On November 20, 2012 my parents endeavored to take on an overseas trip for the very first time ever in their lives! It was exciting and nerve-wrecking all at the same time. My Dad had been on a total of one round trip flight and my mom has NEVER been on a plane. I wanted everything to go smoothly and as uneventful as possible. Of course I wanted it to go well because it was their first trip overseas, but I had other reasons up my sleeve as well. Months before, I had been inspired to not only show my parents the country of Italy that I have come to call home for the past 18 months, but I wanted to take them to a brand new country that none of us had been to either! I decided to take my family to Turkey for Turkey Day! My friends in Naples thought I was nuts and not a soul stateside knew of my plans because I was afraid someone would slip and my parents would change their mind about coming. Ready for the zinger? Our flight departing Naples and headed to Istanbul was hours after my parents’ original flight landed. Now do you think I was crazy? As the time grew closer, I was beginning to think I was crazy.
So the big day of their arrival finally claim, Ben and I patiently waited for them to come through the gate. He even made a sign with their name on it, like they do when a driver is picking you up from the airport. It had Nana and Papa Ledesma on it, which made the other passengers smile. We greeted them with hugs and we started to walk away from baggage claim, at which point I directed them to a set of chairs. Seeing the look of confusion on their face as to why I was not leading them to a car that would whisk us to my house in Naples, Italy, I broke the news. Dum Da Dum Dum…Dum! They were fine! I mean obviously tired and a little jet lagged but excited to go to Turkey! Whew! And so our adventure began… It was fun sitting next to my Mom and Dad on what would be their 2nd and 3rd flight in their lifetime. We shared Ipod music and our first taste of Turkish airplane food. If that was any indication as to what we could expect of Turkish food, I think we will be in good hands! We landed, and mom and dad got to experience what we have many times in flying in Europe. The entire airplane erupted in applause. Upon collecting our luggage, we experienced something new. VISAS! You see when you fly within the European Union, as long as you are only planning a short trip of less than 90 days, then you don’t need a visa. Turkey is not part of the European Union, so we were required to get a visa. Some countries have more of an extensive process than others, but as Americans in Turkey, it is generally just a matter of paying $20 at the airport. So we got our visa and off we went. We had arranged to have a driver pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment where we would be staying. It was funny because as we weaved in and out of traffic, both mom and dad remarked on the terrible driving. Rob and I giggled, and informed them that Turkish drivers, “got nothin’ on the drivers in Naples.”
We arrived to our apartment and the owner was so hospitable, he lived just below where we were staying and offered to provide us with anything we might need during our stay, gave us suggestions of what to see, and directions to a local neighborhood store. We were set! Mom and Dad had their own room and Rob, Ben, and I each had our own bed in another bedroom. The kitchen doubled as a living room with a tv and a breakfast nook type table. Having arrived so late we knew we wouldn’t begin exploring until the next morning but EVERYONE was hungry. So off we went to find food. We found a great restaurant and Rob went to find an ATM since we didn’t have Lire yet. The owner brought us Apple Tea, it was on the house…and it was delish! We all fell in love with it! Then we waited for Rob to return. We waited and waited…and waited…and waited. As it turns out, in his search for an ATM, it took him all over the city. Meanwhile, we imagined all the crazy things that could have happened to him. In the end, he arrived safely, he knew the layout of the whole city and we had a delicious meal.
So we finally headed back to the apartment to let mom and dad get their very much needed rest after their transatlantic and transeuropean flight. Though it may have been a good night sleep, it was the wake up call that came a little too early for all of us. The adhān or أَذَان, call to prayer began at 5:01 AM! Traditionally this was done from a minaret, summoning Muslims for mandatory prayers. A second call then summons Muslims to line up for the beginning of the prayers. The main purpose behind the multiple loud pronouncements of adhan in every mosque is to bring to the mind of every believer and non-believer the substance of Islamic beliefs, or its spiritual ideology. Despite the fact that none of us were expecting it at the crack of dawn, we found we barely noticed it each of the five times that it occurred throughout the day. It’s funny because by the second day, mom was doing the sign of the cross and saying her own little prayer. On the third day, we caught dad on video lip syncing to the call to prayer…now THAT was funny!
And so began our journey into the city. First up, the Hippodrome of Constantinople! It was a circus that was the sporting and social center of the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square), with a few fragments of the original structure surviving.
Onto the Basilica Cistern! It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It is there that I realized that I come by my theatricality honestly. The Ledesma and Leese family donned their Turkish costumes and posed for the camera. After our photo shoot, we explored the beautiful cistern and then to get out of the rain we ducked into a cafe. Let me tell you, conveying to a Turkish waiter that Mom wanted whipped cream to go with her hot chocolate proved to be quite humorous. I think we tend to take for granted how hard language barriers can be by themselves let alone when you throw in a dash of cultural differences. To Americans hot chocolate and whip cream just go together but to other cultures…not so much. Go figure, after a game of charades and back and forth, they had some that they used for some of their desserts, but if the looks on their face were any indication–whipped cream was not a typical ingredient added to hot chocolate.
By far, hot chocolate was not the only challenge my mom faced in Turkey (actually on her trip in general) next was the bathrooms. Mom came back from the bathroom soaked, something was screwy with the plumbing and instead of washing her hands, she got sprayed! It was at that point that she insisted she would never go to the bathroom alone and would ask which button to push before doing anything. This would come to serve as fodder for making fun of mom for the rest of the trip.
Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya) is a former Orthodox Patriarchal Basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum. What a beautiful place! Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and it is said to have said to have “changed the history of architecture.”
There is a section of the church that we found very fun. According to Frommer’s travel book, the legend goes that when construction of the Ayasofya reached the height of a man, the construction team set out to get a bite to eat, leaving their tools under the watch of a small boy. An angel appeared and urged the boy to fetch the men so that they could return to the work of building God’s house. When the boy told the angel that he promised not to leave the tools unattended, the angel promised to keep an eye on everything until his return. After leaving the site and thus breaking his promise, the boy was never allowed to return, and the angel continued to wait for him and cry when he didn’t return. This is known as the “sweating column” or the “crying column”. Legend has it that these waters have healing powers and that the angel grants a wish to all those who complete a 360-degree circle with their thumb in the hole of this wish-worn column. SO of course we all had to take our turn.
Not to be deterred by the rain, the Leese’s and the Ledesma’s pressed on to our next stop at the Blue Mosque. Shoe-less and completely inspired by the beauty of this place we sat for a few moments just to take it all in…well, AND to rest our weary feet. It was interesting to see the place that was segregated for those worshiping since half of them were on their cell phones. Guess the electronic age has affected us all.
What would a trip to Turkey be without experiencing the art of carpet buying. I experienced it in India and there is something to be said about “the show” these shop owners put on for you. We had our tea, got our tapestry lesson learning how Turkish rugs are the best in the world, I should tell you that the justification is remarkably similar as to why Indian rugs are the best in the world, but we politely listened. Though we did go home with a beautiful piece, I think my grandma and mom’s bargaining skills have found a safe place in my soul that I have come to treasure.
Then there was Çiğdem Pastanesi. I am pretty sure as the song goes, my mom left her heart in Çiğdem Pastanesi. This was a bakery and though we have yet to figure out what the name of the magic dessert is, Mom just might have bought stock in the place for all the times she made us stop in to stock up on this chocolaty goodness. It was fun to be adventurous and try all the foods that Istanbul has to offer. After passing dozens of karts with them, smelling the lovely aroma, and all of us singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Dad thought we should finally all try the “kestane” chestnuts. I am here to tell you, despite their yummy smell. None of the Ledesma or Leese Clan were a fan of the kestane. Ben says, “They taste like eggs!” Pretty sure that wasn’t meant as a ‘good thing’. But, there are plenty of things that we did LOVE eating and drinking in Turkey….we loved borek (think quesadilla but with Turkish flavored meats), pomegranate juice, Adana Kebabi, of course baklava and Turkish Delight. One night the owner of the place we were staying brought up some freshly made ashure. It is also called “Noah’s Pudding” a reference to the legend of Noah’s Ark. Traditionally; it is made on the 10thof the Islamic month of Muharrem. In Arabic “Ashar” means Tithe, a tenth part of something; so it may have acquired its name from this connection. According to the legend associated with the story of Noah, days passed and food became scarce, and starvation seemed impending. There was not enough food left to make a decent meal. Noah collected whatever edible left around the boat, and mixed them together in a big cauldron. Famine was averted, and everybody in the boat survived. And Ashure was born. Historians believe that the Noah’s Ark came to a rest at the top of Mount Agari in Eastern Turkey. This special dish that Noah is believed to have improvised serves us as a reminder of the God’s mercy over mankind through Noah. No matter what the story behind it is, we inhaled it!
The next morning our adventure took us to the Topkapi Palace. Little did we know what exactly was in store for us. As we wandered through the Chamber of the Holy Relics Collection, nothing could have prepared us for what we found. It’s as if I didn’t quite see it when I passed by the first time, in a double take I re-read the placard describing the item on display. “Wait, what did that say? Mom, did you see this?” An extraordinary mixture of relics, including Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan, John the Baptist’s hand and Mohammed’s footprint, one of his teeth and a selection of hairs from his beard. So…wait…really? Moses’s staff? Seriously? So of course I did my digging when we got home and of course there were the skeptics that give all the reasons, scientific and otherwise as to why this couldn’t possibly be authentic. But, just like when we saw the Shroud of Christ, maybe it was the real thing and maybe it wasn’t but the bottom line is I was okay believing in that one moment that I was in the presence of something so sacred and precious that it gave me chills.
A visit to the Topkapi Palace was especially entertaining when as we were slurping down our yummy pomegranate juice a girl chased after us shouting, “I’ve been shouting O-H, why aren’t you shouting I-O?!” Dad was wearing a Buckeyes backpack and she was from Ohio. She said, she was ready to dismiss us as some tourists who happen to pick up a OSU bag, but we assured her we were true Buckeye fans. Small world…small world. Then despite a little bit of rain, we walked out of the palace to a beautiful double rainbow! Talk about keeping with the “Noah theme”.
To really add to the excitement, after trying chestnuts for the first time, there was much commotion in the plaza with cart vendors running in all different directions. We came to find out that these were illegal vendors who were scurrying with their carts before the “undercover civilian mob” nabbed them. I don’t think anyone successfully escaped but it WAS exciting!
Our visit to the Galata Tower was far more educational then we ever imagined. It is there that we had the opportunity to see the beautiful landscape of Istanbul at night, but more importantly, we learned that my dad is afraid of heights! Who knew? In 40 years of my life I had no idea.
For our final couple days in Turkey we made our to the Asian side of the country. I think all of our exploring had finally caught up with us because Rob was able to catch each one of as we tried to sneak in some Z’s on the ferry ride over. Among other things we saw the Rumeli Fortress, which was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before he conquered Constantinople. When we landed on the Asian continent, Ben and Rob went up to explore the Yoros Castle while Mom, Dad, and I enjoyed some apple tea and some more Turkish treats.
Finally, we made our way to the Turkish Markets. It seemed only appropriate that we spend some quality shopping time in two of Istanbul’s biggest markets since our time in Turkey happened to land on Black Friday and we all know how seriously the Ledesma women take Black Friday. So we made our way to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. There were ceramics, Turkish delight of every kind, and of course my personal favorite the Turkish lamps! Next was the Spice Bazaar, where they sell more of the edible treats that Turkey has to offer like baharat (spices), nuts, honeycomb and olive-oil soaps, and truckloads of incir (figs), lokum (Turkish delight) and pestil (fruit pressed into sheets and dried).
We were all very sad to see our Turkish adventure come to an end, but we have no regrets. We explored the heck out of the city and are ecstatic at the contemplation of returning!