March 25, 2013
Once I had a girlfriend in the States whom I had met one October. The December of that same year, we went to her parent’s house out of town and met her parents and her little brother. That night I stayed in her room, in the same bed with her. We had no intention of marrying.
I repeat: I stayed in the same house…while her parents were down the hall!…., slept in the same bed and woke up the next morning with no bullet holes in me, no angry cousins waiting around the corner to beat me to a pulp – not a scratch on my carriage. In fact, her mother even made breakfast.
That seems unusual, almost unthinkable to me now – at my ripe 31 years of age no less.
I’ve lived in Turkey for a long time.
I share this tidbit because my beautiful girlfriend and I recently took a first formal step to marriage and had dinner, together with her family, in her family’s home on the Asian side of Istanbul. It was not only my first time meeting her father, it was the first time I had set foot inside the house where the love of my life has been living for a good chunk of her life.
Zeynep and I have been together for 14 months.
It was a relatively modern and low-key affair on that recent late winter evening at the Senturk residence. A delicious dinner of kereviz (celery with walnut and yogurt) salad and chicken with soft jasmine rice was served, a Turkish national soccer match was watched (Turkey beat the tiny principality of Andorra 2-0), delicious out of season fruit was consumed, cay was drunk.
Her father’s name is Ahmet, a name so mainstream its practically ironic (Americans have John and Mary, Turks have Ayse and Ahmet). A smallish man, but tough without an ounce of fat on his frame, Ahmet picks his words carefully. Like me, he is a bit tough to read. He is a warm Anatolian, but never too far from dumping a young man’s body in the Bosphorus if he lays a hand on one of his daughters.
However, the interrogation from father wasn’t as tense as I thought. Sure there were questions about my family, what my father does, where exactly I am from, what I do, where I do my banking, what I think was the real reason behind Sept. 11, etc. But the hardened dad actually cracked a couple smiles before the night was through. The evening ended amicably.
The proverbial application form is in and chances of being a member of the Senturk club were looking good as I headed for the door. I experienced for the 985th time the Turkish tradition of the whole family/friend group coming to the door to stand not three feet away while I put on my shoes, watching with love as if I were a Panda giving birth at the zoo. I had a couple of homemade gul boregi to take home with me for breakfast the next morning
I also carried with me a sense of accomplishment on the jerky minibus ride home that rainy night. A sense that you have to earn the trust of your woman not only as an individual, but also as a member of a family with all her sacred bonds that entails.
It’s a link to another time, but with a modern twist. In fact, the family is modern and secular by any Turkish yardstick, yet Turkish is Turkish, and being embraced by all family members is never something to take for granted.
By comparison, our family units are like loose affiliations, chambers of commerce of individuals bounded by love, gloriously free to choose their own lives, but sometimes limited in terms of the support and the “reach out and touch someone” factor the members give and receive. I speak not of my own family, for I have been blessed, but I make a sweeping cultural generalization.
The day will come when I can get overnight privileges at their home. Until then the acceptance process has gotten started – and the fun is just getting started.
Gentlemen with a Turkish wife, feel free to add your stories.
April 2, 2012
Spring finally is arriving in Anatolia – and the travel season begins. But let’s not forget that traveling in Turkey in the winter can be enjoyable, too. Below is an overdue post on traveling in East-Southeast Anatolia in late January. Keep it in mind for next winter — or any time of course. (Also, Palandökken is still open for skiing.)
I sat on a rock. Winter birds were chirping in the vicinity. It had been a chilly and cloudy winter day in the high desert of southeast Anatolia. I jotted some thoughts down while checking out the moutnainscape. Using a point and shoot camera, I tried feebly to capture the essence of the cave dwellings and rock churches in this starkly beautiful landscape – a sort of mini Cappadocia. Suddenly, the sunlight streamed through the clouds, and kissed me and everything around it, a harbinger of spring to come. I quickly attempted to capture the play of shadows and sun with the Nikon. Then the clouds again shrouded the sun and again the desert air turned cold and challenging.
Hasankeyf…Winter can’t spoil you.
The weather, so changeable yet beautiful, mimicked my experience in the region. Southeastern Turkey is alternatively beautiful and frustrating. Its people warm-hearted and willing to bend over backwards, yet innocently nosey, asking how much money I make and what religion I am a mere 5 minutes after making acquaintances.
But if that’s the worse thing I can complain about, we should all be so lucky.
Where ever I went I felt that people were expecting me, just waiting for me to show up. Hospitality is rich all over Turkey, but in the Southeast it’s a regional pastime, a passion. At a certain point you just give up with the demurring and the false modesty and just offer a humble thanks. It’s a bit spoiling, actually. And for Turkey newbies the urge to reciprocate — or to not accept this level of hospitality – is strong, but that slowly melts away the longer you live here. You stop ‘feeling guilty’ and just resign to the locals’ warmth.
Why the East in winter? My winter holiday from my university teaching job provided the ideal time to take this short and inexpensive trip. I flew into Erzurum (about 130 TL one way with Anadolu Jet), a place that I invite any wusses who complain about Istanbul cold to go to, just to walk around for 20 minutes at night in January. Skiing at Palandokken, a mere 7 km from the city center, was refreshing. The quality of the snow was fine. The problem lied in its amount. Despite bountiful snows in the western Anatolian mountains, pebbles and rocks appeared on many meagerly covered runs at Palandokken. About 10 runs were serviceable and 3 were pretty darn good. Still, for one of Turkey’s flagship resorts, it was lacking. After I left, huge storms dropped a meter of snow.
Then it was on to Diyarbakir over snowy mountain passes. A muddy snow was melting when I arrived and the following day in the Turkish capital – this under a pouring rain. This weather accentuated the grittiness of this city of about 1 million people.
It’s not the usual mosques and kervansarays and hans that make Diyar standout – although the Ulu Camii and Meryam Ana Kilesi (a Syrian Orthodox Church still in use) are must sees. It’s the rambling alleyways where locals slaughter chickens and donkeys are used for transport that make it the sort of city jumps right out of a Middle Eastern stereotype. Walking along the iconic (and railing-less) city walls made of basalt gives one a bird’s eye view of all the lively squalor.
Mardin also offers its own interesting views, though of a more traditionally beautiful than Diyarbakir. Known as Mardin’s ‘sea’ because of its black appearance at night, the Mesopotamian plain stretches out for miles to the south. I made a connection with a Couchsurfer who put me in touch with a friend who was renovating a guesthouse for the summer season. It was located in the center of town in a traditional Mardin sandstone house and it was totally free. I watched movies and we cooked dinner with his 13-year old son (he also runs a quaint café).
The following day, the Sabancı-funded city museum there provides a great starting point for exploring the multi-cultural splendor (including another Syrian orthodox church) of Mardin: the medresses, the tombs and the bazaar, the latter is where famous local scented soaps are sold.
After Midyat (a kind of flat Mardın with less stunning beauty) that night (I swear the hotel I stayed at was run by the PKK) and the following day – and Hasankeyf the day after – it was back to Diyarbakır and a dinner of ciğer (liver) in the modern section of town with a co-worker who is from there. She and her sisters then took me to the small airport for my Pegasus flight back to Istanbul – Sabiha Gökçen airport, a mere 80 minutes away. It was a perfectly hospitable ending to as perfect a sub-zero trip to the Southeast as one could enjoy.
December 19, 2011
Like Turkey, Romania seems to dance with its mixed identity in a way that is at once intriguing and not quite sure of itself.
It has warmth and hospitality and many of its people have olive and latte colored skin. But to call it Mediterranean would be like calling Louisiana the Caribbean. It has a hearty, heavy diet that includes a spiceless polenta like substance, lots of potatoes and cabbage, and borscht. But to call it Slavic (or Hugarian) would be like calling Armenia Russia. Its Transylvanian heartland has Saxon architecture dating from the 14th century, complete with fortified churches to protect it (against Turkish invasions), but to call it German would be like applying the same label to Norwegians. In short, it’s a satellite orbiting around no one culture, despite lots of occupation in its history.
And yet it feels so damn EUROPEAN, just as Anatolia feels so ORIENTAL. Both regions are crossroads, where rolling, accessible landscapes trampled on by dozens of civilizations over the millennia, and now both are bearing the fruits of recent heavy investment in tourism.
Located just an hour’s flight from Istanbul, Romania’s accessibility – thanks to budget flights on Pegasus Airlines from Sabiha Gokcen – makes it an ideal regional getaway. It reminds one why Istanbul is such an appropriate base for regional travel into southeast Europe. But Bucharest is not nor should be the end point of any trip to Romania lasting more than a couple days. There is stuff to do and see in Bucharest – the presidential palace and its ridiculous, tragic and opulent legacy of the Ceausescu reign, a building that is only dwarfed by the pentagon in square meters. There is the old town, small and filled with shops that locals actually go to. But Bucharest feels like a working capital not totally awakened (or succumbed to) to being a destination the same way Prague or Budapest are.
Two hours away, though, is Brasov. Brasov is a charming medium-sized Saxon city that – despite a hideous Hollywood-style “Brasov” sign on the mountainside — is a charming fairytale city nestled in a valley. Being there in early November, my traveling companion and I could marvel at the bright reds and yellows of the leaves on the trees of those hillsides.
But Being the kind of travelers we are, my friend and I made it a point to check out the local pub scene, not the foliage. Nights are cold in November and the tourists are largely gone, but we found a couple cozy bars to have a pint of Ursus, Silva, or some other local suds (none of which are exceptional). We bantered with the owner of one bar, a basement type joint owned by a motherly woman who spoke several languages and was about to retire to the countryside on account of high rents. We sampled Romania cuisine at Casa Romaneasca, where I dined on pressed chicken livers wrapped in bacon and covered in a creamy garlic sauce, ample fuel for the body’s furnace on a chilly evening (to avoid carrying a bowling ball in his stomach the rest of the evening, my friend had a hearty chicken soup with a salad of pickled red peppers).
Two days in Brasov is probably enough, and more than half of one of those days was spent checking out the famous Bran castle of Dracula lore and the hilltop fort at Rasnov. Perched on a steep Carpathian hill, the last in the range before a breadboard-flat plain, the fort at Rasnov was a pleasant surprise, and it’s easy to see why the fort is so strategically necessary (as is the Bran castle, about 12 km down the road.)
The next day it was on to Sighisoara, another 3 hours by train and in the geographical heart of the country. Sighisoara is Brasov redux but with a more charming (if that’s possible) citadel on top of a hill with a 270-degree view of the surrounding town. The town is brimming with school kids, leading me to believe that people are either really bored or confident in Romania’s future to provide for its people. While staying in a cozy hostel/pension next to the citadel and adjacent Biserica din Deal (church on the Hill) built in the 14th century, we managed to have a lot of walks past village houses with chickens feeding and mangy dogs barking.
On our second to last day in Romania, we rented bikes from a helpful tourist office in the center of town (after filling out countless forms), and went on a 40 km bike ride through the Transylvanian countryside, stopping at a church in the Gypsy village of Apold. In Apold we turned onto a dirt road and slowly plied our way up a gradual slope – past sheepherders and fields of stubble – through to an isolated hamlet (Volkan). There we went along a farm track barely visible up to a ridge, then down a hill back to the Sighisuara, but not after being chased by surly farm dogs as if we were 11-year old boys in some coming of age film set in the 1960’s rural America (old man Mr. McGoo’s dog is after ya, Nick…faster faster!). At first we bemoaned the gloomy weather of low clouds, but then we realized that it was fitting because we were in Transylvania after all, and warm sunshine and greenery would be too…well…sunny for a landscape with such a macabre reputation.
It was back to Bucharest on the 5-hour evening train (first class is worth it for the reclining chairs). We stayed in a hostel in a grand old communist era townhouse, which was run by a chatty eccentric Canadian woman and her Romanian-born teenage daughter. The only bummer was losing my camera, and Romania, as developed as it may have gotten, lacks lost and founds. After touring aforementioned presidential palace (which faces the Boulevard Unirii, which Ceausescu intentionally made 6 meters longer than the Champs Elysee), we did some last minute gift buying for my friends significant other before heading back to cozy and quick Otopeni Airport.
It was 5 days in a country that like Turkey seems to relish in its identity as a nation not quite sure of its identity, and like Turkey, 5-days only whet my appetite for more.
Mă întorc România!
(I’m coming back, Romania!)
August 1, 2011
Teaching English at a Summer Camp at Uludag
(A faint chant starts in Turkish somewhere in the back of the dining area, with its views of the mountains below. It grows slowly louder, until all the dinner tables erupt into the climactic chorus:)
The nostalgic chant reverberates through my head as I rejoin the hot, boring adult world back in Istanbul after spending two weeks with campers at “Camp Future Stars” (Gelecegin Yildizlari) up on Uludag, a sprawling, 2000-meter high ski resort area home to one of the finest kids’ summer camps in Turkey during its lazy summer offseason.
The first term of Future Stars features kids from ages 10 to 13. They are from more well-to-do families in Turkey, but they aren’t spoiled brats that I might have feared. I felt a genuine bond with them upon departure. My first experience teaching at a summer camp was a beautiful one, even if fraught with problems such as lack of supplies and miscommunications that didn’t seem to befit a summer camp of its stature.
The co-owner, Fahrettin, one of two brothers who started the camp in 1989, told me that there are approximately 100 “official” summer camps in Turkey that are affiliated with global summer camp organizations, but a lot more camps run by municipalities. Most of the 15,000 or so camps in the US seem to have a rustic, Puritanical, get-back-to-the roots mission, eschewing a lot of modern conveniences for outdoor activities, overnight camps and the like. On the other hand, camps in Europe and Russia apparently have more modern conveniences and are more like collective holidays than what we think of summer camps. Life at this Turkish camp is kind of a combination of the two. There were two disco nights and classrooms were in hotel rooms. There was one overnight camping trip, but it was approximately 200 meters up the mountainside next to a ski lift. But the food was a lot healthier than camps I had been to in the US: Lots of salad and yogurt, and classes took turns on “shift” serving meals and clearing dishes. And because of Fahrettin’s love of basketball, there was a lot of roundball action in addition to games like archery.
I was never a camp kid. I went to two summer camps in my youth, once to Camp Kaesta, in the Southern Oregon Cascades, when I was 9 years old, then to B’nai B’rith Camp, a Jewish youth camp on the Oregon Coast, when I was 11. The experience at Ka-esta was a week long, when I had a terrible paranoia about contracting Lyme’s disease, and when there was one torturous night of homesickness when I couldn’t be consoled. My campmates at the Jewish camp, meanwhile, had all been together since they were 8 years old and formed a tight clique which they made clear early on that I wouldn’t be a part of. I was made fun of by these spoiled, Seattle Mercer Island types with few allies to count on except for one overweight boy who was also a new camper that year.
So it was mainly financial reasons that led me to raise my hand to be a teacher at Camp Future Stars (Gelecegin Yildizlari), but it was one of the best decisions I’ve made this past year. The fresh mountain air, the creativity from the kids in the classroom (space was out theme, so students created things like anthems, flags, aliens, etc). When the kids performed at the end – to show off their planets, flags, aliens, etc. – I felt like a nervous and proud father. And teary goodbye hugs as the kids boarded coach busses back to the city, I too felt pangs of sadness, for what seemed to be a long two weeks at first, turned out to be over in the blink of an eye.
I wasn’t a camp kid. But I am a camp grown up.
(Note: while the weather in Istanbul is sweltering in summer, hitting 30 degrees, and humid, it never got above 22 while I was there, and often nights dipped down to 12 degrees. Sweaters and long jons are recommended anytime one visits Uludag)
June 8, 2011
It’s almost election day (June 12) and I for one am looking forward to not having the campaign vans drive by blaring campaign slogans and songs, as well as the leaflets littering the streets. The AK Party will win a third term, but whether or not it gets the “super majority” needed to rewrite the constitution (to even change the parliamentary system to to a presidential one, with the Sultan himself as leader, of course) remains to be seen. Most of my friends are unenthusiastically voting for CHP as a lesser of two evils option.
We even have a sex tape scandal! Here are some link a dinks for more information:
May 22, 2011
There is a classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry, not knowing what to get Elaine for her birthday, gives her cash.
Jerry: What do you think?
Elaine: You got me cash?
Jerry: Well this way I figure you can go out and get yourself whatever you want. No good?
Elaine: Who are you, my uncle?
Jerry: Well come on. That’s $182 right there. I don’t think that’s anything to sneeze at.
Elaine is furious. But I tend to side with Jerry — and so does Turkish wedding tradition. And at about 125 TL ($79) for a “ceyrek altin” at today’s exchange prices, that’s nothing to sneeze at if you are going to many weddings (I only went to two this season).
Indeed, gold coins are the main expected wedding gift in Turkey — hands down — or a large cash note if gold can’t be acquired.
I think it saves a lot of hassle, and ultimately yes, through the God-given decision making powers we process, we can skip the registry and get EXACTLY the kind of blender we want. Or perhaps it has something to do with the hospitality-oriented culture that the couple has to buy what they want without the benefit of a registry, and the guests have it easy.
On wedding day, after the nikah (wedding ceremony) the bride and groom stand like the Obamas hosting a state visit and friends and relatives come by in a procession – often quite long – to pin small gold coins on to the bride and groom. These coins are emblazoned with Ataturk on the good luck side and an Ottoman seal in Arabic script on the other. If a gold coin cannot be had, a 100 TL or euro note is perfectly acceptable substitute.
Afterwards, the couple is able to exchange their haul for common cash at one of the many kuyumculuks (jewelers) dotting the central areas of town, which often post set daily gold prices on digital displays, just as currency rates are. The stores’ buying price at last check was 123.03 TL ($77).
According to one student who married recently, despite the lofty price of gold these days, it often doesn’t offset the cost of the wedding, which can be lavish and long running affairs, but which vary greatly depending on the regional identity and level of traditionalism in the family.
The ones I went to were Western by comparison, one taking place at the lapping shores of the Bosphorus under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the other in the verdant greenery of Turkey’s finest urban park: Kültür Park in the city of Bursa (once the capital of the Ottoman empire and bearing a striking resemblance to northern California/southern Oregon in its flora and climate). After the nikah, the party heads over to the düğün (reception) to whoop it up. There, older relatives – covered ladies and mustachioed gentlemen – nod their heads to the beat as the kids bounce to club music, Madonna, Brian Adams and what have you. This is something I love about Turkey, this cultural melding of old and new, and Turks are quite adept at balancing the two. Whether Turkey is “Islam Light” as seen by many in the Arab world, or conservative – this harmony of the generations is a time when I have never felt more proud to be living here.
( here are current gold prices in Turkey)
March 22, 2011
It’s not always easy to rate the best bathrooms in a city. You usually only get 50 percent of the story, of course – especially in Turkey – and everyone has different criteria. Do you value highly amenities like automatic sinks that allow you to not touch anything except the toilet seat and the door? Are you willing to overlook possible shoddy plumbing in favor of things like Italian marble, bidets, bronze sink knobs, etc?
Lo, I have found what I believe is the best lavatory in Istanbul hands down. It’s located at Zeyrekhane, which is in Unkapani, off Ataturk Blvd., up the hill 100 meters on the right side of the road as you are headed south toward the airport. Built by the Byzantines, the arch-filled dining area of Zeyrekhane and its courtyard were once part of the medrese of the Mulla Zeyrek Mosque. Today it is a refurbished fine dining establishment with amazing deserts. The restoration was carried out in 2007 by the Rahmi Koc Vakfi (foundation) along with the local municipality. I am not sure to what degree he still controls the restaurant, but the restaurant’s website is routed through the foundation.
Anyway, men’s rooms visitors are greeted by a large fez hanging from the door, refreshing in an officially fez-free society. Inside its salmon colored stone walls with abundant pencil and ink illustrations of Ottoman buildings. The flowers by the sink and mirror are comfortably effeminate in a Mediterranean way, as if to say, “Hey I am comfortable enough with my sexuality to proclaim my love of flowers in the bathroom!”
The decorations are not kitsch: it’s all tasteful blend of gentle bathroom decorum, surreal enough to get comfortably distracted from what you are doing, but not so in your face as to be reminded that someone who shouldn’t have been in charge was a bit too liberal or otherwise tasteless. There are ceramic plates with the star and the crescent, a tip to the hat of modern statehood in an otherwise Ottoman/Byzantine place.
Of course, the hane is why you are here, right? Ottoman cuisine is served breakfast and dinner, but the place is recommended as a sort of “high tea” place on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Sip demleme (Turkish) tea and stare at the giant gold-colored samovar, while eating the highly recommended susam sepeti icende bogurtlenli muhallebi (milk pudding cakes with blackberry served in a sesame basket). Fortunately, the place wasn’t converted into another iskender or high-class kebap house, a dime a dozen in the city.
The conversation seems to go like this:
(Rich conservative restaurateur says: what should we serve at our awesomely renovated new place?)
(Rich buddy: I know! How about Iskender kebap, and maybe some Adana and Urfa kebap, too!)
(Restaurateur: Great idea! What would I do without you?!)
But Rahmi Koc is more worldly and in the billionaire class so he trampolines out of that nouveau-riche discussion, fortunately. The point for you is a pleasant stroll around the garden afterwards, with views of the towering Suleymaniye Mosque in the foreground and the Galata Tower on the other side of the Golden Horn. Enjoy.
And if you know of a “must pee” (bad-a bing!!) bathroom in Istanbul, let me know.
February 17, 2011
“These protests that are spreading throughout the Arab world, will they hit Turkey?” A curious American citizen asks my fake alter ego, a Turkish affairs scholar sought after by the media for quotes.
“No, no. Highly highly unlikely, anyway” my fake alter ego, with a Ph.D. and dozens of published works to his name, replies. “The cultures are quite distinct, and regular folks have seen more fruits of economic growth lately than the masses in countries like Egypt have – though it’s still not enough.”
I am polishing off a yogurtlu fistikli beyti kebap that was frozen and flown directly to me from Gaziantep, looking out the window from my Istanbul penthouse overlooking the Bosphorus. “I suppose it COULD be possible, but in reality Turkey is seen as a role model in terms of democracy, and, scanning the Net, I have yet to see any reports of such activity going on.”
As I take a hit from my cast-silver nargile and exhale fresh wet smoke of apple flavored tobacco, I continue. “There is little censorship of the Net, except for that silly YouTube business that everyone – from the villager cleaning lady to the five-year-old spoiled kid from Bostanci – knows how to get around. The Turks have taken to social networking like olive oil on eggplant, and surely there would be more buzz on Facebook, etc. to this effect.” I get up and refill my tulip shaped teacup from Pasabahce with steeped tea made from fine Black Sea leaves.
But I pause. This is Turkey, after all, people work ridiculously long hours, minimum wage is roughly 500 a month, the military is highly respected but so is the regime, for now. How long could that last? The garbage is getting picked up more regularly; there are big infrastructure projects underway that the Ak Party rightfully or wrongfully takes credit for. So it’s going to be a while, I think to myself.
“Islam is creeping into daily lives, this could be a balm to soothe the masses so they create more robotic support in the long run and can finally achieve the dream of successfully portraying secularists as ‘aliens’, as Erdogan once called the liberal-minded Izmir populace.” I mumble under my breath as I saunter back into the ‘salon’.
“What?” asks the curious American.
“Oh, Nothing,” I sit back down.
So…will there be mass protests here? “Nah” I say. “Well, this baklava won’t eat itself, my friend. Afiyet olsun.”
A real international affairs scholar said Turkey is actually a model for these newly democratic countries.
And something a tid bit spooky: A Muslim Brotherhood leader visits Turkey.
December 11, 2010
I got up in the middle of the night needing to use the facilities. I was in the living room of a Georgian village home, and there were several beds in that living room containing my friends and travel companions to negotiate. I fumbled around past them – snores marking their spots in pitch blackness – made my way past the woodstove in the kitchen, nearly burning myself, opened the door and felt the rush of the south wind coming from the towering mountains we drove through the previous afternoon. Dang, I thought, do I really have to go out in the freezing cold just to get to the bathroom? No bathroom inside? But then I looked up at the stars, beautiful, then the mountains draped in moonlight, stupendous, and made my way down the steps to a (heated!) bathroom. Yes, going outside to use the can was worth it: for this blissful, wee hour silence in the high Caucasus village of Kazbegi.
I spent five days in Georgia, and coincidentally so did several English teachers in Istanbul who also had a week-long holiday to celebrate, so we celebrated together for some of the time. After the first night in Tbilisi, we went to Kazbegi, three hours north of Tbilisi, courtesy of a Saudi gentleman who had a car and drove all the way up from his home country. Roadside shrines dotted the highest, pot-hole strewn passages of that road, while roadside churches hundreds of years old and even the occasional Soviet-era modern sculpture dotted the lower lands. Indeed, it was those lower lands reminded me
of the mountains and valleys of my native southern Oregon, but what Oregon misses is the next level of stark, amazing peaks like Mount Kazbek, towering more than 5000 meters and within plain view of the village of Kazbegi.
Home stays are the main accommodation option in Kazbegi, as the whole country is still developing tourism potential. We were approached by a woman with a small child offering her home to stay in, hence the middle of the night trek through a living room festooned with all manner of Georgian figurines, crystal, books and warm folded blankets. The stay included some delicious breakfast, warm, calorie filled kachapoorie, cheesy fried bread, and eggs, jam, tea coffee and other familiar offerings. Kachapuri is indeed replete all over the land, as breakfast pre-dinner snack, lunch, whatever. It’s positively the heaviest dough-related concoction one can imagine, though I hear in western Georgia they put an egg on top. After breakfast four of us trekked up to Tsiminda Sameba Monastery, a 14th-century structure perched overlooking the town at 2200 meters. Monks tended to gardens, we tended to our senses, ensuring we breathed as much mountain air as possible.
Heading back down the lowlands to Tbilisi for the night, we traded stories in the Honda with Saudi plates, getting weird looks from passersby at perhaps the first Saudi car to cruise the Russian Military Highway. The next day is was to the east and the tamer topography of wine country. Georgian wines come in many varieties, but each has a unique taste not found in an Albertson’s wine rack in the US, let alone at the bakkal in Turkey. The three of us spent nearly a day in the village of Sighnahi, a pleasant small town perched on the edge of a ridge overlooking a valley. We got there by taxi, which ran us about 15 bucks total for a two hour journey (gotta love travel in Georgia). There weren’t as many wine tasting facilities in town as we thought – one really, serving a brand called Pheasant’s Tears – but the town was relaxing and felt like a small town in the Napa Valley might have about 40 years ago, plus Georgian babushkas of course.
My next two days were spent palling around Tbilisi alone, my friends having gone to Armenia for a couple days. Tbilisi is a mish mash of styles, but the overarching feel is central European, a sort of Prague of the Caucuses. But there are certainly other influences: towering churches and a pious populace that gives a Greek feel, a bathhouse in the center of town that is central Asian in architecture, towering Soviet era sculptures. But the town doesn’t have as much of a heavy Soviet feel as I thought, except for the metro and its ludicrously fast and unsafe escalators.
And like European cities, there are no shortage of monuments, churches, a turn of the century synagogue, even an hourly clock tower parade show thingy reminiscent of Prague. I am not going to go into the history of all the awesome monuments, but do check out the fortress overlooking the city above the old quarter, then wander down a surprisingly well tended and diverse botanical garden with waterfalls below it.
Oh, and I can’t forget the half day trip to Gori and the Stalin Museum! For what visit to Georgia would be complete without it. The museum was oddly just what I expected, some crumbling Soviet-era palace devoted to the hometown boy who made it good. Sadly, not much balanced reporting on Stalin, and most of the museum is in Russian and Georgian. Lots of flattering newspaper clips blown up, a bizarre bust of the man surrounded by velvet. The usual. But who comes to Gori for an accurate portrayal of Stalin. Not me!
Not a day passed by in Georgia without feasting on Khinhali, splendid dumplings filled with minced meet. At about 30 cents apiece, they made for a refreshingly heavy change from the smaller portions found at Turkish restaurants.
Cheap, stunningly beautiful, with hospitable folks that can go toe to toe with any Middle Eastern culture, Georgia is a prize that is on the cusp of being totally touristified. Catch it while you can, while you can stay in someone’s house because you have no other option.
August 22, 2010
Howdy…it’s been a while since I rapped at y’all. Just wanted to remind all you basketball fans, baseketball fans, women in love with tall skinny dudes, etc., that the FIBA World Basketball Championships are coming to Turkey starting August 28.
Now as most of you know I am from the US, and this is our sport. No more puppy dog team USA soccer hoping to upset the big boys. We better win it all or there is going to be hell to pay. It’s like soccer and Brazil, or handball and Puerto Rico, or steroid woman’s swimming and East Germany. When we play, we hopefully play for it all, for the motherland…I guess….or something.
*Sigh* No Kobe, No Dwayne, No Lebron (too busy seeing how much farther he can put his head up his own ass this summer). None of those dudes seem to care (have any of you noticed that they pulled those adds with “giant” Kobe superimposed over the ancient Istanbul skyline?)
But hey…we have soft spoken Kevin Durant of the OKC Thunder. He isn’t an international household name yet but he should be. All he did last season was almost singlehandedly lead his team to the playoffs with 30 points per game and more than 7 rebounds. Then there is main man Chauncey Billups, a clutch veteran leader at guard who lead the toppling of the Shaq Kobe regime. Then there is Derrick Rose, an up and comer who has maybe fulfilled two-thirds of his potential so far at 20 points per game and 6 assists, born in 1988.
The games will be broadcasted locally on NTV , according to a guy handing out promotional flyers from a sponsor on the street. (I see that day passes can be purchased through Biletix for as little as 5 euro. But after signing up with Biletix, I was directed to an annoying screen that told me that there was no way I could get the tickets no, sorry, maybe it’s because of this, maybe because of that. We don’t know. Too good to be true.)
The official FIBA site is a good place to start research into teams, who is who, and youth teams you probably don’t care about unless you are a parent of a hoops prodigy. That flyer guy on the street’s employer, Beko (makers of household appliances), has a graphics-rich site in English with some seriously awkward wording. The site details venues and generally has a more local flair.
“Five Questions for Team USA” is a nice article outlining challenges for the homeboys. And it’s written by a Mannix (Chris of SI).Here we have info on the real homeboys. There are now FOUR Turkish players under contract in the NBA. Not bad for a country that started loving hoops 30 years ago thanks to “My White Shadow”. (It’s true!)
Maybe you will see me out there cheering them on!