What do you do when you’re just not feeling it?

Every so often you just don’t feel it. You do all the things you’re supposed to do, see all the great stuff you’re supposed to see, but something is just missing.

Now that I have placated (I hope) the food readers (the food posts are by far more popular than anything else I write), I’d like to take a moment to explain the ebbs and flows of travel and expectation. For those of you who have been following along, when we arrived in Istanbul, we did the standard tourist stuff and stayed in the popular tourist neighborhood. We saw the big three – the Blue Mosque (really quite impressive), Hagia Sophia (good and interesting but a little messy) and Topkapi Palace (a fascinating look at the Sultans’ life). We tolerated the Grand Bazaar, but loved the Spice Market, which is basically the Grand Bazaar for spices. It has a jillion indistinguishable spice shops, but I had the time of my life once I picked my shop and started buying. As it turned out, my spice guy is a Turk who was born in Germany and lived in Japan for eleven years. Who knew? I am now the proud owner of lots of spice.)

Guenther, me, and spices

Guenther, me, and spices

Still, Istanbul felt like it was missing something, or more accurately, we were missing something. All those places are just fine, but they’re packed with tourists, especially in the summer, and after a few days of being hounded by touts and jostling with a small city of touring Europeans, you’d be forgiven if you just threw your hands up and raced to the airport.

We needed to shake things up.

We decided to get out of town for a bit and explore some of the other famous regions in Turkey. We booked a tour that would take us to Cappadoccia (where you can stay in a cave), Pamukkale (a place full of natural hot springs and a very cool old Roman ruin), and Ephesus (once the third largest city in the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria). We’d get out and about and expand our sense of the country. What could go wrong?

That little expedition reminded me why travel can be so much fun and so ridiculous.

We took a balloon ride over Cappadoccia, which was exhilarating, although for a moment there I thought I might need an adult undergarment.

Right before I almost soiled myself.

Right before I almost soiled myself.

Later that day, we explored caves that had been used for churches by Christians, and we visited an underground city that had eleven levels that was carved out of lava rock. The city was constructed so Christians could flee the Romans, and later the Persians. People will go to a heck of a lot of trouble in order to pray. There, we had those fine meals at Fatima’s restaurant, Shirahne.

So far, so good. After our second day touring Cappadocia, were scheduled to take a night bus to Pamukkale. These buses are supposed to be quite nice. “Like an airplane seat,” someone said. Oh, it was like an airplane seat alright – a Cessna. This ride was just wrong from the beginning. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the overnight bus had no bathroom. Amazingly there was wifi, but the password didn’t work. There were American movies at each seat, but they were dubbed into Turkish. Janine was convinced that she could crack the code that would play the movies in English, but she never did (and I suspect it’s because they’re just in Turkish). We couldn’t tilt our seats back because the couple behind us had a baby bassinet on their laps. Sleep was impossible because the bus stopped every hour, ostensibly to use the bathroom, but I think the driver just wanted to smoke. (You haven’t lived until you’ve spent time in a Turkish truck stop, though.) Sometimes the bus stopped for two minutes, sometimes twenty. Repeated attempts to communicate with the bus attendant proved fruitless.

After ten thrilling hours, the bus spat us out in the bustling metropolis of Denizli at about six the next morning. I should note that these package tours involve a certain amount of magical activity. When you get off your bus, you hope against hope that some guy will be standing there with a sign with your name on it. If you’re lucky, then they take you to some place where there’s a reservation, a room, another useful conveyance, or some other proof that wheels are turning in logical and useful ways.

Sure enough, someone was at the bus to collect us to take us on another shorter bus ride to the town of Pamukkale, where we arrived at what could charitably called a backpacker’s flophouse. If you were feeling uncharitable, you might just call it a hellhole. For eight bucks we were able to attempt to take a short nap, shower, and leave our bags behind lock and key for the day before heading off for our tour. As ever, however, you get what you pay for.

Janine and I have stayed in scarier places, but not since the early Clinton Administration. I remember the time we stayed at a guest house in Kuala Lumpur in 1994. The room was a plywood and chicken wire cage. This was better, but not by a whole lot. The plaster walls were sloughing off matter like a leper. At first glance, the shower appeared to have a checkboard design. A second glance revealed the black sections to just be mildew. The room had an indescribable odor. It was a mix of mold and old food with maybe a bit of ripened socks thrown in for good measure. We slept in our clothes. The thing is, and this can’t be discounted, the people who ran the hellhole flophouse were really, really nice. They made us feel warm and welcome, despite the scandalous conditions. I liked them. Anyway, we were so tired that the conditions didn’t much matter. We used the checkerboard shower, changed clothes, rested a bit, then dubiously set out for our day of sightseeing, wondering why we would give up our nice, comfortable lives in one of the nicest cities in the fully developed world for backpackers’ hovels and moldy showers. Have we lost what little mind we had left?

We needn’t have wondered. Pamukkale was fascinating and beautiful. We wandered around the hot springs, which turn the hillsides white from the calcium content in the water, and from which they harvest travertine for tile.

The hot springs at Pamukkale.

The hot springs at Pamukkale.

The Hieropolis is a very well restored look at Roman life almost two thousand years ago. And we had a great time hanging out with other folks on the tour. Half of the fun of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Ben from Australia is in the middle of long trip, as is Shanti from Colorado. We compared notes about our journeys, and reminded each other how lucky we are to be able to do things a little differently. Melvin from Goa, India, reported that he slept well on the night bus, which reminds me that everyone’s experience is different. Either that or he’s narcoleptic.

That evening, we were deposited onto a train platform (I’m not joking – our minibus drove RIGHT ONTO the platform where the people were standing) for the train to Ephesus. After a day of touring Capadoccia followed by a night bus, a day of touring Pamukkale, and another five hours on a train, we finally arrived at a fancy, shmancy boutique hotel with a good shower, an actual bathtub (the first one we’d seen in Europe), and a glorious view of the sea.

A little better than an overnight bus.

A little better than an overnight bus.

Things were looking up.

After touring Ephesus and another blissful night at the hotel, we returned to Istanbul and repositioned ourselves across the river in the Beyoglu section of town. There we started to find the Istanbul that we had been looking for. That’s where most of the cafes and meyhanes and cocktail bars are. If we had more time we would have taken a cruise of the Bosphorous, wandered the junk shops and alleys in the Galatasaray neighborhood, poked through some art galleries, taken a ferry across to the part of the city that sits on the Asian continent, and eaten at more meyhanes, among many, many other things.

Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to find the essence of a place, but there are so many variables that go into your experience. If you give me a decent bed and a good meal and you smile every once in a while, I’m happy. If you put me in a neighborhood where real life is going on, I’m even happier. As we were hitting our stride it was time to move on, but better late than never.

Did I like Istanbul? Yes, eventually.

Would I go back? You betcha.

The breakfast you must eat before you die, and tales of delectable things in Turkey on Turkey day.

I sing a song of simit – the world’s best bagel.

If there is an afterlife, and I’m invited to attend, and I end up in the good afterlife, I fully expect to begin each and every day of it with a breakfast of simit and kaymak. Yes, kiddies, on Turkey day we talk turkey about Turkish food.

During the first few days of our trip, we were stopped by some imaginary force field from breaching the walls that keep all the tourists inside the old city of Sultanahmet. There you can see the major sites, but with the exception of some good street food, you will not eat well.

Let’s start with simit. Basically, simit is a Turkish bagel. What songs I sing about simit! It’s chewy with a slightly crunchy crust. It’s not as doughy as a New York bagel, but I’m going to say this in public – it’s every bit as good as a New York bagel, if not better. There, I said it. I could get stopped at Kennedy airport for that, but the truth will set me free. What’s more, unlike back home, where only a few places know how to make a bagel anymore, simit is good wherever you get it. Walk down any street in Turkey, (even in the tourist zone, actually) and some guy with a pushcart will sell you the best damn bagel you’ve ever eaten. These round little joyful gluten and carb delivery devices come plain or with sesame seeds. That’s it. No blueberry apple cinnamon swirl simits here, folks. My friend Rich Neimand, whose Bagel Defense Fund seeks to restore the purity of the American bagel, will find no need to expand his operation into Turkey.

A humble simit cart

A humble simit cart

Now what about this kaymak? I discovered it when I was tucking into a fabulously good Turkish breakfast. Turkish breakfast is mostly a savory affair, with dashes of sweetness thrown in. They drop a lazy susan in front of you full of olives and cheeses and breads, a pan of fried eggs, some yogurt, and they wish you well. There’s a section of the spinning tray devoted to spreads of all sorts. There’s usually honey and nutella, but one day I was gifted with this fluffy, white substance that had the bright whiteness and creamy consistency of cream cheese, but it was sweeter and less cheesy. As an experiment, I spread a little bit on my simit and at that moment I discovered what it means to be alive. But what was this stuff? The waiter said it was yogurt butter, but that didn’t sound right. Turns out it’s clotted cream made from the milk of water buffalo. It’s like a sweet, creamy, spreadable burrata, but so much better.

A Turkish breakfast. The kaymak is the white stuff in the upper right.

A Turkish breakfast. The kaymak is the white stuff in the upper right.

Water Buffalo Clotted Cream!! I know, right? The world needs to know. I mean, crikey, people are practically printing their own money in San Francisco by selling toast. Toast! Simit and kaymak puts that stuff to shame. Now, it’s very possible that by putting kaymak on my simit I have committed a Turkish culinary crime akin to putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli, but I don’t care. Simit and kaymak, people. It’s the one breakfast you must eat before you die.

Another thing you’ll find wherever you turn is the grandpappy of antioxidants, fresh pomegranate juice. The way they make it is genius in its simplicity – they cut the pomegranate in half and squeeze the juice out using one of those mechanical orange juice press gizmos, which resembles a papal torture device on Borgia. We had a pomegranate tree in Palo Alto and I spent hours seeding those damn things, when I could have spent seconds using some very primitive technology. I mourn for all the pomegranate juice I didn’t drink. In Istanbul, on the other hand, for a few bucks, you get a nice, big glass of Pom Shmabulous.

The pomegranate juice guy

The pomegranate juice guy

After we finally broke free from the old town, where the food options are basically kebab and kebab, we sought out the good stuff – some lovely places that created some very refined plates. Once out of the confinement zone, I wanted to live again, because we ate some really terrific stuff. We went to a place called Munferit, where we had an octopus that was perfectly cooked, pressed into a terrine, sliced thin so it looked like a deep sea mortadella, and topped with a lemony potato salad. Why would you put potato salad on octopus? Beats me, but it worked. We had eggplant sautéed in olive oil and topped with tahini and a tomato salsa. The salsa would have been right at home at a good Mexican restaurant in California. We had absolutely perfectly grilled jumbo prawns on a chickpea puree and drizzled with pomegranate molasses.

Mezzes are great. They’re Turkey’s equivalent of tapas, served in casual taverns called meyhanes. You go in, point at the wall of stuff on the counter, sit down, and eat really well for next to nothing. We had salads of lentils, bulgur, and beans, and we had the Turkish version of macaroni and cheese. The salads were bright and fresh and full of lemon, good olive oil, parsley, and mint. If Turks didn’t smoke so much, between the salads and the pomegranate juice, they’d live forever.

A mess of mezzes

A mess of mezzes

Turkey is an Islamic country (where you will be tossed from your bed every morning at the 5:45 call to prayer if you’ve foolishly forgotten to put in your earplugs), but you can still get a decent drink, especially in Istanbul. We went to the Pera Palace Hotel for martinis – it’s the place where Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express (at the time, the train’s terminus was Istanbul). We also had Negronis at Istanbul 360, an oh-so-fabulous rooftop bar with a pulsing, techno soundtrack that sounded like a Kimpton hotel lobby, whose cocktails would give New York’s a run for its money, at least on price. I struck up a conversation with a fascinating fellow from Manchester who has been living in Istanbul for seven years and who plans events at the club. This year, he says he has scheduled Boy George and Paris Hilton for appearances. Istanbul is hopping!

Let’s meet some Turks

I have heard endless stories about Turkish hospitality, and I can’t say if these are Turkish traits or not, but in a very short time we have met people who feel like they represent an archetype – the Turquetype, if you will – albeit in vastly different ways.

Let’s meet a few.

Friends as family

When we lived in DC, we became friends with Janine’s co-worker Judy and Judy’s husband Haluk, who was born and raised in the old neighborhood in Istanbul called Sultanahmet. When Haluk found out we were coming to Istanbul, he insisted on picking us up at the airport. He commutes between DC and Istanbul, and he was planning to leave the day after we arrived so he put us in the care of his childhood friend Oktay and Oktay’s brother Adam. They own a restaurant and a handful of other businesses, and they check in on us daily and make sure that we’re well taken care of. When we are in the neighborhood, we make sure to stop by one of the shops, where we hang out and visit. Sometimes Oktay and I head down to the teahouse in the evening and play backgammon. Oktay says that since we’re Haluk’s friends and Haluk is like family, then we are by extension family, and he seems quite sincere about it. It’s like a Turkish syllogism.

Oktay beating me at backgammon

Oktay beating me at backgammon

We were at the restaurant the other night and Adam reported that the guy who plays the reed flute for the whirling Dervishes at the restaurant brought a pile of fish he caught off the banks of the Bosphorous into the restaurant. Would we like some? (A brief aside about the whirling Dervishes. I had grown up thinking that a whirling Dervish was a person with uncontrollable restless energy. Far from it. The Dervishes are practicing a form of Sufi religion in which they arrive at a meditative state that allows them to close their eyes and turn around hundreds and hundreds of times without tossing their lunch all over the front row. If it’s a party trick, it’s a great one. I confess I now have an obsession with these guys.)

Seriously, do NOT try this at home

Seriously, do NOT try this at home

Of course we want Dervish flautist fish. You don’t get that every day. It’s nice to be family.

Other Turquetypes

The crossroads guy during challenging times

Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia. In fact, you can cross a bridge in Istanbul and go from Europe to Asia. The other part of this position as crossroads of the world is that Turkey is in the middle of a mess of problems. The country shares long, tense borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Since the Syrian civil war got going, more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have poured into the country. We met one the other night at dinner. Over the course of our dinner, Muhammad told us that he fled Syria for Kurdish Iraq two years ago, and slipped across the border into Turkey earlier this year. His family left Aleppo, and he can’t imagine the day when he’ll be able to return, or if he does, what will be left. Muhammad was gracious, kind, and he was obviously very sad. I wish him well, but worry for him and his family. Turkey may find itself hosting Muhammed and his countrymen and women for many many years to come. They can’t go home, so they’ll have to stay.

The tout

If you walk ten feet in Istanbul, some guy will try to get you to come into his restaurant, his carpet store, his souvenir stand, or for all I know, his proctology clinic. At Muhammed’s restaurant, where you can get a very nice grilled fish, a friendly, short, stocky fellow in a leather jacket spends his evenings trying to reel in customers. Turns out fishing is in his blood. “In the morning, I fish for fish,” he told me. “In the night, I fish for people!” and pantomimed tossing out his rod and reeling in a couple that was making its way up the hill. He’s not bad at, either. He caught us, after all, and the fish was excellent.

Another fisher of people tried to strike up a conversation, which is simply a pretense to reel you into his business. A young kid named Mehmet wasn’t nearly as skilled as our fisherman friend, but he did his best, even though he didn’t quite have the vocabulary for an extensive conversation. He asked me where I was from, I asked him where he was from, he asked if I wanted to have dinner, I told him I had already eaten. Then I asked his name and he said “Mehmet” and took my hand, shook it, and air kissed me in the direction of both cheeks like he was in the Hamptons, or, it turns out, Istanbul.

The trailblazer

Fatima runs our favorite restaurant in Turkey so far, called Shirahne Cave Restaurant, in Goreme, which is in the central Turkey region called Capadoccia. Goreme is one of those cave towns in Capadoccia in which people have hollowed out the volcanic cliffs and outcroppings and turned them into dwellings. In the past several decades, locals have converted their homes into hotels and restaurants. On this night we ate in a cave and we slept in a cave.

IMG_1098

Be it ever so cave-like, there’s no place like home.

The town is almost comically charming. We wandered up one hill and perched ourselves in a bar overlooking the floodlit town, which brings to mind something out of an animated Disney film.

Goreme at night

Goreme at night

Goreme is a jumping off point for hot air balloon rides and tours of the cave churches and underground cities that dot the region and they’ve done a good job of making the place quite hospitable.

From 1,500 feet up

From 1,500 feet up

After our sundowner, we were getting peckish and we glanced at the menu in front of Shirahne and were thrilled to finally find a place that didn’t have kebabs, hamburgers, or pizza on the menu.

The first night (we went back again the next evening) we had chicken with chickpeas and a handmade pasta that was a lot like spaetzle all served together in a tomato broth. It was the Turkish red pozole, and just as homey and loving. We also had eggplant stuffed with spiced ground beef and a dandy Capadoccian white wine.

The next night we had tiny handmade pasta squares (which reminded me of the Goodman’s squares that my grandmother used to put in her chicken soup) tossed in homemade yogurt and topped with a tangy tomato sauce. It’s as simple as it sounds, but I can’t wait to make it when we get back home. I’d add a bit of dill and serve it as a side dish to a lamb tagine. sounds good, huh? We also had a local black zucchini (Fatima said that were the last of the season) served in clay pot with tomatoes, beef, onions, and peppers. It was a deep, soulful relief to eat real Turkish food after a week of very simple fare. (Although the simple stuff isn’t all bad – one popular street food is a crazy stuffed baked potato called a kumpir that has everything except camel sashimi in it. Janine tucked into one like she’d never eaten before.)

Don't try this at home either

Don’t try this at home either

The real highlight, though, was chatting with Fatima. She feels the pressure of attempting to do real food in a tourist town. Likewise, she is a very modern woman in a place that, by her reckoning, is ambivalent about the role of women these days. She wears jeans and doesn’t cover her head, which in central Turkey has different implications than it may have in Istanbul or on the more European west coast. She told us that she agreed to marry her husband on the condition that he didn’t smoke or drink. The World Health Organization says that 41 percent of Turkish males smoke, but given the astonishing amount of smoking we’ve seen, I find that figure hard to believe. In any case, it’s an audacious requirement here, but Fatima issued it nevertheless. She mostly employs women in the restaurant because they are more reliable and she wants to give them an opportunity to develop marketable skills. She is raising her daughters to be independent, and she has encouraged her first child to delay getting married until she has finished college.

Can you really claim to know something about a person after a brief encounter in a restaurant, or even a week sitting in their shop drinking their tea? Probably not. I’m no more an expert on Turkish people than I am on Turkish taffy. But it’s valuable to try to look just a little bit deeper. The open top bus is fun, but you also have to get off an walk around every once in a while.