Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh Boy...

Right now I'm in Bulgaria. I left Israel on the 7th and headed to Istanbul, where I stayed for three nights. I'm in Bulgaria until the 18th, right now in the medieval town of Veliko Travono but soon heading to Sofia to be with a friend from Ulpan (hebrew language program.) On the 18th I'm leaving and going to Macedonia to stay with a Seeds of Peace friend for a few days, then heading to Salonika, Greece for a day and half.. then boarding a 12 hour train back to Istanbul, then on to Israel!

Turkey was scrumscious! The food and the people, although the language barrier is continually frustrating--in Hebrew at least I have some words to communicate and to make my general point, but here I have almost NO words at my disposal.
Turkey was easier language wise, because they use the Roman Alphabet (thank you Attaturk!) but in Bulgaria and Macedonia they use the Cyrillic alphabet, and then in Greece they use the Greek alphabet... Whew! Also, they accept Euros in all of these countries (2/4 are EU members and Turkey is on its way to membership) but Euros are only the main currency in Greece. I have shekels, dollars, Levas, Lira, and Euros in my wallet right now! (It's kind of harrying!)

Istanbul took my breath away from the time I was flying over it, I had expected to like it but had also been very anxious about being in Istanbul relatively alone. I was in a touristy section, admittedly, but the city which straddles Europe and Asia had a very European feel to it in terms of the layout of buildings and streets which set me at ease quickly. Looking at the Bosphorus, the Marmara sea, and the black sea all hovering to make Istanbul a three-spliced city, and then seeing the slanted red roofs Istanbul came like a dream.
One of the first things I noticed when getting off the airplane and getting my visa was that there was no baggage claim for Tel-Aviv, so I promptly went to the Turkish Air desk and asked them where the Tel-Aviv luggage was--"No 6," the clerk replied helpfully. I paced back to No. 6 only to see women in burqas--NOT my people, or even my adopted people--and noticed that it was for the flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia. I guess someone at Turkish Airlines was a bit drunk when they did this, not realizing how painfully awkward it would be.. Just what the world needs: a grumpy encounter between Israelis and Saudis at the Istanbul airport. Oy! So I marched back to the desk and (eventually) got my baggage.

When I got on the subway after my first Starbucks in months (praise G-d!) I noticed that the people had a very different vibe from Israelis. Maybe it's that in Israel everything is on buses and not lightrail which is much more comfortable, or but I really felt a totally new vibe in Istanbul. It was friendlier and less expectant, I think, and maybe a little less on edge.

In Istanbul I saw Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Great Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Museum of Modern Art, the "New Mosque," and another Mosque by Yildiz Park. I understand why the Emporer Justinian said, "Solomon I have outdone you," when Aya Sofya was completed. It's a bit of mess right now after significant decay, but the Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum is definitely a sight to behold! The Blue Mosque was also amazing, I love mosque architecture, but I especially loved the "New Mosque." I saw it on my way back across the Galata Bridge and stopped in just to check it out, it looked a little bit like Disney World (I know this sounds sooo uncultured) all lit up at night against a dark blue backdrop. I went in--with one of my new pashminas and a skirt, and sat in the back during evening prayers and meditated. I also played with some Turkish children, and impressed one of their grandmothers by saying "Masrallah" when I saw how cute this one little baby girl was. The mosque was so peaceful, and unlike at Yom Kippur services, I wasn't trying to semi-concentrate. (I met someone who lives in my neighbor at Yom Kippur services and we chit-chatted through parts of it because it was quite long.) Instead, I just let my mind meditate and cleared my head. At another Mosque, one by Yildiz, the Imam complemented me on my manners (I wore a long scarf and skirt into the mosque and was modest and quite--there was another woman there who, despite the signs, was wearing a belly-shirt and no headcovering.) The Imam was a little shocked when I told him I was American and said, "They should make more young ladies like yourself." :)
The Turkish people, aside maybe from the ones running my hostel, were incredibly kind and sort of goofy in their dealings with me. They were smiley and charming! Aside from the constant carpet-selling young men who chase you around but also give good directions and are VERY cute. One young rug-merchant had a hallucination when he saw me, apparently, because I wore my scarf the same way and had the same hair as his old American girlfriend-who is from Vermont. (I found the ONLY way to really get the rug-dealers away from me was to say "Actually, I only like Persian carpets..." That sours the mood instantly, although they'll try to convince you, I sense that they're dismayed and this makes walking/running away only easier.)