Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bulgaria the Wonderful

After several uneventful weeks of life and work in Istanbul, Gavin and I realized it was time for a little excitement: A trip to Bulgaria.

What's better than a trip to a beach town in the heat of the summer...nothing. Thus, our adventure to Varna began.

After an uncomfortable 10 hour bus trip, we arrived in the pre-dawn hours to a spectacular lightning storm. The increasing winds and parched electrical warmth should have warned us to take cover, but due to the early hour and lack of knowledge about Varna we wandered through the streets aimlessly. When the torrential downpour commenced we were lucky enough to be near to an outdoor tented cafe, where we managed to stay somewhat dry for the duration of the storm (Hurricane Katerina). Laying on benches, we attempted to sleep, while trying to keep the millions of beetles covering the ground off of us. When day light finally came we managed to get some directions to our hostel, but, alas, it was not open yet, so Gavin and I started our party early and downed a few beers (Beck's) in a breakfast cafe (thank you Kate Cambell for the six leva you left Katie, without which we would have been screwed!).

Around 8am we made our way to the hostel only to find it still closed, but where a wary traveler, Jon the Baptist, was waiting as well. He was easily persuaded into breakfast with us. After more beer and great food, we wondered over to the hostel (Flag Hostel, we recommend it for anyone traveling there alone), and finally got into a room by 11 and got some much needed rest.

By 2, Gavin and I hit the town. We discovered quickly that while there doesn't appear to be any Chinese people living in Bulgaria, there is a plethora of Chinese restaurants. After indulging in a feast of fried noodles with pork, Gavin and I wandered about the town. The town stretches along the Black Sea. There is a wonderful park that runs directly above the beach for what appears to be miles. We took a long walk through the town, park, and along the beach, finally laying out for a few hours and getting some much needed sun.

Bulgarian beaches are a very peculiar place. Women tend to go topless and often wear only a thong from age 6 - 85. There sure were some sights to see! There were many tourists there as well, due to a small cruise ship parked there the fist day of our trip. American women attempting to "go native" and exposing white flabby skin that no one wants to see... it was entertaining to say the least.

Later that night Gavin and I ran into two Canadian girls from our hostel, whom we enjoyed another feast of traditional Bulgarian food (very home style baked casseroles, with a lot of cheese and potatoes and of course PORK.) After dinner and drinks (vodka was cheaper than water) the four of us made it to a beach bar, here we met up with other hostelers and Jon the Baptist for an all out Bulgarian beach party which lasted until the wee hours.

On Monday, Gavin and I celebrated our one and a half year anniversary. We decided that the hostel wasn't quite for us. Sleeping in bunk beds across the room from each other in a minuscule apartment inhabited by 8 strangers isn't quite our thing. We managed to find a wonderful room in The Hotel Splendid (We got a deal for the room after talking to the Manager, I would recommend it to any couples who go there, it was only 20 leva more than the hostel for two and very private/clean.) We ate Chinese again. Fried noodles with mushrooms and pork spareribs with spicy cabbage salad. you sure can't find that in Istanbul! Our day was spent swimming in the Black Sea and laying out on the beach reading and talking. When the sun finally set, we made our way to a beach bar for another night of fun. After meeting the veritable conflation of Mad Max and Johnny Knoxville, Uncle Petey, we went to an unimpressive fish dinner ("I'd rather eat a plate of bullocks than those fucking cold mussels!") and hit the town once again, this time in grand form - don't order the "love cocktails".

Tuesday was spent in the sun. Petey and his Lithuanian pals, Jon the Baptist, Gavin and I spent the whole day swimming, sunbathing, drinking Bulgarian beer and "taking the piss" out of life at the waters edge. We feasted one last time on Chinese food, this time getting even more dishes. The evening was spent laying in the sun in bean bag chairs; yet, after a few too many drinks our company sculpted the aforementioned bean bags into a large fort and took turns running into the pillow-fort at high speeds.

Then the "Choice" was made. Not quite as shocking as Sophie's, but difficult as we turned our backs on Varna and headed to the bus station. As a final send-off, we quickly stopped in a grocery store and stocked up on sausages, extremely cheap booze, and honey.

Upon arriving in Istanbul at 7 am we were reminded of all the faults of this city. No clear signs to the buses to get back into the city. Smelly buses/people. People staring at us like we were aliens. Having to walk on the side of a highway with no side walk to get home. Oh, the malignant woes of Istanbul. Next summer we will be spending three months in Bulgaria rather than just three days.

To the say the least, Eastern Europe is highly recommended by these pseudo-intrepid travelers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Too Many Starbucks and Not Enough Screens

A couple of my friends from college (let's just refer to them as Tim and Sean) recently spent ten days in the city with Nellie and I. One of their countless observations concerning Istanbul was that there is "too many Starbucks". Agreed... there is too many of them on this planet. A second concerned windows and the lack of screens accompanying them in this country. At the time, the lively atmosphere prohibited deeper probing into the validity of the statement, but I was immediately skeptical as to the real practical utility of the screen. We composed a quick tune on the subject, moved on to greater philosophical ramblings, and let the question of supercilious window coverings disperse into the night air.
A normal being would let the subject die, but I had to exhume the corpse due to a throat illness and a glut of free time following the departure of my friends. Thus, over the next few days, I had little to do but vacillate internally over the need for screens on windows. Istanbul does indeed have a fair amount of mosquitoes; on the contrary, this is not sub-Saharan Africa and we follow local Istanbul custom by keeping numerous basil plants in the living space (according to Turks, mosquitoes don't like basil as much as Thais or Italians do). There is also the question of thieves and the easier access provided by a lack of screens, but the ubiquitous bars on all ground level homes usually provide a deterrence to would-be intruders. Points and counterpoints streamed through my consciousness until my brow burned and I gave up - banishing that silly debate from my addled brain. Flash forward to early this morning, when an event of such gravity occurred that my bi-partisan ramblings on the subject were forever quelled.
Our new apartment is located just a few blocks from this district's camii (mosque) and the first azan (call to prayer) woke me at ten to five. I generally tune-out the azan and rare is the time I am awoken by its cacophony. However, this time, the abrupt prelude of abrasive, crackling speakers led to such a sonorous, deeply beautiful melody that I was peacefully brought from my dreams. The nasal pitch of the call was softened by a wistful, melancholic undertone and as I listened in silence I felt that I could understand the Arabic words as though they were imperceptibly translated in my psyche. It was if I held my breath for the entire duration and when the speakers were disengaged and the crackling subsided, I gasped for air.
Severely self-satisfied and exhausted by this fleeting grasp of cosmic piety I quickly fell back asleep.
Albeit, there is no rest for the weary and, moments later, I was startled out of bed by a soft thud that emanated from the windowsill. It took my eyes but a moment to adjust to the darkness and to my great surprise a small ebony cat was perched on the cabinet beneath the window - in our room! My heart just about leaped from my chest and, invariably, the little brigand was as frightened as I. The critter hastily returned to the night scape from whence he came and Nellie woke up to me shrieking that our luck is forever marred as great Providence has bestowed the ultimate sign of our demise upon us - the black cat!
I didn't enter into cardiac arrest, but the ordeal was less then ideal. Needless to say, I am now a card carrying member of the pro-window screen lobby.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


They came, they saw, they conquered.
La Familia Pilisi left an indelible impression on this land and the whirlwind ten days was nothing short of a killer time. We thank them for being the first brave souls to head east. 

During their visit we headed down to the central Aegean coast of Turkey.  We meandered through the ruins of ancient civilizations, encountered cat orgies in quaint mountain villages, chilled at the beach with giant porcine beasts, and embraced the locavore movement by mowing down on the best local foods these Turks can offer.  Our battle scars were relegated to charred skin from the beaming sunshine and my Dad and I managed to avoid any monumental rows.

As for life post-Mel and Lou, we are working sparse hours and going to lovely Black Sea beaches as much as possible. Three of our good buddies are leaving soon so the upcoming weeks will be full of good ole' party-time-USA. Till' next time...

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I apologize to our parents and close relatives as we've been neglecting our limited, yet well-loved core readership by failing to post at least once in a while. I think Nell forgot we had a blog and I am slipping into the same languid river. Anyways I got ten minutes to update, here it goes...
The spring has been cold and we are still only into that temperate zone where the sun is warm but the shade uncomfortable. I've been told I shouldn't dwell on the fair weather as the summer here is supposedly brutal.
Food is good here. I advise anyone to come and try it.
Consistent; albeit, at times, 4 hours in front of a class you have to jointly entertain and teach can be an uphill battle. Nellie has moved out of her previously typecasted role as the "beginners" teacher and seems happy with a couple intermediate classes. I, on the other hand, remain happily drifting in the seas of the middle. To put it basely - if the students don't know a lot or know too much I am not their teacher. Someone else is.
Cool - we go to bars and drink beer.
I bought Nellie a 1000 piece puzzle. She is very happy. It actually only has 999 pieces according to a note on the inside of the box. We feel cheated.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Long Overdue Spring Greeting

To prove just how lazy and negligent we have become with regards to this blog, I am just now posting this long overdue update almost two weeks after it was written.

Local elections are occurring, none of my students showed up for class, and thus I am currently getting paid to write a long overdue update for our friends and families. The last month or so has been quite eventful and I have decided that bullet points are the easiest way for a lazy writer to summarize past occurrences and random thoughts (readers beware: the following events are bereft of any semblance of order [chronological/logical/etc.])…

• After some classroom management problems resulted in a 32-year old man swearing at Nellie I lost my temper, turned vigilante, and accosted this miniature human being with a stream of obscenities outside our school. This small hiccup in customer service was invariably met with slight disappointment by my superiors and caused almost half of the class to revolt further against Nellie (once again proving that I am preternaturally skilled at exacerbating any situation to fever pitch levels). As I expected, the next day the aforementioned bag of scum and his gang of teenage accomplices barricaded the remaining loyal students in the classroom - admonishing them for choosing to remain under the tutelage of such a disrespectful foreigner. After they were ordered out of the building by staff, they subsequently followed us down the road for what I was convinced would culminate in a “Beat It”-esque, choreographed street brawl accompanied by hip thrusts and synthesizer (my advance apologies for the obligatory Michael Jackson reference). To my chagrin, their thinly veiled threats and insults never added up to much more than some obscene gestures and dirty looks. As for the aftermath… our brilliant employer chose the higher path, catered to this adolescent thuggery, and gave these ill-mannered bastards a private course at another school branch. Business as usual, Turkish style.
• Nellie has morphed into quite the housewife and won’t allow me to step foot into her private domain (the kitchen) while cooking is taking place.
• We have found a great group of buddies over here and the revolving cast of characters that accompanies us to various cafes, bars, and (inevitably) more bars has definitely made the assimilation process smoother. Initially, I thought Istanbul would provide a bit of respite from the fast pace of life I had become accustomed to in the States; nevertheless, only the scenery has changed and we are still finding ourselves constantly being entertained by (or entertaining) the homies.
• The weather has been miserable for the past three months; yet, as I write this entry the sun is shining for the second straight day and the cats in our neighborhood are exponentially multiplying in number. Judging by these two facts, spring is here my friends and love is in the air (at least for the omnipresent feline population).
• When we were recently invited to a sushi dinner by Nellie’s brother I was immediately reluctant to take part in a feast of raw fish in this land of lax health regulations; however, I naturally caved in to Nellie’s persistence and although the quality was by no means nonpareil, it was a nice change from our common means of weekly sustenance – homecooked pasta, chicken shish kebab, Efes pilsner, repeat.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Due to a 200,000 person protest/riot down the street, Gavin has forbid me from leaving the house with the exception of a visit to the Internet Café to post this blog.

Not too much to report. We had a really good Valentine’s Day. I ended up cooking us dinner: Turkish dolmas, carrot/yogurt salad, a cheese platter and salad to start, and creamy eggplant pasta for dinner. YUM!!

Last weekend we joined a group of our friends for a night out in Taksim. Unfortunately when we decided to leave at 2 am we were faced with the challenge of getting back to the Asian side from Europe. After about 11 all the ferries stop running and Gavin refuses to take the bus, so we were stuck taking the Domus (mini bus). After walking about a mile in the pouring rain (a torrential downpour that soaked me through my winter jacket, jeans, and shoes) we finally got to the domus stop. The five of us pilled into the vehicle, only for the driver to tell us we have to wait for two more passengers before he can leave. WTF. Gavin tried to bribe him with 4.80 TL (the price of one fare) but the driver refused. It took about 15 verses of “The wheels on the bus go round and round,” “This is the song that never ends,” and a 5 TL bribe to finally get him to drive us. I guess the “This is the song that never ends” is just as annoying if you don’t understand English.

I have become addicted to yet another Turkish food: Gozleme. Some of Gavin’s students recommended a gozleme restaurant near our school. We have dinned there 3 times in the past week. I cannot get enough of it!

This morning started like any other morning until on our walk to work we realized the main street we have to cross had been barricaded off with police fences and was being guarded by hundreds of armed policemen. When we got into work we found out there was going to be a protest along the waterfront today. Two hundred thousand people were expected to come from all over Istanbul, making it the largest protest in over 20 years. Rumors were flying about potential police brutality and what not. The noise on the street grew louder and louder throughout my morning class. When we left school just an hour and a half ago, the police force had tripled, if not quadrupled since the morning. There were soldiers with machine guns, army tanks and police in riot gear amongst the regular police. There were already thousands of protesters filling the street. From our apartment I can see helicopters flying over where the protest is happening. Pretty wild.

Tonight one of our fellow English Time teachers is having a Valentines Day party at her apartment in Moda. I am supposed to meet Gavin at work around 7 to go to the party. I hope I am not pummeled by the angry mob on the way over.

I guess that’s all for now. Hope all is well back home!!

Oh! Almost forgot… HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Gavin and I celebrated our one year anniversary on the 27th of January. Very exciting. I bought Gavin a guitar, which has led the creation of our music/art collective, “Beyaz Balina.” When we aren’t teaching Turks English, we are busy recording our album and working on our watercolors. Expect the album out soon!

We received 10 month residency permits last week. We can now legally live in Turkey for the rest of our contract.

I have finally recovered from my three week mysterious illness. Still finishing up my second round of antibiotics, but I am off pain killers and am feeling better. YAH!!!

Gavin got a weekend afternoon class assigned to him. He has not been very happy about it. He can’t handle the 32 hour work week.  Luckily I still have my afternoons free to do as I please.

We celebrated my 24th birthday on February 1st with a bang! I worked that morning. My students surprised me with a birthday party. They brought me a cake lit with candles and sparklers, cookies and tons of presents. What a sweet class I have. We spent the last hour of class talking and listening to American music,which for the most part my students like. I spent my free afternoon working on some art projects. Around 8, Gavin took me to dinner at Viktor Levi. We ordered steaks and wine. It was fabulous. After dinner had some friends over for cake and cocktails. Over all my birthday was perfect.

We went to our friend Andy’s apartment for a Super Bowl party on Monday night. All the guys watched the game, ate pizza and hooted and hollered over the plays. Amy, Shari, and I decided that in the future we will have to have some sort of girls night out whenever there is a sports event on TV.

Guess that’s all to report over here in Istanbul. Hope all is well back in the States.

Hilary Figgs: I have no idea if you read this blog, but I need your address. I have no idea where you are living now.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Headline: Shitty Sting Song from the Nineties Quoted on Random Blog: “I’m a legal alien, I’m a legal alien…I’m an [American] in [Istanbul].”

  • We obtained our residency permits after a harrowing experience at the Emniyet (Turkish version of the DMV) so we are legal aliens for the next ten months. Our next bureaucratic-stepping-stone to avoiding death in Turkish prison is obtaining work permits. I expect another long day in a musty, cramped room.
  • According to the scathing teacher evaluation recently delivered by my boss - I am experiencing a “complete disconnection” with my students. I don’t exactly know what that means but it sounds serious…maybe a mutiny is brewing. Looks like I may have to play guitar in the subway for change.
  • Still working 23 hours a week and loving every minute of this gleeful existence…hate to be a braggart but this whole free time thing is dope. Per the above note, I probably won’t be as stoked when I’ve suddenly happened upon 24 hours of day of free time after I’m forced to abscond from English Time, sneaking away from a horde of banshees carrying burning torches, saliva dripping from their blood-thirsty jaws as they search for infidels, neophyte teachers, and other assorted wretches from the dregs of society. 
  • Turkish buses are the bane of my existence. Most of my friends know I cream over public transportation and will rap ad nauseam about the benefits of transportation modes that most Americans find horrendous (SF Muni for example), but the buses here just plain suck. Cramped, moist, gut-wrenchingly jerky, expensive…I could list negative adjectives for pages. Stick to the ferries at all costs my visiting compatriots. Lucky for me bus trips are few and far between…

A Big Island

A brilliant sun shines down from the azure sky and all is good. Two days of respite from the frozen sheets of rain that fall indefatigably and we are left in the brightest of dispositions. Mix that pleasant weather in with a break from the classroom and a heavenly confluence is reached. The ephemeral nature of these crisp, clear winter days turns any wise soul into a newborn Utilitarian – one must squeeze as much activity as possible into every waking hour.
We took full advantage of the circumstances, awoke early, scraped the crust from our tired eyes, and made haste to the ferry terminal. Excitement was in the air as we strode towards the coastline. The school life had been taxing this past week and we were ready for an epochal day to mark the early stages of the year. (In common fashion, we waited in the wrong terminal and missed the initial boat. This was aggravating but gave us ample time to hit up the local guitar shop and plot out my next big payday splurge before we caught the noon ferry).
Our final destination on this picturesque Monday afternoon was Büyükada (Big Island). The largest of a chain of islands that lie just off the mainland in the Sea of Marmara, Büyükada is known for its traditionally non-Turkish population and its absence of motorized vehicles. It is a summer destination for the wealthy and the deciduous tree-lined streets are cluttered with beautiful old wooden mansions. Picture the strange juxtaposition of the sprawling, genteel estates of the American South transplanted to a Mediterranean setting and you have a likewise image.
In short order we discovered that the preferred mode of transportation is horse-drawn cart and of course the animal lover/fair-weather vegetarian of the group was opposed to being dragged through the streets by sorrowful, emaciated beasts of burden. (The evil little fiscal conservative that lies in us all and sometimes has the audacity to raise his conflagrant voice was also quick to dissent to the idea due to the 30 lira price tag that accompanied the carriage ride.) The fashionista of the group subsequently decided against bike travel due to a coat that somehow impeded leg movement…arrgh. Thus, we were forced to march the three and a half miles or so to the top of the island by foot in search of a mystical church and restaurant that supposedly awaited us.
The hike to our destination was no trek in the Himalayas; conversely, it was more akin to the proverbial “walk in the park”. Sadly, this duo carries none of the fitness and dexterity of the Sherpas and thus our energy began to waver rather quickly.
If I recall correctly, I was finding it hard to produce any saliva to expectorate and was silently cursing myself for leaving the Nalgene at home when Nellie histrionically shrieked to the unflinching Gods, “I am so dehydrated that I’d drink my own pee…if I could pee!”
It was at this same, desperate moment that the faint, yet unmistakable clamor of shitty Euro techno could be heard through the trees. A few more minutes of trudging along the footpath and we happened upon an oasis in the form of a makeshift café, a toothless garçon, and cold, sweet spring water. Spirits were immediately lifted with the nourishment and the remainder of the journey was a pleasant sojourn as we moved with a new purpose along the path.
At the apex of the island sits an old Greek Orthodox church and a modest outdoor eatery ran by a one man marvel that both cooks up some great comfort food (word to the French fries and meatballs) and has enough beer stocked in his fridge to replenish the hydration of even the weariest traveler.
We arrived late in the afternoon to this area of apotheosis and as the waning sun shimmered off the cool waters of the sea far below and the droplets of perspiration on my forehead began to dry it was all too easy to experience the warmth of inner solitude. The calm of the hilltop was all encompassing and a strange feeling of religious devotion descended upon me that could never be duplicated by the cold didacticism of organized piety. A spirit devoid of human tampering permeated my core, something so pure and pagan that only nature could have produced it in all her breathless glory.
I hoped to pass an eternity in this aforementioned condition…alas, I am doomed to live a faithless existence and the moment was abruptly ended when a gregarious bastard of a feline strode out of the churchyard and broke the enduring silence with a brutal cacophony - the sharp staccato of mournful howls and mews accompanied by a deep, reverberating purr bass line. Awoken from my state, I tapped Nell on the shoulder and motioned towards the trail. It was time to return to civilization.
The descent was all too easy. Sated by the delicious meal and the feeling of accomplishment our legs weightlessly cruised along the footpath towards the ferry terminal. We’ll be back soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy New Year!

This past week in Istanbul: Gavin and I rang in the New Year with a Canadian couple we have been palling around with. I made a pasta dinner, we drank wine and Raki at our house then wondered down to the water front just before New Years and toasted to 2009 with KIWI flavored white wine, which was the cause of my hangover the next morning. Good god…what will these crazy Turks think of next? We of course had a drunken altercation with two Turkish men, which resulted with Amy getting her ass pinched (luckily my long winter coat spared me from getting pinched as well, and saved Gavin from a life time in Turkish prison for ripping a Turk limb from limb.)

My classes have been going well, my weekend class is preparing for their Grammar Exam. It is nice when you see students’ faces when they finally really get something you have taught them. However it is very frustrating when they call in a fellow teacher, whom they all have a crush on, and forget all the English I have taught them altogether.

As I previously mentioned, my weekend class met Gavin last weekend at our “party” and after finally learning the simple past tense this week, they were able to ask me questions about him. After they learned that we lived together in San Francisco and that we moved to Istanbul together, one student actually asked me if we “sleep together.” Interesting. (Editor’s Note: We maintain separate sleeping quarters once a week to observe the Sabbath).

Gavin and I finally got paid on the 3rd. Very exciting. Suddenly we have found ourselves rich with the Turkish Lira and spent over 100 TL the day we got paid. I bought myself my fleece blanket and a Grammar exercise book for my classes, and of course we finally got a chance to stock up on necessities like toilet paper, which was, of course, Gavin’s big purchase (Editor’s Note: Had to jump at such a great price).
A Brief Forward: Nellie is a self-professed "crazy cat-woman in training" and has spent some time observing the felines next door. I think everyone will enjoy this piece that she wrote the other night... Gavin

An interesting fact about our apartment: we live next to a cat palace. The building next door looks as though it should be abandoned. The stucco exterior is crumbling. The occupants have opted to create a scrap metal yard in front of their door. Mountains of trash are heaped in front of a pointless two-foot cement wall that surrounds the scrap yard. The only tenants appear to be cats, however the ever-changing laundry that hangs on one of the balconies suggests that humans do in fact occupy the building. The only life I have ever seen coming or going from the building are cats. The king cat appears to be an orange tabby that usually sits on the wall, but can often be seen following the fish cart that a man pushes through our street to the corner to sell his daily catch of sardines. About twenty other cats live under the king’s rule. They can be seen rooting through the trash, hiding under cars, and sleeping among the shards of scrap metal.

These cats have become quite a distraction to our daily lives. As some cat lovers may know, cats udder an earsplitting shriek whenever they fight or have sex. From the sounds of it, the cats next door do both quite frequently. Although our apartment is on the fourth floor, and a wide alley way divides our building from the cat palace, the shrieks sound as though they are coming from our balcony. These cries come at all hours of the night, echoing through our apartment.