Saturday, May 28, 2011

What I like about living in Istanbul, Turkey

The variety of fruits and vegetables. Almost everything grows within the limits of the country and although I would be surprised if no pesticides were used to grow at least some of them, I do believe the total amount is far less than elsewhere. 

Turkish breakfast. (Again with the food, eh?) I have already professed my love for simit (like a dozen times), but I didn’t mention the bread and the olives. I do now: those olives and that bread with some of that white cheese… Yummy mummy! Best served at home, but do try some places for breakfast around Beşiktaş.

Colors. Istanbul has to be the most colorful city I have set my foot in. Red flags, yellow cabs, grey and pale red mosques, blue strait and seas, green palms, firs and poplars to name a few. All of that thrown in together makes for a vivid palette.

Emotions. This is both positive and negative. When I’m feeling low-key and go shopping on some central market or I’m walking down a touristy street, the last thing I want is the vendors to scream as if trying to save their lives thus advertising their goods or hosts to offer me their overpriced menu in high pitch. But other than that, interaction between people is almost always emotional and a nice to watch. From the side. Mostly no Turkish languages skills are needed to understand. 

Sights. Well… What can I say. Istanbul is a city of many, many hills and climbing most of them is a bit of a challenge, but once you’re out there on top, you can see Istanbul as plain as the nose on your face. Another nice view is from the side of Üsküdar (best at night), when you stand directly before the Maiden’s Tower and Sultanahmet is right behind it across the water. Sigh. It’s worth living just to see that, my friends. Or as you’re passing the always busy Bosphorus bridge, glance left and right to be amazed by the natural beauty that is the Bosphorus straight and Asia and Europe.

Water. The Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus Strait, the Black Sea. If there’s one thing Turkey’s unofficial capital doesn’t lack, it is water sources. Cozy cafes by the water are the best, too. Try some in Beylerbeyi or Çengelköy, they are so people-friendly, they actually let you bring your own breakfast and only order coffee or tea. All that for minimal prices and unbeatable views.

Ferries. In a hectic city like Istanbul, seeking tranquility might be pointless. However, it is right here. No matter what water route or direction you take, rest assured that it will be a slow-paced ride (sometimes so relaxing that it makes you doze off). Plus, those views are still there. All for less than 2TL per person.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What I don’t like about living in Istanbul, Turkey

I have previously written about the things that I enjoy in the humongous city that is Istanbul and now it is only fair that I highlight the negative parts.

  • First of all, - and it comes first because it’s the most recent experience - no matter what they tell you, Istanbul is not as liberal as some people want it to be. Yes, Taksim is arguably the heart of modern Istanbul and everyone is pretty progressive there, so is Levent and Nisantasi and some other places, but make a step from this liberal comfort zone and you will find yourself in the debris of conservativeness. We’re talking about clothes, attitude and alcohol consumption among many other things here. It is not a pleasant thing if you’re accustomed to wearing shorts in the summer and having a beer at the neighborhood picnic. You will get stares that are bound to make you feel uncomfortable.

  • Traffic. Wow. Well, I’ve said this before, but do trust me when I say it KILLS YOU here. It fucking kills you. The regular rush hours are 7am to 10am and 5pm to 8pm. But this is just a rough guideline. Sometimes (no, I mean most of the time) there are still traffic jams in early and late afternoon. Want to really avoid traffic? Take the midnight bus. It almost guarantees you a fast ride. Worst traffic day is Saturday. Apparently not many Istanbul people party their brains out on Friday night and then sleep in on Saturday. Nope, most wake up sharply around 8am or 9am and go out shopping, dining and doing other activities that involve creating major traffic jams. It is very frustrating, believe you me.

And the thing is, you can’t walk here. I mean, you can probably swing an hour long walk, but the distances are so vast here that it is your destiny to rot in some bus where some nasty Turkish dude tries to touch your hip.

Your one safety harbor is the ferry boat. They are always on time, efficient and traffic free. Too bad they only serve on water.

  • Now, this may be controversial. Food. I know many people consider it amazing and it apparently is one of the 3 most important cuisines in the world (after… Italian and French?). So it should taste well. I thought so. But there’s only so many lentils and beans I can eat in my lifetime, you know? I do enjoy the occasional döner dürüm, tavuk dürüm, iskender kebab and some other dishes involving chicken (in that great self-service diner on Istiklal Caddesi), but on the whole, it’s not my type of food. Meat together with yogurt? It tastes weird at first, but then I guess it gets better and so does the combination of some meat-type fastfood (like döner) together with Ayran (the salty mix of yogurt and water), but I don't feel it is in my heart to eat this always.

Also, supermarkets here suck. Have you been to BIM or Dia or Migros or Sok or any other chain? Have you? Well, you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all of them. They all sell the same stuff in every town and city that I’ve been to. And the selection is quite limited, in my humble opinion. Particularly the sweets. I’m sorry, but the selection of candy here sucks (they do not have M’n’M’s here! Imagine that!) and chocolate is kind of expensive save for the cheap chocolate bars for 0.25-0.5 TL that are pretty basic. Really. My sweet tooth has been suffering a lot here. I also miss the variety of dairy that I've seen in other countries, here you get milk, ayran, and (plain yogurt). And a limited variety of cheese.

What every supermarket does offer is great bread though. And simit. But you already know I’m the queen of simits (sesame bagels).

That's it for starters...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Two days in Izmir, Turkey

Izmir was the first city after Istanbul that I visited in Turkey. And it was lovely.

After Istanbul it seemed very, very quiet. The weather was better. I did not see one traffic jam. Not a one. In fact, the waterfront (Konak) has almost no cars and buses out there and you can sit down on a bench amidst the palms and take in the amazing view and the quietness.

And then an old fisherman buys you tea just because he feels like it. Of course that’s mostly because the tea seller has no change, but it still is pleasant. And then you get two bus rides for free because two bus drivers also have no change. My, it surely is a nice place.

Izmir is a city where life is slow and no one is in a rush. Some areas are a bit like Sultanahmet in Istanbul, minus the screaming vendors, rip-offs, tourists and mosques… Well, I guess it’s nothing like Sultanahmet at all, is it? It is soothing and uplifting.

Izmir is a city where veggie vendors drive around their veggie trucks and housewives buy their salad ingredients from kitchen windows.

Izmir is a city where 3 housewives from two buildings across one other discuss the latest gossip from their windows (it’s a quite a sight!).

Unlike in Istanbul, people cycle here… and not just at night. Barely anyone wears a headscarf, even relatively far away from the central area. People are friendlier.

There aren’t many landmarks overall in Izmir, nevertheless it is fun spending some time there. I especially enjoyed some of its smaller and quieter streets upwards from Konak.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bus travel in Turkey

The truth is, I don’t like bus travel. It is stressful. No flight, no train, bicycle or ferry ride can even come close.

I took mid- to long-distance bus rides in a handful of countries (e.g. the U.S., Germany, France, Czech Republic, Russia, the Ukraine) and I can’t think of a good experience. It’s always too little space, someone always snores or stinks, eats, the bus is too slow and then if it’s really long distance, bus drivers are reluctant to let you use the WC inside the bus (because they have to clean it, innit?).

My first bus ride here in Turkey was an overnight trip from Istanbul to Izmir, a total of about 9 hours and 45TL (~20EUR). Frankly, I kept complaining that it was kind of expensive for this country. Until I got on the bus, that is.

First of all, any big bus company in Turkey like Metro or Pamukkale always offers what they call servis or shuttle which means if you buy a ticket in an office right around the corner from your home, if you want, you can use the company’s free shuttle bus that takes you to the bus station of your departure. Same with your arrival, they will take you to the office closest to your actual destination.

Apart from that, the following things were also included in the bus fare:

  • enough leg space (like, really… I’m 180cm and I almost never get enough leg space, which wasn’t the case here)
  • water
  • coffee/tea and snack
  • entertainment including TV, music, some films (I had Ice Age, Iron Man, Yes Man… none of them are my choices of interest, but they may be up many people’s valley) and radio
  • also a USB port so that you can charge your MP3 player.

In general it's not too easy if you don't speak Turkish, but sometimes an  English-speaking gentleman or lady will appear to help you in the most unexpected of places.

Also, the weird thing was, they didn’t check my ticket both times (I took the same bus back a few days later). Just like Deutsche Bahn around Christmas time.

I have a problem falling asleep anywhere that isn’t a couch or a bed, so I tend to be all zombie after buses, flights and sometimes trains, but on my outgoing trip I actually managed to fall asleep several times and arrived in Izmir all perky and ready to explore. That wasn’t the case on my way back as I was feeling quite hyper due to (perhaps) all the carbs consumed during the day and didn’t get to sleep, but it wasn’t the bus company’s problem.

The one truly negative thing I can say about Turkish bus companies is their stupid, dumbass websites. You get a small discount if you purchase a ticket online and everyone knows it’s just more convenient, but good luck in accomplishing that as most Turkish websites are a complete nightmare. I suspect that even I could’ve written a better code, because those pages just refuse to load ,thus Metro’s website won’t let you buy a ticket. Also, most sites will offer a non-existing English version. The state train company says you have to register before you can even look up the timetable, but of course it won’t let you register.

But once you have a ticket and are all set to go, it's not so bad.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Planning a trip outside of Istanbul

Frankly, I have become a little lazy here in Istanbul. I find that I spend too much time at home (also read: online) and too much time around the fridge. The distances here are so long (and only made worse by the traffic) that if I want to go somewhere interesting for a walk, I have to be on a bus for a while or on a bus and a ferry, so this has proved to be quite a turn off for me travel-wise. Also, in these 33 or 34 days in Istanbul I have not once left the limits of the city and it is too long a time for my current nomadic lifestyle.

So this night I'm setting off on a trip to Izmir, Cesme and Selcuk (Izmir). I can't say I'm excited because I'm just so lazy and into sitting on my ass most of the day long, but I know it will be enjoyable and I will have a good time, so that's precisely why I am taking this small trip. Later on, I think I'll go to Bursa for a day or a weekend trip.

I have found that location also does matter. I live in Üsküdar that I generally have no problem with, except it has no night connections to anywhere, it seems. So if I wanted to go party in Taksim or somewhere else, I'd have to party till as early as 6am and I don't see that happening. Even the best parties have only managed to keep me interested until 4am (like two times in my life), normally I find I'm ready to go at 3am. So yeah, spending 2 hours somewhere outside in an alcohol-induced buzzy state is non-inspiring. And it's not that I'm such a party girl that I have a need to rave and go wild (although Berlin does that to you), I guess I just feel I'm too settled and maybe even bored which is not something I'm looking for in my travel experiences.

So a trip it is.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How about learning Turkish?

I have some friends in Russia who speak little to no English and I always laughed it off when they said they can’t imagine touring a foreign country on their own not knowing its language. I always said that hey, I only speak English and German, and I’ve been to many countries where none of the two is the official language. But only now I begin to understand that things aren’t that easy somewhere where people don’t speak English.

Now I have grown to know most districts of Istanbul (and more importantly, how their names sound, because at first it seemed to me that spelling and pronunciation in the Turkish language are two non-related things) and I can say I’m okay with public transportation, but the first couple of weeks I was pretty dependent on my flatmates and couldn’t step away from the path I’d been advised. Since only a rare bus driver speaks English, it was virtually impossible for me to go somewhere unless I’d asked somebody at home.

Also, at the local Thursday market, you don’t have to be genius to say you need 1 or 2 kilos of this or that and yet still it would help if was able to speak Turkish.

I never realized before how far my English took me in places where it’s more widespread. I tend to only ask people in the street the way if I really can’t figure out the map or am just plain lost, otherwise I prefer to navigate on my own and feel almost shy to ask the directions. In an insanely chaotic city like Istanbul, I required guidance several times and I sorta wished my Turkish was a bit more advanced. It is better now when I know left, right and of course the hand gestures help tremendously.

It seems in Istanbul and perhaps Turkey in general it is not uncommon to stare at people. I get different kinds of stares. First of all, it’s the men of course; sometimes if you pass them by, they will follow you with their eyes for a while. As long as don’t say anything or start getting any ideas, it’s fine with me. But then it’s the women, mostly in conservative neighborhoods, who give me this weird look as if I was personally after their men. Yeah, right, that’s exactly why I am here. Most frequently it happens with the cashiers and women on the bus.

Observations from the past days:

  • Food ordering from home is widely practiced here. In most cases, there’s no delivery fee. Also, you can call a grocery store if you’re too lazy to walk 20-30 meters and they will bring your bread and ice cream to your doorstep. I might become a sloth here. (As if I already wasn’t one!) 
  • Or better yet, some people who live high up in a building have a basket with money they lift down from the window, the delivery guy puts the groceries there, takes the money and the basket goes up. Charming! I simply must own a picture of this.
  • Another comparison between Berlin and Istanbul. In the German capital literally no one has curtains. So, at night you can comfortably sit back in your unlit kitchen and observe what kind of activities the neighbors directly across from you are undertaking. In Istanbul, everyone has curtains and when twilight sets in and people switch the light on, there are thicker curtains to be drawn so that nobody can catch a glimpse of what you’re doing.

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