Istanbul: Day One

OMG. OMG. OMG.

I love it here. I’m never going home. You can’t make me.

(Ask me how I feel in about seven days when all my clothes are dirty and I’m tired of people trying to sell me carpets by shouting at me in Turkish, Spanish, and Russian after incorrectly guessing my nationality.)

Istanbul is gorgeous. My first impressions are that it’s a clean, well-planned, and diverse city. I get the sense that I came at the right time of year–there are other tourists, but not as much, as I’m told by the locals–as there would be had I come later in the summer. The weather has been perfect–it’s mid-70’s and sunny all week. Being right next to the sea results in a nice breeze every few seconds, which is welcome, because it is also humid. I’m reminded of that each time I climb the extremely steep cobblestoned hills and immediately am rewarded with a sheen of sweat.

So far I haven’t met any other Americans here. The only other native English speakers I’ve met are from Australia and New Zealand. Most other tourists are from Spain, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, China, or South Korea. It’s kind of refreshing to be in a part of the world that is less-traveled by my countrymen. However, I can’t really blame them for not coming because our governments have not been friendly to one another. In addition, this city has a reputation for being unsafe at the moment, which based on my limited experiences so far, is undeserved. There hasn’t been split second when I’ve felt unsafe; the locals are are reserved but kind, and there are armed police everywhere who all speak English. (I don’t talk enough about how incredibly lucky I am that English is my first language, and how grateful I am that others take the time to learn it.) At the same time, however, the presence of the same armed police does remind one that this country is still technically in a state of emergency. This city has always had a tumultuous history, and I don’t think that will change.

Soooo before I get into what I did today, let me preface it with the fact that the wifi at my hostel is absolutely horrible, so I haven’t been able to upload as many pictures as I’d like. I will make up for it once I find a better connection/get back to the States. To recap the day:

I woke up late because I am INCREDIBLY jet lagged. Like, so jet lagged that I thought I was sick and had to go to the hospital until I remembered that my body just has to adjust to the hell I’ve put it through. To make things worse, I hardly ate at all because I was so excited. Queue me almost passing out in a park this morning before realizing that I need food and water. I had a tasty simit–a fresh bread ring encrusted with sesame seeds–and a European Coke (I’ve missed you guys!!!) to stave off the blood sugar crash, and that did me right for a day packed with sightseeing.

My first stop was obvious: the Hagia Sophia. The exterior of this building is so huge that you can’t even fit it into one frame when photographing it. My anticipation built up as the line waded through fragments of ancient columns and tombs and inscriptions. My heart started beating rapidly as I entered the doors, and then BAM–there I was, inside the single most beautiful building in existence. I actually cried. Yes, you heard me–just hours after crying because the Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Finals, here I was full-on bawling in the Hagia Sofia. (I really need to find more important stuff to cry about.)

I had read this countless times before, so I was prepared for this to be the case, but there really is no way to photograph this building properly–you absolutely have to see it in person. I took dozens of photos and they all suck. Two that I don’t hate as much as the others are below:

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Just looking at these photos again makes me so upset that I couldn’t even get close to the beauty of that building 😦

Next, I went to the Basilica Cistern. A cistern is a Roman-age water reservoir, essentially, that was used to bring water to the citizens of the city. This one is particularly huge and located entirely underground, which makes it super eerie and cool.

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On my way to Topkapi Palace I stopped by Hagia Irene, Hagia Sophia’s little sister. Although much smaller and not nearly as impressive, I actually found Hagia Irene more interesting because it was never converted to a mosque like Sophia had been, so you get to see what Sophia would have actually looked like if it had never been restored.

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Topkapi Palace is HUGE–a sprawling complex of chambers and harems and quarters, built first by the Roman emperors and then refurbished by the Ottoman sultans. A couple of my favorite scenes:

Believe it or not just those four places took me over six hours to get through, and my feet are killing. So I wrapped up the day with two of my favorite street foods, Balik ekmek (literally just “fish bread”–simplest and tastiest fish sandwich sold right off the boat) and baklava. The chocolate was my favorite 🤤

I just finished this post at 3:00 AM Istanbul time, and I’m wide awake. My poor body has no idea what’s going on. I’m off to get some sleep/possibly end up watching the Lightning-Capitals game if I can’t. Tomorrow I’ll be back with more photos, assuming they don’t take so long to upload!

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LAS -> LAX -> IST

I’m here!!! I made it to Istanbul! It’s been a long day of traveling, but everything went really well. Shout-out to Turkish Airlines for being legitimately the best international airline I’ve ever flown. I had heard their food is really good and I have to say I agree. Besides the bags taking almost an hour to arrive from the gate, getting through customs was really fast and easy too. The only hiccup I experienced is meeting the airport shuttle driver to take me to my hostel. When I arrived, the dude holding a sign with my name just shouted at another dude in Turkish for like 20 minutes while I sat there confused. Finally I was directed into a white van with a driver who kept made emphatic remarks about the Erdogan propaganda covering the streets, none of which I could understand. By now I’m just used to embracing this type of chaos.

The driver took me into the Old City, which is, as the name implies, super old. We drove right past the Theodosian walls–the ancient land walls that are what allowed the city to survive from antiquity into the 21st century–which made me emotional for a bit. All this stuff I had spent so long reading about, and now I was actually here to see it in person!

I got to my hostel a few hours ago and was welcomed with some apple tea and a pet kitty. I popped down the street to the Hagia Sofia as the sun set, but immediately regretted it because I finally realized how hungry and tired I was, and I didn’t get to soak it in like I should. For the same reason, I didn’t feel up to taking many pictures either. After trying and failing to find a balik ekmek (famous fish sandwiches) joint, I picked up a feta cheese breadstick thing and a gigantic Turkish chocolate chip cookie from a nearby bakery, both of which were delicious.

I’m so glad I got a private room, because it means I can take my pants off!!! Now I’m sitting here watching the Golden Knights play, because my body thinks it’s 1:00 in the afternoon even though it’s 11:00 PM here and my FitBit tells me I only got 1 hour and 12 minutes of sleep on the plane. 🙂

Tomorrow will be an actual, real, pictures/re-cap post and not just me complaining and talking about sports, I promise!

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No matter where you are in the world…gotta rep, ‘cuz your team’s in the Conference Finals 😉

My Istanbul Adventure

Today the countdown app on my phone kindly alerted me that there are just 9 days until I board a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. My family, friends, and co-workers have been eagerly asking me, “Are you excited?!” And yes, of course, I’ve been planning this trip for 10 months and it’s been at the top of my travel bucket list for years…but I always have a brief moment of trepidation right before I depart for a new destination. How am I going to survive the 13-hour flight? What if I get ripped off by a taxi driver at the airport? What if the fish sandwiches make me sick? What if Erdogan detains me because I accidentally look at him funny? What if I get kidnapped by ISIS?

My mom helped me put all these fears to rest on Sunday. “You’ll be fine,” she told me, “because you have to be fine. Seriously, don’t get into trouble over there, I don’t have time to negotiate a ransom for you.” She’s right…my dad is a candidate for a highly invasive back surgery, and my brother and his pregnant wife have just moved in with them for the summer. Also, Scott is watching the NBA Playoffs and continues to be addicted to Angry Birds as if he’s a 15-year-old trapped in 2014, so he won’t be much use either if I’m sold into slavery.

Obviously I’m joking, and I would never willingly go somewhere that I actually felt was dangerous. But why exactly I chose Istanbul, the city where East meets West along the Bosporus Strait, is a fair question. I never had much of an interest in ancient history until I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This wonderful book, set primarily in Istanbul, exposed me to the rich and compelling history of the city, and soon I knew the city of Constantine would be my next international solo travel destination. I started reading other books about Byzantine and Ottoman history (including this one and this one and this one, if you’re interested) as I made my plans. I booked my ticket on Turkish Airlines in January and haven’t looked back since.

Over the past few months I’ve made an itinerary and booked hostels and hotel rooms around the massive metropolis, trying to include as many neighborhoods as I can while still making time for the archaeological sites. Since so many people have asked, I thought I’d share what I’m going to do while I’m there. I plan on posting photos here on the blog (now that I’m sans Instagram), so readers can know what to expect and when. Also, maybe there are some fellow travelers out there who would want to use the itinerary for their own trips:

Days One & Two: Trapped inside a giant, cold metal tube 7 miles above ground

  • LAS -> LAX
  • LAX -> IST

I’m in for 14.5 hours of travel, and Istanbul is 10 hours ahead of my current time zone. It’s gonna be a rough one. Constantine, your digs better be worth it!

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Hagia Sofia. Duh.

Days Three thru Five: Sultanahmet District a.k.a. “Old City”

  • Hagia Sophia (duh)
  • Blue Mosque (also duh)
  • Grand Bazaar
  • Hippodrome/Sultanahmet Square
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Balat neighborhood (Jewish quarter)
  • Chora Church
  • Suleymaniye Mosque
  • Valens Aqueduct
  • Theodosian Walls
  • Museums:
    • Istanbul Archaeological Museum
    • Mosaic Museum
    • Panorama 1453 (the conquest of Constantinople)

Obviously I’m cramming A LOT into three days. All the Istanbul guides I read said that this is the minimum amount of time one needs to see the sites in the Old City, but I want to be sure to see as much I can of the other districts too.

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Day Six: Beyoglu District

  • Galata Bridge
  • Galata Tower
  • Istaklal Street
  • Taksim Square
  • Maiden’s Tower

Beyoglu is located across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, still on the European side. Taksim Square is more or less the epicenter of the city, and supposedly has all the best nightlife.

Day Seven: Food Tour & Kadikoy on the Asian side

  • Culinary Backstreets “Two Markets, Two Continents” Tour: book here

I found this awesome all-day walking tour that starts on the European side, includes a ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side, and ends in Kadikoy, which is one of the city’s best culinary destinations. If you hear news about an epic baklava shortage in the Middle East a couple weeks from now, that’s all me.

Day Eight: Relax at a fancy hotel

  • Hamam (Turkish bath)
  • Hanging out with rich Chinese people
  • Resting my very tired feet

Almost every other day of my trip, I’ll be staying in private rooms in various hostels. I like this option because it’s cheap and provides a connection to the hostel community of younger, budget-minded travelers, but I can still have privacy. However, I once got some advice to splurge on a fancy hotel for at least one night of a trip–which I’ve followed and enjoyed ever since–so I chose a point in my trip where I’d probably be completely worn out and would really appreciate a fluffy white robe and an intense body scrub administered by a burly Turkish woman.

dolmabacheDay Nine: Besiktas

  • Ortakoy mosque
  • Ortakoy street market
  • Dolmabahce Palace
  • Galata Mevlevi Museum (whirling dervish performance)

I’ve read great things about the Besiktas neighborhood, particularly the street market held on Sundays. Also, rumor has it that Dolmabahce is even more opulent than Topkapi Palace.

princes islandsDay Ten: Prince’s Islands

Depending on how exhausted I am or if I want to go back and see more of what I saw the previous nine days, I may or may not take the ferry out to the Prince’s Islands. This is where they used to exile all the dethroned emperors that the current emperor decided not to kill.

Day Eleven: Get back into the giant, cold metal tube

Assuming I don’t get kidnapped, detained, or simply refuse to leave the wondrous place that is Istanbul, I’ll conclude my trip on Day 11 and endure another full day of travel.

What Nobody Tells You About Traveling

This is not a travel blog. This is the small corner of the Internet where I go to brood and complain. If this were a travel blog, I’d probably be a petite blonde with too many bracelets, and give advice like “Follow your bliss!” And there would be cute graphics like this everywhere:

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So no, I am not a travel blogger, but I am completely obsessed with traveling. I got back from South America two weeks ago and have been extremely depressed ever since. (Seriously. I loved it there.) The only thing that has helped me feel better was booking my flight to Istanbul last night, and skimming the calendar for a long weekend in the fall when Scott and I plan to visit Charleston, South Carolina.

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BRB…crying for Argentina 😥

I’m always met with the same reactions whenever I share my travel experiences: “I’m SO jealous!” “That must be AMAZING!” “Uhhh can I please have your job?! It would be so cool to travel for work.” (BTW traveling for work is NOT the same as traveling for fun.) And yes, traveling is hands-down my favorite thing to do, but before I started doing it I had a lot of assumptions based on…well…the Internet, and specifically how other people made travel seem. Here’s what I would go back and tell myself, as nobody told me the realities of travel lurking behind what you see on Pinterest and Instagram:

 

  • Travel is stressful. You should fully expect to plan a trip, spend a lot of money on it, and then expect at least one thing to go awry. Actually, you’re lucky if it’s just one thing. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll have a blast, but the
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    Sunburnt in Costa Rica

    process of getting there may be dull at best and miserable at worst. Delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, jet lag, crowded planes, long lines, and germs will be your companions until you set foot on that cobblestone street or sandy beach. You may arrive at your hotel to find that you forgot to bring the right plug adapter, or the A/C is non-existent, or you don’t know how to use a bidet. You may find that the locals stare, or talk too loud, or that the food is too spicy or too bland. You will miss the securities of home. This is the price you pay for real traveling, for having experiences that test you and fling you out of your comfort zone, which give you resilience and photos and memories that when you look back at them, you can only say, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that.” Which is why…

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    Ohrid, Macedonia – My favorite place in the world.

  • It’s not for everybody. While I’m glad I chose to live abroad and subsequently gained an appetite for traveling to new places, I can completely understand why it does not appeal to other people. Traveling and going to “find yourself” in another part of the world (whatever that means) is a pursuit that is respected, even revered, by my millennial generation. But don’t feel bad if you can’t or don’t want to travel! Don’t feel like you have to travel to “find yourself!” If you would rather go to concerts and get your nails done every week and the idea of backpacking through Central America makes you want to vom, I respect that. Especially because…

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    Florence, Italy

  • Travel is not glamorous, at all. Throughout this post are some of the photos I’ve shared on social media from various trips I’ve taken. They all look beautiful, right? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: these beautiful moments comprise maybe 10% of the time I spend in these places. The other 90%, I’m frantically trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language I do, I’m sweating like a dog or chilled to the bone, I’m lost, my feet hurt, my thighs are chafing so badly that the skin has broken, the clothes in my suitcase are wrinkled and/or moldy, I’ve been waiting in line at customs for an hour and a half, or I’m being questioned by the border police in Kosovo. (True story.) Nope. Not glamorous at all.
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    Freezing in Prague

    It’s not that expensive. I never even considered traveling or studying abroad in college because I just assumed it wasn’t affordable. I hear a lot of people say: “Oh, Costa Rica? I’ve always wanted to go, but I don’t have the money.” I got my round-trip flight there for less than $400. That’s about as much as it costs to fly to many places in the United States. As for lodging? Hostels. They are NOT sketchy, they are practical and can be really fun if you choose the right ones. (I recommend Hostelworld.com.) And if you want some privacy, book a private room instead of a bunk at the hostel–they are often cheaper than hotels, but you still reap the social benefits of being able to meet fellow travelers who are of a similar age and on a budget. Even if you prefer hotels or Airbnb, many destinations are way cheaper than hotels you would find in the United States. Some of the top-rated hotels in Istanbul are a mere $25/night. (Yay!)

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    Beautiful Albania–my home for 1.5 years

  • You probably won’t “find yourself”–but you will make the best memories of your life. I hate to burst the other millennials’ bubbles out there, but I’m largely the same person I was before I started traveling the world. However, it’s absolutely true that I have gained perspective and knowledge by being exposed to other places. Visiting the Balkans, and Bavaria, and Basque Country, and the rainforest, and UNESCO World Heritage sites are among the best decisions I’ve ever made and hands down is the best way I could imagine spending my time and money. I don’t travel to enjoy myself, I travel to scare myself to death.

Just 118 days until Istanbul. *Le sigh*

Marry/Bang/Kill: Spain, Italy, or Germany?

As promised in a previous post, I am frequently asked, “How’s married life?”

And my answer is, “I have no idea.” The day after Scott and I got back from our honeymoon I packed yet another bag, turned around, and flew out to Sacramento for a two-week business trip and then again to the Bay Area for another three weeks. Basically, I have spent hardly any time with my husband since we’ve been married.

That is one reason this post has taken so long to write. The other reason is that I have been suffering from low-grade exhaustion for the past two months. *Yay*

I’ve long made it clear that the honeymoon was the part of my wedding I was most looking forward to. And it did not disappoint whatsoever. Scott and I jetted off to Donostia-San Sebastian in northern Spain for one glorious week as we staved off the stupid American urges to check our work e-mails and stay up late to watch football games. Overall, I think we did a pretty good job of being European. We walked everywhere, ate lots of small, delicious meals, and passed the days away by the sunny coast and the nights in various cobbled alleyways teeming with both locals and tourists. Scott got to practice his Spanish, even though he possesses a distinctly Argentine dialect, and I got to practice feeling humiliated and inadequate because I was forced to confront the fact that I have forgotten about 95% of the Spanish I learned in high school.

Scott loves to torture me by forcing me to play “Marry/Bang/Kill?” and he did so frequently during our trip. For those of you 65 years old and above who have never heard of this game, you say “Marry, bang, kill,” and then list the names of three people. The other person chooses who they’d marry, who they’d bang, and who they’d kill out of the names you’ve listed. But the whole point of the game is to make it a difficult choice, and you can do that either by picking the names of three people you know the person really likes so they struggle over who they’d bang versus who they’d marry, and most of all who they’d have to kill. Or, you could go the alternate route, picking three names of people you know the player dislikes so they’d struggle to pick who to bang or marry. Here’s an example:

Scott: “Bang/marry/kill: Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota?”

Me: “LEAVE ME ALONE.”

Another thing Scott and I did a lot of on the trip is compare Spain to other places we’d been to, specifically western European countries. That’s when Scott pulled out the big guns and asked me: “Marry, bang, kill: Spain, Germany, Italy?”

This was one of those instances when the game is more difficult because I had to choose between three things I like. Outside of Albania (which is a world of its own), those are the three European countries I’ve spent the most time in and therefore have a halfway decent knowledge of.* I never gave Scott an answer, but I’ve been thinking about it since, and here’s what I’ve decided:

*Disclaimer: I am not an accomplished traveler whatsoever. 100% of my experiences in these countries have been as a tourist for a brief period of time, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. Actually, you should probably do that with every opinion I ever have.

Bang: Spain. I’d totally bang Spain. The people are sexy–even the babies–their attitude is easygoing yet passionate at the same time, and the food is delicious. Basque country is famous for its pintxos, or tapas, little bites of savory foods in endless combinations and flavors. Every night we’d go to a tapas bar, collect little morsels of meals on a plate, and pay by the bite. Eating humanely-portioned foods gradually throughout the night resulted in us filling up faster and with less food than we would at an American restaurant, and remarkably, we did not lapse into a food coma after our meal. This is how humans should be eating.

I’m not a beach person, but La Concha (Kontxa) is spectacular: fine, smooth, toasty sand meets crystal blue Atlantic water filled with hot Europeans and pasty American tourists. We spent hours sunning and swimming and I never got bored. Add some chocolate gelato and there’s nothing better on earth.

We loved our time in Spain, and I could definitely have a passionate affair with this place.

To me, this sign perfectly encapsulates Germany--and myself.

To me, this sign perfectly encapsulates Germany–and myself. You can take it as being either bossy and authoritarian or trying to give you a high-five.

Marry: Germany. This is probably no surprise to anyone. Germany is my spirit country. It’s very clean and industrial and orderly, which is pretty much how I run my life. Yet it’s also slightly impaired when it’s having a good time, which also describes me.

I went to Munich by myself over a year ago and it changed my life. After I took the LSAT, I spent my days wandering through museums full of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, stumbling in to and out of beer gardens, and eating my fill of hearty, robust foods served by jolly Bavarian women. (You can read about that trip here.)

When it comes to a long term commitment, I’m putting my proverbial ring on Deutschland and it’s intensity, openness, and resiliency.

Florentine steak--it tastes as good as it looks. I lost about 1.754 years off of my life after eating this.

Florentine steak–it tastes as good as it looks. I lost about 1.754 years off of my life after eating this.

Kill: Italy. This is the part of the game that I hate. Sorry, Italy. I do love you, I promise! I love your cathedrals and your museums and your history and your food. The problem is, I love your food too much, and if I don’t kill you, you will kill me first. I could not marry Italy because I would gain 300 lbs. And if I banged Italy, I would keep coming back for more, and then Germany would divorce me which isn’t great because our prenup is pretty iron-clad.

I just read this post and realized how stuck-up I sound. “Oh yes, I went to this beautiful European country but it was different than these other beautiful European countries that I’ve been to.” I hope this was interesting to somebody in some way, particularly the photos, which people have been asking me for for weeks.