Monday, September 29, 2008

Istanbul was Constantinople....

“Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks”

It’s difficult to imagine that this vibrant European city with over 15 million people was once the great city of Constantinople and also ruled by both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Although this city is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and over 90% of Turkish people are registered as Muslims, it is surprisingly similar to other cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Turkey is considered a secular country as most people are not practicing Muslims. Therefore, although you hear the call to prayer four times a day from the towering mosques that are scattered around the city, rarely do you see women wearing scarves (they’re actually banned at Turkish universities) and even though it’s Ramadan right now, the cafes and restaurants are filled throughout the day with people eating and drinking.
The people are a mix of all different ethnicities, as this fairly new country (established in 1928) is made up of people from all over Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and beyond. For instance I received the same compliment once again this trip in Turkey, as being mistaken for a Turk. I seem to have the “Turkish” look, whatever that is, although I definitely didn’t see any Turkish girls with a lot of height. Nonethelss, I felt quite honored.

Cat and Charm’s European Adventure Part I:

The fun began when I met Charm at the Frankfurt airport Wednesday morning after her long flight from Dallas. We boarded the plane and were off to Istanbul where we landed that afternoon. We took a long taxi ride to the new, more modern part of Istanbul where the Hilton Hotel is located. The traffic is absolutely horrendous in this city, and we got used to sitting around in the taxi quite a bit during our two days there. After checking in, we decided to make plans for our next two days, while having tea on the terrace overlooking the Bosphorous River. It was absolutely beautiful weather, and it was crazy to think that on the other side of the bustling “river” is another continent. After booking a sight-seeing tour for the next morning, we then got some information about a dinner that evening that included traditional music, dancing and food.

The Orient House was definitely plenty touristy, but it also turned out to be a ton of fun and provided us with a glimpse of the Turkish culture of the past. During dinner, we heard a group of musicians, were entertained with folk-dancing and three different belly-dancers and then later there was a sing-along time where a performer sang popular songs from the various countries represented at the dinner. Therefore, he sang songs from Brazil, Spain, Serbia, Lebanon, Greece, etc. It was quite impressive.

At the end, they pulled people onstage to participate in a belly-dancing competition, and of course yours truly was one of them. I’m not sure why Charm didn’t get up there with me, but 11 of us ended up embarrassing ourselves completely when we were told to do our own belly-dancing (in the middle of the stage individually) for a good 2 minutes each. Afterward, he made the audience judge the competition with their applause. He did this several times for each of us, which was quite painful, and in the end said that we were all winners (gee, didn’t see that one coming). But, I must say that I was the last person left on stage, so I feel that counts for something. We didn’t leave our Turkish night out until midnight, and were not in bed until after 1:00 a.m. This made for an early morning when we had to meet our tour guide at 9:00 a.m. I was so proud of Charm for sucking it up and going out in the first place Wed. night, and then waking up the next morning with not much sleep. I was totally exhausted and didn’t have the excuse of a trans-continental flight, so I’m not sure how she did it – AMAZING TRAVELER, that she is! Our sight-seeing tour ended up being private, which was awesome as we didn’t have to deal with looking like tourists as much, and also didn’t have some little man waving a red flag or yellow umbrella shouting “Carrani, Carrani (remember Pompeii, Laurel and Mandy?).

We got the inside tour of Istanbul and had an excellent time exploring the old town and touring Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque (or Sultanhamet Mosque), the Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar.
Our tour guide was Serkan, and he was a wealth of information related to the history of Turkey, and the Christian and Muslim influence in the country. There were times where I could tell we were both drowning in his sea of details, and I wish that Jon and Lar could have been there to take it all in for us (being the history buffs that they are). Anyway, we had a great time with Serkan, especially when after the museum seeing, we could get down to the real Istanbul and the shopping! He took us to this great carpet store that has been in business for hundreds of years when it first began as a carpet manufacturing and trading post.
We were assisted by Kaner Kaya who informed us about the various kinds of Turkish rugs and proceeded to pull one after the other after the other out on his floor. We could no longer hide our enthusiasm about the beautiful carpets and he began to ask questions about what colors, style, size, we liked. Needless to say, Charm saw some beautiful rugs that she liked and ended buying the best souvenir she possibly could from Turkey. It will look so lovely in the living room!

After the carpet experience, we then headed over to the Grand Bazaar and were completely overwhelmed with the many, many shops. Although I had been before, I forgot how MUCH there is to see. We did a quick tour through a small area of the bazaar and then decided to save our shopping until the following day when we would be returning. After getting back to the hotel that afternoon, I was ready or a nap before my fair that evening. I wanted to be well-rested and ready to receive the many students who would be in attendance. And many there were – the fair was quite a success and the three hours absolutely flew by.

Our final day in Istanbul consisted of a lovely morning at the impressive Topkapi Palace and a short time in the afternoon at the bazaar. The expansive residence of Topkapi Palace is a palace fit for a sultan, several wives, hundreds of concubines and thousands of retainers. It was not only a royal residence, but also the Ottoman Empire’s center of government. After touring the beautiful grounds, we meandered through the ancient streets of what once was Constantinople to the grand bazaar. After getting completely turned around and lost on some back-streets behind the bazaar, we found the jewelry section and enjoyed perusing through the endless stalls of gold, intricate boxes, antiques, prints, lamps, etc. As you can imagine, the time completely flew by in this exotic shopping experience, and it was time to head back across town through the horrendous traffic in our taxi. After retrieving our luggage and making another trek across town to the airport, it was hard to believe that our Istanbul adventure was coming to an end. It was a fantastic time in the land of where east meets west, old meets new and learning about the fascinating culture that’s apparently nobody’s business but the Turks.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Getting settled and re-settled, and on the road again

Well, it's hard to believe I've been back in Wiesbaden for over two weeks now. I've been horrible about keeping in touch with family, friends and anyone but Charm who's diligently called about every day to chat with me (she's just the best, isn't she?). But, let me assure you all, I'm doing well and gradually getting re-adjusted to my life here. The biggest hurdles I had to overcome? First there was the car issue; obtaining the paperwork to pick it up was ridiculous and then it wouldn't start and now it does but has a horrible screeching noise. So, not only is the big honkin' X-terra a gas-guzzling eye sore for all the Germans, but now it makes a horrendous chirping noise that gets louder the faster I go (so, it gets loud a lot). Second, there was the internet issue; I had no internet for the first 8 days I was back as there was a problem getting it reconnected again. As my fellow websurfing-loving friends know, this equates to a LIFETIME! I was constantly going to the nearby Turkish-run internet cafe, where I'm pretty sure the guy who ran it thought I had a crush on him because I was dropping by so often and would flash a big smile, as my German wasn't quite up to speed yet. The third hurdle I had to overcome (and am still overcoming) is the weather. My goodness gracious it's quite cool here! There was really no transition for me between extreme Texas summer heat and highs in the low 60s here. I went from tank tops to tights and shorts to sweaters. Quite depressing. But, when the sun IS shining outside and illuminating the gorgeous flowers and architecture, I don't care what the temperature is because it's just so darn beautiful here.

After being back in Wiesbaden for less than a week, I travled to Antwerp, Belgium for the EAIE (European Association of International Educators) Conference, a.k.a. "Euro Summer Camp." I met up with my boss there, and had a splendid time meeting people from all over Europe and learning new ways to effectively recruit international students. But, like all conferences, when the workday comes to an end, it evolves into a "camp" like setting with receptions, dances and parties to attend. I had my group I rolled with consisiting of people from the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and at times some Swedes. Although we may all come from very different places, one thing's for sure, no one can resist the Texas charm.

After my 4-day stint in Antwerp, it was time to come back to Wiesbaden and get in my routine once again. It was a busy week preparing for the gospel concert at my church, attending the baby shower of a friend, visiting a friend in Kaiserslautern for the day, working on my grad. class, planning logistics for my next upcoming travels, blah, blah, blah. I know, I know, I can hear my lovely neighbor across the street from my parent's in Bryan right now telling me no one cares about these details in my life. All right, Mr. B, I can take a hint.

To sum it all up, it's been one heck of a time getting back in the swing of things here, and although it is incredibly strange to be "home" without Jon around, I have enough to keep me busy so that the next two months are going to fly by in no time. Also, I have some amazing friends here that never let me go too long without a phone call or invite to hang out. This Wednesday, Charm and I are meeting in the Frankfurt airport to gallavant off to Istanbul together, followed by trips to Paris and Brussels. Oh boy, oh boy!

Now that my internet is up and working, I'll be much better about updating the oh-so-exciting events (and possibly the occassional mundane ones as well) that are going on in my life. I miss you all and will be in touch again soon!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Adios Tejas, Hallo Deutschland!

Tomorrow, I board a plane bound for Germany after my four months in Texas..... my home. It's been an incredible summer filled with quality time with family, friends and plenty of Tex-Mex!

This past weekend, I celebrated one last hoo-rah with the family at the ranch. In addition to my parents, sisters and aunt, our dear family friends Judy and Claudia also joined us. We had an excellent time enjoying the beautiful ranch and the last of the summer weather I'll get to experience for quite a while. I checked the temperatures earlier today in Germany, and the highs are in the upper 60s. That's going to be a shocker!

Although I'll have a busy schedule over the next couple months, I'm delighted to be heading back to Germany and can't wait for my parents to join me soon. Charm will be coming over at the end of September, and my dad will be there two weeks after her. I sure am lucky to have such an outstanding family and although I'm going to miss my sisters like crazy over the next six months, I'm so grateful for the good times we were able to spend together this summer. Thanks to you all for making this such a special time in my life and hasta luego!