The Run That Left Me Speechless – Istanbul, Turkey

Today, after a full day of wandering around Istanbul, I laced up my running shoes and joined a local running group for their weekly jog around the city.

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My mom had heard about the group, which meets at a running shop nearby her apartment, and suggested I check it out. A chance to run on another continent – how could I pass that opportunity up? On our way home from the bus we stopped in to double check the times. The clerk didn’t speak English, but through my mom’s rough Turkish, and the help of a handout, we determined that the run was still on for 7 o’clock tonight. Perfect!

It was affiliated with Nike in some way. Oops - I was wearing my Mizunos.

It was affiliated with Nike in some way. Oops – I was wearing my Mizunos.

I came back on my own and ventured back into the store, where they pointed me downstairs to where a handful of runners had gathered. Tentatively, I asked if anyone spoke English. I was met with an assortment of either blank stars or heads shaking no. Luckily, running is pretty self explanatory so I wasn’t too worried.

I was worried about the hills though. Istanbul is surprisingly hilly – I’m talking San Francisco style. I was hoping the run would take us somewhere flat, but didn’t have my hopes too high on that one. I spoke to the gentlemen next to me and asked him if it was a hilly run. Although I asked in English, which he didn’t speak, I did the sign for running by finger-kicking my fingers, followed by what I tried to mean as hilly by waving my arms up and down like a soundwave. (Hopefully that painted a Picasso-worthy mental picture for you.) He understood enough to vehemently shake his head yes, yes it would be very hilly. Gulp!

Run4We walked upstairs and then did some stretching on the street. The group was mostly men, but our group leader was a perky girl who enthusiastically led us on some stretches. She was talking in Turkish the entire time, but I like to imagine she was calling out encouraging things the whole time. At the last minute one woman, who spoke some English, joined the group. Hurray! I was pretty worried about being able to keep up with the group because my training has been so spotty and with the hills. She said everyone runs at their own pace and do what you can.

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Running down the streets of Istanbul, passing a woman in a burka.

You know what is a good motivator to stay on pace with the leader though, not knowing where the hell you are or where the hell you are going! The run went great! I knew there was no stopping because I literally had no idea where we were and didn’t really know how to explain where my mom lives if I needed to get back. Simply out of fear of getting totally lost, I kept up with main group the entire time.

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It was absolutely beautiful. We ran through Yildiz park. Even though we couldn’t really talk to each other, some things are universally understood – like the WHOO! or a high five, tactics I employed liberally! They probably thought I was the crazy, enthusiastic American – in which case, they would be totally right.

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Along the way we ran past easily 50 cops. Some were the light blue shirted regular police, while some were the dark blue riot cops. They had come in by the bus load, and buses lines the parks.

The views were stunning. You could see the Bosphorus at multiple times along the route, peaking out from behind the trees. The route was lined with sleeping dogs and cats running about too.

Bosphorus peaking out from behind the greenhouses.

Bosphorus peaking out from behind the greenhouses.

At the end we did your traditional last minute sprint, which is much harder when you’re running on cobblestone and trying not to break your ankle. We finished back at the store, where they handed us Powerade and water. We probably did about three miles, which was just enough to see some of the city and not kill me!

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It was a great experience and I love the opportunity to run with new groups in new places! Partly from the views, partly from the hills, and mostly from not speaking Turkish – the run left me speechless!

My first 12 hours in Istanbul

I finally landed in Istanbul and the adventure began as soon as I exited the plane.

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Before reuniting with my mom, I first navigated my way through visas (I had purchased mine online which made that an easy line to circumvent) and then headed through passport control. The line looked miserably long, but moved quickly and the people watching made the time fly by.

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After I got my first passport stamp ever, I was through the gate, grabbed my bag, and was off in search of my mom. That proved to be a pretty easy task given that as blonde Americans we both kind of stuck out.

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From the airport we took a train, two buses, and a cab to get back to Besiktas – my mom’s neighborhood. Everything in Turkey is packed. Granted, it was rush hour, but we were like a can of sardines on the buses. The Turkish people were all very helpful though, pointing us in the right direction along the way and helping us find the right stops. If the buses are a tight squeeze here, so are the houses. Everything is built on top of each other! With all of the hills in Istanbul you can look at a hill and see layers upon layers of apartment and business buildings, with the minarets of mosques spread intermittently throughout.

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When we arrived I was shocked by all the animals that greeted us. From the cab to my mom’s front door, I saw at least one dog and four cats. I wasn’t aware this was common in Turkey. Apparently Turkish people love animals, but don’t keep them as pets because of the expense, so the city is just filled with all of these communal animals. It is both adorable (the cats) and terrifying (the dogs roaming wild).

One of the cuter cats! (They aren't all this adorable!)

One of the cuter cats! (They aren’t all this adorable!)

If the population density and hustle and bustle was surprising, the sounds of Istanbul were as well. From dogs barking, seagulls chirping, and just the sounds of the city I couldn’t believe how loud it was!

When we got settled in, my mom and I had an impromptu gift exchange. I had brought a few things with me for her, and she had been stockpiling gifts for me over the years as well. When I asked my mom last week what I could bring her from America she had three requests: an English language Scrabble set, wasabi peas, and an iPad mini. If you had paid me to guess what she would have wanted, I would have been 0/3. I guess sometimes you miss the comforts of home and they can be things you didn’t expect to miss!

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She had a few boxes for me as well. My intro into Turkish culture started with a parade of hats. First, she gave me two Fez hats. Although popular in the Ottoman empire, I don’t think I’ve seen any Turkish people wearing them… yet.

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Next, were two green Turkish hats.

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After we finished goofing around with the hats, I opened a few more classic Turkish gifts, include: Turkish Delights (gummy candies), two absolutely beautiful Iznik style tile trivets, and a 1,000 piece puzzle of Kaplumbaga Terbiyecisi by Osman Hamdi. My bag is already going to be heavier on the way home it appears!

The puzzle

The puzzle

We headed out dinner with a trip through her neighborhood and went down to a cafe on the Bosphorus. As we went through her neighborhood we saw dozens of police. My mom lives in an area where the pretests had been fairly active, so I was initially alarmed at how many uniformed men were on the streets. They were just having coffee, smoking, and texting though – definitely not ready to engage in any rioting at that moment anyway. From there, our bus ride to the cafe took us through Bebek, the swanky neighborhood next door that I can’t wait to explore in the coming days.

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Dinner was divine. We ate at this quaint cafe that was adorned in greenery, and our table was right next to the river. If you look across the Bosphorus you are looking at Asia!

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By the time we made it to dinner it was about 8 p.m. and dark out. Since we were next to the water it was a little chilly, but each of the chairs had shawls on them. I loved it! Why don’t restaurants in the U.S. do this – I’m always freezing! I ordered salmon and my mom had this beautiful tomato tart that was to die for. (Note to self: look up how to make this back home!) We finished the meal with Turkish chi tea and then headed home.

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Outside of her apartment, we met a family who was out celebrating the Muslim holiday of Lailat al Mi’raj. They had made red lentil meatballs (also known as mercimak kofte) and halva, a sweet dessert. They asked us if we supported the protest and it was so interesting to hear how they said the protest had bonded together the neighborhood. Nur, an English speaking psychologist, said that she never knew any of the neighborhood, but with this last week they all say hi to each other and are much closer now. Throughout the night we didn’t see much protesting, mostly just people banging on pots and pans. It was interesting to see the climate in Istanbul first hand, and hear the local perspective on the situation.

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I’m so excited to be here in Turkey, with my mom, off on a week of adventuring! I didn’t see this coming a week ago, that’s for sure!

Touristy Tuesday: Istanbul, Turkey – The Flight In!

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I love to travel and even before the year with the Wienermobile, I tried to get out jetsetting every now and then. It may surprise you then, hell it even surprises me, that I have never been abroad. In college I was focused on graduating debt free, so study abroad just never seemed to be an option in my mind. Given that my mom has been living overseas for five years, you might think I would have been over to visit her. But again, I never seemed to have both the time or the money at the same time.

That is, until now! I’ll have to save the details of how the time came about, but in a Kelly-esque last minute change of plans, I booked my ticket to Istanbul, Turkey five days ago!

Five days ago it seemed like a really great plan. Four days ago it didn’t. Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, there were riots all over Istanbul. Maybe I missed some of the build-up coverage, but it felt like in one day the city had gone from a destination promising rugs and coffee, to one on fire. When I checked in with my mom, although she tried to be reassuring, hearing “they just tear gassed my street and there are helicopters overhead… but don’t worry, everything is actually fine,” just wasn’t the comforting message I was going for.

But the women in my family are both courageous and delusional, plus – let’s be honest – I had already booked my flight so there really was no turning back now.

So with my bag already packed (you know, living out of a suitcase is kind of nice sometimes) I headed to O’hare to enter my first international terminal. Call me overdramatic, but they are certainly different than regular terminals. Each of the different airlines had a much different look to all of their patrons. The Middle Eastern airlines, for example, had families that were much more diverse than Swiss Air, which I was flying. It was fun just to take all of that in.

I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, playing the over-anxious traveler for the first time in a long while. Normally I have a more “meh, I’ll get there eventually,” than a rush-rush-rush attitude. With my extra time I headed to the airport bar. I love bars at the airport because everyone is interesting, going somewhere, off on adventure of some kind. The one in the international terminal was even better because there were just so many different languages to listen to! The downside: one glass of wine cost me $15! Oh well, it’s vacation, right?

I was pretty eager to board and see just who I would be sitting elbow-to-elbow with for the next 8.5 hours on our flight to Zurich, Switzerland. The plane was 2 seats in one aisle, 4 in the middle, and then 2 more seats. I held my breath as I counted across to find mine, hoping it wouldn’t be in the middle block of seats. Hurray! An aisle seat in the two person section! Relieved, I exhaled slightly and started looking back to see if anyone was already sitting by the window in my row.

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An eager-faced girl pleasantly greeted me. Stella, an 11 year old (12 tomorrow she proudly exclaimed!) Greek girl from the Chicago suburbs was taking a solo trip to see her family in Athens, Greece for the summer. Hmm… an unaccompanied minor. I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation initially, but Stella ended up being just like me when I was that age, for better or worse!

She was very cute, admittedly not the best photo of either of us.

She was very cute, admittedly not the best photo of either of us.

She was a chatter, that’s for sure. But in a silly, anxious, wants to talk but not sure what to talk about, so she’ll say everything kind of way. The first thing she said was, “I’m glad you’re not a man or a boy because I would be nervous, but you seem nice!” Well – that’s the right foot to start out on.

She was adorable. Yes – she squirmed entirely too much for me and fidgeted a ton. Yes – she talked about everything that crossed her mind and her pedicure wasn’t exactly something I was dying to know about. But she could hold a conversation pretty well and something tells me she is probably going to be pretty great when she grows up. Plus she shared her snacks, and who doesn’t love that in an airplane, especially when they smell so tasty!

The flight itself was incredible. My mom had advised me to spend a little bit more to fly with an international carrier like Swiss or Turkish Airlines, opposed to United, because of the service. No kidding! The whole flight was a game of “what will they bring next?!”

I had texted a friend beforehand saying that all I wanted were outlets and warm towels. He had said I could at least count on Swiss chocolate. We were both right. There was an enormous selection of really good movies and TV programs, games, and music – all that were free! This already was a huge contrast from the U.S. carriers I’ve flown with.

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I snuggled up with the blanket they provided, which was surprisingly cozy unlike those cheap red Delta blankets, and set into a movie. From then it was a mix of sleeping through the night and waking up for all the food they provided.

Used to a dixi-cup beverage and a palmful of pretzels, I found the spread that Swiss provided incredible. When they came by for drinks, out of curiosity, I asked how much wine was. Free! Oh, well then sure I’ll take some red wine! (I figured it balanced out the expensive wine from the airport bar.)

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The food was equally impressive. Snack mix to start, followed by a chicken, rice and vegetable dinner, salad, and a brownie. In the morning they brought by a croissant and yogurt. Perhaps it is since I’m new to this whole international travel thing, but I thought the flight was divine.

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Plus, the flight attendants were just adorable. Our aisle was attended to by this gorgeous Swiss flight attendant, who was charming both in his demeanor and also his ability to talk in so many different languages. I easily heard him speak in three – English, Italian and French.

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The only hiccup in the flight was in the middle of the night, when I pulled a typical klutzo-Kelly move and while letting Stella up to use the restroom accidentally spilled the red wine. Miraculously, it didn’t stain my jeans at all! In that moment of horror all I could think was how embarrassed I was, trying to be cosmopolitan but failing in quite the fashion.

Stella woke me up in the morning (I forgive her, she was adorable in her enthusiasm) and we watched the plane come in over the Swiss mountains. Even the arrival was different than the states. Everything in the U.S. is laid out in a grid pattern, where as things were so loopy down on the ground in Switzerland. I looked at the hilltops, hoping to spot a yodeling blonde girl with braids, but that was one expectation that unfortunately wasn’t met.

When we parted ways in Zurich I found that navigating the Swiss airport was difficult not because of language barriers, everything had an English translation, but because it is set up much differently than U.S. airports. Luckily, all of the staff kept pointing me in the right direction and I eventually made it to my flight from Zurich to Istanbul, just as it was boarding.

And that’s where I am now – en route, in an aisle seat with ample leg room, having just enjoyed another tasty meal, waiting to touch base and get my first stamp in my virgin passport!

(Update: I have since landed and made it safe and sound to our apartment in Istanbul!)