You know, people keep talking about how people from the United States eat like pigs. To this I would reply, right back at ya, Europe. And while you mock us for the McDonalds and the Taco Bell, may I please draw your attention to the frit shops that litter Belgium like greasy little dandilions. Judge not, baby, lest ye be judged.
However, if you aren't worried about your waistline but do enjoy a nice bite, and you find yourself in Holland ( a lot of requirements there, but bear with me) take the time to go to Haarlem (or Delft or Leiden, any of the little Randstad towns bordering Amsterdam) on a Saturday, where cheerful towheaded Dutch youths will explain to you every aspect of cheese production and you can find, thanks to Holland's rich colonist history, loempias (spring rolls) lachmaju (also known as turkish pizza), delicate french pastry, greek salad, and bread originating the world over. (Don't go NOW though, if you are a chosen person, because, well, Happy Passover, though I never see much that's happy about giving up the BEST THING EVER for like, 8 whole days. How did Atkins Dieters DO this?) These weekend food markets are delightful and informative, and will challange your weight but not your wallet, which is a rarity here in the Netherlands, a country that invented the first stock market and has only gotten pricier from there.
Resting from your travels and munchings, have some restorative mint tea. Served everywhere in Holland, they make it with fresh mint leaves and honey and it's suprisingly divine. Just the taste makes you feel ready to go and eat something else.
As I wandered about Amsterdam and the surronding areas for the past few days, I was struck by the strangest feeling. It wasn't deja vu, not quite, but something more worrying, not quite a sense that I'd been there before, but something close. As I surveyed the adorable streets and canals of Amsterdam, or perched on my seat on the various trains I took during my wanderings around and outside the city, I knew that something about it all resonated with me deeply. This is not to say that I've ever lived in a town that was adorable and sleezy at the same time, Struggledelphia is more straightforward then this. No, it reminded me of somewhere else I've been, somewhere else I've wandered, some other struggle I've witnessed....
Oh, that's right. It reminds me of New York. Now, before you scoff, those of you who have seen both cities and know that Amsterdam is drastically cleaner and nicer then that so delightful city de Pomme Grande, bear with me for a moment. As we all know, having suffered through at least a year of American History (though we so rarely discuss, say, South America in these classes, has anyone else noticed that?), before New York was a cheap imitation of an English City, it was a cheap imitation of a Dutch city, known as New Amsterdam. And anyone who has a taste for history or Martin Scorsese will recall that while Struggledelphia and Boston were trader's capitals and cultural meccas on this side of the pond, New York was a swirling mess of awful, characterized by uneven streets, entropy, and Cameron Diaz's terrible Irish accent. So clearly between the best land deal before the Louisiana Purchase and Leonardo Dicaprio, something dreadful happened to New Amsterdam/York, something that only Mad Men could do anything about.
Nevertheless, while New York and Old Amsterdam may have grown apart, there are still quite a few things that connect them in my eyes. New York is famous for it's cramped houses and apartments, due to rising real-estate prices and a desire for many people to live in the center of the universe (these people clearly haven't seen The Core). Old Amsterdam is also famous for it's narrow houses all connected in a row, but this was, of course, a building choice made by rich merchants and Burghers. New York is known, at least in the more god-fearing bible-belt of the USA as a place for drugs, homosexuality, and other things that killed the dinosaurs. Amsterdam, well, we've all seen Eurotrip, we know how that works. And New York is famous for it's Jewish Population, it's Jewelry District and it's dinners. Amsterdam? Famous Jewish population, most of whom were diamond cutters, and popular dishes include pancakes and waffles. I know. I just TOTALLY blew your minds.
The comparisons are certainly endless, and have started to give me a headache. So I headed off to Haarlem yesterday for a brief respite from big city life, I smiled. At least New York doesn't have one of THESE. Oh, wait....
Yeah. There is a lot going on here in Amsterdam. A LOT. And I don't just mean in the drug and prositution areas, though of course, that is where most of the tourist population flocks, year round, undetered by the Dutch Winter and Spring (or lackthereof). Though, to be fair, apart from that, Amsterdam is lovely, tranquil and adorable. Yeah, I take it back, 99% of the struggle lies in the drugs and sex. Though, honestly, when DOESN'T it?
Well it took me approximately 9 hours (most of that waiting in one airport or another), but I made my way out of Istanbul and onto my next location. But before I delve into the trials and tribulations of Amsterdam, of which I can just bet there are going to be MANY, I mean, given what we know about the Dutch, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the crazy and cool that is the city of Istanbul just one last time.
From the Blue Mosque to the Hagia Sofia, from the Bosphorus to the lesser traveled Asian side of the city, my family and I struggled through the majority of the major sights and sites in Istanbul. We took a river tour, we waded through the Basilica Cistern (a must, by the way, if you ever get to travel to Turkey, it's an amazing leftover from the Holy Roman Empire), we saw the Dervishs whirl, and let me tell you something, we got completely ripped off at every turn. Don't get me wrong, Istanbul is a wild and wonderful city, and I have to say, the Turkish people as a nation are unbelievably friendly. They are so friendly, in fact, that they smile with delight and warmth as they take as much money from you as possible. They laugh with joy and excitement as they welcome you to their fine city, as they pour you glass after glass of raki and give you plate after plate of food, food which you didn't ask for and couldn't possibly- well, maybe just a bite. You yourself are pleased as punch about all the lovely things you bought that day, and what good deals you got on all of them. Thrilled with your immense bargaining skills, you get yourself another plate of baklava and compliment the city. They beam with pride as you tell them how much you love Istanbul, how glorious it is, how colorful, how loud (all nice ways for saying Ethnic, you'll notice). And then the bill comes. Tired, full to the point of bursting, your head spinning with the horrible liquorish scented liquor, you fumble for your wallet and lay down bill after bill of Turkish Lira. After all, it basically looks like monopoly money went on a trip to the middle east, it can't be worth much, can it? You stumble off to bed, sleepy and grinning. Why can't the people where you are from be so nice, you wonder, it's such a shame, really.
Then you wake up. And you realize you just spent the entire contents of your wallet (and possibly your bank account) on four scarves, a leather jacket, two plates (which will inevitably break in transport), a carpet, and dinner for three. What's more, you have the sinking feeling that people who are actually from Turkey pay approximately one tenth of what you paid for the same exact items, plus a free lamp. Because the reality is, as charming and delightful as Turky and it's people may be, the thing they seemed to be most delighted by is the interior of the tourist's pocket.
On our last day together in Istanbul before Strugglemano headed off to LaLa land and mis padres returned to their own daily grind, we decided to visit a Turkish bath. So famous and praised are the baths of Turkey that we felt we couldn't leave the country without sampling their charms, at least once. Excited, and, given our inabilities to speak any Turkish, a little freaked out, we each headed to our respective parts of the bath, and my mother and disrobed and were lead into a larged steamy room lined with sinks. Through a great deal of observation (and people yelling at us in Turkish) we were able to figure out that you douse your body with water and then lie on a large marble slab that is the heat source for the room, so rather then the dry heat of a sauna you are indulging in a wet humid heat that opens your pores just as well. Because we had paid for the basic package, we found ourselves kicked off of the slab and forced to "relax" on the sidelines as we watched other women being scrubbed down and massaged by the baths surly elderly female attendents. A kind Turkish woman asked us why we weren't being scrubbed, and we answered her honestly that we had just gotten admission to the bath. She told us that the scrub and massage were just 5 lira (about 3 dollars) more, and started to explain before she was quickly interupted by a bath attendent. A rapid exchange in Turkish followed, and the woman turned back to us, her face red. "I'm sorry, it's 25 lira for you, to get the other things." My mother and I nodded sagely, wrapped up in our towels, un-scrubbed, un-massaged, unsuprised. 500% mark-up for foreigners? Yeah, that seems about right.
Of course, now that I've hit Northern Europe and am gazing at the price tags here, I long to be ripped off by the Turks again. Even if I was paying more then any Turk for evil eyes and eggplant appitizers, at least I was paying in Lira, right?
More on the Dutch and their most laid back and hash-heavy city soon. Right now, I'm just recovering from the flight, the sleep loss, and the currency exchange. Come on, dollar, you're killing me here. It's almost like there is something wrong with the economy...
Sadly enough I can't provide you with any of the recipes for the following dishes, mostly because I have no fricking idea how they are made. But I would be remiss if I didn't express to you, gentle readers, how awesome I think the food is here in Istanbul. While Strugglemano might not agree (he has VERY exclusive tastes) I really enjoy the food here, the eggplant, the peppers, the stuffed grape leaves, the lamb, it's all working out for me. This might be because I grew up with a grandmother who, due to her own life spent wandering the world, had a kitchen filled with Armenian, Russian, Persian, Ukrainian and French specialties, and as a result, the idea of a meal which included grilled chicken, babaganosh, matzoh ball soup and lavash seemed like a perfectly natural way to spend an evening (or morning, the woman didn't really do breakfast like the rest of us do). So I love Turkish food, and my palate for yogurt, broad beans and spinach has been duly satisfied by my time spent here in Istanbul.
While the elaborate dishes served in the restaurants in Istanbul are indeed marvelous, it's the street food and little snacks I find most beguiling about this culinary capital. This is a culture that really works for me, food-wise, because noshing is not only allowed, but encouraged. A big part of Turkish cuisine is the meze, or appetizer, which can be cold or hot, and when cold is like a little salad, while when hot seems to inevitable consist of fish or something wrapped in phyllo dough. There don't seem to be any hours in which lunch or dinner are formally served, and the citizens of Istanbul seem to be eating all the time, a practice I can only admire. The food served on the street, of which there is a TON,(all of which seems TOTALLY suspect, but to each their own bacterial infection) seems to act as a stop gap between, say, the 2pm meal and the 5pm meal, which is just a preview for the 7pm meal. It's genius.
There is a lot to buy in Istanbul. A LOT to buy. So much to buy that it might be a little painful. Here in Istanbul you can find at least 50 men (always men) in a 5 block radius who will be willing and eager to sell you the following: rugs, Turkish Delight, spices, tea, scarves (silk, cashmere, cotton, wool, sometimes all at once, but those are extra) evil eyes, evil eye necklaces, bracelets, earrings and wall hangings, candle holders, inlayed boxes, tunics, t-shirts, pillows, jewelry, perfume, designer and otherwise, wall hangings, towels, robes, jeans, "Rolex" watches, "Prada" purses, boots, soaps, cheese, ceramics belly-dancer costumes and other important items that will help you live better. But more interesting then what is for sale are the people doing the selling. I heard more languages spoken in the Grand Bazaar in downtown Istanbul then I do in the New York Subway, and I think we all know that that is saying something. The number 1 language of course is unfortunately English (not the prettiest in the world, we all have to admit). There is nothing more hilarious then hearing a Chinese woman and a Kurdish man bargaining over silk scarves made in Tibet in broken English. And they say the USA is a consumer culture. I guess no one told Turkey...
Well, here I am, reporting on the struggle from downtown Istanbul, or rather, from crosstown Istanbul, as the case may be. You see, when we travel, my family prefers to live in a country the way we imagine or would like to imagine the people of that country actually exist. To that end rather then stay in a hotel in the heart of the tourist quarter, we tend to rent apartments in various interesting parts of cities (because who visits ANYWHERE other then a city, you know? We just don't see the point). We buy our groceries and make our morning coffee and grit our teeth through the inevitable schlep (check your Yiddish to English dictionaries for that one, goyim) over to wherever all the action is because at the end of the day, all of the famous stuff is all well and good to see, but we go for where the food lives, and our bellies always thank us, if not our figures.
And this trip is no exception. Here in the land formerly known as the Ottoman Empire, my parents, let's call them Padre Struggle and Mama Struggs, and my brother, Strugglemano, and I are staying in Belgoylu, one of the unpronouncable neighborhoods across the section of the Bosphorus river known as the Golden Horn, a channel of water away from all of the main attractions of this wild and wonderful town. So each morning that we have been here we have arose, still jetlagged (thank you, United Airlines, always the opposite of a pleasure) and taken a tram across the river, using a token or jeton that feels more appropriate to an arcade game at Chuck E Cheese, to some of the amazing things that Istanbul has to offer, like a mosque, or another mosque, or maybe a third mosque, if you are feeling crazy.
In seriousness, one of the most interesting things about this city is that despite the fact that you can't turn a corner without seeing a minaret here, most of the population seems to be basically secular in nature. Some women wear headscarves, some burquas are visible, but for a country that has spent the last several thousand years teetering between Europe and the Middle East this place is surprisingly secular and, dare I say it, well adjusted. To be fair, I speak approximately no Turkish (and honestly, who the hell does? This language is like Russian and Arabic had a child and then abused it to the point that it became an insane sociopath and decided to punish the world with silly sounding words), so this could all be speculation, but the Turkish people, or at least the Turkish people residing here in Istanbul, seem to be doing okay.
So this morning, after our intensly crowded tramride across the river, which made me consider once again the many virtues of deodorant (though to be fair, all public transport outside of the United States reminds of that, come ON, rest of the universe, step UP!) my family and I found ourselves, after a 15 minute walk of confusion (steet signs are apperently out of fashion in Turkey these days) at the gates of the Topkapi Palace. This palace was the home of the Turkish Sultans for four hundred years, which, given how poor the majority of the Turkish population is and has been, makes you wonder why these people never picked up a copy of Marx. As a tourist I can't be sad that they didn't, because while the palace itself is no Versailles, the Harem of the palace is rather amazing. Wandering through the clean marble and tile halls which this time of year are unheated and windy, it's hard to imagine this space as a sultry sex palace filled with nubile young women and stern eunichs, but it's not hard to see that this is where the imperial treasury lost a significant amount of it's earnings. Luxurious and spacious, I suppose if I personally had some 100 ladies (apart from the four wives allowed to the Sultan by Islamic law, can we say it's good to be the king?) I didn't want anyone else to get a glimse of, I would certainly shut them up in a pretty ceramic cage. After all, you never KNOW what women will get up to when unattended...
The rest of our day was a blur of fish and Turkish string cheese and shops selling evil eye icons. These Turks will try and sell you your own shirt if they can, all while smiling and insisting they are your best friend in the world. After the fifth shopkeeper started following us down the street, claiming to have everything we could ever want or need, all I could think was, honestly, the harem's not looking so bad. At least it's pretty, right?
I just, I had no idea that Istanbul and struggle were synonims. I will be writing to the OED when I can. I've seen more mannequin and gun stores today then I've ever seen in my life. It's my first day in Turkey. Someone in the Grand Bazaar literally called out to me, "Let me sell you something you don't need!" More to follow, right now, I have to lie down for a while with a glass of cherry juice (it's a thing) and some wine and just let the crazy pass. Or at least until I learn to say "go away" in Turkish.
People say that insanity is the process of doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. So, I guess it's official then, I just might be a little bit insane.
See, I'm about to embark on another long and meandering period abroad, traveling, staying in hostels, observing foreigners and mocking local cuisine. What, you say, is it September 2009 all over again? No, gentle readers, alas, I never could get that Delorean working. So hard to get a dependable lightening storm these days. And while I know I spent the majority of my time in Spain with my mouth wide open, marveling at the struggle of it all, I'm actually getting fairly excited to dust off my passport, say farewell to my Netflix, and get back on the horse (or plane, or train, or whatever).
Now, I know what you are going to say. You are going to scream at your computer screen, Leah, you strugglesome little person, are you insane? Don't you remember the last time, the farm, the jamon, the Spaniards as a people? Well to that I respond, yes, vaguely, but I've been trying to forget. And I know that traveling is stressful, uncomfortable, and full of strangers who don't speak your language (yes, even in the UK, snogging? Loo? Cheers? COME ON), that's honestly sort of part of the fun of it. I mean, if it was comfortable and easy, wouldn't it be just like home? Granted I live in Struggledelphia, so the levels of comfort and ease have yet to be determined, but the point remains that it is the difficult aspects of travel that make it so interesting and so exciting, and so painful, in a sense, because the rest of the world is not nearly as convenient as our very own US of A, and there's these things like clean water and bribing officials and the necessity of claiming to be from Canada, all of which come with a very steep learning curve. But it's learning that is the key word there, because at Casa Franqui we don't take vacations to relax or to enjoy our time with each other or to stroll serenely down the avenues of life. No, we plan on packing as much art, culture, eating, drinking and struggling into whatever short amount of time we've allotted for our adventures. And this week my whole strugglesome family is heading to Istanbul for 10 days together, because you CAN spell Turkey without "intense family dysfunction", but why would you ever want to?
So we are off to bargain for carpets and spices and concubines for a little while, finding the bizarre in the bazaar, so to speak. And believe you me, it's going to be epic. And once the rest of the clan abandons me for this "job" business the papers talk so much about, I'm on my own again, and I'll be heading north for a little while, stopping by the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and England, and then, like a European explorer in the 15th Century, I'll be making my way from the West to the Far East, and that whole visa situation? Well we will finally get to see if that works, or if I end up doing time in a Chinese prison. Either way, you're laughing!
And as I pause here, at the precipice of my next 7 weeks of travel, I do hope you'll all stay with me as I struggle all over again. If anyone has any travel tips, please let me know. Don't worry, guys, I promise I wont make the same mistakes this time. New ones, sure, by the thousands, but the same ones? Well, that would just be crazy!
Leah Franqui is a fairly interesting person/director/writer/reader/eater/drinker. She likes ugly dogs and dislikes her hair in the morning. She's a sucker for environmental causes and plays hardball with deals on chewing gum. She is a struggle.