Christmas in Istanbul?

Yes, it happened. Even here in Istanbul (and Hamburg) we managed. I feared that the Stuttgart Christmas Market might be the extent of my holiday, but then I took out a little Christmas Insurance: a plane ticket to Hamburg for a visit with my dear friend Jana the love of her life, Olaf. (They’re both crazy about trees.)

So how did Christmas happen? Well, in lots of ways.


Melissa and Orhan’s Christmas tree

First off, some wonderful person (I’m not sure who) organized a Secret Santa program for willing teachers, and my Secret Santa has plied me daily with lovely treats of the season (and beyond). I’ve gotten coffee, chocolates, condiments, jams, jellies, and other splendiferous treats. It’s like having an Advent Calendar in my mailbox. I’ve enjoyed supplying my own “secret pal,” who happens to be one of my office mates. I started him off with a risky offering: a big container of home-made French Market Soup. An odd gift, I know, but he’s a bachelor. He raved about it.

Our writing group met on Friday the 18th, and Jeff hosted us with a candle-lit buffet of mezes, cheeses, breads, and wines in his charming home, replete with antiques, artwork, Christmas lights and candles. A Christmas kick-off!

Then on Sunday Melissa asked me to help with a cookie decorating party for little people. When she set bowls around the table for the eight junior decorators, I was confused. I guess it’s just been too long since I’ve been around little people. I forgot that if you’re over eight, you take your time, carefully icing each cookie, often with contrasting colors, then you artfully apply sugar sprinkles to enhance your design. No need for a bowl, right?


Decorating, big-kid style (web photo from

But—what if you’re 3 or 4? You grab a cookie, slather (or glob) it with frosting, then shake on a mountain of sugar sprinkles, preferably in two or three shades. THAT’S where the bowl comes in. All the sprinkles that escape the cookie remain in the bowl for future use—more likely devouring than decorating. Great fun was had by all, even the grown-ups, who ended up bedecking the last few cookies as we sipped a glass of wine.

Our next Christmas event was Tuesday, planned by more Robert College Elves. It started with an outdoor bonfire, mulled wine and juices, and carriage rides with Santa, who called me by name as I meandered over to join the fun. (Ah, Duff! My Turkish class buddy.) After that we headed for a reception in Marble Hall while the children visited Santa and received gifts (supplied by their parents). Soon we headed downstairs for Christmas dinner in a transformed cafeteria—complete with soft lighting, centerpieces, and Christmas music. The turkey was delicious, although rice pilaf is a dismal substitute for bread stuffing. After dinner many of us joined Margaret at the piano upstairs to sing carol after carol after carol. Such enthusiasm! Yes, it WAS beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…


Christmas carolling a la Robert College (web photo from

On Christmas Eve Melissa and Orhan hosted yet another gathering, an open house for teachers of Christmasses present and past. Dress was varied, from Santa caps to velvets to jeans—and Sally made the scene in her PJ’s. (Sally, by the way, is a grown-up).


Karla, the baby who gave me my job this year, and Santa Mama Pelin

PC240006The pajama girl. Eager for Santa, don’t you wonder?

I left early to finish packing for my Christmas morning trek to Hamburg. Libby was thrilled when I pulled out her travel-case; she loves being included. Jana and Olaf met us at the airport with warm hugs, and I was just a bit disappointed to learn that Olaf doesn’t speak English. Turns out, though, that he’s absolutely wonderful.


We sipped glugwein (tastes great in any language) and walked along the harbor in a Christmas drizzle, and there was still even a little snow on the ground. Icy  slush, anyway. After that we toured Hamburg by car and stopped for a Christmas lunch of—pizza. Well… it tasted great. It was about being together. That night, though, after opening gifts (mostly for Max, their soon-to-arrive baby), Jana prepared a traditional German Christmas dinner of Duck breast (YUM), red cabbage (sautéed in diced bacon), and dumplings. It was delicious. (FAR surpassing our pizza.)


A little Christmas cheer…

Lucky me, huh? The next day we lazed the morning away, took a long stroll through a nearby park, then headed off for the city for an exhibit of the treasures of Tutankhamun (the Egyptian king). Walking through with earphones in our own language, it was a shared multi-lingual experience. And—it was amazing. Though I’d seen many of these things in Cairo, the explanations were illuminating, putting things into clearer perspective for me. Also, since I’m over 50 (WELL over 50), things often seem new to me.


Mr. Tutankhamun, may he rest in peace.

Afterwards we strolled through the Christmas market (more gluhwein), then finally settled to warm ourselves with a steaming cup of coffee in a nearby restaurant.


The Hamburg Christmas Market


Olaf, Jana, and a “hint” of Max

Sunday after breakfast Jana’s folks arrived from Berlin; I was tickled to see them again. We devoured Jana’s homemade soup, then headed together to Olaf’s home town where we hiked around the local castle and landed at his parents’ house, where the holiday family dinner was to happen. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay for goose, but I made up for it by throroughly pigging out on stollen and cookies. They generously packed me off with sausage, cheese, and even more stollen.


The little castle we visited…


…and a nearby mill, with old millwheels leaning against it’s front


Jana’s father checking the Christmas Goose.

It was a MERRY CHRISTMAS after all!

Turkish palate-pleasers

Food. One of the best things about Turkey. Really—it’s healthy, it’s fresh, and it’s delicious. Delectible. Scrumptious. Something to look forward to every single day.

So—for my friends (especially Karen), here’s the lowdown.

Kahvaltı (breakfast): a typical Turkish breakfast consists of black olives (think of calamatas), fresh sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers (that actually have flavor), beyaz peynir (cheese like a soft, moist feta or goat cheese), often an egg (usually hard-boiled), and limitless supplies of bread, honey and tart cherry jam. Other things we find on breakfast buffets are dried apricots and figs, succulent golden raisins, and sometimes nuts. If you’re really lucky, there’s clotted cream and fresh butter on the table—YUM!

Leslie diving into Turkish breakfast

Lovely Leslie dives into a Turkish breakfast

Ah, olives for breakfast!

Me diving into a Turkish breakfast

Turks enjoy going out for breakfast at restaurants along the Bosphorous, particularly near the Rumeli Castle. The breakfast takes hours, complete with all the above along with an egg dish called menemen: eggs, tomatoes, sausage, and peppers baked in a single-serving copper casserole dish. Lovely—and delicious.


Breakfast on the Bosphorous with friends

Öğle yemeği (lunch): I often see people enjoying a simple meal of mercimek (lentil soup) and bread with water and tea.


The typical mercimek soup, which comes in both green and red–depending on the lentils.

Many, though, choose to have a full meal at noon. That’s when I eat my main meal, as I have the great fortune of being offered a full Turkish noon meal at school, always with two main course offerings, soup, dessert, vegetables, and a full salad bar. Consequently, I’ve tasted nearly every possible Turkish dish.

Akşam yemeği (dinner) is pretty much the same as lunch here—some people have their big meal at night, and some prefer a light meal. Turks tend to eat later in the evening.

I’ll just mention some of my favorite Turkish dishes. Getting hungry?

Köfte (Turkish meatballs). Made in all shapes and sizes (from ovals to long, thin “sticks”, köfte are usually grilled, and my favorites are the highly seasoned varieties.


Köfte—web photo from

Fasuliye is a dish remotely like baked beans, but about ten times nicer. It is usually made of white beans a little larger than navy beans, and I don’t know what they put in the sauce, but they’ve got it down, let me tell you.

3052689255_37378aae13Fasuliye–web photo uploaded to Flikr by Julie Upmeyer

Döner is meat that has been spiced and stacked on a vertical spit, which turns and turns in front of a vertical burner. As it cooks, a chef slices it off to use in sandwiches and other special dishes. It’s usually made of lamb, but it can also be chicken. This is what the Greeks put in gyro sandwiches.


This meat doesn’t look quite cooked to me, but…

Iskender is probably the most popular dish in Turkey, at least among my students. It’s a plate of chopped pide bread covered with a layer of lamb döner. This is drenched in a tasty tomato sauce and dolloped with yogurt. The crowning touch is melted butter drizzled over the entire plate. It’s served with sliced tomatoes and peppers. Oh, my! You haven’t LIVED until you’ve had Iskender. By the way, Iskender means “Alexander”, for Alexander the Great. Go figure.


The home of Iskender in Bursa, with friends Lisa and Dan.

Şış, known by Westerners as shish-kabob, is a typical Turkish meal, made with chicken, lamb, or beef. No pork here, though. Not in a Muslim country. Most restaurants have an open copper-hooded barbecue, with a separate grilling chef. They get mighty good at it.


Looks more like chicken wings than şış, but it’s grilled and GREAT!

Guveç is another of my favorites, an individual low casserole of some kind of meat baked with tomato sauce, spices, peppers, onions, and sometimes cheese. My favorites are shrimp and fish guveç. I’m bringing some guveç casserole dishes home with me. This is a dish I’d love to master.



Mantı is another favorite here, sometimes described as Turkish ravioli. It’s tiny little ravioli, less than an half-inch in diameter, filled with meat or cheese and formed into little cubes. It’s served in a pasta bowl with a yogurt and garlic sauce. Tonight for dinner I had fried mantı swimming in yogurt garlic sauce with some hot tomato/chili sauce. Incredible.

mantimantı–web photo from (a personal blog)

Pide is a flat, bumpy yeast bread baked in a wood-fired oven, but it’s also Turkish pizza. It’s shaped like a torpedo with two pointed ends and a topping of cheese, meat, and/or vegetables is arranged in the middle. It arrives at your table piping hot and crisp, often cut into diagonal slices. It’s GREAT with mercimek soup and a glass of ayran.


Our favorite pide restaurant in Cappadocia


Hot, crispy pide

Ayran is a refreshing drink that tastes a little like buttermilk (they say). It’s blended yogurt, water, and salt. I love it.

I haven’t said anything about mezes yet. Inexcusable. When you go out for dinner in Turkey, your first offering is a huge tray of mezes. These are hors d’oeuvres, Turkish style. There are small bowls of such things as cacik (cucumbers and garlic in thinned yogurt), olives, hummus, pickles, haydari (yogurt, garlic, and cheese with spices), cold fish, wrapped grape leaves, and my VERY favorite, grilled eggplant mashed with yogurt and garlic. Oh, my! There are hundreds of mezes, and it’s hard to choose what to have. Usually I’m pretty full by the time the mezes are over, and the main course goes barely tasted. I love them! I prefer when they bring one plate of mixed mezes for each person. No decisions required. There are also hot mezes—fried filo-wrapped cheese (cigara boreği) and fancy deep-fried meatballs…oh, the list goes on and on and on.


A meze plate at the Hamdi Restaurant in Sultanahmet


The meze plate at our end-of-year Koç School dinner.

I haven’t even mentioned fish, which Turkey is famous for. It’s a country surrounded on three sides by water, with a small sea within it. Fish can be expensive here, but it’s nearly always tasty. Although I love grilled fish, my two favorite dishes are balık köfte (fish formed into patties with herbs, then grilled) and balık guveç (a flat casserole of fish in a tomato and olive oil sauce with peppers, garlic, and onion). Oh, my mouth is watering!


These fish may not look all that pretty–but they’re DELICIOUS cooked!

Gosh—and then the desserts. But I’m just too darn full! Maybe next time.


When we’re full, the best dessert is always fruit.

You know what’s amazing? With all these fabulous foods, the Turks just don’t get fat. Their diet is based on vegetables and meat, and they walk a lot. Good plan!

Cuhaci Han

And a cup of tea to settle your stomach. Sigh…

Does it get better than this?

Gecekondu? What?

A home near my apartment was demolished last week, a disturbing situation at best. I asked an English-speaking neighbor about this shocking incident. “Oh, it was probably one of those illegal houses,” he said. “There are a lot of them, you know. You’re probably living in one.” Well, let me tell you, that information was none too comforting. (I later learned that my apartment building was, indeed, built illegally.)


Last week this was someone’s home.

Though I don’t expect anyone will come and smash in my apartment this week, this event motivated me to do some research on Turkish property laws. I’ve heard lots of different things in the past. I was told that Turkey has squatter’s rights, which means that if you build a house overnight, you can legally live there even if it’s not on your property. I’ve also heard that you don’t have to pay taxes on apartment buildings if the top story isn’t completed, which explains why many Istanbul buildings have an unfinished top floor. They say that many old Ottoman houses are crumbling because no one claims ownership or the ownership is in dispute, and it’s illegal to destroy them until they collapse.


My apartment building–in jeopardy?

Time to sort fact from fiction.

It’s all about history. In Ottoman times (1299-1923) all the land belonged to the state—the sultan. Ownership was a totally different concept then, which must affect the hazy property laws of modern Turkey. It’s sort of like the Native American theory that everything belongs to everyone, right? I think the Native Americans were clever to take mirrors and trinkets in exchange for land, since they were getting paid for something that belonged to everyone. With my students I use the example of air. When I offer them each one dollar for a square foot of the air in the classroom, they all take me up on it. Why? “Because you can’t own air,” they say. Well, in Turkey people built houses in any available space, using whatever materials were available to them. It worked.


Another view of the demolished apartment…


…and a lovely Ottoman home a few doors away.

In 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ended, Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic and instituted numerous reforms, including a huge population exchange— mainly between Turkey and Greece. Turkish Christians were deported to Greece, and Greek Muslims were imported to Turkey by the hundreds of thousands. Just imagine all the vacated homes in both countries, all there for the taking. Unfortunately, many were left vacant. Kayaköy, a city frozen in time, is one of a number of completely deserted cities in Western Turkey near the Aegean. At any rate, the population exchange confused property ownership all the more.


Kayaköy, a city abandoned after the population exchange.

P1010482Kayaköy’s crumbling cathedral (Susie and Shelley in the foreground–2007)

In recent decades there’s also been an exodus from rural Turkey to the cities, with many people moving into makeshift housing until they can establish themselves. Here’s where we begin to see “overnight constructions” called gecekondu (pronounced GEHjay-CONEdoo). In Turkish, “gece” means “night,” and “kondu” means “put.” According to a recent master’s thesis posted online entitled A study of the Gecekondu in Istanbul, Turkey (Miranda Iossifidis, 2008), these houses have been legalized:

The “Gecekondu law” was passed in 1966, and was necessary due to a legal loophole that enables constructions to remain intact if they are built after dusk and inhabited before dawn breaks, without the authorities noticing. This globally singular predicament means that legal proceedings take place, instead of the dwelling’s destruction. The law states the following in article 2:

“In this law, the term gecekondu refers to illicit constructions, that were built regardless the general regulations and directives determining construction work requirements, regardless the soils on which building is permitted or not, regardless the fact that land do not belong to the builder and that gecekondu are being built without the owner’s authorization.” (Turkish Law, Gecekondu Law No. 775)


Someone fixed dinner in this kitchen just weeks ago.

A few years ago my Turkish book group read a book of stories recounting the trials of people trying to establish a gecekondu community, Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, by Latife Tekin. A rather bizarre series of tales, it opened my eyes to the tribulations of these “shaky” communities.

So—after reviewing the history, what’s the reality here in little Arnavutköy, which I’ve grown to love?

Well, the reality is that among and between all these incredible mansions (I’m surrounded by them) are many makeshift homes, mostly concrete-and-brick construction. Could they have been built in a night? I find that hard to believe, but who knows? Take a look at the Google map of my little neighborhood. My apartment building is about 50 feet across the front, so compare that to the mega-mansion across the street, complete with a pool and 8-foot fences all around it. The tiny little apartment up the street (maybe 20-25 feet square) is now rubble. Though it had a makeshift corrugated roof, its brick, stone, and concrete construction was typical of the area.


My Arnavutköy neighborhood. Most of the smaller roofs are gecekondu (upper left).

I talked to my neighbor Candan about it one morning on my way to school. As he dragged his big bulldog Pablo along, he explained that the land belongs to the Orthodox church, and that they probably ordered the demolition. “The little place next to it will be destroyed as well,” he said. “It’s a terrible time to do this, in the middle of winter, but these houses are illegal.” He continued to explain that although religious minorities are protected under the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), they are not allowed to build anything new in Turkey. He’s quite sure they can neither sell nor develop the property, so I don’t understand who benefits from this demolition.


Yet another view–what’s the fate of the woman working outside the right-hand apartment?

In discussions with my peers I’ve learned that political ties (or the lack thereof) can mean the destruction of a home, a business, or a school. In fact, this fall a relatively new school in Istanbul, the Kemer School, was bulldozed two weeks before school started. Apparently the school was built illegally, which is the case with many schools and buildings.


The Kemer School being demolished (photo from–see below)

For more information about this event, go to The Koç School (where I taught for 2 1/2 years) was built illegally, too, but they turned away the bulldozers and were allowed to stay open. I heard, too, that the head of the foundation that built the Kemer school also runs the Vatan Gazette, a newspaper often critical of the ruling AK party. Hmmm…

It makes one wonder—and worry.

A Stuttgart Sojourn

Stuttgart, Germany. Mercedes. Porsche. The Stuttgart Ballet. Yup. Not too shabby.

Why Stuttgart? Well, I was asked to chaperone the Robert College Debate Team for the European Debate Open Championship.

We were greeted at the airport by our hosts from Waiblingen (a Stuttgart suburb) and given train tickets good for the week. We hopped on the train to our respective “homes”—the students with host families, myself in a hotel. I found my way to the Romantica Central Hotel  in Winnenden (really!—but no romance) and checked into my shared room. The room, lovely as it was, had only one bed. Now I’m happy to share a room with a stranger, but a bed? Come on! Since they had no more rooms with two beds, I landed in a private room.


Winnenden, my home for the week.

The hotel breakfasts were awesome (eggs, meat, cheese, fruit, cereal, bread, and all the milchkaffe I could drink), and I enjoyed getting to know the other coaches. Competitors for this event included teams from the Netherlands, Belarus, Slovenia, Israel, Korea, Romania, Canada, The Czech Republic, numerous German communities, and, of course, Turkey.  Each day there were morning activities followed by a lunch and two afternoon debates. We were on our own for the evenings, which many students devoted to preparing the next day’s debates.


A Welcome Window at one of the host stchools

The first morning we were treated to a wet walking tour of the city center. Only half of us had umbrellas, so the day’s drizzle dampened more than our spirits. Near the end of the tour, we peeled off to imbibe in Christmas Market crepes and brats.

The highlight of my rainy morning was finding the State Theater, home of the Stuttgart Ballet. After inquiring at the box office, I was approached by a young Slovenian debater/dancer who asked if I planned to see a ballet. We were both eager to attend the Tuesday performance. Because of late debates, we wouldn’t make the 7:00 curtain, but we’d be thrilled even to see the second half of a ballet.

After Tuesday’s final debates, we raced off to the S-bahn train to Stuttgart. Spirits soaring, we found our way to the theater, then waited impatiently for intermission. Ziva purchased a book, I donated to World Aids Day, and we gawked at the sumptuous décor of the lobby’s marble columns, plush carpeting, classical friezes, and dazzling chandeliers. Cocktail tables were set with hors d’oeuvres and champagne for the intermission.

Ziva The lovely Slovenian ballet dancer, Ziva, in the lobby of the Stuttgart State Theater

Once we checked our coats, though, reality set in. They examined our tickets and immediately directed us upstairs to the next level, considerably less extravagant. When we showed our tickets to that coat check, we were dispached up yet another flight of stairs (uncarpeted), to a rather barren lobby. Class systems exist everywhere, I guess. It reminded me of the London theaters, where low-priced seatholders use a side entrance.

We swallowed our pride and waited for the endless pre-intermission applause to abate.

When we finally got in, we were once again met with lavish décor: more chandeliers, tastefully classical trim, and a stunning recessed ceiling painted with mythological figures in a night sky (which we could almost touch from our $30 nosebleed seats).


The theater’s constellation ceiling painting

Once the lights went down, though, the magic began: dance to a choral requiem by Gabriel Fauré. Black-robed singers filled the orchestra pit, with a small orchestra beside them. The curtains opened to reveal a stark white stage with an assembly of dancers in variously decorated white leotards as they shuffled onstage in a mass, swaying their torsos and arms in repetitive sweeps to the music. Soon they divided to mesmerize us with stunning ensemble and solo dances, a marriage of ballet and modern dance. What can I say? Never in my life have I experienced a more spellbinding dance performance, and who would have thought vocal music and dance could blend so beautifully? We were impressed far beyond our expectations. The performance was over too soon, and Ziva and I had to pinch ourselves. “We’ve seen the STUTTGART BALLET!”

The act ended to thunderous applause. Dancers and soloists took bow after bow. Fortunately, they had choreographed numerous bowing sequences, each of which must have been repeated three or four times. I think the applause lasted nearly ten minutes. Understandably.

The week continued to improve. The next morning we enjoyed a tour of the sparkling new Porsche museum; I’m not sure whether I was more struck by the displays or the architecture, but both were impressive.


An early sportscar design


Couldn’t resist.

DSCN0489The view from the 3-story escalator looking out over a roof.

After that we stormed a city bus to the afternoon’s venue for the afternoon debates. That afternoon’s prepared topic was “There is no rush to applaud Obama.” Interesting that the world is so focused on our American president. My students paced the school courtyard as they planned and practiced their points. (Unfortunately, they lost.)

Dedicated debaters pacing the school courtyard as they rehearsed their presentations.

That was the last of four days of preliminary debates, and the Turkey team had won five of eight. Two of their losses had been split decisions, so they hoped to make the quarter-finals. We wouldn’t hear until Thursday afternoon. ARAUGHH!!! I told them not to expect it, but to be prepared.

Our morning was spent touring Karcher, a world-wide cleaning equipment manufacturer. Though we expected to be bored, it was fascinating, and they treated us like VIP’s. Karcher recently cleaned Mount Rushmore—for free. Amazing. They sent us off with a new cap, a professional photo of the group, and a belly filled with butter pretzels and a delicious lunch.

A demo of Robby, the small robotic vacuum cleaner. Cost: $1500

Then came the big announcement. Turkey came in 7th place, which gave them a spot in the quarter-finals. HOORAY!!! For their second debate contest ever, this was an exciting moment. Last year Robert College attended only one tournament where they won only one debate—and this year the quarter-finals!

They had an hour to prepare, and their topic was “This House Believes that David Beckham and Tiger Woods are more relevant than Shakesperare.” Now that’s a tough one. Unfortunately, they were out-classed by a Shakespeare-quoting team from Korea, but they handled it graciously. The kids have gotten to know each other over the week, so they were genuinely congratulatory to the winners.


The final debate–Korea vs. the Netherlands

Friday was the final debate, where two teams debated before an audience of hundreds. Their topic was “This house would tear down walls.” A vague topic, artfully won by the Korean team on a split decision (4-3) over the Netherlands.

World class debating.

After an eventful week in Stuttgart, four of our team members qualified for the Turkish National Team and will compete in the World Debate Championships in Qatar this February. (No hard feelings…Mehmet didn’t try out.)

These kids are World Class!