile!

The next day we met friends for a great Turkish breakfast up in the Rumelihisar area, which is farther up the Bosphorus and where the Ottomans first gained control of one of the sea lanes into Constantinople.  The cafes there are famous for their breakfast spreads, and our choice, one of the many Kale Cafes (Kale is Turkish for Castle) was excellent.  My favorite part, as it always is at Turkish breakfast, was the kaymak and honey.  Kaymak is kind of like clotted cream, and goes excellently with fresh honey and warm bread.

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a fisherman by our Kale Cafe Turkish breakfast place

Next stop was the Grand Bazaar!  Sara did some serious shopping.  We even briefly fell for a rug sales pitch, but really just used it as a break to sit down and drink some apple tea.  When we had more shopping bags than we could comfortably carry for the day, we headed to the Aga Hamam, which was built for one of the Sultan’s wives and recently reopened to the public.

It’s one of the largest in Turkey.  This was my first real hamam experience, and I wanted to do it at a tourist site so that someone would be there to shepherd us through the process.  Obviously, you couldn’t take pictures, so I’ll describe it briefly.  I’m not a big fan of exfoliation, so I was a little scared of the whole idea of getting a scrub-down by a hamam lady.  First we were given lockers and changed into thin plaid bathrobes.  Next we were led into the hamam and given an alcove to hang out in and wait our turn.  Everything is lined in marble, and around the alcoves and some of the main walls are sinks with small bowls inside.  You use the bowls to pour water all over yourself.  Everything is slightly steamy, so I guess sitting and waiting allows you to relax while your pores are opening.  Our ladies came and got us, then led us to another room where sinks on a small ledge lined one wall.  Here they scrubbed us down with a slightly rough mitt – it wasn’t at all painful.  Next they led us to the large marble platform in the center of the room, a octagon or bigger.  Every customer got a side, and they first gave us a bubble massage and then a deeper pressure massage.  Afterward, we were rinsed again, and led back out of the steam area of the hamam.  I thought that was it, and after enjoying my juice, I went into to change – I wasn’t sure where my friend had gone.  As I was putting on my boots, my hamam lady came and asked if I still wanted the massage – I thought we already got one.  It turns out the standard package is for a bubble massage in the hamam, and then another one on a standard massage table.  So I once again undressed and went for massage 2 or 3 – I was so relaxed that I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore!  I think it was a great experience, and since then I’ve gone to a more local hamam which I’ll talk about in a future post.  The only problem is that because the massage rooms are screened and not complete walls, during the regular massage I heard everything going on with reception, including a lady taking 20 minutes to decide whether or not she wanted to cancel her appointment.  The noise was less than peaceful.

Our final event was a dinner with locals in Istanbul that I booked through Intrepid Urban Adventures.  We walked through the back streets behind Sultanhamet and met a couple of families living in an apartment building.  While their mothers served us a simple meal, the kids all told us about their school and what they wanted to be when they grew up – a teacher, a doctor, and a barber.  It was neat to see how average Istanbullu live, since so far I’ve seen more of the expat or tourist side. We also had quite a connection as there were four of us there with Sara-ish names, and I was the first visitor they had that spoke any Turkish.

We ended the evening with a backgammon lesson and some nargile (sheesha or bubble pipe).

If you’re going to Istanbul, November is really a great time.  The weather is really pleasant and I think everything is slightly less crowded than the summer months.

Turkey Day In Turkey

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After missing Thanksgiving in Paris last year due to illness, this year I doubled down by holding a lunch with some Turkish friends and going to a friend’s house for dinner.

I spent a week or so planning the menu in my head and trying to figure out how to get all the ingredients to make it a real feast for my first-time T-Day in Turkey guests.  I’m lucky to have a commissary for a turkey and all the squash and pumpkins for decorating the table – otherwise I would have been driving all over the city to see if I could get my hands on a bird.  Even though I usually see live turkeys while hiking outside of Ankara, no grocer seems to carry turkeys for cooking.  Fun fact – in Turkish, a turkey is called an Indian Chicken (hinti tavuk). Pumpkins and squash, the classic American fall harvest decoration items, are also hard to come by here.  At the regular markets in Turkey, you only see large, pale green pumpkins – the rest of the traditional Thanksgiving/fall bounty just isn’t part of the produce on offer here.

My cleaning day is Wednesday, and when my maid found out my guests were Turkish, she went into overdrive cleaning the common areas of my apartment.  Before the Turkish bayrams (holidays), where one of the customs is to visit neighbors and family, homes are deep-cleaned, full Navy Field Day style.  They even wash the windows!   I think the American standard must be a little different.  My maid also reminded me fifteen times before she left to close the door to my depot, or storage room.  Turks won’t understand something like this, she said over and over.  So, the morning of, after storing the pies and overcooked spiced nuts on my ironing board, I shut the door to the depot.  I don’t think anybody ever saw the excess of my American lifestyle!  On Wednesday we also chopped and peeled most of the vegetables, and I prepared the pies and dinner rolls, so that I’d only have to throw them in the oven when the turkey was done.

I was never a huge fan of turkey (the eating kind).  Growing up vegetarian, we only had a real turkey if we went to a grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving.  Otherwise, it was Tofurkey, or a Wham roll – stuff that makes every vegetable dish taste phenomenal.  So I never really learned how to cook a turkey.  I made one in 2001, and when we realized it was still not cooked when all of the other dishes were ready, we dumped it on the porch for the wildlife to share in the feast.  For my second attempt at cooking turkey, I consulted the oracle of google and learned all about brining.  Luckily I read all the info far enough in advance to transfer the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator in time for it to thaw, almost completely, and still have time for brine.  I read lots of complicated instructions for brining and then went with a simple mix: brown sugar, salt, peppercorns, oranges, thyme sprigs, ice, and water.   I stirred it all together in a bucket lined with a turkey roasting bag, threw the turkey in, tied the bag closed, and threw it in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, I pulled the turkey out of the refrigerator and drained the brine to let it rest before I put it in the oven.  To make the most of the oven preheat time, I made spiced nuts.  A friend at the commissary recommended that I pick up allspice, since it’s frequently called for in pumpkin pie recipes.  This was great advice, since I thought I had all the spices that comprise allspice, only to learn that it’s actually a completely different thing.  The bonus was a recipe for spiced nuts right on the label!  It also made for great lost in translation joking when my guests asked what was in the nuts and the pie, and thought I was talking about cologne when I said I added allspice!  I had to grab the jar from the kitchen to prove that I wasn’t feeding them food laced with men’s perfume.

Cooking the turkey was pretty routine, I think, except that the skin quickly browned and I added the foil tent about 30 minutes into cooking.  My small oven heats very unevenly, but there was only one way to fit the turkey, so I had to make it work.  I’ve since ordered an oven thermometer so I can figure out what’s going on in there.

While the turkey was roasting, I finished setting the table and made all the sides: glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans with tarragon, and stuffing.  I almost forgot to reheat the squash soup I had made the night before in the Vitamix (a great trick, by the way.  You can make hot soup from raw, uncooked ingredients.)  I thought everything was coming together well, but before I knew it, the guests had arrived, nothing was ready or plated, and the kitchen was a mess.  I joked that this was a real traditional Thanksgiving: when you show up and the food isn’t even ready.  The first Turkish know what do with a cooked turkey, luckily, since neither of the two Americans present had a clue.  With a pair of kitchen scissors and a knife, Meral cut the whole thing up and then decorated the platter with items from around the kitchen.

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While she worked the turkey, my other guests started cleaning up my kitchen!  How amazing is that?  I was concentrating on the gravy, which I had never made before.  I was also explaining a lot of the recipes to my friends, as all of this American food was pretty new to them.

Eventually, we got it all together and were able to sit down to eat.  We started with butternut squash soup, which was a shock to my Turkish guests.  Here, squash is only served as a sweet dessert, and it took a little mental gymnastics to accept it as a savory dish.  I tried to make it more appealing by offering the spiced, roasted nuts on top.  One friend thought it was so neat because she had seen people eat it in American movies!  My friends were also really into the sparkling apple cider that I had picked up from the commissary – now I have to see if it can be found in any of the Turkish shops.

I really enjoyed sharing the meal, and the tradition of giving thanks, with all of my friends who had opened their home to me in the past.  We went around the table for each person to give thanks – the most popular: for families, friends, and a hope for world peace.  Some threw in a couple of digs at the government for fun.  Finally, it was time for pie, my favorite part of Thanksgiving!  Everybody loved it, but even more than the pie, they like the whipped cream in a can that went on top.

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Due to the time zones, there was no football on for us to watch, but I think otherwise, my friends got a great first Thanksgiving, and I took great pleasure introducing them to our foodie holiday.  Instead of football, I relaxed with some schoolwork before heading out for a second dinner.

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