Christmas Eve in Cihangir

“Muslims can say Merry Christmas!  We revere the prophet Jesus, whom we call Isa, and it is good to celebrate his birth”, said our friend Emre as we celebrated with a meal Christmas Eve in our little flat in Cihangir.

Some Turks are not used to dogs in homes.

Some Turks are not used to dogs in homes.

Pre-December 24 shopping included no time for food buying. So, Christmas Eve day, Jim and I made a return visit to the Cevahir mall, two Metro stops away. We had cleaned the flat the day before, although it needed another go over to clear out Lucy’s hair.  The vacuum is weak, and our invitation to our friends had been prefaced with, “if you are willing to hang out with Lucy and Rita”.  Being cat people, they were keen to meet Rita, and since she has always disliked our friends, I actually had misrepresented my roommate situation as well as the menu.  Nearly all of our friends only know Rita by photos.

Rita Pantea, 4 years old.

Rita Pantea, 4 years old.

At the Migros supermarket, we got serious, buying foods for salata, two varieties of dolmas, hummus, pickled carrots, olives and European cheeses for meze.  We were heavily laden for the return Metro trip and decided to take a taxi, until I realized I’d removed the city map from my purse.  Without it, we could not tell a driver how to get to where we lived.  So, we trundled our wide loads onto the crowded subway, and read our thoughts on the faces of the passengers sitting opposite – “those yabancı (foreigners) always buying so much!”  In Manhattan I had, what as a young person I called,  a wire “old lady” cart.   We need one now, but we have seen only one person with one, and none for sale.  Maybe they aren’t cool, or maybe Istanbul’s streets and sidewalks are just too rutted, uneven, steep or stepped to make them feasible.

The shy queen.

The shy queen.

Arriving home around 4 pm we hurried to string the colored lights around the interior doorways, walk Lucy and go order our dinner from the fish restaurant and kebap salonlu.  Jim took care of the fish and dessert, ordering 2 grilled medium sized unnamed firm white fish, grilled anchovies and fish soup. From his favorite Pasta and Café, Elif’li (earlier post he picked up baklava.  I climbed, breathlessly, up to Taksim Square and was sold the mixed kebab platter – a huge amount of food.  They offered to deliver it, but I wanted it in my hands so it would be there when our guests arrived.  Medi Şark Sofrası sent their runner carrying a big tray behind me anyway.  I couldn’t speak to him, but feeling rushed, I dodged crowds on Istiklal and then scurried down the many sets of stairs and steep streets going the back way to Bol Ahenk Sokak.  Our friends had just arrived when I got home.

Ottoman style Turkish coffee cups and dish for Turkish Delight.

Ottoman style Turkish coffee cups and dish for Turkish Delight.

We feel so lucky to already have Turkish friends. Our guests  Emre, Serpil and Kamer are smart, lively, fun, and speak great English.  They enjoy regaling us with stories of Turkish customs, and brought with them an old style Ottoman Turkish coffee set – a gift that is just perfect! Unfortunately, our kitchen lacked both Turkish coffee and the long-handled coffee pot called a cezve, so Turkish coffee is a lesson for another date.  Keeping the coffee hot while drinking is important.  They explained how the heavy ceramic fincan (cup) which used to be heated directly on a wood stove, and the zarf, (envelope) fitting snugly over the cup are designed to conserve heat.  The small dish holds Loküm (Turkish Delight), in this case the gel type which may be flavored by rosewater, lemon or mastic.


Boza is carried in the big urn, and ladled out into customer’s cups or bowls. The vendor went to fetch cinnamon.

Eating dessert and çay (tea) after dinner we heard a man call on the street – which we now recognize every night.  I asked what it was and they said “Boza!”  Emre opened the window and called out, with a back and forth a few times, until the vendor located us.  Our flat is on the ground floor, just inside the building’s main door. He arrived and poured us some big cups to take in and drink, setting his boza vessel down to go to the bakkal (ubiquitous neighborhood grocer) to find some cinnamon for us.  Emre and Kamer got into it, remembering the boza of their past – I guess boza isn’t peddled in their neighborhoods.

Boza, with cinnamon and leblebi.

Boza, with cinnamon and leblebi.

Emre fetched sarı leblebi, yellow roasted chick peas, from the bakkal and we were now ready to assemble and drink. Kamer said this drink signified winter to her. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but pleasant. Thick, cool from the night air, and somewhat sweet, with cinnamon and crunchy leblebi in each sip. Its seasonality, and the way it looks reminded us of eggnog.  It is hearty and filling.  The Ottoman Empire was said to feed its army boza because it is rich in carbohydrates and vitamins.  If we don’t drink more boza, Emre said the remaining leblebi makes a great snack when eaten with raisins.


Boza in Turkey (regional variations of it are also consumed in parts of Eastern Europe, some of the  “stans”, the Ukraine and Lithuania) is made of fermented wheat, other regions may use maize or millet. I think we are lucky we initially landed in Cihangir.  We get to learn about the numerous traditional street vendors here (subject of a future post).  They may not exist in the more modern Moda.

The cinnamon is packaged in a tube, about the size of a pencil.

The ground cinnamon is packaged in a tube, about the size of a pencil.

What a rich evening of good food, exceptional company and wonderful cultural exchange.  Very fitting, we felt, for marking the birthday of Jesus.

Prelude to Entertaining for the First Time in Turkey


Photo op at Cevahir Mall. Turkey is the home of St. Nicholas, who apparently didn't have a beard.

Photo op at Cevahir Mall. Turkey is the home of St. Nicholas, who apparently didn’t have a beard.

When we were together nine days earlier, I had impulsively invited Emre, his wife Serpil and his aunt Kamer to an American Christmas dinner.  My family’s tradition is to cook the same menu for Christmas as Thanksgiving.  The menu includes as appetizer, Jim’s boiled shrimp and homemade cocktail sauce.  Roasted turkey stuffed with a bread oyster dressing (including mild Italian sausage, apples, celery, onions, canned oysters, water chestnuts, raisins and walnuts); gravy; mashed potatoes; minced sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, lime and ginger; fresh green beans with sautéed onions and bacon; and cranberry sauce follow.  Dessert is freshly baked pumpkin pie with whipped cream, augmented by whatever sweets our guests have brought along.

Poinsettia at IKEA, the majesty of this bush is lost in translation.

Poinsettia at IKEA, the majesty of this bush is lost in translation.

I thought the challenge would be fun – and it will be, NEXT YEAR.  After all, we had 5 chairs, 5 sets of dishes and flatware…it could work!  We had nine days to find a turkey – they can be found, but not everywhere – and other substitutes.  Maybe we would find turkey Italian sausage but not bacon; celery root, but not the stalks is available, and I quickly realized seeking out canned oysters and water chestnuts felt overwhelming, since I’m still looking for a comforter to sleep under.

Zzzz?  The big yellow bag holds all of our sweaters and coats -- the mall is HOT!

Zzzz? The big yellow bag holds all of our sweaters and coats — the mall is HOT!

In these same nine days we also had to source, shop and buy “white furniture” – a dishwasher, washing machine, refrigerator, vacuum, microwave and TV for our newly leased apartment in Moda, in the hopes of moving over there right after the New Year.  A later blog post will deal with shopping, but a couple of comments here…imported goods are expensive, buying Turkish is the way to go.  IKEA, which is underwhelming is more expensive than the much more impressive and better quality TepeHome, a Turkish home furnishings store.


Mall food courts are fancy. Stick to the Turkish shops for a good meal.

We are seriously motivated to leave Cihangir, because on January 2 we begin Turkish lessons M-F from 9am-1pm in Kadiköy, and we’ll be commuting an hour each way until we move.  Also necessary to move in is a bed and internet.  All of this is straightforward, unless you have no idea which stores have stuff you like, and their locations.

Shopping for lights...

Shopping for lights…

These were in a pretentious store where they wanted no photos!  How can one shop without photos?

These were in a pretentious store where they wanted no photos! How can one shop without photos?

One night about six days before our début, we were at the American Women of Istanbul Christmas party and I was telling Joy ( my worries.  She’s worked out a lot of the substitutions and shared how to cook pumpkin in lieu of Libby’s canned.  She told me to find a Turkish tatlı (sweet) pumpkin, cut it up and roast it in a plastic roasting bag called a fırın torbası .  About all I got of that was the sweet pumpkin part (I did know the word tatlı).  My brain did not compute roasting in plastic, or how I’d ever find those bags in the grocery where I’m always on my smart phone trying to figure out what something is, or its Turkish name.

Jim loves meeting new people.

Jim loves meeting new people.

We were looking for baggies, and I did see the fırın torbası.  By that time, I’d decided that what I was making for our Christmas Eve dinner was reservations – or rather, paket (takeout).  On Christmas Eve morning, worried that I’d sold the American theme too convincingly, I texted our friends telling them we were looking forward to seeing them and the menu was Turkish.  It wasn’t just the ingredients, it was what we had, or didn’t, in our kitchen to cook with, including a cook top and oven that uses propane—and was the tank even full?  In another post, I’ll talk about gas tanks.

All this Santa and Christmas stuff is for New Year's celebrations.

All this Santa and Christmas stuff is for New Year’s celebrations.

Winter Driving Lessons in Beyoḡlu

Lesson 1.  Don’t.


After the snow a few days ago the weather stayed overcast and cold, around 0°C.  In Cihangir’s peaks and valleys, all manner of wheeled vehicles are spinning out, usually when they don’t have enough of a running start to get up the hill.  The sound of spinning tires on icy asphalt is painful.  You know the driver is desperate, and his tires are suffering. Last night, trekking from Bolahenk Sokak to Taksim Square, we had to duck and cover as fish-tailing wheel-spinning cars tried to crest the hill and negotiate a right turn as we entered that intersection.


Looks navigable, but don’t try it.

Yesterday morning for our sunny walk, Lucy and I chose a steep street guaranteed to offer views of the Bosphorus, and gave witness to gnashing of teeth and smoking tires of the long line of cars and drivers trying to scale the terrain.


Shiny Bosphorus after days of gray.

The previous peak, which leads to a valley, out of which these folks were trying to climb, has big construction projects which this morning were coating the cobble-stoned streets with wet clay, clogging the driver’s treads.  The narrow street has a foot-wide sidewalk, so Lucy and I sought protection in a large driveway and noticed that the more skillful drivers maneuvered to the seam between the street pavers and the gutter.   This morning, with an ebbing of traffic a panel truck driver painstakingly, but strategically, backed himself into a spot from which to get a running start, at which point a long line of vehicles impatiently queued behind him.  I felt sorry for him as he pulled out of their way– imagining him entering into a behavioral loop of some duration.


Cihangir from the Catholic church parking lot, where the cranky priest won’t let Lucy play ball.

This being our first winter here, we don’t know if a long swath of cold wet gray days is the norm, but the sunshine, this Christmas Eve is really welcome!


Winter blooms sunbathing.


Cihangir morning.

We are hosting Turkish friends this evening.  Our intention was to cook our traditional Christmas turkey and trimmings.  In my typical impetuous enthusiasm, I invited them, and have agonized over it ever since.  We don’t know where to find the ingredients.  We’ve looked, but can’t find.  Also, we have not cooked in our well-stocked-for-tourists, but not for real cooking, kitchen.  So, days ago I decided we’d bring in paket (take out) for our guests.  Company on Christmas Eve also requires a level of Christmas décor.  We bought two wreaths, one with red metal jingle bells and fake greens, which we hung on the big old front doorknob, and another gold pine cone wreath that we replaced a picture with.  That and the red and green candles on the table, still don’t cut it, so we are taking our 15% off coupons to Tepe Home (where yesterday we bought most of the furniture we will need for our place in Moda) to buy the green glitter raffia trees I’ve been eyeing.  Next year we will have a properly appointed Christmas, Inshallah.


You have to buy early in Turkey too! Tree trimming was picked-over two days before Christmas.

Merry Christmas to All.

Warning: Food Porn

Friday was Jim’s 65th birthday.  Just in front of the tram stop at Fındlıkı station is this shop:

Elif'li Pasta and Cafe

Elif’li Pasta and Cafe

and, it provided our takeout dinner.  Pasta means this:

He could "eat a whole tray of that stuff and not blink an eye"...

He could “eat a whole tray of that stuff and not blink an eye”…

So, pasta (pastries) was our main course, topping off the signing of our lease on an apartment in Moda.

It got very cold as the sun dropped in the afternoon, our realtor was talking snow, although there is none in the forecast so far. Istanbullus LOVE the outdoors.  In our new home town of Moda (as of January 1) people dine al fresco in mid December, aided by establishment-provided pashminas and patio heaters.  I wonder what it will take to get us all inside?

Our visitors will need to ride the glorious ferry to see the tourist gems of the ages, but when they work their way back to Anatolia, they will revel in Moda and Kadiköy’s charms too…

Basically, we took the first flat we looked at…we did look at another in Kabataş/Beyoğlu, which we really liked, and in some respects was more suitable, but the Moda place has a wide open view of the Sea of Marmara, facing west.  That means big boats and daily sunsets.  The street in front is very quiet, the Kadiköy/Moda Tramvay is 1/2 block away if for some reason we don’t want a 10 minute stroll along the water to the ferry, and directly down steps is a big park on the corniche for our athletic water dog.

Beyoğlu is charming in an old European way, with very narrow, VERY steep  cobblestoned streets and long sheer stairsteps.  There are tiny groceries, several to a block, but none of the goods inside have inspired us to step into the kitchen.

On our reconnaissance trip in May, we walked many of the streets we do now. We ranged all over Beyoğlu, up along the Golden Horn to Fener and Balat, we scaled the Asian cliffs of Kuzguncuk, ruling it out because it felt a bit far away from the center.  Taking Istanbul’s traffic into consideration, we chose against Beşiktaş because we would have been reliant on street-bound buses   We learned the hard way one long Sunday afternoon, when every bus that stopped was full and we walked all the way home, that rail and water were desirable. Were it not for an American friend who was living in Moda, we may not have made our way over there, but the minute we stepped off the ferry in Kadiköy, it felt more “us”.  It was a bit more “beachy”, lighter, more open.  It is still very urban, and today it felt like a smaller town in Europe.  Moda (a neighborhood) in larger Kadiköy has enough going on to be interesting and yet seems small enough to be personal.  We were Upper West Siders in Manhattan in the early 80’s when hookers worked Broadway above 84th street and beyond 96th Street was the DMZ. I chose my NY apartment, partly because I could hear birds over the street noise.

So, here is a sampling of what caught our eye as we roamed our future neighborhood just before we signed our rental lease.


This'll get us in the kitchen!

This’ll get us in the kitchen!


From the marzipan garden

From the marzipan garden

How about a mushroom omelet?

How about a mushroom omelet?

Türks love sweets...for a minute I thought I was in Paris.

Türks love sweets…maybe more than Jim does.

Eat those fruits and veggies!

Eat those fruits and veggies!

This is available in December!

This is available in December!

Türks have been uniformly welcoming to us.  We really need to speak the language to live here, but when we are standing on the street perplexed, trying to communicate in our only language, English, a local who does speak English always steps in to help out.

And, consumerism is alive and well…all customers are welcome…

"A nice bath for junior, don't you think?"

“A nice bath for junior, don’t you think?”

"I'll play bad cop..."

“I’ll play bad cop…”

Sonra görüsürüz!  (see you later)

Istanbul Landings. Uprooted. Jet-lagged. With Pets.

Ah, what a jumble it all is!  There are mosques all over the place, but we rarely hear the call to prayer.  There are Christmas trees and Santas, and English language Christmas carols everywhere, but Turks, 98% of whom are Muslim, decorate with them to celebrate the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, one friend’s brother is dressing as Santa Claus, complete with bag of gifts.  It sure doesn’t feel like Christmas to me this year…a nice long season that we usually slide into beginning with Thanksgiving,then decking our halls and entertaining while avoiding shopping and gift-giving. Our Christmas Eve ritual includes carol singing and reviewing the Christmas story at church.  It is odd, watching it all, the lens feels distorted–which, after all, is the purpose of this adventure!


Cascading lights on Istiklal

This past Thanksgiving, we had a wonderful dinner with friends with enough utensils remaining in our kitchen to make pumpkin pies to take, but the house was generally a shambles for the six weeks prior to our move.  It was a very difficult job to heave all of the stuff we’ve accumulated for 29 years out the door, some into PODS, some to be shipped to Turkey, some to be tossed, some to be donated.  We frantically continued that dance until the day we left – having to leave the dry cleaning we almost forgot to pick up in my station wagon as it was parked in storage for two years.


Living in chaos, strangled by our stuff.

We have learned what Lucy and Rita are made of – and in some ways they had the worst of it, because we couldn’t clearly warn them of what was in store.  For weeks prior we were trying to warm Lucy to her traveling kennel. After a 7 hour car ride to LAX (for a non-stop to Istanbul) we tossed cat food into the crate (unable to locate her food bag, we hoped she’d see Rita’s kibble as a high value treat), and pushed her in, locking the grate.  She was checked as excess baggage and carried away to the cargo hold, emerging on the other end 15 ½ hours later.  Rita was with us in the cabin.

They are troopers, both of them.  Lucy loves her three daily walks, enthusiastically marks the territory along the way, tries to terrify the renowned Istanbul street cats, which unfazed,  look right through her as she passes.  What we knew of Rita, our four-year-old cat was that she didn’t like people nor the indoors much.  We’ve learned she travels well in the car, not a normal cat trait, by seeking comfort next to Lucy. Here in Turkey, maybe she senses that she’d be out of her league outside, or she’s just become domesticated overnight…she’s still not a lap cat, but she hasn’t missed a meal and she’s not complaining, with the exception of one meltdown where I offended her dignity by changing too many things at once.


Road trip, Rita is Lucy’s pillow.

In order to bring the pets, we got international health certificates, updated their rabies shots and inserted ISO compatible microchips.  We collected Lucy, as happy to see us as we were her,  from over-sized baggage, loaded her onto the porter’s cart along with our 8 suitcases and walked through customs.  The paperwork was inspected, we had to pantomime what “killed virus” (the contents of the rabies injection) meant on the rabies certificate and we were out the door.


Along the mighty Bosphorus — Lucy’s first visit there!

So many things…Jim and I are back in a city, and we love it.  We are staying in a small flat in Cihangir on the European side of Istanbul.  It feels 1980s Greenwich Village-y to me…cobblestones, sort of gritty, and, because it is all so old, and the days so short…dark.  There is an amazing amount of street life up the hill at Taksim Square, but all of the steep streets and staircases we’ve climbed to get there are quiet, populated with orders of magnitude more cats than people.


Our neighborhood, Cihangir.

Our location is extremely convenient, a five minute stair-climb to Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi – the main shopping promenade on the European side.  Saturday evening, Istiklal was as crowded as Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at noon. Suburban Lucy “heeled” like a champ in her first foray into a jungle of mostly blue-jeaned legs.  It was rainy, and Istanbullus dress quite casually, probably because so many of them are young. Five minutes downhill brings us to the Bosphorus, and the Fınklıkı station of the tramvay (no “w” in Turkish) which takes us two stops to the ferry to Kadiköy.  The stop in between is Tophane and the Istanbul Modern museum where yesterday we saw the last day of the First Design Biennial in Istanbul.  I will write about that in a later post.

We will be living across the water on the Asian side near Kadiköy in Moda.  I plan to set up an art studio mid-year, and am eyeing Tophane as a location.  I’ll need to find an artist to share it with, and Tophane is really dark and gritty, but friendly and real – a mix of rundown buildings, hip new hotels and galleries, light industry and work-day cafes.  By then, hopefully, I’ll speak enough Turkish to cope.


Here, an opening in the crowd on Istiklal, enough that I could drop back to take the picture.

One last impression in this initial jumble of things…Starbucks is ubiquitous here (surprise?!).  And, we’ve ended up in them frequently because they are an easy meeting place.  I met a couple of American women for coffee on Sunday in a swell hotel on Taksim Square.  English was spoken at the counter and through the sound system playing Christmas carols.  I think (nothing unusual registered with me) I poured ½ and ½ — although I’ve heard expats lament its unavailability – into my coffee at the sugar station. Jim and I had two more Starbucks rendezvous that same day.  Then, this morning in Kadiköy, after the 20 minute ferry ride I told Jim I’d never get tired of, they spoke Turkish-tinged Starbuckese, had no milk where the sugar lived,rather they gave me hot foamed milk in my brewed coffee, and I shared a wonderful little warm cheese filled black sesame sprinkled bread packet called a talum paynirli domatesli poğaça.  Ah Istanbul, we love you.