Istanbul: The Experience, Part One

When you’re not exactly a tourist and not quite a local traveling can be somewhat challenging.  For us, we don’t feel like tourists.  Well, not what we refer to as typical tourists anyhow.  We understand enough of the language to comprehend our surroundings, we are aware when we are being taken advantage of in the bizarre, we can read the road signs, etc.  So, being here in Istanbul for the first time as a family, with the thought of leaving Turkey soon, is different.  And for me, not necessarily better different. 
The city itself is an intricate maze.  Everyone is bustling about at a pace that raises my anxiety level; Cars squeezing two by two down one way streets; horn honking that is a language unto its own and buildings with laundry lines hanging from the balconies.  The aesthetics of Istanbul are pleasing.  Green spreads and the Bosphorus, Ottoman style architecture and enough history to fill my brain for a decade. 
We took the first day to bid farewell to the Best Buy corporate office staff.  The Things met Husband Jared’s colleagues and saw the office that he visited every Tuesday.  Then we were off to sight see.  First was Topkapi Palace.  You really must do your own research on this very distinguished place.  Sultans inhabited the palace and it is bedecked with original Iznik tiles from the Ottoman period.  The designs are stunning and all representative of various time periods throughout Ottoman history.  We decided to pay a bit more and take a tour of the Harem quarters.  Navigating through the secret passageways and the Sultan’s privy chambers took us to another place in time.  Detailed descriptions of the purpose of each and every room, hallways and corridors were marked for us.  It was fascinating. 
Things posing in front of the tiled wall in Topkapi Palace

Privy Chamber of the Sultan
From there we walked to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  The Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was closed so we were only able to catch a glimpse from outside the iron clad walls.  It was magnificent.  The sheer scale of this structure is difficult to take in.  Let alone the questions the Things were asking as to why it was no longer a church, how that happened, whom allowed it to be changed and what do they do there now.  Inquisitive.  Events in history often do make sense in their world today.  And rightly so.  I do believe it is important to help explain the why’s and how’s and who’s.  This particular church was completed in 537 and was conquered by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.  He was responsible for converting the church into a mosque and then Ataturk made the Hagia Sophia a museum in 1936.  The history of this church is simply fascinating and quite controversial, even to this day. 
Husband Jared and I did our best to explain and then since the Blue Mosque was open to visitors Thing 2 and I ventured in.  We were both dressed “inappropriately” and had to cover our exposed skin before entering.  It was chilling.  After a walk through I decided I wanted to go back in with the camera.  This time Thing 4 went with me.  Interesting enough both Things commented on the separated prayer space for men and women; Bay and bayan in Turkish.  Thing 2 thought the women’s area resembled an animal pen of sorts.  And then in all her years she said, “It seems as though women are looked down upon in their religion”.  Enough said.
Inside of the Blue Mosque

View of the Hagia Sophia
From Sultanhamet we braved the Grand Bazaar, which has been in existence since the 15th century.  Fodor's travel guide on Turkey gives these statistics regarding the bazaar: more than 20 entrances, spans 65 streets and has an estimated 4000 shops.  It is smelly, crowded, loud and busy.  What an experience.  There is absolutely anything and everything for sale.  We wandered around, did a bit of bargaining and then exhaustedly exited with our purchases.  Using the small amount of Turkish we do know allowed us to deal on a more level playing ground with the shopkeepers.  Or so we believed.  All in all it was an experience not soon forgotten.
Husband Jared and Things outside Entrance 7 of the Bazaar
After a quick swim and a change we enjoyed dinner and walk through a park and new area of Istanbul.  It was beautiful and dinner was fantastic at Den.  Now for part two.

Bittersweet

And today, (well Sunday was, since I am posting this after the fact) is definitely more bitter than sweet.  As I have shared before, I dislike goodbyes.  I would use a stronger word but I do tell the Things that “hate” is a powerful word, however accurate.  This Sunday in May the six of us have said our farewells to the place that has been our home for the past year.  It sounds strange to say that this place that I struggled to adapt to has become so cherished a place.  
As I sat next to Husband Jared on our drive to the airport I couldn’t help but want to engrain in my memory the route we were on.  The scenery, the way the sea looks one color on your way in to the city and another on your way home.  All the colors that paint the hillside lining the motorway, the Turkish road signs that I still don’t understand.  Ships coming into port and leaving, ferry boats going to and fro and the way cars navigate the roads.  I have driven to the airport countless times while living here and today, this time it was strangely different. 
I have known this day was coming.  Change is inevitable.  I anticipated holding it together. Not crying, just being full with gratitude and laughter; nervous laughter that comes when you are attempting to hide your emotions.  Today I was not successful. 
We spent our last evening in Urla with our friends.  The entire day was capped with goodbyes, last times and conversations that were for all intent and purpose trying to postpone what we all knew would be happening today.  Last night was wonderful, well despite United’s lost to Barcelona, we chose to celebrate regardless.  We stayed late into the night on the terrace, watching the rain, then looking at stars and still sharing stories of life here in this country.  Our friends treated us to a barbeque, and dually noted, Husband Jared did grill for the first time since his encounter with fire last summer.  We were so proud.  You see, it’s somewhat of a tradition for the “guest” to grill when you are at these particular friends’ home.  Husband Jared did not want to disappoint so he did his best.  His best was definitely good enough, we had a feast.  The Things and friends swam, watched films, taunted one another throughout the match and then had a sleepover.  At the end of the night after Things had been tucked in, goodbyes with new friends said and the dishes done we fell asleep listening to the sound of the waves.  What a life. 


This morning was greeted with sunshine and a view that would take your breath away; Lapping white caps, small and unthreatening, and white sails littering the Aegean Sea while seagulls dive into the blue.  Wow.   And then super omelets made with chef like expertise by our friend and a kahvalti at the Reynolds cafĂ©.  Again, wow. 
For me I had been dreading what I knew was to come after all of this.  Good-byes.  Hugs.  Tears.  Things trying to stuff friends in our luggage and Mom friends whom I didn’t want to let go of.  We have grown close to these families.  They have been our home away from home.  The holidays have been together and now we begin a new chapter in our lives.  One family is preparing for big changes as well, another International move and the other will continue on in Urla.  For me, though, this last year has been a treasure store of memories.  Learning to let people in and lower the guard.  Children that have knocked on my door, that have played games with us, seen us dance silly, watched us play cards and shared their sweet lives.  Whether it was what they learned in school that day or what was eaten for dinner the night before it is their precious voices that I will miss.  The way they opened the cupboards and refrigerator as if they were in their own home.  Or came in and hugged me and then asked, “pretty please with a cherry on top, rice in the middle and mustard” if they could stay together for just a bit longer. 
They may have the key.  Soaking it all in and squeezing the life out of it.  In that moment, present and full.  What a lesson they have taught me.   Thank you friends.

The Big Announcement

Or at least the big announcement for the Six Hansons. We are relocating to Minneapolis, Minnesota! Husband Jared has secured a position in the corporate office for Best Buy and we are celebrating his achievement and looking forward to the next adventure for our family.   

Where in America will the Hanson Six Be...?

Here are a few informative facts regarding our next destination.  We will be officially leaving Urla,Turkey as of June and come July our family will find itself making a home in a new state.  Can you guess where?

* This state has a skyway system connecting 52 blocks (nearly five miles) of it's downtown

* This state has a climate-controlled facility that is the only place in the country to host a Super Bowl, a World Series and a NCAA Final Four Basketball Championship

* This state has 90,000 miles of shoreline, more than California, Florida and Hawaii combined

*In this state the author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived on Plum Creek near Walnut Grove

*In this state there is a mall the size of 78 football fields --- 9.5 million square feet

Answer to be posted at a later date.  Have fun. 
* All facts were found at http://www.50states.com/


Thankful Thursday #60

* Blue eyed tree in Pigeon Valley

A bit more to Thankful Thursday this son risen beautiful morning.  I wasn't sure I could wake up and write this post today.  There was in the midst of all that is good a soul consuming weight.  Here, with my coffee close and photographs flying across my screen He spoke.  One question.  Is there something you need to place in the palm of your hand and cover it with prayer?  This.  These words.  They traveled to my heart through a blog post I was reading at, www.chattingatthesky.com.  Powerful.  Why not?  Easier said than done, yes.  In the act there is strength.  It is His upside down economy that requires us to let go in order to gain.   
Just a few thoughts to add to this Thursday upon which I, we, have so much to be grateful for.

541.friends laughing, sharing stories
542. learning of other culture's traditions
543. late night chats when the lights are out
544. music
545. dancing
546. moon rising
547. training with Husband Jared
548. water's reflection dancing on the wall
549. Things' and their feelings, being shared without reservation
550. sweet "I love you's" shouted as I walk up the stairs, after prayers 

FA Cup Final and A Beach Day... What a Weekend

Upon our return to Olive Park I was greeted with an invitation to our friend's house for dinner and a football match.  Um, yes please, we accept.  See we had no groceries after being gone for a few days and I wasn't exactly in the mood to grocery shop or cook.  Thank you friends.  Despite the fact that our club lost to theirs and they were in the final of the FA cup I donned my blue gear and we headed over.  Husband Jared did not however give in, he sported red.  Earlier that same day our club, or should I say the club we support, clinched the Premier League title.  We celebrated and decided it best not to gloat.  At least not publically. 



The Things were in the pool with friends and before long the match was over and our friend was celebrating the club's victory over Stoke with a head first dive into the swimming pool.  All of us, children and adults alike, congratulated him and chose to join in the celebration.  Albeit half heartedly from those of us that support RED.  We ate a delicious dinner, dessert and enjoyed the company of dear friends late into the night. 

The next morning we chose to rest up and prepare for a day at the beach.  Again with the same crowd of loved friends.  Kayaks were brought and the Things were given a speedy lesson and then sent on their way in the sea.  They had a great work out, a few laughs and really enjoyed the experience.  Thing 1 was even asking for a kayak.  We played, built sand castles, enjoyed the best chips ever and laughed into the evening.  What a fantastic way to end the weekend. 
 Thing 3 and her friend
 Thing 1 and her friend
Mama friend and Thing 2

Cappadocia Day 3

Our final day here and we were ready to make the most of it.  Unfortunately the threatening clouds outside had other plans.  Thankfully they did not thwart our energy and we began our day just like any other.  Traditional Turkish fare for breakfast, pack the water bottles and camera and hit the road.

Driving down the rainy road we made a quick stop for a fabulous photo opp in Devrent Valley.  Here, as you can see in the photo below, the erosion has created formations that resemble animals, people or anything else your imagination could conjure up.  Thing 2 and Thing 4 were set on braving the slippery slopes to have a better view so I ventured with them.  So glad I did.



Avanos open air market and pottery shops were first on the agenda.  This town is located on the Red River which makes for excellent soil and thus pottery.  The Things had their hearts set on making their own creations and that is exactly what we did.  After wandering through the market and listening to the locals we strolled down an empty street to find Ahmet's pottery workshop.  He kindly invited us in and the Things spotted the pottery wheel right away.  Without hesitation they all had their turn and channeled their artistic side.  Take a look.



After our cay we took our creations and were on our way.  Trying to beat the rain we enjoyed a delicious lunch, albeit rather quickly, and then were off for Pashabagi.  Here Christian monks established vineyards and created churches in the three tiered fairy chimnies.  It is breathtaking.  The Things climbed and explored and then we happened upon one of the churches.  There are beautifully carved crosses at every niche and Thing 2 decided to scale the rocks and see what we were missing from the ground.  Husband Jared joined her, brave souls.  The rest of us chose to stay grounded and simply look up.  Either way, there was a sense of something greater at this site. 
With the rain once again threatening to cut our day short we travelled to the town of Goreme.  Which ironically when translated means, "can't see".  Funny when you are standing at a point and looking out over the valley and you can "see" and not just see but really take in an amazing view of creation.  Wow.  We payed our entrance to the open air museum and walked from church to church.  It is noted as the location of some of the most important Byzantine cave churches.  All with different names.  All with amazing frescoes, some better kept than others, due to light and exposure and of course caretaking.  Photographs are not allowed inside the churches but the memory of the paintings will forever be with us.  And then the rain came.  It didn't just rain, it was a down pour complete with thunder and lightening.  We all ducked in one of the churches to escape the deluge and it was there we heard singing.  In English, Allelujah!  Wow.  It sent chills to my core.  What a sound, what a sight.  When the rain didn't stop the six of us went running down hill to our van, becoming soaked along the way.  We all had flashbacks of our trip to Pamukkale which made us laugh, thankfully. 
Before the rain, the beginning of our hike

Our day was not over just yet and we tried our best to dry out in the van.  To no avail though, the rain kept coming and the Things were shivering.  We had two stops left and we all did our best to take in the view, capture the moment with a photograph and then run back to warmness.  First was Pigeon Valley.  This is an incredible valley in which dovecotes were built into the rock to gather the guano.  The villagers believe that it is the best fertilizer for the local soil.  Supposedly the pigeon "poop" as the Things referred to it prohibits weed growth.  Who knew? 
Dovecotes in Pigeon Valley

Lastly, the famous fairy chimnies.  The ones pictured in all the guide books.  Our driver was creative and took control of the situation asking Thing 4 to jump in front.  Take a look at this photo, love it.  Only wish we would have done that with all the Things.

So strong!

We returned to our cave hotel, dried off, took warm showers and spent the rest of the evening cuddling and watching a movie and playing cards, while enjoying local pide.  Knowing we needed to rise early to catch our flights the next morning the night ended with the usual routine and sharing highs and lows of the trip.  My favorite.  

Cappadocia Day 2

Before I even begin about all the breathtaking historical sites we saw today I must pause and comment on the glorious view we were given at breakfast.  It was nothing short of spectacular and our Maker must be given applause.  Loud, thunderous applause.  The kind that erupts from deep within your soul and you feel all the way to your toes.  Take a look at this.
After breakfast we were ready for a day of sight seeing.  Our driver collected us from the hotel and we went straight away to the underground city of Derinkuyu, which translated in Turkish , means deep well.  And yes there is actually a deep well at the site of this city.  It is the deepest underground city in existence at 13 levels deep, roughly 70-85 meters.  I was unsure if my claustrophobia would allow me to venture all the way down but thanks to the Lord I was able to.  There was but one narrow passage way that I declined.  Thing 3 stood faithfully beside me, seems as though she is a bit like her Mama.  Of course there are certain areas where visitors are allowed and others which are restricted either due to excavation or safety concerns.  This had to have been a highlight for the Thigns.  We had a guide which directed us and filled in information gaps as to which rooms and carvings were what.  What people had inhabited the caves and what their lives might have been like.  It was astonishing to hear that the people would have spent 6-8 months underground, in the dark without seeing the light of day.  Fearful for their lives they would hide.  The tunnels revealed a church, a missionary school, a baptismal font, kitchen, living areas and food storage.  Not to mention the stables and animal troughs.  To think of 2000 people sharing these quarters not only with other humans but animals as well.  And all the while worshipping, what faith. 
 The Six Hansons standing in front of a confessional in the underground church
Baptismal Font in Derinkuyu

After exiting the depths of the city and emerging into the sunlight we saw cross in the distance.  An abandoned church, in fact the church of St. Theodore.  Waiting for us was an elderly Turkish woman and a lone man all to anxious to show us the revolving pillars and the peep holes from which we could view the beauty of the inside of the church.  We spoke with her in our best Turkish and she lovingly shared about her family and her handmade dolls.    The church's skeleton leaves much to be desired and tells of years gone by but the inside is magnificent.  Large pillars and frescoes adorn the ceiling.  Only thing missing are the people, that and the key to open the padlocks. 

From the church and after some bargaining for a handbag for Thing 1 we were on our way to Soganli Valley.  Translated in Turkish literally means, onion valley.  Which is an adaptation from the original name meaning left for the last.  By any means there are fairy chimnies lining the valley which were created by erosion and the magnificent force of nature.  There are churches built into the mountain side and we visited every last one of them.  It was here that the Things caught a glimpse of frescoes.  Floor to ceiling of Biblical scenes were painted painstakingly in these churches.  Churches hidden in the fairy chimnies, in the mountain.  And after years of being hidden they have now been destroyed.  Both by natural causes and human ignorance.  Eyes have been scratched out and graffitied over.  IIn a majority of the frescoes the eyes of the human figures have been scratched out.  The Muslims believe that portraying a human being was blasphemous. It is disheartening and it made Husband Jared and myself very sad.  The Things weren't sure what to think and just couldn't understand why somebody would want to do that.  Tell me about it.  Husband Jared did manage to capture a few photographs of the frescoes and of course the Things hiking in the valley.


Next stop, the Monastery.  Complete with a church and refectory, a little out of the way, was an interesting sight.  The church's frescoes are beautiful, although most of them have been painted over by the Turkish Muslims.  The red ochre, which was what was used to consecrate the place when it was first carved into the rock, is shown in areas.  It is believed that symbols were painted onto the walls in order to consecrate the "building" and then artists came in later and adorned the walls with their frescoes.
 


After a nice walk through the grounds of the monastery we came to our final destination, for the day that is, Mustafpasa.  This village is said to have remained Christian throughout the Selcuk and Ottoman periods and is an interesting mix of cultures, as evidenced in the architecture.  There is an odd combination of the remains of the cave homes with "modern" buildings.  We walked the area and then loaded up the van and returned to our cave.


Thankful Thursday #59


* Turkish girls jumping rope in Urgup

531. Family holiday
532. Rain free days
533. Things that know how to travel
534. Flight attendants with a sense of humor
535.  Pleasant surprises
536. Marbling demonstrations
537. Learning oportunities
538. Things' sense of humor
539. Sweet treats
540. Cave hotels

Cappadocia Day 1

The first day of holiday is what we refer to as our "travel day".  Usually much doesn't happen and we spend most of our time visiting the inside of airports and getting settled at our final destination.  This day was a typical travel day.  By the time we had made our way to Kayseri airport via Istanbul and found our transportation to the cave hotel the Things were antsy and needing to expend some energy. 

As soon as we arrived at the hotel the Things were anxious to explore.  Our room is actually carved out of a cave.  I am not sure what the Things expected but this definitely was worth it.  Their faces said it all. The oohs and aahs and then the fighting began over who got to sleep in this bed.



Ultimately we had to draw cards for each night so as to avoid fighting and unfair advantages.  After dropping our luggage, discussing sleeping arrangements and picking up a quick snack we were on our way to the city center for a walk around.  The town of Urgup is quaint. Lined with shopkeepers and cafes wanting to visit and ask questions.  We did spot quite a few Besiktas fans on their way to Kayseri for the Turkish Cup final.  Football chants and flags filled the road. 

We toured the city, became acquainted with our surroundings and then cleaned up for dinner.  Ziggys did not dissapoint.  Fine Turkish cuisine was inhaled and laughter dominated our conversations.  I am sure we were a sight to take in.  Amongst our company were several "grandparents" who commented on our large family and ability to have a good time.  Yes, we consume all the oxygen in the room.  Thank you very much. 

Back to the hotel to rest up for day 2.

Hamam...Which translates into, lose all your modesty and enjoy the experience.

Image taken from:
http://images.travelpod.com/users/charlotte/alieninistanbul.1041429900.izmir_hamam.jpg
* this is actually the first room you enter at the hamam I visited today in Izmir
  Actually, a Hamam is a Turkish bath house.  Yes I braved the unknown and ventured into a completely Turkish experience today.  I must say I am so grateful I did.  I was not alone.  No way.  I had a sweet friend with me whose understanding of the language far exceeds mine and if you saw her on the street you would definitely assume she was a Turk.  That is until you looked at her feet and saw that she was wearing flip flops.  Dead give away, as they say.

Anyhow, we entered the bath house unsure of what to expect but definitely certain that we were in for some discomfort.  Here is a concise play by play of our couple of hours cleansing ourselves.  And not in the spiritual sense.

Collect a key for changing room.  Disrobe, leaving only bathing suit bottoms on, wrap special towel as tightly as I could around my body.  Feet in flip flops.  Walk hesitantly down windy stair case into steam room.  Really more like a pentagon shaped sauna with a rather high domed ceiling containing glass bottles that let the most beautiful natural light into the room.  The room is entirely marble.  And entirely hot.  There are small marble sinks lining the walls with faucets and bowls.  These are for cooling off while you are waiting your turn to climb up and be bathed.  Literally.  Several women were having their turn so my friend and I waited with the others and tried to ease our nervousness.  Eyes up.  Light conversation.  Lots of laughter.  Laughter helps.  Her turn first.  The woman calls her up, lays out her towel and begins.  I am left waiting.  Not sure what to do.  I bowed my head and prayed.  Oh, I also chuckled to myself at the overwhelming oddity of the situation.  Then came my turn.  Lay down.  Try and relax.  The first step is comparable to being scrubbed with sandpaper.  Quite effective though.  I am certain that 10 years of dead skin was left in that room, all belonging to me.  After that a cool rinse and then a soap bath.  Loads of bubbles covered my body, front and back.  Before I forget, that might have been the funniest part, when my masseuse was finished with one side, she gave me a loud pat on the bum to let me know it was time to roll.  Once the bubbles were lathered and she was confident that I was cleaned in between every wrinkle I was rinsed.  Again.  Cold buckets of water over my head.  Left to stand and wait for my dry towel, the exposed feeling I had upon entering had subsided and what remained was calmness.  Done.  Exit hot room and sit in front of the fountain.  Dry.  Compose yourself.

Through it all I couldn't stop myself from considering the fact that this was once the only way to bathe.  No bath tubs to yourself.  No showers pouring clean, hot water through their pipes.  This was community.  It was common practice.  Age old Turkish tradition.  Here I was the foreigner, learning and appreciating this element of their history.  My friend and I exited and both agreed we would do it all again if given the opportunity.  For 27 TL, including the cost of the "sandpaper", massage, scrub and time, we had an experience of a life time.  I left the hamam feeling rejuvenated.  My skin cleansed and my senses awakened.