Happy Times

the story of the beginning

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Istanbullions - you can take ‘em to the bank

Istanbul is tough. Istanbul is clean.  Istanbul has Character. The kind of character that takes centuries to manifest itself . The kind of character that deserves to be a proper noun. The kind of character that stays with you from the time your nose touches the enrapturing air until it once again breathes the recycled plane2O.

As I sit on the plane to Africa lionizing (wink) the place whence we came i realize that preparing a proper textual description of this city is an ambitious assignment. Istanbul is so complex, so different than any other place we’ve been that even if we were able to describe each aspect individually it wouldn’t even suffice to say that Istanbul is the sum of those parts. 

The best way to introduce you to this gem is to explain a bit about its geography. Istanbul spans two continents, Europe and Asia, which are split by the picturesque Bosphorous, a straight that leaves the Sea of Marmara in the south and reaches the Black Sea in the north. Historical architecture rips through the topsoil with authority while modern and European buildings pepper the rest of the city. 
Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, Ankara is. Attaturk moved it there post-WWI to limit the vulnerabilities of stationing the government too close to canon-range coastline. Istanbul is also a relatively small plot of land compared to the rest of Turkey yet twenty percent of it’s inhabitants choose to live on four percent of it’s land…for good reason….this place is awesome.

Istanbulites have every right to be proud of their city and from what we could tell, they really are. But not in the way you might expect; not with arrogance or a sense of entitlement rather with a unique love and sense of pride. It shouldn’t come as huge surprise; relative to some of their cousins they’ve enjoyed a healthy increase in economic stability under a reasonably popular political party. They’ve managed to avoid the rousing call for violent activism or government upheaval despite the fact that it’s the flavor of the week in the region. Bottom line, Turks are incredibly warm and cordial which added a refreshing element to the entire experience, the proverbial cherry on top if you will (and I will, even if you won’t).

Now that I’ve brown nosed my way to a free meze platter or two I’ll move on to the specifics. I don’t normally offer apologies for my writing style but I don’t want you to think this is going to be some boring anthropology lecture. Pardon my geekness but Istanbul genuinely excites the amateur historian in you and motivates an urge to magnify the cultural elements for dissection. Rach will tell you that I over analyze everything, not just this, which is mostly true, but this is more than justifiable.

I think the beginning is a good place to begin. Agree? OK. 
Our plane touched down Wednesday evening at Ataturk airport and we managed to procure a visa ($20) and collect our bags with relative ease. A quick glance at the Lonely Planet during our pit stop at the carousel revealed that speaking Turkish would NOT be easy- it took us nearly 3 days to perfect “thank you” and that was after a Bazaar merchant shared a clever mnemonic device of “two sugars and a dream”- nevertheless, we were brimming with enthusiasm and nothing was going to get in our way.

It was already dark when a brand new s-class and a cheerful driver whisked us away to the hotel but Istanbul was lit up just like we hoped.  The Edition (a new boutique hotel by the Marriott) stood handsomely in a neighborhood called Levent which was tucked away in an area we were promised would carry more of “locals” feel than other tourist-laden parts.  You may be sniffing the faint aroma of cynicism in my words so I might as well just get this over with. Levent did NOT deliver. (inhale) Levent’s proximity from where we actually wanted to be ranged from reasonably to painfully far. By the end of the trip levent earned it’s way into the Raysean dictionary as an adjective that described something or someone that beared any amount of suckiness. (exhale)

To be completely frank, it wasn’t that bad but my shrink says it’s better to communicate feelings than to keep them pent up. That said, it’s important for you all to know that it didn’t really damper our trip at all. We just drowned Levent in aforementioned pools of enthusiasm and made sure to stay positive. By the 2nd day we even started appreciating the long train rides back home since they allowed for romantic daycaps and provided an added sense of accomplishment for successfully navigating the Istanbul underground. 

Before I forget, let me mention that the hotel was a gorggg, no, magggg, noo-no STUNNING  edifice with modern yet warm rooms filled with copious amounts of mahogany, tastefully crafted bronze accents and an awesome array of electronics that actually worked. This was a seriously sexy and sufficiently comfortable room that we had no trouble calling home despite it’s imperfect location.

Besides nice rooms, the hotel housed a Cipriani restaurant (which is SY for legit) a Billionaires Club discotheque (hilariously Euro and awesome) and a  ten thousand sq foot Espa that we were ultimately too busy to patronize.
 It’s difficult to tackle such a bustling city when the first foray is after sundown so we were happy to eat in the hotel. Our first meal after eight days and nights of Greek was at Cipriani; admittedly my first time ever and it was pretty good but It also cost more than all the Greek meals combined :)

Thursday was game time. We enjoyed a leisurely wakeup and made our way down to the concierge so they could assist in recommending some itineraries. We wanted to be sure that we got a real taste of Istanbul and I’ll say they did a good job helping us out. The dudes name was Cenk (pronounced Jenk) and he took his job seriously but thankfully not at the expense of being too much of a sphincter squeezer. He wasn’t young,or hip to the beat y’all, but he knew what we wanted and where to send us. Yes, I just casually suggested that we’re cool. Challenge me,I double dare you. 

Our first taste of Istanbul was at an awesome (in every way a restaurant should be) placed called House Cafe which sat right along the Bosphorous in a neighborhood called Ortakoy. We would come to learn that House Cafe was actually a chain of chic eateries owned by an enterprising Turk who also parlayed the brand into an equally cool set of hotels (take note, stay there when you visit). We drank a pair of delicious mint lemonades for which they are famous and feasted on a bunch of interesting dishes that had a perfect mix of fresh ingredients and local authenticity. No surprise, we tried one of the other locations later in the trip with an equally pleasing result.

Since we decided to have a private tour guide usher us through the historical sites the following day we chose to spend the remainder of thursday navigating the biggest and oldest covered marketplace in the world, dubbed Grand Bazaar. This place was a spectacle. A fitting choice for the site of a two day energy expensing hagglefest over two lamps, a copper tray and some other odds and ends. We decided it would be a good idea to bring home some aesthetically pleasing mementos that also doubled as house furnishings. Once a merchant smells the odor of intention they latch on to you with their seasoned salesmanship of Turkish tea, countless quips and forcefully charming conversation rife with ulterior motives. I stood equal to the challenge and kept at it for the remainder of business that day and a handful of hours the next. The end result was considerably draining for both parties but we congratulated each other for the valiant efforts. I felt like the victor but probably still got ripped. Oh well, we were happy. 

The rest of the trip was filled with enjoyment, excitement, laughter, enlightenment and just about every other adjective you hope you can honestly use to describe a visit to a foreign city. We made it to most of the important sites  with our fact-filled guide Tim. 
Topkapi Palace, which served as the dwelling place for a handful of Ottoman Sultans and had an impressive collection of valuables on display that spanned the entire empire, including an 80 carat diamond lodged into a sarpech. It’s also worth mentioning that there was a room full of ancient artifacts who’s authenticity is highly implausible (Moses’ staff, Josephs turban, Avraham Avinu’s pottery, David Ha’melechs sword etc); 
Aya Sofia, An impressive basilica erected by Constantine during the Roman occupation which was then converted to a mosque when the Arabs, I believe under Mehmet, claimed the region for their Ottoman empire; 
the dark and dingy, but equally awesome Basilica Cistern, a structurally breathtaking underground water reservoir that puts the white nubbins lining the Turnpike to shame; 
and the Blue Mosque, where we saw young Turkish boys, around 7-8 years old, in silly costumes and learned that the stoic impression on their face was a product of their circumcision ceremony.

We walked, metro’d, funicular’d, tram’d and drove through a handful of neighborhoods, each of them different and each of them with a unique personality. Some with high end boutiques and cobblestone streets, some less refined with shisha bars and weathered coffee shops, some bathed in sun with rows of european facades staring at the Bosphorous and plenty of rundown projects with nearly vertical roads winding through the hilltops of the city (apparently Istanbul is the “City of 7 hills”). 

We sampled the local snacks; all the obvious turkish delights, roasted corn kernels (plain AND bbq, which coincidentally I’m enjoying right now in Tanzania as I write this) and a shrink-wrapped sampler of mixed fruits stuffed with nuts that included a pistachio-encrusted ball of mashed dates that was freakin delicious. 

We even marveled at the brilliance of the common Turk as a savvy street peddler who offered traffic-braving motorists car-chargers instead of roses. We tried to experience every side of Istanbul and while we’re not sure if we did, we’re sure we want to come back one day and fill in the gaps.

There’s something we’re hesitant to tell you for fear that it’ll negatively impact your impression of this place but we simply can’t keep this magical tidbit of info to ourselves.  Istanbul does nightlife the right way. Well, a least it works here. Megaraunts, resto-bar establishment clusters the size of small cities, line the Bosphorous and take advantage if it’s incdible views. Everyone eats what they want at restaurant of choice and then meet in the epicenter post-feast. So far, so good. 
The predominantly-house playlist pumped it’s way into the hearts of all the club goers and all seemed normal. Then, suddenly, the eurobeats were interrupted by something, hmm, old? Without warning the DJ throws on a funkmastery-flexish NEW YEARS EVE countdown. Best part about it, we were counting down to 2010. In June of 2011! But ya wanna know what? It worked! I mean, theres something ridiculously right about doing something so obviously off base. Kinda felt like we were in a time machine. 
Anyway, just when we thought it would be an isolated incident, we experienced a near carbon copy at our hotel’s Billionaires Club. 
Oh well, I suppose one offense is excusable

Off to Africa.

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This endeavor began with the initial intent to publish daily updates of our escapades. Alas we’ve been having too much fun and seem to have lost our diligence somewhere along the rainbow. So, here we bring you our Greece recap. 

Little did I know that the honeymoon would double as the perfect training ground to satisfy my  childhood dream of becoming an exterminator. The age-old battle between man and insect represents one of life’s most existential dilemmas; sadly for them laissez-faire  is a french term and i aint french.
For any of our tree-hugger friends i assure you it’s a balanced battle. A giant beetle managed to find his way onto my shoulder one evening when Rach and I were readying for dinner and talking to our new Swedish travel agent friends, Johan and Leif. I did what any self respecting member of the XY chromosome clan would do. I screamed like a girl and flapped my arms incessantly. A nearly perfect representation of the macho American. Check please.

Which brings me to the next order of business. I thought it would take at least 2 years before our marriage would prove that Mrs. Rachel Chraime is always right but I managed to concede the title in about 5 days and 14 hours. Her majesty pretty much nails every who, what, where, when, why and how question but I love her so I LET her keep winning. So far it’s working like a charm. 

Santorini is full of personality; particularly the town we’re staying in called Oia (pronounced Ee-a and sometimes spelled Ia). Despite our state of exhaustion on Sunday afternoon we mustered up the energy to walk the town and traverse down the mountain for delightfully romantic dinner during sunset on a fisherman’s port. Best sea bass we’ve had all trip. It was huge but we devoured it. The most exciting thing about all these meals is when we come across something delicious and Rach says “I’ll make that for you at home” I have complete confidence that it’ll happen. Being married is crawwwsome.

Monday was equally enjoyable. We woke up for breakfast for the first time all trip. Don’t misunderstand, we HAVE managed to feed ourselves every morning but this was the first time we decided to join the ranks of the bourgeoise and sit in the common dining area. I’m not suggesting we deserved any congratulatory procession though;  the open air Charisma is about 15 meters from our front door, has an incredible view and the authentically friendly service married nicely with our delicate morning mood. Not to mention the food is delicious, the choices are endless and everything is complimentary. 

The afternoon introduced us to George, the  initially suspect but ultimately genuine car rental dude who equipped us with the Smart Cabriolet to explore the island.
Santorini is relatively tiny but still manages to have one of the biggest tourist maps of all time. Residing in my back pocket it adds some nice heft to my derrière- which begins to rival that of my famed and former roommate who we’ll call Sir Mike in the interest of anonymity- but I still would like to know where this guy received his cartographers certification.

Did I mention that Rachel is terribly afraid of heights? She hides it well though, that is to say she doesn’t infringe on my enjoyment of spiritedly driving the cliffside roads. She clenches my hand when I push her tolerance over the edge. Get it!? Of course you did. Moving on….The drive was enjoyably short and the roads ushered us to the Black Beach. Contrary to the scenes residing in your instinctive thought bubbles this place had nothing to do with the populations of Compton or Bed-Sty. In fact, it earned that name because of the lava that formed this seaside attraction. We can assure you it does have completely black sand and crystal clear waters which makes for a perfect photo opp (see below)

That eve we went to Roka, spelled Poka, which is a quaint local taverna tucked away behind some dark alleys. We sampled the local fare, most of which we’ve become very familiar with and some of which we’ve grown very fond of. Tzatziki is always a must, then there’s this Cretan barley bread topped with fresh tomatoes and feta, smoked eggplant done five different ways, olives, sardines, more cheese (sometimes plain, sometimes grilled and topped with honey/sesame and sometimes roasted with peppers and onions). The biggest hit of the trip has to be the “pies”. Don’t let the simplicity of the name throw you off. We were introduced to them in Crete at a lakeside eatery  called Du Lac. There they were a sambusak-y crescent shaped pocket filled with Mezithra cheese. Then in Bogazi they were filo filled with fresh spinach. Then in Roka it was indescribably good, with four cheeses and a hint of sweetness. 
In short, the food in Greece was really good and we added some poundage on our small bodies. We don’t imagine the grub in Turkey is going to be any less delicious so we’ve come to terms with the scale indicator moving decidedly further in the clockwise direction. 

This is getting a bit lengthy so I’m going to end this entry with the two most colorful lines of the trip so far:

"You look like a wet dog" and "I’m gonna get splinters in your jej"

Out of context these two quotes that Rach uttered may seem blatantly brash and insensitive. In context, I assure you, these were also demoralizing but (and I know some of you are wondering) these were not sexual. We’ll let you piece them together from the bevy of pics below (to follow). 

We’re having an amazing time and still miss you all very much. Don’t worry, we’ll still have plenty of stories for the dinner table when we get back, this is just a taste


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7am looked a lot nicer than I thought it would. Today marked the first early wakeup of our trip; not ideal, but we curbed our reluctance because it meant we were headed to the romantic island of Santorini.
We popped up, packed up every last morsel and hopped in our transfer to Iraklion. FYI “transfer” is a modest way of saying that we booked a pimped out Mercedes to carry us around. C class diesel to be exact, with a quintessential (read tasteless) furry seat cover over the captains chair. Good for at least 10hp. Rach slept most of the way but I stayed up to make sure the precarious games of highway chicken didn’t come too close for comfort.

We pulled up a little late but it didn’t matter much. The brilliant minds behind Hellenic Seaways implored passengers to be at port an hour before departure but then neglected to open the ticket office. Forgivable oversight only because they allowed the mutinous crowd to board the boat sans ticket. Don’t get too excited, we payed later, but they only charged us for economy while we joined the dignitaries and heads of state in business class.
The baggage loading procedure was very, shall we say, avant gard. A series of carefully placed booby traps and random arched walkways with stumbling blocks bolted to the floor ensured that this was not going to be an enjoyable or easy process. I like to think of myself as a gentleman but god only gave me two hands. Rach lugged along the toiletry bag and turned back to laugh at me suffering with the two eggplant colored trunks as they challenged every measly muscle in my freckle-adorned arms. A funny site indeed

 After being dropped off anticlimactically in the middle of the street and spending a long minute doubting the existence of the hotel we were greeted by two strapping luggage boys eager to haul our bags down the steep passage to the wonder waiting below us. The Mystique is nothing short of an oasis; 22 villas crafted from distinctly Greek white stucco that jut out of the cliffside and mellifluously declare, “Welcome to Santorini”.

It’s much hotter here than it is in Crete but it’s really difficult to complain about anything when your upgraded living quarters include a private gym and 150sqft terrace  complete with a proper lounge and breakfast area.

The ceremony bestowed upon us at arrival was the perfect greeting after after a fear inducing drive from the port of Santorini. It included two glasses of prosecco-both of which found their way to the bottom of my stomach- and a cordial yet friendly introduction to the island and resort. After we giggled like giddy schoolgirls at our digs for the next 3 nights we were on the dining terrace enjoying what’s become a very familiar cuisine of simple, natural and gratifying ingredients.

(more to follow)