Monday, April 22, 2013

Last Week of School

It is officially the last week of my semester in Greece. I can hardly believe that it's time for me to go!
I'm flying out of here Friday afternoon, and there is a lot to do before then.

First, I have to get a lot of my work done so it won't be waiting for me after I end my travels. Second, I am still scrambling to find a job and figure out where I will be this summer.

Lastly, I am going to have to say goodbye to my teacher and friends. It will be sad leaving Greece. I feel like I have just gotten used to the pace of life here. Not to mention the weather has just turned amazing.

(I also have to start thinking about packing soon)

It's too much to do when all I want is to relax outside in the sun and relax with friends.

Yesterday was the 5K. I managed a sub 25 minute time - pretty good for a jogging enthusiast, so I am pleased with myself. There were thousands of people! I have never seen so many runners in one place. It was a lot of fun and I got to go with some guys from the college.

I couldn't believe that some people were smoking right before the race! Crazy. We got some sweet little medals to commemorate the occasion.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Back to School

   I am so unmotivated it is almost unbelievable. This week has been a real struggle. Classes are painfully slow and the laundry machines are perpetually full.

   At last, my care package arrived, and in it was hot sauce and peanut butter. My mom hooked it up with the good stuff, cholulah and skippy natural extra chunk. The hot sauce is very popular with some of the other guys here, so I have to save it for the meals most in need of some lift.

   I am working on papers and looking forward to the 5K I signed up for that is next Sunday. It is officially my first 5K. I am excited but I have not been running enough, so it probably won't be pretty.

   Other than that, I am just waiting for my next round of travels to start. April 26!

Istanbul, Day 4

   Finally it was time to wrap things up. We packed up and checked out of the hostel They let us keep our bags there which was crucial. It was cold and raining all day, and pretty miserable at first. By the end of the day though, I was ready to stay for the next week.
   The first order of business was getting me some money to spend. I was down to my last Turkish Lira bill. It was a 20, but had a small piece of one corner torn off. This turns out to make it completely useless in Turkey. Not even the shoe shine guys wanted it. The front desk at the hostel recommended taking it in to the national bank and getting it exchanged. I managed that without much trouble, and was ready for my last day.
   We got one final trip to the Grand Bazaar in and then wandered aimlessly for a while. This was a good call. We ended up near the university buildings and followed the student traffic to find the street with the best restaurants. We picked one enormously popular one that was ridiculously small. We sat at a small table in a cramped room and gave out order directly to the chef, who was working at a low grill right in the middle of the floor. It reminded me a bit of hibachi. It was delicious and cheap. I had my ayran too. Definitely the place to be for a light lunch.

outside our delicious dive
inside our delicious dive
   We regrouped at the hostel for some tea and to plan the afternoon. We decided to do the spice market and then hit the turkish bath before working our way to the bus station. The spice market was one of the coolest places I have ever been. The nearby streets had the most authentic shops and we stopped in one guy's store to pick up some spices. Everything was ridiculously cheap. I got a 1/4 kilo of sumac, some Turkish tea, green cardamom seeds, and some Turkish saffron.
   By then, it was getting later, so we headed to the hamam recommended to us by a dean at the college. He picked a good place and it was a great time for a fairly modest price. I decided to get a manicure. I have always been curious about it, and it was cheap so i figured why not. I am not very satisfied with it, but it was still an interesting experience.
   The best part of the place was the heated marble slab that you lay out on a sweat in the hot room. I did not want to move, but I had to slide over for my scrubbing (more like a scraping) and bubble wash. Then they washed my hair, and then I got in line for the oil massage. The guy really tore out some of knots in my shoulders. 
   We stepped out into the street totally relaxed and not wanting to do anything. We decided that eating was the thing to do before our long bus trip back. We went the street food route, and picked up two sesame bread loops, and two islak burgers. An islak burger is a small greasy thing that is soaked in a special sauce, glazed all over with oil, and put in a hamam for hamburgers to stew. It sounds disgusting, but it was amazing! I mean, it was like krabby patty secret recipe amazing. We headed back to the hostel and got some free tea from our wonderful manager. He even offered to let us stay another night for free on the couches!

hostel bar
   We declined, collected out bags, and headed for the bus station. We took the awesome public transport - first a tram and then the metro. It was 3 TL for each ride, a total of 3-4 dollars. Then we hopped on out bus and waved goodbye to the city as we headed back to school.

Istanbul, Day 3

Istanbul, Day 3:
   This day started kind of slowly, but quickly led to a defining series of moments for the trip. We did some real walking and got into the real city. No (or atlas few) tourists, better food, and prettier mosques. We were hunting for the aqueduct, but stumbled upon a small mosque, and then the Green Mosque. This was immediately my favorite. There was hardly anyone else there so we could fully appreciate the open spaces and lines. There were just a few people praying, but it was a very solemn place compared to the tourist swamped mosques we had seen the day before.

my favorite mosque
  I managed to make my cultural faux pas of the semester that day. We were perusing some goods out on a carpet on a side street. I had been super conscious of not using my left hand, but I slipped up. I grabbed an old man's box with  my left hand. He promptly snatched it away from me, started shouting in Turkish, and chases us away. I felt horrible for having been so culturally insensitive. It was probably his dead mother's  jewelry box, and I put my dirty ass wiping infidel hand all over it.
   After finally finding the aqueduct, we started moving back towards our hostel. As we walked downy a street lined with neighborhood restaurants, we started getting hungrier and hungrier. Then finally we snapped walked back up the street, down it once more and stopped at the busiest and most appetizing spot.
best kebab joint of my life
   This meal is top 3 of my life - easy. It was incredible. I have an excruciatingly detailed description that you can ask me for if you are interested (be warned it is a page and a half long). I'll just hit the high notes here. The yogurt kebab was perfect, as was the lamb pide, a boat shaped thin bread pizza. Of course, we had tea with that. After the meal, our waiter ordered us a traditional dessert. I am still not sure what it was, but it was the best dessert I have ever eaten. I also got my first taste of ayran, a yogurt drink. It is pretty raw tasting, but I was into it. Totally stuffed, we thanked our waiter and waddled back to the hostel.
   We retreated to the hostel for a nap. Then we took the excellent and cheap public transport to get to the Istanbul Modern. They had a pretty awesome collection of modern art. It was arranged by era and each era was put into the context of Istanbul's social scene with some short plaques. My favorite's were some war of independence illustrations and the entire photography exhibit.
   After the museum, we decided to walk back to the hostel. It was kind of a trek but we crossed a famous bridge on foot and got to see some cool bits of the city.

one stop fisherman shop

a bit overcast and windy

Istanbul, Day 2

  We got a good start on the day with our roof top breakfast buffet. We also sat in the rooftop lounge for a few to take in the scenery. First we checked the Blue Mosque off our list. This is a functioning mosque so the vibes inside are a little bit different. You could see men up front praying, and some women in the screened off section that falls behind the visitor area.

Blue Mosque
   Another must see attraction down, we started on the lesser known attractions. There are literally pieces of history everywhere that you can see for free, like the Hippodrome. But we had to get into the Underground Cistern, so we shelled out a few Lira to go down under the city. Hundreds of pillars support the ceiling of this underground reservoir. The space was very impressive, and it was interesting to see some ancient recycling. The pillars are a mix of different styles, and there were two bases worth seeing. They were carved gorgon heads - pretty neat stuff. They even get to put in a sign "Medusa -->"


   Lunch on the cheap that day was a failure. We tried out some of the street carts and a corner kebab place, but really should have known not to get excited. All over the city are guys hawking grilled corn, and it smelt and looked delicious when we were hungry. Sadly, it tasted like charred plastic with a dash of salt. The sesame bread rings weren't much better, but were atlas edible. We also split the world's worst chicken pita. Thankfully, none of it cost very much. We picnicked in another park though, and it was very well kept. Spotless and with fountains, gazebos, and statues, it is the nicest public space I've been in while abroad.

This guy with delicious (looking) corn
   For dinner, we made one last food mistake. We weren't very hungry and decided to just grab some yogurt dip on out hostel's street. My god it was awful. Our waiter was excessively friendly, and got us complimentary rake shots. I saw him pour them so I wasn't surprised when I drank what was mostly water in a miniature shot glass. After spending too much on yogurt (and being asked to pay for extra bread) we made out escape, despite promises of a fire show later in the evening. We regrouped and researched the best place to grab some nargile. 
  We hiked down the street a ways and found the back alley hang out described online. It was crowded (with locals thank god) and filled with smoke. We were mistaken for Spanish and seated in a small room with some Spanish students and their Argentinian teacher. It was interesting and fun.

a more authentic street scene
   I might as well put in a bit about the tea culture. I have been tea starved in Greece. There is only one tea ever offered, and it just plain sucks. First I had some of the Turkish black tea, and it was pretty good. Then I discovered their apple teas, and I have gotten pretty hooked. Tea is always served in small tulip shaped glasses with sugar, spoon, and dish. It is cheap and everyone drinks it all day. Shop keepers will order tea for delivery. It comes via waiter on a hanging tray, and the empty glasses are picked up later. I really liked all the tea I had, and was glad it was such a big part of the culture.

park filled with tulips

Istanbul, Day 1

 I didn't manage to get much sleep that morning. As the backpackers got up and turned lights on and took showers and opened lockers and made just enough noise to keep me awake, I decided I would be better off just getting out of the hostel for a while. I asked the extremely helpful staff where I could change money, and they even marked the place with the best rates on a map for me. I set off hiking and realized just how central out location was. We were literally in the shadow of the Blue Mosque and within easy walking distance of the major tourist draws. This proved to be good for the first two days and a hassle once we wanted to venture out further.
   Once my travel partner got up, we headed back to the money changer and then straight to the Grand Bazaar. It was really cool at first, then you realize that every shop sells the same cheap tourist goods. There were a few gems though, and I got the buying things bug out of my system the first day. I snagged some good stuff, for I think about what they are actually worth. There was a lot of haggling, and that was so fun it was almost better than getting to take things home with me.

Egyptian Obelisk
   There are tons of historical monuments in the city. Some are free and some feel like Disney World with the lines and ticket costs… The Aya Sofia was a must, and the first thing we did. It was expensive and crowded, and I was a little underwhelmed with the interior. The architecture was pretty trashed during the conversion to mosque. The additions were clumsy and out of place. But I have to say, the history in the place is what it's really all about. Being a history nerd, I loved seeing the literal spot that Byzantine coronations went down.

Spot of Byzantine Coronations
  After doing the big tourist thing, we did the next bug tourist thing. We walked. We walked for a long time. It is the best way to see things of course, and there are lots of pictures. We picnicked in a park with some Turkish Delight and the last of my travel snacks. The parks in Istanbul are beautiful. The flower bed designs left a little to be desired, but we came at an excellent time. This is truly fate. It was the 8th Annual Istanbul Tulip Festival. Thirteen and a half million plus tulips were planted. That is about a flower for every resident of the city. I was in tulip heaven. Serendipity.
   Dinner was less than spectacular, we were in the tourist district after all. We resolved to find much better fare the rest of the trip. I broke down and got a Turkish coffee, can you blame me? I can't.
Street Scene

April is Here

I have had a pretty exciting two weeks since my last post.

I finalized plans for the spring break and I made it to Istanbul at last. I also worked out my Service Learning project, and figured out what I have to do for my class grades.

It is April and the weather has really perked up. So has the pollen count. Today I saw a wall of pollen so thick it looked like a sand storm. Obviously I ran for my Claritin and so far I have not turned into "allergy kid."

The Service Project Project:
   I won't get to do anything like I imagined before coming here. But I have accepted the limitations and am appreciating what I do get to do. It really isn't much. I still go to some of the other classes and "assist." This usually means hanging around and talking to other students. Sometimes I help put together irrigation or with measurement taking for the student projects.

   UPDATE! I finally understand. The classes are the least important part of Study Abroad, and it is better for me to forget about them. My grades will be solely dependent on term papers, due… at some point. I am going to try to get them mostly finished in the next two weeks. I am allowed to send them in from home, but who wants to spend the beginning of summer break working on finals?

The Return Trip:
   My plans for early May have totally changed. I am scrapping the Greek islands idea entirely. It is not very easy to plan a trip to the islands on your own. It would also be awful traveling on and around the Greek Orthodox Easter. So the replacement plan is even more ambitious!
   I will head first to the southern side of Cyprus. There are beaches and Greeks - and it is an island - so it is pretty close to being in the Greek Islands. After a few days there I will jet up to Edinburgh, Scotland. I am ready to see some good gardens, so the Royal Botanical there should satisfy my cravings. After taking in the garden-scapes, I want to head to the nearest Scotch distillery. Glenkinchie is nearest to the city. It looks like I can get a free tour and a free sample if I can find a way out there.
  After all that, I will take a short flight over to Dublin. The Guiness brewery is top of the list there I think. The real goal of the Ireland stop is to get out to the west coast. I will bus to Lisdoonvarna to catch the beginning of the Burren in Bloom Festival. There will hopefully be some good hikes, incredible sights, and of course lots of flowers. After all that, I should be ready to come home, right?

   The best part of the last couple weeks, and definitely one of the high lights of the semester, was my trip to Istanbul. 

Istanbul, The beginning:
   I have been trying to make this trip since I got to Greece in January. It never seemed to work out, and I kept having to put it off. Obviously I was a little excited to get there at last. I convinced the American intern to come with me, and we snagged bus tickets for a good price.

The Docks

   I took classes off to spend a day in the city. I bought some bread and snacks for the trip, picked up a bike chain to keep my stuff not stolen in the hostel, and visited the Thessaloniki Photography Museum. There was only one exhibit, but it was pretty cool. It was a history of the city and photography in the city. I was interested to see how the city had developed since the early 20th century. It was good to visualize the major events that have shaped the city. For example, there are picture of Ottoman Thessaloniki, and picture of the FIre, and then pictures post Greco-fication (removal of minarets and other vestiges of Turkish influence). It was remarkable how little the city has changed since the 1930s. The shots that stood out to me the most were a series taken of an execution. The first imaged was of three men were lined up before their graves, and the set culminated with their contorted bodies laying on the ground. it was pretty powerful seeing the frozen expressions of those men speaking their last words, cigarettes in mouth, and hats cocked.
   After a big dinner in Thessaloniki, we caught an overnight bus to Turkey. It was a 10 hour ordeal. I really mean ordeal. The border crossing was excruciatingly long. First we had to stamp out of Greece, then we had to drive to the Turkish side, where we stood in a long line only to find out we had stood in the wrong line. So we stood in another line (ok so it was just us in the second line), and bought our visa stamps. Of course the border crossing happens at just before 3 a.m. We arrived in the city exhausted and opted to take a cab to our hostel. Well, we took a cab to near our hostel.Then we found a public restroom! Only it cost 50¢ per person to use. Revenue maintains the public spaces.
   We managed to find out hostel without too much trouble, and promptly passed out. Everyone else in our (mostly empty) 30 bed dorm was just starting to wake up.


Hostel Street