Thursday, January 31, 2013

Detour to Castles, Caves and Cool Mediterranean Waters

Today is probably one of the coldest days of the year so far in this Midwest state full of manic weather.  Currently it's 14 degrees Fahrenheit (that's  -10 in Celsius) and 2 degrees F with the windchill - brrrr!  So with my wool hat and gloves still on in my chilly, old apartment -  I'm dreaming of warmer days.  In fact, earlier today I found myself flipping through pictures from my first trip to Turkey in the early summer of 2011. So I couldn't help but take a short detour from my planned posts and instead, I took a warm trip down memory lane to the region of Mersin, a lovely spot on the Mediterranean Sea.  

On our short trip to Turkey in 2011, we decided that we had to get a taste of the salty Mediterranean air and see the various shades of blue of that great Sea.  From Maraş we drove down through Adana to visit a professor from H.'s college days and then we continued on through Mersin and into the surrounding coastside full of small resorts, swimming holes, caves, and of course, scattered with historical monuments.

The crystal water is calling to me - even though it was freezing cold at the time.
The blue gives the allusion of warmth doesn't it?

We spent several hours swimming in the aquamarine waters and sunbathing on the rocks at a local swimming spot.  Next, we drove back in the direction of Mersin to stop where the ancient city of Koryos once stood and where the Kız Kalesi, or Maiden's Castle, now remains. 

Several crumbling parts of the land castle.
 Koryos dates back to the Hellenistic period in the 2nd century BC.  During the reign of the Byzantine empire in the 12th century, both the land and the Maiden Castle were constructed.  The legend of the Kız Kalesi is strikingly similar to that of the Kız Kulesi in Istanbul (kule = tower; kale = fortress or castle), in fact, the stories are exactly the same.  A king hears from a fortune teller that his daughter will be poisoned by a snake.  In an attempt to sidestep fate, he has servants build a castle on an island and he keeps his daughter there.  Only, one day, a snake makes it into a grape basket that is brought to the castle and the daughter is bitten and dies.  (I'm wondering - is this just a favorite legend to accompany buildings built in the sea or what is the historical reality of these matching stories?)

The Kız Kalesi in the background, as seen through a window in the land castle.
 The Kız Kalesi and remains of Koryos are perfect examples of overlapping cultures, a common phenomenon in Turkey.  The stones of the castle are said to come from buildings of the Roman period and the area is full of historical hot spots, such as a local Roman temple, necropolis, church and cistern.  Right across from the castle there are exposed stones with distinct figures etched into the mammoth rock.  I'm not sure what culture or time period these figures belong to, but there they are nonetheless.  Another example of how you can't walk down a path in Turkey without stumbling over an ancient artifact.

A view of the coast and local village from the top of the castle wall.

If you head straight up the hill from the castle you will find some of the remains of the Roman buildings and another natural and human spectacle, fittingly called by the locals, "Heaven and Hell", and on the tourist brochure, "Heaven Hollow", or in Turkish, Cennet Obruğu.  To access "Heaven" you must follow 455 steps down a steep incline.   

Just the beginning of the 455 steps.

The mouth of this hollow is 200m wide and the deepest point is 70m below ground - so don't wander too far without a flashlight!

Halfway down the steep pathway we stopped to explore the Virgin Mary Chapel, a small stone chapel dating to the 5th or 6th century AD.  The chapel is supposedly decorated with frescoes of Jesus and his 12 apostles, but all I could see were the etchings of many travelers before me that had felt the need to leave their mark in stone. 

Photo op inside the Virgin Mary Chapel, clouded with graffiti on the chapel walls.
(Photo copyright of hakanirfan @
 Past the chapel it's straight down, into what feels like hell, and not heaven.  We crawled, not walked, down into the gaping hole, scattering pebble from the path and sliding over slimy rocks.  As we made it further inside the hollow, mud was haphazardly streaked across our bottoms and legs as we used all of our body to balance and brace from the forces of gravity in the near pitch blackness.  We enjoyed  a few moments inside the dark and eerie quietness of "heaven" before we were joined by a boisterous group of about 30 students studying tourism at the local university.  I was greeted in several languages as they blinded me with their flashlights and tried to guess what nationality I belonged to.

The incoming as seen from inside the cave.
(Photo copyright of hakanirfan at 
Then we crawled back out of heaven - never quite finding hell - and not sure if that was perhaps where we had been.  But then we realized, the hell is walking back up those 455 steps!  So that was why the locals called it "Heaven and Hell" but the tourism plaque only mentions the delightful "Heaven Hollow" - sounds much better doesn't it?

After we drove around a bit, we did find a bit of heaven at a quaint restaurant serving gözleme and fresh, frothy ayran with a view overlooking the city and Mediterranean Sea below (and a few ornery and sad camels trying to escape from their shackles).  Yes, I guess every bit of heaven has its dark moments.  A good lesson in life, really.
The sad camels meant to please tourists. 

So now I emerge back from my walk down that sunny, but at times dark and damp, memory lane to winter in the Midwest, USA with enough warmth inside me to keep me fueled during the busy months ahead and with the hope for many more warm, sunny days in Turkey this upcoming summer when we finally get our balayı (honeymoon).

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Falling in Love with the Maiden's Tower

The Maiden's Tower or Leander's Tower at sunset.
(Copyright: Hakanirfan @

Just after sunset on the Bosphorus, the Maiden’s Tower glows with light that seems to radiate from the moon. Historically, the Maiden’s Tower was built as a lighthouse to guide Persian ships within the narrow Bosphorus straight. Yet the legends of this Tower come from both Turkish and Greek culture and tell stories of the power and force of love – whether love of a father for his daughter, or love of a man and maiden. Today, we can say that the Maiden’s Tower is a symbol of the hope and light of love, whether to unite societies or unite hearts.

Yes, the Maiden's Tower, or Kız Kulesi in Turkish, inspires romance.  Perhaps it is how the light sends a glimmering path across the water that beckons to travelers and commuters as they whisk by on a night ferry.  Or perhaps the legends enchant us and allow us to see the Maiden's Tower as something abnormal, more than just a simple lighthouse.

The view from the ferry as we passed the Maiden's Tower heading to the wrong neighborhood (by mistake)
 For me, I felt the pull of the Maiden's Tower before knowing the history behind the beacon of light.  Yet, on this past trip to Istanbul, I formed a deeper bond with this cultural monument as I experienced the romance up close and personal as we sat cuddling with blankets on the cushioned concrete steps just across from the Kız Kulesi.  After a warm meal of köfte, we headed out to walk along the water and find the perfect spot to sit and order a tea.  As it was near eight at night with chilling temperatures, there were many seats to choose from.  Although during warmer weather, the steps and tables are full of Istanbulites enjoying a bit of romance with their evening tea.

Not a bad place to have a glass of tea.
 We found a nice spot right across from the Tower and huddled in under the blankets.  Soon we had a hot tea to hold and warm our frosty fingers.  A gypsy woman and young girl passed by with roses in hand, but it seemed that they were done for the night, because we were not offered their wares for sale.  A pair of couples sat at a nearby table, chatting, drinking tea and smoking sweet tobacco in a water pipe.  We watched as the large, dark ships passed by behind the Tower and I wondered what they carried and to whom.

Keeping warm with hot tea and cozy blankets.
 Soon we had emptied our tea glasses and we realized that our time was running out to make it back to the last ferry that would take us to the European side of Istanbul.  So we unfolded from the warm blankets and said goodbye to the Maiden and walked with lighter steps, and warmer hearts and hands back to the ferry.

Romance at its finest - watching boats pass in the night and the city of Istanbul glow in the background.

To visit the Maiden's Tower up close, from the European side of Istanbul take a ferry to Üsküdar, a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.  From there, walk along the road until you reach the stretch of Bosphorus with outdoor seating in front of the Tower.  There are also many great restaurants in this area, making it a perfect place for a date! 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Getting acquainted with Istanbul

Istanbul and I are not quite friends - it's too early to say that.  We could be considered acquaintances, we've met each other a few times, we've hung out for a couple days.  Istanbul has shown me its best.  It's been hospitable and welcoming, but I've been very cautious while treading around the typical tourist haunts - realizing that this is not the "real" Istanbul that most of the city's inhabitants experience on a daily basis.  I know that Istanbul has many faces and I feel that I have only seen a few of them.

Perhaps I should let go of this scrutinizing nature, but that's me, and in this case, it's also serious business.  You see, I love to be a tourist, but I also question what is propped on display and sold to me for the price of an entrance ticket or pricey photo op.  In the tourism industry, nothing is ever quite what it seems.  Perhaps for this reason I am cautious of Istanbul.  Also, in the near future, Istanbul may be our future home (depending on job opportunities and the like), so I am seriously evaluating this city as a place where I may one day commute to work, grocery shop and, perhaps, raise a family. 

Can I envision living in Istanbul?  While taking a ferry down the Bosphorus, or while strolling down the tram line past nice restaurants and great shops - sure!  While sitting in rush hour traffic in a bus for over an hour, maybe or maybe not.

This was my second time in Istanbul, and it was much more revealing than the first.  While traveling on the bus for about an hour to get into the Sultanahmet area, I felt like I was traveling between two entirely different cities with different cityscapes.  We began in a city block no different from many other city blocks around Turkey - with high rise apartments and the various shops and grocers that occupy the street level.  However, we ended in an area with beautiful two to three story buildings, with the crust of history peaking in between cafes, shops and narrow lanes.  As in many big cities, neighborhoods have entirely different personalities and often there is a large distinction between one and another.  In Istanbul this is perhaps even more pronounced as layers of history are revealed as one travels closer to the water and especially near the Golden Horn. 

An example of a charismatic Istanbul street scene.  By the way, that beautiful building in the center of the photo is a büfe, or a stand selling snacks, cigarettes and other random items - not your typical convenience store.
So what did we do in Istanbul for the 3 short days before we left Turkey?

We enjoyed many stops for simit and cay, and various small treats.  We stopped into shops, looked at books and shopped for gifts to bring home.  We checked out Medusa and enjoyed the subdued atmosphere in the Basilica Cistern.  While also noting one of tourism's silly cultural incongruities - the "Ottoman Harem" photo ops inside the Basilica Cistern.  

A discrete photo of the Harem photo op stage in the Basilica Cistern.

Maybe I'm just reading too much into things - but Basilica Cistern represents Byzantine culture, not Ottoman.  Although, according to the brochure offered inside the Cistern, the Ottomans did use the Cistern water for their gardens at the Topkapı Palace for a short while before they secured their own water system in the city.  Details, details…

We had one of life's funny moments when walking up the path to the Blue Mosque as a couple started screaming in surprise and hugging H.  I figured they were Turkish friends that we happened to cross paths with in Istanbul.  Oh no, the world is much smaller.  These were two old friends from Kansas - yes, Kansas.  What are the chances that we should cross paths in such a way?  I would say probably one in a million - but I'm not that good at statistics.  We spent the rest of the afternoon eating, drinking tea and chatting. 

We got up at 4:30 to head to the airport for our flight, only to find out while attempting to check in that we were one day early…  It's okay, you can laugh, it's funny (although it wasn't at the time).   As I mentioned before, travel does strange things to the brain's time recognition system.

Due to this snafu we had one more day to go visit the Hagia Sophia and take in one of Istanbul's most famous cultural monuments.
The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of overlapping cultures and civilizations in Istanbul. Some of the Islamic art was removed during restoration to reveal the Christian imagery and art beneath the paint.  The museum is an amazing place to spend a few hours to enjoy beauty and take in the history.

We also walked by the Bosphorus and had street food for our last dinner in Turkey - fish sandwiches, fried dough and salep.

One of the restaurants selling fish from a boat.  You just hop up to the edge, pay for your sandwich and then head to a modest table to enjoy your meal.  You'll see all types of people enjoying a quick bite - businessmen in suits, families with baby strollers, old couples, young couples and of course, tourists like us.

Lokma bought on the street in Istanbul.  Not my favorite, but tasty nonetheless.  

However, for me, the highlight of our time in Istanbul was our visit to the Maiden's Tower, a sight that for us symbolizes the romance of Istanbul.  More on the Maiden's Tower in the next post...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Turning Over a New Leaf with My Turkish

I'll admit, I'm not the greatest at self study.  I have always enjoyed class structure and I find that I learn a lot with the motivation of class performance behind me.  With language learning it was no exception, my formal Turkish class did a lot to push me forward in my Turkish speaking and comprehension.  Yet this past semester I was working solo and, well, I didn't do much.  I tried, but I ended up devoting most of my energy to this blog instead - no complaints from me - I love writing on this blog.  However, I was a little disappointed with my speaking ability on this last trip to Turkey.  I had hoped I would be a little more conversant, but perhaps I just need more time and practice.

So I have been thinking about how to integrate more Turkish into my everyday life without having to actually sit down and study with pen in hand.  Aaron Myers talks a lot about these types of learning strategies over at the Everyday Language Learner blog, and a lot of his guidance helped me while I searched for appropriate Turkish learning materials in Turkey.

First, I wanted something I could read in Turkish, but perhaps with an accompanying English translation.  Dual language books are hard to find, and the ones I have found online are pretty pricey.  I think I found the best and cheapest option - and available to all that fly Turkish Airlines - the free in flight magazine.  Turkish airlines is a probably the best airline I have ever flown - internationally and here in the US.  The food is tasty, the seats are comfortable, and they give lots of free comforts to their travelers.  Their magazine is also high quality with many travel articles, interviews and Turkish recipes.  Bonus for Turkish learners - everything is in both Turkish and English.

Another great dual language resource is the Turquoise Diaries Blog as the author writes everything in English and Turkish!  What a wonderful idea.  I hope to one day be able to do the same. 

Next, I wanted to have listening material that I could pop into my car and radio at home.  We ended up browsing through a media store in the Istanbul airport before our flight and found some last minute treasures.  I ended up buying a set of 9 CDs of Turkish pop music.  I'm not a big "pop" music fan, but the lyrics are usually pretty easy to understand and it's great music for driving, and I've also found, for cleaning house.

I had hoped to also find a few good Turkish movies to bring back on DVD, but I found a cheaper alternative.  Actually, H. found a great way to keep watching all the Turkish documentaries we were enjoying while on vacation.  TRT has a website where you can watch all of the TRT channels and listen to public radio.   We became a fan of the TRT BELGESEL channel for all the great shows about travel and history in Turkey, but the other channels are great for Turkish news, children's shows and series also.  Note: if you are in Turkey this will not work for you - but lucky for you, you can just turn on the TV.  For us, watching through the internet is the best possible situation, since neither of us actually own a television anymore and we refuse to pay more for cable than all the other utilities combined. 

To watch TRT live online, just follow this link:

You can also find other Turkish television shows at Dizi Izle

Well, I'm not sure that watching the occasional Turkish television, or listening to Turkish pop music and reading a few articles will really take me to the next level in Turkish, it's at least a good step forward.  I'm also trying to think of other ways to incorporate more Turkish into my daily life.  I've started going back and really studying the Turkish Word of the Day and accompanying phrase that is delivered to my inbox everyday.  I've posted some post-it notes around the house and labeled furniture to learn some basic vocabulary.   I'm also going to really push myself to converse in TURKISH with my Turkish fiance - it may sound so easy, but we've become accustomed to speaking in English and it is a bit of a challenge to switch to Turkish.

For those of you living in Turkey or studying Turkish, what helped you to improve your Turkish?  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Treats from Turkey

Living in a highly globalized country full of imports from around the globe (I'm talking about the USA), one would think that any desired commodity can be found - if not in stores, then at least online.  While that is partially true, the reality is that while we have access to almost everything, the quality of these commodities are questionable at times.  With Turkish products this is especially true.  We can find Turkish ingredients and treats at the local Mediterranean or International Markets, yet we have been burned many times by overpriced, expired goods that just do not taste right.  Other times, ingredients may seem to be Turkish, but there is some additional flavor added to compliment tastes preferred in Arabic or Persian culture. 

So before traveling to Turkey we brainstormed some of the things we would want to bring back with us, and then while in Turkey that list continued to grow as our taste buds were reminded of the glorious pistachios, fragrant teas, and tantalizing Turkish delights that we had been missing.  So we stuffed our luggage as full as possible with these small Turkish treats to enjoy once back at home.

Locally roasted pistachios from Maras - gifted to H. by his sister 

The perfect Turkish Delight or Lokum

We've already made our way through one box of the pistachio Turkish delights and we're working our way through the second.
  These are not your typical Turkish delights, instead of the white powder, they are covered with powdered raw pistachio.  The flavor is rich with just the right amount of sweetness. 

A collection of Koska sweets to give as gifts (or maybe just eat ourselves if we get greedy)
 We've also been enjoying glass after glass of the Turkish herbal tea - like elma (apple) tea and kuşburnu tea, a combination of rosehips and hibiscus that is tart like cranberry juice.  It's the perfect way to keep warm and snuggly without the caffeine of black tea on these cold winter nights.  We love it so much that we found a website where we can order more boxes when we run out. (  This website is also great for ordering all sorts of Turkish food - like cheese, socuk and sweets, even baked goods!)

In order to keep up the alaturka cuisine in the kitchen, I stocked up on some of the most useful spices for Turkish cooking.  Susam (sesame seeds) and Çörek Otu (Cumin seeds) can both be found in the US, but for a pretty penny.  These seeds are essential for a lot of Turkish pastries, such as börek and Turkish scones, and if I get up the gumption, I may try to make simit, Turkish bagels loaded with sesame.  

Collection of Turkish spices
Köfte Baharı is a useful addition to ground beef to make a quick and tasty hamburger or köfte on the grill.  I have fallen in love with the taste of Kuş üzümü (dried currants) in rice pilaf and I'm looking forward to trying out this simple twist sometime soon.  Pul biber (red pepper) is essential for Turkish cuisine and nane (dried mint) was so essential that the package was already in use before I could take this photo.  While I'm sure spices directly from the bazaar would have been the best quality, we opted for the packaged variety for easy transport and ease during customs. 

Now, for some of the fun stuff.  Before our trip there were several things I knew I was going to bring back just because I love them so much.  I was eager to get a Turkish tea glass set, because tea just tastes better in those tulip shaped glasses. Turkish tea glasses can also be found in the US at stores like World Market (where they are sold as shot glasses ????) and international grocery stores.

My new Turkish tea glasses (NOT shot glasses, World Market) 

 After the last trip when I was gifted a beautiful Turkish scarf with oya, handmade flower lace, I planned to buy these scarves to bring back as gifts.  So one Saturday we ventured out in the rain to the local bazaar to find the one lady who sold these beautiful treasures made by a local women's artisan groupIn Turkey, oya scarves are most commonly worn as head scarves.  In Maras, you can see the young and the old wearing these beautiful scarves, yet it is becoming less common that the young generation will wear such a traditional scarf.  I like to wear them around my neck in a variety of different styles.  I love the lightness of the fabric and how soft it feels.  I often find myself admiring the small lace flowers and wondering how they could possibly be made by hand - a true Turkish treasure.

Two examples of oya lace
While the selection is much better in Turkey, these scarves can be accessed in the US also.  Just a visit to Etsy (a handmade and vintage online community of stores) and search for "oya" will return hundreds of examples.  Many are created with Western appeal in mind, and others state that they are straight from a bridal chest and never worn (which I find quite sad).  Yes, the oya scarves and the bridal chest have an important role in Turkish wedding traditions, so perhaps it's best I save this topic for a different blog post.

Here are a few of the oya scarves that I picked up.

I chose a few of the darker ones as these will be gifts for older relatives of mine, but there were many different options in all the colors of the rainbow.  I might have to stuff my suitcase with more on the next trip.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Back from Turkey and a sampling of what is to come

It feels like ages since we dragged our overweight luggage into my dark and musty apartment at 11:30 last Wednesday night.  Perhaps because I have been operating at full speed to get my life back to normal these first few days - doing loads of laundry, decluttering the mess I caused when my suitcase exploded all over the living room floor, and deep cleaning my apartment to get ready for a new semester, as well as visiting my parents, catching up with friends over email and beginning to make appearances back in my school/work life. 

It also seems like I stepped into another world, it's my world, but not the one that I had been occupying for the last month.  I miss H.'s family and relatives and all those long afternoons and dinners spent chatting over plates and plates of food and Turkish tea.  I miss the feeling of being in Turkey, with the confusing traffic, bustling streets, and calming ezan.  But in about four to five months we will be back for our wedding, so for now I'll enjoy the bittersweet feeling of missing all of that and get ready to savor more of Turkey on our next trip.

A month long vacation is a strange thing.  It is wonderful in all respects, especially when visiting lovely relatives in Turkey, but it causes a time recognition problem in the brain.  For me it was hard to tell if that trip was really just one month, when sometimes it felt like two months, or two weeks.  Time dripped by on the days when we had nothing planned and sat lazily watching Turkish documentaries and drinking coffee and tea all day.  Then time zipped by while we raced to beat rush hour traffic to do some shopping in the city and then raced to a relative's house for dinner and then before we knew it hours had passed and we were back at home with full bellies and nodding off to sleep. 

I had planned many things for this trip, because for me, one month seems like a very long time.  I had expected to study Turkish everyday, read many books, write a blog post every other day and get one chapter of my dissertation worked up (ha!).  Lady life smirked and gave me a loving, yet sarcastic pat on the pack and taught me once again that my plans are child's play and I need to get over my naivety.  I learned that it is not wise to make too many goals, but instead to keep it simple so that I can enjoy the feeling of accomplishing something and not the constant disappointment from trying to overachieve.  I'll keep that in mind for the future.

However, I can say that we (jointly) accomplished several of our major goals for this trip: we spent lots of time with family and H.'s friends, we made our plans for our Turkish wedding, and we took care of necessary heath visits.

For me, I gathered lots of writing material that I am currently processing into blog posts that I hope to get on here in the next couple weeks.  Here is a sampling of what you can expect:

  1.  I'll explain some of the Turkish treats we brought back with us - the things we can't live without and which ones can be found here in the US.

  1. While I didn't formally study Turkish everyday on my trip, I was working on it through speaking and trying to understand all going on around me.  I think I improved!  Now, how will I keep up this momentum?  I plan to write a post about a couple items I picked up in Turkey, as well as some media available in the US to keep me moving forward to achieve my language learning goal.

  1. Updates on our Turkish wedding - was it as easy to plan as I had hoped?  Also, my experience and some research on what it means to be a "gelin" or bride in Turkey.

  1. We stopped in Istanbul for a few days before leaving Turkey and visited a few tourist spots.  I'll share a few impressions and perhaps a new way to experience the Maiden's Tower.

  1. Have you ever heard of Kahramanmaraş?  I would say that many haven't.  I'll give a little background about the city and what may inspire you to come visit.
The city of Maras at night from one of the best spots to visit when in town 

  1. To continue on the Maraş theme -  Maraş Dondurması or Ice cream: perhaps the number one reason to visit this town for tourists and it's no gimmick.

  1. Turkish Chip or Tarhana (the Maraş version): what are these tasty chips I mentioned before and how are they made?

  1. Outsourcing Dinner - a phenomenon in Turkey (or perhaps Maraş) that I wish we had in the US

Well I said a sampling, so I should stop there.  These posts could keep me busy for the next month.  There is more in the works, but I don't want to over-promise. 

So stay tuned…I'll be back shortly!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Dessert Dance

Navigating Turkish meals is still something fairly new to me, but especially on this trip I'm becoming more cultured to the proper ways to respond to the invitations to eat the mountains of food presented to me.  For those that have not had the glorious experience of eating a home-cooked Turkish meal, I'll give you a little background information.  Meals are not lighting quick events, although they can be somewhat hectic with so many offers to eat this or drink that being thrown around from one person to another.  Turkish meals take a lot of time to prepare, accordingly each course is properly savored before moving on to the next.

A first course - Manti or Turkish Ravioli in a yogurt sauce
(Source: Turklish)
 Usually dinner begins with soup and bread, but the whole meal is already on the table complete with mezes, such as cold salads, vegetables cooked in lots of olive oil, pickles and pide bread.  The main course is usually some type of rice pilaf with cooked meat and vegetables.  There may also be many types of small dishes served such as lahmacun or içli köfte.   There are of course many variations to Turkish meals, below you can see a few examples of the types of food we have eaten at invited dinners here in Turkey.

Table is set with mezes and salad before the lamb shanks arrived.
(Source: Turklish)

One of my favorite dishes - rice with chicken and roasted almonds - simple yet oh so delicious.
(Source: Turklish)

Several varieties of dolma - stuffed mini squash, eggplant and red peppers. Also sarma, or stuffed grape leaves. Yumm!
(Source: Turklish)

Homemade içli köfte - meat, nut, sauce mixture inside a bulgur dough.  These were made by hand by several different ladies, each with a different içli köfte style, hence the variation in shape.
(Source: Turklish)

After navigating a Turkish meal - not eating too much, but savoring all the different flavors on the table - you may think that you are home free with just a small tea and dessert to follow.  After all, dessert is the perfect finale to every meal.  However, beware, in Turkey dessert is a whole new event.

After retiring from the dinner table to a comfy couch, first comes the coffee and tea.  This is to help digest that big meal and keep you awake for the next round.  Coffee is served with chocolate.  Then glass after glass of tea is served, sometimes with a salty or sweet scone or cookie.  Meanwhile dinner dishes are cleaned, and dessert trays are prepared.
A variety of sweets to accompany tea.
(Source: Turklish)

The table is reset with plates and silverware.  All return to their seats to the splendid array of fruits, nuts, and whatever main dessert was prepared, such as baklava, sütlaç, or even a chocolate cake.  Also, in Maras, Turkish chips or tarhana (Maraş style - another post to come soon about tarhana) is always center stage on the dessert table. 

A typical table set for dessert - many different types of fruit, nuts, two varieties of prepared dessert - cooked pumpkin and a coconut pudding.
(Source: Turklish)

This is where the dessert dance comes to play.  At this point it may be late in the night, as everyone spent several hours chatting with tea after dinner.  Everyone is full, no one really is physically hungry, but there may be a desire for something sweet to finish the meal.  I start slowly, sampling  a few pistachios or almonds.  However, if I do not take enough I am always encouraged to take more.

"Eat this orange; it is delicious."  I'm instructed by the host as the orange is put on my plate. 

I nod my head, smile and put the orange to the side as three huge pieces of baklava are put on my plate.

 I smile and murmur a "teşekkür ederim". 

Now I begin to slowly eat the baklava and I keep my eyes alert to quick movements to put anything else on my plate.  

Soon a hand swoops in with more nuts.

"Oh, no thank you, I've had enough."  I say as I shield my plate with my hands.

"Just eat a little."  I'm encouraged with eyes pleading.

I give in.  "Okay just a few." 

"Here is some more baklava."  As a spatula gracefully slides in towards my plate.

"No I can't!"  I squeal, barely able to finish the pieces I already have.

"Okay,  how about a banana."  As the banana is cut in half and peeled.

"No, please, I already had an apple, and I have this orange here on my plate."  I say to no avail as the peeled banana is already in my hand and halfway to my mouth.

Another hand reaches and grabs a few slabs of tarhana and gestures for me to take them.

"Thank you, thank you, I have enough, I'll take a few in a little bit."

This energy is not only directed at me, but at all the guests around the table.  All are encouraged to eat more and there are many helping hands to ensure that no plate is left empty and that plenty of fruit is peeled and sliced so that everyone can try all the different kinds. 

A typical serving of dessert - not baklava but similar with nuts inside and a thin dough soaked in sweet syrup. As always pistachios sprinkled on top complete the sweet.
(Source: Turklish)

Tarhana or Turkish chips Maraş style
(Source: Turklish)

I often find it downright hilarious and begin giggling as an orange is passed from one person to the next and as protesting guests shield their plates from the downpour of pistachios and hazelnuts. 

I call it a dance because it requires grace and coordination to sidestep all the offered treats.  While the nuts, fruit, tarhana and dessert are all delicious, for me it is all too much.  After that big meal I simply can't eat all the dessert options.  However, with time I am getting better at this desert dance and learning to eat my fill while pleasing the host and avoiding midnight stomachaches.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Santa Claus, New Years and Commercialization in Turkey

This year was my first time spending Christmas away from my family.  In fact, I didn't celebrate Christmas at all.  While I missed the family time - seeing relatives and eating lots of food - I did not miss the gift exchange.  For the most part, I already gave my Christmas presents and I gave many presents here in Turkey, so I felt the joy of giving that is so much fun around Christmas.  What I didn't experience was the stress of shopping last minute, or of disappointed looks from presents that just weren't quite right. 

I expected that Christmas would not be celebrated here in Turkey.  At least not in the main stream society that is predominately Muslim.  However, it seems that Christmas is perhaps more of a capitalist conception that a religious one (or at least in its modern form of gift giving galore).  Since I arrived in Turkey I noticed Christmas decorations in several shops.  Commercials were full of red and green sparkling trees and lights with the message to give gifts, shop the sales and use your credit card!  When I asked about this I was told that these images are related to New Year's here in Turkey.  So it seems that the color and flamboyance of modern Christmas has infiltrated the closest secular holiday - the New Year celebration.

Christmas decorations for sale in a department store in Maraş
(Source: Turklish)

Christmas decorations sold in Istanbul

Even some of the Turkish television series picked up on the theme.  Back in the USA we watch Yalan Dünya, a comedy that contrasts a traditional Turkish family with a group of actors living in side by side apartments in Istanbul.  Most of the Turkish is over my head, but with H.'s lighting fast translations, I can get the general picture and some of the jokes.

This past week we were watching the New Year's episode and we were both a bit shocked.  It took the shopping theme to the max including all the drama related to gift exchange - the need to impress with the value of the gift, the wife mistaking a gift for her husband's mistress as her own, and the stress of shopping in the crowds.  

Santa Claus even made an appearance on the show.  Santa, as many of you may already know, is from Turkey!  Now, I'm not talking about the big-bellied, red and white clad, ho-ho-ho fellow.  I'm talking about the real Santa - St. Nicholas, who was born in the third century in the Greek village of Patara, which is now located on the southern coast of Turkey.  St. Nicholas sold what he owned to give to the poor and became well known for his generosity to those in need. 

I'm not sure how such a compassionate man who cared so much for the poor became the symbol of excess and gluttony at Christmas, but culture works in strange ways.  Perhaps it was that clever parent that told their children they would get gifts if they were good or coal if they were bad from good ol' St. Nick.  Just as parents use the "elf-on-the-shelf" technique these days.

One image of St. Nicholas that doesn't fit the modern depiction.

However it happened, now St. Nicholas, or Santa, is the symbol of the commercialization of Christmas - and now apparently for New Years in Turkey too!  In the episode we watched Santa was outside the stores encouraging people to come and buy gifts and spend money.  One of the down-to-earth characters in the series, who represents a man from the North of Turkey, walks up to this Santa and says - "what are you doing? Santa isn't like this, he's a brother from Turkey, he gave to the poor not the rich".  Soon the man shows up in a brown robe with a drum - the real "Santa".  They fight for attention in the street as the confused shoppers wonder by.

A screen shot from the Yulan Dunya series with dueling Santas - the one on the left is a depiction of the historical St. Nicholas, while the one on the right, I believe, needs no introduction
(Source: Turklish)

In another scene an older man in the traditional family scolds his son-in-law for buying inappropriate gifts for the neighbors.  He says - "In our culture we give to the poor on holidays - not buy underwear for our neighbors." 

Good point.  For most of the religious holidays in Islam, gifts of meat or grains are given to the needy, and to family and neighbors.  Useful gifts - like lamb and bulgur.  Of course, the children get their candy too. 

It seems with this New Year's gift giving tradition that someone is trying to change Turkey little by little to be more like America (or Western Europe).  Or perhaps it is just capitalism and globalization at work.  For you see, commercials are just distractions without the song and dance of the holiday and sales seem like much better deals when you are in a rush to buy something in time for a holiday.  The obligation to buy gifts for others in time for New Year's Eve will surely boost revenue at all the clothing and department stores.  So maybe all this commercialization of New Year's is good for the economy, but what about the cost to culture?

At least I can say that this tradition hasn't infiltrated into H.'s family.  We spent New Year's Eve eating delicious food, drinking glass after glass of tea, and singing Turkish folk songs until the moment the clock struck midnight and then we ate desert.

Maybe these gift giving traditions are more common in Istanbul or Western Turkey, or perhaps the TV series are trying to get some extra sponsors by pushing gift giving from certain stores and brands.  I guess only time will show if this Western tradition will truly stick.  I'm hoping that it doesn't.

Does anyone else has any experiences or thoughts that may help clarify this Christmas-New Year's cultural conundrum?

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