While everyone in my program has been frantically packing each weekend with a city to go explore, I had been idling a bit. I’m already in Berlin, why would I want to lessen my time living IN the city? Besides it’s tiring, getting on planes and trains every 3 or 4 days! However, this post is going to be about my first weekend traveling. Yes, it was absolutely exhausting and I wish I could just lay in my bed for hours and not have to go to school in 20 minutes, but it was also incredibly rewarding. No regrets. Apologies in advance for the length of this post, but I swear every word has worth. It’s also what you get when you try to explore an entire city in just 2 days…
Week 6 starts off strong with having to enroll in classes and FINALLY finalizing travel plans. Not just that, but our econ class spent Monday class to spend almost 4 hours at the German Historical Museum.
The name itself is pretty self-explanatory–the ultimate cram session on German history with the bonus of visuals. But one may find himself struck with awe. It’s all the stuff he has been learning for years and years beyond, yet to have the history presented to you not in the form of text in a 600+ page textbook but rather right in front of your eyes, is a bit breathtaking.
From tribes to being conquered to conquering to world wars to automobiles, this place had it all.
In class, we finally arrived to the age of the Cold War, Berlin Wall… and it’s sometimes crazy to think that the adults were alive at that time (i.e. my grandparents were alive during the Korean War) but it’s even crazier to hear eyewitness accounts of these global events. Our professor Ingo Klein had in fact lived in East Berlin. This was even more jaw-dropping than the museum because he brought in tokens of history that he had kept from when he was a young man, i.e. the flyer of the New Forum, souvenirs from rallies that helped bring the Berlin Wall down. After the wall came down, he participated in the round table talks surrounding economic affairs in East Germany. Talk about a blast from the past.
Thursday. While I had the usual classes, I could barely sit still. All the new German words flew wayyyy over my head, I was fidgeting in my seat like crazy. Once Econ ended, it was I who bolted out the door, flung on my coat, and ran off to catch the bus to the airport. Because the weekend had finally come, Köln and Istanbul were just awaiting!
A group of 4 took a night flight to Köln. Thursday had marked the beginning of Carneval, a week-long celebration that goes on until Ash Wednesday. It is traditionally a festive season preceding immediately before Lent. Right when we arrived, we knew we had to be in Köln. There were hundreds of people strolling about at 11PM–or should I say, staggering about. The majority had been drinking since 9AM, and they were all dressed in costumes and in their own drunken happiness. My friends called it “Halloween for adults;” I call it “just like Bay to Breakers but 10x bigger o.o.” Unfortunately for us, our host notified us that Friday would probably not have very much going on…because everyone would be hungover. Splendid. While this was at first a downer, to not be able to see much festivity in the daytime, I think we were spared the chaos of Carneval and we were able to appreciate the atmosphere of Köln that much more. There were sporadic parades/performances occurring on the streets, and a stroll along the Rhine was liberating.
Luckily the Kölner Dom was open to the public. It’s been a while since I had entered such a grandiose cathedral and it was a nice time to just sit and have quiet time. I think it’s fantastic that people used to build these churches and cathedrals with sky-high ceilings and embellish the walls with Biblical scenes; while some may view it as superficial aesthetics, I think it could serve as a testament to how great they believed God to be, and I support that.
After having lugged our bags with us to the center of the city, you could say we were more than relieved when it was time to board our plane to Istanbul. There were many firsts for me on this trip: first Turkish delight, first visit to mosques, first apple tea, first Baklava, first jazz club…
We finally land in Istanbul and honestly it was a bit of a
shitshow struggle. We frantically tried to find WiFi to contact our host, couldn’t find WiFi but realized it was saved in my email, needed a phone to call him. Then it took us over an hour to get to the station we were supposed to arrive that, and then we were holding phones trying to pinpoint our location as we precariously walked down a cobblestone hill to meet the host at around midnight… whew.
In that first night of Istanbul, two things were already obvious from the start: 1) people here LOVE to guess where you’re from (“no where are you REALLY from?”). As I was on the phone with our host, the person we borrowed the phone from tried to guess the ethnicities of my 3 companions. He was only right for 1 person. 2) There are soooo many stray dogs and cats here, it was almost frightening haha (good reason too, allergic to cats over here ugh). We saw cats and dogs just roaming around at night, and dogs sleeping on pieces of cardboard that residents must have left outside for that exact purpose. Many of the dogs were also tagged, to signify that they have been vaccinated by the government. I wonder why there are so many strays–mainly because they seem to be well fed for the most part and people like to go pet them. I wonder if it’s costly to keep a pet in the house in Istanbul.
The subsequent days in Istanbul were honestly a struggle to begin. Legs feeling like jello, sinking into the mattress the moment they hit the bed, begging to not be moved for an extra hour or so after my body wakes up. But we had appointments, schedules, and all we could do was keep moving. But let’s not forget the language barrier! You know it’s a big big problem when you say “Danke schön” rather than “Thank you” to the seller.
Before I even begin to talk about what happened in Istanbul, let me give a HUGE shoutout to Kevin, Niles, and Alexa for being our tour guides the entirety of Saturday. They helped us save so much time since they knew how to get to places already, and they knew what was the good noms. Because you know, you can mainly judge a place by its food 😉 And while we’re on the topic, if you’ve gots time, check out Niles’s blog. He’s a good friend of mine, and just like me, he has been blogging his way through his study abroad experience in Istanbul, and I’ve enjoyed reading it myself 🙂
Meeting up with the Stanford in Istanbul people in the morning, we went straight to Cafe Privato and experienced firsthand the glory of Turkish breakfast. I don’t usually stuff myself unless it is a traditional Korean meal, but boy…was this stuff good. There were 3 plates of cheese, 3 plates of fruit/jam, 3 bread baskets, 4+ plates of sauces. There was an interesting plate of clotted cream. When we asked, one said, “You put the cream on the bread. Then the honey. Then you die a little inside.” I certainly died inside multiple times during this trip, usually during noms hehe. The interesting juxtaposition between Berlin and Istanbul is that Berlin is ridden with international cuisine. In Istanbul I did not even see a speck of foreign food. We even ordered apple tea; did YOU know there was even such a thing as apple tea?
We proceeded to visit Hagia Sophia. Not gonna lie, I was so excited to see this wonder after reading about Robert Langdon’s adventures in Istanbul in Dan Brown’s Inferno. The greatest thing about the Hagia Sophia is that it was at one point in time a pagan temple, church, and mosque, the only building in the entire world to have been a part of 3 religions. After seeing the Blue Mosque’s outside though, I have to admit I wasn’t as impressed by Hagia Sophia at first. The inside… was a whole other story. What the exterior had lacked, the inside made up for it all, and since pictures tell a thousand words, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
The reason we had blown past the Blue Mosque the first time was because at the time we had gone, they had closed off the mosque to the public because it was prayer time. And wow, what an experience. There are now speakers installed on towers of the mosques, so the entire city is within hearing distance of the prayer calls. It blows my mind that these interspersed prayer calls have become such an everyday occurrence, like how a clock tower rings every hour (or in Stanford’s case, every 15 minutes…) to both the religious and non-religious. But after Hagia Sophia, we made a beeline back towards the Blue Mosque. We were eyed by security, to make sure most skin was covered. We were told to take off our shoes and to cover our hair and neck with scarves. Inside, half of the mosque was blocked to the public, purely reserved for people wanting to pray.
Since our friends in Istanbul had already been tourists early on in the quarter, we quit being tourists and I guess you could say we hung out for the rest of the day… Turkish style. We took the tram to Corlulu, a hookah place. I had my doubts about being in a room filled with smoke. But it turned out to be a pretty spacious area yet cozy as all 7 people crowded around a small square table with 2 hookahs. Friends recommended the Sahlep and apple tea here, and it was heaven in my mouth. After a couple of minutes of failed attempts of “hookah Olympics,” it became a casual get together, going back and forth about our respective experiences in Berlin or Istanbul for the past 5 weeks. Then we headed off to dinner and I was reunited with Sri, another Stanford student who had gone to the same high school as me. As we were catching up, she proceeded to say, “I think this is the longest conversation we’ve had since Stanford…wait, maybe this is the longest conversation we’ve had… EVER.” It’s so interesting to think that high school classmates you see everyday, in the moment you don’t really think of setting aside the easy five minutes to talk to them, but once you get out of that everyday mundane context, you learn to appreciate those small conversations so much more and you take the opportunity to have them.
The Istanbul kids were nice enough to invite us to a jazz club. Because it was Valentine’s Day, the entrance fee was TWICE the normal amount. The only live jazz I had ever heard was at school concerts and festivals, so it was a completely different setting to be in a small club with the band 10, maybe 20 feet in front of me. It was dazzling, especially for a classically trained musician who could never improvise. I would be lying if I said I was totally engaged in the 2 hour long performance. After walking on cobblestone hills all day, I was just thankful to have a seat and catch up with close friends.
Second day in Istanbul. This time, we were all on our own. We headed to Suleymaniye Palace, which was also incredibly grandiose. But the highlight of this last day was the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. An eerily orange-lit building, there were stores on stores on stores of teas, spices, and Turkish delights. We were allowed to try delights before buying; I think we all ate at least 15, maybe even 20 delights before buying a box. Comparing these street markets to the ones in Korea, first thing I noticed was that 99% of store owners were men. They yelled variations of “Where are you from?!” “Pretty girl, come over here for a nice cup of tea” “I love you so much” As the title of this post suggests, one store owner came up to me and my friend and asked us “Hey girls, you come from Gangnam Style?” We laughed…. and then left. But man, those Turkish delights and apple tea… I’ll miss those when I run out of my stash 😛
That’s a wrap for Week 6: History sessions are much needed in a place like Berlin. Carneval ain’t my thing. Valentine’s Day was well spent with an amazing group of people in one of the most intriguing cities I have been to in my entire life. Also, what is sleep anymore…
Due to the ridiculous length of this post, I will withhold thoughts on particular observations in Istanbul… but in the meantime, thanks for joining me on my attempt to condense this dreamy trip, and be on the lookout for Travel Post #2: MADRID.