Sunday, January 17, 2010

Paris in the Rain

This is my third time in Paris. Four months ago I had never seen the Arc d'Triumph or the Eiffel Tower or the Musee D'Orsay. I had never smelled the flowers on every corner, the coffee in every cafe, or the bread in every boulangerie. But enough nostaligia -- I still have one more day in Pari!

I've been here since Thursday night. I took Malev (Hungarian) Airlines over, and it was quite interesting. I enjoyed their kosher snack-meal, and the Israelis sitting in front of me enjoyed their ham snack-sandwich more, I believe. Especially because one of them got up after and went to the back to ask if they couldn't sample the other option: a cheese snack-sandwich. I don't know why this bothered me, or even if it did bother me, but I supposed I'd put it up in the blog in either case.

When I got to Paris I knew what to do - I knew which RER line to take, I knew where to transfer to the metro 2 and I knew the codes to the inner and outer doors of my exceptionally gracious hosts' apartment. I felt like a pro. I slipped in around 11:30 pm and crashed into the same Japanese floor bed that I'd slept in a few months ago. Bliss.

On Friday I managed to do some awesome stuff despite myself. For some reason I couldn't figure out the internet in the apartment, so I went on a search for an internet cafe. I also needed a SIM card. So I went down to Les Halles area and just roamed around. I came upon the SIM card first, the internet cafe second, and when I had done all that and had two hours to kill I stumbled, quite without thinking, upon the Museum of Modern Art, which also happens to be a sort of hub for all things interesting. I didn't go in - as in I didn't pay - but I wandered around the free exhibit, peeked in the cafe, and chuckled my way through the "boutique" which had things for sale such as swim caps with brain designs, Rorschach test coasters (I almost bought those), Romeo and Julienne (Juliet in French!) cutting boards in the shape of a book which had carved in the wood "For Star Crossed Lovers of Chopped Food". Anyway, I was entertained. I met up with my friend Amelie around 4:30 at the place we would stay together for Shabbat and got to see her for the first time in what feels like a very very long time.

We met some interesting characters on Shabbat - a man who knew Amelie's grandfather from before the war, his wife who's mother is from Morocco (she at least understood my Arabic if she didn't speak it herself), a conservative thinktank historian from Switzerland who now lives half in Israel half in Paris, and - of course, since the Jewish world is tiny - I ran into one of my hostbrothers! I saw Abraham, the second or third (I can't remember) of Baria and Jakob's seven kids who live in France. He was in synagogue! I saw him from the balcony and waved. Hilarious.

Saturday night Adina and I went back to my hosts' house and couldn't figure out the TV so we just hung out, read, swapped ideas until we were tired, went to bed, and got up Sunday morning to an absolutely gorgeous (warm!) Parisian Sunday. By noon we were on a train to Versailles (somehow we never stamped our tickets, but got there anyhow) and by one we were at a beautiful outdoor market that sells everything from fresh produce to hummus (both of which we bought and consumed with scrumptious quantities of fresh artisanal bread. Tres tres bein.

And then we saw Versailles. In a way very similar to the way I wrote about the Harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I can't describe it - you must go see it. Highlights, of course, were the Hall of Mirrors, the Gardens, and - because its just fun to see great artists and poets and philosophers as busts or heads - the sculpture hall. Back on the train to Paris, Amelie and I were almost fined 45 Euro for putting our feet on the benches in front of us. These guys were serious. Forty-five Euro. That's like seventy bucks! Don't worry parents, I played the ignorant foreigner and am forever chastened but did not incur the fee.

So it rained most of the time I've been here, but so what? It's been beautiful in my mind. I've been catching myself thinking things like this lately. Maybe its because I've been reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan ever since I left my Updike novel on the plane, but nigh-on-absurd hippie questions like "why can't we all just SEE each other?" and "what does achievement MEAN anyway?" have been floating through my mind in the past few days. The French way of life is really a counter-culture to the American in so many ways. But I'm still stoked that to return to America tomorrow. DC, Philly, NYC, Seattle. Rock.

I have a song for you today. I take no credit for it. Amelie who I am visiting here in Paris can have it all -- she deserves it. Here's presenting K'naan, ladies and gentlemen, "Waving Flag".


I do not believe that anything other than the title is needed to explain why this post is one sentence long.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thank you too much!

In Which We See the Black Sea
There are two types of Bosphorus Tours between the Asian and European sides of Turkey. One that is lame and lasts 1 and 1/2 hours. And one that is awesome and lasts 6. Which one do you think we took? That's right.
It was a very very weather-happy sunny-crispy lightly-cloudy day, unlike today...which is yucky-rainy. We took tons of pictures, marvelled from all three decks (indoor, indoor-outdoor, and outdoor) at the beauty of the buildings on both sides which included the king's summer house (I believe its called the Dolmabache Palace and its enormous), the villas of the weathy...and extremely wealthy, and sort of old world European style splendor. We stopped at a number of places, but didn't disembark until we reached the last stop at the mouth of the Black Sea. The town is called Andolu Kavagi (silent g, as in - Marduk - Hagia) and ran up a hill steep enough to remind me of Seattle to reach the glorious ruins of the Yoros Castle, originally a Byzantine-turned-Genoese fortress overlooking the strategic point at one of the Bosphorus' narrowest stretches. We met a family of rowdy puppies, took some fantastic pictures (I climbed the ruins, and actually took a phone call from the Chief Rabbi's office while I was up there...!), but mostly just stared into the blue heart of the Black Sea and then climbed a ways down the mountian for lunch. Kathryn had quite the lunch from the set menu: She had clams, mussels, calimari, and sea bream along with her salad. I had salad. And then we had free apple tea. I've gotten a lot of free apple tea in this country. I quite like it. Mixed together in a cup. Stupendous. Back in the villiage we wandered around amusing the Turks, amusing ourselves and eating nutella and banana. When we got back on the boat we collapsed into our books - it felt like we'd just spent the day skiing.

In Which I Am Mistaken for Being Syrian
When we stepped off the boat it was getting to be around 4:30 - time for the sun to begin setting. So we wandered over to the bridge that connects our Sultanhamet district of Istanbul to the chic Istiqlal (Tunel-Taksim) area to watch the sunset. It was as magnificent as a winter sunset could be. We walked by the Yani Jami (spelled Yanı Camı) and entered the Egyptian Market, also known as the Spice Market. I think it was called the Egyptian Market because the imports from Cairo used to be sold there. In any case, we were wandering around, smelling this, being offered a sample of that, and we walk into a shop - a nicer one, a touristy one - and are asked where we are from. We say we are from America, but have been living in Morocco for the last four months and do you speak Arabic? The shopkeeper, like most shopkeepers here in Turkey, did not speak Arabic, but he brought us over to someone who did-- a grandmotherly, hijabed, crinkly-smiling woman from, of all places, Saudi Arabia. She also speaks English. So I start the conversation in Arabic, and the three of us chat until she pauses for a moment and points to me and accuses: "Where are you from?"
and I say "I told you - I'm from America."
She asks me again, "No, where are you from, where are your parents from?"
Now. This is not the first time this has happened to me, many people thing that I am of Syrian or Lebanese descent when I start jabbering in Arabic.
So I say back, "My parents are American. They speak no Arabic. My family has been in America for a long time." She doesn't believe me. She keeps pointing to me and saying in English to the storekeeper --
"This one, I know, I know. She's Syrian. I'm sure." This continued for a while - she kept probing, trying to figure out if I was with the American or Syrian intelligence. I motioned to Kathryn that I wanted out. We slowly extracted oursevles from her gentle grip and left. I think it must have been that I was speaking more Fusha than she was used to - and Syrian is closer to Fusha than her Hijazi dialect. So perhaps that was it. Either way, I was totally unerreved.

In Which I Hear The Best Jazz I've Ever Heard
I made us reservations at one of the more highly recommended Jazz Clubs in Istanbul for that night. The place was called Nardi's and the guest musician was a trumpet-player named Amir El-Saffar, who I believe was Syrian-American (strangly ironic...) and understood about as much Turkish as we did. Backing him up were the jazz band: An upright base played by a man with a grey poneytail and eyes more closed than open, an adorable bald percussionist who lost his eyes when he smiled and played with such grace and watched all of the instruments with such light-hearted focus that of all of them, he was the one I most wished spoke English. There was a talented oud and electric jazz violin player who played like a teenager -- jumping around in his seat, living inside the music, and man with a mustache on the grand piano who MCed and would, from time to time, translate. They played stuff written by Amir (he would whip out the Turkish xylophone or Qanun from time to time as a sort of treat) as well as by the piano player *the two played together in New York - and sometimes stuff by Rogers and Hart, or Coltrane (the last song was Giant Steps and it made my night). On our way back the late-night calls of "Oh look! Its the Spice Girls" daunted us not - and I even reciprocated with my own spur-of-the-moment jibe: "Oh look! Its the Backstreet Boys!"

In Which I Construct My Very Own Jewish Conspiracy
Since we'd had a late night, we also had a late morning. It was slow, peaceful. Full of email and John Updike. But also full of phone calls from the Cheif Rabbi's office. If the nice Turkish guys who run the Agora Guesthouse (my hostel) didn't think I was a part of a Jewish conspiracy before, they're pretty positive about it now.
The Chief Rabbi's Office has called me a total of seven times in the last 4 days. Four of those calls were actually to the hostel's landline paging me. The reasons for the calls have varied - the reason they were calling this time was to get me a book that they want me to take home to Seattle to give to a Sephradi Chazan there and they wanted to hand deliver it at a time when I could personally receive it. Oy. So if me moving out on Shabbat without explanation wasn't enough, or me having to fax my passport with their number and address wasn't enough, or if the phone call to give me directions to the synagogue wasn't enough, here I was, getting a package delivered in silence (I don't speak Turkish!) that no one else could touch. It must look very weird.

In Which I Discover the Shopping Experience of Turkey
How can I take your money? Where is your money? Come into my shop!
These are the Turkish lines, so differnet than those in Morocco. Its commercial harrassmenet, not sexual harassment. We walked around the area of Gulhane, poking this, buying that, and then took the tram to the Grand Bazaar. And it is Grand. And it is a Bazaar. And as we know, I am highly distractable. This was a place of distraction. Shiny things all over the place. And it was wide, and clean, and NICE. But Kathryn and I only really hit our element once we left the covered bazaar for the less-shiney more-grimy area where people really do their shopping. And it was there that we found more Arabic speakers. We met a guy who spoke very good Arabic - he was Turkish, he said, but he spoke almost 15 languages. [And I as impressed when Moroccans spoke 5!] In any case, I threw my one Russian line at him ("I don't speak a word of Russian") and my one Farsi line ("How are you?") and got some good laughs. I also got a good deal - two scarves for 15 lira! In the covered area, those scarves would have gone for 35 lira each. I kept thinking about how glad I was to have lived in a country where you must bargain before you buy and not feel bad not buying until you find the deal you want. If I were a normal tourist here I would have spent double.
We went back into the covered part and perused the antiques, the beautiful silk-and-bead jewlery, the velveteen embroidered footwear and belts, the wallets made of felt, and the bright handmade copper-gold earrings that if Anthropologie could get their capitalist paws on, they would sell for triple what they're asking here. And I made one final purchase. A pair of hilarious Turkish pants that just scream Aladin. I bought them for three reasons: One, I will wear them even if they are one-size-fits-all and I'm one-size-fits-small. Two, because the retail price was 75 Turkish Lira and I got them down to 25. Three, because the guy who was running the store was astonished at our Arabic, but even more astonished -- and this astonishment was reciprocated -- by my Hebrew. He spoke Hebrew. The man in the Turkish Bazaar spoke Hebrew. Better Hebrew than ARABIC. I couldn't believe it. I bought the pants.

In Which We Drink More Apple Tea, This Time With A Man Named Gengis
We walked back to Sultanhamet (our hostel area) and were discracted. Again. We ended up having more apple tea with twin brothers in their shop. Of course they were fascinated by two blond girls who spoke Arabic, and wanted to know all about us, wanted us to teach them Arabic, and made us promise as we left never to forget them. I don't think I will - but not because their shop was so remakable, or the conversation we held so scintillating, but mostly because the brother with whom we spent most of our time is named Gengis. Yes. Gengis. As in Gengis Khan. Incredible.

And then we finally made it back to the hostel where I discovered that they discovered that I rated them on Somehow the numbers I punched in rated them as a 76%. I also would be pissed if someone gave me a C and I didn't know why. But now things, well, things have been awkward. Wish me luck in my last 48 hours.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Turks, Tea, and Tickle-Me-Blue (mosque...)

So, those of you who follow my status compulsively on facebook will already know that my hostel (and the hostel that my friend and I are moving to tomorrow) is approximately a three-minute walk from the gloroius Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque (I suggest you wikipedia the thing) is beautiful. And entry is free. Which might be the most beautiful thing about it. Well -- maybe not. But across the street is something I like to call The Red Mosque. It's the Aya *Hagia* Sophia and its OLD. It was originally built as a Church and was turned into a mosque only later. Which makes the mix of Byzantian gold-leaf-tile-Jesus-and-John-the-Baptist art and the huge scrawlings of Allah in calligraphy a bizarre but beautiful combination. Its beautiful, don't get me wrong, but it feels like a cathedral that has - literally - "Gone Turk".

So we moved from these huge mosques down the hill (Istanbul arranges its tourist attractions very convineintly) to the Topkapi Palace. This was the sultan's (Abdlhamid, I believe) stomping grounds and comes complete with - yes - a harem, which is the main attraction, yet took us about an hour and a half to find (a tip to other travelers, its not actually INSIDE the palace...). So we saw some interesting stuff - like a new exhibit on Iran where the claim was that they were displaying Iran and Turkey's common heritage, when, in fact, it seemed to us to be more of a show of Turkish superiority (like, for example, items from the period when the Seljuk Turks conquored much of then-Persia). We saw the treasury, with lots of gifts from the (pardon the anacronims) Kremlin - mostly gaudy brooches in some permutation of snowflakeshape. And some other very pretty things from differnet areas and ages. But the most interesting (aside from the harem, which I will get to in a moment) was the religious artifacts exhibit.

Turns out that the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is home to:
the "Saucepan of Abraham"
the "Turban of Joseph"
the "Rod of Moses" (that was my fav)
the "Sword of David" (and Mohammad and Ali and Abu Bakr and Uthman)
the "Arm and Skull of John the Baptist" (John the Baptist's arm is TINY! My friend says that it makes sense since he spent years being malnourished in the desert eating just wild locusts and honey. I believe her. She's Christian.)
the "tooth, hair, and beard of Mohammad"
the "door of the Kaba'a"
and other items which are too numerous to name here. The description of Biblical history - for those of you interested - was taken from the Quran. It had Joseph buried in Syria, Ishmael sacrificed instead of Isaac, and Hajar (!) as Abraham's wife instead of Sarah.

The Harem was awesome. You have to pay a second time to get in, but - like everyone told us - its worth it. First, its huge. Second, its detailed more like an English country garden than anything you might find in, say, Morocco. Turkish style tends to be more flowery, and their tiles more vegtetable than geometrical. And harem took all of that and just did it -- well. I am aware that any description I give will be essentially useless and fail so I will stop now. It was beautiful. Done.

My friend and I spent the evening listening to Turkish Sephardi music at a concert that we were graciously invited to by my fantastic freind Mandy. The music was great (I recorded the Ein Kelokeinu which was - yesssss - in Ladino! I hope my singing along didn't make it into the tape.....) And then afterwards we went to the "coffee/cocktail hour" (which was spelled - get this - on the program as "Kokteyl"...kind of looks like a Yiddish transliteration, eh?) and I ate dinner. A dinner of free wine and fingerfood. DElish.

I then took Kathryn (previously referred to as "my friend") to dinner at a hipster-French-Jazz-chillout cafe. I had tea. Five cups. Two bags. Really really good tea. The waiter was, to quote Kathyn, "enchanted" by me. He slipped me a note as we left that said "I like you : )" and had his phone number. He looked to be about 15 and 1/2. Cute.

Did I mention that it was pouring rain? Well it was pouring rain. But we made it home nonetheless. Even managing to meet perhaps the dozeneth person I've now met in Istanbul from Seattle. There are SO MANY of them. I met 3 students from Bainbridge Island, a bunch from Tacoma and then this woman from Whidby. I think its something about our extroverted natures.

Well this has been a lovely post. Its the morning now. I'm off to get on a boat and TOUR THE BOSPHORUS STRAIT, a place I found out about in 8th grade when I studied geography but never thought I'd actually get to see. It may be drizzling, but Halleluja its a beautiful day.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

...Yokomoestro Salvador...

One of the downsides to Istanbul being such a modern city (which really really is, the tram system is great, the Turkish bathrooms everyone sqeams about are totally avoidable, and the Turkish culture is marketed much like it is in Marrakesh, only with more class) is that it means two things:

1) ALL hostels have motion sensor lights. This is a fact which makes doing things like walking to the bathroom and brushing your teeth impossible on Shabbat. So I found a hostel that was bit more expensive but had a single room that wasn't upstairs, and was instead on the ground floor where I would encounter no automated lighting but where I would trade that unfortunate appliance for an earful (and eyeful) of people eating at the restaurant adjacent to my window. As in, right outside. But it was OK- I left on the bathroom light. I stole Turkish Airlines silverware and bought nuts and bread and vegis and -- get read -- Happy Cow cheese!!!!! -- from the Egyptian market to my traditional Friday night sandwhich after which I executed my traditional Friday night read-alone-in-the-bathroom-because-that's-where-there's-light.

2) The Jews have seriously high-tech secuiry. I had to fax my passport to the cheif rabbi's office, along with my address and phone number, only to have the secretary call me and ask me "What you want". I told her that I wanted to go to synagogue. She directed me to one -- poorly, but I got there. I've learned to allow myself to get lost at least once whenever trying to get somewhere new for the first time. I made it just in time for Kabbalat Shabbat with my passport in my pocket.

About the passport: What a disaster. I had to leave it at the shul because, like Moroccan Jews, Turkish Jews are, well, er, more linient when it comes to things like electricity and eruv (which they don't have) on Shabbat. So they didn't care that I might have an issue with that - but I worked it out. I left it there. I left it with one of the men who seemed to be a gabbai-sort of guy who called himself, as he took my passport, "Bank Leumi" (the national bank of Israel). He is going to meet me tomorrow at a concert of maqamim that will take place at a differnet synagogue that I was already planning on attending. I know that, given my record with passports, this sounds dumb (yes, mother). But for better or worse, I trust my man, Bank Leumi.

So they don't have an eruv. But they DO say Mizmor Shir l'Shabbat with the tunes I know from home and sing Ein Kelokeinu in LADINO! I was so excited. They also do weird things like blow a kiss off somewhere when they say Barchu after Aleinu, rub their bellies when the mishebeirachs mention the word "refuah" (healing) and wave the air like they're sending off a spirit when they say something else (I forget -- it was weird). They were very nice, and as usual, some spoke English and some spoke odd broken Hebrew, but they invited me to their "seuda" on Shabbat day - so I went. Everyone got a plate of bourekas, two types of cheese, and a piece of cake. And lots of Turkish tea. Much better than the stuff on the street.

That "seuda" turned out to be the only food I ate all day since I spent the rest of the day across the Bosphorus reading in an expat coffeeshop reading with my boots off, meeting interesting people, and listening to a poetry reading by an Istanbulian from Maine that sounded (to my untrained ear) more like the ramblings of a sophomore-year fratboy rap with subjects like "butter" and "fruit salad" most of the time contianing not-so-subtle sexual innuendos.

So that was my Shabbat in Istanbul. Looks like my friend who was supposed to come in today had her flight delayed from Ireland -- so I'm solo tonight again and back in my cheapo hostel. We'll see what sort of trouble I can get into in a night on my own.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Can't Go Back to Constantinople

And I'm back on the road, baby! Here we go again - ready for the unknown, the unmapped, and the unclear. I got on a Nesher taxi to Ben Gurion airport this morning at 6:45 am after a wonderful, much-needed two-week stay in Israel (many many thanks to my friends and family for hosting and caring for me! Shoutouts go to first, Shira M-H who opened her home, then, of course, to Livia, and finally to Leah, my fabulous cousin).

And now I'm a 3 minute walk from the Blue Mosque in a hostel called "Agora" that has free internet...AND computers, for those of us who have had ours stolen.

I got to the airport and of course ran into someone I knew, had too much time to kill at the mall - I mean gate - and boarded one of the more sumptuous and international flights I have ever been on. Turkish airlines knows how to feed its customers. I think there are something like 20 options for your meal -- which you get, along with free alcohol, even on the 2 1/2 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. I ordered the raw vegetarian meal. It is my expereince that Kosher meals are always - and without exception - a) bad, and b) meat-filled. So there we go. And it was nice -- lots of vegtetables, as you might imagine, but tastefully arranged. And with lemon to "dress". Which made all the difference, let me tell you.

When I said that the flight was international, I meant the following: Imagine the following is a diagram of people on the plane -- the white space is the isle:


It was cool to understand the majority of what was going on there.

Anyway, when I got to Istanbul I got money, a SIM card for my cellphone, a friend who gave me a t-shirt, got on a metro car with Moroccans (they were speaking Darija), transfered to a tram, walked past some of the coolest arcitecture I've ever beheld, and made it to my hostel safe and sound.

Istanbul deserves a moment of reflection. Its astonding. Bizarre. And totally eclectic. And it seems to me that the Turkish language is the same way. It sounds almost Russian (its influenced by more Germanic languages in actuality, I think), it is in no way Semtitic but involves the use of all sort of Arabic-sounding words, some of which are direct transpositions from Arabic (the way you say hello, the way you say thank you)

I went to a cozy, homey place overlooking a hipstery street for dinner with this woman I've somehow managed to contact who is doing doctoral research here on Sephardi music. Lets call her Mandy. So I had another raw salad with lemon with Mandy -- and my first taste of Turkish tea. More like the Lipton of Egypt than the Na'ana of Morocco. But served in tiny, shapely glasses with single-wrapped sugar cubes. Afterwards Mandy and I headed over to a sort of posh underground cave-like restaurant where she smoothly talked (in Turkish!) our way in even though there is a set menu. I ordered us banana in honey. Yes, that was on the menu. The banana came in pieces drizzled with honey and walnuts. It had a lively taste. Just like our conversation, the music, and all of the Turks sitting around us singing along with the music. Every time they began to play new song I would start and sit up and listen -- thinking, dumbly, that it was some song the Seattle Sephardim sing, always to realize how its really just the mode of music I associate with SBH back home and not the songs themsevles of which there are thousands. It was beautiful.

On the way home I bought chestnuts. They had been roasting over a (sort of) open fire. Or probably the closest thing you can get to that. And I've never had a chestnut. They're more like figs than like nuts, it seems to me. Who knew? Then Mandy bought me orange-pomegranate juice. So good. And then I got back to the hostel and here I am, at 1am, wriiting to you, dear reader. Just to you. Since everyone as left this rooftop lounge in favor of their beds. I join them now and bid you adieu. Chok Sow for your attention (that's Turkish slang for "thanks"). And again - since there's no music this time I suggest imagining the Sephardi maqam of your choice (that one's for you, Mo!).