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A Story about the time it was really hot and no one could sleep due to the heat

August 18, 2010

Yesterday, Q and I lost ourselves in the warren of shops and stalls that is Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It was disorienting: from every side, shopkeepers pressed in, stepped in front, entreating and cajoling, “Yes, please” “Hola, una pregunta por favor, are you Spanish? Speak Spanish? No, English? Let me show you something special” “Bitte schön!” “A nice mink vest for the lady?” (Bro, learn your audience. I do not look like the mink vest type. Also, it is August in Istanbul, and it is boiling. I am not trying to think about wearing fur.)

It was mostly the same few things, repeated endlessly: silver jewelry, gold jewelry, copper pots and things, Turkish water pipes, hanging glass lamps in bright colors, rugs, scarves, furs, tacky souvenir t-shirts, shoes, knock-off purses, leather. Over and over and over. Still, it was nice to spend the day out of the sun and the heat.

We walked past the spice bazaar, which seemed the similar to the Grand Bazaar only better because of the smells, it was saffron and dried nuts and dried fruits. I should go back and buy some saffron or something, but, to be frank, I can’t muster the will to hike back across the Galata Bridge (which spans the Golden Horn) and up the hill through the hot crowded streets; I don’t feel like picking my way through the people, the idea of haggling makes me anxious.

Mid-August is probably the worst time to visit Istanbul. It is a North Carolina summer (slightly less humid) with more traffic and more people and no air conditioning. I’ve moved to a different hostel, and my first night here, I couldn’t sleep because of the heat. There were 8 of us in the room. Three oscillating fans had been affixed to the ceiling and we had them all going, but the heat was too much. It settled on top of me heavy and metallic, it kind of burned the tops of my thighs and it pooled thickly against my neck, between my chin and my chest. The fans weren’t strong enough to push the heavy air, to make it move. So I stayed still on my back, feeling my sweat form a film over me, watching my roommates in their beds, wondering if they were sleeping or if they were awake, too.  The next night after dinner, when I came back to the room, the guys from Barcelona had packed their things and said they were leaving, to find a hotel, some room with more bearable sleeping conditions. The heat had been too much. After they left, we discovered that the HEATER HAD BEEN ON THE WHOLE TIME oh my god it must have been ninety degrees in our room. The heater was not on last night but it was still kind of hot. If you grew up without air conditioning and want to tell me about sleeping on hot nights, you can. I’ll listen and I won’t dismiss it as  a barefoot in the snow uphill both ways-tall tale.

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excuses

August 16, 2010

The problem with trying to keep this blog updated is that there isn’t enough time to do it well. I’ve had time to post quick summaries, but i haven’t had time to really write about everything–the stray cats, the smells, the odd people (the man in the Vienna hostel who told me over breakfast about his first love, and the  way his son-in-law, a priest, had lost faith and become disillusioned with the church, and after this story he invited me on some sort of Christian-ish “treasure hunt;” or the old man in my Istanbul hostel with cotton in his ears, who kept saying, “sorry, what? i have cotton in my ears.”  Also many of the weirdest people in hostels have been Americans. When you get further east than London/Paris/Rome, you start getting fewer, but weirder Americans. What does this say about me?)

Istanbul

August 14, 2010

Istanbul seems staggeringly big and busy. Our first night in town, we had a drink on a rooftop terrace, and I searched for an end to the city but couldn’t find one—it disappeared into the haze, further than I could see.

While Q and I were exploring the streets of the Beyoglu neighborhood, we passed a restaurant lacking customers, and its proprietor was calling out to passers-by, imploring them to come sit down. He talked us into sitting at one of the street-side tables, to sit and have a drink on the house, so that we might attract more customers. After a a bunch of lewd remarks about American girls (looking back, I probably should have made a fuss about this and just left altogether), he brought out some little cups of apple tea, and we wondered if we weren’t about to be victims of some sort of scam—maybe we’d be presented with an enormous bill, or perhaps something involving chloroform, kidnapping, and murder would transpire…The tea was quite nice, and so was the baklava, and a nice couple sat down at a table next to us, and we were on our way.

We saw the Blue Mosque. I was content to sit and take in all the patterns and colors and the curves and arches of the domes, to feel appropriately awed. Q said, “it looks like a bad rug.”

Yesterday, to escape the densely packed alleys, thronged with people and cars, trapping heat and humidity, we caught a ferry for 3 lira each to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands, a one and a half hour journey beginning in the Straight of Bosphorus and ending in the Sea of Marmara. The islands are called the Princes’ Islands, I think, because they were used as a dumping ground for exiled royalty during the Byzantine period. Leon Trotsky was also exiled here for a while. There are no cars on the island, only phaetons drawn by bony horses. I didn’t swim, because the sea was full of litter and there was no proper beach, but I did enjoy the breeze, and the quiet streets, and the wooden houses and their gardens, and I especially liked coming back across the Bosphorus as the sun was setting.

We went to a bar recommended to me by a friend from Istanbul. The DJ was doing weird things with old disco songs. The bar itself would be at home in Carrboro—shabby and mismatched, the crowd and the furniture. A waiter from the bar struck up a conversation, and when he needed help translating to English, he got it from a friendly local guy, who then invited Q and me to follow him and his friends to the next club, which he said was having a “Balkan night”. And so we downed our last sip of beer and followed them out into the street.

Up five flights of stairs, past apartments, and a tailor, and who knows what else, we found the club, called Araf, with sloping, low ceilings and dark cavey corners. The music veered from sped-up Cake and Fatboy Slim to Turkish rap to the White Stripes to more Turkish music to Gogol Bordello (finally, something a little bit Balkan), and the crowd loved all of it.

I am sticky and mosquito bitten. The weather here is much like the weather at home right now—85-90 by day, 75ish by night. Not to complain, but our hostel has no AC, so we leave the windows open, and the mosquitoes come in while we sleep to feast on our sweaty limbs.  Because of this, and because I’ve only got five days left of my trip, I have started having very American fantasies: getting in my car, turning the AC as high as it will go, driving across town to Harris Teeter, standing in the frozen foods aisle ogling the Di Giornos and the Ben and Jerryses until my skin goes numb yesssss.

Food Lion, in Belgium

August 9, 2010

I took a four day trip to Belgium last weekend with Q. We were going to stay with his friend, but plans fell through and we found ourselves posting on the “Last Minute Couch Requests Belgium!” forum on Couchsurfing.org. We stayed with an urban planner in Brussels, an international social worker in Antwerp, and a student in Gent whose English  was uncannily American, and when we asked where he learned English he said, “Star Trek.”

(Couchsurfing is about ten years old now. You sign up, fill out a profile. You talk about your interests in movies, books, and music; what kinds of people you like; what your couch is like (if you’re going to be hosting). You indicate whether you’d like to host people in your home, or whether you can show them around/meet for coffee. And that’s it! You pick a city, and start searching for couches, shopping for the perfect host. Some people want a host who will just give them a spare key and a spot on the couch, others prefer a host who will guide them around and get to know them. At the end of your stay, you leave your host a reference, visible on their couchsurfing profile, and the host leaves you a reference, so that everyone knows what sort of guest/host you are.  It sounds really dangerous, doesn’t it? “I’m going to go stay with an Internet Stranger in a foreign country!” But it works.)

I spent some time asking each of our hosts about the Flanders-Wallonia tensions, and about the different beers (we drank an awful lot of Trappist beer, and it was delicious). But I was most surprised to find FOOD LION IN BELGIUM.

Q and I were ambling down a tourist-choked avenue in Brussels, in search of a cold/cheap drink, and decided to look for a supermarket. I spied a sign with  lion on it, and thought of Food Lion. And I was right.

See! Delhaize Group is Food Lion’s parent company. Food Lion began in Salisbury as Food Town, but when Delhaize acquired the company in 1983, they slapped on the lion logo and decided that a name change from Food Town to Food Lion would only require changing two letters on their signs, and lo, Food Lion was born. And that is the story of how I saw a food lion in Belgium.

(This is not the story of how and why my dad has this general distrust of Food Lion. If you ask him to pick something up from Food Lion, his invariable response is, “Food Lion!? They’re not going to have [baked beans; cucumbers; whatever] at Food Lion!” And then he will go on to decry the low quality of their produce. My roommate, meanwhile, often likes to crow about the deals she gets at Food Lion, on things that I stupidly still buy at Harris Teeter. Maybe when I get home I will become an MVP shopper.)

more Berlin

August 9, 2010

Since the end of the Cold War, at least, Berlin has been a haven for those with angst and existential and/or quarterlife crises, those who want to disappear from life into an idyll, suspended animation, extended adolescence.

Maybe it is because my host is himself an expat, but everyone I meet here is from somewhere else, and almost everyone mentions not liking their life back at home, or needing a change or, especially, wanting to escape the pressure and expectations of home. This is nice but dangerous: because everyone wants to throw off the oppressive yoke of 9-to-5 Desk Job /Marriage/ House /Kids society, everyone encourages one another to be easygoing, to do exactly as they wish. It is perfectly acceptable and all too easy to spend all of your time sleeping in til the afternoon, not venturing out til the early evening, not doing much of anything in life but visiting cafes, bars, picnics, and parties. No one will give you any grief for this. They will, like I’ve said, simply raise their eyebrows conspiratorially and spread their hands and smile and say “It’s Berlin.”

(When  I say everyone, I actually mean “privileged, generally well-educated, generally white, Western able-bodied people in their teens, twenties, and thirties who had the means to pick up and move here and aren’t struggling to raise a family or anything, and so can afford to live real cheap.” I mean, I realize that Berlin is a city where people have dentist’s appointments, and pay bills, and are late for meetings, and go to the trouble of going to the grocery store to buy a light bulb for the hallway only to get there and realize they have forgotten exactly which kind of bulb they need to buy.

And there’s poverty here, and unemployment(near 14%). And these creative people keep coming here but there aren’t big companies to employ them–it’s mostly service sector jobs keeping this economy going. And there are questions about the immigrant population and how they’re faring in terms of integrating into society or whether they’re being ghettoized.

So I see all this and I think about it and think about my privilege and feel sheepish for being so bourgeois and “woo hoo! young people! permanent vacation! la vie boheme!” and all that. And I just wanted to acknowledge it.)

I imagine this would lose its luster after a while, but it sure is tempting.

Anyway! Yesterday we visited the Berlin Bier Festival (more than 300 breweries from 86 countries with nearly 2000 beers, offered over a 2.2 km-long stretch of Karl-Marx-Allee). Here we drank Störtebeker and Duckstein beers, and ate Thuringer salamis (one pepper-encrusted, one chili-encrusted, both delicious). The Thuringer region is apparently renowned for their sausages. There was also a pork chop sandwich, and the pork had maybe been cooked in dark beer. Maybe I’m making this up. It was delicious.

Next, we cycled to Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg to catch the end of the fun. On Sundays there is a massive flea market: Haircuts by Gerard 5 euros, accordions, old cameras, mismatched dishes, used shoes, spices, hand painted bags, beads, tee shirts with leopard cubs and howling wolves on them that are a perfect nod to the Three Moon Wolf phenom, rugs, furs, mostly musty flotsam and jetsam from the garages and attics of Germany and eastern Europe in the stalls but still all fun to look at. There is outdoor karaoke where hundreds turn up to watch and sing along. Unparalleled people-watching!

Fake beaches are a big thing here. We found ourselves hanging out on a fake beach, adjacent to the flea market, (just an area with sand and beach chairs) where there was a dj playing techno (there is a more accurate sub-genre descriptor to be applied here, but I sure as hell don’t know it. House? Tech-house? ???) and we watched people dance. I say “watched” because it was broad daylight and the crowd was sparse. I need the cover of darkness and a crowd to get lost in if I am to dance.

Before this trip, I was apprehensive about what clubs would be like in Europe. That old American inferiority complex about anything Yurpeen bein’ more fancy and s’phisticated than what we got in the USA. I had never danced to techno and was dreading it. But I’ve done it, and I’ve watched other people do it, and it’s actually quite EASY. If you are hopelessly white/bad at dancing, this is where you can come to find acceptance. Just give in to the unseemly urges that swell within your breast: do you want to mime slicing a pizza, and jerk around erratically? Or would you rather stand in place, picking up your feet one by one (stationary prancing),  throwing out your elbows in time to the beat, so that you sort of look like a dancing ostrich? Or would you like to just stand in the middle of everything, bopping your head a bit and shuffling your feet like you’re unsure about the whole endeavor? It’s all perfectly acceptable! So, I am, surprisingly, pretty sold on this whole techno thing.

The night ended with a visit to Hühnerhaus in Kreuzberg. It’s a late-night rotisserie chicken shack, basically. I don’t think our late-night food compares. I mean, Taco Bell, or a tender, juicy half-chicken with fries? Also, hühner is REALLY fun to say in a southern accent. Hühnerhaus inspired this dude to make a video (and I cannot endorse the lyrics but I just wanted to document the fact that it drove someone to such lengths)

In closing, two more things I’ve come to appreciate while here:

-Berlin is flat and there are bike lanes and lots of cyclists. And the drivers are so polite. No matter how much they might be cursing us and wishing they could mow us down, they drive like they’ve got all the time and room in the world, without crowding us. At home I’m usually pretty timid about cycling in traffic, but here, I don’t have to be. And this makes me feel better about how little I ride my bike at home. I’m not going to feel guilty anymore. When you cycle in almost any US town, you are taking your life into your hands! It is scary! America, work on your share-the-road culture and your bicycle-friendly infrastructure and urban planning, please!

-The word Straße/strasse. Strass-ah! It means “street” but it doesn’t sound so….functional (and should I say pedestrian, or is that taking things too far?). It has a sort of “cha-cha-cha!” feeling to it, in my totally arbitrary/unqualified opinion.


Berlin

August 5, 2010

I have been  in Berlin since  mid-July, and it has been the perfect cure for Another Picturesque European City Fatigue Syndrome. Berlin is not “beautiful.” It is covered in graffiti, and ugly post-war buildings abound,  and the U-bahn stations are sometimes dark and dirty, and the parks are un-manicured, shabby and overgrown, strewn with empty beer bottles and their caps. And this is why I love it. Well, not these reasons specifically, but they are outward manifestations of the sort of freewheeling  energy that I love. It’s like your first house in college: weird characters end up sleeping on your living room floor, furniture gets damaged, dishes stay piled in the sink, but no one is too concerned about it, even though you know your parents, if they saw the way you were living, would shake their fists and talk about how you were raised better and would it kill you to do some dishes.

There is a lot of open space and properties not yet snapped up by investors/developers (though I think that’s on the way, and young people from all over the world are drawn here, artists and students and eccentrics, and this city has an indomitable irreverence. It doesn’t seem to want to get cleaned up.

One of my first nights here, I found myself sharing drinks with some students in one of Berlin’s many parks–it was pitch black and laughter from other groups of friends came rolling through the darkness and I could see them only by the lighted ends of their cigarettes. It was close to three in the morning but the park was not closed.

Admiralbrucke by day. Wikipedia image because my camera broke.

Another night, a weeknight, Q and I went to share a drink and do some people watching on a bridge in Kreuzberg,  Admiral-Brücke. This is not a pedestrian bridge, but the people let their legs dangle in the road, sat in the road, parked their bikes in the road. When a car wanted to pass, it had to slow to a crawl, and wait for everyone to shift and make way.

Another of my favorite nights here, we cycled to Treptower park, which sits along the river Spree and contains a Soviet war memorial and cemetary for 5, 000 Soviet soldiers. We did not stop at the memorial, though. It was dark and windy and we were looking for an outdoor party. Some of these outdoor parties can be really top secret, and you are only given the location if you’re  on the right listserv (or whatever), but even the ones that aren’t super secret are deliberately ensconced deep in vast parks or out of the way vacant lots. So we tried to listen, over the roar of the wind, for the telltale pinging and thudding of electronic music. And we did find it, eventually, and it was tucked into a stand of trees ringing a long, narrow dead field and bordered by a busy street. There was a DJ, and there were some colored lights under which to dance; the party was in no danger of getting shut down because the wind and the traffic obscured the music enough that from even a short distance, it sounded like it could just be music from a passing car, or something odd the wind was doing.

Anyway, so all these things happen all the time, these things that most other municipalities have put the squash on, and this is just the way it is. People shrug and smile and say by way of explanation, “It’s Berlin.”

This hasn’t really done it any justice, and also, Berlin isn’t perfect, but I’ll get to that later.

Corfu

July 27, 2010

watching the tide come in at Logas Sunset Beach, Corfu

Most people who have heard of Corfu have heard it is full of British tourists. This is partly true. On our last day there, we ventured south to some beach towns filled with British pubs, and the union jack was everywhere and I was reminded of, say, Myrtle Beach.

We (I should say here who “we” all were: Q and P, Aussies I met backpacking four years ago, and John, their friend from home) were lucky. From about July 7 until the 15th, we stayed in a mountain village 15 miles outside of Corfu Town, only near other small villages and beaches, high in the hills, surrounded by olive trees. The GPS system referred to our street as “unnamed road.”  John’s mother grew up here, and his family still has a house here, so we stayed down the road from his aunt and uncle, and next door to the house where his mother was raised.

This meant more than not seeing British  tourists. It meant eating feasts of epic proportions (and I do mean epic in a somewhat literary fashion, so feel free to imagine some Illiad/Odyssey Homeric hero-style feasts). Our first morning, we woke up to a plate of freshly made fried bread dumplings drizzled in homemade honey. It was a sign of things to come. We had salads with just-off-the-vine tomatoes, soft and peppery (rather than firm and bland like supermarket tomatoes), with homemade olive oil and crisp green peppers. We were fortunate to be invited to John’s uncle’s name-day celebration, where we were treated to stuffed peppers, salad, baskets of bread, a plate of Greek cheeses, heaping platters of pulled lamb meat, and endless glasses of homemade, sweet white wine.

I want to go on, to talk about the calamari, the prawns and mussels, the saganaki, the grilled octopus, but I’m not a food writer and this is getting ridiculous.

Besides eating, we spent our days driving (or riding a little quad scooter) to different beaches (arriving late afternoon, staying until 7 or so in the evening), paddle boating out to crystal caves (but alas, we saw no crystals), visiting village dance and name-day festivals, and, when in our little village, because the villagers all know John, slowing down our car, leaning out the window, waving, and calling, “Gia sas!” (This is essentially “hey, y’all!”) When we ventured out to a restaurant one night without John, the waiter still knew we were his not-from-around-here friends, and asked us where he was.

The last night in the village, I attempted to make biscuits, and they came out small and hard and cakey, almost. The guys liked them, but that’s only because they’ve never had proper biscuits. I have failed them, and I have failed the south. Luckily, I think I have convinced them to spend a decent amount of time there on their US road trip.

I’m in Berlin now, and will try to be better about updating. It gets really daunting when you let too many days go by.

Oh and in closing. The radio stations in Corfu were…well…it is obvious why Corfu isn’t the popular culture capital of the world. This was on all the time. The soundtrack to our time in Corfu.