Adventures in Istanbul: Day 5

My last full day in Istanbul it rained. Not gentle summer droplets that cover the grass in National Geographic dew, but an all out assault on the pavement, alley cats, and umbrellas. The kind I’d been warned about in the opening pages of The Bastard of Istanbul, the eBook I’d read one chapter of on the plane. The sort of rain Californians have been praying for. Sigh.

I watched the clouds dump from the dining room. As long as it was warm outside, I didn’t really mind. Besides, my schedule was light – Dolmabache Palace, a hamam, and dinner with Andrew. I could have added a dozen more activities to my plate, but I felt about the same as the weather: pretty shitty. Apparently 12 hour days on one’s feet are not a prescription for Hungarian flu.

The commute to Dolmabache proved trying. Not because it was difficult to navigate (eight stops on a single train), but because the rain forced half of the city onto the subway. Which caused it to smell. HORRIBLY. I know people complain about Frenchmen, but let me tell you, Turkish men really take the cake. And by cake I mean cowpie. This ride was rank. I tried burying my nose in my sweater, but all this provided was comic relief for the local girls next to me. I am nothing if not transparent.

However, the rain did afford one major tourist advantage – no ticket line at Dolmabache. I’d heard horror stories of waiting over an hour, but I breezed right in through the insanely ostentatious gates. And like some sort of royal miracle, the clouds broke as soon as I did. Happy Sunday!

I wandered around the grounds for a bit, snapping photos of the fountain and palace with mouth agape. Whenever I see exorbitant displays of wealth like this, I can’t help but wonder how many people died during its construction. Less than the Pyramids, more than Little Hagia Sofia, I surmised.


Satisfied with my iPhone shots, I ascended the stairs for the tour.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” an adorable blond girl apologized for almost bumping into me.

“You’re totally fine,” I smiled, then took the opportunity to interrupt her conversation with her friend. “Where are you guys from?”

Presley, the blond, was from Canada, which explained her immense agreeability. Her friend Deema also hailed from Canada, but it was a bit more complicated.

“I’m from Syria originally, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia, then moved to Canada with my husband,” she explained.

“We can tell you that because you’re American, but it’s tricky here right now,” Presley said, giving me a knowing look. I felt instant sympathy for Deema. I wanted to ask her more questions about her feelings on the current situation, but I also didn’t want to be insensitive by prying.

“How long are you guys traveling?” I asked.

“Two weeks. We’re here with some of Nima’s family, then we head to Dubai. We’re staying with my friend’s family there,” Presley replied excitedly.


“I love Arab culture,” Presley said breezily, reading my mind. “I’m applying to jobs in Qatar.”

The tour started, but our conversation didn’t stop. I listened hungrily to Presley’s story, how she’d fallen in love with Arab culture after attending a school predominantly made up of Arabs and Somalians. I’d always been so appalled by the treatment of women in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly places like Pakistan and Iraq, that I couldn’t comprehend a Western woman being drawn to it. But I held an open-mind and passed no judgment. They were both bright, friendly, warm-hearted women.

I learned more about Presley’s conversion to Islam as we walked through room after room of decadence. Multi-ton chandeliers, sitting rooms larger than my childhood home, gold everything. The Sultan clearly had wanted to slap Versailles in the face. (And the Turkish economy – according to Wikipedia, the construction cost over a billion dollars in today’s currency, about a quarter of the country’s yearly tax revenue.)

Multi-ton chandelier

Multi-ton chandelier

When we got to the Ceremonial Hall, all I could do was laugh. It was, in a word, absurd. Presley tried to take photos secretly, but was quickly reprimanded and forced to delete them from her phone. I just stared in disgusted awe. It took one percent to a whole new level.

My secret photo was not seized...

My secret photo was not seized…

We toured the harem after, and while not as impressive as the Sultan’s residence, his women still lived lavishly if not oppressively. I tried to withhold my aversion, but I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of being sequestered for a man. How fortunate to have been born a woman in the 80s in the United States…

Back at the entrance, I invited Presley and Deema to come out with Andrew and me later. Our random gathering had worked so well the previous night, I wanted to continue in the more the merrier tradition. Presley and I exchanged information, and we parted ways.

For a moment I considered walking the three miles back to my hotel now that the rain had stopped. But after about ten feet my body reminded me that it was sick, so I hopped back on the train, sleeve over nose. The longer I stood there, the more I wanted chicken soup, 7-Up and my mom.

I settled for mint tea and my hard hotel bed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke up nearly two hours later, giving me ten minutes to get ready for my hamam. Should I cancel it? I wondered. At 85 Euros, it was my biggest splurge on any activity of the trip, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to drop that cash if I couldn’t enjoy it… But how many opportunities would I have to visit a 500-year-old Turkish bath? And wasn’t hot water and steam exactly what I needed?

I got to the Ayasofia Hurrem Sultan Hamami right at 4. I’d chosen it after reading endless reviews comparing the types of hamams offered in the city: modern vs. traditional, functional vs. extravagant, budget vs. not-budget. Rather uncharacteristically, I’d opted for one of the most expensive bathhouses in the area, mostly because it was a sure bet. I usually go for the deal, but when cleanliness is a factor, I don’t want to cut corners.

And thank Allah I didn’t. The famous mosque’s hamam far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was my favorite thing I did in Istanbul. Sensual, peaceful, restorative, it transported me to a whole different plane of being.

The experience began in the beautiful vaulted reception, where a large, maternal woman escorted me to a wooden changing room. She handed me a disposable thong, towel, lilac shower shoes, and a comb. I stripped down to nothing, slipped on the thong, and wrapped myself in the towel.

I waited on one of the cushioned benches in the reception, and a few minutes later a thin, young Turkish woman with a soft smile came and took my hand. She seemed to me a sort of angel, guiding me into a spiritual realm.

In the bath, afternoon sunlight flooded down from the top of the dome, bouncing off the white walls through the steam and infusing the space with an ethereal quality. It was surprisingly empty, with only a single girl, no more than eight years old, being rubbed down by an older woman.


My attendant led me past them into the main room and up onto an elevated marble cubicle. She smiled sweetly as I wobbled on the wet stone, gripping my hand as if to say “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Once situated, she disrobed me and sat me down next to a golden basin. She turned it on and began pouring hot water over me with a metal bowl. My body immediately surrendered to the heavenly liquid. Sometimes I forget the magic of water.

After a little while, she handed the bowl to me and indicated I should continue bathing myself. She left me to this, then returned a few minutes later, to take me to the next stage: the actual cleansing.

In my research, I’d read about people having their skin rubbed raw in hamams, new skin sloughing off alongside the dead. I experienced the exact opposite. My attendant firmly but carefully scrubbed at my limbs, under my arms, along my thigh.

At first I kept my eyes closed, flashing back to childhood baths with my brother. When was the last time I’d been bathed by another person? Four years old? Five? I opened my eyes and looked at the girl rubbing my naked body. We hadn’t spoken a single word, and yet I felt a profound connection with her. The intimacy of this moment will never leave me.

Once my skin had been turned into butter, we made our way onto the central marble platform for the final part of my treatment: the bubble bath massage. I am not exaggerating when I say this was one of the most incredible sensations I’ve ever felt. The scent of jasmine, the gentle weight of the bubbles, the press of her hands, the hypnotic echo of the soft murmurs unable to escape the dome. I had jumped into another dimension, or perhaps back to my mother’s womb. Time, space – nothing seemed to exist in this embryonic state.

And then it was over. My attendant took me back into the reception, where tea and Turkish delights greeted me. Never had anything tasted so sweet. It was like an infant being given ice cream for the first time.

“Thank you for this gift,” I heard a woman close to me graciously tell her attendant. I smiled. What a gift indeed.

Rejuvenated, I floated back to my hotel and got ready for my dinner with Andrew. We met at the train stop near his place, and walked to a neighborhood restaurant he’d been wanting to try – Naïf. Presley messaged me she would join us for a drink later.

Once again, Andrew did not lead me astray. I let him do all of the ordering, then relished in the shared plates of octopus, homemade pasta, and zucchini fritters. Sauvignon Blanc flowed, and so did the conversation. I learned about his Turkish girlfriend who was currently living in Paris, his passion for food, and the time he slept in a car in a garage that did not belong to his friend in Australia.

“’What are you doing, mate?’” Andrew reenacted the neighbor’s surprise. “’What are you doing in my car?’”

The drunken escapade had a happy ending – the man gave him a ride to his friend’s place – but we both agreed we’d entered a new phase in our life, one that no longer contained space for such wild, (un)memorable nights. Oh, the virtues of growing up.

But that didn’t mean we couldn’t go enjoy a cocktail on a rooftop overlooking the city. Presley met us at the restaurant, and we made our way up winding streets to Balkon.

The bar was incredible. Sure, the drinks were awful (Presley’s dirty martini contained neither olives nor vodka and my sauv blanc tasted like it’d been fermented in my grandmother’s closet), but the view was spectacular.* The first twenty minutes, I hardly said a word – I just stared at the blood orange crescent moon hanging right over Suleymanye. How could this even exist? For the second time that day, I had entered another realm.

The arrival of Toby, Andrew’s journalist friend, brought me back to the rooftop (along with a resident stray cat – so cute!!). Toby had lived in Istanbul off and on for a decade, working for the UN, and was currently staying at Andrew’s for a month.

“And how do you guys know each other?” he asked, swigging from a pint.

“Well, I met Andrew last night at dinner through our mutual friend, and Presley this morning at Dolmabache Palace.”

Toby stared at us in disbelief, then started laughing. “That is…”

Random? Synchronistic? Awesome?

“What happens when you travel,” I smiled.


Although guarded at first, by the end of the evening Toby was part of my traveling crew. We laughed, we cried, we braved the grungy after-hours streets together. As we walked Presley to her hotel off Taksim Square, he slung his arm around me like an older brother.

“You know, you’re alright, Amy. You’re really cool. I hope we can be friends,” he said, his accent thick with beer. “Can we be actual friends?”

“Of course,” I grinned. “I’ll add you on Facebook as soon as I get home.”

We dropped Presley off, and then walked the mile back to Andrew’s, where the boys knew of a reliable taxi service. (If that sentence concerns you, trust me, I was concerned too.) Toby spoke to a driver in Turkish, and arranged my safe return home. I hugged them both goodbye, and got into the cab.

As we sped through the empty streets, I thought about all of the wonderful, diverse people I’d met over the last eleven days in Budapest and Istanbul. Steve, Heather, Brandon, Leifennie, Ren, Toby… Could we be actual friends?

The reality was, I probably wouldn’t see most of them again. There was a chance our paths would cross, like the Ketchup customers I had lunch with in Paris, or the friend I hadn’t seen since middle school in Phnom Penh. But most likely, this would be the extent of our time shared together. And while this made me cry in the taxi that night, I knew that there was a certain beauty to it. Because the point was not whether we would see each other down the road, but that we had met on it at all. What a gift.

*I didn’t take a photo of it because my iPhone would never have done it justice. Sorry Apple, I still love you!


Adventures in Istanbul: Day 4

With Amanda in Ephesus from sun up to sun down, I had the whole day to explore Istanbul on my own. Or not, because after a few messages with Jonathan, one of the San Franciscoans from the previous night, I had a lunch date with them at 2pm. How easy it is to make new friends abroad! I thought, scarfing down the chili-flaked omelet and Turkish cheese that had become my morning staple. Until then, I’ll go shopping!

Now, I am not one of those travelers who empties their bank accounts on clothes and souvenirs. In fact, I almost never declare more than $20 on my custom’s form, intentionally bringing only a stuffed carry-on to prevent such impulse buys as 400 Euro army green coats in Paris (so happy I didn’t pick up that one– thank you tiny Samsonite!) But I wanted to bring back something for my boyfriend, and I’d heard Istanbul had great leather products, so I headed to the Grand Bazaar.

My first instinct when I stepped into the legendary shopping mecca was to take a selfie. Maybe it was because the myriad of colors and shimmering objects brought out my pink lipgloss, or more likely because the frenzied consumerism spurred on the “me me me” philosophy, but that’s exactly what I did. Then, I faced the madness.


And I do mean madness. My friend Lauren had warned me before I left to go in with a plan, but I felt in no way prepared for the onslaught of men aggressively hawking their wares. The second I stepped into the leather section it came at me from all sides.

“Miss, over here, I know what you want,” one called. You do?! Awesome, please tell me so I can stop stressing about what to give Daniel!

“Everything almost free!” another regaled me.

“Ha! Almost!” I laughed.

“You can try on, you don’t have to buy,” a younger guy pointed towards some quite cute jackets. The fact that that was even a commendation made me run the other direction.

To twenty more men saying the exact same things. Overwhelmed, I snapped a quick photo of some man bags and rushed back into the main hall. Or a main hall. The Grand Bazaar has so many entrances and exits and aisles and off shoots that even Google Maps can’t figure out where you are. I decided to just browse the stalls, collecting iPhone shots as souvenirs.

Pretty lanterns.

Pretty lanterns.

When I’d tired of pretty lanterns and Turkish tea sets, I set out for the Spice Bazaar. While not as big as the Grand Bazaar, my mom had assured me it was more “photogenic.” It was indeed – no need for selfies here.


The second I stepped in a big goofy grin spread across my face. The baskets filled with nuts and spices and Turkish delights, the colorful store fronts and old men holding out sample – I was in heaven. And Daniel would’ve been too. I suddenly knew exactly what to get him.

I walked into the very first stall and bought “Love Tea,” red peppercorns, traditional kebab seasoning, and Turkish delights. Was this the best economic strategy? Probably not, but I didn’t feel like haggling. Besides, the prices were lower than the states and the short good-looking salesman flirted respectably.

“Your boyfriend would want you to go out and experience the city with a nice Turkish guy,” he insisted, offering me his card.

“I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t, but I’ll ask,” I smiled, paying for the items and stepping back into the market.

Flirtacious spice seller.

Flirtacious spice seller.

I wandered the aisles for a bit, sampling sweets from trays when the shopkeepers weren’t looking. I found my way outside o the cheese and olive and fish vendors. Now that’s what I’m talking about! My mouth watered over the huge vats of creamy white goodness. I couldn’t bring it back to Daniel, but I could at least dedicate a photo to him on Instagam.


By the time I’d finished at the market, I had just enough time to walk to the restaurant for lunch. I took side streets, weaving through less touristy, more raw parts of Istanbul. There were no kebab shops here, no throngs of people. In fact, there was no one. I tried not to be intimidated, and picked up my pace.

When I arrived at the aqueduct, a block from the restaurant, I still had 20 minutes to kill. My feet hurt, my head ached, and my illness flared – I needed to meditate, if not medicate. I sat down on a bench looking out at the centuries old waterway, closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing.

Fifteen minutes later I felt like a new person. I stood up to leave, and was immediately stopped.

“Excuse me, would you mind, uh, sitting there again. For a photo?” the man asked in broken English. I stared at him, incredulous. What are you trying to sell me?

He sensed my hesitancy and showed me his camera. “I took this of you, but it would be better centered. I can send to you if you like.”

I liked the photo, and seeing he had pure motives, agreed to model again. I wondered how many other photos belonging to strangers I appeared in. Hundreds, no doubt, intentionally or otherwise. It didn’t seem a coincidence that this one happened to be brought to my attention while meditating, a practice I’d only recently begun. The universe guides us in mysterious ways.

Courtesy of Gökçe Ülgen

Courtesy of Gökçe Ülgen

The San Franciscoans were running late, so I waited patiently at the restaurant, perusing the menu. When they finally arrived, it felt like a mad rush to make up for lost time – the 20 minutes of tardiness, the lifetimes we’d lived ignorant of each others’ existence. Jonathan talked faster than any New Yorker I’d ever encountered, and it thrilled me. He spoke of his current nomadic living situation, of jumping from one country to the next, not knowing where the following week would take him. Of giving back to the community and saving lives (he gave bone marrow – twice!). Of the company he was currently launching involving online dating.

“Online dating?! Are you serious?! I knew we met for a reason!” I told them about my Tinder escapades and my forthcoming book, and we laughed at the serendipity.

“Maybe we’ll be able to team up!” Jonathan exclaimed. I concurred. Again, mysterious ways.

After lunch, the four of us made our way to the Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul’s largest. While not as beautiful or crowded as Hagia Sofia or Sultanhamet, its austerity provided a stronger sense of spirituality. It invited mediation, contemplation, mindfulness…


But right then we were more interested in mayhem. Heather wanted to buy a few things from the bazaar, so I led the way back to the shopping jungle. This time, though, I felt more confident with friends by my side in the bartering battle.

“I’ll pay ten Lira for this mug,” I told a salesman. He shook his head, and I walked on. But Jonathan stayed to fight the good fight. He lost, but we won at the next vendor, scoring a coffee cup sporting a Turkish flag.

“Why did you want that mug?” Jonathan asked, trying to mask his judgment of my souvenir predilections.

“Well, it’s what my boyfriend and I are collecting when we travel. He’s already been doing it for years with his mother, and then I got him these mugs for his birthday, with this hashtag we created together, team no days off–” I blushed. “Oh god, we are so crazy cheesy in love, it’s disgusting.”

“No it’s not, it’s amazing! You’re glowing,” he smiled. “I love romance, tell me more.”

I told him we’d only been dating for a few months, but that we both just knew right away, like my parents. That I’d also given him a puzzle of us for his birthday, because he had all the pieces I’d been working on putting together for years. That he completed my puzzle.

“That’s funny, because my ex and I had a similar thing between us. We used to say we were each other’s corner pieces,” he confided. I smiled, feeling more and more comfortable being my hopeful romantic self.

The bazaar was now closing, and we all felt in need of a nap. But I didn’t want this to be the end of our journey together.

“Amanda and I are going to a restaurant at 9 in Beyoglu with a friend of a friend. Would you guys want to come?” I asked.

They loved the idea, so I confirmed the reservation change, and we agreed to meet a couple of hours later in Jonathan’s lobby. We had a quick drink there, then ubered over to Antiochia Concept, the restaurant chosen by Ally’s English friend Andrew.

It. Was. Delicious. Of course, I had expected it to be – Andrew is a chef currently working at an upscale French restaurant in Istanbul. If I was going to trust anyone aside from TripAdvisor, it was him. And he did not lead us astray with this hip place specializing in Hatay cuisine. From the stylish décor to the stop-my-heart-right-now fried cheese to the chef de cuisine sending us out extra dishes and feeding them to Jonathan with his eyes closed (don’t ask), everything was divine.

This steak though!

This steak though!

Especially the company. Sometimes bringing together complete strangers can be awkward and terrifying. But with Andrew, Amanda, Heather, Tony, Jonathan, and myself, it felt as organic as a health food store in Marin County. The conversation just flowed. I felt like I could talk to them about anything and everything.

And in fact, we did. Before dinner, during dinner, after dinner. The conversation just flowed. I won’t go into it here, because it got so deeply personal and unbelievably intimate and doesn’t belong on a blog, but in just 48 hours, I had managed to delve into topics with these five former strangers that many people spend their whole lives avoiding. The experiences they shared humbled me. Through each of them, I was beginning to see why we really travel: to expose ourselves to the stories of others.


Adventures in Istanbul: Day 3

Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia

With only one full day together to hit all of the major sites, Amanda and I started out early, planning our attack over coffee at my hotel. We wanted to be efficient, but also not so efficient that we rushed through everything and appreciated nothing. There’s little more frustrating than being pressured to move on from a view, a work of art, or a peaceful moment by a fellow travel companion, a guide, or a pushy tourist (I’m looking at you, Ms. Elbows at the Qin warrior exhibit.)

We kicked the day off at Topkaki Palace, arriving ten minutes before the doors opened to purchase a Museum Pass.* Things could have gotten off to a rough start when Amanda’s machine produced a receipt sans ticket, but thankfully a helpful employee resolved the situation by breaking into the back and handing her the pass. We proceeded to the entrance and breezed right in.

If you love Islamic architecture (who doesn’t??), you will love Topkaki Palace. The mosaics, the arches, the gorgeous Arabic calligraphy, the 86 carat diamonds. (Okay, so there’s only one 86 carat diamond, in the treasury, and it’s awesome.) Crazy Kimye bling aside, though, the palace evokes a certain serenity, demands a quiet appreciation of its beauty, unlike other opulent royal European residences, say, Versailles.

We meandered about the grounds slowly, commenting here and there on door designs we liked and things we couldn’t believe. (I’m sorry, but there’s no way that stick was Moses’ staff in the relic room. It’s clearly very old and an important symbol, but just no.) We paused to enjoy the views across the river, and tried to imagine it centuries ago, similar but different. In the massive kitchens and confectionary, I pictured the trays of sweets and the smells of spiced meats. I allowed myself to be transported back in time, to experience the Palace as it once was.

Welcome to my humble abode.

Welcome to my humble abode.

Except for the Harem. We did not allow ourselves to experience the Harem. Not of out some feminist protest, although we are both feminists. No, sadly we skipped the Harem because we’d been told not to spend the extra six bucks on it. If only we’d have gone over to the queue, we would have realized that it was included with the Museum Pass. Sigh. Live and learn to once again do better research.

After Topkaki, we made a quick stop into the Hagia Irene (free on the Museum Pass, takes five minutes tops), then visited the Hagia Sofia, every Istanbul tourist’s top priority. For good reason. Even with extensive scaffolding on one side for restorations, the church turned mosque confounds the senses. Like the mosque at Cordoba, one can simply not get over the blending of the two religions. It’s fire and ice, but it works. After all, they are both elements from the same body.

We spent some time on the ground floor, looking up through the hanging light fixtures at the Christian mosaics and black and gold calligraphic disks. On the upper gallery we pondered the sacred building’s various incarnations. I tried to recall the things I’d learned in my Islamic Art History course several years ago, but then, that hardly mattered as much as the experience of it in the flesh. One doesn’t have to know the whole history to understand the meaning of it.

Inside the Hagia Sofia

Inside the Hagia Sofia

From the Hagia Sofia, we debated whether to break for lunch before or after the Archeology Museum, and decided on the latter. To tide me over, I opted for one of the bagels sold by the ubiquitous street vendors. Word of advice: avoid them if you care about carbs and freshness. I took a few bites in the name of blood sugar, tossed it, then trekked on through the damp streets, careful not to unintentionally perform the electric slide.

Aside from the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great not being on display, we enjoyed the museum. There were plenty of other gorgeous carved stones to house dead folk, and even some of the remains of said folk. One wing held sections of the Gates of Ishtar, another statues and coins and pottery of Ancient Istanbul, and an exhibit was dedicated entirely to a single archivist named Mandel. Such displays always impress me. Even though we only spent ten minutes observing his work in cataloguing, I felt a tremendous respect for the level of commitment and amount of time it obviously required. Some day I’ll find that in my own work, I promised myself.

Sarcophagi from the Archaeology Museum

Sarcophagi from the Archaeology Museum

Remains of Said Folk

Remains of Said Folk

After the bummer dinner the previous night, I made sure to find us a kebap restaurant worth eating at. TripAdvisor did not steer us wrong. We got a table at Buhara Kebab House, and what it lacked in air conditioning it made up for in tender lamb and eggplant skewers.

Our stomachs placated, we traversed our way back to Sultanhamet. Along the way, I spotted a guy I knew.

“Hi!” the guy waved.

“Hi!” I smiled back, in those seconds between registering a familiar face and placing it. It was the Turkish gentleman who had wanted to “change my life.” My cheeks went red and I sped up, afraid I’d given him some sort of invitation. I felt a bit embarrassed, but also pleasure in the synchronicity of bumping into someone in a foreign country. Even a would-be Lothario.

We made it to the Blue Mosque, and shuddered at the sight of the line. As an active place of worship, they only let a select number of visitors in at any given time. But the queue turned out to be a blessing – that’s where we met Göktuğ.

A tour guide, Göktuğ started speaking to Amanda in Turkish. When she broke the bad news she only spoke English, he apologized, having mistaken her for a native. (“That happens to me everywhere I travel,” she told me later.) We asked him a question about the wait, he informed us it would take no more than 15 minutes, we asked him a few more questions, and then he started giving us a free tour.

“My clients aren’t that interested in me,” he explained. “They are very successful architects from San Francisco. Very sophisticated.” He gave us a knowing smile. We were more than happy to be interested in him, and quickly formed a rapport.

Inside the mosque, Göktuğ gave us a brief history, from the attempt to build a more beautiful building than the Hagia Sofia to the sourcing of the materials to the actual construction itself. We listened attentively, and for a moment I wished we’d hired a guide for the day. Not that this information wasn’t a Wikipedia click away, but there was something about the actual transfer of knowledge from one person to another. At the end, we thanked Göktuğ, and wished him well with his sophisticated clients.

Ceiling of Sultanhamet

Ceiling of Sultanhamet

Our final stop for the day was the Basilica Cistern. I’d say we saved the best for last, but I’d be lying, because everything was pretty much amazing. But the cistern was… otherworldly.

“This is going to sound weird, but I feel like I’m on a film set,” I whispered to Amanda. Not that it felt like Universal Studios or the Fox Lot. Actually, the exact opposite. I felt so swept back in time that the only way I could make sense of it was through the lens of cinema. (Perhaps that’s a sad reflection on my imagination, or maybe it just means I’m an actor.)

As we slowly zigzagged through the maze of 7th century columns, breathing in the musky underground air, I had to keep myself from bursting into laugher. The sensations elicited by the ancient atmosphere were making me giddy. Sort of like being in love.**

Join me as we step back in time...

Join me as we step back in time…

We finished our sightseeing around 5, giving us plenty of time to rest up before our “fancy” dinner. I returned to my hotel and researched restaurants, landing on Lokanta Maya. We made a reservation for 9:30, and I met Amanda at hers at 8:45 to walk the waterfront before.

While the views from the boardwalk below the Galata bridge were delightful, the aggressive servers were not. We were glad we hadn’t chosen one of the numerous Baliks: even the best fish in the world could not justify that sort of haranguing.

The service at Lokanta Maya, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. Our server could have cared less if we ate there or at McDonald’s. But the food and the atmosphere proved more than enough to counter the lack of attentiveness. We loved every bite of our spicy shrimp, beet salad, salmon with pink peppercorns, and leg of lamb.

Go to Lokanta Maya!!

Go to Lokanta Maya!!

And the conversation? Forget it. Sometimes it’s difficult to see just how connected we all are, how shared the human experience truly is. But then you meet an Amanda, and you both speak freely from your hearts, and you can tell the other person is listening – truly listening – and you realize that this is what it’s all about. This moment, this perfect vulnerable moment, discussing identity and writing and body image and dad bods and-

“Did you just say dad bods?” the good looking guy at the table next to us interrupted. “Because I have one.” He smiled and turned to his beautiful wife, who wore her pregnancy so well I didn’t even notice until the end of the evening when we hugged good night.

I confirmed that I had indeed said dad bods, in the context of gender and body politics, and thus began an enthusiastic conversation with our San Franciscoan neighbors. So enthusiastic, in fact, that we exchanged numbers before they hopped in their uber, and tentatively scheduled a lunch the next day (just me, Amanda would be off day-tripping in Ephesus.) Again, so much for traveling alone.

Amanda and I ended the night on a high note. A sugary one. Although stuffed from our delicious dinner, we couldn’t resist trying next door Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the spot that had been recommended on the river cruise. Kids in a Turkish candy store, we ordered a little bit of everything. They were small, so we thought we could handle it.

Wrong. One bite of the baklava and I felt a rush not unlike cocaine. It was THAT sweet. And-

“It almost tastes like… cheese?” I said, clearly dazed from the crack sugar.

“Whoaaa,” Amanda’s face contorted. “That is straight butter. Like, a pound of it.”

We started laughing uncontrollably. Out of happiness, out of delirium, out of developing Type 3 Diabetes. We took a few more bites, then threw in the napkin.

“How are people eating plates filled with these?!” Amanda glanced around. Sure enough, the tables of locals were gobbling down three, four, even six baklavas a piece.

“I have NO idea!” I said, still cackling. “I guess it’s a Turkish delight!”

Crack sugar.

Crack sugar.

* If you are questioning whether or not to get a pass while visiting Istanbul – DO IT. Even if you only hit a few of the sites on it, you’ll still break even and get the benefit of skipping the lines.

**I’ve actually been feeling this a lot lately. A lot a lot. Thank you, Daniel Diaz 🙂

Adventures in Istanbul: Day 2

From Galata Tower

From Galata Tower

I woke up at 7am with the last remnants of a Strepcil buried under my tongue. I’d placed it in my mouth several hours earlier, and by some miracle it had survived until morning. It quickly dissolved along with the rest of the night’s sky.

Breakfast didn’t start until 8, so I made myself a cup of the complimentary instant coffee (3 in 1!) and did some research for the day. Amanda got in around 4, so I had plenty of time to explore Istanbul on my own. However, I didn’t want to hit any of the major sites, which I would be doing with her, so I took the advice of Lonely Planet and opted for a Bosphorus River Cruise.

After breakfast I showered and got ready. I still felt pretty crummy, and looked forward to the passive enjoyment promised by the boat tour. I plugged the destination into Google Maps, and set off on foot.

I walked briskly but attentively, taking in the cobbled streets, tiny shops, and shameless cats. Daniel had sent me an article that morning declaring the city should rename itself Catstantinople, and indeed there were ally cats everywhere. Locals cared and loved for them, so they were unafraid of brushing against a bare leg or asking for food at an outdoor table. I thought of Marshmallow, the stray my family had adopted on my behest as a child. He would have loved Turkey.

Cat of Turkey

Cat of Turkey

As I waited for a stop light near the water, I checked my phone, not sure where exactly to go.

“Do you need some help?” an attractive Turkish man asked me.

“Oh no, I’m fine,” I lied, not wanting to encourage this would-be Lothario.

He tried another strategy. “Can I take you out for a drink tonight?”

“I don’t think my boyfriend would appreciate that, but thank you.”

“But you look so beautiful,” he persisted. “Please, can I change your life tonight?”

“Nope!” I laughed, amused by his proposal, and sauntered across the street.

I found the dock, and purchased my ticket for the Sehir Hatlari. I boarded the ferry and did a quick round, searching out the best available seat. I settled on a row near the back next to another single female. I was dripping sweat and red-faced from my sickness. The beautiful young Italian girl across the way studied me. She had a notepad and pen in hand, and I wondered if she was going to document me the way I would undoubtedly document her. “Another out of shape, sunburned American” I imagined her writing in her native tongue.

We disembarked at 10:30, and I was grateful for the breeze and the smell of the water. The other passengers went wild with photos immediately, but my seat mate and I simply sat observing in silence.

From the boat

From the boat

After a few minutes, my attention shifted from the Turkish flag specked banks of the Asian and European continents to a bizarre cottony feeling in my mouth. It was making it difficult to swallow, and was unlike anything I’d experienced before. My first thought was an allergic reaction – could it be the Turkish cheese from the breakfast buffet? It did taste strange, if not delicious. Or the omelet? I knew this made no sense, I’d eaten hours ago, but what else could it be? Maybe I have a new strain of Hungarian bubonic plague! My hypochondria kicked into overdrive, and I quickly regretted the entire trip. Who was I to think I could travel alone? What on earth was I thinking?! I don’t even have my inhaler!!

I pulled out my phone and started typing affirmations. “You are fine. It was probably from falling asleep with the cough drop. There are plenty of people around you if anything happens.” They didn’t work. My eyes welled and my chest tightened. I was panicking. Then I remembered what I did when this happened during 40 Dates: put my attention on someone else.

“How amazing is that place? Do you think it was once a residence?” I asked my seat mate shakily, nodding to a majestic but deteriorating palace.

“Maybe! It’s beautiful,” she responded. We started chatting and I learned she was from Brazil, on a one-year travel sabbatical.

“A whole year by yourself?!” I was amazed. I was barely making it through my first full day. “How has it been?”

“Incredible,” she smiled. “But not without its challenges.”

She told me about her experiences in Southeast Asia, through Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. We agreed Angkor Wat was one of the most magical places on earth, and swapped stories from Thai beaches. My anxiety slipped away, and before I knew it we’d docked at Anadolu Kavagi.

“We’re here for three hours,” she informed me. “I’m going to get lunch if you want to join?”

I thanked her for the offer, but opted to walk up to the old castle instead. I wasn’t hungry yet, and besides, I wanted to check out the view from above.

It was fabulous. While the castle itself wasn’t much to speak of – crumbling ruins from the 12th century – the sweeping panorama took my breath away. (Actually, the winding pathway up the hill did; I was once again pouring sweat.)

“Would you mind taking a photo of me?” I asked the young Asian man near me.

“Yeah no problem! Where are you from?” He replied, clearly American.

“New York, but originally California. You??” I grinned, pleased to have found another solo English speaker.

“Same! San Diego and San Francisco!”

“Awesome, wanna grab lunch on that terrace over there with the epic view?” He did, and so we grabbed a table.

Breaking the bridge.

Breaking the bridge.

Over fresh caught seabass I learned Brandon was studying cellular biology at UCSD (my boyfriend’s alma mater- go Tritons!!) and had just completed a summer program in Paris like the one I had done in 2010. We gushed over our shared abroad experience, reminiscing about the art, the nightlife, the wine. He’d spent the last four days in Istanbul with his mom, and gave me some tips. Budapest was his next stop after a night train to Bucharest, so I gave him the 411 I’d received from Ally and her crew. There was something effortless about our conversation. Travel had obliterated the fact we were complete strangers.

After lunch we meandered the small fishing village, heading down the one main road to the “beach.” We picked up a tour guide- a stray dog who eagerly led us out onto the rocks emerging from the cobalt water. I took off my shoes and splashed around with him. We laughed and declared him our spirit animal as round, old Turkish men bathed nearby. I could think of worse ways to spend a sick day.

Brandon and I at the beach.

Brandon and I at the beach.

By the time we returned to Eminonu, it was 4:30. I texted Amanda via tethering to Brandon’s phone,* and got the address for her hotel. Brandon walked me across the bridge before peeling off to try a baklava place two other passengers had highly recommended. We hugged goodbye, aware that we would most likely never see each other again, and wished each other well on our journeys.

I met Amanda at her hotel, and instantly had booker’s remorse. At $65 a night, The Banker Han by the Sofa was a gem. Opened in April, the luxury boutique oozed sophistication on a budget. I wished I hadn’t been in such a hurry to book and spent more time researching hotels. But then I reminded myself of the wonderful service at the Blue Istanbul, and the green slowly left my cheeks.

Our first and only real event planned for the evening was the Galata Tower. The wait was half an hour to go up to the viewing deck, but Amanda assured me it was worth the time and the $12. She was right. Not just because the view was even more spectacular than from the castle, but because it gave me the opportunity to get to know Amanda better. Up until this point, all I had really known was that we shared a mutual appreciation for margaritas. Not a bad start, but… the more we spoke about work, writing, travel, life, the more certain I felt that we would become long-term friends back in LA.

At Galata Tower

At Galata Tower

After taking in Istanbul from every angle, we made our way up the Istiklal, the famous shopping and night club street that dissects Beyoglu and ends at Taksim Square. We mistakenly believed we could find a decent restaurant amidst the hubbub of chain stores and kebap shops, and lamented having not done more research. We entered a Starbucks in search of wifi and tripadvisor, but to no avail. Alas we succumbed to our hunger and returned to Galata Tower to dine at an unremarkable tourist trap, promising ourselves a formidable culinary experience the following night.

“Hey, at least it’s a beautiful view,” I remarked, the sun long gone and the tower lit up in green and purple hues. She agreed, and we snapped a few photos before heading back to her hotel and meeting Will.

“Hey, where you guys from?” The boisterous American popped up next to us in the street, obviously having overheard our conversation. We told him LA, and he began giving us a lively account of his love for Istanbul. He walked with us down to the train station, and Amanda peeled off to go to her hotel.

“I’m going to take some photos from the bridge,” Will informed me.

I hesitated. Did I trust this stranger? Absolutely. “I’ll join you,” I said, and we set out on foot across the Galata Koprusu. On the other side, we posted up next to a few fisherman, and admired the Rustem Pasa. Below, brightly lit neon boats jostled back and forth next to the shore.

“What are those?” I asked, then answered my own question. “Oh my god, those guys are cooking on there!” I laughed as I watched the chefs perform a balancing act over large central grills.

We took a few photos, shared a couple more stories, then parted ways. As I walked the mile back to my hotel, I couldn’t stop smiling. The views. The architecture. The people. In less than twelve hours, I had made four new friends to enjoy this extraordinary city with. So much for traveling alone!

Night View from the Bridge

Night View from the Bridge

*Travel tip: T-Mobile offers free world Internet. It’s dial-up slow, but it’s FREEEEEE!

Adventures in Istanbul: Day 1


Author’s Note: I’ve decided to make my travels in Istanbul a series, since I experience so much in my six days there. Thus, this read will be a little longer than usual, for you faithful blog readers accustomed to my 1,000 word essays. Thanks for following along!!

The idea of traveling alone can be overwhelming, especially to a foreign country. From the flight to the accommodations to the process of ordering at a restaurant, everything just seems easier with a partner in tourism. There’s no silent battle waged over the armrest, no terror over booking an Airbnb, no intense inner turmoil and self-loathing over having made the wrong choice with the mousakas. It all just feels better shared, particularly when prone to anxiety attacks. Which is probably why I’d never taken a solo trip until Istanbul.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Turkey by myself this summer. When I’d booked my flight to Hungary, I’d allotted an additional six days to hit another country, but I’d assumed I would meet up with friends somewhere. There was Sophie in Tel Aviv, Sam in Ibiza, Danielle in San Sebastian. I had plenty of options.

But I chose Istanbul. Why? Well, for one my parents had been in the fall and raved about it. “In my top five cities, right up there with Bangkok and Paris,” my mom gushed. For another, it was a cheap, quick flight from Budapest, and how often did I find myself on that side of the European continent? And finally, I longed for a strong dose of culture. Not that beautiful beaches with beautiful people doesn’t constitute a culture of a certain type, it just wasn’t what I was after (especially since I’m dating the love of my life and not interested in a hot summer fling.) I booked my trip.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Daniel reassured me before I left. I was starting to get nervous.

“I wish you were coming with me,” I said, knowing full well he couldn’t take the time off work.

“Australia, love. Anyway, you need to have this experience.” He kissed me deeply, only strengthening my desire for his travel companionship. But he was right. I did need to have this experience. Because after 29 years of globetrotting with family and friends, it was time to achieve travel independence. And learn that I’m never actually alone.*

In fact, before I even got to Istanbul I discovered I would have someone to ooh and aah over the Hagia Sophia with: Amanda. One of Ally’s friends in Budapest, she had recently booked a quick trip to Turkey, arriving the day after me and leaving the day before. We exchanged information immediately, and rejoiced over being able to stay out after dark. (One of the promises I made to my parents – I would not explore nightlife by my lonesome.)

I flew in on a Wednesday afternoon. I was quite ill, battling some Hungarian malady, but excitement still coursed its way through my achy, overheated body. I took the train into town, because A) I love public transportation in other cities and B) it cost only $2. As we passed through the outskirts, kebap shops and local mosques whirring by, I felt a sense of rightness. I’m meant to be here. This city is incredible. This adventure is mine.

Following the emailed instructions from my hotel, I exited at Cemberlitas. I opened up Google Maps to where I’d marked the hotel, then made the mistake of clicking the locate button. It sent me back to Hungary and spiraling into self-doubt. Why didn’t I print out instructions? Haven’t I learned anything from my mom and Rick Steves? I can’t believe I’m here alone dependent on my iPhone! I took a deep breath, and reminded myself there was such a thing as wifi. It took all of three minutes to find a café and jump on their network. Crisis averted. I relaxed – this wouldn’t be so hard.

Google maps reliably directed me to the Blue Istanbul Hotel, a short five minute walk from the train stop. I paused in front of my new home for the next six days. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, with its kitschy old patio furniture, chipped paint, and rather ominous blue lighting, but it had a certain charm to it. Like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I thought hopefully, entering.

“You must be Emmy,” the concierge smiled, pronouncing my name the same way the Turkish waiters at my first ever restaurant job did.

“That’s me,” I confirmed. I must’ve been their only single American female customer.

“You didn’t want to be picked up from the airport?” he asked, surprised.

I shook my head and grinned. “Nah, I like people-watching.” He nodded, his eyes meeting mine, twinkling with understanding. I liked him. He took my passport and started checking me in.

“Would you like a coffee or tea?”

“Sure, that’d be great,” I replied.

He sent one of the young staff to grab the welcome drink, and he returned a couple of minutes later. I sniffled slightly as I reached for the cup.

“Oh, you’re sick!” the concierge intuited. “You must have mint tea! One minute.” And he sent the boy off again. “Please, sit, relax. And you must also have some soup. We will get you soup.”

I drank the tea in the lobby, then was directed to the dining room to wait for the soup. I wondered if they treated all the guests this way, or if I was receiving extra care because of my solo status. Either way, I felt warmed by the gesture, literally and figuratively. The flavorful golden soup tasted amazing going down, nevermind I had no idea what it was.

I finished my soup, thanked the concierge, and was shown to my room on the fifth floor. The space was painfully cramped (no morning yoga here!), but had a beautiful view onto the Sea of Marmara. I wheeled my suitcase in, careful to avoid knocking over the tiny table, and placed it in the armoir. I pulled back the gauze curtain, opened the doors onto the one foot “balcony,” and stepped out into the warm evening air. To the left minarets emerged from Little Hagia Sofia, out in front dozens of shipping boats peppered the water, and to the right the sun began its descent. Perfection.

I enjoyed the stillness for a few minutes before heading back out. Even though I felt wretched, I was determined to at least see something around the neighborhood before nightfall. The concierge was of course eager to help, providing me with a map and a list of destinations.

“You’ve been so helpful,” I said gratefully, pocketing the materials. “What’s your name?”

“Bahattin,” he replied. “It’s my pleasure.” Any imperfections in the décor were quickly erased in the presence of that smile.

I left in search of the Hagia Sofia, less than a mile walk from my house. It was closed to visitors, but I figured I could at least see the outside. I stumbled first upon the Arasta Bazaar, the shops closing for the evening. I browsed freely with no pressure from salesmen. Lanterns, carpets, scarves, spices.

From the bazaar I found myself around the back side of Sultanhamet, also called the Blue Mosque. There was no one in sight. Am I allowed in? I wondered, creeping up the stairs to the large entrance. Two woman in shawls meandered in my direction. I guess so.

I made my way into the outer arcade and found other visitors and worshippers weaving in and out of its walls. Stairs led up to the enclosed courtyard. I felt underdressed, in my jeans and tee-shirt, but I followed the other tourists and ascended the steps anyway. Only Muslims were allowed into the covered prayer hall at this time of day, but I was quite content to simply stand in the middle of the open courtyard and admire the crescent moon hanging delicately above the domed walls.

I don’t know if it was God, or the history of the city permeating the air, or just the fact of being alone in a foreign land, but I felt transcendent in that moment. I’m doing this every night, I thought, caught somewhere between tears and laughter. I lingered a few minutes longer, then headed back to the hotel, careful to keep my promise to my parents. I walked in my room just in time to hear the nightly prayers echo across my balcony. What a life, I smiled, what a world.

*Unless I decided to pull a Christopher McCandless. Or got stuck up in space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. But that’s not happening anytime soon. Or ever.

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