Sunday, November 24, 2013

Eternal Return

I have been back in Canada exactly one month. It is actually somewhat hard to believe that a month has passed by so fast - still jobless, sleepin' on my Dad's couch (I have upgraded to an air mattress but mostly I'm scared that Truman will pop it in his late night enthusiastic purrs and paw-stretches and I thus end up back on the couch); I am generally rather restless and spend most of my time reading and writing in coffeeshops and catching up with friends; my mind half in this wintery Canadian landscape, yet half still somewhere on an Istanbul hilltop. My feet in boots and socks trampling over snow, my hands still grasping halfheartedly at sheesha and kebabs.

I've been perfecting the sloppy art of post-modern hobo life now for 3 years, you think maybe I'd be used to it - but the reverse culture shock of coming home from 6 months living in Istanbul with all its +15 million inhabitants, to Calgarys modest 1 or so million, is still a pretty big change. I'd say my first 2 weeks here were spent in a bit of a stupor, and now I've finally woken up, eager to find a job, a new apartment, some semblance of "getting back on track" (whatever track that might be.)

As was to be expected, Ive drank a lot of pumpkin spice lattes, and ate my fair share of Pho. The concept of eating all sorts of different types of foods is almost overwhelming. I can easily eavesdrop on conversations once again and see girls and boys with big tattoos and crazy hair. The streets where I live are empty after dark, there are no children shooting cap guns at me, no goats being slaughtered in the street, no gas-van making the rounds, honking up and down the road and waking me at 7 am. Calls to prayer have been replaced with an eerie silence -one that I also love, that is the silence of Western Canadian winter, where the freshly fallen snow muffles everything else, and you hear the crunch of it under your boots like mashed potatoes. Yet the sense of space is staggering, and I miss Istanbul's crowds, getting lost in the crowd, assimilating into a giant throbbing mass of drunken people walking up Istiklal street on a Saturday night (which at the time, drove me crazy, but now of course seems so nostalgic). Canada is wonderful, I have no cause for complaints. It's all just a bit weird. How quickly I can feel back at home, as though I never left at all...yet how I still feel like when I fall asleep, eyes closed -I am in Istanbul.

German Philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote of displacement and writing, that "for the man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live". Canada might be my homeland, but being that I have spent more time in the past few years outside of it, than in it, I guess it's far to say I feel like I'm living in some sort of exile, and maybe that's what motivates me to write so much - as ridiculous and pretentious as that does indeed sound.  At least that motivation is still there - even if I myself don't really know exactly where I am.

Canadian deer, caught in winter headlights

Friday, October 18, 2013

Last Friday Night.

This is my last friday night, in Istanbul, Turkey. Next Wednesday I board a flight to London, then the following day, Thursday Oct 24th, I will catch a flight back to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

October is always a strange, nostalgic, melancholic time of year for me - the thinning of the veil, and all that esoteric nonsense. But truly, the veil feels thin -whatever that means. I feel everything stronger, this time of year. I feel simultaneously extra-awakened, and yet half-asleep, as though I can't quite function properly in the real world, and my head is in the clouds.

The past 10 months have been probably some of the best of my life, though my life in general has had many amazing moments, of course. Beginning with January in Lebanon, February in Ethiopia, March and April in Iran, and then from May until now, here, living in the city of my dreams, Istanbul Turkey.

I feel like the past year has been a dream, that perhaps I might awake tomorrow to realize that none of it ever happened, in particular the fact that I lived for half a year in one of the greatest cities on earth. I know that there are many beautiful places in this world, with many unique attributes, but one thing all travelers seem to agree on, is that Istanbul is a place like no other, a place truly worthy of the word 'spectacular'. My memories of Istanbul are chaotic and colourful and form a montage in my head like a grainy sped-up film reel:

The countless crazy nights in the hills around Taksim, dancing on rooftops and drinking cheap Belarussian vodka on dirty streetcorners, dodging pickpockets in dark alleys full of men lurking and Riot cops around the corner, shooting tear gas; crumbling bricks and decaying structures heaving into the night; grey street cats scurrying on the edges of buildings, dogs the colour of soot asleep in doorways, mosques glittering their ever-glowing yellow light until the break of dawn, with a call to prayer that only the seagulls seem to observe. The countless days spent walking along the Bosphorous, counting ships - Chinese Cargos, Aegean Cruisers, old suspect wooden tourboats floating along next to cormorants nesting along the edges of mossy walls, the fishermen and their plastic cups of bait roasting filets on portable BBQ's, serving up a little taste of the sea, on fresh bread for 2 dollars. The Sunday afternoons spent exploring the down-and-out, dystopian landscapes of the less-fortunate areas of the city - areas once prosperous and inhabited by Greeks and Jews, now taken over by conservative families from Eastern Turkey, and African immigrants - children playing with under-inflated plastic balls in the street, men sipping tea on smoky corners, their eyes occasionally lifting to observe you, observing them, as their wives sit on apartment stoops, in between washing carpets and hanging laundry. The overwhelming humid heat of the summer, walking endless spiral staircases, sweating, to collapse in exhaustion once opening the double-barred door to your ghetto apartment. The Cig Kofte, Dolmades, Dondurma, Fistikli Baklava, Kunefe, Mastic Kahve, Kahvalti Tabagi, Corba, Pide, Balik Ekmek and endless other quintessentially Turkish foods. Riding the ferry from Kabatas to Kadikoy, on the roof of the boat, the crisp Mediterranean air messing up your hair, as you close your eyes knowing that you are crossing from Europe to Asia; feeling most at home and happy in that ambiguous space, on the ferry, on the water, not in any actual place in particular.

And yet, living in a city requires you to just get on with daily life - buy groceries, cook dinner, wash the dishes, watch movies, go to work (when you have a job, that is), and somehow it is easy to lose sight of your surroundings, and fall into the routine of daily life.

Perhaps that is where my current melancholia comes from - feeling that no matter what, I could have seen more of Istanbul, I could have explored one more forgotten street, photographed one more shaky abandoned wooden Ottoman house, drank one more glass of tea, discovered one more secret hidden amazing place - even if I spent nearly every day out and about and actively gobbling up all the delicious history and atmosphere that Istanbul provides, it will never be enough. I can never truly carry all of Istanbul inside me, and that leads me to great sadness, knowing that as of next week, I will be gone. Even now, as I write this, even though I spent all day out exploring the ancient city walls of Constantinople and the Mosaics of the Chora Church, I feel that any moment spent inside, away from the lights and streets of Istanbul, is a moment wasted. Even though I am tired and don't want to leave the house; Istanbul makes me feel guilty for abandoning her.

I am excited to get back to my home country, and to hear my own language spoken around me again, to see my family and Calgary friends and to not have to deal with the harassment of weird men, to experience my own culture once again, but it pains me to think of how these places, these words, these neighbourhoods will become just a memory - Tarlabasi, Kasimpasa, Balat, Fener, Eyup, Unkapani, Galatasaray, Dolapdere, Mecideyikoy, Beshiktas, Uskudar, Cihangir, Tophane, Osmanbey, Ferikoy, Kurtulus...This city and its people have left an incredible mark on me, and I'm sure no matter where I go in the future, I will never forget my time here.

Thank you Istanbul, for 6 very memorable months. I'm sure we'll meet again, one day...after all, I do have you under my skin.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Stranger in a strange land

Sittin' up in my room, on my last night in the ghetto, munching on peanut butter flavoured Cheetos, sipping
3-in-1 instant nescafe at 7pm. I wonder to myself, what exactly to write about - I suppose I could begin by explaining that in Turkey there does indeed exist peanut butter flavoured cheetos (why? who would come up with such a concept?), and because the idea of simple standard drip coffee is still somewhat foreign here, most caffeine-craving but lazy expats such as myself simply buy little 1-cup packets of 15 cent instant coffee, which come pre-sweetened and whitened (hence the "3" in the title), in little red sachets at every single corner store, to be mixed with boiling water at home.

Turkey: it's a strange place, and these snacks are simple evidence of that. Much is made of Istanbul being the place where East meets West, but more than that it seems to me a country rather insecure and unsure of its identity ("Am I Eastern or Western??" "Help me sort this identity crisis!")- and thus often parades around with a rather sizeable chip on its shoulder, at worst evidenced by its somewhat xenophobic nature; suspicious of anyone who comes from a place firmly Eastern or Western. Anti-arabesque (I had a Turkish woman run away from me when I told her I was Syrian, at a Rock festival last weekend), yet not particularly welcoming of those who hail from that mythical "West" -beyond those who come as tourists.  I say these generalizations with caution of course; there are plenty of cool Turks, I know a few of them. I am speaking of a culture, the way one might speak of Canadians all being beer drinking hockey fans who like to go camping, or French people as cheese-eating snobs. I know not all Canadians are like this, or French people for that matter, but its also a fair statement to make for the general populace, not the minority subcultures, the goths or artists or poets or whomever. Turkey's most well known writer has made similar observations of Turks in his wonderful book "Istanbul, Memories and the city", but I suppose he was allowed to say so, because he himself is a Turk. Then again, I've been thinking a lot about stereotypes and how absurdly politically correct the (so-called western) world has become- these are my observations, and you can take them, or leave them, your choice.

Take for instance, my day to day place of employment. My preschool gig has morphed from a pleasant enough part-time summer romper room of playing with kids and doing random art projects, into a "serious school format" (lets keep in mind some of these kids are barely 2 years), wherein I am expected to construct a formal planned curriculum, with zero prep time, not to mention advice or training. For 1500 lira a month (about 800 bucks). It's laughable, and I don't appreciate the simple lack of appreciation I am given; it would be one thing to criticize every little thing I do (forgetting to change the shirt of one child after lunch, even though I was never trained to do so, for example), if they were able to give some praise when I pull off amazing art project after amazing art project -but again with the shoulder chip that prevents them from giving any positive re-inforcement whatsoever. Every wealthy family wants their child to speak English and pays through the nose to enroll them at these elite preschools, everyone wants to be so chi-chi and "European" - and yet when a real English-speaking born-and-bred gal such as myself shows up, its always a rather transparent indignance that rears its ugly head; that I dont speak Turkish, or that I dont understand the "culture" that might require me to simply innately KNOW to change a child's shirt after he eats (a culture that spoils its children insanely and lets them do whatever they want), and constantly being treated as one might treat a slave - desperate, willing to work for completely subpar pay, for whatever strange reason they have come up with these (incorrect) assumptions. And my situation is not unique- virtually every other ex-pat English speaker I know here works in a similar absurd setting, treated poorly and taken advantage of. And yet, we stay, simply because we "love this city". But how does one really seperate the en masse culture from the city? Are we all completely out of touch, or are we all just exceedingly patient?

I actually didn't intend this post to be ranty or whiny, but perhaps I have just soaked up the communal frustrations that all my friends have been experiencing as of late. Corrupt Emlaks not turning on the electricity even when the bill is paid, taxis ripping you off left and right, insufferable and catty bosses who berate teachers for not dressing "feminine enough" - I've had it up to here with this shiz!!. At least I know I can leave whenever I want -if i ever escape great Constantinople's siren-like ghetto tethers, that is.

The sun is setting, my apartment is rather empty, (with the Syrian refugees having found a place to rent way out past Bakirkoy, out on the coast of the Marmara sea) , and I don't know what else to say. The call to prayer just sounded, and its echo is mingling with the sounds of birds, as they sky goes pink and all grows dark. The streets go quiet for about 15 minutes at this time, as it is the dinner hour and Tarlabasi's Kurdish and Roma families gather around the table. I will miss the unique-ness of this neighbourhood, and all I got to witness and experience (even the children with their cap guns), while living here.

And me? I sit with these godawful peanut butter puffs and sip overty sweet coffee. Good night.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

take a chance

A secret of the successful traveler is to always go with the flow, and to be open to twists of fate. A chance meeting with a random person can drastically change the course of events, and alter your plans in ways that you cannot imagine.

On my first solo venture to the Middle-east 2 years ago, I met an Aussie girl on my first night at the 3-dollar hostel I was staying at in downtown Cairo. Her name was Maria, and whether it was due to a lack of other travelers around at the time (smack-dab-in the middle of the so-called 'Arab Spring), or owing to some shared comraderie of the grotesque subtle sexual harassment of Egyptian men, we bonded instantly and became travelmates, meeting again later on in Jordan. There we spent 2 weeks together camping with the Bedouin (aka nearly getting kidnapped by the Bedouin), getting lost in Petra, eating a lot of street Falafel, singing along to songs with "Habbibi" in the chorus, and exploring every corner of every single mall in Amman, as we somehow spent way too long holed up in the capital, with her acting as protective sister when I would inevitably accept random invitations for tea from attractive Jordanian dudes on the street. Even though it has been 2 years now since we last saw each other, we still stay in touch, and I know that should our paths ever cross again, we will reunite with a hug and a laugh, as though we had never said goodbye that day I got into my Taxi headed for Damascus. Had she not been open to my brilliant suggestions of couchsurfing with the Bedouin (slight sarcasm), or stuck to her original plan of staying longer in Israel, we might never have had the riotous time we did. Had I not been open to having someone join me for my desert misadventures, I might have had much less fun (in fact, the prospect of that whole Bedouin lark as a solo female, becomes more frightening than harmless absurdity, when you figure most nights involved sleeping on a rock in the middle of nowhere, with a group of Arab desert men - I know, I know, the situations I find myself in!!). She was the first person to really teach me the beauty of traveling without a fixed plan or a guidebook - no plan means you are open to anything, and all the rich experience that the chaos of travel provides you.

The same could be said of my chance meeting with the semi-senior citizen Italian brigade in Ethiopia. One obscenely early morning in Addis Ababa, while milling about in the dark outside the bus station waiting to head to the North, I spotted what appeared to be an actual middle-aged tourist, also standing awkwardly and on guard against thieves, stray dogs and persistent touts. I immediately said hello, in a rather in-your-face manner (which turned out to be fine, seeing as he was Italian), introducing myself, revealing important info (Julia, from Canada, going to Bahir Dar, would you like to sit with me please and maybe ensure I don't get robbed?), but alas he was booked on another bus -going to the same place however. When I later saw him and his other 2 Italian travelmates at one of the few "rest stops" along the way, I began again the conversing, they bought me a coffee, and it was decided that I would stay in the same crap hotel as them in once we reached our destination. I ended up basically tagging along with them for most of my Ethiopia trip, taking flights together, eating endless plates of "fish goulash" (I have no idea what this is or why its so prevalent in Ethiopia but it was a reliable choice ), even convincing one of them in the end to join me for the Harar adventure in the East, to watch me feed a Hyena and recite Rimbaud to myself. To this day my friend Cesar sends me the occasional hilarious email from Italy, with questions on my whereabouts, jokes about the time he took me to the doctor in downtown Addis for a malaria test, and general banter about life.

In the same vein, when something unlikely happens allowing you to carry on in one direction, you ought to briskly take that exit and forge a new path even if it means coming up with a half-fhazard plan- and quickly. Such was the case when I managed to snag an Iranian visa in Lebanon this past spring. I applied on a whim, unsure of my next move - and because of this decision to just try and get the visa, without even knowing the cost of a flight from Beirut to Iran or without any sort of guidebook, I ended up spending nearly 2 months in that country and having what can only be described as "the experience of a lifetime".

Now I find myself having been told I have to move out of my beloved Istanbul Ghetto villa within a month, and also the serendipity of this coinciding with some relatively cheap flights back to Canada, as well as the Halloween season. (Yes, Halloween in Canada is an actual incentive for me to come home. As well as the general autumn vibe. My favourite time of year in Calgary, with or without the Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes). My job here, and the fact I am yet again, sick with a cold due to the germy hands of 3 year olds, is wearing rather thin. The "rough Istanbul week" has turned more into a general observation that I am not meant to live long term in a place so at odds with my feminist opinions (or lack of cheddar cheese). I want to see my friends and family again. I want to have my OWN apartment again, and hang up all my wonderful worldly relics I have collected in all these trips on the walls, and go to the library and sign out books on these places and daydream about traveling from the comfort of home. I want to eat bacon, regularly. I want to hear English being spoken around me again. I want to feel connected to the people around me, not be the token yabangee who gets laughed at when she tries to speak Turkish.

I also want to visit Israel before I come home, to complete this 2 year long on/off journey of the Middle east, as well as finish off my passport which has only one blank page left in it. I need to see where Jesus was born, and where he was crucified, and I really don't think anyone can argue that this is important. Traveling and living in Muslim places has been amazing and taught me many things, but the conclusion I have come to is that while I may not be a practising Christian, as such, and Catholicism may have a lot of crap to answer for (though the new pope seems kind of groovy) Christianity, as it is practised by the minorities in the "east", kind of rules. The Christian quarters of any Middle eastern city is where you can buy alcohol and not worry about wearing a headscarf, or being stared at. The existence of Syriac/Armenian/Greek Christian minorities in places like Syria, Israel and Lebanon has kept a sort of balance and moderation for years over countries that might well have become extremist otherwise (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran yadda ya). Its funny that so many people think of Christianity as a western religion and Islam as eastern - they come from the exact same place. And Jerusalem is the heart of it. Not to mention the whole Jewish angle, which I havent yet really experienced anywhere. I think seeing there will be the final chapter in what has been an incredible quasi-spiritual journey.

The fact that a return flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv can be had in early October for less than 200 dollars, as well as the fact I wont have a place to live around then (save for Emily's couch, thank you Emily!), and all the rest of things conspiring in my favour to go back to Canada, leads me to believe that this is yet another one of fates chance happenings, opening the door to go this way.  The door back home.

Me and Maria, brought together by fate, stuck in the  Jordanian desert for 5 days.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Notes from the edge

This has been, as my flat-mate (and dear friend) Emily would say, a rather "rough Istanbul week".
Maybe it's the incessant heat, the constant sticky feeling on my shoulders, the dizzying hot air just finally getting on my frazzled sunburnt nerves. Maybe it's the post Ramadan blues - also known as the week that every black niqab-ed Saudi Arabian woman and her 5 children come to Istanbul to celebrate and stroll Istiklal Street with their unfairly attired jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing husbands; I observed such a scene yesterday at the Starbucks, and couldn't help but gaze at the woman taking sips of her Frappuccino (they do have to lift the veil to do this, and it's definitely not polite to sneak a peek, but Istanbul is a place where ones manners sort of take a walk out the back door after your first month of living here). Maybe it's working with children every day and the subsequent exhaustion or maybe it's the bottle kids on my street who like to burn things and shoot toy guns. Maybe it's money being tight because people do not like to keep up with their English lessons during Ramadan. Maybe it's post traumatic stress from seeing that goat get his head cut off onto the dirty sidewalk. Maybe I've just been in the middle east too long and am losing patience trying to be politically correct and tolerant of every subtle and not-so-subtle misogynistic comment and situation that I observe and endure 

The Dog days in Tarlabasi take on a whole new meaning when the place is over-run with motley looking street dogs; their fur that indecipherable shade of smoky beige that Orhan Pamuk wrote was in itself the essence of Huzun (the melancholia of Istanbul). Not to be outdone, it is worth mentioning the other canines with their tongue hanging out; Istanbul's infamous creepy men whose demeanor could only politely be called similar to that of a dogs - and a particularly unrefined street mutts, at that. 

It is rather convenient that of the rudimentary Turkish that I have learned thus far, simple words used often in teaching at my preschool job ("Otur" = Sit, "Yapma" = don't do that, and "Kopek" = dog), are also useful and applicable when confronted by the aformentioned rude males. I do not wish to generalize or give a sweeping misconception of Turkey, as I know several very decent, honest and respectful Turkish men -but they are not the type to be found sitting on my ghettos street corners smoking and drinking tea all day long, loitering in front of Beyoglus hammams and shops, or cruising the tourist areas on saturday nights, which, realistically are the places where I do tend to spend the majority of my time. I am not a misandrist or man hater - just someone who attempts to paint an honest portrait.

I live in a low-income area where men simply are not used to seeing free and uncovered women (except the few English Teacher foreigners who live here for the cheap rent, "authentic atmosphere" and quality produce markets), so perhaps to some extent the continual stares are understandable; even a pagan gypsy covers her head with a scarf, after all. I might be persuaded to make this concession myself (I do have quite the scarf collection after all), but it is simply too damn hot outside, and when I pound the pavement at 8 am walking to work, I cannot be bothered to wear anything besides my short shorts and tanktops. More irritating are the general creeps lurking on Istiklal every other evening, who certainly give the appearance of being somewhat more westernized (given the way modern Turkish women dress and their own diesel jeans and sneakers), yet are likely to give themselves a severe case of whiplash due to repeated neck over-extensions to catch a glimpse of every and any skin-showing passing female.

Maybe it's just the chaos and crowds; I myself am living in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 recent Syrian refugees (and my marvelous fellow Canadian Emily, though she will be tragically leaving at the end of the month to recluse herself in Osmanbey in her own private apartment - just kidding. I'm jealous.). It would be entirely inappropriate to complain about the fact that the bedroom next to me now holds twice as many men as when I first moved in (that's 4 men, in case I didnt mention that), given the fact they are escaping Civil War in their country and I am merely irritated at the kitchen constantly being occupied, or the additional fact that they insist upon cooking liver every other day. How they all manage to sleep in one small room is astounding, and of course I ought not to complain because they are considerate and decent guys. I really ought not to complain. I am not. Complaining.

Istanbul is beautiful, Istanbul is the still the world's greatest city; these are things I tell myself when nearing the precarious un-fenced edge of some sort of nervous breakdown. Even though much of my love for Istanbul is in the bricks and old buildings and abandoned alleys and wooden houses about to slip away into dust; in the street cats who sleep in between second hand flea-market finery on the sidewalk near my house; in the fact that even when a gross man stares at me, I find myself endeared by the fact he can barely fit on the tiny stool beneath him, or the fact his mustache looks like that of an Ottoman Janissary. My love for Istanbul is not so much about the reality of day-to-day living here, but in the magical little tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-them threads that tie the past and the present together in a web of confusion and artistically gratifying chaos. This is a city of ruins, of little artifacts of its former glory found amongst the trash heap, and even though reality can be ugly at times, I am, for better or worse, someone who lives more by romantic ideals, charmed illusions and artistic inspiration, than I do by any sense of practicality.

I have made the joke that perhaps I am entirely out of touch and that one day I'm going to slip completely over the edge and be found down in Eminonu's seedy docks and backstreets, laying on the cobble stones, sheesha waterpipe in hand, wearing a Turban and genie pants yelling loudly, "God bless Constantinople!!" 
Despite that humourous image, for now I am writing this post in an attempt to exorcize the demons of frustration, (rather than jump over that edge), and find black humour in what HAS indeed been a "rough Istanbul week". 

The Waterpipe is always a good idea though. 

One of many, in my Istanbul cartoon series

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Things I miss about Canada, in no particular order:

- Sunday afternoon Pho with Endri and Jessica
- Sunday evening dinners and guitar jams with my Dad
- laughing hysterically with my brother over our absurd lives
- spending time with my family
- walking alone by the river with my headphones on and then sitting on benches and writing in my journal
- drinking beers by the river with my friends
- the Ship patio and going for BRUNCH (omg Eggs benny, yes)
- goths
-girls with big tattoos and shaved heads and dreads and boots and all the rest
- drivers who obey traffic laws
- dancing to 80's music (with the aformentioned goths)
- sunsets over the prairies and maybe even sometimes driving to the mountains on the weekends
- my mom <3
- tim hortons timbits and iced caps
- late night subway subs after the bar
- pizza -available by the slice!!
- multiculturalism and feeling like ANYONE can be a Canadian if they live in Canada and we are all basically equal
- bathtubs
- vegan food! the concept of vegans! HIPPIES! the SMELL of hippie grocery stores!
- nostalgic walks through the old neighbourhoods i used to live in
- The Roasterie
- Oolong tea and chess games -and beating Endri :P
- Sheesha at cafe med with friends on friday nights
- drinking wine with Ahmad and Marko and Endri and Jess and getting silly
- Getting ridiculously drunk with Cody and Mandy and Barret and Jesse and all the rest of my awesome punk rock open minded friends and being the "responsible one" (hah!)
- Truman! my beloved cat
- hearing English being spoken

Things I will miss about Istanbul when eventually I leave:

- being surrounded by history and old buildings and mosques that were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago
- buying groceries outside my frontdoor at the weekly Tarlabasi market, and spending less than the equivalent of 10 dollars to fill up my whole fridge with fresh produce and cheese and olives and eggs
- dancing all night to gypsy arab-esque music in rooftop terraces with great friends (and having to help to quickly shut all the windows when teargas begins to float in suddenly...)
- buying illegally imported Djarum Clove cigarettes from random street stalls down on the harbour of the golden horn, for 6 lira
- Living in a building with a winding spiral staircase
- squeegee-ing my bathroom floor after i take a shower
- buying my spices in an Ancient Medieval covered bazaar
- being able to walk any direction and find new strange places - from little ramshackle cafes in Tophane and Cihangir to decrepit buildings and fish shops along the harbour at Karakoy, to those old blackened wooden Ottoman structures that are about to collapse in Kasimpasa...everywhere you go there is history and huzun and it's all for the taking, to see and breath in and smell, for free...this is probably what i'll miss most.
- Going for Nargileh as often as I like and drinking little tiny cups of tea with it
- reading Orhan Pamuk -in the city he lives in
- Iced turkish coffee at Kahve Dunyasi (like cocaine in a cup)
- waking up to the call to prayer at 530 am and then falling back asleep for an hr or so before getting up for work
- my little 2 year old class of adorable monsters
- buying dinner at my local lokanta and eating bread, rice and pasta all in the same meal
- yogurt on rice
- kumpir potatoes, 1 lira baklava and other local delicacies
- feeling like every day something new and weird could happen

Monday, July 15, 2013

In a New York minute

Sitting here, nibbling on my dinner-sized bowl of fresh radishes and chopped cucumbers, a lovely cool breeze blowing through my screen-less windows as I watch my neighbours not-so-frilly delicates flap in the breeze; another day in Istanbul ends and the sun begins to make its slow steep climb down from my perch and through the bowels of Tarlabasi's ghetto, over the Golden Horn, to set towards the mythical West.

Here in a city of such constant visual stimuli, is worth occasionally stopping and simply listening to the sounds of Istanbul, not allowing the immense overload of imagery to crowd your experience. The ever present pigeons mix with sparrows and miscellaneous hyper mystery birds that sound like they have downed an entire kettle of Turkish coffee. During this month of Ramadan, a man carrying a large drum parades up and down the streets at 3 am to wake everyone -regardless of faith-, and remind them to get up quick and eat the pre-dawn meal of Sahur. Add to this mix the jangle of car honks, children yelling and throwing things into the garbage pile, the Gas-truck speeding up and down the streets early in the morning, playing his catchy jingle in an attempt to sell his canisters of cooking fuel...and it is a veritable urban symphony unlike any other, at times leading to symptoms of insanity amongst its occupants, but more often than not a lullaby, wakeup call and general anthem for the average working class hero. (There is actually a handsome young chap whom I've seen walking up and down Istiklal street wearing a T-shirt with this written on it - "WORKING CLASS HERO", and I am envious, I must say).

Working class hero/masochist that I am, I live here in the belly of the beast in the semi-slum of Tarlabasi. I'm not sure if its simply because of my rather thrifty upbringing, my many years spent in art school near-poverty, or some sort of vow of suffering I have taken upon myself, but while many a frou frou-y expat spends their time living in fancy frilly upscale areas of Istanbul, (shopping at the local multiplex mega-mall and completely detached in a clean and antiseptic reality so far removed from my life), I simply cannot feel comfortable in such posh confines, and have thus gravitated to where I have. It might also be that I am being paid a much lower wage than some other ex-pats I have come into contact with, (those of the pink-washing-machine purchasing variety), who's days seem to be concerned with what brand of knives to buy, or how to remove wine stains from their plush white carpets, and if I want to live centrally, there is no better option than here.

This is a city that can drive you crazy, where in one minute you can be sighing pleasantly to yourself certain it's love - walking across the Galata bridge at dusk chomping down on a Balik Ekmek (fish sandwich), or dancing up and down Taksim streets half-drunken with friends, on a perfect summer night. Or you can be swearing to yourself with certain hate -crammed into that packed Metro subway car, or eyes burning with tear gas at taking the wrong corner on that same summer night. I myself fluctuate wildly and rapidly in my own opinions, like some manic, bipolar orientalist who has forgotten to take her pills, but sitting here on this evening I am feeling the love side of the coin take over, and honestly wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

A fellow Canadian friend of mine who also lives in Turkey wrote this choice statement -presumably in repose to the romantic stereotype that people have created for Istanbul -and I am using it to close this scattered, random blog post because it is just hilariously perfect.

"We are in New York, or at least the New York of the East, and anyone who calls it the Paris of the East has never noticed that Istanbul is lacking in romance, a working level of English and decent croissants".

It's Lord of the Flies meets the summer of Sam, and just like Times Square in a bygone era, the gritty chaos envelopes as noisy birds fly on high over the cuckoos nest.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Mosaic City

It's fitting that during its Byzantine period, Istanbul (then Byzantium) was known for its remarkable mosaics, because while Hagia Sophia's namesakes may have fallen out of fashion and into a state of crumbling decay, the mosaic is still alive and well in Istanbul - it is just represented (in true postmodern performative fashion), in the eclectic lives of its inhabitants.

My own life here is one grand shambolic mis-matched mosaic, with each distinct part a different colour, texture and smell, and I thought it might be interesting to write about this.

Monday to Friday mornings and early-afternoons, I spend my time in the leafy well-heeled enclave of Etiler, which could be a residential neighbourhood in any well off suburb in any westernized city the world over. Shopping malls (loads of shopping malls), cafes, and sport utility vehicles clog the streets, along with my place of employment, a primary hued preschool catering to wealthy upper class Turks, Ex-Pats, and of course, their very well taken care of children. It is worlds apart from where I wake up , a mere 4 metro stops away, in working class Tarlabasi.

Three stories down from my kitchen window, a street cat scurries across a makeshift garbage dump, old women send baskets down through their windows for local shopkeep to fill with bread and milk, and seemingly semi-feral rambunctious children play late into the evening with under inflated dirty balls, or collect half squashed tomatoes from the gutter after Sundays chaotic weekly market bazaar. Last week I came home to the usual crowd of Kurdish women on my front stoop spinning freshly shorn sheeps wool; here, where it seems as though time has stood still for the past several decades, men sit on the road drinking their tea, keeping watchful eye over the slums less desirable inhabitants (drug dealers etc), life goes slowly spinning on while  a mere 10 minute walk away, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world, Istiklal Caddesi, fills with its usual throng of tourists eager to buy clothing, throw back pints of Efes, and spend their dollars. It is a very interesting contradiction, and fascinating to walk the daily tightrope between these two worlds.

Several evenings during the week I head around town to teach private English lessons to a few different groups of people, traipsing over to Uskudar on the Asian side, or near Kabatas ferry pier, I sit and enjoy copious whipped creamed iced beverages and attempt to explain, with some difficulty, such linguistic nuances as a "past participle". My students are average middle-to-upper class Turks, who seem to have little to talk about besides T.V shows and viral Youtube videos (and the latest Epilation procedures - what is with Turks and hair removal? It seems one thing hasn't changed since the days of the Harem).  I have tried to kickstart juicier conversations regarding politics or relationships or religion (trying to keep myself from falling asleep mostly), but have generally received awkward lukewarm reception.

Weekend evenings I dive headfirst into the party vortex of Taksim square, where one could visit a different bar every Saturday night for a year and still probably have some left to try. Dancing and drinking and wandering home with friends at 5 am, the sun rise reflecting off the Golden Horn into my bedroom window, I climb my wooden spiral staircase, open my double barred front door and tumble into bed, facing the cool cement wall to fall asleep as the pigeons wake and the call to prayer begins...

Weekend days I often play tourist (living in one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, after all), and sightsee in historical Sultanehmet. It is a completely different world from my Monday to Friday working life - one capitalizing upon the Orientalist image that I of course am a sucker for. Scarves, carpets, Nargileh pipes and jewelry in the bazaars all beckon me to spend my hard earned dollars. Generally speaking, during the week it is easy to forget that I am a foreigner here (given my international group of English speaking friends); it isn't until I stroll up and down alone through picturesque Sultanehmet streets, and I hear once again vague proclamations of love, offers to drink tea and "look at their shops", whispers of "sexy sexy" and, my personal favourite "I like your tan", that I am indeed reminded I am in fact, not a Turk.

These areas are just a few of the many distinct neighbourhoods comprising the overall Mosaic of Istanbul: From Beshiktas' and Kadikoys students to Aksarays cheap-rent enticed immigrant community (and thus tempting Arab and Uygar restaurants), Ortakoy and Bebeks fancy clubs and sea-side sheesha bars, Fatih and Eyups religious conservative population, and of course Cihangirs smoky intellectual cafes, patios and hip stray cats.

It has been said that Turks like to consider themselves a rather homogeneous group, (perhaps that explains the lack of diversity within traditional Turkish eateries - Kebab anyone? , general overuse of the Turkish Flag, and oh, those little gaffes such as denying the Armenian Genocide and the general existence of Kurds), but the way I see it, any city with such a long, glorious and fascinating past, is better off to celebrate its various unique bits that make up its whole. This city is a crazy bustling mass of 15 million people, many leading seemingly remarkably differing lives, but all united in a love of tea, friends, and socializing.

I am just one of many wanderers to have dropped anchor here for awhile, one foot in Europe and one in Asia, dancing back and forth on the crazy messy colours of this absurd Istanbul carpet.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tarlabasi town

I sometimes wish there existed some form of futuristic technological device that could simply be plugged into my brain and read thoughts and sentences and all the semi-coherent writings in my mind, and transcribe them onto paper (or blog). My current life in Istanbul is so colourful and crazy and every moment, every day, there is something worth writing about, but I simply am TOO BUSY ENJOYING MYSELF, and too lazy, to sit down and write (besides constant scribblings in my paper journal which goes with me everywhere). It is now 10 pm on Sunday night, and rather than watch a movie on my computer and curl up in bed, I am forcing myself to sit at my new desk and WRITE.

How to begin. Well, I just heard the sound of random fireworks going off, and looked out my open bedroom window towards the Golden horn, and saw  red and green and purple coloured explosions - assumingly marking the end of gay pride week. In looking out my window I also caught a glimpse of my very shirtless and buff male neighbours, lifting huge barbell weights and doing situps in a dimly lit room together across the alley. It was quite the comical moment, (and very pride perfect), as I closed my curtain again to giggle and write...this.

Today's Gay pride parade was huge and hilarious and very fun; thousands of people taking over Istiklal street, rainbow flags and drag queens fluttering their lash extensions. Dancing in the streets with trannies and men and women, gay, straight bi, who cares... and even some lost little gypsy girls, long tangled reddish hair flailing as they twirled about on a makeshift stage outside a gay bar. I have never been to such a huge pride parage before, anywhere in the world. In Istanbul!! Take that Erdogan! :P

I also moved this weekend into a new room in an area of town known to most locals as a "ghetto". There has been much written about Tarlabasi on the internet (just google "is Tarlabasi dangerous?" to see a variety of conflicting opinions). My own personal experience thus far is that this is simply a poorer part of town where lots of minorities live (Kurdish, Roma, Africans), children are constantly playing in the street, the weekly produce market is AMAZINGLY cheap and fresh, and I dont know how posh people might react to having a gaggle of Kurdish women constantly sitting on my front stoop, shucking peas, but I personally love it. Everyone is friendly and kind (my corner grocery old-man is so sweet), and in some way, it being so busy and the fact everyone knows everyone is what makes it safe. I'm sure if you go deep into the area, further up and around the maze of streets where there are more abandoned buildings and squats, perhaps there are drug deals and some robberies, but where I am is seemingly completely fine, and I feel really happy to have chosen to get out of trendy ex-pat Cihangir, and into a real working class neighbourhood. There is constantly something happening out in the street, it is noisy, the laundry flaps endlessly in the breeze, and yes, its a bit dirty and chaotic - but if i wanted serenity and peace, Id be living in Switzerland, not Istanbul. My room-mates are also 2 awesome dudes from Kurdish Syria, and it makes so much  of a difference, living with friendly, relaxed people (who also share their breakfast with me!!).

My job is going alright, although the concept of being an english teacher at a preschool where some of the kids are barely 2 years old and in diapers, seems ridiculous. Thankfully it is only 5 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and i have plenty of time to just enjoy myself.

The last evening call to prayer just sounded, and it immediately started raining, as if on cue. The poetry here really writes itself. I am just an observer, trying to capture it, in words, photos, the occasional drawing...and these all-too-few blog posts. I feel to exhausted from all the partying and running all over the city to write much more than this. Tomorrow is Canada day, and true to form I am going to coral a group of my friends into drinking beer with me at "Montreal" - random Canadian themed pub in Taksim. I need to rest up for more festivities.

Legendary Turkish hospitality

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Good Fight

I have obviously been desperately wanting to write some sort of blog entry about the past few days of chaos in Istanbul, but when you are in the thick of things it is hard to find time. I'd much rather be in the streets seeing things with my own eyes, taking photographs, observing (and yes, unfortunately being teargassed), than cooped up insıde just listening to the sounds of revolution outside my bedroom window (literally within feet of Taksim Square). I am thus taking a few moments while it is quiet, working at the hostel this afternoon, to write down some general observations.

Discarded lemons on the sıdewalks and teargas masks scattered everywhere you look; overturned garbage cans as makeshift barracades line my street. Walk 30 seconds up the hill and Taksim square looks like a post-warzone. Graffiti everywhere, broken shop windows, fıres still burning.Yet, being that the polıce seem to have moved on to other areas of the cıty to contınue theır ruthless assault on peaceful protestors (what happened in Beşıktaş last night is simply dısgusting), things are oddly back to normal in the square - for now. Doner shops spin their sizzling wheels of meat, Orange stands squeeze out juice for the thirsty, tourists gawk and take photos with overturned and spray-painted buses. İn the evenıngs, bars open and people drınk their Efes openly ın the streets. Neighbours gather on the many steps of hilly Cıhangır to bang pots and pans and cheer ınto the nıght, whenever chantıng and marching randomly starts. The general feeling ın the aır ıs one of solıdarity and strength - people are only getting more and more angry at the mistreatment of Istanbul's cıtızens and confıdent ın theır anger towards the government here. İf the onlıne photography blogs I have been followıng are any ındıcatıon, as days go by, more and more older people, familıes, and even what appear to be some rather traditıonal lookıng people, are joining the cause. Citıes across Turkey, from Izmır to Adana are stagıng protests, ın solıdarity and respect.

I am hesitant to become overtly optimıstıc as you how thıs wıll all pan out, gıven how poorly the varıous revolutıons ın Syrıa and Egypt have turned out. (İt is hard not to make that comparisıon when I was ın Tahrır Square in Cairo 2 years ago, and now am here ın İstanbul's Taksim Square, and the general feeling and energy seems very similar). A revolutıon ıs only as good as the system that replaces it - then agaın, Turkey ıs a much dıfferent country than Egypt, with a history of Secularism and NATO membership and its hard for me to ımagıne a more conservatıve or Islamıc party capıtalızıng on thıs. For now, I wont even speculate.

Admittedly, it is excıtıng to be here at this time, (even if seeing streets off of Istiklal that I used to frequent in such a state of destruction is heartbreaking), and to see people so impassıoned ın their cause. What started out as a peaceful demonstratıon agaınst the demolition of one of central İstanbul's last remaining parks has sparked somethıng huge. In the weeks prıor to thıs, I had wıtnessed several other teargassıngs and small skırmıshes of protestors and polıce - May Day seemed to start ıt all-  but İ don't think anyone could have predıcted ıt would become thıs gıgantıc.

Whether or not you thınk ıt ıs waste of tıme to take on a government that seems to just think it can do what ıt wants - passıng ever more controllıng laws relatıng to the sale of alcohol, womens freedoms etc, on an ıncreasıng basıs, governments need to be remınded that they are not ınvıncıble, and in a democracy, (whıch Turkey ıs supposed to be), they must be held accountable to the people whom elect them. There are numerous blogs explaining just exactly why the government here ıs so awful and I wont try and encapsulate it here. But obviously, İ thınk the peoples critıcisms are justıfıed. And it is hard not to feel inspıred by the show of bravery of the Turkish people - the amount of teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons that have been used is sımply insane. Bravery, lıke any emotıon (fear, happiness, sadness) ıs contagıous; if you see people who seem brave, and behaving fearlessly, you feel braver by relatıon, And that might be why this movement shows no signs of slowing down. People are feeding off each others bravery and it's working.

Keep it up Turkey, you've got a tough fıght ahead of you.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Of stray cats and rooftops

Last night, as I sat with friends on the fourth floor terrace of a bar in Nevihsade street, I watched an extremely agile cat scurry up the eavestroughs and crumbling bricks of the ornate old buildings crammed next to one another, and disappear into the darkness of the moonlit roof. This cat, so free and wild and without a trace of fear to the precarious angles and dangerous heights around it, made me think of my own absurd situation in this city - however un-brave I am feeling by comparison.

There is nowhere in the world with as fine of rooftops as İstanbul; the multitude of decaying skinny brick-and-wrought-iron structures blend together wıth the minarets, old tin chimneys and red-shingled pointy roofs to create a ramshackle and gorgeous landscape, which is only emphasized by the fact that due to the crowded nature of the city, virtually every buildıng has some sort of terrace on the top that one can sit (and often drink), on. Face one direction and you observe the harbour of the Golden Horn -once a dirty inlet full of polluted water and boats trading goods, rough and tumble sailors from all over the world gathering to eat and drink on the edge of Europe- but now clean and full of tourist cruises and busy sheesha cafes. Face the other way and the dim lights of the rapidly gentrifying ghetto of Tarlabacı call out - clotheslines and derelict buildings of illegal immigrants and shoeless kids playing in the rubble, somehow an equivelent to New Yorks Alphabet City ın the 70's and perhaps an absurd comfort in a world elsewhere so polished and clean. Face south and the wide glitterıng Bosphorous shines, this huge straight seperating Europe and Asia, full of boats from all over the world - İ always think ın awe of what Orhan Pamuk said about Russian ships covertly sailing through in the mıiddle of the night during the 60s cold war, or the fact that Aircraft Carriers have squished under the bridges and through here, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond.

My point is, here İ am working at a hostel for what in North America would be somewhat of a pittance (approximately 3 dollars an hour in case anyone's asking), barely scraping by and balancing like a lost feral cat, dealing with the daily frustrations of living in a place where English ıs not the language, simply because of things like this: the innate visual Poetry of the Roofs of Istanbul. İts seems outrageous and silly, when I could be making a decent wage back in Canada, saving money and spending time with my frıends and family, to stay somewhere for such reasons. İ romanticıze things so much in my own mind that İ find I laugh at myself on a regular basis. Like Pierre Loti in another time, wooed by the decorative details and shiny exoticism of living in a place wıth such a romantic colourful hıstory, and such a beautiful antique appearance. I've been thinking a lot about Orientalism lately, and as much as İ hate that word and its semi-racist connotations, I guess İ might as well come to terms with it. Just the same way people fall in love with cultures anywhere -as much as people love Canada for its wilderness and rugged lumberjack stereotypes, Japan for its techıe neon Harajuku glamour or adore France for its croissants and Museums and good sense of "french" style- İ too am in love with the tangible mythology of İstanbul gone by.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nostalgic Nomad

I am currently sprawled out on my giant bed (after 3 months of single sized beds in hostels and hotels and homes in Shiraz, this queen sized mattress feels fit for a Sultan), in my room in the apartment I have rented in Istanbul Turkey. Listening to Canadian 80's music, eating nutella and feeling nostalgic and lonely and happy all at once. The past week of apartment and job hunting has been hectic and stressful, and now I can finally just  relax.

I first visited this city 3 years ago, as part of my inaugral European backpacking adventure, and fell in love with it instantly. The narrow hilly slightly decaying streets, the spiral staircases and everpresent feline friends; the tiny tulip shaped glasses of tea and spinning doner kebap stands on every street corner. More importantly, it sparked my general interest in the Middle East, when I took an overnight bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia (in central Anatolia), and awaking at dawn I realized I was no longer at all in Europe. Something hit me that morning, seeing the strange landscape scattered with minarets as the sun rose, the occasional camel staring at me through the dusty windows... and I never really recovered. I don't know why or how, but visiting Istanbul definitely changed my life.

When I left here on that first trip (tearfully boarding a train bound for Romania), I felt like one day, I somehow had to come back and live in this city where Asia meets Europe. I made a little promise to myself and admittedly, it feels good to finally, after 3 visits, actually be *living* here, for at least a month, maybe longer if all goes well.

My apartment is in Cihangir which is a perfectly located residential area, near Taksim square and Tophane tram station. I share the old high ceiling-ed suite with a Syrian film-maker, and another Turkish girl. Antique shops, cafes and fresh fruit markets litter the streets. Art Galleries and quirky designer shops selling goods I most certainly cannot afford on my 35 lira-a-day hostel job taunt me on my daily strolls up and down the hills. This is where the hip and intellectual set of Istanbul come to drink their Cay (tea), play cards and gossip while rolling their own cigarettes. I, of course, observe it all like a fly on a wall, and am loving it. Orhan Pamuk's famed Museum of Innocence, which I still have yet to visit, is nearby.

I don't know how long I will be here, as it all depends on what jobs I am able to find. Currently I am working mornings at hostel reception, which is always fun, and teaching a weekly conversational English class to 3 middle aged Turkish men in a Starbucks at the mall. Nothing too fancy...but the city in all its nostalgic Huzun-ridden melancholic glory makes up for it.

Yesterday I walked across the Galata bridge at dusk and went to the spice bazaar where I spent a mere 5 lira on a giant box of Turkish Delight, the freshest most delicious lokum I have ever tasted.  Every other evening I go for late night tea and sit on tiny uncomfortable stools in jammed little alleyways and people watch. I can hear sea gulls and the call to prayer out my westward window as the sun sets, as well as the jams of an acoustic Turkish band who practices beneath my window. I am happy, even though I am alone a lot of the time, when I'm not at the hostel.

I've been trying to draw and somehow create things out of the overflowing amount of inspiration this city gives me. The layers and layers of history here are addictive ; the more that you learn, the more you want to peel off new endless layers and sink deeper.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Iranian Idle

A few years back, upon visiting Italy for the first time, I found myself applauding the lazy "Dolce Vita" pace of life that most Italians regard as their birthright. Brief cappuccino breakfasts eaten standing up, (to allow for the longest possible time spent in bed, of course); leisurely lunches panning across the afternoon; bottles of Wine and plates of Antipasti and Pizza and Cannoli pastries lulling one into the evening like an over-fed cat. I thought to myself, "wow, I could get used to this"...then, half a year later I visited Egypt, where the art of laziness was taken to a whole new level. Men spending the entire day smoking on a Nargileh waterpipe in some dim cafe, guzzling endless cups of tea, while amidst the frantic noisy beast that is the megatropolis of Cairo, one could literally do absolutely nothing for an entire day, without a trace of guilt. Where the phrase "Cairo time", is used to describe the mysterious way that time moves slower than a feeble papyrus boat floating up the Nile; When someone says, "let's meet in an hour, in Egypt they actually mean, "lets meet in six hours...maybe...InshaAllah (god-willing)".

Since visiting Egypt I have traveled to a few other countries where the art of laziness has been celebrated and   practiced heavily - there might be nobody in the world who moves slower than a middle-aged Kurdish woman, or a vehicle that travels slower than a clunky Ethiopian bus- but it seems that where I have found myself now, in Shiraz, Iran, I am actually absorbing the slow-paced relaxed culture to the point I feel I may actually be morphing into some sort of sloth-like animal. Days often begin for me at 3pm, and dinners are often eaten after midnight. I fall asleep with the birds like a true nocturnal hobo; lazing on the sofa sipping rose sharbat like some orientalist's fantasy or aimlessly joyriding around the city like a wayward dervish in slow motion, stopping only to puff on a sheesha pipe or wander the Hafez tomb by the light of a waxing crescent moon.

It is April 16th. I have been on the road now for 3 months, and admittedly it is sort of nice to have this lull - where I lose count of how many days I have been in Shiraz, or what I have actually been doing with my time. It is strange in some way - sometimes I forget that I am in Iran at all, except when I have to leave the lovely house I am staying at, put on my headscarf, and go hangout with a group of people who speak little English. Or when I realize that the things I completely take for granted in Canada -like holding hands in the street, going for a casual pint of beer- are illegal here. Each city in Iran sort of has its own reputation - Isfahani's are known to be stingy and cheap, people from Abadan are considered to be slightly narcissistic beneath their Ray-Bans, while Shirazi's are - you guessed it-, known for their laziness.  I think I picked the right city to drop anchor in for awhile; it seems I fit right in. There is an Iranian saying that goes something like "Why would a wise man do something that he might regret afterwards?" but in Shiraz it is more akin to "Why would a wise man do anything at all?".

Monday, April 15, 2013

Language Arts

Important Farsi words that I have learned thus far:

Salaam - Hello

Khaylee Khoob - Very Good

Khoobee? - Are you good?

Chetoree? - How are you?

Merci Mamnoon - thank you thank you

Basheh Basheh - okay okay!

Khodafez - Goodbye

Toh - you

Man - me/I

Dooset Daram - I like you very much or sometimes maybe possibly love you, depending on the circumstance

Koochooloo - the cute informal way of saying little

Bozorg - big

Ziaad - lots and lots

Azeezam - cute, my darling, baby, awwwww etc etc

Khosh mazee - tasty and/or delicious

Kos Kelak Bazi - the tricky games that tricky deceitful people play

Jendeh - prostitute, used sometimes affectionately between females

Jigareto Bokhoraam - a flirtatious way of saying you find someone attractive but awkwardly it directly translates to: "I want to eat your liver"

Tanbal - lazy

Koon Goshaad - directly translates to something akin to "loose ass" but means very lazy

Bahaal - cool

Khafeesho - shut uppppp

sharbat - a delicious sweet flower water beverage

Shab be khayr - good night

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A few random things you may or may not know about Iran:

- Iran has, (in my opinion), the best inter-city bus system in the entire world. Buses are frequent, on time, clean, fast and unbelievably cheap- for a traveler. The average 7 hr bus journey costs less than 5 dollars, and that is for one of the pimpin' luxury "VIP" buses, which only have 3 seats across (as opposed to the usual 4). They are complete with a water cooler, carpets on the floor and free cookies, juice and various other snacks. Standard buses (which are still good by North American standards) are even cheaper.

- During Nowruz, it is completely normal to see familes (with very small children), out in the street until the wee hours of the morning, eating ice cream, smoking Ghaylun (sheesha pipes), drinking tea, and generally having a lovely time. It is completely antithetical to the western mentality of sending children to bed at 8 pm, and it seems kids here are all the more well behaved because of it.

- The biggest, best, (and by that I mean a foot long and loaded with mayo, spicy sauce, pickles, cheese and potato chips, on a soft baguette bun), hotdogs in the world are to be found in Shiraz, Iran. I kid you not. I am a hotdog expert.

- It may have taken a few weeks, but I have finally got used to the currency here, the Iranian Rial. The confusing part is that everything here is priced in Toman's, which is like the Rial minus one zero. So 10000 tomans = 100 000 rials. (Which itself equals about 3 dollars). This means that when you go and exchange 100 American dollars, you become a millionaire, in Rials. 3.5 Million to be exact. The average dinner costs about 10000 tomans, a bottle of water is about 500 tomans, taxis about 5000 tomans and my hotel room here in Isfahan is 30000 tomans (less than 10 bucks). It is probably the cheapest country i've ever traveled, and the best part is that prices here are fair, there is very little "foreigner pricing" and generally speaking, nobody tries to rip you off.

- Tehran is tied with Beirut as the nose job capital of the world. I havent yet been to Tehran, but Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan are all crawling with many a bandaged nose. It is somewhat bizarre, and concerning that people here view plastic surgery as such a normal thing, but I suppose it's just another form of body modification akin to the ever-present North American tattoo.

- Carrot juice mixed with vanilla ice cream, as a float, is the most delicious thing you would never ever think to combine. Mmmm. It takes away some of the guilt, knowing you are getting all that Vitamin A with your sugar and fat dosage.

- Twix bars become that much tastier when you realize that to get to Iran, they had to be smuggled in. Twix bars, Red Bull and a petite Bahman cigarette. Heavenly.

- So-called "cultural differences" become completely irrelevant when you realize that cool people worldwide listen to similar music (I'll never forget my Shirazi late night sing alongs to Leonard Cohen's "famous blue raincoat"), watch the same films and T.V shows (from "Californication" to "How I Met Your Mother"), and spend their time obsessing over the same things (relationships, love, general restlessness with what to do with one's life), regardless of language or where they were born.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Happy New Yearrrr

Last night I had the extreme pleasure of participating in the Iranian event of Charshanbe Suri- or, more simply put, the evening before Nowruz (Iranian New Years) where people get crazy and make fires and jump through them -despite the governments disapproval of such wild things.

It was way too much fun and, as a traveler, I feel so lucky to have been able to participate in it.  Symbolically, I think jumping over the fire is supposed to represent burning up your bad habits of the past year, and being purified in the flames. I jumped over four, so hopefully all my past bad habits are fully cleansed! It was crazy and chaotic and awesome - fires burning on every other street corner, the smell of smoke everywhere and people setting off fireworks constantly (and often way too close to my now-ringing ears). The whole event has a slight element of danger and chaos and naturally, I loved it.. Charshambe Suri is a festival that goes back to the pre-Islamic Persian empire, and I think has its roots in Zoroastrianism. As I said, I think the government technically has made the fire celebrations illegal, but people thankfully do it anyways, and the party I went to was a private one, held in a garden outside Shiraz (many people in Shiraz own garden properties outside the city). This particular party had a DJ and tons of people, outdoor dancing, drinks (woo!), and was as much fun (if not more - actually WAY more) than any new years eve I've had back in Canada.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Random Iran notes

Every day in Iran, I find myself making a mental note of something interesting that I want to write a blog entry about, something important and fascinating and culturally or politically significant...but unfortunately my brain is often an untidy mess of notebooks and moleskins, scraps of paper tossed around amidgst sequins and glitter and various when I finally have a chance to sit down and write on here, the only memo in my head I can seem to find says three simple words, scrawled on a napkin: "I LOVE IRAN". (Which is all fine and good and true, but doesn't really make for riveting writing).

These whole past 12 days in Shiraz have felt like some crazy dream, and I can't believe I haven't left the city yet, but I have met such great people that I seem incapable of leaving. I know I will go to Yazd soon, after Charshanbe suri, and Nowruz, but I am in no hurry (besides my visa expiring which I think I can easily extend). I don't want to ever leave!  Even with the little annoyances and things you take for granted back in Canada -like the lack of easily available alcohol, or having to wear the hijab every day and my hair being constantly flat and static-y as a result. Even with all the rules and restrictions of Iran, I am having a ridiculously fun time. People here are so genuine and friendly and the family I am staying with is so openminded and cool, I really can't say it enough. It is completely unlike any stereotype westerners might have in their heads about Iranians, and it is really so amazingly great.

Last night me and Nariman and his sister and a whole bunch of his friends went to a really interesting restaurant, the Haft Khan complex (built by a famous Shirazian architect to resemble Ferdowsi's seven stages of houses, after a famous Persian book, "Shahnameh"), and I had such a fun time, constantly laughing....I think back to Canada, and I know that in a similar social situation there, me and my friends would only have that much fun if we were drunk. There is something almost amazing about the fact that the things I've been doing here (playing charades and silly games like truth or dare that normally REQUIRE one to be drunken); the ensuing hilarity and silliness have been totally sober. (Which isn't to say I couldnt reallly go for a cool pint of beer right now, or that as a result of no alcohol in cafes, I have become legitimatly addicted to sheesha and cheap cigarettes). But is is nice that my experiences haven't been clouded at all, or in any sort of haze. I'm sure I will remember them stronger as a result. People here have a great sense of humour and laugh almost constantly....maybe that's why I feel so at home? (Because I am constantly laughing about something, it seems).

I don't really know what else to say. My brain is a mishmash of thoughts and smells and sights and tastes; jasmine flower water on ice, Orange trees in the frontyard that smell so strongly, perfuming the air; watching Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" with friends and laughing hysterically at his similarities to Ahmadinejad; swearing at the slow internet but not really caring that much because it is actually more fun to talk to someone face-to-face than on facebook; driving around Shiraz, with its insane drivers and endless U-turns; late evening pomegranite juice and foot long hot dogs, staying up until sunrise watching youtube videos and laughing and talking endlessly, learning hilarious curse words in Farsi and all the translations and awkward sentences of trying to express oneself in a culture so different, yet so seemingly the exact same as me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I haven't written anything in ages, not because i don't have amazing things to write about, but because I am too busy experiencing things and enjoying myself in IRAN.

Right now I am staying with my friend Nariman, from Shiraz, in his families house. At this particular moment, I am lazing on the bed while he is next to me playing guitar and singing songs in Persian. It is too awesome. His family is so cool, and openminded and generous, and I feel so comfortable think I just met him a few days ago, haha. The real joy of travel is these things - meeting amazing people, and getting to know them. Not just big sights and the tourist draws.

Anyways, I am going out now with him and his friends to the Hafez tomb, then probably for sheeshaaaaa, but i thought id write in this little split second moment, a little slice of life.


Monday, March 11, 2013


I am sitting at the courtyard teahouse of my hotel in Shiraz, trying desperately to get the internet to work. Facebook, and Blogger are both blocked in Iran, but of course young people find ways around this, by using proxy servers and other sneaky methods (which really makes you wonder why the government bothers trying to control and censor things - people ALWAYS find a way. duh). The problem with using proxys is that it takes much longer to load pages and is painfully slow - thus making it impossible to inundate EVERYONE with incessant facebook posts and photos, which I very much want to do because I LOVE Iran so far!

The closest comparison I can make with another country that I have visited would be Syria - similarly somewhat cut-off from outside American influence (though even more so here), really awesome friendly people, a strong couchsurfing community and the rather otherwordly feeling that comes from being one of very few North American tourists. I have met a few other travelers though (including 2 Aussies both named Ben), but no other Canadians, and no other females at all. Us wanderers have all instantly stuck together and explored Shiraz, which is a very beautiful city - The city of Poets, Roses and, at one point, Wine. (Which I am determined to find!)

Last night my very cool Iranian couchsurfing artist friend Mohsen described Shiraz as being a very "sensual city" which made me laugh (I'm sure the mullahs and Imams here wouldnt appreciate such descriptions, bahahah), but I'd have to agree with him. Everything smells like rosewater, fruits, tea and sheesha, and there certainly is a haunting poetic feeling to the city, with its many gardens and beautiful tombs of famous poets (Hafez and Saadi included). The Eram Garden was especially beautiful, with its many orange trees, gorgeous plants, various flowers and cute teagarden serving sherbet. We met some hilarious young women there too, who kept complimenting me endlessly (which feels strange given how absurdly gorgeous Persian ladies are!) and kissing me on the cheek and taking many photos while shrieking gleefully. While the male travelers were certainly getting a sort of attention akin to some sort of Traveler-Beatle-mania, it seems I am even more of a draw - perhaps because they can publicly grab my hand and show affection, or maybe its some  playful amusement at my blue eyes hiding underneath my awkwardly draped leopard print hijab.

Besides the beautiful gardens and tombs and many sights, the people here are the real draw, and their friendliness and hospitality is somewhat surreal. Even people in the street who sometimes appear to be glaring at me - the second I say "hello" their faces soften and they repeat with enthusiasm, "Hello!!". Especially the younger men and women, who will go out of their way to sit and have tea with you, talk with, discuss anything and everything. The people i've met on couchsurfing all seem very cool too, eager to show us the beauty of Shiraz, and have even invited us to stay with them for Nowruz (the Iranian new year). I cannot even keep up with the amount ot couchsurfing messages I am getting - literally dozens of people all wanting to meet and show me their city! It is really quite clean and orderly here (after the chaos of Ethiopia, it seems I really appreciate clean and functional), very safe, and super easy to get around from city to city. Apparently the inter-city buses here are extremely luxurious and spacious and CHEAP - about 5 bucks for a 10 hr overnight journey. !! As well, tourists are treated really good, and I havent been ripped off once yet. Sweet.
After visiting Persepolis a few days ago (which was a m a z i n g), our taxi driver invited us to his house for dinner, and we ate delicious rice and chicken made by his mother, with him and his wife. It was amazing- I have never had a taxi driver invite me to his house before! I really can't say enough good things about Iran, seriously. It is such a shame that American media has created such a bad stigma for such a great country full of such nice people. The president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, no more accurately represents the people of Iran, than Stephen Harper represents me back in Canada. Everyone that I have spoken to here dislikes him greatly and views him with varying degrees of contempt.

I really wish I could upload some photos (I have SO many amazing photos, ahhhhhh), but that will have to wait until I (hopefully) find a better internet connection.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

something about staring at a computer screen while smoking sheesha makes me feel totally dizzy.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Despite all the big, grandiose sites that one sees while traveling - the Petra's, the Pyramids, the ancient rock-carved christian monasteries of Ethiopia, for example- , it is often the more mundane day-to-day tasks that can be the most memorable. Simple things like doing laundry, or buying train tickets, can put you in strange, hilarious situations with local people, and sometimes half the fun is in these little everyday journeys, not just the grander destination. A perfect example of this occurred today, as I finally made it to the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an attempt to get my tourist visa. Located in south Hezbollah-controlled Beirut, and a good round-a-bout 15 dollar taxi ride away from my hostel,  the efforts I am making to get this visa surely speak to how excited I am and how much I want to visit Iran -but the whole experience itself makes for a damn good story too.

The imposing outer beige walls, guarded by a man with a machine gun, became friendlier once through the initial gate. A quick search of my bag, (as the x-ray machine seemed to be more for decoration than actual use), a gentle smiling reminder to don my headscarf, and a helpful man showed me the way to the correct building inside the compound. I opened the door and found myself in a little doctor's office-like waiting room, where there sat a woman in a long black manteau and hijab with her adorable little girl, and a very traditionally dressed Shia man who could have been Ayatollah Khomeini's long lost twin brother. If only I could have taken a picture! It was priceless. As I sat awkwardly with my scarf draped over my head, staring at the water cooler, the man behind the glass tapped and beckoned me over. After much searching through stacks of disorganized paper, frustrated looks on his face, he managed to find my reference code faxed from Tehran and handed me the application form to fill out. Once completed, (and ugly little head-scarfed passport photo attached) I was told I had to go to a specific bank in Beirut, an Iranian one, to pay the 50 Euro fee (Euro's, not American dollars, which is all the rest of Beirut accepts), and bring back a receipt. So I had to take the taxi, yet again, to this particular bank across town, then back to the embassy, put my hijab back on, and hand over the receipt. Fairly easy, just a lot of running around, and I think my driver was growing pretty fed up with everything Iranian at this point.

Now, after all is said and done, my application is being "processed", along with my passport. I have been told to return on Monday to pick up the visa, "Inshallah" (god willing), which makes me somewhat nervous as this saying is often used to described something that is likely to never happen. After all this effort and expense, I better get it! Though nothing is certain, the man behind the glass held his hand to his heart and said "welcome" as I left, so I have a fairly good feeling. Everyone there was actually very helpful and kind, I just hate my passport not being on me, and rather in the hands of some Iranian bureaucrat!

Ah well... it's in God's hands now, I guess (God is an Iranian bureaucrat?). I hope he approves, and in the next week I find myself on a flight to Shiraz.

The extraordinary tomb of the legendary poet Hafez, in Shiraz

Friday, March 1, 2013


I suppose it's only logical that in a city where everyone seems to drink non-stop and stay up all night, exists the worlds greatest hangover breakfast.

After a night of mixing too many drinks whilst out on the town in Beirut, (Almaza beer, local wine, Gin and Tonic's, what have you), nothing quite cuts through the blistering headache and cavernous stomach upset of the morning after, than Lebanon's finest breakfast invention: the Man'ouche.

Plain Zaatar Man'ouche. 
*I found this photo on the internet because I ate my own Man'ouche
 too quickly before I thought to take a photograph.

Somewhat akin to a very thin pizza, but usually folded over into a half-moon shaped pocket, this crispy delight is most often filled with a mozzarella-like cheese, and a generous sprinkling of Zaa'tar, which is a delicious Levantine spice mix of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac. It is cheesy, slightly greasy, salty yet not too heavy on the stomach. It is the perfect hangover breakfast, if I do say so myself.

Couple one of these bad boys with an orange juice and a strong cup of black coffee, and you will be ready to face the day! (Which incidentally, for me today involves going to the Iranian embassy to attempt to get a tourist visa).

The Man'ouche shall give me strength! Yalla!