Friday, September 17, 2010

Ubiquitous Turkish hospitality


Hospitality knows no limits when it comes to children, at least if you're in Istanbul, during an incredible weeklong vacation over Eid holiday. I suppose it helps if your toe-headed children look a bit different than most, and that your western-ness might represent that next carpet sale, or sold meal, or hawked trinket. Nevertheless, the friendliness and accessibility of the Turks was on display everywhere we went, and our boys were very often the ice breakers to conversations or at least pantomimed interactions that might have not occurred otherwise.

Logan had to suddenly go to the bathroom one day while we were walking around Sultanahmet, our hotel's locale while in Istanbul and also the location of the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque. Although WCs were around in some public areas, of course at this very moment I couldn't immediately see one, and so we quickly ran to a restaurant we'd patronized a few days earlier, hoping that the staff would remember us. It was as if we'd never left, and while I waited for Logan the manager told me that in Turkey old folks and little children are always accommodated
in similar situations.

The day before we'd walked through a section of town particularly packed with carpet showrooms, and at each storefront the owner of slowed us down, made conversation, patted our boys' heads, and promised them apple tea if only their parents would abide them a sales pitch. One wonders how much tea and accompanying sugar cubes the boys could have downed if only our ability to say "no thank you" had been up to the task, but there is perhaps no one so capable and determined as an Istanbul carpet salesman, so we largely admired the most resplendent and luxurious carpets hanging in the front windows from the relative safety of the street, being sure not to pause too long at any one.

Logan decided to abide his father's interest in going to a Turkish Bath, and so one afternoon we went to a bath designed by arguably the most famous Ottoman architect of all time, Sinan (who lived more than 90 years, long enough to serve three successive sultans and design more than 50 incredible buildings all over the empire), which also happened to be in our neighborhood. Logan decided to let his dad be the guinea pig, and so he carefully watched while the masseur rubbed and then soaped me down, Logan all the while sweating away in his towel robe, perhaps summoning the courage to got next. Well, there wasn't much of a choice, for just as soon as the masseur was through with me he splashed clean the beautiful marble surface, patted the space I'd just vacated, and motioned Logan summarily over. I then carefully yet discretely watched from an adjacent cool-off room while our masseur lovingly gave Logan his first Turkish bath experience. I could tell the masseur enjoyed working on a young boy who didn't complain or squirm and, while he did, I watched as a number of the other masseurs looked up from their work to smile at Logan. Later that day I knew the experience had been a success when Logan asked me when we could go back again!

On our second to last day in Istanbul we decided to take a boat trip to the Princes' Islands, a string of islands in the Marmara Sea just off the coast of the Anatolian, or Asian, side of this city of 15+ million inhabitants, and the only city to straddle two continents. At the end of a full day, we got off the boat and instead of catching the shuttle back to our hotel, opted to walk along the waterfront a bit in hopes of finding a good seafood place for dinner. We made it about 30 yards down the dock before attempting to pass by a group of grizzled fishermen, apparently not long off their boats after bringing back the day's catch. These guys were just beginning to share a piping hot dish of baked fresh sardines with onions, tomatoes and savory spices, all dripping with the trademark Turkish olive oil. They were breaking apart huge hunks of fresh bread, and spooning up generous portions of the baked fish dish when they spied the boys and, instantly, we realized that we could not pass by without trying their culinary delight, which they were eagerly offering us. We each tried some of this divine local fare, but it was when the boys took their first mouth-fulls that the guys all broke into huge smiles and insisted that we share more. No need for a huge appetizer that night!

And finally, there was our tour of the spice bazaar, which included spices and sweets, for the eyes and tongue. Each time we went by a sweet vendor, the boys were plied with a cube of homemade Turkish candy, or taste of honey, or some such, often surreptitiously by a smiling vendor who proffered the candy while patting the boys' heads. In the final analysis, Istanbul was one, long, delectable treat for us, a first glance at a proud and varied country we now hope to return to.

Thanks for reading, David

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dad's "Great" Idea by Logan

Yesterday our family went to the Princes' Islands off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. We got off the boat on the second island and my dad had this "great" idea of renting bikes to ride around the island. Sounds fun, right? Well, as it turns out it was not as fun as we thought. My dad immediately started up a hill without realizing that my bike was so rickety and heavy and had no gears at all. My bike was heavier than the other three bikes together. My parents kept saying, "C'mon, Logan, try to keep up," but they didn't realize that my bike was so old that I had to pedal to go DOWN hill, and my bike tire had almost no air so when I biked along, I just bounced away all of my energy.

The other bikes were not so hot either. Hayden would be biking along, pedaling normally, when suddenly there would be a metal-on-metal screeching sound. Dad's bike always had the kickstand down, so we teased him that he would be safe if he fell. His bike had a sheared off front shifter and no front brakes. Mom's bike, called the "Corvette," could not shift any gears until Dad made her get off the bike while he lifted the back wheel up to "fix" the gears. After that, she had three gear options. Hayden had two to start but lost one after a short time. To shift from one gear to the other usually required a lapse time of about 10 minutes!

The stressful part of this family ride was that we had been allotted one hour in which to do the ride and make it back to the boat. The bikes gradually became slower and slower. We became panicked and I was so tired my legs felt like they would fall off! We finally did get back into the seaside town only to not be able to find the bike shop for which we had no name or address. We passed signs that said no biking but we had to bike in order to find the shop. We eventually got there and it took the owner several minutes to scrounge up Dad's Saudi driver's license and some change.

During our voyage to the islands, we learned that the Princes' Islands were used in part by Ottoman sultans as a place to banish their wayward sons. I think they had to ride old rickety bikes around the islands for the rest of time.

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Hello all,

We are spending our Eid holiday in Instanbul, Turkey, and I must sadly admit that I did not really appreciate the amazing historical significance of this city until I visited. As the Roman Empire collapsed, one final emperor, Diocletian, foresaw weakness and split the Empire into western and eastern parts, thinking it would be easier to administer this way. Constantine ultimately ended up with the eastern part, which around 330 a.d. he centered in his new capital city, Constantinople, a city which became the center for the Byzantine empire - which was really the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The former and original glorious Roman Empire eventually collapsed, but the Byzantine Empire continued for hundreds of years and remained strong in Constantinople until the Ottomans finally defeated it in the 1450s. The Muslim Ottomans added minarets to some Christian churches and covered up images of Christ and scenes from the Bible, but they were generally tolerant, open, and accepting of other faiths, so groups of people flocked to libraries, mosques, and other public places to gather, study, learn, and talk, regardless of religious beliefs.

Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, boasts glorious mosques which are open to the public except during prayer time and vast Byzantine churches, many of which were later converted to mosques. Blue and white tiles decorate the interior of many mosques, conveying an aura of peace and tranquility. It is clear that this has been a city of diversity, openness, and tolerance - and it still is this way though Turkey continues to struggle with an outspoken minority group of 14 million Kurdish people for whom there is no government representation.

We sampled a Turkish bath experience - gender-separated scrubbing, soaping, and relaxing. We have enjoyed all kinds of food, particularly various kebabs, eggplant cooked so many ways, and tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese. We have walked, taken the public tram system (an on-street train system), tried ferries and local buses. Today we took a local ferry up the Bosphorus which connects the Sea of Mamara with the Black Sea. Who knew that Istanbul is the only city in the world that spreads across two continents - Asia and Europe? Most of Turkey is in Asia, but much of this city is in Europe. We also visited a medieval fortress today which was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 in order to stage the Ottoman's final (successful) assault on Constantinople. It was an impressive place with ramparts, steps, and walls on which to roam.

Ironically, we are visiting just at the same time as the world championships in basketball are being played - here in Istanbul. Last night was the final game - between the USA and Turkey! Who would have thought?! The US won and many Turks congratulated us with broad smiles today.

We have met friendly people who try to help us whenever possible and who beam with our basic attempts at Turkish; we have seen people genuinely reach out to our boys, patting their heads or cheeks and greeting them when possible; we have had carpet-sellers serve us tea and share their vast knowledge of carpets.

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Monday, September 6, 2010

A New School Year

We are wrapping up our second week of our second year of school at The KAUST School (TKS). What a difference one year makes! Our students are more engaged, more prepared, and more ready to learn than last year; as teachers we can more readily understand their abilities and language limitations and progress over last year. All around it is a smoother, if tiring, first couple of weeks. Despite the fact that it's Ramadan, TKS started school as expected, supported and directed by the University. I have been impressed by how many students and families have committed to being at school in the middle of their holy month. They are showing their commitment to education in the midst of a special Muslim holiday. Ramadan comes to an end in a few days, and the Eid holiday will begin - where school will once again be closed (as will pretty much every thing else). We will head off on a short trip to Istanbul, Turkey, before returning for a full-on schedule and routine for most of the rest of the Fall.

Our kids have enjoyed getting to know several new kids from the United States and Canada, which makes their social relationships and friendships more familiar. They both seem to recognize that they have aspects to their lives here - freedom to bike around and play with neighbors - that they would not have so easily back at home. We have noticed in the last month that the weather has cooled slightly, and it's becoming more pleasant to sit outside at the end of the day while the kids play on their bikes. The pool water is perfectly chilled and the A/C in the school, though cold, is not as unbearable as last year. We are all well!

We hope all is well with all of you. Love to hear about your lives at home too!

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dee's visit to KAUST

I have been visiting the Evans family here in Saudi. It has been an incredible experience--one I will always remember and treasure. They have shared their lives, their work, and their friendships with me and I have met an incredible group of people from all over the world. They all bring their vision, their expertise, their knowledge and their enthusiasm for this unique project.
I have especially enjoyed being with Hayden and Logan and watching them grow, develop and learn to be friends for all nations, all people and all opportunities. I have felt appreciated and blessed to be in this community of leaders.
Thanks to them for sharing this with me.
Dee (Jennifer's Mom)