Friday, June 19, 2015

Mosque fatigue is not a thing.

Turkey has been on my mind forever, and after two weeks roaming around Morocco (and here's the sequel), I knew I wanted to do a similar trek. 

So I flew into Ataturk for five days in Istanbul, rode an overnight bus to spend two days hiking the moonscapes of Cappadocia and to snore in a cave, another overnight bus to splash around the cotton candy castles of Pamukkale, and a final overnighter back to the Asian side of Istanbul. 

A guy talks to me about goat milk ice cream so thick you eat it with fork and knife, causing me to miss my metro stop towards Sultanahmet. It's fun playing the usual game of reading the bus displays in my head since Turkish is pretty blunt in its phonetics, even with those dotless i's and silent time-slowing g's.

As soon as I hop off the bus, I'm on the plaza between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Crossing that area never got old the entire time, just everyone and me beaming and smiling at those twinned monoliths with their slender minarets. 

I throw down my bag onto the hostel bunk, and I immediately meet a friendly girl named Zora from Slovakia. We head off to have a late dinner, flitting by the tourist traps with nightly dervishes whirling, horns blaring.

We settle on a place that allegedly invented kofte, and I'm already eyeing the giant ramekins of rice pudding.

The next morning starts with a Turkish breakfast of bread, olives, jam, and hardboiled eggs and chatting about archery and corn syrup processing.

The Hagia Sofia is glorious, and in its domed heights, gulls and pigeons stir dust into the light.

Iznik tiles make their first appearance in the Blue Mosque, which has six minarets to rival Mecca. 

Sightseeing is thirsty business, and we zone out on the rooftop of hostel with an Efes pint facing the Aegean sea.

As the day cools, we stroll to the bazaar quarter for a glass of boza, a winter drink from the 4th century made of bulgur, chickpeas, cinnamon, and sugar. Kemal Atatürk's glass from 1937 is shielded here in a glass dome. 

We walk along the Valens Aqueduct that brought water to Istanbul for 1500 years, draining from the dark forests a hundred miles away. Men play backgammon in tea houses, and we're avoiding massive potholes filled with water (snies!). 

The pide from Fatih Karadeniz Pidecisi is hot and fresh, ground beef and roast onions with a perfect steamed egg barely in solid form. A yellow wedge of butter to lube up the crust before it goes down the hatch. 

Even Turkish kitteh is in awe of the Hagia Sophia
Constantine's column is an odd eyesore of banded metal, but entombed in the base are allegedly the axe that Noah used for the Ark, Mary Magdalene's flask of oil to anoint Jesus, and the leftover loaves from his food multiplying miracle. 

If you believe any of those three, I own a flat on the African side of Istanbul that you may be interested in purchasing.

We duck the midday sun and enter the Basilica Cistern with giant carp nibbling away at detritus and ominous signs pointing out the medusa heads around the next bend.

The whole place gives me a Diablo dungeon vibe, and I'm looking around for chests to open. 

Shorts can't get you into the mosque, and every woman is in a baby blue headwrap. 

Topkapi Palace's harem is ridiculous, and it's amazing how at a base level our motivations are still the same. 

Who hasn't thrown gold coins at the new concubines, and had a thousand women from across the far reaches of the Ottoman empire vying for your affection in a tiled fantasy world of your own creation, all guarded by black eunuchs and the scheming queen mother?

The circumcision pavilion is open, but the second biggest collection of East Asian ceramics after China is not.

After the Grand Bazaar and spice market with Zora in the morning, we pop into Şehzade Mosque in time for the midday call to prayer. The mosques are such beautiful places that I'm always in awe and I want to believe in something incredible. 

We head up to the roof again, chatting away the sunset with cups of rakı and just enjoying the Sea of Marmora and the sun. Darren and I walk back to Fatih for another cup of boza, a lamb buried in a fire pit, black turnip juice, lentil soup, and warm bread.

We walk back to the hostel through the deserted grand bazaar and join Benjamin and some other hostel folks for a walk across Galata bridge to a hookah bar in Beyoğlu.

I have a crazy night of dreams where I’ve been put in charge of filling spaceships with refugees, which is a job I will not be applying for because that shit is stressful, even if it’s astronaut-adjacent employment.

Apologies to all twenty of my bunkmates if I did any sleep-yelling. GET ON THE ROCKET, MA'AM!

We cross Galata Bridge again, with just a brief session with a psychic baby rabbit eking out a living telling fortunes. Lunch settles us down as the call to prayer echoes across the  golden horn. Sea bream for three and it's a perfectly fried fresh fish with a delicious face. Mm, digging out the sweet nugget of cheek meat. 

Fisherman are hauling more biomass out of the ocean, and before we spiral up Galata Tower, a Lincolnshire man tells us about voting for the Tories. We go the wrong way at the narrow viewing platform, a German man yells at us like we are children, so this makes us committed to going against the tide like salmon. Take that!

The Bosphorus and the Golden Horn reunite here and all the minarets of the city glow like shadow puppet theater. Istanbul is gorgeous and a woman in a princess gown is getting married down in the street below. 

We let ourselves get swept along with the hip Turks roaming down İstiklâl Caddesi towards Taksim Squre. The local menfolk have impressive beard action, but also ultra dense back hair. 

Apple çay, rice pudding, and a chicken breast dessert (tavuk göğsü) is perfect for refueling after a day of walking in the heat. We try on awful euro trash shirts, learn that ekmek means male and that as usual, clothing for dudes is always on the tippy top floor or the basement. 

The way back is easier, downhill back to Sultanahnmet. We stop by the New Mosque, people praying as we snap some photos. 

A simit pretzel before a quick nap, and then the final cultural night at the Fatih Belediyesi stage. Hand dancing, stern knee to floor touching, knife fights, and then a silent parable dance to always shoot the eagle before it kills your ducks. 

After hand dancing a bit down the street ourselves, we hole up in an upstairs room and attack some kebabs with our faces.

Slow morning as we wait for Sam to get to the hostel from Taksim. We wander down to the waterfront of the Golden Horn, and I run off to get funnel cake rounds, and I have two midye dolma on the street. So delicious and then we are on the boat towards Eyüp, red tiled roofs floating by. 

We buy the cheapest and tastiest pide I've come across and wander through the graves to a restaurant at the tip of the hill overlooking our watery route home. We race back down with a minute to spare, and I say bye to the hostel crew: Darren, Patricia the epic archer, Ben, Sam, and of course Zora before the two hour shuttle to the bus station.

I still speak enough Spanish to have a very basic conservation with five Peruvian moms about Islanbul, the fact that Turkish has two letter i's, and the fact that one of them is in my window seat for the eleven hour ride to Goreme. I'm also the only reason they made it back onto the bus after the 1 am pit stop where Hediyelik Eşyalar (gift things) are sold. Señora Maquiñana would be proud of me.

View of the Hagia Sofia from the hostel terrace
Such awful traffic but I have just enough time to run into a ocakbaşı for a decent adana kebap before getting ready to sleep on the night bus to Cappadocia. 

I'm seated next to a deaf Turkish cub in a great suit, and he offers me a clove to chew, and we make do with really bad pantomime to communicate before everyone tips into Slumberland.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Pole doesn't daydream, he thinks of blue almonds.

Poles also don’t believe in jaywalking.

Ninety percent of Warsaw was systemically razed to the ground by Nazi Germany, so the city is now crisscrossed by Soviet boulevards.

Enormous roads. Plazas filled with monuments.

Atop a mud mound overlooking Krakow
Warsaw's main square
On these big ol’ crossings, no cars are seen for minutes, but crowds of Poles stand in ranks looking at each other across the street, quietly waiting. 

Apparently the Wehrmacht were so thorough in destroying everything that an 18th century landscape painting had to be used to recreate the city.

Which is why I spend most of my time in Krakow.

Before leaving London, I chatted with a girl from Maine and we discovered we were both going to Warsaw. Or at least she intended to since I had to quietly point out to her that her flight was bound for Wrocław

No, Wrocław is not the Polish way to spell Warsaw.

I'm the first one off the plane into passport control, and spend only enough time in Warsaw to pick up a pączek (best jelly donuts ever, and the woman was surprised I'd had them before as sufganiyot).

And then I'm on the train south to Poland's old capital.

Krakow's main square (Rynek Główny)

My priority is usually dumplings, and then everyone I love, in that order. 

I started hunting for pierogi.

I picked out a joint with a patio around the corner from St. Florian's Gate. It's from the 14th century when the Turks were pushing up on Poland's borders, so a great place to eat dumplings, and watch a woman spill beet soup all over her muu muu.

Red splish splash.

The city is so green. Krakow in spring is apparently leafy and it's best to try to go somewhere with a detour through tree tunnels.

My hostel is just on the northeast corner of Planty Park, a five acre amoeba that includes the entirety of the Old City.

I hear trumpets, so I dash into the Main Square in time to see the hourly tooting from the church towers of St. Mary's, done by volunteers from the local fire brigade.

There was no plaque explaining this giant sad head.
There are fresh rhubarb tarts for just a euro each, so perfect walking food on the way to Wawel Castle

Apparently a big chunk of it was flown over to Chicago to put into the Tribune Tower to flag it as the biggest Polish community outside the country itself. 

I do remember how many dumplings I had in Chicago, so yes, New Poland is in Illinois.

It's a solid place to watch the sunset and then to wander into the old Jewish area.

The next morning, I hopped on the first bus towards Auschwitz, the concentration camp right by the little town of Oświęcim.

As we got closer, we kept thinking the bars of the birch forests and each barbed fence meant we were there.

The town that bumps up against the old death camp is so incredibly normal. They have a Carrefour and a McDonald's, and what seems like a lot of street parking.

It's disconcerting to be here on a perfect spring day.

The place is unreal enough as it is, and to see it while birds are chirping and swooping around makes it all the easier to think of it as just a massive museum. And then it keeps occurring to me that 1.1 million people died here.

I'm pretty glad that I showed up early enough to not need a tour guide to wander the camp. It's really good to be able to go through all the exhibits whenever there isn't a crowd, to just walk around and blink and look.

Auschwitz is unsettling in its banality, in how structured everything is. Each country's dead had its own building : the Jews of Holland, Bohemia, Russia, etc. Here is the wall where people were shot, here is where people were hung, here is where they bathed.

At the grotesque twin camp of Birkenau just ten minutes by shuttle away, it's the scale of it that pulls at your mind.

Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two of these places just giant lesions and it's hard to say what all these crowds of people, what we're all hoping to see here.

Spanish tourists pushed and shoved onto the shuttle, squawking that they were in a group ahead.

I don't think they appreciate the weirdness of pushing onto a crowded tram bound for Birkenau.

At this second camp, there were no exhibits. The railroad tracks led straight in and diverged before splitting again. The buildings for prisoners had been made of wood, so only the chimneys had survived and now these brick monuments sprawl to the horizon.

The crematoriums looked like they had only recently collapsed at the far end of the camp where forest crept back in again.

Signage indicated that Jewesses had revolted against their grim duties and with the help of outside youths had blown up the giant ovens.

I don't think I felt much of anything until I sat down next to the fields of chimneys and bright yellow flowers. And then you're kinda just WHOOSH.

Auschwitz is relentless in its presentation, halls filled with nothing but whorls of human hair, another with prayer shawls, hairbrushes, suitcases, pots and pans.

I was alone in one hall where a heartbeat continuously throbbed and only the outlines of people floated on the walls, like the wraiths left behind after Hiroshima.

Walls of names and so many faces, one just of children, so many people who had no idea what was upon them. 

One man was quoted feeling like it was all a big misunderstanding, that if he could just explain it to the German soldiers, it would be okay.

I've taken a class on historical trauma, interviewed refugees whose families tried to kill them, and edited accounts of shtetl life, but the physicality of being in a barracks where people had died two to a bunk, or standing in an underground "shower" lit only by a skylight where Zyklon B would be thrown in,

That stuff takes your breath away.

There were lots of Israeli tourists, divided into same-gender groups, but all wearing the Israeli flag as capes.

I was glad I had another hour before the bus back to Krakow came. I helped a family from Illinois get tickets for the same trip, and then just flopped down to nap in the sunlight.

The bus ride back was fun, and I ended up going out to dinner with the Midwest couple and their son.

He and I hiked to the top of Kościuszko Mound, a big jelly mold of dirt that looks over the city.

The mound has no handrails, so I take the outside curve when we run into folks descending. A deaf family took my picture, we got a big boot of dark beer, and it was off to bed.

The best thing to go with a cold breakfast is a visit to the next door Warhammer megastore and then back to the old Jewish area.

Three shots at the underground bar, one quince, one cinnamon, and a orange blossom flower.

And then it was synagogue time.

Alte shul

Cheder Cafe had a spiced Israeli coffee in a big finjan kettle. I sat out the showers of rain with Jew-Jitsu, the Hebrew Hands of Fury, and a peek into the Kabbalah of Food.

One last plate of pierogi in Krakow, and there are illustrations of the Pierogozord. He is armed with a fork as tall as he is, and his body is made up of two pierogi touching.

Groat and pork dumplings, mm.

Warsaw Uprising Museum
Train back to Warsaw, and it's nice to have tea served so often. Fields of lurid rapeseed, canola, fronds of wild grain, feathery gusts of pale butterflies over the muddy fields. 

We zip through spindletrees like leafy bar codes as the train slides through the spring rain, couples huddled together under umbrellas on the overpasses.

Once in Warsaw, I picked up some pickled herring and salmon, and ambled down Solidarity Avenue toward the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

I don't regret the walk, but Old Town Warsaw looks like a Hollywood set. Particularly after coming back from Krakow, the fake aging shows.

My flight is at 6 am the next morning, so I'll be sleeping in the Warsaw Airport that night.

I pedal on an exercise bike for an hour at the shopping mall because that's how you can charge your phone there.


Quick nap outside the palace of Culture and then I'm the sole passenger on the bus to the airport.

Ye Olde and new buildings
Also, Warsaw wins my award for Most Comfortable Airport to Sleep In.

I found the below nook on the second floor. Dim, shielded, quiet, and there were even four outlets to charge things. The website Guide to Sleeping in Airports is magical.

I land in London and head straight to work on a windy Tuesday.