Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Turkey in the Straw

Up until now we’ve been managing short hops to regions nearby: checking out the neighborhood, as it were. With an extended school vacation, Ann wanted to extend our reach to something more exotic, and Turkey has so far filled the bill quite nicely. What better place to start than the historic bridge between Europe and Asia (and not just geographically): Istanbul.
Upon arrival, I realized I was equally adept at speaking Turkish as I am at many other languages. Ann and Perri seemed a bit confused and somewhat annoyed at finding themselves unable to understand what was being announced, or unable to follow simple signage at the airport. I, on the other hand, have been practicing for three months to maintain my composure while having almost no idea what’s going on around me (some of you might argue 3 months is a conservative estimate).
We were pleasantly surprised to find our hotel, booked frantically at the last minute, magically located in the heart of old Istanbul and surrounded by amazing historic sites. Even more surprising was the view of these same sites from our hotel rooftop breakfast restaurant. I won’t sugarcoat it: Old Istanbul is fantastic (new Istanbul not so much). We visited the Hagia Sophia former Byzantine cathedral turned Ottoman mosque and largest building in the world for 5 or 6 centuries. She’s a brute to be sure, but amazing considering construction started 1500 years ago. The interior isn’t so spectacular but is noteworthy in that the depiction of Jesus, the virgin Mary, at least one Byzantine Empress, and gobs of Islamic scripture are all on display. You don’t get that mix very often. The entry lineup was proportional to the building’s size unfortunately.

The afternoon was spent on a guided tour of the Topkapi palace - home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years or so. We splurged for a guide to keep us attentive, keeping in mind the fourteen-year-old comatose-with-no-television traveling companion.
Quick aside about Turkish television (I can’t help checking out available channels on the hotel tv).
Lots of channels dominated by two major themes:
  1. muslim religious programing
  2. extremely graphic info channels for sex hotlines or ‘dates’.
I think Turks are conflicted.
The treasury was the most interesting part of the tour, in my estimation, displaying the famous Topkapi Dagger among scores of turban accessories dripping with diamonds. My favorites were a gold bucket filled with chicken egg sized emeralds and two 5 foot tall 50 kilogram solid gold candlestick holders (just for special occasions, I would imagine). Sadly, no photographs allowed.
The next day we visited the Blue Mosque, which is a working mosque and not open to the public during prayers. One might say the Blue Mosque is the yin to the Hagia Sophia’s yang. It is almost delicate when compared to the big sister across the square. After spending time in those dark and drafty european churches, the Blue Mosque “had me at hello”, to quote Hollywood. The minute you lay your eyes on the place you know you’re in for something special, and the interior does not disappoint. 

Open, cheerful, bright, and comfortable (plush carpeting) are all grossly inadequate adjectives to describe the experience. Somebody hired the right architect and the right contractor.
I wasn’t about to convert but I will say Islam probably hooks a few based strictly on the wow factor. The next day we went to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which might exceed the Blue Mosque in beauty and detail, which, having been through the former, is a strong statement. But first, cleanliness is next to godliness...

The girls were awestruck...

probably seeing something like this...

We also stopped by a giant underground water tank, which doesn’t sound too exciting until you use the word cistern and add Byzantine and Emperor Justinian to the mix. Then you’ve got yourself a serious tourist attraction. Again, it was pretty cool although the cheesy photo-op booth on the way in tended to diminish the historical significance of a 5th century plumbing system which lay undiscovered for almost 1000 years. 

By the way, we participated in said cheesy photo-op.

A long day was followed by a unique Turkish cultural experience which we could really appreciate: a Turkish bath. We went as a family which avoided awkward situations like getting a massage and then having the guy at the desk apologize for the masseur not being available that day, or disturbing visuals of very hairy, mostly naked Turkish men. Ann went for the body scrub while Perri and I chose the massage (normally one is expected to do both). I was unable to get any pictures. Needless to say Perri may never recover from the sight of her mother being handled roughly by a sturdy Turkish woman. Thankfully I was a few rooms away having my shoulders dislocated by a professional.
No trip with the girls would be complete without a shopping component, and old Istanbul provides plenty of opportunities in the Grand bazaar and the Spice bazaar. The first has over 4000 shops and stalls, covering a wide variety of products. Jewelry, carpets and leather goods dominate the landscape. There was no way we getting out of there without buying something because everything was priced to move and usually the salesman would find it in their hearts to give us an even better deal. Imagine!

The Spice bazaar is much smaller but tends to focus on food related products and for that reason alone I liked it better than the Grand Bazaar. We ended up buying a bunch of stuff we didn’t really need but was darn good (e.g. peanuts dipped in honey and rolled in sesame seeds). The funny thing was the sales guys knew how to work you (“would the two princesses like to try some Turkish delight?” - wait a second - that could mean more than one thing, now that I see it in print). Anyway, he knew he was working us. We knew he was working us. He knew we knew he was working us, but we didn’t really care because we were leaving with a kilo of really tasty pistachio nuts or dried strawberries and not a 6000 euro carpet.

So far Turkey gets two thumbs up (more, if I had them).
We now move to the road-trip phase of the trip, where we will be saving tons of money by experiencing the joys of an overnight bus ride (who needs a hotel?) on no less than two occasions. I’ve heard taking the bus at night on winding mountain roads in Turkey is statistically safer than draping yourself in a confederate flag while whistling dixie through some boroughs of New York city. What’s the worst that can happen?
One last shot of some mosque (I’m honestly not sure which) shot from the waterfront late in the day...

Monday, 10 October 2011

Special Thanksgiving Issue

As the middle of October creeps by, I find myself yearning for an entire pumpkin pie with whipped cream, lots of whipped cream. Crystallizing the concept of Thanksgiving, I want to let everyone know I am very thankful for the curious new world in which I find myself, and the blind luck to be sharing it with my family (and the cats, who I guess are part of the family, but would be less so should we run out of food, in, say, an emergency). So perhaps this issue is less about Thanksgiving ‘the holiday’ and more about Thanksgiving ‘the food’.

After three months I can say I’m getting the hang of most of the food here. Some things I know simply don’t translate between cultures: pancakes (crepes just aren’t the same), Chinese food buffets (it’s so bad I’m surprised the French haven’t put a torch to the local restaurant, yet it is always busy), and parts of animals I didn’t think were eaten by humans (the butcher section at the supermarket is interesting).  I also saw turkey legs at the butcher counter, which I wouldn’t have given a second glance if they had been labeled ‘ostrich legs’, which may explain why they don’t sell the whole bird.

At the same time, many things here are kind of the same (without half the labeling being in English) including: really salty instant rice products, too-sweet breakfast cereals, frozen dinnery things that are nutritional aberrations, and the potato chip aisle. For things we used to eat in Canada which are not available here, I can usually find some local substitute (e.g. croissants instead of Taber corn). Also, there are many yummy things here I wouldn’t find easily in Canada (e.g. giant tins of duck grease, or 75 varieties of fois gras). At the end of the day, two or three strawberry tarts from the local bakery can suppress any perceived dietary deficiencies with one exception: beef.

Coming from Alberta, the home of the best beef in the world (apologies to Australia, Argentina, Texas, and perhaps Japan), I have struggled. Beef has proven to be a bit of a black hole in our nutritional landscape. To start, the beef here could be from a two year-old grain-fed Limousin or Blonde d’aquitaine breed. A little research tells me these breeds were once well-known as work animals. Hmm… is ‘tender’ the first word to pop into your head when you think about something pulling a plow?  The beef could also be from a former dairy cow, aged beyond milk productivity, but perfectly willing to supply some fine cuts suitable for your barbeque.  Interesting choice. For a while we decided to become selective omnivores, avoiding large mammals as a source of protein, including humans, for those of you who were wondering. So instead of a tender prime rib steak we went with duck breasts. Instead of filet mignon, we might have seafood. Instead of every other cut of beef, we would have chicken, and occasionally pork. This worked for a couple of months but I still found myself looking longingly at the juicy slabs of beef in the meat section. Only the image of some little French dairy farmer backing his trailer up to the barn kept me from breaking down and buying something. Also, the beef here is very, very red. My pals on the internet tell me the French don’t hang their beef for very long (zero days, zero minutes, zero seconds) so the meat retains a very fresh look.  I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there is a tenderizing aspect to hanging meat. Eventually, I went to the internet for help, and there was plenty to be had. Many people must wonder about beef in France and the experts were there to give advice. I was quite pleased until I saw one website suggest a good rump roast as an excellent cut for a fine meal. Further inquiries gave similar suspect advice (rump roast will yield edible meat after no less than 100 hours in a pressure cooker). And then I realized I had been getting advice from citizens of the United Kingdom, home of the food de-flavorizer and mad cow disease. Oh-oh. 

Tomorrow we’re having duck breasts.