Archive | December, 2009

Macedonia, the 1st. (Not to be confused with the country)

18 Dec

A hop, skip, and a jump.  I’m not really sure how anybody ever gets anywhere farther than about 2ft tops on just a hop a skip and a jump, but I do know how people get to many places on an overnight train, the common day equivalent.  I’ve had varying experiences with overnight trains, each one promising a new ordeal, and this past weekend was no exception.  With a train departing for Thessaloniki, a city in Northern Greece, at 11:59pm on Friday, I got out of work, headed to the train station and booked a ticket, rushed back to my house to shower and pack (taking time to buy snacks at Carrefour of course), and returned to the train station with about 25 minutes to spare.  The train ride wasn’t that bad, despite the blinding fluorescent lights staying on for the duration of the trip, trying to sleep in the standard seat with my head lodged against the cold window, and an omniscient Greek voice reporting over the loudspeaker periodically.  Nonetheless, we arrived in Thessaloniki at 6am, just in time to settle into Chris’s aunt’s cozy apartment for a nice 4 hour nap.

Chris is half-Greek on his mother’s side, and still has family living in Greece today.  His mother grew up in Thessaloniki, and his aunt (Thia Olga — Thia being the Greek word for Aunt) graciously opened her home to 4 of us for the weekend.  His other aunt (Thia Dora) lives part-time in Thessaloniki and part-time in San Francisco, so the two sisters stayed in one apartment and left the other to us.  They were the nicest, sweetest hosts, not only welcoming us to their city and family, but embracing us and really showing us the true meaning of Greek hospitality.  Southerners ain’t got nothing on this pair.  They cooked an extensive meal for us one day, treated us to a never-ending dinner another evening, and smothered us with hugs and kisses every chance they got.

Small boat docked at the boardwalk

Because of our elegant overnight form of traveling, we had two full days to explore Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece and the capital of the Macedonian region.  Chris has been visiting the city his entire life, and served as a wonderful tour guide.  Thessaloniki lies on the Thermaic Gulf, and has a pleasant boardwalk offering pedestrians and bikers alike a gorgeous stroll and seaside view of the coastal town.  We walked along the boardwalk and headed toward the White Tower, a now-museum that was built by the Ottomans and used as a prison and site for mass-executions during the Ottoman rule.  According to the information panel out front, it has had many different names throughout its existence, but received its most recent name “The White Tower” after being whitewashed by a prisoner in exchange for his freedom.  The Tower now serves as a museum featuring the history of Thessaloniki, with different exhibits sprinkled throughout the winding stairway you must climb in order to get to the brilliant view atop the Tower.  Unfortunately for us, the entire museum was in Greek, but considering we used our Teacher ID’s to pretend we were Greek high school students (requiring us to remain silent with the exception of a “neh” (yes) and “efharisto” (thank you) here and there) and gain free admission, we didn’t really mind.  Besides, the exhibits still had plenty of pictures and artifacts and interactive media, so we could (kind of) grasp what was going on.  At the very least, we acted like we knew what was up, so the museum-goers around us must have thought we were seriously educating ourselves.  Being mistaken for Greek in exchange for being utterly confused?  I’ll take it.

One especially interesting exhibit featured the Jews of Thessaloniki.  Greece used to have a large Jewish population, concentrated in Thessaloniki.  After the Spanish Inquisition, Jews fled and sought asylum in Greece for centuries, erecting synagogues and integrating themselves nicely into Greek culture and everyday life.  By the late 19th century, Jews accounted for almost 60% of Thessaloniki’s population.  Unfortunately, Hitler and his army of Nazis exterminated about 96% of the city’s Jews, and these synagogues, along with about 1000 living people, are all that’s now left of this once thriving community.

View of the White Tower from a distance

On a lighter note, later that day we walked to Eleftherias Square, a central hub in the city for coffee, food, shopping, and just spending time with friends.  I cannot stress how much time in a day a Greek person spends sitting at a coffee shop doing nothing with their buddies.  No wonder “Friends” is so successful here.  Eleftherias Square was happening.  More than happening.  Coffee shop after coffee shop, young person after young person, trendy outfit after trendy outfit, cigarette after cigarette.  This was the place to be.  Nevermind that it was cold and the seating was outdoors, the cafes do have heat lamps after all.  It seemed that anybody who was anybody was hanging out here, and Mr. Greek LA himself, dark shades and V-neck shirt included, sat us at our little white couches.  I wasn’t sure if I was in Northern Greece or serving as an extra in Entourage, but I liked it.  We sat and enjoyed our coffee (or rather, I enjoyed my hot chocolate), and then we ventured off to do some shopping until it was time to meet the Thia duo for dinner.

The meal was delicious on all accounts, but one thing I will always remember fondly about it?  The fish was being served, yet there was no room on the table for the plates.  So Thia Olga took the plate of fish from the waiter/owner/old Greek man who kept shoveling us food so he could clear away empty dishes, and held it above the table, right in front of my face.  This normally wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that in many tavernas in Greece, this joint included, fish is prepared whole and fried.  So I had multiple large fish heads, teeth bared and eyes staring, directly in my line of vision, about 3 inches away from my head.  Needless to say, it was a delightful experience.  (The fish was good, by the way, once you decapitated it, sliced it down the middle, and took out the spine.  YUM)

That night we went dancing.  Yes, turns out people in Greece do actually dance.  A lot.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  Greek people have a reputation for getting wild and doing traditional dances and throwing plates (which, by the way, is illegal in most places now, and where it’s not, you have to pay a hefty fee for the soon-to-be-smashed china).  Go to a modern club or bar filled with young people however, and you will see everyone standing.  Still.  Talking.  We got some recommendations on places to go and set out for nightlife Thessaloniki-style.  They played everything from MJ and 80’s rock to Euro-trash club music to Elvis to the Grease soundtrack to Ricky Martin (we lived the vida loca twice, to be precise).  Clearly, because I’ve been having hot flashes since the age of 12, I had to continually go to the bathroom to cool myself with a damp towel.  But I digress.  We Americans owned that dance floor for a good 4 hours, and left ready for a well-deserved night’s sleep.  One issue with the place?  I don’t want to bash their top-notch DJ skills, but we requested Single Ladies a solid 7 times, and they chose to play Ricky Martin instead?  Really?

Christmas decoration in Eleftherias Square

The next day we ventured to the museums, hitting up the National Archeological Museum, a great museum with really wonderful exhibits on ancient Macedonia.  The museum houses a skeleton of a woman complete with eyebrows and full head of hair, a reconstructed living room of an ancient home, skulls of some of the first known humans to walk upright, and walls upon walls of colorful glass and its different uses throughout time.

After the museum, we took a 1 euro bus tour of the city, giving us a chance to see all the major sites of Thessaloniki within an hour’s time.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t very interactive (recorded voices addressed the different places we passed), and we never got off the bus, so that 1 euro more accurately paid for me to dose off and on for 60 minutes.  Oh well.  Thessaloniki isn’t that far from Athens, and it’s supposed to be beautiful in the Spring, so I’m sure I’ll be back.

Statue of Alexander the Great along the coast

By 11pm that night we were back on the train headed towards Athens.  I was seated in a different car from the other three, and had the pleasure of being seated with a snorer and a gum-smacker.  The couple across from me were deaf and talking through sign language, which I thought was really cool.  I wondered if sign language is different in Greek than it is in English.  I think the man might have been only partially deaf, but I’m not sure.  Either way, at around 3am, while the woman was fast asleep, I couldn’t help but envy her, just a little bit.  I mean, the snoring was REALLY loud.  At the golden hour of 5:45am we returned to Athens, and a metro, bus, and walk away (hop, skip and jump’s cousins) I was back in my bed for a 2 hour nap, with just enough time to be 25 minutes late to work.


Constantinople? Istanbul? Depends Who You’re Talking To.

6 Dec

65 euro round-trip tickets?  Check.  Bags packed and ready to go?  Check.  Hotel reservations, breakfast included?  Check.  Any semblance of knowledge of Istanbul, other than hearing that it’s a cool place to see?  Ehh…not so much.  But we were excited, we were ready, we were enjoying our hour-long flight consisting of complimentary newspaper, hard candy for take-off, full meal, and cookies.  And then we were in Turkey.  Now what?

We really weren’t worried though.  Sarah and I were invited to travel to Istanbul with two Greek teachers from our school, and so one week before Thanksgiving weekend, we hastily booked our flight and hotel room and prepared to make our Turkish debut.  Nancy, one of the teachers, had done extensive research on the city, complete with websites, guidebooks, phone calls, etc.  So we weren’t worried; we were in good hands.  Unfortunately, they were flying through a different (much more expensive) company, and so there we were, sitting at the Istanbul airport waiting for their arrival.  And waiting.  And waiting.  And then there was a commotion.  Men started running back and forth.  Security was drawing closer.  We were terrified.  Of course we were aware that Istanbul is a safe city and we should have nothing to worry about, but when men start running around, yelling in a foreign language, and causing a scene in an airport, the inner “Oh my God we’re American in a foreign airport with a high Muslim population” attitude comes out in us.  We went into panic mode.  Would there be stray bullets flying in our direction?  Should we be high-tailing it out of the airport, hoping that we find our friends later?  Seeing as the yelling, running men were blocking the entrance, this was not an option.  So we high-tailed it to the next best place: the duty-free shop.  We hid out and waited and tried to figure out what the hell was going on without losing our lives in the process.  Turns out a construction worker had fallen from a ladder and needed to be taken to the hospital.  We were safe, we felt like idiots, and we smelled like perfume.

During the time we were taking cover amidst Estée Lauder blush and giant Toblerones, we missed our friends, who looked around quickly, didn’t see us, and got in a cab headed to the hotel.  So after waiting over an hour in the airport, we finally did the same.  We arrived at Richmond Hotel, located on bustling and historical Istiklal Street, and were heartily greeted and shown to our room.  Let me say, it was wonderful staying in a nice hotel, a respite from hostels and shabby HAEF fellow housing.

Spices at a small street bazaar

Istiklal Street is in the heart of Istanbul, a (mostly) pedestrian street filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, and the like.  At any given time you can find hundreds of people wandering Istiklal, a mix of new and old, traditional and modern.  Fashionably-clad teenage girls linking arms with modestly-covered young Muslim women, tourists grabbing ice cream, old men eating baklava, and young men cat-calling all on this one street.  On one of the nights, we went in search of a bar/club, 360°, and ended up walking into a broken-down apartment complex, only to be taken by what could only have been an elevator from the stone age up to a gorgeous, trendy, modern, and decadent club on the rooftop with a view of the entire city.  This, my friends, is Istanbul.

Throughout the weekend we visited the Hagia Sophia, a once Orthodox church turned Mosque and now the most visited museum in all of Turkey.

Hagia Sophia

Considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, it dates back to 532 AD and for one thousand years was the largest cathedral in the world.  It truly is a remarkable example of architecture and art, and a walk through the site is a striking lesson in the conversion from Christianity to Islam.

Old Orthodox pieces are covered in Allah’s name, and the entire church itself seems to be struggling for a religious identity to call its own.  It’s old, beautiful, and a metaphor for Istanbul.

We also visited Topkapi Palace and Museum, home to the Ottoman Sultans throughout their reign of the city.  It now contains some of the most holy relics in all the Muslim world, and by walking in and out of the many rooms of the palace, one can see a footprint of Muhammad,

robes of Sultans large and small, armory and jewelry, portraits of Sultans, and the 86 carat Kasikci Diamond, a gem discovered in a rubbish heap and sold for three wooden spoons, only to be valued for its true worth, fought over by jewelers, and eventually possessed by Sultan Mehmed IV and worn as a ring before being surrounded by 49 smaller cut diamonds and worn as part of a turban.

Topkapi Palace

There was a religious room as well, where one could learn about the history of Islam and see relics from Muhammad in addition to a replica of the Dome of the Rock (something I have seen in person while in Jerusalem).  It was very interesting, to say the least, to read museum information that is supposedly objective and informational, having come from a Jewish background and knowing that these views, while not at all false, are simply religious beliefs and clearly one perspective.  Standing amongst women in burkas and tourists from all over the world in a room praising Allah and the importance of the Dome of the Rock in what should be Palestine, I felt an odd sense of pride and a sense of self, and wanted more than anything to speak up and state the other side of the argument.  But considering I felt nervous just having Hebrew stickers visible on my passport as I walked through the airport, I didn’t think yelling “Am Yisrael Chai” would be the best idea. Regardless of this room, which still housed many beautiful artifacts and displayed the beauty of the Muslim religion, the grounds were beautiful and featured gardens overlooking the city and the Bosphorus, perfect for a photo op.

The day before visiting these sights, we boarded a small boat and took a tour of the Bosphorus, seeing the sea-side sights of the city and taking a lunch break in the Asian part of the city.  Yes, I can now say I have been to Asia.  The tour of the Bosphorus was really the only thing for us to do on this day, as it was Eid al Adha, a Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and prove his obedience to God.  Everything was closed, and supposedly the big thing to do on this day is slaughter lambs.

Luckily, I didn’t see any slaughtering (I grew up on Lambchop and Shari Lewis and the idea that the song never ends, not that the song abruptly and violently ends with a sharp blade to the neck), but I did feel the effects of the dead city.  The Grand Bazaar, one of the main tourist attractions and something I had very much been looking forward to, was closed, and so I can only hope that someday I’ll return to Turkey to experience it.

Once everything was reopened (except, as I said, the Bazaar, which was closed the entire time we were there — clearly just my luck), we also visited the Church of St. George which, according to our Greek friends, is like the Vatican for the Greek Orthodox religion, the Basilica Cistern,

The Basilica Cistern

built in the 6th century and the largest of hundreds of cisterns underneath Istanbul, a few smaller Bazaars that proved to be perfect substitutes for the Grand Bazaar and where we found beautiful scarves, spices, jewelry, and souvenirs for family back home, and of course, the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque is a sight not to be missed.  With swarms of people everywhere, it can be difficult just to figure out where you’re supposed to enter.  Muslims and Turkish residents enter at one point, tourists enter at another.  It’s free to enter (thank goodness, I was running out of Turkish Lyra), but you must remove your shoes out of respect.  This was enough for our Greek travel-mates to decide against going in.  To be honest, I think the whole idea of Islam freaked them out a bit, as they looked disturbed by the amount of head coverings and what not.  Greeks have issues with Turkey, based on the long history of the two countries, and when talking to our friends, they constantly felt it necessary to bring up what was Greek first, what Turkey had stolen from them, and how Greece was all in all better.  At times it was hard to enjoy Istanbul (which many Greeks often still refer to as Constantinople) for its beauty and uniqueness with this constant cynicism in our ears, but we made do.

The Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque it was absolutely stunning.  Lights hung mystically from the ceiling, rays of sunshine pierced through the windows, little boys chased each other as their parents prayed (women in the back, men in the front…the gender divide was very prevalent throughout the city, and was made evident by the lack of women out and about on Istiklal Street).  The Blue Mosque was awe-inspiring, and removing one’s shoes is a price easily paid for getting to experience such an amazing site.

Traditional Turkish dancer

A few other highlights before ending this absurdly long post (sorry)?  We watched whirling dervishes, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they don’t get dizzy.  We enjoyed fresh fruit and wine atop the Galata Tower, at one time a prison and now the home of a restaurant and belly dancing/traditional Turkish dancing show.  We ate Baklava and Kebabs and fresh pomegranate juice and an array of other traditional Turkish dishes, all of which were absolutely delicious.  And we drank Apple Tea.  Lots of Apple Tea.  Considering everything I did in Istanbul, if there is one thing I would recommend about the city, it is the Apple Tea.  Don’t leave Istanbul without drinking a cup of Apple Tea.  Or two.  Or three.  Might as well just buy a bag to take back with you.  I bought two.

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