May 18, 2009

The Greek/Turkish tension is one of the cultural issues I noticed right away when I first arrived, so I wondered how my Greek classmates would respond when I informed my teachers that I would be missing their classes on Friday to go to Istanbul.  One reaction in particular both amused and surprised me.  One of my most vocal fellow students (who uses the phrase “malaka” (Greek for asshole) every time he has something to say about the Turks),said to me “Allie, I won’t lie to you.  You know I don’t like the Turks, but my family is from Istanbul.  It is a HUGE, dirty city, but it is amazing- and you will have an amazing time.”

And we did.  Everything about it surprised me.  The food was unbelievable.  (I’m pretty sure every time we sat down at a restaurant I ordered the Turkish meze plate- which is like a sampler of vegetables, dips, and vine leaves- and I was never dissapointed.)  The people were friendly too, though the men were comparably aggressive to those in Cairo.  Traveling the first day with ten girls and only one boy didn’t help.  If my friend had a euro for every man that called him a “sultan” this weekend or told him he was “being selfish” and that he should “share with them,”  he’d be really freaking rich.

We took the overnight train from Thessaloniki to Istanbul on Thursday night.  It left at 7pm and with the exception of the hours between 2:45 am and 4:30 am where they banged on our doors every other second, it was quite pleasant.  When we reached the Greek/Turkish border we had to hand over our passports first to be stamped out of Greece, and then again to be stamped into Turkey.  The most amusing part was when a man in a full doctor-esque scrub suit (masque and all) came to the door asking if we had swine flu.  We also spent a glorious half hour shivering in our pajamas waiting to purchase our Turkish visas  (a bargain at 15 euro, the poor Canadians next to us had to pay 45!).

We arrived around 9:30am on Friday and spent the day wandering the Grand Bazaar, scaring the two other boys that were stuck in the 13 person room with all of us, taking in the Agia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (which were only a 3 minute walk from our hostel) and eating a lot of awesome food.

The Grand Bazaar: "Let me help you spend your money!"

The Grand Bazaar: "Let me help you spend your money!"

Some of the funniest things said to us throughout our time in this underground maze of shops included: “Let me help you to buy things you don’t need.”  “Hey look, it’s the spice girls!”  “You were in my dreams last night!”  “I give you a good price because you are so beautiful”  “I sold goat’s neck fur to Laura Bush”  (He really did, he had a picture? Weird?)  “Everything here is almost free!”  “Charlie’s Angels!”  “Hey Sultan, why are you so selfish, why don’t you give one to me?”

Our responses got more and more ludicrous as the day went on.  We were finally lying when people asked where we were from depending on our mood-  I chose Australian most often and there was one particularly entertaining span of ten minutes when Lizzy had a man actually convinced her and our friend Taki were married and from Birmingham, England.  It was interesting to see how no one’s first guess was ever that we were American.  I got Dutch a LOT which was appropriate I suppose, but if they heard us speaking English well they always guessed Australian or English- It seemed absurd to them that American kids would come to Istanbul for fun.  There really were tons of tourists throughout the city so I guess it just isn’t somewhere frequented by Americans ever.

The bartering in the Bazaar was addicting.  I almost bought several scarves (even after buying about 10 in Cairo for much less) just because it was so fun driving the price down and even as I would walk away having the store owners shout lower and lower prices at me.  I did pick up the one thing I really wanted for myself though, the traditional evil eye bracelet.  It is supposed to protect the wearer from the evil eye or ‘bad vibes’ as one store owner described it to me.

The next two days we spent exploring the Blue Mosque (which was really cool, but not quite blue and not as cool as the Hussien mosque at the citadel in Cairo- probably partially due to how many tourists there were inside), Agia Sofia, and taking a boat tour of the Bosporus (and walking on Asia!).  We even managed to get out to a club on Friday night and had our fair share of lying on pillows outside smoking traditional sheesha (flavored tabacco smoked from a water pipe- just like hookah in the states).

My favorite touristy landmark was easily the Agia Sofia.  We were mesmerized by the grandeur of it from the oustide only to go in and discover even more amazing things.  When this massive church (built between 532 and 537) was converted into a mosque in 1453 all of the elaborate Orthodox mosaics and decorations were covered in plaster and replaced with Islamic writing, drawings and decor.  Since it was turned into a museum in 1935 the mosaics have been uncovered and the Islamic parts of the building left in place- so the two faiths sit right next to each other in this magnificent building. There is no way to describe how moving seeing them next to each other was.  The two faiths that have caused more trouble with each other over their history than all the other religions (in my opinion anywas) there, together, at peace in that amazing building- bah, I hope everyone that walks in there had the time to take note of it.

Inside Ayasofia: Mary right next to some Arabic. No Big Deal.

Inside Ayasofia: Mary right next to some Arabic. No Big Deal.

More inside Ayasofia

More inside Ayasofia

Our experiences in Agia Sofia (which I am spelling in the Greek fashion, in English I think it is Hagia Sophia and in Turkish it is Ayasofia) was made all the more amusing when a gaggle of five young (maybe 10 year old) boys came up to my two friends Jen, Cara and me and oo-ed and aw-ed over our foreign-ess.  One even exclaimed “LOok! A MODEL!”  (They start them young over there it seems- though I will never be opposed to being referred to as a model I guess)  Taki, our protector/evil instigator in this case, offered to the boys to take their photograph with us so somewhere in Istanbul five very happy young boys very may well have a picture of some American girls they saw in Ayasofia on their computers/on their walls?!  Haha.

Anyways I haven’t updated this in forever so I figured I should get to it as soon as possible.  I need to go get some schoolwork done now though so I’ll try to write more later but if not, enjoy the pictures!


One Response to “Istanbul/Constantinople”

  1. aladdino said

    i am thinking to visit Istanbul this summer, and i realy like to read travellers experiences. i realy love reading your travel blog, the photos and descreption are great.

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