Tag Archives: Istanbul

Gule Gule Istanbul

Our hearts were heavy when we left Istanbul this morning. We lingered for a few extra minutes on our apartment balcony, filling our eyes with the Bosphorus waters.

The taxi to the airport took us through areas that have become so familiar. As we rounded the Golden Horn, we cranked our heads to get one last look at the mosque-dotted silhouette of the Old City. We spent our last night eating all the things we knew we would miss – kebabs, Turkish delight, mezes. At the airport we even squeezed in a final Turkish breakfast.

I asked the family what they would miss the most about Istanbul. Ava replied, “The park next to The Bosphorus. The water is so pretty you can’t even tell. And the lumps of delight. And the clouds and the sky because it is so bluey.” We enjoyed lumps of delight almost every day and in every flavor available.

Even I may miss the park on The Bosphorus. There’s no where else where I can watch the kids swing in one continent while overlooking another.

As usual, Kayan echoed Ava’s response, but with a few twists, “Turkish delight. Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. Miss the tram. Play doh. Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. Flower tulips.” For the past few weeks Kayan thinks long and hard before saying anything, as if each word is precious and he only has one shot at the conversation.

Sandeep was a little more profound in his reply, “I’ll miss all the things I didn’t do enough of, like eating kebabs, spending time at the coffee shops, watching local theatre. I was never was able to find a pop Turkish concert, so I guess I missed that.”

As for me, I will miss the way Istanbul embraced our family. The kids were welcome wherever we went and we always had a helping hand, be it in restaurants, trams or out on the street. We also met many interesting Istanbullus who went out of their way to show us their city and involve us in their social lives. The city as a whole made us feel so at home that leaving almost came as a surprise.

A benefit of extended travel is that it gives us the time to truly love a city and its people. The downside is it leaves us much more vulnerable to heartbreak. Until we come back again, Gule gule (goodbye) Istanbul.


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Mosques in Istanbul

When Kayan and Ava first heard the muslim call to prayer they were scared. “Too loud!” proclaimed Kayan. “Is that the police?” asked Ava. The first few nights in Turkey, they were shaken awake by the sunrise prayer call. They have since learned about the prayers and now slumber until late morning. I find the call to prayer soothing. It reminds me of my childhood in Egypt. The night call is like a childhood lullaby to me.

We’ve spent a lot of time in religious houses during our trip. There were the Taoist temples in Penang, the Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and pagodas in Myanmar, and the synagogue, churches and Hindu temples in India. We had not yet paid homage to Islam until reaching Turkey.

Our first stop was Aya Sophia, which was built in 360 A.D. as a basilica, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935. The massive Byzantine structure is said to have changed the face of architecture and remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. Today, motifs of Christ and Mary stand alongside Muslim scripture.

We tried to visit the famous Blue Mosque, but our arrival coincided with a call to prayer.  We spent time in the inner court yard where this scene of chatting women huddled against the ancient doors.

The crowds when we went back at the Blue Mosque were overwhelming, so we opted for the smaller and less tour visited Rustam Pasa, a 450+ year old mosque that has the country’s best preserved display of  Iznik tile work. While we were there, a Muslim woman started playing with Ava and Kayan, even taking them around the mosque for a walk while we sat in peace.

Just down the road from our apartment is the Kilic Ali Pasa. We pass it almost every day and a welcoming guard always smiles at us. Today we stepped inside to see its beautiful interiors. A man who just finished his prayers asked where we were from and welcomed us to explore the mosque.

We knew that Istanbul’s mosques are drenched in history and architectural greatness. However, we were at first reticent about visiting mosques that were not visibly open to tourists. Here is some etiquette that may help make a mosque visit feel more natural.

– Like most houses of worship, anyone is welcome into a mosque. Entrance is usually free but a donation for the mosque upkeep is a nice gesture.

– Even though most mosques are continuously open, it’s best not to visit during prayer times or on Friday mornings, which is when sermons are held. I remember having tourists taking pictures during our wedding in Cochin. It was highly annoying.

– Attire etiquette is similar to Buddhist houses of worship. Everyone should remove their shoes and wear clothing that goes below knees and elbows. Women should also cover their heads (as in their hair, not their entire faces).

– Just as in church, speak softly. Or sing softly if you are a toddler.

– Photography is acceptable but it’s probably better to ask for permission before taking pictures of people.

The bottom line is that mosques, at least those we visited in Istanbul, are open houses of worship. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us, happy that we came to respectfully appreciate their heritage.


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Turkish Inventions and Irrational Behavior

In 1992 I remember being in Floriade, the flower show that The Netherlands holds every ten years ( it’s on this year from April to October in case you want to see blankets of flowers disappearing into the horizon). The display of flowers, namely tulips was so immense that I, as many people, thought that tulips originated and were perfected in Holland. Not true. Tulips are actually from Turkey. They found their fame in Holland after a 16th century Dutch ambassador took the bulbs back home. The tulips garnered such adoration that people started to pay irrational prices for the plants, and in 1637 the love led to what can be argued was the first speculative investor bubble. Our Istanbul stay coincides with the city’s annual tulip festival and we wanted to catch a glimpse of the 12 million bulbs that were planted for the occasion.

Ava and Kayan were thrilled at the color variety when we visited Emirgan Korusu, a suburban park boasting the city’s largest tulip display.

Turkey has invented other things associated with irrational behavior.

One of them is wine. Actually, there is some debate as to the origins of wine. Archaeological evidence points to Georgia (as in the country not Peachtree) as having first produced wine but ample findings show that the Hittites in central Turkey were enjoying wine while living in their underground cities thousands of years ago. Today Turkey is the fourth largest producer of grapes. The bulk of this goes toward raki, the native aniseed brew. Contemporary wine is gaining popularity, but in an odd dynamic. Much of Turkey’s vineyards are in conservative areas where the production of alcohol is frowned upon. It is common for vineyards to sell their grapes to wineries who blend Turkish wines, some of which we have had to spit out, but some that have been really especially good over a late night game of Scrabble.

Another Turkish invention that causes irrational behavior? Money. Entire fields of study are dedicated to our relationship with money. We may have Turkey to thank for its origins, at least in the coin form. There is evidence that it was the Lydians of what is now Turkey who first started assigning value to metal objects. Perhaps in a rational celebration for not making it into the EU, Turkey introduced a new symbol for its currency last month.

Tulips, wine, money, kebabs, the Bosphorus, indulgent breakfasts… We could stay forever. And that’s not irrational.


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Career Interview: Cafe Maestro

At what point should Sandeep start paying rent for his office in Istanbul? Every morning he parks himself at Mavra, an inviting cafe down our street. He jumps on conference calls and even hosts the occasional meeting out of a table that has informally been designated as his. The attendant is a very animated and friendly Istanbullu. He greats us with an opera voice booming “Good Morning!”

Mavra opened over three years ago on Serdar-I Ekrem, a small winding street with a colorful mix of boutiques and cafes, a mosque and a church, as well as old buildings undergoing various states of restoration. It’s an ideal place to watch young Istanbullus, particularly the artist crowd. Murat Nergiz has been serving Mavra’ss patrons for a year and a half. While Sandeep worked I interviewed Murat, with the conversation translated by another willing Mavra regular.

What types of people come to Mavra and does that change through the day?

We get all types here – students, travelers, artists, photographer, designers, architects. The owner’s husband is an architect. It is quieter in the mornings and at night we tend to have parties. People like to come here to celebrate their birthdays. We get a lot of regulars as well, like you.

I’m flattered to be called a regular, but what do you think about people who spend half the day here and just drink coffee?

(Murat turns to look at Sandeep, who is engrossed in his screen and doesn’t even notice us) Does he feel good when he is here?

He looks comfortable.

Then that is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you just get one coffee or eat a meal. Be happy here, that is all that matters.

What is your signature dish?

Our pasta and meatballs. Our chocolate cake is also good, it’s a Turkish cake, very moist.

What is unique about your job?

The owner of this cafe is more of a friend, not a boss in the serious sense. There are no restrictive rules here. I am working here but I don’t feel as though I am a waiter. I am just part of the cafe.

What is behind the singing?

I just like to sing, especially in the morning. I am a writer also. I write poetry about women. Actually, I am just writing about one woman.

Does she know that you write about her?

She knows. She is a mixture of flowers and chocolate. When I see flowers and chocolate together I think of her.

Back home we never had the luxury of spending hours at a coffee shop. If I had to envision an ideal setting, it would have everything Marva offers. The music, a mix of sultry female jazz and oldies, is familiar. Mismatched furniture makes us feel as though it is an extension of our living room. The open doors leading out to the street is ideal for people watching. Most of all, Murat welcomes us as old friends and keeps us coming back every day. Luckily he’s not asking for rent.

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The Spice Market and Grand Bazaar Surprise Us in Istanbul

Kayan and Ava got a free meal at the Spice Bazaar. The Turkish love for children combined with their love for Turkish delight led to an all out binge as every other store owner stuffed juicy pieces of lokum into their mouths.

Eighty eight shops line the L-shaped 352 year old Spice Bazaar. Since it’s birth, the market has been through two major fires and some personality adjustments. Even though it still services as the center of spice trade in Istanbul, tourists can now find everything from jewelry to tea for every occasion.

We chose to first visit the Spice Bazaar over the Grand Bazaar as we thought the former would be less mobbed with tourists. Wrong. The Spice Bazaar’s size is a fraction of the Grand Bazaar, so every additional body inside the building adds exponentially to the crowd.

I joke around about being the Queen of Rationalization while Sandeep is the King of Paranoia. The truth is that I am paranoid about losing one of the kids. I have this recurring nightmare that we are in some crowded place in some corner of the world. I think Sandeep has the kids, he thinks I do and suddenly they are gone. Our afternoon at the Spice Bazaar definitely had my nerves on edge and I couldn’t relax enough to take many pictures. Oddly, we found the experience in the Grand Bazaar much less chaotic.

The Grand Bazaar is more like a covered city. At 551 years of age, it is one of the oldest markets in the world and welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. The covered bazaar has 18 gates leading to a maze of 61 streets with 3,000 shops, dozens of eateries and cafes. Despite its popularity among locals and visitors alike, it doesn’t feel “crowdy” according to Ava. The quieter vibe also makes it possible for us to rest at a few stores and appreciate what’s on sale while the owners coddle the kids.

It’s interesting how our travel preconceptions can be so far from reality. As a foodie and cook I thought I would really enjoy the Spice Bazaar and almost skipped the Grand Bazaar, thinking it would be a chaotic market full of kitschy souvenirs. In the end, we ran through the Spice Market, each of us holding tightly onto a Turkish delight stuffed child. Not only did we enjoy the Grand Bazaar, we went back a second time to meander its alleys in relative peace.


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Starting our Days with Turkish Breakfast

I participate in a monthly writing project with other traveling families. Last month we wrote about how Anyone Can Travel. This month, we’re sharing stories about a major reason why many of us travel – food. After reading about our breakfasts in Turkey, you can go on a culinary journey around the world with other families by clicking on the links at the bottom of this post.

The first meal of the day in Turkey is an elaborate affair, one traditionally enjoyed over hours with family. Visitors can experience a Turkish breakfast at leisure in one of Istanbul’s cafes or restaurants, each competing for the best breakfast spread. Turkish cuisine reflects the country’s position at the cross roads of East and West. Of all Turkish meals, breakfast best showcases the effect these cultural exchanges have had on Turkish food.

The Turkish word for breakfast is Kahvalti, which translates to before coffee. No respectable Turkish person would consume coffee without first starting with a hearty breakfast and plenty of cay (tea). Equally as important as the food, numerous tulip shaped glasses of black tea accompany the traditional Turkish breakfast. I am a tea drinker but I’m not a big fan if Turkish cay. I find the brew bitter and would love to add just a little bit of milk to calm the flavor. I’ve been told that the locals would gasp in horror if I tried.

To truly understand the ingredients in Kahvalti, we went to the market to assemble our own Turkish breakfast. It’s hard to name the main dish in Kahvlati as the meal is more of an assortment of various nibbles. Most of the dishes do not require cooking, which means that even though the meal is broad in variety, it can be somewhat easy to prepare. Consuming it is another issue. It takes time to enjoy traditional Kahvalti and our Turkish friends tell us that in modern days, a full spread Kahvalti is a treat for weekends and holidays.

Cheese, peynir, is a key ingredient. The most ubiquitous cheese is white sheep’s milk, which is creamy and salty. This is usually paired with a couple of other cheeses, one fresh and mild and another aged and sharp. I put a cheese plate for breakfast up there on the list of genius culinary inventions.

For meat eaters, there is always a selection of cold meats. Being a predominantly Muslim country, this rarely includes any pork products. What’s missing from bacon is more than made up with cuts such as pistachio studded beef or garlicky Turkish pastrami. Various countries claim to have invented pastrami, and the Turkish say it originated with their bastirma, which means to depress and reflects the process of squeezing out the juices from air dried meat.

Green and black olives, zeytin, add additional saltiness to the spread.

To balance out the meal there are fresh seasonal vegetables, currently tomatoes and cucumbers.

The savory side of kahvalti is married to sweet goodness. White bread, ekmek, baked twice daily serves as a vehicles for freshly churned butter, jams and honey (called bali). At least one syrupy jam, recel, is on every Kahvalti plate. Usually there is also some honey, preferably still in its comb. The recel and honey are meant to be mixed with the fresh butter and then applied to the bread.

Fancier Kahvalti include boiled eggs or mememen scrambled eggs and fresh juices. However, with all the food and cay these additions seem superfluous.

If breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, then the Turks have their priorities straight.

Finding My Way to Fabulous (and Freaky) Food by Walkingon Travels

Persian Pomegranate Chicken and other Fantastic Foods of Iran by Growing Grace Life

Food from Guatemala by Travel Experta

Magical Easy-To-Make Israeli by The Nomadic Family

Traditional Dishes of Peru by Raising Miro

Alloco (from West Africa) by Sparkling Adventures

My crêpes recipe (from France) by Avenue Reine Mathilde

Gallo Pinto, Costa Rica’s Signature Dish by Family Travel Bucket List

Taking the Kids to Yakitori Alley in Tokyo Japan by Vagabond Kids



Filed under Food, Traveling Family Writing Projects, Turkey

Celebrating Childrens Day on a Tram in Turkey

Yesterday I wrote about how much the Turkish love kids. Today is Children’s Day, a holiday that originated in Turkey. We’ve seen posters advertising various children’s events to commemorate the occasion, but they have all been in Turkish and appear to cater to school age kids more than those as young as Ava and Kayan.

We were wrong if we thought we were going to be left out of the festivities. We were waiting to take the tram to the Grand Bazaar this morning when a heavily decorated tram approached the station. After telling everyone that the tram was not in operation, the conductor ran over and ushered us inside. At first we resisted – why would we be singled out from the platform to board this elaborately dressed vehicle? Before we could think, a hand reached out from inside the carriage and gave Ava and Kayan balloons. Then a clown popped his head out with a “Mehraba!” The kids were inside before we could react.

Turns out we were just in time for the Children’s Day party tram. The Istanbul transportation authority runs one just for kids and their families. Kids are the ticket to boarding this tram and those without children were left waving at us from the platform. The tram blasted children’s music and came complete with entertainment, balloons, puppets and miniature turkish flags.

I can’t think of a better person to celebrate Children’s Day with than my cousin Keri who is visiting us from London. She knows so much about kids and their care that she was the one who taught us how to change Ava’s first diaper. In addition to being our go-to person for baby care, she knows how to show Ava and Kayan a good time. Some combination of the party tram and the company made Ava exclaim, “Mama, I love Istanbul!”

While we didn’t start the morning with the intention of celebrating Children’s Day, we were reminded quickly that it’s hard to escape anything that has to do with lavishing love on children in Turkey. We’re glad we caught the tram to another Turkish cultural experience.

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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.


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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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