Monday, November 14, 2011

The little artistic details

As I mentioned last post, during our failed sightseeing trip we ended up going into the Zal Mahmut Pasa mosque in Eyup, mostly because we thought it was the Eyup Sultan mosque. (We realized our mistake when we saw that it was empty; impossible!)

One thing I like about the mosques in this city is the attention to detail; if you look around, usually up, you can find all kinds of beautiful little designs. I don't think this is unique to mosques, or even Istanbul - a lot of old architectural wonders have fine details - but these particular adornments strike me as exotic and Middle Eastern. I dig it; it seems exciting and I moved here partially for some excitement and exoticism, you know?

Surrounding the mosque is a cemetery (not sure if it's connected or just happens to be there) containing the graves of a lot of important Ottomans. The headstones here too are amazing, carved with all kinds of shapes, even though the cemetery is a wee bit dilapidated.

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A Day of Sightseeing, thwarted

Last week was the long Kurban bayram holiday (also known as Eid al-Adha) where Muslims celebrate the Abraham and Isaac story. It lasted for five days, so Cagatay had Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off from work. In keeping with the Abraham and Isaac story - where God sends a lamb at the last minute after Abraham has proved his faith by his willingness to sacrifice his son - this holiday involves a lot of animal slaughter. In years past, Istanbulites would apparently slaughter cattle and sheep in their gardens/street, creating a lot of carnage; it's not supposed to happen in the city anymore but the Bosphorus was apparently a little reddish on Sunday anyway. (This article from Hurriyet Daily News presents the conundrum between religion and modernism, along 58 pretty heated comments.)

But I digress...We didn't do all that much during bayram but on Wednesday, we decided to go to Topkapi Palace, the large Ottoman palace in the historic district of Sultanahmet. (We went into the palace last spring but didn't have time to go into the harem.) But omg, the area was completely, frustratingly packed, a lot of it seemingly coming from Arab tourists. I have never seen so many ladies in burqas/chadors/abayas/etc in one place before. We strolled through the large First Court, which was covered in fall leaves, but once we got a look at the ticket line, decided to save the harem for another time.

We opted to leave Sultanahmet and head instead to the Eyup-Pierre Loti area. We planned to take the bus, which meant walking over to the Eminonu area first, and we made the mistake of thinking we'd dip into the Spice Market first. It turns out that the narrow alleyways were completely packed AND the Spice Market was closed. We jostled; we got shoved; we couldn't wait to escape. I think Istanbul redefines the word crowded; see the photo at the top of the post?

The bus depot at Eminonu was also really crowded so we ended up taking a cab...and got out partway because the traffic was at a standstill. Are you starting to see a pattern? But we made it to Eyup and went to look for the famous Eyup Sultan Mosque, revered across the Muslim world because it contains the supposed tomb of Prophet Mohammed's friend Eyup Ensari, who was part of a group trying to capture Constantinople  in the 600s. After a slight detour at Zal Mahmut Pasa Camii (more on that next post), we found what we were looking for.

The mosque was of course very, very crowded, though that was to be expected on a religious holiday. We went inside the mosque where people were actively praying; the men were in the open center while the ladies were either in the back overhang or upstairs. I know a lot of people think mosques aren't pretty, especially when compared to churches, but most I've seen have been lovely. The Eyup Sultan Mosque has a warm glow from the candelabra and an intricately painted ceiling.

The tomb, in its own building in the garden, is currently undergoing renovations. People were still crowding around it to get a peek, despite the fact that most of the building is sheeted; from what I could see, the interior seemed to be covered floor to ceiling in beautiful tiles, and I'm sure we'll make a return trip when it's open again.

After fighting our way through the crowd to the exit, we headed to the funicular to reach Pierre Loti and the cafe...only to find the line to be EXTREMELY long. So we decided, yet again, to save it for another day and since it was getting late, instead head home. But the traffic was still too bad to take a cab and we were kinda far from the metro or Metrobus. So we ended up waiting 20-plus minutes for the ferry, which would take 45 minutes to get to Eminonu - from which we'd have to take the tram to the funicular to the metro to get back home. Which means we've hit on the only thing I really hate about Istanbul: the agonizing amount of time it can take to get anywhere, which can be a little frustrating as night falls and winter comes.

I would say the day ended up being a complete failure except that on the way back, we decided to stop in Tunel and eat Thai food at Lokal, one of my favorite restaurants. :)

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Adventures in Cooking: Potato and Leek Soup

I discovered the recipe blog Brown Eyed Baker about three weeks ago and have already tried two recipes. I didn't much like the first one, a mac n' cheese - though I think the dislike came more from my personal tastes since Cagatay was pretty into it - but the second one, the Creamy Potato and Leek Soup, was AMAZING. Even though it takes about an hour to make, I've already made it twice, it's just that divine.

I'm pretty into creamy soups; the hotel that we always stay at in Lake Como, the Grand Hotel Victoria in Menaggio makes the most amazing versions and I dream about them long after we leave. But most recipes require heavy cream and I have yet to find it in Turkey. So I was thrilled with this recipe which substitutes bread instead; Martha Stewart's Pappa al Pomodoro recipe does the same thing, which makes me think that you could use bread instead of heavy cream in any soup recipe. Does anyone know if this is, in fact, true?

I followed this recipe to the letter except for the thyme/tarragon, which I didn't have - I just left that out and let the bay leaf do all the work. But one funny thing I am starting to notice about Turkey is that while they may have the same fruits and vegetables as the U.S., they don't always have the same parts. For example, the leeks: They're sold at the farmers' market without the dark-green leafy part at the top; it's just the white and light-green part. Celery is the reverse; they sell the white bulb (which you never see at home) and completely chop off the green part that we usually eat. I don't know why but I find this highly amusing. Pin It

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commemorating Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died 73 years ago today and still every year on November 10, the Turks commemorate his life and death. He is modern Turkey's greatest hero and representations of him are EVERYWHERE. He is so revered that it is illegal to insult him, even if you are outside the country; YouTube was blocked here between May 2008 and November 2010 because of four posted videos that insulted him. He died at 9:05 a.m. at Istanbul's Dolmabahce Palace - the clocks there are always set to that time - and on this date, the nation sets off sirens for two minutes starting at that time. Traffic comes to a complete standstill and even people walking are supposed to freeze and bow their heads.

Sounds really interesting, right? Yeah, I totally missed it this morning. I was home and awake and didn't hear a thing. Alas. I guess there's always next year... Pin It

Declaration of the Republic day parade

I should have posted the second half of our Declaration of the Republic day a week ago but alas, the five-day bayram holiday got in the way.

We left Eminonu by ferry at sunset and landed about 35 minutes later on the Asian side at the historic Haydarpasa train station whose roof was unfortunately damaged in a fire almost a year ago. According to the Daily Mail, the station was built in 1908 by the Germans as part of their Berlin to Baghdad train line. I was pretty excited to step foot inside as we were under the mistaken impression that the station had been a setting used in the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love. (Alas, I lated figured out totally by chance that they'd really used the Sirkeci Station in Eminonu whose train platform design is identical.)

We took the train a couple of stops where our friends picked us up and then we headed to Bagdat Street. All of the official Declaration Day events were supposed to have been cancelled out of respect for the Van earthquake victims but Cagatay was convinced the annual parade on Bagdat Street would still take place - and he was right. There were THOUSANDS of people packed into the street, carrying flags and wearing red. When we got there, the parade hadn't started but by chance there was a large TV set up on the corner we were at and it was playing videos of Ataturk and songs. The Declaration of the Republic commemorates October 29, 1923, after Mustafa Kemal (who later became "Ataturk" or "Father Turk") managed to eject the foreign powers occuping Turkey following a loss in World World I.

Obviously all of this didn't mean that much to me but Cagatay, Emir and Idil said that they felt genuinely emotional that night. Having said that, it was still really interesting and in some ways, I was really surprised by the absolute outpouring of patriotism that was about nothing more or less than the secular republic.

We walked a little while with the parade and then split up; Emir and Idil kept going while Cagatay and I went for dinner at a nearby gourmet burger place. Yum! Pin It

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wandering around Eminonu markets

Saturday was Declaration of the Republic Day and we had quite the adventure. It was both exhausting and awesome.  It was so long, in fact, that I am going to split it into two posts: early afternoon shopping in Eminonu followed the parade on Bagdat Street.

We went to Eminonu in search of yarn - there's a crochet project that I desperately want to start and I've needed black yarn for weeks. While there are a number of big-chain stores here (we have the British department stores plus one for electronics and a Home Depot knockoff), there is no Joanns or Michaels equivalent and most of the little stores have gone out of business. The only place I know of to get yarn is in Eminonu, a somewhat touristy area on the Golden Horn that a lot of the Bosphorus ferry trips leave from.

I hadn't actually been back there, on foot, since last summer, and it was weird to return there as a resident and with Cagatay. I went to Eminonu on my first day in Turkey last year and it was a little unnerving because it very much has a Middle Eastern market feel. I feel pretty safe here but to be honest, on day one, I felt like I could have been grabbed into an alley at any second - and it didn't help that I'd already had two sketchy guys that day try to pick me up. (One of them I couldn't shake; we met near the Blue Mosque and at the exit, I literally covered my head with a shawl and RAN.)

Eminonu also makes me laugh as it reminds me of my Turkish language-learning struggles (still ongoing). On that first day, by chance I wandered into the Yeni Camii, or the New Mosque, which has gorgeous details and sits by the water and was completed in 1663. Do you think you know how to pronounce Yeni Camii? I thought I did - but then when I was telling Cagatay about it last summer, I learned that in Turkish, "c" is pronounced like "j." So it's not "kammy" but "jah-mee." (Which also explains why when I'd ask people for directions - the Turkish word for street is "cadde" - they'd look at me like I was crazy.)

Anyway...after getting off the tram, we briefly walked through the courtyard of the Yeni Cami to reach the Eminonu markets at the back. Last summer, I had only walked through the enclosed Spice Market; this time, we walked through the open-air section, which had all kinds of stuff for sale. In the pets section, there were open barrels of chow, caged pigeons/roosters/etc and pedigreed dogs, dog collars, and jugs filled with leeches. We made our way through this chaotic scene and into the streets with the proper stores where literally thousands of people were trying to make their way through. This area had really practical things for sale - shoes, fabric, the most bedazzled, ugliest wedding dresses you've ever seen, etc. - and for the most part was arranged by type.

We had to ask a couple of people but eventually we found the yarn merchants, located on the second floor of some building. It was a square building with an open center and all of the stores were along the sides - and there were probably 15 different yarn stores, each packed to the brim. And omg, that yarn was cheap - acrylic yarn going for about $4 at home cost about 2 lira (or $1.12).

After that, we headed back to the wharf to catch the ferry to Hyderpasa Station, on the Asian side. We had about 20 minutes to kill before the ferry left so we walked along the promenade and watched the fishermen. Cagatay bought hot chesnuts from one of the ubiquitous vendors. I tried one and thought it tasted like half-cooked potato; I was even less impressed when he found a maggot in the last one.
We caught the ferry at just the right time, just at sunset. I really recommend this trip for touristic purposes, by the way - you pass a lot of the major sites, like Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, and the Maiden Tower. It only takes about half an hour and costs less than 2 lira, I do believe.

At the bottom, I've added a Flickr sideshow but you have to be on my actual blog to see it. And you want to see it - I included photos of both the awful wedding dresses and the leeches. How can you resist that?

Created with flickr
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

DIY: Day of the Dead paper mache skull

For the second year running, I tackled Day of the Dead Crafts (by Kerry Arquette, Andrea Zocchi, and Jerry Vigil) and their paper mache mask. Basically what you do is attach a plastic theater mask to a balloon and use strips of newspaper and paper mache paste to turn it into a skull. If all goes well, you paint it once it's dry. Unfortunately for me, last year it did not go well at all - you have to use napkins to create the skull's contours over the mask, and I wound up with just a blob. It wasn't even worth painting it.

This year - huzzah! - was a different story. First, I started out with an actual skeleton mask; when we were in Dallas, I found a skeleton Jello mold kit at Tom Thumb that fit the bill. Then I hunted around the Internet to find the best way to paper mache. There are apparently three different methods to making the glue - I decided to go with the heated version (one part flour to four parts water, boiled for three minutes and used when warm), as it's supposed to be stronger.

I ended up making four masks. On the first, the paper mache ended up sticking to the mask, which made it really hard to pull apart. I finally did it but with some slight damage to the side. So on the second go-around, I first laid a paper towel over the mask, and applied the newspaper strips on top of that. It worked pretty well - because of the wetness of the glue, it was fairly easy to get the mushy strips to mold to the skull's shape. Cagatay later suggested using aluminum foil as the bottom layer and that ended up being my favorite, as you can mold it right to the skull and it gave the dried mask a solid weight.

I had also read that if you use paper towels as the top layer, you end up using less paint. I didn't find this to be the case though. I used white acrylic paint to cover all of my skulls and it seemed to be the same amount from one to the next; moreover, I didn't like the bumpy texture that the paper towel left.

After the white layer dries, you paint! This of course is the tricky part. I used acrylic paints and then a waterproof permanent marker for some final touches. While I'm no Frida Kahlo (alas), I ended up being quite pleased with the results. :)
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Day of the Dead inspiration

My absolute favorite souvenirs are ones from Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday - which happens to be today - that celebrates both life and death by honoring loved ones who have passed on. The objects usually involve a skull or skeleton. Over the years, I've collected quite a few, from tiny musician figurines (Elvis!) to a larger, more modern skull-in-a-demon-shell that I picked up in Guanajuato.

When Emily and I went to Mexico City two years ago, two weeks after Dia de los Muertos, surprisingly we still saw signs of it everywhere. There was a huge ofrenda in the Museo de la Cuidad de Mexico (top left and actually Emily's photo), the artfully arranged painted skulls (top right) in the lobby of the Museo de Arte Popular along with operating room scene in the museum's collection, and the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo altar at the Casa Azul. While it seemed at the time like all of these pieces were temporary installations (except for the calavera box), we saw so much that I imagine if you were there today - and how lucky you would be! - you would find something similar.

So with all this love for Dia de los Muertos art, is it any surprise that I own a copy of Day of the Dead Crafts? For the second year in a row, I've attempted to make my own painted skull. How did it turn out? Well, you'll just have to journey on to the next post to find out... Pin It