Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week 7- Head over heels with Istanbul

Istanbul just lept to the top of our Favorite Places Ever list. I'm not even sure where to begin, or how to put this into words, but here we go.

We started off cold and a little grumpy having to travel through London to use our BA miles. The only thing I knew about where we were headed was from the song "Istanbul not Constantinople. It's Istanbul, not Constantinople..." Couldn't get that song out of my head... :)

Our flight in was late, BA of course lost our bag- the same one- again, so we were marrooned at the Istanbul airport for an extra hour until after midnight with two sleepy kids and an accidental lack of transfer to the hotel. Got picked up about 12:15, and finally made it to our room at the Mystic Hotel by about 1 a.m., when there was a short power outage and our host led us to an upstairs room by candlelight. Everybody crashed hard and we were sound asleep pretty quickly.

That's where the fun begins. :) At 5:30 a.m. by my watch (stuck in some other timezone), we hear a VERY loud and sudden chanting. I sat straight up, and Miles- who was enjoying his bathroom - bedroom suite, starts wailing that there is a "man singing in the bathroom." I got him into bed with us, and spent the next 45 minutes totally transfixed by the most hauntingly beautiful singing/chanting/calls to prayer that I was totally unprepared for. It started at the mosque a stone's throw from the hotel- blaring out of speakers in a minaret- and then every 4 minutes or so the next mosque would start, then thenext, and so on until it just faded off. Can't really describe how interesting this was. (Eric slept through it- not sure how, but that's the wonder of Eric's power of sleep...)

And so this is the beginning of the totally wonderful sensory overload that was Istanbul. I've never felt compelled to describe a trip by the senses, but I can't do Istanbul justice any other way:

Sounds- the Call to Prayer happens 5 times a day, and it never failed to totally freeze me in my tracks. Somewhere during day 2, it made me tear up. I hope this recording does it justice, but the chanting really surrounds you, fades in and out, and is so gorgeous in minor key that you can't help but be overwhelmed by it. Our host Oktay says that most of the calls are sung live, and that a mosque cannot start at the same time as a neighboring mosque, which is why you get the staggered, fading, enveloping sound of the calls for nearly 1/2 hour.

Walking the streets, we loved hearing the bustle of everything, listening to people talk, the impatient (and a little scary) drivers honking. And the music is out of this world-- the kids were completely into the different sounds. We found a great restaurant with a live trio- violin, kanun (zither)- looks like a harpsicord, but it's plucked, and a drum and we went back to a couple times.

We also went to a Sufi whirling dirvishes performance in a centuries-old Turkish bath with stone walls and a domed, cavernous space. To give a little background, here's a passage I found:

Whirling Dervishes are from the Mevlevi Order was founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. The Order wrote of tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment. They survive today as a cultural brotherhood. They are not theatrical spectacles but sacred rituals. The ritual of the Mevlevi sect, known as the sema, is a serious religious ritual performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. Mevlevi believed that during the sema the soul was released from earthly ties, and able to freely and jubilantly commune with the divine. Dervish literally means "doorway" and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world. The Whirling Dervishes played an important part in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. Rumi emphasized that music uplifts our spirit to realms above, and we hear the tunes of the Gates of Paradise.

It's rare for Vivian or Miles to sit still for an hour, but it was impossible to not be hypnotized by the dance or the music. Even the music in the cab made you want to stay in the car forever- regardless of the potential danger at hand....

Sights- Visually, Istanbul was stunning. It was rustic in the best of Mexico way, but exotic in a way I haven't experienced before. There are more than 2,500 mosques in Istanbul alone, and we walked by at least 10 daily. The Sultan Ahmet / Blue Mosque was built in 1609 and has 6 minarets. The story goes that the Sultan had to pay to build the 7th minaret at Mecca because it wasn't too popular for him to trump Mecca with the same number of minarets.

Directly across a large rectangular garden / fountain area is the Ayasofya mosque built in 537. Ayasofya was fascinating because it was originally the religious focal point for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church for 1000 years, but was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 at the fall of Constantinople by the Turks. So inside you find golden mosaics of the trinity crumbling off the walls. The interior dome is 182 feet tall and it's impossible to convey how vast it is inside. We took a cruise up the Bosphorous and saw countless more mosques- the entire landscape is punctuated by minarets.

Topaki Palace, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, was home to the Sultan and his hundreds of concubines, children and servants. The Harem portion of the palace was especially interesting- Miles noted that in their meeting room the low sofas outlining the room were for "circle time." :)

Smells- mmmmmm. Spice Market. Couldn't leave the spice market without bags of saffron, cumin, meatball mix, oregano mix, and some other concoction that I have no idea what to do with, but it makes me swoon.

Taste- mmmm again. Could I ever really get sick of a lamb kebob and a warm sesame pita? Not sure. But in 5 days I didn't. Turkish coffee bodyslams espresso. Turkish tea in those little glasses- yum.

Touch- saving the best for last. The Turks just outdid the Italians on my list of people I love the most. With
all this going on, it would be impossible not to just want to grab everything and everybody and just melt into them. We all learned the top 5 or so phrases, but if Vivian or Miles could get out a "tesakur ederim" or "mehr haba", we were golden. The little blond gringos were squeezed, snuggled, patted, kissed and the mostly-willing prop in countless pictures with Turks. Wish we could get a lira for every picture they were in. :) We got them a couple soccer jerseys (luckily and unwittingly one from each of the popular teams) so that went over REALLY well as we walked around.


And finally, our host family, Oktay, Sevim, Begum and Beyza were the most lovely people. Oktay and Sevim were like your favorite aunt and uncle (and Begum and Beyza like nieces) who live in the most interesting place you've ever wanted to visit. Oktay and Vivian had a special bond - and he made me quite teary saying that "you could see Vivian's heart and when she talked, he could hear her heart." Vivian and Beyza, who is 12, became fast friends despite some language barriers and Oktay even took Viv one day to pick up Beyza from school, which was a very special treat for her. We came as hotel guests, and I really felt we left as family. I wanted to hug them and never let go. :)

So that was our week. We had one more layover night/day in London coming back, which our friend Dave said must have been like stale chips after Istanbul. SO well put... I think Istanbul will linger with us for a very long time.

Grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy the slideshow. It's a little longer, but it's a keeper:

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I am very happy to say that SPRING HAS SPRUNG in Munchen.
We have WiFi (as of this week).
We have a phone (as of last week).
The crocuses are popping up everywhere.
I saw my first naked man in the English Gardens.
And Miles spent his first full day at school last week!

I've come through the tunnel of homesick and a little pissed off and it's all good right now. A lot has happened in these 2 weeks, so here are the highlights (and a couple lowlights):

1. Went touring March 28 - 30th to Colmar, France-- a 4 hour drive west from Munich. For me, it was great to speak a little French, but even better, to be able to eaves drop a little and understand something. I've always loved people watching, but I didn't realize how much I actually eaves drop to entertain myself. I'm missing this in Munich, cause I can't understand anyone yet. :) We had an attic apartment in a family run winery- their home was 300+ years old. We brought the bike, and had a great day riding around Colmar (a really old town), through vineyards to Turckheim (an even older town). I've tried to control myself with the slideshow, but I have to say I have at least 50 pictures of just shutters. Gorgeous, cool, old buildings with amazing shutters. (sigh)

2. Vivian lost tooth #2, and the Deutsche tooth fairy brought her 2 Euro for it! It was big news the next day at school.

3. Miles killed a tooth. Remember the bloody lip from the bump at the castle in Week 2? Well, his top front incisor has turned gray. :( We went to a well-liked and 3x referred dentist (Dr. Ana, who I have to say has the DEEPEST voice of any woman I've ever met) and the thought is that we'll have to pull it. However, Miles was completely terrified of Dr. Ana (refers to her as the "dentist man") So I think we need to find someone else to take care of it. I've always loved that phase where kids have a toothless grin. Um, I guess we'll get to see Miles' for about 3 years...

4. The German teacher was sick from school, so the Irish teacher said- hey, sure, bring Miles in for the day. TADA- didn't hear from them all day! That was it! Game over. Now I feel a little more sane, able to get some work done during the day, have a little time to myself and a much better time with the kids when I pick them up at 2.

4. Rothenburg ob Tauber. We took the train to Rothenburg, bordering the Mosel Valley and along the "Romantic Road" and had an amazing night there in the walled city. Completely lucked out getting into the Goldener Hirsch hotel for under 100 Euro / night, got upgraded to a double suite with a deck and seriously fell in love with the place. This was the town where we took gazillions of timberframe and wall pictures. :P) Again, tried to control ourselves, but.... We went on the Night Watchman tour, which scared Miles but totally fascinated Vivian (should we be worried that she likes long haired, bearded men who wear black capes? it was a little goth....) This is also a fantastic shopping town - known as the best in Germany- for everything German. So I went a little nuts here.
5. Lastly, then I got slammed by a sinus infection. And the only reason I bring this up, is because I tried the "Bavarian Prescription" of a warm beer, 3 layers of clothes, many blankets, and you "sweat it out." I enhanced all this by wearing damp cotten socks under 2 pair off wool socks (suggested by a friend - thanks WZ :)) This is popular, and actually gets prescribed by some docs. So I did it, sweated, tossed and turned all night and felt like more crap in the morning and had to do a lot of laundry. I went to a doc that day and got a great concoction of antibiotics and herbal drops - a nice, quick but holistic approach. Feeling much better after a couple days.

6. Since Miles is giving me some time back now, I have started my DE lessons! Sabine is our instructor, and meets E and I separately for a really intense 1 1/2 hour lesson. We get about 40 hours of language from MS. She's great, and I look forward to being a bit more comfortable language-wise.
OK-- glad to be a bit caught up on this blog business! Some quotes, again from Mr. Miles:
  • "I am the captain- Mr. Captain" (says this all the time..)
  • When I say no to something I get "Maybe next time... no fair."
  • and.... definitely lots of body talk... and comments about how big his little man part is. that's always fun to hear about. :)
  • And then we caught him shaving his chin in the bathroom and got "I'm a big man. Really, really big man." Then he told his teacher "I shaved. Big man." did I mention I think he has a crush on his teacher?

Week 3 - 4: Are we still on vacation?

So week 3 was a little weird. Are we on vacation? Are we here forever? Did we accidentally buy a one-way ticket? Are we dreaming? (Cause we haven't woken up yet- should we be worried about that?) It was a little like when Vivian was a month old and we wondered when her parents were coming home, cause it had been a long babysitting gig. :)

To get all the little whining out of the way, THIS is the week I really appreciated things that happen effortlessly at home but that aren't happening here, like:

1) Having a big-ass van to drive around all the time to keep me warm and dry and fast. I'm not easily dependent on anyone, and being dependent on public transportation 100% of the time has made me a little crabby. When the weather gets nicer, this won't be a big deal. But after getting stuck on the bike with 2 kids in a head-on sleet a couple times, the bike benefit hasn't kicked in fully.

2) WHA? no Internet or landline phone still? This is KILLING my stereotyped perception of Germans being highly efficient and technologically superior. We've had several phone calls with the phone company, plus a visit where we waited from 8am - 4 on a weekday - alternating so we could work / PU kids / etc - and he showed up at 3 minutes to 4, flipped a switch, then refused to see if it worked before running out our door. literally.

3) Echoes.... noisy little feet.... and sharing walls and ceiling with other people. We haven't been in an apartment or shared walls with other people since having small, uncontrollably loud little people. Though the apartment IS lovely, in a SUPER location, it is basically a long concrete hallway so everything echoes throughout- from a bottlecap dropping to Miles shrilling. I spent a couple hours on several busses in a few stores looking for the thickest slippers possible so our neighbors don't file a noise complaint with the police (which I guess happens a lot here). I've given up on "shhushing" the kids- we do live here.

4) Not knowing the little things- like stepping on the first step of an escalator MIGHT turn it on. So all those escalators AREN'T out of order- they're just waiting for your foot! Found this out after carrying crying Miles in his stroller up and then down 2 flights of stairs at an S-bahn station. I mentioned to someone at preschool how surprised i was that there was no handicapped access to the subway... duh...

5) Unpredicted German "sensitivity" to children "easing" into school. Although Vivian jumped right in, Miles had a couple rough drop offs in a row, and suddenly we were on a "plan" where I had to stay with him and limit our time there to 1 - 2 hours. Whereas the US childcare says kids will tough it out- cry the first few days, then get over it- apparently this is unacceptable here. So I've had a couple weeks of 1) drop V off with M, 2) go eat, 3) come back with M, 4) stay for an hour with him, 5) rush him home by 12:30 to nap, 6) wake him up to get V by 2pm. Miles now thinks I'm a part of the whole preschool experience, which means we'll go through all this again later- argh.

That's all. I'll never complain again about anything. This is truly a gift of an experience, and we're eating up every second. Even these things might be fun to remember- someday- later.


We treated ourselves to the Circus Krone, a completely old-school circus performed and operated by the Krone family since the late 1800's! It was small, super fun, and I'm sure too traditional for anything like it to ever fly in the U.S. (the PETA people would be all over it...) Cool stunts, dancing elephants, tightrope acrobats, lion tamers in flimsy cages... We LOVED it.

Deutsche Museum- wow, we barely scratched the surface here, but we did visit the children's area of the DM and it was fantastic. There is so much to explore here, and a family membership was only 52 Euro, so we did it. I'm sure we'll be back!

And I treated myself to a well-known, popular Turkish Spa, which was totally decadent and very different. I had to very quickly get over the dishsize towel I was given by "Jimmy" my Turkish host. Luckily since I'm blind without glasses, I just sort of zoned out and saw everyone as a big, undefined potato, including Jimmy (who also does the massage and scrub). I thought about my shopping list, the preschool schedule and my MS conference call when things got more European and veered a little out of US bounds. It was awesome- Eric might let me go back.

Best quote lately-- most are coming from Miles now cause 2 1/2 year olds just say funny things...

me- "Miles, why don't you want to stay at school? Vivian loves school!"

Miles- "Vivi loves the Germans."

AND - with shocked, then amused look during a bath "There's a hole. There's a hole. In my butt."