Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Adventures in Istanbul! [Part 2]

After the pier and our delicious feast we did a boat tour of the Bosporus strait. It was freezing cold and not-that-awesome. But it was still worth the 10 lira to see the shoreline up European and down the Asian side of Turkey.

the group before we got on the boat

Rumeli Fortress

Dolembahce Palace

view of a port city

After the boat tour we went to the Spice Market. The Spice Market was absolutely unlike anything I'd ever experienced. It was filled with amazing colors and smells. There were piles upon piles of turkish delight, spices, teas, dried fruit, trail mixes, and treats! I walked around with Riley and Lesley and we sampled handfuls of Turkish delight and baklava. It was tantalizing and expensive but Riley and I split of box which we plan on nom-noming when we get back to Greece.

mounds of tea

all the turkish delight

some yummy treats
After the Spice market we took the tram and visited the Dolembahche palace. It was 40 Lira just to enter and nobody felt like paying so we just took pictures from the outside and then headed back to our hostel. After dropping of our stuff we walked to the "Old City Area" and had a traditional, rustic Turkish dinner. We ate mixed meat and cheese pita wraps, chicken dishes, and their famous Manti ravioli dish. Everything was delicious and we left the restaurant stuffed! Afterwards, we went to a high-end dessert place where we met the sweetestttttttt waitress. She talked with us for over half an hour and she wanted us to write down music recommendations. She was so sweet and friendly. Our desert was positively amazing too! Seriously, soooo delicious! We ordered different Turkish Baklavas and a Turkish waffle with nutella, chocolate, and mixed fruit on top. It was beyond delicious. We split those two plates between 5 of us and it just simply wasn't enough so after we left the dessert place Riley and I walked around and bought gelato and had some free baklava and bought orange juice. It was very dark by this time and it was just Riley and I walking around. We started to get a little nervous to be walking around in the dark with just the two of us so we decided to head back home to the hostel.

In the morning we woke up and headed to the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world and I was beyond stoked to see it. It was breathtaking. You could feel it's holiness when walking inside. I can't believe I walked those steps and basked in it's magnificence. It was breathtaking. Here are a few photos which capture almost none of it's awesomeness.

After the Hagia Sophia we went to a traditional turkish bath that was built in the 1400s. We separated from Alex (the guy) and went into the women portion of the baths. We stripped down to only our bikini bottoms and wrapped a towel around ourselves. We then sat in a sauna for 15 minutes. We were the only english speakers there, there was a handful of local women there. The women who worked at the baths all called us "lady" and simply used gestures to communicate. After the sauna, they laid us down on marble slabs and scrubbed our bodies top to bottom. They cleaned every nook and cranny of our bodies with a harsh scrub brush and then with a soapy towel. They then gave us a quick body massage which felt heavenly. After the cleaning, we all went in the pool and swam for a bit. It was a fairly small pool only 30 feet by 30 feet probably. At first everyone was pretty awkward being topless around each other but after the initial awkwardness we all got quiet comfortable and the bathing and massage put us all in such a good mood. In the pool we were all laughing and doing some classy water ballet. It was so much fun to hear our singing and laughing echoing throughout the ancient building. After the pool, we all headed back into the sauna for awhile to warm up again. We all laid in their, comfortable and happy.

Kelsey and me wrapped up in towels before the bath begins!

After our oh-so-very relaxing baths, we headed off to do a little last minute shopping and to grab dinner before we had to go back to our hostel at 7 to give ourselves a comfortable 2.5 hour to make it to the bus station on time at 9:30 pm. Riley and I went shopping together and got a few more items and then we headed to the pier so I could get Doner and she could get a fish sandwich. We both went a little crazy on the juices and foods, me more than her, and ate up on the bridge with the beautiful night-time city setting the scene.

Turkey was incredible and far surpassed all of my expectations. I was nervous to go there, my mother had warned me how conservative it was and how they looked at women in such a negative light. I had also heard horror stories about the Turkish baths how they scrub 7 layers off your skin and your massage is more like a beating with brushes and sticks. Luckily, nothing of that sort happened at the baths and I didn't feel looked down upon in Turkey at all for being a woman. 

I loved Turkey,  I would love to return again! I'm so glad I got to see as many sights as I did and I'm so glad I was able to go to the Grand Bazaar and to the Spice Market. Turkey feels much more connected to their roots than any other place I've traveled before. All the spices and goods all feel so authentic to their history. It appears to me that they have preserved their cultural integrity very well. The people there are so kind and eager to be of assistance. Yes, the men are on the sleazier side of life, but I didn't ever feel truly threatened. And what girl doesn't appreciate being constantly showered with endless compliments? Ok, we all got a little frustrated with them and they didn't appear always that genuine, but hey, when you walk up and a man goes: "Wow," that still makes you feel at least a little warmer inside.

I hope that one day I'm able to return to Turkey with my mother. She would love all the shops and all the jewelry and the feel of the country itself. Perhaps one day...

I wanted to include a few of my favorite photos I took with my handy dandy Canon 20D and just some of my favorite photos from the trip in general, so here they are:

Adventures in Istanbul!

 Last weekend I went to Istanbul, Turkey with ten of my friends from American College of Thessaloniki. Istanbul was incredible, absolutely incredible. However, it didn't feel that way upon arriving.

It was a long 12 hour bus ride from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. The bus was decently comfortable and pretty empty so I had the row to myself. We all got woken up to go through customs at 3 am and then again at 4 am to go through customs in Turkey. We were out in the freezing cold for half an hour and I was drugged up on Nyquil so I was exceptionally unhappy to be awake and out in the Arctic Tundra of Turkey. When we arrived in Istanbul at 8 am none of us had any Turkish currency (Lira) and we couldn't find anyone who spoke English. We had no ida how to get to our hostel. After half an hour of struggling to find directions, we finally got on a "free" bus shuttle and then another shuttle we then hailed a cab to take us to our hostel's address but the cab dropped us off far from our hostel claiming it was "just around the corner." He didn't speak much English either. We hiked around town with our bags for half an hour before finding haven in a starbucks. We all felt much more at home and safe in a Starbucks, a little piece of America in Istanbul. I asked a random man in starbucks if he he would let us borrow his cellphone to call our hostel, he agreed and called the hostel for us. The hostel said they would send a worker to meet us at the Starbucks and to escort us to the hostel. We waited 45 minutes and no one came so one group of 4 people left to try to find it themselves, then 15 minutes later another group of 3 left to go search out the hostel themselves. Finally, 15 more mintues later, the last 4 of us decided it was our turn to find it. Lesley had a map pulled up on her iPhone and I stopped and asked 3 different people where to go. Finally, we found it. It was off a main road but down a sketch little alley then to a small dead-end road off the alley. The hostel was actually super nice, much nicer than I thought it would be for 8 euros a night for an 11 person room. Luckily we had all 11 people so we didn't have any randoms. There was free coffee and tea provided all day long and the beds and bathrooms were all fairly clean! I was pleasantly surprised. And the owner and guy at the front desk, Vulcan, was incredibly helpful and kind. He gave us detailed directions to everywhere and anywhere we wanted to go. There were a few handfuls of other young adults staying in the hostel but I didn't socialize with them much.

After settling down in our hostel, we left and explored Istanbul. We headed off to the Grand Bazaar.

Stephanie, Kelsey, and me outside the Grand Bazaar
all the gold!

silly turkish hats at the Bazaar

all the beautiful turkish lights
The Grand Bazaar was amazing! It was filled with so many wondrous things! The place was a bit like a labyrinth but every corner and aisle was filled with gorgeous scarves, twinkiling lights, funny clothing, and piles upon piles of jewelry! I bought two scarves, tigers eye earrings, a ring, a small bowl, a few coasters, and some coin purses. I felt so rich too because the conversion rate is amazing! I pulled out 250 Lira which is only 120 American dollars or so. I also did a lot of bargaining. One vendor was asking 40 Lira for a scarf and Kelsey, Stephanie, and I talked him down to 11 Lira each. Some vendors were stubborn with the prices but some were willing to move their prices with some prodding. One thing that absolutely all of the vendors had in common was that they were all overly flirtatious and semi-sleazy. Every vendor either called me a spice-girl, a charlie's angel, or simply showered me with compliments. 

The most memorable moment was when one vendor took a ring and proposed to me and said that he would fight off all other suitors in a duel with knives. That was epic.

After the Grand Bazaar we headed off to the blue mosque. The blue mosque was beautiful but we arrived too late and were not admitted inside. We still got some good photos outside though!

the blue mosque from afar

the blue mosque at dark
After the Blue Mosque we went home and rested because we were all exhausted. When we woke up in the morning we headed to the pier to grab some of my new-found-favorite-thing-in-the-world! Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice! I would drink 10 cups of fresh squeezed orange juice or pomegranate juice every day. You would literally watch them cut up the fruit and squeeze it into your cup, right in front of your face. It was like drinking pure holiness. It was the drink of the gods. After drinking it you would feel like you could do anything! And the best thing was that it cost less than one american dollar. Ohhhh hell yes LIFE IS AWESOME. We all would also pick up some Simet which is a turkish favorite which is basically a sesame bagel.  

Turkey Part 2 coming soon.....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ioannina & Meteora & Metsovo

The city of Ioannina

The city of Meteora

Meteora monastary

cute towns in Ioannina

The lake by Ali Pasha's castle

The GORGEOUS postcard city of Metsovo

Some byzantine art at the monastary

skulls at the monastary

our group

This past weekend a group of 50 ACT American students went to Ioannina and Meteora and stayed the night in the post-card-city of Metsovo.  Those cities are in the mountainous region of Western Greece, known as Epirus. We visited the Perama caves with it's incredible stalactites and stalagmites. We then stayed overnight in Metsovo and visited the famous monasteries of Meteora in the morning. The monasteries are built on high rocks and land formations that date back to pre-historic times. 

As you can see from the photos, it was completely beautiful. The weather was warm at 50-60 degrees and the skies were blue and spotted with clouds. This whole weekend felt like I was walking through a National Geographic magazine. It didn't feel real.

The Perama caves were awe-inspiring. For a stalactite to grow 1 cm it takes 60-80 years. Those stalactites were hugeeeee! They've been around for millennia. That just blows my mind. It was ridiculously humid in there, and photographs all came out pretty crappy since we were in a cave and all.

The monasteries on the cliffs were mind blowing! How could they build monasteries at such great heights, so precariously balanced on stone? There was such a feeling of sacredness looking at the monasteries and walking through them. 

I roomed with Riley at the hotel and as you can see from above, we had lots of fun together. Instead of taking a nap during our 2 hour break we jumped on the bed and danced to songs. Yes, we're cool like that.

We all went to dinner together, all 50 of us and had a largeeee delicious meal. Metsovo is famous for it's meats and it's red wines. The red wine was tasty and the "traditional sausage" was great as well. The veal was yucky and the chicken was kind of dry but the sausage was a winner.

The weekend exhausteddddd us all and on the 3 hour bus ride back home to Thessaloniki, absolutely everyone was passed out cold. Worth it.

Friday, February 17, 2012


The girls at the dance
us ladies before the dance
Yesterday, February 16 was Tsiknopempti which is Greece's first day of Carnival. Basically, it's halloween. At school we had traditional Greek Pontic dancers come and perform for us. It was a lot of stomping and small foot movements and holding hands and moving in a circle. It was cool to watch and to see their traditional garments. For a few of the dances, they pulled in audience members so I got the chance to join a couple of the dances. It was fairly easy with a mini grapevine, left kick, right toe touch, repeat. A handful of people dressed up at school, including Efi, one of our school administrators. We all call her "Big Mama" because she IS our Big Mama. She brings us cookies at our apartments and checks up on us and always is ready to give anyone and everyone a hug. She's the first one to join the dancing and to get up on tables and chairs. She's absolutely wonderful. 
Traditional Pontic Dancers
After classes, we all went back to PapaK and changed into our costumes. Basically all us ladies wore black dresses and masquerade masks. After changing and eating my delicioussss leftovers from the other night (fried rice and sausage) we left for school. From 8-10 ACT had a dance. It kinda felt like a middle school dance. It was in the cafeteria and everybody was in costumes. We played the YMCA song, the Macarena, and other contemporary songs. Everyone was goofing off dancing and taking lots of photos. The only part of this that was NOT like a middle school dance is that the cafeteria here sold beer. I bought and drank a beer at school. AT SCHOOL. Ok, that's not normal. It's amazing how everything is so relaxed here. People double park and break every driving law, there is no open container law, and everyone pretty much does what they want without the cops stopping them-- within reason of course. I like that the law enforcement here isn't as uptight as back home. I like not having to constantly be looking over my shoulder. Not that I participate in illegal activities but having more lenient driving and drinking laws is pretty awesome.

Andddd this is the dance
This is BIG MAMA.
Anyways, after the school dance we took a bus downtown and bought hot-dogs and french fries. After that we went to CLUB W. which is apparently "the best club in town." You have to reserve seats there and it's all high-class and all that jazz. I told a handful of people from classes that all us Americans were going to Club W. so they reserved the area in front of us. The club itself was tiered, so there were different levels but they were only separated by couches that you could easily hop over. I hopped between the American area and the Greek area all night. There was a hip-hop dance performance that was decent around 2 am and a hip-hop singing performance around 3 am. The singing wasn't exactly my taste and it was difficult to dance to but it was cool to see a live performance. I left the bar around 3:30 am with a handful of people and woke up at 9:30 to shower before classes. I'm pretty exhausted but it was definitely worth it.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

wonderful, wonderful day

Today was such a wonderful day for so many small, beautiful reasons. I woke up and had a nice, long, hot  shower. I ate a nice bowl of cereal and had time to get ready slowly. Classes went well minus the fact I didn't realize I had to memorize the spelling of four Greek words for a quiz in Greek class (whoops!) but we had a little oral-quiz-of-sorts and I aced that. Speaking is unbelievably easier for me than writing. I just want to communicate! I don't really care about being able to spell things, as long as I can talk to people I'm happy.

At break time, I went to the library to make photo copies of this book for my religions course I didn't want to purchase. The lovely women at the front desk actually had a spare copy which they said they would lend me all semester for free! What fabulous luck! Then, I spent the rest of lunch chatting with my American friends and talking with some of my new Greek friends: George, Alexandria, Alex, Melina, Marina, and Thenassis. They were teaching me phrases in Greek and I was teaching them some English colloquisms like "Schwasty" and other fun words like that.

my delish dinner

my cute little kitchen area

After school, I made a oh-so-wonderfullllll dinner of sausage and fried rice. I could not have been more impressed with my cooking skills. Seriously. I mentally gave myself quite a few high-fives. It was delicious!! I cooked the sausage first and then added rice, onion, egg (which I had prepared earlier) and  steamed carrots, peas, and corn. Then, of course, soy sauce. It was RIDIC how good it was. My home-girl Riley kept me company whilst cooking and played some rap and we goofed off. She has the same goofy, out there characteristics that I do but she is wayyyyy funnier than me. She's basically my soul-mate. And we take the best photographs. Here's a cute little example.

After dinner and hanging out with Riley, me and a few girls headed off to the costume shop. Tomorrow is TSIKNOPEMPTI which is Greece's version of Halloween. Instead of costumes like pirates or ninjas OR VIKINGS, people generally wear masquerade masks. Stephanie, Kelsey, Sarom, Colleen, and I all got matching masks but in different colors and we're all planning on wearing black dresses out tomorrow. I can't wait to post up photos of that! At the costume store, I bumped into Niko, Alex, and Marina from school! I'd seen Alex downtown at the center at Berksha yesterday so I course asked him if he was stalking me. Alex, if you don't remember, is Prince Eric from the Little Mermaid. It was such a pleasant surprise to bump into them. I feel like I only know a handful of Greek people so to actually bump into someone two days in a row or even just once feels like a huge deal for me!

When I bought the mask, I chatted with the cashier and he was an older man who spoke English decently. I was speaking mainly Greek to him and he was uber impressed with my Greek skills. He asked how long I have been here and I said 14 days and he said how long will you stay and I said 4 months and then he laughed and said, you should stay here. It was sweet. I loveee Greece.

After the costume shop I went out and got little delicious cookies which made me love my life even more! Then Sarom, Colleen, Stephanie and I all did a workout video which made us all feel super out-of-shape. We used blankets as mats and water bottles as weights and we were still panting and sweating. Now, I'm trying to head off to bed early so I can get plenty of rest in preparation for Tsiknopempti!

What a wonderful, wonderful day.