And then all of a sudden, I found myself back in England.
Now I really need to write some essays (even though I’d rather spend my time writing blog posts). I have three due on Wednesday, so I probably won’t post again until after that … it depends how much procrastinating I end up doing.
If you’re dying to know more about my travels before then, most of my photos are on Facebook, so you can click on one (or all) of the following destinations to see some pretty pictures: Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Istanbul, and Athens. There are some duplicates, and nothing is captioned, but I’ll sort everything out when I get time. And eventually, I’ll blog about everything!
Today I learned how to haggle at the flea market, ate a disgusting amount of delicious Greek food, talked to a ton of locals, climbed to the top of Mount Lycabettus for spectacular views of the city, got sunburn despite slathering on SPF 50 every few hours, took one last peek at many of the ancient landmarks, and fell in love with Greece even more.
I’m really sad to be leaving Athens, and I’m not ready for my Eurotrip to be over, but my last fortune cookie told me that travel is in my future, so I know I’ll make it back here again soon. I fly back to England first thing in the morning, so my next post will probably be from Birmingham.
One of the essential ways to experience a bit of Turkish culture is the hammam, or Turkish bath. Originally, hammams were built as part of mosque complexes so that people could cleanse themselves before entering the mosque. Now, these baths are enjoyed by locals and visitors. I knew I couldn’t leave Turkey without experiencing one of these for myself, so I found a recommended bath in my area (Sultanahmet is full of them since it’s the tourist centre) and headed there this afternoon.
I paid my entrance fee, requesting the traditional treatment as opposed to the cheaper self-service option. The receptionist handed me a token and pointed to the women’s entrance.
Upon entering, I was welcomed by a shout of “Lady!” The woman who had yelled it to me grabbed my token and exchanged it for a red-and-white-checkered towel and a small, golden drawstring bag. She then pointed to the stairs. I climbed up to the changing rooms, stripped off my clothing, and put it in a locker. Then I opened the gold bag to find a plain pair of black underwear. I slipped it on and wrapped up in my skimpy towel.
When I went back downstairs, I was greeted with another cry of “Lady!” and I turned to follow my attendant through a set of double doors into the room labelled “hammam.”
The first thing I noticed was how hot and humid the room was. The next thing that caught my attention was the light coming in through the pattern of holes that dotted the high, domed ceiling. The room was roughly circular, and small alcoves lined the circumference of the room. Everything in the room was made of light-colored marble, including the low, round table that took up most of the room and which already had four women on it in various stages of their baths.
I barely had time to notice all of this before my attendant yanked my towel off without warning and spread it on the marble surface, leaving me there in nothing but my panties. “Lay,” she ordered, pointing to the towel before walking away. I climbed onto the towel and lay there on my stomach. After a few minutes, I was covered in my own sweat but feeling very relaxed. The woman came back about ten minutes later, and this time, she was also wearing nothing but the standard black underwear.
She splashed lukewarm water all over me before sliding an exfoliating massage mitt onto her hand and going to town. She started with my legs, moved on to my back, and even pulled down my undies to get my bum cheeks. “Turn,” she barked, and I flipped onto my back so that she could reach my chest, stomach, and legs. “Sit!” was her next order. As she scrubbed my arms, her tone softened for a moment.
"Look," she said, and I glanced down. All over my arm were little gray rolls of dead skin and dirt. It sounds gross, but I was intrigued, and when I looked more closely, I saw the rolls all over my body from where she had scrubbed. I marveled at how dirty I must have been, and the tiniest shadow of a smile passed over her face as she watched my reaction with self-satisfaction.
She returned me to my original position and splashed warm water all over me. Next came my favorite part: All of a sudden, I was entirely enveloped in a big blob of foam. It was the softest sensation I have ever experienced, and it felt like I was being hugged by a cloud. A warm, friendly cloud.
After she thoroughly washed me, she led me into one of the side alcoves. In it was a marble basin; she sat on the ledge of it and I sat on the ground with my back to her while she washed my hair.
Finally, my bath attendant had finished with me. She handed my soggy towel back to me and pointed to a doorway. Inside was a warm, dim room that had two small pools. The water was the same temperature as the air (38C), and I relaxed in there for a half hour. When my skin felt sufficiently pruney, I headed for the shower, exchanged my wet towel for a big, soft one, and went back to the changing room to get dressed.
I left the hammam feeling fabulous and squeaky clean. It was the coolest cultural experience I’ve had on this trip, and I loved everything about it, even my militant bath attendant. Was it weird being naked in front of a whole bunch of other women? Nope. It wasn’t awkward or embarrassing. Nor was it even exciting or liberating. It just felt natural, and I really didn’t even notice that I was naked most of the time. I know not everyone would be comfortable doing this, but I’m glad I was able to enjoy the experience, and it’s definitely something I’ll do next time I’m in Turkey!
Today I had the best darn baklava I have ever tasted.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this dessert, it is a small layered square of flaky pastry and chopped nuts, saturated with honey. It is said to have been invented right here in Istanbul (in the palace that I visited yesterday), but it’s now enjoyed throughout the world in many variations.
Though I hate honey, I don’t like nuts in my desserts, and the traditional kind of baklava contains neither chocolate or cheese, this stuff is PERFECT, and it definitely ranks in the top ten of my favorite foods.
If you haven’t tried baklava before, go find some. If you can’t find any, come to Turkey—they have plenty here!
I had a fun-filled day yesterday experiencing all sorts of new things and seeing some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I went to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the site of the Roman hippodrome where some of their stolen obelisks still remain, the Grand Bazaar, and two mosques. (I’d never been to a mosque before—you don’t see much of Eastern religions in rural Ohio—so I can’t wait to share my experiences!) It was a guided tour, so I had fun making friends with the other people in my group, and I learned so much about the Turkish history and culture along the way. Equipped with all of that knowledge now, I’m off to explore more of the city!
Just like many places in Europe have large German Christmas markets, there are Easter markets. The one here in Prague is really big (that’s where I got my pastry yesterday), and it has many decorated stalls selling traditional Czech food, as well as crafts and other things. Though 90% of Czechs are atheist, they still celebrate Easter traditions.
Today I was walking around the market when I heard some loud, upbeat drum music coming from nearby. I turned the corner and saw a procession of people following three men on stilts and a trailer pulling a man playing the drum set that I had heard. I decided to join the crowd and followed them on their journey through the streets.
At one point, they stopped so that one of the stilt guys could put together two pieces of wood he had been carrying to assemble a cross. Then another stilt guy crowned him with a circle of thorns, and the walk continued. Eventually we reached a small square and everyone gathered round as the Jesus stilt guy re-enacted being crucified. Then a pastor came out to read a sermon. I left at that point because he was reading in Czech, and Molly was waiting for me.
Ultimately, the whole thing seemed a little half-hearted, but I guess if less than 10% of the population cares about it, they probably didn’t feel like putting any more effort into the performance. I still enjoyed seeing it because I’ve never done anything for Good Friday before, so it was interesting to be in a place that observed it.
Sometimes travel plans don't work out. But sometimes they do.
Last Thursday, I got an email from the booking agency that I booked the last part of my trip with saying that my flight to destination #7 had been cancelled. This was not good news, as the booking agency doesn’t refund flights and I definitely don’t have enough money to buy a new flight OR even book a flight home from destination #6. (I’ve already booked a flight from destination #7 to #8 and from #8 back to England.)
There is no contact information for my booking agency, and in the email they sent, they said to contact the airline directly. The problem is that my flight was booked with Tarom, a Romanian airline. Their English website wasn’t working on my iPod, so it wasn’t until Tuesday that I found a desktop computer and discovered that it wasn’t my iPod: the website itself doesn’t work in English, as everything I clicked redirected me to the home page. Since the computer I was using didn’t have Google Chrome, I had to copy and paste everything from the Romanian website into Google Translate until I finally found something that led me to a form I could fill out stating my problem.
When I checked my email that night, I found an automated response saying that someone would address my problem within thirty days. My flight was in just twelve days! Surely there was a phone number I could call for an immediate response. I clicked around on the website but couldn’t find anything.
I thought to check my travel insurance policy, and discovered that it doesn’t cover anything like flight cancellations. At this point, my frustration led to a full-blown panic attack. Once I calmed down enough, I decided to call it a night, and maybe I could think of something in the morning.
Luckily, when I checked my email the next day, I had a nice email from Tarom offering me several alternative flights. It turns out that rather than my original 12-hour journey, I’ll now have a direct flight of about four hours. This flight cost about twice as much as the one that I had originally booked, and now I’ll be getting it for no extra charge. Today I received my electronic ticket for the flight, so I can officially breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I realize that my message to the airline could have just as easily gone unanswered until it was too late, at which point I would have had to get very inventive in finding a way home. However, I was lucky enough that everything worked out in the end, and it was a reminder that when traveling, you always need to take the unexpected into account. And maybe check your travel insurance policy a little more closely before you leave!
After our tour yesterday, I dragged Molly to “Museum The Kennedys.” JFK is one of my favorite presidents, and I find the entire family fascinating, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to go to a museum dedicated to them. Berlin was a special place to JFK because on June 26, 1963, he saw the Berlin Wall for the first time on his visit to the city. Though he had prepared a different speech, he was so moved that he ended up scrapping the speech and sayingIch bin ein Berliner (“I am a Berliner”).
The museum had the reactions of several Germans who witnessed the speech. My personal favorite was that of someone was just a child when she watched the president on tv. Though she heard that famous line and knew from his funny accent that he wasn’treallyfrom Berlin, she still felt a sense of hope from what he said, and it made her feel that she could become an agent of change.
The exhibit also included many photos of the Kennedys as well as a few artifacts (some of John and Jackie’s things, and a few campaign pieces) and a recording of the famous speech that he gave just outside the museum. It would probably be a boring museum for someone who isn’t already interested in the Kennedys, but I’m obsessed enough that I really enjoyed it.