Bathrooms, Baklava, Bus Rides, Backgammon & the Bosporus

Lights on Blue Mosque, welcoming the start of Ramadan
Lights on Blue Mosque, welcoming the start of Ramadan

To borrow from SI’s Peter King, here are 10 things I think I think:

1)   Bathrooms are always an interesting “challenge” when you go to different countries. While I’m not a facecloth person, the absence of one is sort of irritating. Why should you deny me the facecloth? Why can’t I make the decision to use it or not? I feel the need to buy myself a facecloth, especially if there are none in the 3rd hotel I will encounter tonight in Safranbolu (there wasn’t. Sigh.). The toilets have a different type of flush mechanism. Instead of a handle on the tank, there is a push button on the wall. It also has a built in bidet, which is convenient if you’re into that sort of thing. If you don’t know what a bidet is, look it up – I can’t explain everything for you, you need to do some work on your own.

2)   The hotel in Istanbul that we are staying in is very modern, newly renovated, and a bit too hip for it’s own good, or for guest comfort. Very IKEA. Our room has a sitting area by the windows, but it is up on a platform that is about 18 inches above the floor; high step, almost should have had a second step to get up to it. The bathroom is the most impractical. No shelves or bars for towels, only the hooks on the door. It has a shower only, but about the size of a bathtub, flat pan, and no curtain or door, just a glass panel about 2/3’s of the length of the space. As soon as you turn on the water, the drain is too slow to catch the water and it immediately starts to spill into the main bathroom. I had to adjust the pressure to a gentle sprinkling to keep the inflow and outflow at an even keel, and still had to use a hand towel to dry up the flood. If I find the comment card, I’m going off.

3)   Meals have been good, if a bit similar. If I have to eat 3 weeks of strictly Turkish cuisine, I may lose it. It would be like being in America and eating fried chicken or cheesesteaks for every meal for 3 weeks. The dessert is always good, if also a bit the same. Small sweet pastries, usually baklava in some form or another. You don’t need a large portion; a couple small pieces are more than enough – unless diabetic shock is part of your game plan. But eating small portions is a good idea. It allows you to indulge in something rich, but not so much that you get sick. Luxury in moderation.

4)   Educational mumbo jumbo alertSkip to number 5 if you wish: On Monday, we had our first meeting as a group. We introduced ourselves and then we spent about an hour talking about general goals and themes. On Tuesday, we spent the morning looking at a basic timeline of Ottoman history – their impressive rise, peak and “golden age” under Suleyman, and their sudden, dramatic, insanely rapid, 300 year long decline. (Yes, that was supposed to be sarcastic.) We then talked a bit about available website resources (and, by extent, the lack thereof), setting up annotated photostreams and interactive timelines, and then a discussion of the stereotypes about the Turks and Ottoman Empire, and those that have been discarded and/or adopted by various modern Turks and governments to suit their political needs. Barb, our one presenter, showed us a picture of a Turkish “Disneyland” which has a land that celebrates Ottoman history. It has a “castle” which is sort of mosque-like, but in a Disney sort of way – a little soft, fluffy, and cartoonish. In all, good information that gets you thinking about how we should approach Ottoman history. You wonder what is important to the Turks, the heirs to the Ottomans, and question if that should be a template for how we should look at it – or a warning about how not to look at it.

Sadberk Hanim Museum

5)   Tuesday afternoon was a trip to the Sadberk Hanim Museum. It is a private museum, created by a prominent (wealthy) family. They also founded Koç University. The one side was an archaeological museum – all of the ancient Greek and Roman artifacts – not as interesting to me; saw it all and more in Greece and Italy. The other side was filled with beautiful examples of 15th, 16th, 17th century tiles, embroidery, handcrafts, and everyday objects of (mainly) upper class life in the Ottoman Empire. Beautiful things. I was amazed by the stitch work and detail on items that are rather basic. A turban cover, a shaving apron, a wrapping cloth: all beautifully embroidered and decorated. I was also looking at the items with Arabic inscriptions, trying to make out the words with my limited Arabic. I can sound out some words based on the letters, but don’t really know what they mean. But it is fun practice. I’m much better when it is linear and basic, but struggle when it is highly stylized, because they stack letters on top of each other and it is hard for me to distinguish some of them.

Bosporus cruise
Bosporus cruise

6)   After the museum, we took a cruise down the Bosporus. The museum was close to the Black Sea, well past the second (Sultan Mehmet) bridge. The cruise back was about 1½ to 2 hours, nice breeze, beautiful scenery, and a good time to talk with some of the other participants. We passed under the Galata Bridge and then dropped off on the old city side of the Golden Horn to head for dinner at a restaurant near the Spice Market. Tuesday was the first fasting day of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), with Ramadan having begun on Monday night. It is OK for non-Muslims to eat during the day, just as long as you do it inside a restaurant and not out in the open, out of respect.

Our professor, Dana, and I
Our professor, Dana Sajdi, and I

7)   After we got back to the hotel, Brian and I walked back down to the square and worked our way to a nice little café that we went to on Sunday. They don’t serve alcohol, as they are too close to the Blue Mosque, but they do serve tea, coffee, food, and even prepare a water pipe for you. We went to play backgammon both evenings. The first night, I asked for a board and promptly forgot how to set it up. I knew there were two sets of 5, a set of 3 and a set of 2 pieces, but forgot where they went. So our host had some people at the next table set it up for us. The next time, I looked it up on my iPhone and copied a picture so I had a template. I forgot how much I liked backgammon. It is a good strategy game, but one that requires a bit of luck to go with it. You rise or fall based on the roll of the dice. It’s how you react to the roll that shows your strategic skills. We were pretty even in games won. After 4 games and 2 cups of tea each, our bill was 10 Turkish lira – a little over 5 dollars. I gave our host another 5 and we had a nice couple of hours for $7.66.

Tea and Backgammon
Tea and Backgammon
Brian looking intent on the game
Brian looking intent on the game

8)   Bus Trip Bingo – Spot the Atatürk. Can’t really say much more than that. Sort of like “spot the Annunciation” when you are in Italian art museums, or maybe punch buggy.

9)   Wednesday morning we went to Koç University to listen to a presentation about Ottoman literature, poetry and travel writing. It is a private university that teaches almost exclusively in English. Public universities in Turkey are free, but you have to take entrance exams in high school to determine where you may be able to go. The students with the highest scores get first choice of university. If you don’t do well, it’s pretty much try again next year.

Bosporus Bridge - Our gateway to Asia
Bosporus Bridge – Our gateway to Asia

10)   Hit the road to Safranbolu. For some reason unbeknownst to me, we drove in the bus from a location far to the east of the 2nd bridge onto a highway which took us to the airport, which is about 10-15 miles west of the city, to take a local road along the Sea of Marmara, still to the west of either bridge. At the first rest stop, we found out that there was a major accident that closed highways, but I can’t imagine why we needed to detour around and thru downtown Istanbul to get back to the bridge. We spent about 2 hours circling before we crossed the bridge into Asia. I was apoplectic, but anyway, we’re here so…

Merhaba (hello) from ASIA!!!!


3 thoughts on “Bathrooms, Baklava, Bus Rides, Backgammon & the Bosporus

  1. Merhaba Ron. I’m enjoying reading your posts – I love that you take it all in.
    I also just downloaded “The Museum of Innocence” because of your admiration of Pamuk’s work.

    1. Pictures were wonderful, thank you for sharing. Some turkish bathrooms back in the early 80’s were not as modern as you now say. I bought my backgammon set there and still own it. Wonderful game if you can not figure out roll strategy no amount of luck is going to help you. I was only lucky enough to spend a day and a half so I do envy you.

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