Sunday, July 3, 2016

Türkiye Ocak 2016 - Turkey January 2016

Hey guys!
So now that I'm off for the summer, I'll start catching up this blog with an account of my amazing trip to Turkey back in January.

Istanbul: December 31-January 4:                                                        
On the 30th of December, my family accompanied me to Chicago, where we spent a few hours exploring the brightly lit city, still alive with Christmas lights and other such festive decorations, and eventually said our goodbyes as I hopped on a metro to O'Hare.
From the Turkish Airlines checkin all the way to the Istanbul, I was overcome by this overwhelming sense of surreal excitement, as I began to fully internalize and realize that this adventure, this return to my beloved host country which I had dreamed of since August 11, 2014 - the day I'd left the first time - was finally coming to life before my eyes.
Towards the end of the flight, as we entered the Turkish airspace, I admired the view from the window with this little spiel in my travel journal: "Hovering over a seemingly desolate, rocky brown landscape, we seem to be nearing our descent here on Turkish Airlines Flight 6…I'm hyped up [in spite of the jetlag]; these views of the Earth from the sky, the gentle rumble of the engines as background noise, this is the stuff I live for."
I was immediately struck by the seasonal change - there was plentiful snow on the ground, more, in fact, by far than there had been when I left the American Midwest! Not a problem for me, in any case - I'm a big fan of snowy weather, and as far as I was concerned, it made my favorite city on Earth even prettier. :)
In spite of the fact that I arrived on New Year's Eve, I did little to celebrate the new year. I made my way straight to the #bunk hostel where I was staying, near Taksim Square, checked in, showered, and just about collapsed into bed.
I awoke the next morning bright and early, tanked up on breakfast at the hotel, where it was served on the top floor, with a beautiful terrace overlooking the city on which people can sit outside in warm weather, and made my way straight to Sultanahmet, where many of the touristy attractions are located, on the metro.
I visited the Basilica Cistern, a hauntingly wonderful underground complex of ancient columns and two famous Medusa busts, and then headed from there to what I'd been most upset about not being able to see my first time in Turkey, and therefore made darn well sure it was one of the first things I saw this time: the Hagia Sophia.
And my God, it was worth it.
I found myself mesmerized and enveloped by the many layers of inter-religious history - the sweeping golden letters of Arabic calligraphy spelling "Allah" and "Muhammad," the Byzantine mosaics of Biblical scenes, and the warm, lovely colors that they all shared between them. I explored all the floors, stayed for over three hours, and still could barely stand to leave.
From there, I headed to the Archeological Museum, where I was treated to a rich and never-ending spectacle of artifacts and relics from all ages of the city's monumental history, as well as a little bonding moment with a pack of friendly cats in the garden outside, and then I ended my incredible first day with  a visit to the Topkapı Palace, the ancient home of the sultans. Unfortunately, I came just late enough that the harem, which I'm told is a main point of attraction, had just closed. But I was still able to draw plentiful enjoyment from the exquisite colors and architectural mastery of the site, imagining the lives of the powerful monarchs who had once ruled one of the world's mightiest empires from it.
My second day started off with a visit with a friend - I went to hang out with my good friend Demi, who I met at the YES end-of-stay orientation in DC last June, in a district called Eminönü. We first checked out the New Mosque, one of the defining landmarks in the area, and then walked and talked as she did a bit of shopping in a nearby bazaar in preparation for a visit to her host family in California the very next week. We finished our time together with a quintessentially Istanbullu lunch near the water's edge - balık ekmek (literally "fish bread," a delectable fish sandwich) and turşu suyu (pickle juice). It was lovely to spend time in one of my favorite cities with such a good friend. :)
From there I headed to a different mosque in another neighborhood called Süleimaniye. There I meditated peacefully, as I enjoyed feeling small inside this amazingly large and tranquil spiritual space.
I finished the day's adventures with a visit to the Galata Tower, which is not especially remarkable in and of itself save for its impressive size and presence, but offered some magnificent views of the sprawling, snow-covered city.

The next morning, I headed up to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which is in many ways the antithesis of Topkapı- as much as Topkapı is a monument to oriental Ottoman opulence, Dolmabahçe is a stronghold of European royal envy, a Versailles on the banks of the Bosphorus. Certainly more familiar-looking, but no less impressive. Unfortunately I wasn't able to take any photos on the inside, as it was prohibited. I wandered down the street afterwards and took a quick peek inside Dolmabahce Camii down the street, which was lovely to look at, but not especially distinctive compared to Yeni or Suleimaniye Camii. After that, I headed back to Taksim to meet up with Gökçem, another Istanbullu friend of mine from the YES end of stay orientation, who had been an exchange student in upstate New York. We walked up and down Istiklal Caddesi together, had some sweets and tea, and also stepped inside the rather impressive Church of St Antony of Padua.

The last day was sadly my last in this favorite city in the world of mine, the only one which quite literally straddles two continents. But I made sure to make the most of it.
Checking out of the hostel early in the morning, I stored my stuff and went off on a last stream of exploration. First up was the Kariye Muzesi (Chora Church in English), a beautiful old Byzantine church full of golden walls and Biblical mosaics. I experienced a crazy moment of spine-tingling interfaith glory as the ezan echoed from outside through the mosaic-clad walls of this old church.
After a quick cay in a nearby cafe, I made my final stop of the day at the AFS Turkey headquarters in Nisantasi, where I payed a quick visit to my friend Cemre, who works at AFS Turkey and made a visit to my local AFS Washtenaw chapter in Michigan in the spring of 2015, at her office. After a while chatting with her and her colleagues, I headed back to #bunk, caught my feribot (ferry boat) to Bursa, and shed a few tears as I left behind this city I love so.
How snowy it was when I got there.

The Basilica Cistern.

Hagia Sophia.

Topkapı Palace.

Me and Demi.

View from the Galata Tower.

Dolmabahçe Palace.

Me and  Gökçem

Chora Church. 

Bursa - January 4-January 11:
Once ferry, one bus, and a metro ride into my host family's neighborhood, and I was back and Bursa, where it all started - the city in which I fell madly and irrevocably in love with Turkey.
This weeklong portion of my trip was different from the days I spent in Istanbul in many ways. It was the first time I've returned to either of my host countries, and in some ways I was unprepared for just how it would feel. During the first hours and days of the trip, as I stepped down into the metro, heard the names of the stops on the intercom which I could almost remember, walked off into my host family's neighborhood and up into their house, I was beset with a sensation of intense deja vu peppered with crazy nostalgia. For the first three days I was in Bursa, I could go nowhere and do nothing without  memories of things I had done or experienced on program the first time rushing unexpectedly back to my senses, things I hadn't thought of in a long time.
I remember one of the first things I did after getting back to my host family's apartment was retrieve my Turkish language textbooks, which were waiting for me on the bookshelf in the room I always stay in there, and looked over exercises I remembered, compositions I'd written, and little notes that reminded me of things we'd done or said in class together. It was bizarre, surreal, and somehow beautiful.
The first few days I just sort of chilled out a lot at my host family's house. It was nice to have the chance to rest up a bit and regain my energy after four straight days of constant sightseeing and meeting friends in Istanbul. I grew closer to everyone in my host family this time, and also was able to get in some good Turkish practice with my host parents (I'm glad I had a couple of days in Istanbul to get warmed up before being thrown into that immersive situation).
One day I went out with my host mom to buy my bus ticket to Izmir and then meet a few of her friends that work in the center of the city. The day after I went out by myself to do some shopping for souvenirs in Kozahan, the Silk Bazaar in the center of town, as well as a bit of sightseeing - I went back to Ulu Cami, the Grand Mosque of Bursa, which still holds the humble honor of being my favorite mosque in all of Turkey. Another day I hung out with Sena and Şeyma, the Turkish host sisters of Gianna and Salma respectively, with whom I journeyed to Hünkar Köşkü, a lovely property up in a mountaintop in the outskirts of Bursa which belonged to the famed and well-loved founding president of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We enjoyed the incredible sprawling views of the city, the two of them graciously translated the tour we got of the small but dainty and well-kept house on the property, and I enjoyed some great company catching up with two good friends. :)
Overall, my time in Bursa was fantastic. Istanbul is my favorite city in the entire world, but Bursa is my Turkish home, the place where I fell in love with what has become one of my favorite countries, and it will always be special to me for that.
On January 11th, I said goodbye to my Turkish host family and home, and headed off to catch my bus to the city which would be my last stop for this trip. And as incredible as what came previously had been, it wouldn't be a lie to say the best was saved for last…

The Silk Bazaar sold silk, surprisingly enough.

The breathtakingly peaceful beauty of Ulu Camii.

The view of the city from Tophane - had this directly to my left as I sipped tea at an outdoor cafe. It was a pretty rad moment of zen. 

A mosaic of the teleferik (cable car) in a metro station. 

The view from Hünkar Köşkü. 

Sunset near my host family's apartment complex.

Izmir - January 11-January 17:
I'm glad that I was able to enjoy my five-hour or so bus ride from Bursa to Izmir - aside from the fact that it was quite comfortable, complete with entertainment systems and a snack cart, it was wonderful to watch such a large and varied chunk of the country unfold before me as I passed by. The nondescript minarets of quaint little country villages, towering mountain ranges, sprawling forests, and all in between.
Once I arrived in Izmir, I got settled in my clean and comfortable hotel in the Alsancak neighborhood near the water, and spent most of the days I was there dedicated to spending time with Gianna and Krista (as well as their three fellow NSLI-Yers on Izmir's year program, Kendall, Lars, and Mary-Eleanor, or ME). I found in the Izmir portion of my trip a sort of happy medium between the constant and unending slew of activity I engaged in while in Istanbul, and the much more subdued and relaxed time I spent in Bursa. I found that, though Izmir is most definitely a beautiful city and 100% worth seeing, there's not a whole lot of specific monuments one should visit, like Istanbul. It's more a city to be enjoyed in aimless wandering along the Kordon (the main street along the water's edge), taking a ferry ride to the other side of the city just for the sake of it to watch the sunset, and the maze of the Kemeraltı Bazaar.
Even so, I did manage to see some fantastic specific sights which I most definitely would recommend - one is Kadifekale, an old castle located on a hilltop just outside the city, with absolutely breathtaking views. Another would be Ephesus (or Efes, in Turkish), which is a large and spectacularly preserved complex of Greco-Roman ruins which I took a morning off to go visit by myself, and had a great little adventure doing so. Aside from being delighted that I got a chance to see such a magnificent place, standing in the midst of these old marble buildings that had stood for thousands of years, I was also immensely proud of myself for navigating the three different forms of public transportation to get there completely by myself, using only Turkish (#smalllinguisticvictories). Another place I'll mention would definitely be the Agora, another complex of Greco-Roman ruins which is located well within the heart of the city itself. Not nearly as grandiose as Ephesus, but still impressive for sure. There was an unaltered, functional fountain inside this complex that was working after having been left untouched for thousands of years. As an Italian, I have a marked fascination with Roman ruins as being part of my own cultural heritage, and this discovery left me with my spine tingling. My ancestors may have been pillaging warmongers, but no one can deny that they sure could build.

The afternoons and evenings I spent with Gianna, Krista, and their friends were truly some of the best in a long, long time. Sitting at cafes on the Kordon, practicing our Turkish together while also indulging in some swift and slangy English that an Anglophone exchange student inevitably comes to crave after long periods without it, laughing and talking about anything and everything - those moments were incredible, and already halfway through the week I was dreading leaving them behind.
We also met three other AFSers who were in Izmir on unsponsored programs, Soraya and Joshua from Germany, and Mint from Thailand.
On my own time, I also met up with two more friends I made at the YES end-of-stay orientation: first, my good friend Damla, who I hung out with near the Clock Tower for a few hours before meeting up with Gianna and Krista on the first morning, and in so doing, got to see the incredible views of the city from Tarihi Asansör, a lovely historical tower in the Konak district not too far from my hotel. And a few days later, my friend Cavit, who I managed to squeeze in a quick hangout with in the afternoon after I got back from Ephesus.
There were a number of friends I made at that orientation who I really wanted to meet up with, but unfortunately didn't get a chance to, as most of them were high school seniors in the midst of horridly intense studying for the infamous high-pressure end-of-high-school exams that play (in my opinion, certainly) an unfairly huge role in determining the college opportunities, and by extension, the general futures, of Turkish students. Next time.
Another thing that was beautiful in Izmir was the weather - in the low 60s Fahrenheit the entire time I was there. In many ways, the city reminded me a lot of Alexandria - similar geography and climate, and a similarly cosmopolitan Mediterranean heritage. As I've mentioned before, there is a hugely distinct polarization in contemporary Turkish politics between the secularist and Islamist factions of society, and though there is certainly overlap everywhere, for the most part the western and eastern regions of the country are dominated by the former and latter respectively. Even so, Izmir is westernized, indeed almost European, in a way that is atypical for much of Turkey, and it was interesting to see that element to the local culture. All in all, Izmir was the first place I saw on this trip that I had truly never been to before, and I'm glad for it. It's a lovely place that I enjoyed in some of the best company there is anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, as most good things, I suppose, my six days in Izmir (and eighteen in Turkey) came to an end on January 17. I took the metro to a stop where I changed onto the IZBAN, a larger train line for the Izmir Metropolitan Area, which I took all the way to the airport. As I gazed out on the lush green foothills in the distance and the foreboding grey clouds that began to let forth a gentle drizzle, I quietly cried on the train as I approached the end of a voyage in one of my favorite countries that enriched my soul and invigorated my love of life in a way only it and my loved ones therein can do.
My trip back to the States passed uneventfully enough - I only had a brief connection in Istanbul to contend with, and landed in Chicago to find its -2 degree temperatures a far cry from the balmy Izmir winter I'd left behind. I took the Van Galder bus straight back to campus at Beloit, and collapsed almost immediately into a deep, jetlag-induced sleep, with only that standing between me and the second semester of my freshman year starting the very next morning.
On the bus ride.

Tarihi Asansör.

Me and Damla.

Rainbow and peace-sign decorated staircase.

At the Agora.

Hisar Camii.


Me there.

One of the innumerable spectacular views.

Izmir's iconic Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

Took a ferry ride across the city for the heck of it while I waited for my friends to get out of their Turkish classes.


I think this was a temple?

The entrance to a library, I believe.


The Kordon at night.

Me and Cavit (pronounced "JAH-veet.")

Saat Kulesi at night.

Me and Gianna.

A synagogue I found which was sadly closed.

On the descent into Istanbul on the way back.

An additional note: 
On a darker and more sobering note, I do wish to pay a bit of homage to the victims of the many savage and deplorable terrorist attacks which my beloved host country has suffered lately. October 10, 2015 and February 17 and March 13, 2016 in Ankara. January 12, March 19, and June 7 and 28 in Istanbul. And April 27 in Bursa, right outside of Ulu Camii, no less.
Various groups trying to heinously perpetuate their evil agendas by targeting areas in which countless innocent civilians have lost their lives in these attacks of hateful violence. Many Turkish, others not.
It makes my heart heavy to have to address such matters, and that such matters even exist to be addressed in the first place. But we must remember and honor these people, lest they be lost in vain.

Firstly, I would like to extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to the entire nation of Turkey, in particular the families and loved ones of those lost or affected by these tragedies. None of you are alone. The world sees to and mourns with you, and sends you nothing but love, good vibes, and wishes for eventual peace.
Secondly, I would like to reiterate something that I discussed at great length in the post I wrote while in Izmir, about the Turkey that I would like the rest of the world to know. In that post, I talked about how Turkey is a safe country, and how I never feared for my safety for a single second either of the two times I've visited thus far. As much as it breaks my heart to say it, it's certainly not as safe as I said at that time anymore. But even so, regardless, to anyone considering going: PLEASE DO. When you think of Turkey, think of iftars in front of the Blue Mosque, of hijabis marching in Istanbul Pride, of imams sheltering cats in their mosques from the winter cold, of people of diverse beliefs and interests coexisting, of priceless antiquities and monuments of every age, and of hospitality, love, and warmth unmatched by those of any other land. Don't be afraid to experience all of these things and more in a country that is one of the world's greatest lands. This is the true Turkey, the one that the world should know. Don't be afraid to experience it. Don't let them win.
I have greatly mourned every one of these attacks and the hardships they represent for the country that is my third home, and have taken every opportunity possible to keep in mind the country and the victims of these attacks in thoughts, prayers, and actions to fight for peace. I heartily encourage anyone who reads this to do the same, and pass on such sentiments.
Things look tough at the moment. But, with will and some luck, inşallah, we will see peace again some day soon.

Thank you all for reading this account of a wonderful trip back to a country that I consider my third home. I have already been missing it dearly these past few months, and hope more than anything to go back and visit just as soon as I can manage it.
Stay safe and be well, dear readers. Kendinize iyi bakın.

P.S.: Enjoy my favorite Turkish tunes!

(A little throw-in: Turkey's rousing national anthem, the March of Independence.)

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