Parents Come to Town!

My parents have been in town for the past week, which has been just plain wonderful and has been a chance to experience Istanbul with a fresh pair of eyes. Having them here has brought me back to my first few weeks in Istanbul and my first impressions of this sometimes overwhelming, but endlessly interesting and beautiful city.

My beautiful mother

My handsome father

Their visit has also allowed me to see changes in myself- like the fact that I walk right into traffic now, to my parents horror, because “that’s how it’s done here” and if you don’t, you’ll never make it across the street. My first few months of being in Istanbul were filled with nervous and cautious walking, as cars zoomed past just inches from my body and I remained stranded on one side of the street, waiting for a wide opening between cars, inwardly cursing those ‘crazy drivers.’ When the opportunity finally came, I would gracelessly dart across the street, half-shrieking, as if my life was in danger (which it really felt like at times). Now, I can confidently step right into the thick of it and weave my way through traffic, with the steady purposeful gaze of a seasoned gigantic metropolis dweller. Not to say there isn’t the occasional hustle to the safety of the opposing sidewalk, but as a whole, I’m a lot less overwhelmed by the madness of drivers here, which was something that would genuinely upset me at the beginning of my stay.

I’ve also noticed, while walking around with my parents here, that although it always feels too small, I’ve learned a decent amount of beginner Turkish here. Words that were once had the effect of attempting to speaking with ten gumballs in my mouth now roll off the tongue with confidence. “Afedersiniz,” for example, which is the word for “excuse me.” It once seemed a gargantuan feat not only to remember the syllables of that word and the order in which they came, but also not to have them come out of my mouth like mangled wire instead of neat and clear, like clean laundry drying on a line. Throughout my parents’ holiday here, I have asked for directions, made small talk (so small it’s microscopic), and generally managed pretty well with the Turkish that I’ve learned. At one fish restaurant, the waiter started to laugh as I ordered coffee for everyone according to their different tastes after a meal- one with no sugar, one with a little sugar, one with medium sugar. He explained that he hadn’t expected “yabanci” (foreigners) to speak any Turkish and that it took him by surprise. In truth, my accent was probably a little funny too, but I felt a moment of pride in my emergent Turkish skills.

Trekking the walls of Rumeli Fortress

Say "Rumeliiiiiiiiiiiiiiii"

With my parents here, I was also able to sink back into tourist mode and see some of the sights that I have been putting off, as well as to revisit some of the sights I’d seen months ago, such as Chora Church, Rumeli Fortress, and the ancient city walls. I went to Topkapi Palace for the first time and the archaeological museum on its grounds- both very impressive and extremely interesting. The harem in Topkapi Palace stands out both in its beautiful decorations and in its intriguing purpose.  The archeological museum is home to Alexander the Great’s tomb, decorated with pulsing battle scenes rendered with astounding detail- veins protrude on the horses’ bellies and a spectrum of human emotion from fear to aggression breathes from the stone. It is hard to imagine that tombs like his, which are now mostly marble- a dignified and serious gray, one that we would find appropriate for funerals- actually used to be extremely colorful and would have maybe had the effect of a page from a 3-dimensional graphic novel.  I got the opportunity to admire a lot of the funerary art in the museum and especially loved the Roman portrait art, for its attention to and depiction of individual facial traits.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

Alexander the Great's tomb

Funerary art

We explored a few new neighborhoods, while my parents were in town, including the Eyüp and Balat neighborhoods off of the Golden Horn. In Eyüp, we visited the Eyüp Sultan Mosque- a sacred site for Muslims, as it houses the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The mosque’s religious importance was immediately evident, as the courtyard was filled with flocks of religious people, some there on tours and some who were there to pray. That day, many young boys were walking around dressed like little princes, complete with faux fur lined mantel, plumed hat, and scepter, in the clothing that I have learned is traditional for boys to wear here in Turkey, at the time of their circumcision ceremony. It was a festive occasion and families gathered for pictures, showered the boys with attention, and went out for special treats like ice cream. After visiting the mosque, we took the Teleferik up to the Pierre Loti Café to check out the stunning view of the Golden Horn and the city in the distance. We meandered back down the hill after çay, through the cemetery, filled with family plots and beautiful roses, coating the hill and walked around the neighborhood a bit. After a quick rest and a Turkish coffee, we headed towards Balat.

Celebrating a rite of passage

Inside the Eyüp Sultan Mosque

View from the Pierre Loti Cafe, Eyüp 

Walking down from the Pierre Loti Cafe

Balat was an interesting and fun neighborhood to walk through. It is traditionally a Jewish neighborhood. We followed a walking tour mapped out in the Eyewitness Istanbul guide. Although we had a hard time finding the right streets initially, we eventually got on the right path and saw one of the city’s oldest meyhanes, called Agora, as well as one of the city’s oldest hamam’s and sweet shops. The neighborhood was calm and made up of small streets lined with tiny local shops. Once again, I got to put my Turkish skills to good use in finding some of the stops on the tour and found, as in many other situations, that people were extremely kind and helpful. It was nice to see a residential neighborhood, removed from the chaos of the city and the crowds of tourists. After leaving the neighborhood, thouroughly spent from our long walk, we realized that we had missed some of the key sites, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. That way, I’ll have a reason to go back.

Balat- beginning of the walk

Street in Balat

Besiktas supporters

One of the oldest sweetshops in Istanbul

One of the oldest sweetshops in the city- still churning out baklava and ice cream

Street in Balat

This view looks like a collage to me

My teacher, Mehmet Ortak
I was excited to bring my parents to Caferağa Medresesi to have them meet the friends that I've made there and to see the place that has been such a special part of my time here in Istanbul. We first stopped by the gallery, where my friend Coskun Uzunkaya ("Josh") demonstrated the art of ebru for them and gave them a gorgeous tulip print to take home. We then walked down to the little courtyard, where they observed the class for a bit and met my wonderful teacher, Mehmet Nasuh Ortak, and classmates. My teacher kindly gave my mom one of his necklaces as a present and told me that she was a beautiful woman, like Sofia Lauren. The big surprise in class that night, was that my teacher had finally bought all of the materials I needed to set up a basic metal studio at home! He gave me a tour of all of the materials in the bag- a torch, all shapes of pliers, a grinding stone for borax, all the soldering stones that absorb the heat of the flame. I was extremely excited and also a little nervous to set everything up at home.

Cos (pronounced 'Josh') making an ebru print
Tulip print, made by Coskun Uzunkaya
In the spirit of having new experiences, we went to a whirling dervishes show one evening. Although it is definitely a touristy thing to do and something that can seem like a tourist trap, which is why I hadn’t been to a demonstration yet, it was actually a beautiful experience. The setting was an incredibly luminescent room in the Eminönü train station, with high wooden ceilings painted marshmallow pink and white and colorful stained class rosette and windows. For the first part of the show, a line-up of 6 musicians came out and began to play and sing the most entrancing, spellbinding, and mystical music I have ever heard. The music filled the spacious room with its tinny jingles and swirling melodies and repeating lyrics. The music itself spun. 

When the dervishes came out, they wore black cloaks, which they later shed to reveal white robes for he men and colorful ones for the women, and high tan felt hats. They walked to one side of the room and sat to pray. They then began to walk in a circle, where two would pause at one point and bow to each other. One man, the sheikh, acted as the central figure in the ceremony and the others would start by him and launch into their whirling meditation, blown like seeds from a dandelion to gracefully twirl, skirts aflutter, like the seeds in the wind. After a while, the twirling would stop and after a brief pause, the dervishes would line up again at the original spot of departure, where the cloaked dervish was standing, and get launched out again like pinballs into their hypnotizing swirls. Their skirts made a breeze on our faces and throughout the room. Watching the regular pacing of their step, the sweat dripping from some of their foreheads, and remembering the times in younger days when I had twirled and found it nearly impossible to stay upright after stopping, it was clear that whirling took discipline. The show lasted for about an hour and after it was over, there was a palpable static energy in the air that lingered from the dervishes’ dance and filled the space where they had danced. 

As always, good food was a top priority on my parents’ trip and Jeremy and I gladly shared in most of their culinary excursions. As with Istanbul’s sights, it was fun to get excited about the food here again from a traveler’s perspective and to regain some of the wonder from our first few months here. The freshness of the produce in Turkey is unbeatable and the variety of ethnic groups in Istanbul allows for a nice spectrum of cuisines. The differences in cuisines are not as stark as when we think of variety in the US, where in most cities one can choose from Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Indian, Italian, Japanese, and a number of other cuisines on any given night.  Still, it is nice to taste the slight differences in dishes from Hatay, close to Syria, or Kurdish dishes, for example. This week was an indulgence of different glorious foods. From kaymak and honey to Syrian humus and grilled meat, grilled fish to an assortment of meze that filled an entire dinner table, bread that steamed like a locomotive when pierced with a knife and spicy red lentil balls wrapped in lettuce leaves, I tasted hands down, some of the best food I’ve had here yet.

Great table, flanked by the aqueduct
For their last night in Istanbul,  Jeremy and I met my parents at their hotel in Sultanhamet and then headed to a restaurant recommended by the Istanbul Eats guide (you really can’t go wrong with their recommendations!), called Siirt Şeref Büryan Salonu. It was at the end of a quiet pedestrian street, lined with restaurants and (be still my heart) honey shops, perpendicular to the Roman aqueduct, in a Kurdish neighborhood. This street, only a few blocks away from a major thoroughfare, had the feel of a small country town. We were thrilled to get a table a stone’s throw away from the aqueduct, which provided a secluded and almost magical setting, against a backdrop of antiquity. This restaurant, like several other restaurants on the street, specializes in a lamb dish from the city of Siirt, that is slowly cooked in a pit in the ground, called Büryan Kebab. It is tender and extremely flavorful, and is served on a crispy and warm flatbread. Its other specialty is Perde Pilav, a rice and chicken dish, lined with thin, golden dough that resembles a crunchy crepe. It comes out in the shape of a beheaded cone, like a fez, and is toppled like a sandcastle by the waiter, releasing its delicious steaming mix of rice, chicken, currants, and almonds. 

Büryan Kebab

Perde Pilav

The waiters were friendly and playful, and were excited to see that we’d followed the Istanbul Eats recommendation. At one point, they took the book and brought it back with an autograph from the owner! Dinner was delicious and filled with lively conversation. After the meal, we took a stroll down the small street and popped into one of the honey shops. The young shop vendor was sweet as could be, spoke to us in Turkish, and offered us a sample of honey sold straight from the comb. We ended up buying a jar of incandescent organic honey, which I can’t wait to sample in the coming days.

We sampled the sweetest honey from the comb... mmmm!

Heavenly honey jars
It was wonderful to have my parents in town and as always, I was sad to see them go. One of the hardest parts of being abroad has been the incredible distance between my family and I. I have been fortunate this year to have both my parents and my brother visit and to also have seen them again, along with the rest of my family in Italy for Christmas and my grandma’s 90th birthday. Whenever I spend time with them, I realize how much I appreciate being able to see them and I feel their absence even more acutely the few days after they have just left. Still, being here in Turkey has not only allowed me to grow and get to know a whole different culture and history, but also is allowing me to share it with my family and friends who come to visit. And so, in spite of the distance and how much I miss everyone back home, it is worth it. 

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