Category Archives: Turkey

The Turkish Love Children

April 23rd is Children’s Day in Turkey. The occasion, now celebrated by countries around the world, was the brainchild of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in 1920. The Turkish think that a day to honor children is so important that it is a national holiday.

We’re not surprised. While every country we have visited on our journey has been friendly to our family, none has welcomed us with the enthusiasm of Turkey. The Turkish have very strong community and family ties, along with a keen awareness that the role of the present generation is to nurture and prepare the future ones.

Young kids are treated like celebrities wherever they go in Turkey. People here, young and old, male and female, go out of their way to get kids’ attention. They smile, they make funny faces, sometimes they even dance, all to elicit a smile. While people in other countries have been welcoming, the Turkish attention towards children was a little too much for Kayan at first. Every minute, someone comes over with a fond, “Mehraba!” and rubs his hair, putting him on the fast track to Sandeep’s smooth head. Kayan went through a phase where he used to exclaim, “No more Mehraba!” but has since given up. Even he realizes that the attention is genuine and there are benefits if he plays along. At every Turkish delight store the kids are invited behind the counter and offered a selection of whatever they want. At this pastry shop, the chef handed them beautiful chocolate ribbons and ice cream. He only half joked about taking the kids home.

All of this attention also pays dividends to parents. We have a helping hand no matter where we travel. When we ride the subway, people don’t get up to offer us a seat. Rather, they take the kids on their own laps or carry them for us. At restaurants, waiters entertain the children with balloons so that we can enjoy our food. A security guard at the Aya Sofia spotted us in line and directed us to a secret entrance. Even he couldn’t bear the idea of the children having to wait in line with everyone else. This behavior seems as natural as if these people are a part of our family.

We’ve mentioned before that traveling with kids can be a more enjoyable experience that traveling without them. While Ava’s constant singing and Kayan’s accompanying dance moves may invite reactions, we’ve seen other kids in Turkey benefit from the same positive treatment. Our visiting cousins said their daughter’s ample cheeks were constantly admired and our friends from New York told us a story about their three year old being whisked away by a group of jovial men at the Sultanhamet. Traveling with kids, at least in Turkey, opens the door to interacting with locals. Childless visitors to Turkey shouldn’t be disheartened. You can start a conversation by borrowing someone else’s baby or toddler for a tram ride or meal. If the parents are Turkish they won’t think twice about handing over their child. Just don’t try the same thing in New York City.


Filed under Travel With Kids, Turkey

Crossing the Bosphorus for Dinner

Are we responsible parents? On one end we paid a premium to rent an apartment close to our jobs in New York so that we could reach the kids on a 10 minute cab ride should an emergency arise. On the other, we just left Ava and Kayan in one continent while we had dinner in another.

Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia. It’s the only city in the world with this split identity, and it’s public transportation system is unique in being able to claim that it services two continents.

We have been living on the European side, which according to every guide book is all that exists of Istanbul. However, we have been intrigued to find out what lies in the Asian face of Istanbul. It’s been beckoning us from to cross the Bosphorus, whose waters we view see from our apartment.

Our New York City neighbors, whose two kids are Ava and Kayan’s very close friends, are also visiting Istanbul. We decided kids and adults would enjoy our own respective play dates, so we left the four kids in the care of a sitter and ventured across the Bosphorus in search of dinner.

Looking at Istanbul from the Bosphorus at dusk is one of the most spectacular sights. For 2 Turkish Lira each (about $1), we took the public ferry that pushed off from Karakoy just as the sunset call to prayer begun. From the dock, we could hear several mosques in unison, providing a haunting soundtrack to start our journey. Asia, our destination, twinkled on our left. Straight ahead, the smooth domes and sharp minarets of the multiple centuries old mosques on the Golden Horn looked alive in the evening light. The Galata Bridge was still holding on to its day time activity. It was one of those moments where I was struck by how lucky we are to be on this journey, soaking up centuries of history, being out on the water and crossing continents for the perfect meal.

We docked at Kadikoy and went to Ciya Sofrasi, a highly recommended laid back no-menu restaurant that showcases food from around the Turkey. After we gorged on a self service meze selection, our waiter brought little dishes of goodness. We tried everything on offer, from stuffed onions to stuffed lamb intestine. The most memorable part of our evening was dessert. Not ones to bypass a culinary experience, we asked for one of everything.

The plate had an assortment of preserved fruits and vegetables.

– Preserved green walnuts in a clove syrup. It tasted like Christmas.

– Slightly bitter but sweet orange rind, like marmalade without the goo.

– Cream that tasted more like butter, but it was a good way to cut out the sweetness of the various sugary preserves.

– Preserved olives. On first bite we couldn’t tell it was an olive, but the aftertaste revealed its identity.

– Preserved eggplant, cured in a vanilla syrup and stuffed with walnut. This wasn’t too big of a hit, but we were impressed that the curing process completely masked evidence of the vegetable.

– Preserved pumpkin with tahini sauce and walnuts. This was the most memorable dish of the evening. The salty tahini was a perfect complement to the crunchy pumpkin.

The entire meal cost four adults 125 Turkish Lira, one of our best values so far in Turkey. We were so engaged in our dining that we forget to consider the timing of the last ferry back to Europe. Luckily there was one at 11 PM. In contrast to the ride to Asia, the ride back home to Europe was much quieter. It seemed that most of Istanbul had fallen asleep. With the large ferry almost empty, and without the hurry of usual Bosphorus traffic, we felt that we had the city to ourselves. A steaming cup of cay (tea) is never far away in Turkey. The ferry canteen was still open and as we made our way back to the continent where our kids were, we enjoyed glasses of the Turkish staple.

When we got home the kids were engaged in their games and seemed oblivious to the fact that we ever left. We were responsible, even though we went to another continent for dinner. Yet another reason we love Istanbul.


Filed under Food, Turkey

A Perfect Birthday Cake in Istanbul

All four of us are celebrating our birthdays during our around the world journey. In January I turned a year older in Kodaikanal, India where I went to boarding school. Kayan blew out his two candles in Goa in February. Sandeep is in the spotlight today, ringing in his 3X year in Istanbul.

I’ve already angered the smoke alarm by burning a dish in our Istanbul oven, so we decided against baking a cake here. Instead we went on a hunt for the perfect vehicle to hold Sandeep’s birthday candles. Our biggest problem was choice. Sure we could go with a conventional cake, but what fun would that be in a country full of amazing sweets?

We thought about topping a pile of Turkish delight with a candle.

We considered going all out with this pistachio goodness of a show stopper.

The kids advocated for a marzipan fruit bowl.

We tried all of the options, wanting to make sure our purchase tasted as good as it looked. After the tasting fest, we thought that perhaps we should preserve the caloric intake and just go with a Play Doh cake. Ava and Kayan demonstrated their best confectionery abilities.

In the end, we decided to honor baklava. Surrounding countries stake claim to having invented the addictive dessert, but Turkey has the most evidence indicating that it was in fact developed by the Ottomans. Every other store in Istanbul proudly displays baklava of all shapes and colors in its windows. Our greedy eyes settled on a one kilo assortment of eight different types of gooey, honey dripping goodness from Mado, an dessert institution in the heart of Istanbul.

Next month we will celebrate Ava’s fourth birthday. We’re not yet sure where, but I’m already doubting the hunt for the perfect cake will be quite as exciting.


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Lessons From Shopping at an Istanbul Mall

We spent our first week in Istanbul soaking up our immediate neighborhood. Beyoglu is sometimes referred to as the Soho of Istanbul. It’s the perfect base to explore tiny cafes, drink international wines or local raki, listen to live music and watch independent theater. Living hear reminds us a lot of living in New York’s East Village.

Sandeep needed to do some research on a few home furnishing stores so we decided to combine work and hopefully find some pleasure by breaking away from our area and exploring Istanbul’s most prestigious suburban mall, Istinye Park. We were heading well out of our comfort zone – we are not suburb people and we are not mall people.

Istinyi Park is a great way to observe how Istanbullu families spend their weekends. In a contrast to what we’ve seen in the city, fancy strollers harboring well dressed tots parade around the hallways. The mall has a large rotunda by the food court that is perfect for kids to burn of energy. The enterprising mall management has centered children’s toy and clothing shops, as well as a mesmerizing fountain, around it. As the kids engaged in an instant play date, we enjoyed coffee and caught up on the newest toys and gadgets, including these spiffy kiddie cars.

The mall is more upmarket than any I have been to in The States. It also required us to open our wallets wider. Sandeep and the kids started drooling at the thought of southern fried chicken, so we paid 14 Lira ($8) for a three piece meal. They’d say it was worth every penny and I had to pry the cleaned chicken leg bone out of Kayan’s grasp. In addition to the bill, the kofta place sandwiched between the American fast food joints was our only reminder that we were in Istanbul and not a ritzy suburb back home.

I passed on the chicken fest but found my happy place in the mall’s vast food bazaar, with vendors specializing in everything from specialty vegetables to sugar covered almonds in every color.

What did we learn during our day at the mall? Istanbul has a laid back side and a luxury side. The mall had stand alone multi-story buildings for brands Gucci and Louis Vuitton that were bigger than their 5th Avenue flagships. We also learnt that we have been out of touch with what’s new in popular culture. We didn’t recognize  any of the new English movies or children’s toys. And our outfits, reflecting what we packed five months ago in New York, were definitely not up to par with Istanbul style.

The luxury of spending time in a city is that we can explore its different faces. We’re loving Beyoglu, which provides many of the comforts of home with a decidedly Turkish flair, but we’ve also been able to glimpse the suburban life, which on the surface took us back to America.

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Turkish Hammam in New York City

What a great Monday for our New York City readers. You can get one step closer to experiencing Turkey with us by purchasing today’s Living Social offer. The deal provides about 30% off the regular prices at the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street.

Before you hit the purchase button, let me tell you about our Turkish hammam experience in Cappadocia. Sandeep’s brother generously gifted us two hammam sessions as well as babysitting coverage, so we went on an afternoon date. We were led to a comfortable locker room and given teeny tiny cloths to use as coverage. The first part of the treatment was mellowing in a sauna for ten minutes, after which gender-matching attendants summoned us into a large colorfully tiled bathing area where we lay on heated marble slabs. Hammams traditionally have domed ceilings with tiny glass openings that allow for plenty of natural light.

We opted for the exfoliation and massage treatment, which is the traditional Turkish hammam experience. Exfoliation entails being rubbed rather vigorously with a dry glove. After the exfoliation, the attendant bathed us much like we bathe the kids. The only thing that made being cleansed like a toddler less awkward was the heaping pile of soap that provided ample discretion. The bathing was combined with a great massage, using the suds for moisture in lieu of oil. Just as we were about to fall asleep in bliss, the attendants rinsed us off and patted us dry, resulting in the toddler feelings all over again. We rested from the treatment in a spacious lounge before returning to our parental duties of bathing Ava and Kayan, albeit with much less soap.

The characteristics of a traditional Turkish hammam include separate times and/or areas by gender, a hot room visit followed by a bath glove and massage treatment, and then a rest in the lounge. Tea shops outside hammams restore lost fluids.

The Russian and Turkish Baths in New York are not quite a traditional hammam, but they’ll get you close. The facilities have a mix of coed and gender specific hours. In addition to a soap massage, you can get more global with Swedish, Thai and Russian treatments. While there isn’t a Turkish tea shop outside, there is a small restaurant serving Russian fare. The building is not in a domed facility, but there is a sun deck that serves as a lounge. Resting on a rooftop in Alphabet City after a massage is just about as awesome as relaxing in a tea shop in Turkey.


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Street Dogs and Cats in Istanbul

We expected a coffee shop on every corner in Istanbul. We expected mosques everywhere. We even expected a well groomed crop of Istanbullus. What we didn’t expect was the plethora of stray dogs and cats. Growing up in Egypt, where we were the rare family that had dogs, I know that dogs are considered unclean by Muslims. Turkey is about 98% Muslim yet groomed and well generally behaved dogs not only freely roam the streets of Istanbul, they are taken care of by Istanbullus.

Until 2004, the city used to capture and kill its strays. Public outcry urged the city to rethink this practice. While Islam does have negative connotations about dogs, it also urges its followers to treat all creatures with kindness. The compromise in Istanbul is that strays are vaccinated and neutered or spayed by the municipality and released back into the area in which they were found. The treated animals are tagged and micro chipped with a record of their medical history. Istanbullus rarely allow these animals into their homes, but take it upon themselves to feed and sometimes provide outdoor accommodations. I am a big believer in having a pet, but Sandeep, who doesn’t mind animals from a distance, argues that this is the more natural way of treating animals. Their basic needs of shelter and food are provided by humans, yet they avoid pent up energy by roaming freely. This is not unlike what we observed in Chiang Mai, with it’s pedigree-like crop of stray dogs.

Istanbullus that have chosen to semi-adopt a stray take their duties seriously. Every evening, we see little aluminum trays with pet foot outside the doorways of our neighborhood. Most have dried kibble, but many have delicious looking hot food. We’ve seen cardboard and straw bedding outside stores for the dogs. The tiny corner store on our block, where I couldn’t even find cereal, had a variety of cat and dog food in single serving baggies.

The practice of treating and releasing the dogs is not without its issues. Animal rights organizations around Istanbul still claim that the municipality doesn’t fully follow through on its directives. Some report that dogs are captured and released into uninhabited areas, where they are left to starve. Aggressive and temperamental dogs are not unheard of, and their night time barking can be a nuisance.

Islam doesn’t hold the same negative connotations about cats as it does on dogs. That, combined with the more reclusive nature of cats, makes them more tolerated on Istanbul’s streets. In addition to the well groomed people, even the animals seem to take their style seriously. I took this picture a few days ago, finding it rather amusing that the cat matched the bike. The cat has been on that bike for the past two days, which just goes to show that every stray has a home in Istanbul.


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Living Van Gogh in Istanbul

We’re traveling the world and avoiding entrance fees. An entrance free usually means that we’re purchasing time in a museum or manicured historic site. It also means that there are masses of tourists and we spend more time controlling the kids than appreciating the surroundings. We’ve missed some significant sites because of it, but we feel more in our element when appreciating history through things like architecture and food. Of course we make exceptions, like when we paid for the Chiang Mai Zoo or the Penang Tropical Spice Garden. Our first ticket purchase in Istanbul was today, when we we gave up 15 Lira each (about $8) to see the Van Gogh Alive exhibit.

I’ve always been a fan of Van Gogh and the exhibit is an opportunity to see 3,000 of his works interpreted in various media. I also have a somewhat gruesome curiosity about Vincent’s life – what with his time as a missionary, cutting off his ear, his obsession with Gauguin and then his supposed suicide.

The exhibit, which spotlights work during his time in France, is a high-sensory experience that transported us into the world of the complicated artist. His paintings, sketches and letters are magnified and displayed on giant screens, walls, columns and the floor of a large warehouse space. More than 3,000 images, many with superimposed moving imagery, rotate through the various backdrops. The entire experience is synchronized to surround sound classical music.

This was not a typical museum experience. The set up encouraged us to live in Van Gogh’s art, to discover what was around each column and view the pieces from every possible angle. With the powerful music, the kids didn’t have to be told to dial down their voices. Ava loved the experience, particularly when the room filled with Van Gogh’s fluffy sunflowers. Unfortunately Kayan was very disturbed when the scenery changed to dozens of gigantic self portraits looming over us. We left shortly there after, but not before paying a visit to Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles.

I could have spent the day lost underneath Van Gogh’s explosive Starry Starry Night. We didn’t know that Istanbul had this exhibit until yesterday, but it’s been a highlight of our trip so far. Who knew that a random Thursday afternoon in Istanbul would have us so profoundly appreciating something that required an entrance fee.

“Now I understand what you tried to say to me
how you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
they did not know how
perhaps they’ll listen now.”
– Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

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Fish Sandwiches by the Galata Bridge

Fish is the one thing all four of us devour with equal enthusiasm. Raw, cured, smoked, fried, grilled – we’ll take it however it’s dished. Istanbul is perfectly suited for feeding us. Living between the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus, Istanbullus practically have fish jumping onto their dinner plates.

We went on an evening search for the famous fish sandwiches that are sold around the Galata Bridge. The Galata Bridge exemplifies one thing I love about cities – it allows anyone to become anonymous. The crowd on its span includes elderly men smoking water pipes, women gossiping, young families clutching their children, and many fisherman, professional and novice alike. It’s a perfect place to people watch and, if you decide to take an afternoon nap amid the hustle, no one will mind if you do.

Stalls selling bait and tackle supply what’s needed to the line of expectant fishermen who perch their rods over the bridge’s railings. Our family could have spent the entire afternoon watching the life on and around the bridge. The eager fishermen were friendly (when not asleep), and the backdrop of the Aya Sofia across the bridge and the boats over the Bosphorus was enough to keep us captivated.

Once over the bridge, we began our search for the famous fish in bread, balik ekmek. The fishermen of Istanbul have been bringing in their catch from the surrounding waters to the bridge for decades. Over time, they became increasing industrious and decided to start grilling the fresh fish right on their boats. An efficient way to feed hungry customers from such tight quarters was to stuff a filet into a loaf of bread. Cheap and delicious. Istanbul has been cleaning up its hygiene in its aspirations to enter the European Union and as part of this effort, the city cracked down on these small operations. However, the tradition continues today in the form of licensed boats tied to the docks.

There are several balik ekmek boats on the Eminonu side of the Galata Bridge, each of which is attached to an open air eatery with dozens of kiddie sized picnic tables and stools. Each establishment is more crowded than the next.

We grabbed the first open table and found out quickly this would be the easiest order we’ve made so far in Istanbul. Balik ekmek is the only thing on the menu, so all we had to do was put up as many fingers as we wanted in sandwiches.

Balik ekmek is a fishy filet of grilled mackerel smacked into a half loaf of white baguette. A scoop of onion salad keeps the fish company. The traditional way to enjoy the sandwich is to drink it with pickle juice. There are separate stalls selling pickle juice, with our without the pickles.

If pickle juice is not your thing, you can buy a soft drink or water from one of the several vendors milling around the tables. I suspect such deviation from pickle juice is meant just for tourists. Dessert comes in the form of gooey donuts, also sold by walking vendors.

At 5 Lira (about $3) a sandwich, belik ekmek is one of our cheapest food purchases thus far in Turkey. It’s also one of our most satisfying. The fish choices in Istanbul have been a welcome change from our food options in central Turkey, which predominantly revolved around meat. A few clean bones of mackerel were the only evidence of our balik ekmeks. I even drank an entire glass of pickle juice.


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International Toddler Haircut Index

Haircuts are a good way to determine the cost of services in a country. We call it the haircut index. We have no qualms about exploiting the kids in the interest of travel research, so Kayan is our haircut guinea pig. Ava won’t let anyone touch her tresses – she’s going through a prolonged hair obsession – I get a cut about once a year, and Sandeep prefers to manage his own locks.

Kayan’s first haircut was at a Greenwich Village baby salon for $40. Ouch. After that, I taught myself to cut hair and gave him monthly trims for the rest of our time in New York. His first international haircut was in Chiang Mai for $2. Several weeks later, he got another one in Penang, also for about $2. He wasn’t too thrilled about that one.

It’s been two months since I buzzed his hair in India and he was due for a new do. Our cousins were visiting Istanbul this week and needed to give their four year old boy a haircut as well, so we decided to take the tikes to one of the neighborhood salons. Istanbul is dotted with berbers, all of which have men getting leisurely shaves in reclining chairs.

The only people more groomed in Istanbul than the Turkish women are the Turkish men. We figured we were in the right place to get the boys cuts and let the berbers work their magic. For 10 Lira (about $5) each kid got an efficient 10 minute cut. Military service is compulsory for all Turkish men, who are required to serve sometime between the ages of 20 and 41. I suspect that the berbers take it upon themselves to do their part in preparing young boys for future service.

At $5, a haircut in Turkey is more than double that of our Asian stops. It’s not surprising, our daily spending on food and shelter is at least twice of what we shelled out in Thailand, Malaysia, India or Myanmar. I suppose price adjustments are also part of the cultural adjustments that come with an around the world journey.

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Window Shopping for Carrots in Istanbul

We’re loving Istanbul. It has everything we love about a city. Architectural soul and history? Check. Coffee houses, restaurants and food choices galore? Check. Open and plentiful public spaces? Check. Good public transportation? Check. Galleries, boutiques and street art? Check.

We just got here and our explorations have barely started. Our first order of business after settling into a new place is figuring out groceries. Ava and Kayan can’t go more than a few hours without needing a yogurt or cereal fix. Luckily for us, the Turks put yogurt on nearly everything. Also luckily for us, there are three corner stores in a one block radius that sell household staples, which in Turkey includes a variety of freshly squeezed juices, nuts, olives and cheeses.

On our first day here, as we were sipping wine (also plentiful in Turkey) on our balcony, we noticed our neighbors lowering wicker baskets from their windows and balconies into the streets. Our confusion was answered when a pick-up truck filled with produce slowed to a stop on our corner. We witnessed the street’s evening ritual. The veggie guy stops by every day at six, the women send down their baskets with money, yell down their order, and the vendor places the goods and change into the basket to be hauled back up. Now that lends a whole new meaning to window shopping.

We don’t have our own basket and pulley (yet!) so I had to run down for our fruits and veggies. The next afternoon a similar ritual happened for the lentil and rice vendor. This time Sandeep went down to collect our rice.

We’ve shopped for vegetables in Thai markets. We’ve picked them off our backyard in Goa. We’ve even bought fruit off a boat in Myanmar. However, we have yet to make a produce purchase on a pulley. Yet another wonderful thing about travel – it has the potential of making an onion purchase exciting.


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