September 2009


>I finished Totally Killer, Greg Olear’s debut novel, just in time for the semester to start here so now I won’t be distracted from my school work. It was definitely good company for me on my bus rides to and from school in the past few weeks though, so I’m going to miss it.

Part murder mystery, part conspiracy, this book, which will be released Tomorrow (September 29), tells the story of how Taylor Schmidt came to be deceased at the tender age of 23 (Not a spoiler! We learn this in the first pages of the book). The narrator, Todd Lander, does all he can to take us back to New York in 1991, the fateful year of Taylor’s death.

From talking about what life was like before the Internet (There was a time before the Internet?!), to Todd’s sad attempt to win Taylor’s love by making her a mixed tape, this book will take you back to the early 90’s the way Bret Easton Ellis takes you back to the early 80’s in Less Than Zero. It’s funny because I never really think of anything really defining the 90’s, not in the way that pop music, fluorescent clothing, and awesome hair defined the 80’s, but Olear has really captured what the decade had to offer. I especially liked the talk of the economic downturn at the time and what the “slacker” culture really meant. It really got me thinking.

As for the story, I really liked Taylor Schmidt’s character, if only because I felt like I really could relate to her (at least in the beginning of the book). I thought some of the book was predictable, but the ending threw me off, which I liked. I felt like I was really wrapped up in the conspiracy by the end, the same way Todd would have felt if he were a real person. I love that about conspiracy fiction. The author (or, more often, filmmaker) spends so much time building up this world and getting you to really buy into and then BAM! nothing is what it seems and you begin to question everything you’ve just read. I thought Olear did a great job of that.

This was a good read set in a time period I don’t really think much about, even though it was the time when most of my growing up happened, so it was a refreshing read. It’s obvious Olear did a lot of research on the 90’s (or he has a unhealthy attachment to those years). I thought the book was fun to read and I loved the title’s play on words (even if I did have the saying “Totally killer, dude” stuck in my head for days). Definitely a good one to check out if you’re looking for a quick, fun read.

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Because we came to Istanbul two weeks before school started (for “orientation“), Dana and I have had a lot of extra time on our hands for sightseeing. Most of the other students left town to go explore other parts of Turkey and to see the surrounding countries (Greece, Bulgaria, etc.), but we stayed here because we’re both concerned about overspending our financial aid money in the early days of this trip. Unlike all the 20-year-old students, Dana and I don’t have mom and pops funding us throughout the semester. This, of course, makes us boring to all of the other students because we can’t go out every night and get wasted or decide to take a 5-day cruise at the drop of a hat (I’m not bitter or anything). The plus, though, is that Dana and I are getting to know our areas of Istanbul quite well (that and the mall by my house).

In the last few days we’ve done just about every touristy thing possible, except for Topakapi Palace because at this point we’re a little worn out. But we’ll go see it soon, promise. Anyway, here are the highlights:

Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar: Dana and I mistakenly went here last Saturday, the day before Bayaram (the festival at the end of Ramadan). Picture the supermarkets the day before Thanksgiving, then times it by 100. The markets were PACKED. Don’t forget, there are 15 million people living in Istanbul, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. I got some great photos at the bazaars and also picked up some delicious Turkish Delight to send home to friends, but I really wish we’d chosen a different day to go. Dana and I were completely stressed by the end because we had to guard our bags so carefully in the crush of people. At one point we were trapped on a street among hundreds of other people, none of us able to move. I mean, we were at a complete standstill. And this is when it occurred to me that Dana and I were suddenly the only chicks in the area – and we somehow got spearated from each other. As we tried to work our way out down the street and out of the crowd we were grabbed numerous times by the men surrounding us. It was probably the most frightening situation I’ve ever been in and I was shaking by the time we disentangled ourselves from the crowd. All we wanted at that point was to get as far away from the market district as possible. We jumped on the tram and headed back toward home, stopping along the way to take some photos of the Bosphorus.

Bosphorus Cruise: Dana and I had intended to spend the day working our way up the Bosphorus on a cruise that stopped at various ports on both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, but when we got to Eminönü it was super crowded and we just jumped on the first boat we saw (we were obviously still shaken after our experience at the Spice Bazaar, which is also located at Eminönü). The cruise we ended up taking was one that went up the Bosphorus and then came right back. It was about a 2-hour cruise and was extremely relaxing in comparison to any of the other sightseeing we’ve done so far. I especially enjoyed it because the lighting was perfect for getting some great photos. It had rained earlier in the day and the sky was still cloudy and made for a beautiful backdrop to the city. It was also a great way to get an overview of the city and kind of orient ourselves better (with the help of the guidebook I’d brought along). Now we’ll be better prepared when we DO do the cruise that stops at various locations.

Blue Mosque: After our cruise we still had some daylight to kill and, as before, we wanted to get as far away from Eminönü as possible, so we set out for Sultanahmet. Unfortunately, it was the second day of Bayaram and we arrived just before prayer time, so again there were tons of people everywhere. We didn’t know exactly where to go or what to do so we thought we’d just walk around the building and take some photos. We figured we’d come back a different day with one of our Turkish friends so we wouldn’t make any unforgivable mistakes, but then we saw some signs in English when we rounded the corner. There was a list of guidelines, along with the hours for visiting, which began about 45 minutes later. So we went to the nearby bazaar to kill some time before coming back to enter the famous Blue Mosque. This was by far one of the best things we’ve seen in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque gets its name from the thousands of handmade tiles covering its interior walls. Not only was the building beautiful, but the feeling inside was very serene. It was nearly silent inside and everyone was very respectful of the surroundings. At the time I was pre-occupied with taking photos, but I’d like to go back sometime without my camera and just sit and enjoy being there.

An added bonus was coming out of the Blue Mosque and seeing Aya Sofia lit up by the late afternoon sun. It was a great photo op and I took a ton of photos. I brought my Digital SLR with me and want to use my extra time here learning to take better photos and I’ve been getting lots of time to practice, but I feel sorry for Dana always having to wait around for me.

Asian side: On Tuesday, the last day of Bayaram, our Turkish friend (introduced to us by Kristina – thanks Kristina!), Aşkın (pronounce Ash-kun), took us to some great food spots in Istanbul, including this nice seafood restaurant in a small fishing village on the Asian side of Istanbul. It was nice having a guide (and a car!) to take us around the city.

Aşkın knows all kinds of little details about history and gives us cultural insights that our guidebook can’t provide, so we’re always super excited when he can come along for an adventure. Plus, he speaks French so I always get a chance to brush up on my French skills with him, which I like. He did make me eat fish that still looked like fish though. This is only funny because I’d told him a few days prior that I hate seafood, especially if it still looks like seafood. I can’t eat oysters or mussels from the shells and I DEFINITELY can’t eat fish that has eyeballs staring back at me. Aşkın ordered for us though because we didn’t understand one thing on the menu so I had no idea what I would be eating.  When it came, I looked up at him, pouted, and said, “Avec les yeux?” And that’s when he remembered. He chuckled, then apologized, if only to be polite, saying that the fish was so delicious that I’d forget about the eyes once I started eating it. I did not forget about the eyes, but I did eat it. I’m here to try new things after all.

Now all we have left on our list is Topkapı Palace and a Hamam of some sort. We’re going to put it off for awhile though. We’re pretty touristed out and school starts Monday so this weekend is all about relaxing and getting caught up on Season 6 of Project Runway.

P.S. I went back to the Spice Bazaar yesterday to get a couple of more things to send home and it was much more calm, so don’t be scared of it if you ever come to Istanbul. We just chose a really, really bad time to go. I still had major high anxiety when I went there yesterday, but it was definitely less scary and less crowded on a normal business day.

P.P.S. To see my photos from Istanbul you can go here.

Despite numerous warnings from the two study abroad students who came before us, Dana and I were still surprised by the level of incompetency at the University here in Istanbul. Actually, at first we thought the claims made to us by Curt and Kristina had been exaggerated because everything went so smoothly at Pre-Registration, where we turned in paperwork and received our logins and passwords for the online registration system. That, however, was the only thing that has gone smoothly since.

First, there was orientation, which was more of a meet and greet for us students than any kind of orientation. Originally slated to be two hours long followed by a campus tour, the “orientation” took only 30 minutes and told us nothing that we did not already know. Basically they welcomed us, showed us some pictures of students enjoying the campus, and told us they would have the documents we need to get our residency permits and local transportation cards “as soon as possible.” (Ten days later and we’ve heard nothing more on the matter . Note: We only have 30 days from when we entered the country to get these residency permits. I’ve been here for 17 days already.) Then we were released for our “campus tour,” which was essentially one student guide leading around some 75+ students and none of us being able to hear a word he was saying. The tour lasted approximately 15 minutes. After this we had a group dinner followed by a “city tour,” which was about as much of a tour as the campus tour had been, which is to say it wasn’t.

The next day we registered for classes, all of which we were unable to register for without permission from the professors, but nobody told us that so we completely freaked out about not getting our classes. We then emailed all of the professors and our advisor in a state of major anxiety. By the next day though, we were enrolled in all of our classes. By the way, we’re required to take three courses from our major plus a Turkish language course while we’re here. This didn’t give us much of a choice as to which classes to take because *only* three classes were offered in our major. Had we not gotten all three we would have been totally screwed.

Then comes the best part. The day after registration we began getting emails from our professors changing the days and times of our classes with the classrooms TBA. It’s been more than a week, class starts on Monday, and we still have no idea where we’re supposed to go. Oh, and we’re supposed to pick up our syllabuses from someplace called Hisar Copy. Uh, is this on campus somewhere? We wouldn’t know, given the campus tour we had. So, um, yeah, really looking forward to the first day of school.

And there’s really no point in asking the International Relations Office for help, even though they told us that they were “here to help us” at the “orientation” we attended, because all they say is for us to “be patient.” And so we wait.

I just got notified that Sue Monk Kidd has a new book out: Traveling With Pomegranates, A Mother-Daughter Story. I’m bummed that I won’t be able to read it until I get back to the states, but I figured some of you out there might be interested. It was released on September 8, so it’s in stores now.

Also, fellow The Nervous Breakdown writer, Greg Olear, has a book coming out on October 1. I’ll be reviewing the book, Totally Killer, in a few days (just as soon as I finish reading it!). Until then, feel free to check out all of the nice things Amazon has to say about the book.

Oh, and I wanted to mention that I’m sorry if you’ve had trouble finding my blog as of late. Somehow Istanbul ruined my URL so I’ve had to switch back to a blogspot address. I’m going through the Interwebs today to try to find all of my links and change the URL. Fun stuff, let me tell you.

After struggling through the first half of My Life in France by Julia Child, I finally put it down for good and picked up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt, which I couldn’t resist buying while in Dublin. ‘Tis is the continuation of the story begun in Angela’s Ashes, taking off right where Angela’s Ashes ended – with McCourt landing in America to begin his new adventure in the Land of Opportunity.

While Angela’s Ashes focused a great deal on the overwhelming poverty of the McCourt family, ‘Tis instead focuses on the differences McCourt notices between Ireland and America. In addition, there are a great many stories about the mistakes he makes in his early days and his constant yearning for Something Better. We see him struggle through many menial jobs, many with humorous stories to accompany them, and eventually he makes it to college and his Something Better – even though he isn’t sure it was worth it once he’s got it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for two reasons. First, McCourt has a great sense of humor about the way things went for him and how things have turned out. His stories will make you cry with laughter at some points because these are all stories that would have made someone say at the time: “You’ll laugh about this later. You may not think so now, but you’ll laugh.”

Secondly, I really bonded with McCourt’s character. Here I am, reading this book in my first days in Istanbul, noticing all the differences between my new home and the United States, while reading about how McCourt went through the same thing even though he was moving to a country that supposedly speaks the same language. There are a number of times he comments on the different uses of words between American English and Irish English. But it wasn’t only the moving abroad point that got to me. I find myself questioning the purpose of my education and what I’m really going to do with my future, much in the same way that the young McCourt did in this memoir.

McCourt is a true story teller and he’ll make you laugh. Also, he fills in some of the background information that you’ll need if you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, so it’s not absolutely necessary to read it before picking up ‘Tis (but I highly recommend it!). Definitely a book to be picked up.

Side Note: I saw at the end of the book that Frank McCourt’s brother Malachy has his own book, A Monk Swimming, which was co-authored by Frank and deals with Malachy’s struggles with alcoholism and his years as a playboy and actor in New York City. I think I’ll be picking it up as soon as I can find an English Bookstore here.

During my first couple of days in Istanbul I didn’t have Internet, so I’ve been keeping short little notes to myself about things I’ve noticed or thought since my arrival here.

Seatbelts: Nobody wears seatbelts here, even though everyone seems to drive however they want, paying no attention to traffic signals, signs or other vehicles. In fact, the taksi I took when I first arrived here had seatbelts, but no place to click the seatbelt into place. I asked one of my friends about this and he said there are seatbelt laws but nobody gets in trouble for not wearing one unless they get pulled over for doing something else. Oh, and people in the backseat are never required to wear seatbelts. I feel like I’m going to die every time I get into a car here.

Architecture: I’m constantly in awe of the beautiful architecture here. The mosques are amazing to look at and there is so much history in this city. I could live here ten years and would never feel like I’d seen everything there is to see here.

Air Conditioning: Seriously Istanbul (and Europe in general!)? You have a subway system the likes of which we’ll probably never see in California, yet you’ve never heard of air conditioning? I’m seriously thinking of writing to the U.S. government to see if they can send diplomats abroad to raise awareness about the newfangled invention of air conditioning.

Ramadan: I’m here at a really exciting time of year for the Muslim faith. I’ve heard about Ramadan and have even known a couple of practicing Muslims who have participated in this holy month of fasting, but it’s so much different when you’re in a place where 80 percent of the population is Muslim. Not all are practicing, but there are enough here who are to make the impact. Those celebrating Ramadan don’t eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. One of my Turkish friends told me that the time of year for Ramadan changes every year and this is one of the worst times of year to have it because the days are still long for summer so you have to fast for a much longer period than you would in the winter. I’m looking forward to September 20th because there’s going to be a big celebration for the end of Ramadan then.

Call for prayer: I had always thought the call for prayer was bells ringing or maybe a loud sound like a gong. I know this shows my ignorance of Islam, but that’s why I’m hear right? To learn? So anyway, it’s actually a person speaking. I don’t know what they’re saying, but the call for prayer is actually a person calling people to prayer. I had no idea what it was the first time I heard it, but I’m already getting used to hearing it several times a day.

Turkish people: Everyone here has been very hospitable. I’ve already had a hundred wonderful encounters with Turkish people. For instance, yesterday I was walking around Taksim by myself and was invited in by a shop owner who gave me a short lesson in how Turkish ceramics are made and what the symbology on the dishes is for, all while I was seated drinking some lovely apple tea. He knew from the beginning that I couldn’t afford to buy anything (“You don’t need to buy anything. Please, come in and take a look.”), but he was happy to spend time answering my questions and having a conversation with me.

The Bus: Because I live about 30 minutes by car from campus, I’ll be taking the bus to school every day. I’ve already learned how to use it pretty well thanks to my new friend Basak, who is the ex-girlfriend of my roommate. She showed me around on my first two days here and taught me where to shop and how to take the bus. Every time I’m on the bus it’s an adventure. People will ask the bus driver if he can just let them out wherever and he’ll just open the doors to let them hop off while at a traffic sign or sometimes when the bus is still moving. In the same vein, the bus doesn’t always pull up to the stop to let you on. If there’s a lot of traffic, they’ll stop halfway down the road (before the stop) and open the doors. If you weren’t paying attention and didn’t run to catch the bus down there, you can always hop on while the bus crawls by in traffic, but it will not stop again just for you.

Oh, one more funny story about the bus. When I was on it the first time by myself, the driver pulled over for quite some time. I thought it was because it was the end of the line or something and he was waiting for the right time to leave the stop like they do at home. Turns out he was waiting for a girl to run into a nearby store to pick up a drink, and for two other passengers to pick up some fast food. I guess they had asked him to take pity on them so they could get their first food of the day because they were practicing Ramadan. I can’t in a million years imagine that happening on a bus in the U.S.

Pennies: Apparently there are no pennies in Turkey. If your total is 9.99YTL, you will not get anything back. I think it’s a racket. Every store has the same 2.99 pricing that we have at home. They must be making a fortune each year on unreturned pennies because anything below 5 cents they’re keeping. It makes me want to whip out my credit card every time so I can pay only what is due. I guess I’ll just have to get used to it though.

Food: One thing is certain: I will not starve in Turkey. The food here is delicious! And they know how to make things spicy! I’m in love already. Oh my gosh, and the desserts! I’d be surprised if I don’t come home as big as a house.

Taksis: I cannot walk anywhere by myself here without taksis flashing their lights and honking at me to see if I want a ride. Each one only honks one time, so at first I thought it was because I was in their way or something. Turns out that’s how they see if you want a ride. The buses do it too when they’re passing a bus stop that more than one bus services. It’s going to make me crazy, I’m sure of it.

OK then, I’ll write again soon.

Best,

Becca

Because I’m really not in the mood at this point, and because the Internet here is snail paced, I’m not going to rewrite this. Instead, here’s the (slightly edited) email I sent to Leslie as soon as I landed in Istanbul:

Oh my God. Well the good news is I arrived safely. First, I bought
the wrong train ticket for Frankfurt and had a panic attack when they announced a
change in Mannheim for people going to the Frankfurt airport. When I got off the train, the guy at the platform told me it would cost me extra to change my ticket, but then on the train they were super great about it and just told which stop would be mine.

Then when I got to the airport I discovered that there were three luggage storage spots and I didn’t know which one Leslie’s brother took my luggage to. I was sweating like a pig because of course there was no air conditioning and I got huge blisters from walking back and forth
through the terminal. Luckily it was at the second storage location I tried so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

No, the truly awful thing was that my airline didn’t consider my flight international because I didn’t fly with them from the United States, so I was only allowed 20 kilos (44 pounds) before they started charging me 15 eurose PER KILO. For the record, my other airline allowed two 50-lb bags. That should give you some idea of what I was dealing with.

So basically they wanted me to pay $550 to check one of my bags, which, by the way, is twice the price I paid for my round-trip ticket from them. I ended up having to throw away pretty much everything in the suitcase her brother stored for me and STILL ended up paying €120 extra. I was crying hysterically because I’d been awake for 24 hours and they were so unsympathetic. AND what really pissed me off was that the flight was half empty! Was it really necessary to be nazis about the baggage allowance when there was NOBODY on the fucking flight. There were at least 25 empty seats, including the two right next to me (as if I needed it rubbed in that throwing away half my clothes and all of my toileteries was extreme). Twenty-five empty seats adds up to 25 bags not checked at 20 kilos each, which adds up to 500 kilos NOT on board. I don’t think my 8 kilos over the limit was going to ground the plane.

I’ve been traveling for a month. I’m 3,000 miles away from home with nobody who can just take my extra clothes home for me. Would it really have killed them to be a little bit understanding about the situation?

Needless to say, while I was on my layover I wrote a ridiculously long well-worded letter (no swearing!) to customer service. I’m sending it as soon as I have Internet. Oh AND my flight was an hour late so my roommate’s friend who was meeting me (and who got off work early to meet me) had to wait forever!

Fuck Swiss Air!