Intro to Istanbul

Sunday afternoon I finally began the arduous task of leaving Iraq. I arrived back in D.C. three days later and I now understand a bit better why some people choose to work in Iraq for several years.

It’s just easier to hang around, dodge rockets, get paid and not get frisked and searched five times at every airport because you’re attempting to transit through some country with body armor.

One of my favorite remedies for dealing with long flights is to add a long layover in a new city. Long enough so that I can escape the airport, explore a new place and decompress in a nice hotel room before resuming the whole flying ordeal. This turned out to be an especially good decision since the airport officials gave me a tough time getting through security every step of the way. A mini-vacation in the middle of all of it was practically a necessity.

So this time, I got an intro to Istanbul.

Oddly enough, my experience with Turkey began in Baghdad the night before I left. Several coworkers (who were also escaping Iraq) and I spent the night at another military base that’s closer to the airport. This base is much larger than the embassy compound and even though I would say the aesthetics are better at the embassy (and that’s saying a lot, for a place filled with beige buildings and dust), this base had certain luxuries. For example? A restaurant complex that included Iraqi, Chinese and Turkish restaurants.

Farrell and I dined on “Turkish pizza” and kebabs to prepare ourselves for our real trip to Turkey.

The night was topped off with laser bowling. In Baghdad. With Polish MTV playing on the TVs and chatty Italian guys in the lane next to us. Yes, it was surreal…but fun!

Farrell and I had a little less than 24 hours between flights. It’s a lot of time to spend in the airport, but not exactly enough time to qualify as a vacation once you get outside. We made it a goal to have no set goals as far as figuring out what to do, see, eat, etc; it’s always easier to just wander aimlessly. We consulted a map provided by one of the hotel employees and told the cab driver to take us downtown, pointing to a square on the map that was densely spotted with tourist destinations.

We were dropped off right between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. I knew they were both popular tourist destinations, beautiful examples of architecture and located in Istanbul. I had never realized they were literally right across the street from each other…or that they looked so similar from the outside.

Both buildings were closed so we simply sat between them, admiring the scene, soaking in the bright sunshine and getting our hands on every piece of street food within our immediate reach.

First up was a simit for each of us, a “Turkish bagel.” They were chewy and covered in toasted sesame seeds. Simit carts were everywhere we went and perfectly fit the defining characteristics of street food: fresh, easy to eat on-the-go and cheap.

I barely took a bite out of my simit before another vendor came up and tempted me with sweets. He carried a tray covered in plastic cups with shiny little donuts teetering inside. I didn’t get the name of these (later consulting a Turkish cookbook, I learned they’re called “lokma”), but they were soaked to the center with sugary syrup and eating them balanced out the nutty, savory simit. In fact, the leftover puddle of syrup at the bottom of the cup was perfect for dipping pieces of simit in.

A cup of Turkish tea to wash it all down and we were on our way. Time to wander around and snap some pictures.

Adorable old Turkish men.

Vibrant hues! What a change from Baghdad beige.

Local wildlife.

Mmm…more sweets. Why can’t I have a sweets cart outside my house? Message to DC: enough with the cupcake trucks, carts are the way to go!

A refreshing glimpse at real life as I made my way back home, but just enough of a taste to make me want to come back. For now, I’m back in DC enjoying the life of a normal person, so stay tuned for some fresh new posts!