Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Istanbul, take two

The second weekend of August, I headed to Istanbul.  I've been to Istanbul before, during an action-packed long weekend with Lyla back in May of 2009.  Now, it's not often that I will return to a place I've already visited, especially if I don't know people who live there.  But Istanbul was different.  I loved it the first time, and I was excited to return.  I maintain that Istanbul really is a special place.  It has such an energy to it, such an interesting mix of cultures and peoples.  This time, we were also visiting during Ramadan, which led to enormous groups of actual Istanbulians gathering at night to eat, dance, and socialize.  I arrived Friday evening and met up with Mary, Juliet, and Chelsi from my masters program.

Upon checking into our hostel, we found Juliet curled up in one bed and this little kitty curled up in another.  It seemed to be all part of the socialist cat experiment going on in Istanbul.  All these cats were, ostensibly, strays.  Nevertheless, they were all well fed and seemed rather healthy.  We even saw one stray cat wearing the cone of shame, presumably after a recent vet visit.  The cats seemed to have their own little hang outs, and the owners of the various businesses took care of them.
The first thing we did was climb up the stairs to a roof top balcony and get a drink while the sun set.
other roof tops and the Bosporus
After getting a quick bite to eat, we decided to sit in an outdoor cafe, befriend the staff, and enjoy a nice fish bowl with a nargile.
Silliness ensued.
The next morning we woke up, and decided to go for a walk.  Since I've been to Istanbul, Juliet was returning, and Mary had already been there a few days by the time we arrived, we felt pretty chill about making it to the big tourist sites and were instead content to have a nice, calm day.  This is the Hagia Sofia.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) was all decked out for Ramadan.
Chelsi and I did pop into the courtyard of the mosque, though, to admire the five cascading domes.
The weather was gorgeous.  It was hot, but not too hot, with lovely, flower-scented breezes.
This pretty dome, on the old Roman forum, was where we sat to enjoy a bit of shade.  We then hit a little market of traditional goods and crafts that had been set up in honor of Ramadan.  Shockingly, I bought earrings.
We walked through a lovely, enormous park that had been part of the gardens of the Tokapi palace.  Eventually we wound up at the sea, where we watched fishermen work and wandered back along the sea wall.
The girls liked the sea wall.
Four people in a self-portrait?  Of course it can be done!
On the way back to the hostel, we walked through a more working-class neighborhood and this little fellow came running out to greet us.  His eyes were barely open.  Now, the previously mentioned socialist cat experiment hasn't taken away the capitalist urges of the people.  When I scooped him up, a nearby group of men laughed and called out "One Euro!"  He made me think of little Puha, the super-friendly kitten from last visit.  Isn't he so cute? 
We ended the day on the terrace of our hostel, which afforded us some fantastic views.  This is the Hagia Sofia.
This is the Blue Mosque, complete with Ramadan lights.
Meze Plates are a fantastic way to eat in Turkey.  You get various dips, such as these yogurt and tomato dips, and little snacks, such as these cheese rolls and dourma, plus a basket of pitas.  Yum!
The amazing full moon over the bay.  Later we went for a walk around the main square, and saw whirling dervishes performing/praying.  Traditionally, they prey by dancing, spinning around and around for hours until they reach a higher plane.  It's insane to see... one of those things that just catches your breath in your throat.  Amazing.
The next day we hit the spice market, where I stocked up on spices and teas to bring back to Hungary with me.   Then we hopped on the ferry and headed across to the Asian side, where we had a delicious lunch on a floating restaurant.  This appetizer of pastrami, cheese, and fresh herbs wrapped up in phyllo was transcendent.  It was SO GOOD.
And, of course, I ate a fish.  And Mary pretended to put its eye on Juliet.
the famous Bosporus bridge
Sunday afternoon was spent at the baths, steaming ourselves.  We got the exfoliating massage, at which point they somehow managed to remove enough skin from us that we all looked like snakes, pink and shiny with little bits of skin clinging to us.  It was actually somewhat gross.  But then we got massages, which cleaned the grossness away.  We walked back and grabbed dinner on yet another rooftop cafe.  I got a Mezze Plate again, this one including 8 dips, dourma, and four little fish rolls.  Washed down with a nice beer, it was so delicious.
Sunday night, Juliet and I stayed up with Mary until she had to catch the 3 AM shuttle bus to the airport, somehow befriending two Turkish guys who didn't speak any English but were very good sports about it.  We had a great time playing cards and laughing.  On Monday Chelsi and I dashed to the great bazaar to buy some souvenirs.  I had very, very awesome success with my haggling, getting what I wanted for a third of the original price.  Then it was onto the shuttle bus to the airport to catch my plane back to Budapest.  What a great weekend!  Istanbul is such a fun and exciting place, and I know I'll be back again.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Magda's Wedding

So as most of you know, I headed back to Europe from the States a bit earlier than I actually had to do so for work.  This was because my very good friend was getting married.  Magdalena and I have been friends since we met at Hungarian Language School almost three years ago, and have bonded closely in the way that expats do.  Magda is Polish, but lives here in Hungary with her Hungarian now-husband.  I was invited to her wedding this summer and I was super excited to attend, experience a bit of central European culture, and have a ton of fun.

First, of course, I had to get to the wedding.  This involved a seven hour bus trip through beautiful Slovakian and Polish countryside on Friday.  I spent a quick night in Krakow, then woke up early on Saturday morning.  After meeting Lyla at the train station, we caught the train to Debica, then a taxi to the hotel.  We laid about for a bit before then getting ready and catching a bus to the wedding.
Sadly, the weather was not very cooperative, but it was still a lovely day.  This is the church.
There was a polka band!  Polka!
the altarpiece
The ceremony itself was beautiful.  The priest switched back and forth from Hungarian to Polish and back again.  It was just lovely, the thought of two such different people coming together, and bringing all of their friends and families together with them.
After the wedding, there were people in crazy costumes everywhere.  I guess it is local tradition to dress up and essentially harass the bride and groom for vodka, cake, coins, and other treats.  They also poured potatoes on the ground  (like hundreds of potatoes) and made Bela gather them up to prove that he can be a good provider.
After the bus kept getting stopped by the local revelers, we arrived to the reception tent at Magda's childhood home.  We were greeted by balloons in both the Polish and the Hungarian colors.
This being central Europe, the first thing done upon entering the tent was a ceremonial shot-taking.  They then had to throw the shot glasses behind them.  They didn't break, though, so Bela then had to stomp each of the shot glasses.  The happy couple then swept up the broken glass together while their family swatted at them.
Dinner was served family-style, and it was pretty darn delicious.  Not pictured: bottles and bottles and bottles of vodka and other alcohols.
Lyla and I were very pretty, if I do say so myself.
The night continued.  There was a lot of dancing, both of the more Central-European variety and of the Chicken dance variety.  There was a slideshow of the couple's life, and many toasts, and oh so much vodka.  At one point, I went on a quest for water.  "Voda?" I asked several servers.  "Tak, VODKA!" they all replied, pressing bottles into my hand.  It was an adventure.  Dogs showed up, and we played with them.  Cake was served.  Many conga lines went around.  I somehow had full conversations with people who only speak Polish.  And when, late late at night, the above-pictured meat jello (aspic) was served, I even tried some.  And then more dancing, and more buffalo grass, and telling everyone in very excited Hungarian that "THIS WAS A BEAUTIFUL WEDDING."  Finally, I started a movement around six in the morning, linked arms with Lyla and some strangers, and fell asleep on a table.  The groom came and woke us up, shouting that there was important dancing to be done, but we demurred and asked for a ride back to the hotel instead.

The next morning there was a brunch, where most of the guests were wearing sunglasses despite the cloudy sky, and then Lyla and I spent the day in the weird little hotel, eating cake and catching up on life.
This American got to be one of only a handful of foreigners in attendance, and experience a totally different, yet totally familiar, Very Important Day.  It was beautiful, to see all these people coming together, and communicating somehow despite language and cultural barriers.  It was beautiful to be a part of it.  And so much fun!  My life is pretty awesome.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bad bad blogger, redux

Sigh.  I know I've written this entry a few time before, but this time it really wasn't my fault, due to several weeks with very limited internet access.  In the meantime, I've been to a wedding, settled into a new apartment, gone to Istanbul, and had a week-long visit from a friend from my master's program, complete with the requisite exploration of Budapest and trip to Eger.  Eventually I will blog about all these things and put up photos and so on.  I promise!

Yesterday was the 20th of August, which is Saint Stephen's day here in Hungary.  He was their founder, so to speak, and the 20th of August is sort of their equivalent of the 4th of July in the States.  Everyone is happy and out of the house, there are snacks and food stands, and there are fireworks.  I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I first came to Hungary on the 20th of August, so it has something of a special meaning to me as well.  Last night Balint, my new flatmate Anna, and my houseguest Juliet wandered down to the river to watch the fireworks and wound up staying up until two playing cards.  At a certain point in the night, walking down to the fireworks, I just kind of sighed.  When Anna asked what was up, I really didn't have an answer.  I was just happy.  And while the fireworks were going off, I just pondered how much my life has changed in three years.  I've been abroad for three years now, and it's been an amazing three years.

Of course, the one thing missing from the weekend was the Red Bull AirRaces, which used to be held in Budapest this weekend.  Sadly, they were canceled this year, and possibly last year and probably forever, due to safety concerns.    But they used to be awesome.  They started and ended by flying UNDER THE CHAIN BRIDGE.  It was epic.  Rest in Peace, Red Bull Air Races.  I did miss you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Moving into the flat today

Everything is mostly set up, and tonight will be my first night at the new flat!  And then I will have two nights, and on Friday I head to Istanbul for a long weekend with some of the girls from Spain.

Internet, photos, and blogs hopefully to follow soon.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


That, readers, means Sweden.  And that is the jist of Ikea's current big advertising push: that going to Ikea is like going to Sweden.  The billboards all say "Sweden this way!" with arrows and such.  Of course, for me, going to Ikea is not anything like going to Sweden.  Going to Ikea is like going to heaven.  And going to Ikea is like going to hell.  Because I want everything I see, and suddenly I've spent just hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  Or tens of thousands of forints, to be more dramatic.

Today marked my fourth annual Ikea trip, where I go and buy just everything I need for a new apartment.  In this case, this included a bed.  And I figured, since I'm going to be sleeping on it every single day, it should be a nice bed.  So I got the one I liked, with simple clean lines, even though it wasn't the cheapest.  It wasn't that much more than the cheapest, but still.  And I got a nice mattress for it.  Plus a big fluffy duvet, three big pillows, and new sheets.  And all sorts of silly other things were purchased, like a red mop and three dozen clothes hangers and a shower curtain with angry fish drawn on it.

This moving every year thing is expensive, but at least it gives me a chance to dawdle for hours in housewares stores!