Friday, March 4, 2011

We've Moved!

This blog is no longer easy to access in Turkey, so go to this page

to read the new blog. I will leave this space indefinitely and stay at the new one over at wordpress.

See you there!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Blog Post That Never Was

I wrote the following piece for a local restaurant review blog. The foodie bloggers called for people living in Istanbul to write about a memorable restaurant experience and I jumped at the chance. However, for whatever reason, they didn't publish my piece, so I will do so here. I am sure they had their reasons, as there are many good places to eat here, no feelings hurt. I enjoyed writing the piece, regardless of where it might end up.

I am off to London and then Ft. Meyers Florida for the next two weeks, so this will be the first and last post for the month of January.

Unsal Balik—The Best Fish Soup Around

My love affair with a particular fish soup started six years ago, when I started frequenting Termal, a steamy thermal spa across the water from Istanbul that dates back to Roman times. Good friends of ours stumbled upon Unsal Balik in the seaside town of Yalova, and with one taste of their fresh fish soup, a winter weekend tradition was formed.

Unassuming it its design and location, this co-op fish place is just on the banks of the Marmara Sea, and only a ten-minute walk from the ferry port. Upon arrival, you are greeted by chirpy waiters who guide you to the display of abundant fresh fish caught by local fisherman. After making a selection, you are whisked away to a table where the food arrives prompt and fresh. Our good friends, who have since moved back to their home in Nova Scotia—people who know fish—were regulars before our first meal there. Me pregnant with twins, and all of us hungry after a long soak in the Termal hot springs in wintry weather, we welcomed a steamy bowl of fish soup. Delicate and brimming with plump, snowy-white fish meat, topped off with a squeeze of fresh lemon, this soup is worth crossing the Marmara for. In fact, this soup is so good, one time I went minus my husband but was sent with a thermos to be filled to the brim with this heavenly concoction. The waiters were tickled and dutifully filled the vessel with piping hot soup for my koca.

Eating there is always a joy, especially once they started to know who we were, and most importantly, why we were there (the fish soup of course). Warm, smiling faces greet us on our approach, followed closely by the question: “fish soup?”

You can of course, also order a whole fish, and fried calamari, which we usually do. If you catch them on the right day, they serve a tasty shrimp stir fry in a sauce that beckons the fresh, pillowy white bread piled high in the basket. The salads are as alluring as the fruits di mare, green and vibrant and sometimes sprinkled with fresh Marmara shrimp.

In addition to a delectable fish soup, expertly grilled whole fish, crunchy calamari and crisp salads, they serve a signature dessert--baked cinnamon and carrot topped helva. On one visit there with aforementioned friends, at the end of the meal we ordered dessert, and the waiter smiled saying, “I put it in the oven when you arrived.” They know fish, and they know their customers.

So it isn’t only the fish soup that keeps us coming back. The service there truly is service with a smile, quick and efficient to boot, and the price is right. In fact, those dear friends who found it years back, have made several pit stops to Istanbul on their way to Syria, and guess where they go each time?

This is a restaurant not to be missed.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Reverb 10

In my morning perusing through foodie blogs over coffee, I came across an interesting writing opportunity called the #reverb 10 project. I only found it today, on the last day of the year, but it came at a good time.

I bent the rules a little and decided to pick one that spoke to me instead of answering the question of today. The is the one I chose: "Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?"

The word that would sum up my 2010 is without a doubt the word growth. The year 2010 offered up to me many opportunities for growth in the form of challenges and loss. This past year I decided to change my mindset and look at challenges as opportunities to grow. Now that the year is over, I feel a change deep within that really feels good, and solid.

As for this time next year, I hope that my word will still be growth, because life will always throw out challenges, and my new perspective is still a work in progess. So maybe it would be more apt to say that the word(s) I hope will define 2011 for me are continued growth.

Take a minute, even if you don't write it down, to think of your response to this question, or any of the other questions really. It is a good way to end the year, and start fresh with the new.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pork, Leeches, Beavers and Burgers: Christmas in Istanbul

Christmas in Istanbul is nothing like it is back at home. In some ways it is a good thing, the commercialism and greediness of the holiday can be disheartening. However, I do miss the decorations, treats, piped Christmas music and festive feeling that lasts all month. In Istanbul, the Christmas tree and decorations have morphed into a new year tradition, so we still see lots of Christmasy type of stuff especially with the grocery stores full of imported chintzy Christmas decorations. Starbucks doesn't carry the Christmas drinks, but they have a Christmas blend, and all of the take away cups are red and cheery. Every now and then we will even hear the faint tune of a dancing Santa. So even though St. Nick was actually from the south of Turkey, it is kind of like bizarro Christmas over here.

The week leading up to the 25th, the neighborhood seemed abuzz with holiday cheer. We were busy with caroling, winter solstice yule log burning, and cookie baking. The big event for the boys was the faculty Christmas party; with all of the talk of a gift-bearing Santa Claus, who could blame them? So even though we had to work, it didn't take away from the merriment of the season. Having the boys at the sweet age of nearly five, the Christmas spirit was full on this year. Our house has been deep in holiday cheer all month, decorated with all the usual fixings, an overload of twinkly lights, and even a homemade advent calendar. With little ones, Christmas is all about the magic and story of St. Nick, as it should be.

On Christmas Eve, Koray and I got out for the day to buy some Santa gifts. Our main goal was to buy a Wii for Ali and Omer, but an e-mail from a friend quickly set me on another path: a Greek butcher in Istanbul. Greek means Christian, and Christian means pork, well in my logic at least. After a phone call and some e-mail exchanges with other pork loving expats, I narrowed down the location of this pork butcher. Christmas Eve was looking even better.

We found the place quite easily. Upon walking in, we were greeted by friendly faces, a display case full of pork, and little pig figurines all over the place. Bacon, sausages, prosciutto, sliced ham, even pork chops were laid out in front of us. Sampling this and that before deciding, we walked out of the joint with a bag bulging with fresh pig meat and were happily on our way. The Christmas dinner menu changed quickly from sweet and sour chicken to pork chops.

The next stop was Nisantasi, the shopping district in Istanbul. All outdoor shops along tree lined streets, Nisantasi was hopping with holiday cheer. Most of the people out were gearing up for the New Year gift exchange, so the steep, curvy streets were bedecked with decorations and lights. The main street was draped in bright red bolted down AstroTurf. Every tree along the cobbled red road was decorated with fairy lights and red, glass ornaments.

While Koray set off in search for the gifts, I took an hour and had a pedicure and manicure at the California Nail Bar an uber cool shop owned by an equally cool American lady. Soon after I was primped and polished, Koray met me for lunch. Ambling down the busy streets laden with a Wii and its paraphernalia, we headed into a diner called Egg and Burger. Being an American who knows and loves burgers, I have been disappointed one too many times by the promise of an American style burger. I was skeptical. Don't get me wrong, I love a good islak burger or kofte, but it is always a bummer when my taste buds gear up for the unencumbered taste of beef, sauce, lettuce tomatoes and bread, and the burger doesn't deliver. Being on a pork-buying high, I wasn't sure I wanted to risk exchanging that for pseudo-burger disappointment on Christmas Eve. But this place had all the signs of a good burger joint: silver round tables, red bar stools, retro coca-cola ads, and cooks decked out in white paper cook hats, slinging burgers just next to the dining area, so I decided to throw caution to the wind. Much to my delight, the burger delivered, and was even tastier then some of the burgers I had eaten back in Washington this summer.

Bellies full and wallets empty, and after a thorough search for a toy beaver (more on that later) we headed home to get ready for Christmas Eve dinner (leg of lamb) and small presents.

Christmas morning started for us at 5:45. Ali got the monster he asked for and Omer got his beaver sanctuary, minus the beaver. He asked Santa for "a beaver house, next to a river with an apple tree." He mentioned it several times after writing his letter to Santa, so I knew it wasn't a passing fancy and also knew it really would take Santa Claus to produce this unique request. I looked all over here, as did Koray when he was in Sweden, but nothing even remotely close could be found. We gave up, settling on plan B. But as Koray was walking out of a store on Christmas Eve, he spotted a tree house and immediately snatched it up. We spent the rest of the day on a fruitless mission, trying to find a toy beaver to live in the sanctuary. Luckily I had bought some beaver stickers and we put those on the "beaver house" in hopes it would work.

After it was all said and done, everybody was happy with their gifts from Santa. We feasted on a Turkish breakfast after cleaning up the shredded wrapping paper, and then headed into the city on another mission-- this time in search of leeches.

Eminonu, a part of the city perched on the Golden Horn, is home to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and well as the animal bazaar, which sells amongst many other odd and exotic animals, big jugs of leeches used for medicinal purposes. As the man fished out five leeches with his bare hands, Ali and Omer squealed "we're getting a pet!" After that idea was quickly squelched, we meandered through the crowded streets before heading home.

(Why leeches? We are teaching Stand By Me to the 9th graders and I thought I would maximize the abhorrent leech scene by bringing in a bucket of leeches and getting them to write a poem about it. I can almost hear the shrieks now.)

So, even though we only had three days, this Christmas was a good one. I feel full in all senses of the word.

I hope yours was just as good and merry.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Those Fleeting Moments

This is my 10th year here in Istanbul, and even though it has become home and the newness worn away many years ago, this city still enamors me, especially when I get a weekend away in it with my husband.

We technically do not live in Istanbul, but in a developing suburb with fat-tailed sheep roaming in the village-dotted hills. And because we have full lives raising Ali and Omer, as well as full-time jobs, more often than not Istanbul the destination eludes us.

Istanbul is an amazing, beautiful, pulsing city, which I feel is even better experienced from its heart, Beyoglu. For the four of us, we usually enjoy Istanbul from nine am to about noon, and on the weekends. We do this because of the traffic, which starts getting heavy around noon, and to avoid the painful experience of being trapped in gridlock traffic with two active pre-schoolers; you can only listen to so many Curious George or Skippy John Jones audio books that melt into a seat-belted wrestling match in the back seat, followed by a series of empty warnings and threats (what can you really do in a car stuck in traffic?) before you start to go a little crazy.

Needless to say, we miss the pulsing beat of Istanbul by night.

But this weekend, Koray's childhood friend got married, so we decided to take full advantage of doting grandparents and the beautiful city whose far reaches we inhabit.

Once the grandparents arrived, we kissed the boys and happily hopped in the car, reveling in our newly found but limited freedom. The weekend started off with a monthly meeting I try to attend of professional women living in Istanbul. The snow flurrying outside distorting the view of the gray Marmara Sea, I sipped a cappuccino while talking and listening to a group of interesting and innovative women who have made their way here in Istanbul. It was a good start to a weekend that enabled me to re-charge and remember who the person is that sometimes gets buried under the identity of mommy and teacher.

As soon as the meeting was over, we made our way across the Bosphorous Bridge to a historical hotel in the heart of Pera. With a few hours to kill before the wedding, we treated ourselves to a Thai lunch. Soon thereafter that I indulged in a warm, sudsy hamam. Freshly scrubbed and refreshed, we headed into the old city for the merriment. It was the ride across the Galata Bridge that I was struck for the hundredth time--which always seems like the first time--as to how beautiful Istanbul is.

There is something about this city that cultivates a love-hate relationship with its inhabitants. The traffic, the over-population, the crazy drivers, all make me yearn for a quieter life back in North America. But then there are moments, or weekends, like this, and I wonder if I can ever go back to a life without the glitter and intrigue of a city like Istanbul. The sky line, the vibrancy, the city's texture and warm, lively people, it wins my heart over and over again.

So this is all this post is really about, that single moment in the weekend that I was struck by the beauty of this city reminding me that my wildest dreams of living abroad come true time and time again each time this magnificent city reveals itself to me.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The End of Poverty. Period.

One of the many things I love about being a teacher is that I am constantly re-evaluating what I know, how I do things, and sometimes, who I am. I also love the privileged opportunity we have as teachers to the precious relationship with young people. But the thing that I love the most is that I learn as I teach. Students have a lot to teach me, just as I have a lot to teach them. The way I see it, teaching is the much sought after fountain of youth.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher in my senior year of high school. Each year at my school the 6th grade students went for a week to Camp Wooten, a quintessential school camp, dotted with cabins full of bunk beds, nestled deep in the Blue Mountain range of Washington State. The counselors were always 12th grade students, chosen by the high school teachers. The year I was a senior, I badly wanted to go, mainly because all of my friends--all stellar athletes and good students, obvious choices for role models--were chosen to be counselors. I was so desperate to go that I offered to go even as extra help in the kitchen. I don't know who, but someone decided that I would go, and not only that, that I would get a cabin full of chirpy 6th grade girls. I was thrilled. And it was this event that set me on my career path as a teacher. By the end of the week, it was obvious to me that I found joy in working with young kids. Leading them, guiding them, talking with them, I dug it all. Soon thereafter, I enrolled in education courses in college, setting the wheels in motion.

17 years later, and I still love that relationship. While my 9th graders are squirrelly and drive me nuts, my seniors suffering from senioritis, I still enjoy being around them and listening to what they have to say, helping them to navigate this complicated world as they unknowingly help me navigate mine.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post, poverty. Our goal in grade 12 for the month of December is to define poverty, understand why it exists, identify why some people can't get out of it, help students to know ways that global poverty can finally come to an end and what they can do to make a difference.

The UN has set a goal that by the year 2015 extreme poverty will be eradicated from the world. Currently, there are 1 billion people sharing our world who suffer from extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined as not having access to the basics like food, clean water, shelter, basic clothing articles, let alone health care and education. At present, the world is producing enough food for each person to have 2, 224 calories a day, each day. But because people do not have a access or means, the food is not being distributed evenly. In Sach's book, I read about a mom in Malawi, who has a family of six, and when asked by a visitor what she will make for her family to eat, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bug infested handful of millet which she will take and mix with water to make a porridge to feed all of them. Roughly, a handful of millet is about 450 calories, divide that by 6, and that is how many calories a day she and her family will be eating.

So when I set out this past weekend to plan for my lessons this week, I was hurrying since that evening Koray and I were attending the Teacher's Day party, a lavish event thrown by the school each year to honor teachers. I had been eating carefully all week so that I could wiggle into my shiny new purple off-the-shoulder party dress. And then I read about the mother in Malawi, and it stopped me in my tracks.

In a season where we are thankful for all that we have and eat our way through November and December, consuming thousands and thousands of calories, followed by a strict regime to shed the holiday weight, I suddenly felt very, very aware of how very lucky we are. I am a grateful person, I am grateful for all that I have, and I think about it often, even when it isn't the season to be grateful. But this information made me see my fortunate life in a different light.

I felt moved to do something. But what? What could I do to stop a global problem? Stop shopping at the Gap? Stop overeating? Donate money? Eat leftovers? Stop worrying about the pudge in my waistline? What?

At the very dinner celebrating what we do as teachers, sitting amongst whirls of waiters carrying bright white plates full of artistically stacked food, sparkly glasses brimming with fresh water and wine, another teacher and I were asking ourselves this very question. Racking our brains, we concluded that what we could do to make the most difference was to teach young people. Helping them to understand the multi-faceted nature of poverty and giving them solutions was our only hope. It is a hope that at least one of them will be moved as we were and go out there and make a difference. And this makes me feel hopeless because I wish I could do more. But if everybody did what they could do within their power, maybe the problem would come to an end. In fact, I am sure it would make a difference.

What I have learned is that over-shopping, and overspending, and all of the cheap clothing and items I love to buy actually do contribute to the problem of poverty. I have learned that charity isn't enough, that micro-loans are better since it gives people the empowerment to better themselves. I have learned that we are close to the UN's goal of eradicating poverty and that there is hope, but we all must do our part.

There are many ways to give back out there, but two of my favorites are Oxfam and These are organizations where you can buy capital in the form of goats, cows, or seeds, or give a micro-loan to an entrepenear. Through I loaned some ladies in Nicaragua the rest of the money they needed to buy some chickens for their butcher shop. The cool thing about is that you can loan as little as 25 dollars and once it is re-paid, continue loaning to another person. 25 bucks. Nothing. Click here to watch the dynamic lady who started this amazing program.

There are also many resources you can look into about poverty. "The Story of Stuff" shows us how consumerism is directly linked to the exploitation of poor countries, which directly contributes to poverty. The United Nations web site on the Millennium Development Goals shows a road map for how they plan to eradicate poverty. For a film, check out The End of Poverty? (with punctuation) by Philippe Diaz and for reading, The End of Poverty (no punctuation) by Jeffrey Sachs, of which Bono wrote the forward.

So, after all of this, am I taking a vow of poverty, giving up the lifestyle that I lead? No, I am not that good. But what I will do is be more aware of my impact on the earth and try to change what I can, and try to teach youngsters, including my own, that we do not live alone and are responsible for each other.

I also hope this this post will inspire you to give back this holiday season and help those less fortunate.

If you do, drop me a line, I would love to hear about it.