Thursday, March 28, 2013

A cold morning walk at Vyšehrad and a lazy afternoon

This week I have Thursday and Friday off and also Monday of next week due to the Easter holiday. I'll be going on a meditation retreat at a monastery in Mnichovo Hradiště with Dita and another friend Michaela starting tomorrow, but today I was looking forward to sleeping in. It wasn't in the cards for me, though. My ever-obliging Czech doctor was able to sneak me into his schedule - at 7:15 AM. So, at 6:30 I rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed out to Doc's.

For some reason it's been super freezing here, even though it's supposed to be spring. Today is no exception. It's hazy, damp and cold. Still, as the train rolled through Vyšehrad station on its way to my stop, Pražského povstání, I thought about how it's pretty dumb that I've been living in Prague for more than a year, and although I have walked around the walls of the ancient Vyšehrad fortress, I have never spent any time inside the grounds or visited the cemetery there which I know to be gorgeous. It's one of those things I've always been meaning to do sometime. I have quite a list of things like that here in Prague, and on account of my imminent move to Istanbul in five months I realized I had better get cracking on that list.

So, at 8:00 AM I'm walking around Vyšehrad in the morning fog. Vyšehrad sits on a hill overlooking the Vltava. The site has been used for various purposes over the centuries, serving as a medieval fortress, a royal residence, and a training center for the Austrian Army. Today there are only a few remnants of the original medieval structure, with the massive ramparts and complex of buildings and gates mostly remodeled and reconstructed during various historical periods.

Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul

It is very peaceful, especially early in the morning on a cold day. I walked around the grounds along the edge of the huge fortified wall overlooking the river. There are the ruins of a medieval watchtower from which you can see Prague Castle in the distance on the other side of the Vltava. Prague looks very moody on this grey day. I followed the wall to the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is home to the cemetery where many famous people are buried including Antonín Dvořák and Alphonse Mucha. I didn't find Mucha's tomb (I admittedly didn't look very hard for it as I presume to return on a warmer and sunnier day), but I did find Dvořák's.

What stands out to me at the cemetery is the beautiful mosaic work of the tombs located under a gallery that runs along three sides of the grounds. The mosaics are beautiful, bright and shimmery. Also, the many gravestones in the central area are interestingly decorated with statues and display a range of different lettering and art styles. The cathedral also has beautiful bright mosaics over the colorful doors.

After my brisk morning walk, I returned to my flat with every intention of being extremely productive. I made some breakfast and sat down at my computer. I couldn't shake the chill, though, I was freezing! Plus I had stayed up until 1:00 AM watching a movie the night before. I watched Amélie, which I hadn't seen for some years. It made me want to fall in love. Even though I am considerably more practical about such matters than I used to be, I like that feeling of wanting to fall in love. At such times I am struck by the infinite possibility of the universe, and gratitude for being where I am - the fact that I can simply wander around a medieval fortress on my day off, for example. But even when presented with infinite possibility, sometimes curling up under a mound of blankets and napping all afternoon is still the most delectable option.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Somewhere there's a Czech puppy named Angela

I'd like to save this here so I can remember it on those frustrating days. Can I arrange to receive emails like this all the time? 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Week in Istanbul

First view of Turkey

Few places I have been in my life have struck me as much as Istanbul. It seemed that from the moment we stepped off the plane we were swept up in it and carried away. One of the first things I noticed was that there are a lot of people in this city, and everyone is going somewhere. Another thing I noticed is that my senses were continuously bombarded with new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings. 

A little bit about Istanbul and what makes it unique:

First of all, it is the only city in the world which actually spans two continents - Europe and Asia. Istanbul is a BIG city - one of the largest in the world. To put it into perspective, the population of New York City in 2011 was 8.24 million, while Istanbul counted 13.5 million.

Another amazing aspect of the city is its history. Originally founded as Byzantium in 660 BC (re-named Constantinople in 330 AD and later known as Istanbul), the city was the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, spanning sixteen centuries. It was a center for Christianity and later for Islam. The unique history of the city results in a "layering" of modern architecture with ruins and remnants from the past two millennia. As someone interested in history, I found this fascinating.

I will describe my impression of the city and its people as energetic and eclectic. As such, it suited me well, and I felt quite in my element. In fact, I became so infatuated with Istanbul that I have decided it will be my new home for the next school year - more on that later.

Dita and I rented a room for the week in the neighborhood of Fatih, the oldest part of the city. The apartment belongs to a couple - one of them Turkish and the other from Michigan. They were really sweet and the apartment was comfortable and homey. It was much better than staying in a hostel or hotel. On our first day we arrived in the afternoon and after leaving our bags at the apartment we headed out to explore. We quickly found ourselves by accident in the Spice Market, where we had our first kebap and baklava - the beginning of an uncountable array of culinary delights we enjoyed during our stay. We then took a ferry to the Asian side of the city, where we drank our first Turkish coffee, met some new friends and had dinner. 

Spice Market

First Turkish coffee

It's all in the details...

Our days in Istanbul looked like this: 

  • Wake up naturally (no alarm clock) around 9 or 9:30
  • Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, the ingredients for which we had gathered from the local markets the previous day
  • Meditate, then listen to a dhamma talk while preparing for our day
  • Head outside to explore the city

What a relaxing schedule! We saw so much during the week, but were never rushed. Although the city (as I mentioned earlier) is huge, we walked everywhere. The only time we took public transportation was the ferry ride to the Asian side. It was pleasant to spend so much time walking, and we saw a lot more that way. Plus, it helped us work up an appetite for all the delicious edibles sitting in beautiful, tempting mounds in the windows of every restaurant and sweetshop. Do you realize they have baklava fountains in Istanbul? Everything is drowned in honey. It's glorious.

A truckload of pomegranates


Honey store

Baklava as far as the eye can see

Baklava fountain

Finger muffins!! (You just had to be there...)

One of my favorite things in Istanbul is hearing the calls to prayer echoing from the minarets of the city's numerous mosques. Five times a day, someone singing from the Qur'an invites the faithful to prayer from each one, the voice of the singer projecting from speakers mounted on the many towers. It is a beautiful sound. The mosques also lend a majestic visual beauty to the city, their domes and spindly towers punctuating the skyline in every direction. At night they are lit up, and their stark, unpainted stone make a nice contrast with the many bright and colorful lights of the city.

Istanbul is surrounded by water. To the north is the Black Sea, and to the south the Sea of Marmara. The two seas are connected by the Bosphorus, a huge waterway. There is also a natural harbor known as the Golden Horn. By the water there are fish markets where all sorts of strange aquatic creatures can be purchased, and on the Galata Bridge, which we used when crossing the Golden Horn to the center, fishermen can be found day and night with their poles. The sea air proved to be just what I needed to get rid of the congestion I'd been battling for weeks. Although Istanbul isn't super warm yet in February, it's a lot warmer than Prague - while it was in the 20s and snowing at home, we were enjoying the mid-40s, and even some sunshine.

Of course we spent a lot of time visiting the numerous tourist attractions the city has to offer. Among these is the Hagia Sophia, which over time has evolved from a cathedral to a mosque to a museum. Considered the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture, it was dedicated in 360 BC and remained the largest cathedral in the world for one thousand years. After the Ottoman conquer of Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, which resulted in Christian art being removed and mosaics plastered over, while minarets and other Islamic architectural elements were added. Today, many of the old Christian mosaics have been uncovered and coexist with the newer Islamic elements in another example of the layering of different time periods, cultures and belief systems so frequently found in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia

Looking toward Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque in the background

Wandering around Sultanahmet


Another popular tourist attraction is the Blue Mosque. I can't really describe its beauty in words, so it's lucky I took lots of pictures. We arrived at the mosque during midday prayer, so we went to the convention hall where they have free talks about Islam. We even picked up free copies of the Qur'an.

We visited two different palaces in Istanbul, Dolmabahçe Palace and Topkapi Palace. Topkapi is the most famous, housing various sacred relics including what is claimed to be the staff of Moses, Abraham's pot, Joseph's turban, scrolls belonging to the apostle John, and a preserved footprint of Mohammed, among other things. There is also a collection of jewels on display here which of course I am always fond of gazing at. Dolmabahçe Palace is famous as the place where Atatürk died. Atatürk was the first president of Turkey. Atatürk means "Father of the Turks," and they really seemed to love him. You might call him the Václav Havel of Turkey. 

Dolmabahçe Palace

Topkapi Palace

Park below Topkapi

One of the coolest places we visited was the Basilica Cistern. As in many other locations throughout the Empire, the Romans devised an elaborate system for transporting and storing water in Istanbul. This consisted of aqueducts (part of one is still standing right by where we stayed) as well as a complex of cisterns beneath the city where the water brought from miles away was held. The largest of these, which has been renovated and is open to tourists, is the Basilica Cistern. It's basically a huge open room supported by hundreds of columns which were recycled from other buildings. It's famous for two enormous stone heads of Medusa which act as bases for two of the columns in the cistern. The whole place is creatively lit and they keep ambient music playing, which makes it very atmospheric.

The aqueduct we walked under every day

One of the heads of Medusa in the Basilica Cistern

 This Egyptian obelisk stands in the area of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Originally erected in 1490 BC it was brought to
Constantinople by Theodosius in 390 AD

Another thing I like about Istanbul? The cats. Thousands of kitties running around. Now, when I went to  Bangkok there were also a lot of cats, but a lot of them looked pretty rough around the edges. Most of the time stray cats don't look particularly pettable, nor do they seem to have any interest in getting to know you. Not so in Istanbul. These cats are shiny, well fed, and lovey. It's more like a vast population of communal housecats running around outside than a lot of street cats. We took frequent "cat breaks" (cat petting interludes) while walking around, especially in the Sultanahmet area. 

We came across a "cat hotel" one night while walking from the Fatih Mosque back to our apartment. We spotted a couple of what looked like big doll houses along a staircase that had food dishes out front. It was dark, so we couldn't see inside. Dita had to get a picture, and as she snapped it and her flash went off, I thought I saw something in one of the "rooms". I asked her to take another one, and as she did, we saw that EVERY ROOM WAS FULL. Some of them were even doubling up. It was so adorable. After the initial sighting, we noticed other cat hotels around the city.

The people in Istanbul are very open and warm. It was nice, especially when we're used to the Czech Republic. The Czechs are known for being extremely reserved - some even say cold, but it's really just cultural difference. Maybe that's why I enjoy working with children so much here - they haven't built up those social barriers yet. They're not afraid to be silly and vulnerable, to run up and hug you. I appreciate their openness and affection every day.

We met some interesting friends during our trip. One was Amanullah, or Aman - also known as Volkan, his Turkish name. He also had an Italian name since his mother is Italian, but I can't remember what it is. He is a sweetheart. We found him working in his grandfather's scarf shop in the Grand Bazaar. He invited us in for tea to practice his English, and of course we ended up buying scarves from him (we all know that I am currently suffering from a scarf shortage). Dita discovered a video editing program upon our return to Prague, and she made videos documenting moments with some of our new friends. I have included many photographs taken by Dita in this post as well.

Aman and Dita


Dita's Turkish boyfriend

Another place I really enjoyed and will definitely need to go back to is the Archeological Museum. There we visited an exhibit on the history of the city. We also saw some sarcophagi that had all come from a famous dig at the Necropolis of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. The most famous of these is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which is beautifully carved and notable in that you can still see traces of the brightly-colored paints that had originally covered the sculpture. 

Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus

The exhibit at the Museum of the Ancient Orient in the Archeological Museum complex was amazing. It made me realize how many contexts we have for what constitutes "old". I come from the United States, where we might say "old" in reference to a house built in the late 18th century. I now live in Prague, where we might say "old" in reference to a building erected in the 15th century. In Istanbul I'm looking at stone tablets carved with records of daily life from 2500 BC. It's a whole new frame of reference for "old". 

Oldest love poem

What else can I say about Istanbul? There is so much I could talk about. It seemed like every time I turned around I was met with something fascinating and new. The people, the architecture, the music, the cuisine, the textiles, the beads(!), the juxtaposition of old and new. I fell in love with all of it. I have a feeling you will be hearing plenty more about this city, because as I mentioned before I am now planning on going there next year to work. 

In case you're in need of a tiny, creepy pageant dress...

At the turn of the new year I was trying to think about what I wanted to do for next year. I thought about trying to work in Barcelona, but the visa situation there is a nightmare for non-EU citizens. I knew I wanted to stay somewhere in Europe since there are so many more places I want to travel in the area before moving on. I had sort of settled into the idea of remaining in Prague for another year, simply because I didn't have any other plausible ideas. After a few days in Istanbul, however, I was already entertaining the idea of spending a year there. I made a lot of contacts during my visit, and have done a lot of research upon returning. There should be no problem at all finding work, the wages are bit higher and the cost of living a bit lower. Plus, it's still in the same general area, so I will still be able to visit some of the Eastern European countries I haven't made it to yet. 

This past week Dita and I were discussing our trip and life in general. She said to me "Who would have thought you'd be living in Istanbul next?" I'm constantly amazed by how things happen. How I ended up in Prague, how the past year here has flown by, all the friends I've made and experiences I've had. It seems like when you're on the right path things just kind of fall into place. It already feels like that with Istanbul. I can't wait to see what will happen in the next few years.