Saturday, November 26, 2011

Readying for Travel

Readying for Travel Tonight I leave on my journey abroad. I am piecing together my remaining items to be packed; making sure that my passport is at the ready and headphones are nearby. I have checked in to my flight, landing in London tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. Having confirmed lunch with friends tomorrow, I downloaded the iPhone application of the London tube system, making my quick jaunt into the city center less anxiety provoking, since I’ll know exactly which trains to take. After lunch tomorrow, I’ll return to Heathrow for my flight to Istanbul.

I’ll arrive at midnight, taxiing to Cihangir, where I’ll meet the woman who is renting me an apartment for the next two weeks. I’ve heard that this neighborhood is residential, not touristy, and is surrounded by cafes, restaurants, shops, and galleries. With a list of attractions/distractions like that, I could probably exist without leaving my neighborhood.

Alas, I’ll venture out. To prepare for this trip, I got a Chip and Pin card from Travelex. A chip and pin, for those of you who don’t know, is a credit card with a chip in it that one uses in combination with a pin code. We don’t have these stateside yet, but they are becoming the norm in Europe. They have increased security measures and are much safer than plain credit cards. Also, the machines in which they are used are different than ours, there’s no swiping. I learned the hard way, on previous trips, that once chip and pin is installed in an establishment, oftentimes swiping is no longer an option. More than once I had to run to get cash from a machine to pay my bill or make a purchase. Travelex, the same company that gives you travelers checks and exchanges your cash, offers a refillable card that one can purchase in dollars but will be exchanged for pounds or euros. I chose euros, knowing full well that most of the countries that I am visiting are on their own currency still. But just in case, at least I’m covered for a bit of cash in chip and pin form in case I get caught in a pickle. And no, I don’t work for Travelex, but they sure do make travel easier.

When readying for a trip like this, I do all the practical things. I count pairs of socks and underwear, I fill small bottles with facewash and lotion. I bring scarves and bikinis both, since you never know what you’ll encounter. I look at maps, kind of, and plan out the first steps of the process, knowing that jet lag will get the better of me. I do all of these practical things because I know that my first day of traveling always includes some sort of breakdown. I’m not alone in this; I’ve read Matt Gross and other frequent travelers mention a case of Day One Malaise. It’s a common affliction of exhaustion, disorientation and aloneness. Not loneliness, but aloneness. It doesn’t last long but never fails to make an appearance.

This trip, I began my anxiety a bit early, spending one night last weekend completely awake. Wide eyed, I asked my ceiling what on earth I was thinking, who would I talk to while away?!? Silly, I know, but there are moments when traveling and preparing to do so where your logical, thinking mind is not in charge of your thoughts. Day One Malaise for me normally includes one very expensive phone call and at least one very much appreciated glass of wine. Then, I’m ready for the world. To avoid any crazytown breakdowns, I have coordinated with my entire family and most friends to keep in touch over Face Time, iChat and Skype. With all the chatting we will do, I’ll hardly realize the distance between us.

So, with all my ducks in a row, I zip up my bag, double check for my adapters, cords, toothbrush and passport, and get in the car. My sister will drop me off, promising to treat my cat with unending love and affection while I’m gone, and I’ll say, “I’ll see you at Christmas.”

The Istanbullu Welcome

The Istanbullu Welcome “Don’t you know about ‘Turkish time’? We are always twenty minutes late!” jokes Billur, my new friend and tour guide for the day. I had been waiting on my stoop, watching my neighbors sip tea while others walked their children to the bus stop. It was a lovely day in Istanbul, a little cloudy, but crisp and inviting.

Billur walks me through my neighborhood, pointing out the best produce, where to get milk pudding, which place has the best juice (fresh juices are all the rage apparently, I’ve been drinking my weight in pomegranate juice daily). She points out the best menemen place, a dish I would sample many times: a copper sauté pan filled with scrambled, baked eggs with tomato sauce, spicy peppers, za’atar herbs, and sometimes spinach, sausage, or a cured beef that Billur claims makes the eater smell funny for the rest of the day. I prefer the Turkish spicy sausage.  This restaurant, Van Kahvalti Evi, is a Kurdish style outpost of food from Van, the Eastern Turkey city recently ravaged by earthquakes. We sample the borek too, a pastry filled with fragrant ground meat, potatoes, or cheese. I liken this dish to something more akin to a quesadilla than a puff pastry, but I hear other places use different, flakier dough. Billur orders me a kahve filtre, a filtered, American, coffee-maker coffee, which I know is a bad idea, and I drink the scalded brown water out of politeness. I order a tea afterward, because every single diner in this full restaurant is drinking the same tea. It was clear to me which was the customary beverage and which was there for tourists. We talk first about our neighborhood, the very hilly but cool Cihangir, then more generally about Istanbul as a whole, then about men. We are fast friends.

Van Kahvalti Evi, the best menemen place in town

We leave Cihangir, and head down the type of hill that you will rue on your return, to the Karaköy neighborhood. I see my first mosque—my first mosque in a Muslim country, rather—and I follow her speechless toward the water. The Bosphorus looms ahead of us, busy with ferries, tankers and cruise ships. I’d learn later that this is one of the busiest waterways in the world.  Wary not to trip on the uneven, crumbling and stepped roads, I look up at the architecture. Million dollar buildings sit beside the ruins of buildings taken in the last earthquake. Wooden yalis (old Ottoman style homes that once lined the Bosphorus coast), stone buildings, concrete slab apartments and everything in between line these streets. The streets themselves seem to cover a wide description of “street” too. There are four-lane thoroughfares, side streets, dark alleys and unlit paths that meander in every direction. Streets and sidewalks are handicap-unfriendly (at least in this neighborhood), to say the very least, and I’m initially daunted by how many dark alleys my map requires I walk down. I come to learn that these are the streets of Istanbul; dark, unmarked, full of stairs and one ways, crumbling and in constant need of repair. I can at once feel intimidated by the deserted streets and comforted in knowing that this is a valid part of the city; these are not back alleys, these are a quick and convenient network of paths to navigate this megacity through. There’s too much history and too many existing structures to create a Westernized grid, and why would you want to? This is why traveling teaches you so much, what is unfamiliar is not wrong, just different.

As we pop out of these labyrinthine streets we find the main port of Karaköy. Hiding in the shadows of docked cruise ships is the original Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the famed baklava heaven. Billur shows me around, getting samples and showing me her favorites, and I wonder if: 1) she is this accommodating to all of her AirBnB clients, and 2) she can tell that I’ve been made speechless by this town.

After seeing another apartment for vacation rental (she was advising an acquaintance, I was checking out the view), we walked home through the Galata Tower area. Peeking in the windows of new boutiques where local artisans are sewing, knitting and creating new fashions, we make our way to Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping drag. Like so many other outdoor mall areas reserved for walkers and shoppers, I felt less inclined to shop there than at the small boutiques we’d just passed by. These were international brands and franchises, packed between Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffee. The roasting chestnuts and piles of mussels with lemon being sold on the street, the narghile smoking clubs (narghile pipes are hookahs with crazy flavor options), and the recruiters in front of every club, bar and restaurant remind you where you are.

The view from another AirBnb apartment

We meet a few hours later for dinner with other AirBnB clients. We head to Leb i-derya, a new, cool, top floor bar/restaurant with a view of the entire skyline. The vague sign at the entrance is the first clue that you’re going somewhere under the radar, the second, third and fourth clues are the set of stairs, the elevator ride to the top, and the other set of stairs that finally lead you to a welcome desk and coat check. Once inside though, it is worth the effort. The restaurant has sleek and modern furnishings, low lighting and is completely encased in glass. I felt as if we had walked in to an atrium or greenhouse, albeit one with incredibly loud house music. In our group we had a woman from Milwaukee pondering a move to Turkey, two work associates in the software field, one from Sweden, one from Libya, a personal friend of Billur’s, and a guest appearance from the Leb I-Derya dj, also known as the man that apparently owns my flat.

Leb i-derya

We eat fava bean puree, roasted eggplant, grilled goat cheese with thick, sweet balsamic, chicken with apricots and almonds, roasted lamb with tahini, salmon with lavender and hazelnuts, and slow roasted beef with cinnamon rice. With a crisp white wine, we chatted about our respective work, the political environment (my Libyan friend was there at the time of the revolution), and travel plans. Between trips to the terrace to view the bridges, palaces and mosques lit up at night, we were all settled in, comforted by the kinship found with other travelers, sated by the first bites of Turkish food, and thankful for the good fortune of being wholly welcomed into a foreign land.

The sign that wasn't lit the night before
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Taksi, Take Me Home: First Impressions of Istanbul

Taksi, Take Me Home: First Impressions of Istanbul It says “Taksi” on the cabs that drive past my building. I just arrived in one, here in the Cihangir neighborhood of Istanbul. I shared the taxi with a woman from Chicago, whom I met in the customs line. This seemed like a good omen to me—kismet, as the Turks would say—that I had already made a friend in town.

I stand on my tiny terrace, big enough to fit me, my friends in a few days, and a computer just perfectly. I still haven’t purchased that little journal that I know should be practicing my stellar penmanship on, that I’d jot down notes in as I meander through Istanbul’s streets. Or that I’ll write lengthy passages in while sitting in a café, sipping tea and smoking Turkish cigarettes. That’s not likely to happen … but makes for an inspired image. For now, the unromantic laptop on the terrace shall do. It’s chilly, but no colder than Boston. Maybe even warmer. It’s quarter of three in the morning, and I slept, Advil PM induced, for maybe 3 hours last night.

My host brought me a bottle of wine as a welcome gift, sharing a glass as she showed me how to use the television and where to put the garbage. I continue to drink from the bottle after she leaves, and it certainly contributes to my lack of interest in going to sleep. I use Face Time, the Mac application, and talk to my sister. My computer and I tour her through the apartment. She’s glad I’ve made it here.
I have unpacked, my clothes are in the closet and socks in the drawer. This apartment has the tiniest kitchen one has ever seen. The bathroom doubles its size easily. But there’s a washer in there, so I shall not leave this apartment without clean clothes. A café table sits in a windowed alcove, perfect for watching the neighbors pass.

Tiniest Kitchen In The World

The buildings around me look old and new, at the same time. They are old, they must be, but they look updated. They have clean plaster and well cared-for windows and panes. My street is lined with unidentifiable trees, but one I swear must be a type of citrus. The street lamps hang across the road, from building to building, alighting the entire street in a warm glow.  There’s a cat walking nonchalantly down the road.

The sidewalks are demarcated with special tiles to show where outdoor seating exists during the warmer months. As promised, I see restaurants and coffee shops lining my road.  I see five men, all conspicuously wearing the same black leather jacket and cool guy jeans, just now locking up the coffee shop for the night.  Who drinks coffee at this hour? Probably not them.

My Istanbul apartment

My apartment is perfectly suited. It is comfortably decorated, full of pillows and wine glasses, and subscribes to the IKEA design aesthetic with a few antiques and a bit of quirkiness thrown in. There is a table, an old, uneven cut of wood, perched atop two industrial coffee grinders. And out on the terrace, I swear, even in this darkness, that the Bosphorus is what I see glimmering to the left, less than two houses from my own.  The morning, should I wake to see it, will show me what this already perfect neighborhood is truly offering.  But for now, I’ll put myself to bed, smiling too much to sleep.

London Town Revisited

London Town RevisitedI am heading back to London next week for the most silly visit possible. I’ll meet my friend Alan for lunch at Fergus Henderson’s restaurant, St. John Bread and Wine, while on an eight-hour layover. I fly from Boston on a red eye, arrive at 9:00 a.m., head into town for a quick bite, and head back to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Istanbul. Yes, a lot of travel for one lunch, but it will be so worth it; after visiting St. John last year, I have been plotting my return.

When you pass this restaurant, the smell of freshly baked bread envelopes you. Growing up, my grandfather (called Pépère in our French-Canadian family) owned Francoeur’s bakery, and was the local bread deliveryman. Even now, so many years later, just thinking of the smell of his rolls makes me drool.  Knowing my affinity for carbohydrates and starches, a friend had directed me to make a pilgrimage to this restaurant. Even though I had just had breakfast half a mile away, I mustered up the appetite to accommodate some fresh bread and a glass of wine, since not doing so was not an option.

In a spare, white room with dark wood accents, I sat with a fresh brioche, a pat of a local farm’s butter, and a glass of chenin blanc. It all seems a bit gratuitous to me now, that I eat meal after meal while discovering a new place, especially given that I’m about to travel here in order just to eat again. I will have rabbit confit, fois gras and duck liver toast, or veal and ham pie this time, we’ll see what I’m in the mood for when I arrive. This is how one learns about a new place though; to see how people cook and eat is to most quickly get to the heart of a place. There are certain things in life that I will always have time and money for, fresh bread and famous restaurants are among the top of the list.

Nose-to-tail dining at its finest

In addition to the bakery, St. John is known for its nose-to-tail mentality, something that I simultaneously respect and am terrified by. I get a bit squeamish when confronted by feet, noses and innards, but try to remain open-minded when at such an esteemed restaurant. A chef I worked with all year read Fergus Henderson’s books, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and Beyond Nose to Tail: Omnivorous Adventures, like they were the gospel and he was repenting. When I visited last year I had known that I was at a famous restaurant, but I hadn’t realized that I was at that famous restaurant. I realized then that a return trip was absolutely necessary, for my first visit had not done the establishment full justice. That, and I want to make my chef friend jealous. You will get the full story in a few weeks, when I recover from my paté and cured meat hangover.

After my glass or two of wine , I left the Spitalfield’s area and headed toward the River Thames. Intent on crossing as many bridges as possible on this trip, I would tackle the Tower Bridge today. A bit tipsy however, I left the restaurant and walked clear off my pocket-sized map. This was not the first time I found myself off the map in another country, and goodness knows I’ll do it many times again in the future. I walked along, slowly realizing that I was headed away from the tall buildings of the city center. I made it to Brick Lane and found myself, through no help of a map. I know this name from a movie, you may too, and knew it to be a famous Bangladeshi neighborhood. I was suddenly glad to have walked off the map. I grabbed a samosa (because again, I cannot pass up a good food opportunity) and enjoyed the curry smells wafting from the storefronts. I reoriented myself by searching the skyline for the Gherkin, the torpedo shaped glass building I knew to be on the way to the river.

Tower of London, Gherkin in the background

Back on track, I veered left to cross the bridge. I pass the fortress, get herded in the crowds, am made to feel Lilliputian under the tower. I try to take it all in, knowing the history that surrounded me, wanting to know everything I saw. Had I known I’d one day write about the experience, there’d be more to say. All I can report is that the Thames sparkled, I spotted the Tate Modern Museum further up river, recognized the Millennium Footbridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the ever-visible London Eye ferris wheel. I made my way to Borough Market once I reached the other side, content to sip a cappuccino at Monmouth Coffee, watching Londoners relax and visit, feeling at home.

Millennium Footbridge and St. Paul's Cathedral

Delicious coffee to be had here

My Life in Pie: Or, a Year of Creative Learning

My Life in Pie: Or, a Year of Creative Learning This article is about two things: the generosity of family and the growth of an individual. Clearly this is about me, and the good fortune I had this past year to be living with my older sister Courtney. While rarely mentioned in my writing, Courtney is actually the reason I am able to do it, and the reason I want to do it well.

I spent this past year living with her and her now husband, Bob, in their Boston loft apartment. That’s right, my sister spent her year of being engaged with her younger sister in relatively constant earshot. It was surprisingly seamless. While we grew up in the same house, it had been 16 years since we lived under the same roof. As children we were at odds, simultaneously loving and torturing one another (mostly I loved her, and she showed her love by pinning me to the ground, pretending to spit on me). Alas, she went to college and I stayed home. When I finally left for California years later, she had settled in Boston, securing more than a decade apart with only annual visits.

So when the time came for me to move home, she stepped up and offered her home to be considered as my own. I heard the voice of warning in my ear—this may not be the best idea—but ignored it. We would forge ahead with a new adult relationship. I have not regretted a moment of it. Sporadically throughout the year, Courtney and I would look at one another and ask, “Should I be moving out?” “Have I stayed too long?” and more importantly, “Does Bob want me out?” … “Do you want to leave?” she would ask. We kept deciding, together, that we weren’t done yet, that we still loved coming home to one another.

What does this have to do with travel? Artisans? Everything. They did not charge me rent, and because of that leeway of luxury, I was able to truly become an artisan of sorts, and could afford to become a true traveler. In exchange for my free house and home, they made it no secret that they wanted me to feed them. Having been a cook for so long, a farmer and a waitress, my life had been food, and they were not shy in hoping that I’d bring this part of me to Boston. Without much coercion, it exploded out of me. In this one year, I had the opportunity to explore every part of my creative self, thanks to their generosity and support.

It started with pies. Peach pies, chicken pot pies, strawberry pies, sweet potato pies… and moved on to jams. From there the pies loosened up into galettes: sweet potato with blue cheese, Brussels sprouts, roasted grapes and kale; quiche with leeks, mushrooms, fennel, grilled radicchio and herbs. I moved on to paella, abandoning my beloved crusts: seafood, chorizo, chicken…I made my own spice rubs and sofrito, homemade aioli and herb oils. The seafood got me itching for a Provencal style soup; I made the lightest herbed, saffron fish stock, dropped in my fish and shellfish at the last minute, topped it with rouille and crouton, and my sister and I ate half of it standing over the stovetop. This soup, inspired by my friend and boss, Nico Monday, of The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, was so good that when I took my first taste I said, “Nico Monday, eat your heart out.”

The year in food progressed. I cooked with a vengeance and drive that I had never had before. In California, you see, I lived with the best chef I’d ever known, and under him, my kitchen confidence waned. Independent of his ever-present skill however, the years spent watching him and learning his techniques proved to have been the best culinary school I could have attended. With his lessons in mind, I tackled chocolate, candies, cheesemaking, meringues, meats and every order of sauce I could imagine. Courtney and Bob did not object to my enthusiasm. Only once did they decide that there would be a dessert strike (out of respect for their waistlines), and I was not to make any more of those for a while.

But beyond what this year of communal family living did for me culinarily, it did much more for me professionally. I helped open and run The Market Restaurant for two summer seasons, present and proud when it was awarded Best New Restaurant this summer. I spent the winter learning inestimable amounts about cheese and wine at Esprit du Vin in Milton, MA. I took a position as the pastry chef at Central Kitchen, a restaurant in Cambridge. This was a job that would inspire my creativity, put pressure on my kitchen skills, and was, in effect, my chance to teach myself to run an entire portion of a restaurant’s menu. This opportunity initially kept me awake at night, dreaming of menus and jotting down notes at 4:00 a.m. out of anxiety.

I took over a public school’s garden too. With large, totally abandoned garden plots at Boston’s Blackstone School, I successfully rejuvenated the landscape and produced pounds and pounds of fresh produce for myself and the school children. I taught the kids about soil, bugs, flowers, nutrition, and plants. The students in my friend’s class, preschool special education, all responded to the sound of dried seed pods, the scent of herbs, and the taste of cucumbers. The garden is now part of a campaign to integrate the food produced into the school lunches and the care of the plants into science classes.

Lastly, I was able to take this job, the one that occupies my mind the most. I write weekly, this article will be my thirtieth (read the others here), and spend much of my time thinking about the next. I will always have to have other jobs while writing, for the work and the pay will never support my eating habits, and that I accept. Writing professionally has changed my life entirely though; much to Courtney’s delight, this position (and my dedication to it) has opened the door to the most supportable job she could ever see me do. Finally, she thinks, Lauren has a goal.

Without all the other jobs I completed this year, I wouldn’t have known that to write would be the best fit. None of the jobs I performed this year were full-time, none paid all that well (if they paid at all), and none offered benefits. But combined, I lived happily and healthily while enriching my life experience. I was also able to eliminate other career paths, all the while cooking and writing to my heart’s (and my sister’s) content.

This year, when asked what I did for a living, I explained that I had given myself a year of learning creatively. Without realizing it beforehand, that’s exactly what I had done; I took one year of my sister’s generosity and explored all my options. I learned incredible amounts about topics I love, I gained practice and experience that otherwise never could have, and got to carve a relationship of stone with my sister. The thing about Courtney is that she expects a lot from me, and expects that I should work hard for it. In many ways it troubles her to see me jumping from job to job, doing things for the sake of learning instead of for the financial stability. This year has made her more understanding of my creative mind, my seemingly unquenchable desire to learn more (maybe it’s just because I couldn’t actually decide what to focus on…but that’s one for the therapist), and my desire to do what I want, instead of what I should do. She’s been limitlessly patient, but I think that’s because her belly has been full.

The biggest gifts though are yet to come. I’ve promised to move out, just as soon as I get home from a long journey to the Eastern Mediterranean I have planned. This trip, of course, is only possible because I haven’t been paying rent, so again, the benefits I’ve received are innumerable. She is proud of my courage when traveling; she spent her wedding night telling all of her friends and new family about my plans. I still have hopes she’ll meet me in Europe, for we’ve already successfully tackled Germany, Prague and Amsterdam together. This year has created a whole new me and a new relationship with my sister. This writer will be her personal chef and travel partner whenever called upon, forever.