The Cloisters, Nassau

Friends and I went to see the new Julia Roberts movie Duplicity last night. The movie opens with an aerial view of the Dubai coastline - followed by the exact terraced shot above. DUBAI read the bright white text over the image.

I jerked in my seat. "What!" I hissed involuntarily. "That's not Dubai!"

For the purposes of our characters it was, but I knew instantly this was most definitely a view of The Cloisters on Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. I cannot describe the disorienting feeling of seeing not just a place I know in a movie, but an exact image of a location as carefully composed in a photograph I have taken myself. They only showed it for the briefest of moments before cutting to lovely close-ups of Julia and Clive Owen, and for a minute I thought I was going crazy. To me, it was so clearly the Bahamas and not Dubai that I couldn't imagine how the filmmakers expected anyone to believe it. Maybe I was wrong; maybe I hadn't seen it properly; maybe Dubai has a spot with the exact same landscaping. But I knew, I knew what that shot was, and so I floundered silently in my seat for probably the first ten minutes of the movie.

Clive and Julia later visit the casino in Atlantis, however - a place I am also personally acquainted with, on many occasions - and that sealed the deal for me. They were most definitely truly at Atlantis, and the Cloisters? Are literally up the road. It's an easy hike, one I have walked myself. It's so clear that they brought cast & crew to Paradise Island, shot their scenes at Atlantis, then strolled over to the Ocean Club (upon which land the Cloisters adjoin) and were like, "Okay, now we're in Dubai!" Ha, I love little insights into filmmaking like that.

Of course most people are not going to be familiar enough with the Cloisters to notice like I did, and anyway that's all just movie magic. But they really are quite famous, at least in the Bahamas, and absolutely worth seeing. The Cloisters themselves are the remains of a 14th-century French Augustinian monastery dismantled and brought to Florida by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s. Huntington Hartford, the billionaire who transformed little-known Hog Island into Paradise Island in the early 1960s, bought the stones and re-assembled them on the island. As I recall from my visit to the Cloisters three years ago, a plaque notes that they were a gift for his wife. Hartford built (among other Paradise Island landmarks) Hurricane Hole Marina and the Ocean Club. The Cloisters sit on a high point that slopes gently down all the way to the Ocean Club's swimming pool, where Clive and Julia's banter first sparks their romance. It's very, very beautiful, and the grounds are entirely open to visitors - the Cloisters themselves are on public property, and I believe anyone can wander the Ocean Club's gardens.

My mother and I on the south steps of the Cloisters, 2006; one of the statues near the edifice - the whole grounds are full of them

The north face of the Cloisters is nearly bare, but the south face looking toward Nassau Harbour and the city is covered in rich green ivy. The ground also slopes away to the south, leading to a lovely stone gazebo. From the harbor, the grounds are actually very difficult to see; they narrow and end in thick vegetation. Whenever we passed through Nassau Harbour on our boat, my family almost always anchored near the Cloisters - it's an excellent, quiet spot, well-protected from heavy shipping traffic. We always anchored off the one barren lot in perhaps all of Paradise Island, a steep hill thick with trees and dead vegetation, separated from the grand estates on either side by chainlink fences. A path wound up next to the fence from the tiny beach, though, and although it was a bit of a mad scramble it was the easiest way to get ashore. Much better than taking the dinghy all the way through the choppy harbor to the public docks. From the hill the Cloisters were a block east, and Atlantis only a few blocks northwest.

There was a time when we would visit Atlantis and its marvelous aquariums by taking the dinghy through a narrow canal in the shadow of the bridge - I can remember when Nassau Harbour had only one bridge spanning it; the second was built merely 10 years ago - that led into a quiet, sheltered pond lined with shops and restaurants. We would tie up at one of the restaurants' docks and there was the main (and original) building of Atlantis, just across the street - a luxury hotel, but still just a hotel. Not a mega complex. Everything was much quieter then: far fewer people and traffic and celebrities. After we were done with Atlantis we would wander across the breakwater facing the ocean and explore the other hotels on the horseshoe beach just to the west; I remember a memorable afternoon spent swimming in those hotels' pools. (We never swam in the Atlantis pools, though I suppose we could have; the other hotels were just more welcoming. And relaxed about supervision.)

Now, of course, the canal has been filled in; the pond has been dredged and enlarged and landscaped to create the Atlantis Marina, taking the shops and restaurants with it; the other hotels have long since been bought and obliterated to build more and more salmon pink Atlantis buildings. It's sad, in a way. Atlantis is a very fine resort, but it is still just a resort: very packaged and planned and glossy and commercial. It doesn't have the quiet dignity of the Ocean Club - a long, low building nearly hidden by palms and lush natural vegetation. There's very little Bahamas in Atlantis; the whole thing could just as easily be in Miami.

All the development is great for the Bahamas, in a way, especially in the Out Islands where jobs are few; but I miss the quieter pace of life I knew growing up. I miss the ability to just motor up in our old, patched dinghy to a sleepy restaurant on the water. Hopefully the Ocean Club and the Cloisters won't be soon affected by the ever-expanding Atlantis empire.

The Cloisters, looking north

Chicago & Evanston

February 16-18, 2008

I traveled to Illinois again in February in order to attend my interview with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston. I was leery about making the trek in February thanks to Chicago’s notorious weather, but it actually turned out to be pretty mild. My previous trip to Chicago in October was great but had some major downsides as to unnerving inhabitants and only tolerable transportation. I found I liked the city much more after this fleeting visit, however. Just why is hard to pinpoint; I think it helped that driving my own car there, which enabled me to travel at my own pace and go directly to my friend’s apartment, instead of the bus dropping me off in the middle of downtown loaded down with all my overnight bags, made the whole trip easier. (Actually parking my car was a nightmare, but I only needed a spot for a night.) I also remembered a great deal from my earlier October visit, so in the end it felt more like I was returning to a somewhat familiar part of the world instead of a massive unknown city.

The day before my interview I ventured into the city to meet my friend for lunch. Catching the bus wasn’t a problem, but paying for my ticket was. I didn’t have time to purchase a day pass before heading out, so I had to pay in exact change, which was fine because I had plenty left over from paying tolls. Simple, right? No, of course I managed to get hopelessly confused.

First I asked the driver “Can I buy a ticket on this bus?”, remembering that some buses in London and Poland require you to have purchased one beforehand. His response was “We don’t sell tickets on the bus anymore,” which I at first took to mean the London example, except my friend had very explicitly told me I could pay in cash on the bus, so I was instantly befuddled. I actually half turned away to get back off, but then the driver said “No, you can pay here,” so I pulled out my fare, very much relieved. Except then I couldn’t figure out how to put it in the machine. Somehow I totally missed the dollar bill slot and was trying to force my dollar into a completely different slot, and I had to tell the driver “I’m sorry, it’s not taking it,” and he had to say “Uh, it should,” and we went back and forth and at one point I was ready to give up on bills and switch entirely to quarters, but then by some miracle I figured out my mistake and at last successfully submitted my fare. This whole show, meanwhile, was acted out in front of everyone else sedately seated on the moving bus while I braced myself against a pole.

I turned away, overjoyed to finally be able to find a seat, but swung back immediately. I remembered when I got on the bus from Krakow to Auschwitz I paid the driver my seven zloty but then just charged down the aisle to a seat, totally forgetting to get my ticket, and they had to pass it down all the people sitting in front of me and it was very embarrassing. “Oh!” I said, “Don’t I, uh, need a ticket?”

“No,” the driver said, with truly extraordinary patience, “we don’t give out tickets on the bus anymore,” and I realized he was saying that Chicago buses don’t print out paper tickets at all, even if paying in cash. By this point the driver was looking at me with great concern and making a few kindly meant comments. His exact words, and I am not making this up, were “Have you ever ridden the bus before?”

Ha! When I am in London I become confused by Japan; when I am in Chicago I am confused by London and Poland. The problem is not that I’ve ridden too few buses but too many, in too many different countries. They’ve all got multiple different systems and it’s impossible for any lone person to keep them straight. Impossible, I tell you! Luckily I got on the bus near the beginning of its route and so there wasn’t a lengthy line of irate people waiting behind me while I got a crash course in how to ride a bus in Chicago.

Amusingly, even after that debacle I still feel more charitable toward Chicago transportation than I did in October. It helped that my bus took me straight down Michigan Avenue to my friend’s workplace on the corner of Michigan and Wacker, overlooking the Chicago River. Yes, that location really is just as amazing as it sounds. We went to a yummy bakery/sandwich shop down the street with a prime view of the new Trump tower, and I told my bus story in great detail. Afterward I trotted several blocks down Michigan Avenue to Millennium Park to while away the afternoon.

I wandered all over the park and happily took lots of pictures of famous landmarks I’d missed on my previous visit: the Cloud Gate, the skating rink, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I got a big kick out of the Pavilion because once again it was something I’d written about while at my summer internship in London. In fact, I even corresponded with Chicago city planners to get a print-worthy photo of the Pavilion to put in the issue, so it was fun to actually be taking my own photos.

Of course I loved the Cloud Gate; who doesn’t? What a fantastically unique, trippy and fun sculpture. Watching people of all ages wonderingly approach the sparkling curved surface never gets old. The warped Chicago skyline reflected on the outside was incredible, but my favorite effect was walking beneath: the many twisting hollows produce image after fractured image of the people below like ever receding funhouse mirrors. Wild!

Myself reflected in the Cloud Gate; detail of the bridge designed by Frank Gehry that connects Millennium Park & Grant Park

Detail of an ornate, rust-covered pavilion I discovered in a forgotten corner of Grant Park

The sun disappeared about 4 p.m. and Chicago’s famous winds picked up. I ducked back into the bakery for hot cocoa before boarding what I thought was my correct bus home. Unfortunately, my friend had forgotten to tell me that the bus routes change in the late afternoon to deal with rush hour. Oops. The bus terminated its run wayyyyyy before my friend’s street. This actually happened to me fairly frequently in London – my normal buses would just have different final stops throughout the day. I never could figure out why; there appeared to be no schedule. It was exasperating but never really a problem with no shortage of buses and Tube stops in the center of the city. Here, though, there was no nearby train and I had no more money for bus fare. So I walked.

I knew if I followed the road I was on I would eventually reach my friend’s street. I just didn’t know it was much further away than I thought. Hmm. So I ended up a woman walking alone at dusk in not one of Chicago’s best neighborhoods, which was not an ideal situation, but I just turned up my fast-steady-know-what-I’m-doing stride and finally made it home safely. However, I now have yet another bus rule to remember (and be confused by): unannounced route changes.

The following morning I drove to Evanston for my interview. The two cities are really only 20 minutes apart, but it took me a bit longer as I figured out the route for the first time. I found the school, found my building, found a parking spot, but couldn’t find the restroom and so I madly brushed off lint on my suit in a random dim hallway. But I was on time and my interview went splendidly. I said nothing too cringe-worthy in relating my past accomplishments and I really liked what the admissions counselor had to say about Medill’s program. Crazily enough I almost didn’t apply to Medill because I wasn’t sure they offered exactly what I was looking for, but my personal visit utterly changed that notion.

Afterward I took a brief spin around the campus. Northwestern rests on prime real estate next to Lake Michigan, and the journalism building is located right on the beach. It is seriously amazing and reminded me very happily of my home in northern Michigan on Lake Huron. That accomplished I directly plowed through the hours-long drive back to Ann Arbor for my next big trip starting the following day.

I will be visiting Chicago again in April, however, to attend Medill’s Open House: because I got in! I got the good news two weeks after my interview. Medill is one of the absolute top journalism programs in the country, so that is enormously exciting. I’m not decided yet on whether I will attend Medill – I have to hear back from the other schools I applied to – but either way I’m looking forward to another Chicago trip.

The skating rink in Millennium Park

The Presidential Inauguration, Washington DC

January 19-21, 2009

So I was sitting in my room on a Monday morning, looking forward to a relaxing MLK Day, when my housemates burst in.

"We're going to the inauguration!" they shrieked.

My jaw literally dropped. "You mean . . . the actual ceremony? In DC??"

"YES!" they screamed, halfway demented.

"But . . . we don't have tickets. You know you're just going to end up watching it on TV in a bar somewhere, along with the entire rest of the country."

"DOESN'T MATTER!" their voices, if possible, at an even higher pitch. Quoth my housemate: "I went to the gym this morning and I was wearing my Obama t-shirt and the whole time I'm exercising I'm looking at him in the mirror and I suddenly thought 'Why am I not there?? How can I not go? I need to be able to tell my grandchildren I was there!!' ARE YOU COMING."

"Augh," I said. ".....yes."


So four of us hastily packed overnight bags and munchies, piled into the car, and set off for the 8-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Baltimore on Monday afternoon. We didn't want to deal with the absolute insanity of driving straight into DC, so we decided to take the 11:30 p.m. train from Baltimore. We finally made it, ran into the station, and . . . the train was delayed an hour. AN HOUR.

Hahahahaha. This is why Americans have no faith in trains.

The train finally arrived an hour and a half late and we got to DC about 2:30 a.m., wherein I may have squealed upon catching a glimpse of the Capitol from Union Station. This is going to sound crazy but I had never in my life been to DC before - or Baltimore either, for that matter. I've never been to New York, Boston or Philadelphia, either. My housemate from Baltimore was scandalized, but I've just never had occasion to go and it's a long trip to get there. I’m from rural northern Michigan, which is not on the way to anywhere except rural southern Canada. If anything, this trip to the East Coast - and seeing how relatively close all these big cities are to each other - made me realize just how far out of the way my hometown is, heh.

We caught a taxi to Georgetown, where we crashed at a friend of a friend’s house. Georgetown – what little I saw of it in the dead of night – was gorgeous. I found it very reminiscent of London’s Notting Hill and Portobello Market neighborhood. At 6 a.m. we were back outside walking to the Mall. I fluttered in excitement again over sighting the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The Monument looked particularly spectacular against the rosy golden dawn sky.

As we made our way from Georgetown streams of people began to trickle in from every direction, coming together in greater and greater numbers. I had a brief flashback to Football Saturdays in Ann Arbor and all the students converging on the stadium. But this wasn’t 100,000 people – this was 2 million. Two million!

By 8 a.m. we were crammed deep within the crowd and ended up watching the unfolding ceremony on one of the jumbo screens for the next four hours, literally unable to move. The sun eventually came out but my lord it was cold. Definitely below freezing. My toes were numb in minutes and my legs ached from standing so long. I think everyone around us was pretty miserable – but we were there! At the Inauguration! No discomfort could compare.

It felt absolutely incredible to be part of that huge throng - everyone was so happy and worked up and so Democrat, heh. There were cheers for Jimmy Carter . . . cheers for Al Gore . . . HUGE cheers for Bill Clinton . . . near silence for Papa Bush, and universal boos for Dubya. Yes!! It was awesome. And everyone went wild when Obama finally appeared. Volunteers had passed out little American flags and we all waved them madly and cheered ourselves hoarse at any sighting of the new First Family.

Clearly getting out of such a mob was near impossible, but we sucked in and plowed through in order to catch our train. When we finally squeezed free of the crowd I was a mess – coat all unbuttoned, scarf askew, sweater twisted sideways. Then began a veritable odyssey around extensive security barricades just to reach the station. So very many streets were closed, with police and FBI and Secret Service and snipers everywhere. Let me tell you, racing 20-some blocks on stiff frozen legs is not fun. As I staggered along the sidewalks I’m sure I looked like a casualty that had been trampled by the crowd.

We caught our train at last and had a lovely lunch and mini-tour of Baltimore. As we looked down over the waterfront I mused aloud “Hey, this really reminds me of Barcelona,” and my housemate exclaimed “Barcelona’s waterfront was modeled on Baltimore’s!” So that was rather exciting. I love the idea that I’ve been to enough international cities that I can recognize their urban planning, heh.


I helped drive home and we got back to Ann Arbor about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. All in all it was like a 30-hour trip of near insanity, totally impulsive and spontaneous and madcap, but somehow it still worked out okay and I'm so glad we went. It really was important just to be there, to be part of the people, and I loved experiencing the crowd and just how happy everyone is that Obama is in and Bush is out. I was so angry and disgusted in '04 when Bush was reelected, but over the past year I’ve regained my faith in the U.S. and what Americans really want and stand for. There's still so much to be proud of about the U.S. and being American, and I definitely saw many reasons why that Tuesday morning.

Chicago & the Midwest

October 17-27, 2008

I did a flurry of Midwest traveling for a couple weeks in October. My friend Monica and I took a weekend trip to Chicago so we could visit our college roommate Kara. The bus got caught in traffic on I-94 and we were hours late. We were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk in front of Union Station at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, with no idea where or how we were supposed to meet Kara. The streets were utterly deserted – except for a select few extraordinarily creepy individuals. We stood with our bags on a corner until the same shifty-eyed man passed back and forth in front of us for the fifth time, then just picked a direction and started walking.

The emptiness of the streets really surprised me after my experience in London, in which families and people of all ages could be found out and about till quite late. Granted we were in the middle of the business district, with nothing but office buildings all around. But there we were at the base of the Sears Tower, one of the most famous skyscrapers in the world, mobbed by tourists every day, and it was so shady. I never for one minute felt concerned about my safety in London, whether I was in Bloomsbury, Islington, Shoreditch, anywhere. Of course I never went to any truly run-down neighborhoods, but I never felt nervous to be a woman walking alone after dark. Chicago, though . . . made me feel very uncomfortable. And I wasn’t even alone! I was so, so glad when we finally connected with Kara under the El tracks and we could get away from downtown.

Despite a rather off-putting beginning, the rest of our visit went splendidly. Kara lives ten minutes north of the city in the Uptown neighborhood, with a great view of the parks and marinas fronting Lake Michigan. Over the weekend we wandered the waterfront as well as the cute neighborhood to the south, where Halloween decorations were in full force. I loved seeing all the carved jack-o-lanterns everywhere.

One night we made a special trip to Navy Pier. How fabulous, to have a mini-amusement park right in the city. I loved the massive, brightly lit Ferris wheel, and the famous fireworks show over Lake Michigan didn’t disappoint either. We tried to ride the swings but a girl apparently freaked out and tried to get off as the ride was about to start . . . so we ended up dangling for like 20 minutes before they let us off and shut down the ride. Weird. Oh well, at least we had fun twirling in the swings. Monica and Kara got very into it.

The next day we headed well into the sprawling neighborhoods to the west, on a random quest to find either the city’s Little Italy or its Polish quarter. This did not go nearly so well. We rode a bus a looooong way west, then got off basically in the middle of nowhere. I cannot remember why because the area certainly did not look in the slightest bit Italian or Polish. Then we walked. And walked and walked and walked. We had a good time chatting and laughing and studying Halloween decorations on our hours-long hike, but not once did we encounter anything that could have been construed as an ethnic neighborhood. At last dusk started to fall and we realized we were three young women on foot in unknown territory a long way from home. Yikes! So then commenced more walking just to find a bus, any bus.

On our urban rambles we encountered crazy Halloween decorations and a more mundane 7-Eleven. With only three weeks till the presidential election, we were very pleased to see the Obama cups wiped out and so many McCain ones left

I am sad to say that after London I was not impressed with Chicago’s transportation system. Clearly it works for the millions of people who live and work in the city, but the Loop? It covers so little territory! Just a few blocks! I still cannot figure out why it is so small. And buses seemed to come very infrequently and erratically, though that may have been just my perception. It’s just that after the extraordinary ease and convenience of the London subway and bus system, in which Tube stops seem to be around every corner even well outside the city center, nothing else can compare. I think I have been spoiled forever, alas. But I may very well end up living in Chicago/Evanston next year, and once I get used to the routes & time schedules I’m sure I will feel more confident in my ability to get around the city.

Kara & Monica in the Chicago rain

After Chicago I spent several days in Ann Arbor and an evening in Detroit to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Terrible reputation aside, I am quite fond of Detroit. Since I did my honors thesis on Detroit in its heyday in the 1920s I always view it with a bit of strange double vision, layering the historically thriving, vibrant metropolis over the current struggling urban center. I can’t see one without the other, see Detroit as it once was and could be again. There seems to be this pervading impression that Detroit is a ghost town but ahem, people do still live there. We had a great evening out in Greektown, and with Monica living in the city next year I’m sure I’ll visit more often.

The weekend was a flurry of activity, fitting in Cedar Point (the new roller coaster Maverick is amazing, I was absolutely screaming in terror throughout the whole thing) and a trip to Hillsdale for its annual treasure hunt. The hunt extends across the entire county along all kinds of crazy back roads and takes hours. It is fantastic. This was our third year doing it and although having two separate cars did not work out as well as planned (*cough* understatement), our two teams still placed in the top ten, which is incredible. Hillsdale is a beautiful county – quintessential southern Michigan, I always think – and I always love visiting, even if I am most familiar with the county’s dirt roads in pitch darkness.

Cheboygan, Michigan

September 20-21, 2008

After yet another long night camped out in Heathrow Airport – this seems to happen to me a lot, for some reason – I finally returned to Michigan on September 10, in the brilliant sunshine of the closing days of summer. I was so happy to see the beach and the full spread of Lake Huron again. I loved London, I couldn't have asked for a better summer there, but after awhile so many people and buildings felt suffocating. I am definitely someone who needs wide-open spaces.

On my last day of work the end of August the entire office held a company party at a park in suburban London. There was much drinking – especially by the rather wild sales team – and amateur playing of cricket. I had a ball, simply relaxing and chatting with all the good friends I’d made on the editorial floor. I am so thankful for my internship. It was a wonderful experience full of wonderful people, and two of my editors wrote me fantastic letters of recommendation that helped me get into grad school. I definitely got lucky when I found them.

I had no trouble readjusting except for a lingering sense of strangeness over driving on the right side of the road. After so long catching and riding buses on the left, that had become normal to me. Luckily I never actually attempted to follow my instincts. And months later I still miss Sainsbury’s fruit & nut muesli. I ate a big bowl with yogurt and honey nearly every day I was in London – so delicious! – and I have never found anything that could compare in the States. Sadness.

A week after my return I joined some friends on a quick camping trip to Cheboygan, at the northern tip of Lower Michigan. I love visiting Cheboygan. The drive north on US-23 is beautiful; for long portions the road runs right alongside Lake Huron. We always stay at the same rustic cabin fronting the beach with a view of the Straits of Mackinac. Saturday we drove into Mackinaw City to buy fudge – required, of course – and a bonus item: kites. We flew the kites on the beach; they soared straight up in the brisk wind off the lake. I can’t remember the last time I flew a kite – I’d forgotten how much fun it is! The rest of the evening was classic camp activities: big beach bonfire, roasted marshmallows and s’mores, Frisbee playing, guitar strumming, stargazing, board games played by kerosene lantern in the cabin. Sunday morning we hiked the sandy trail to the point and looked at the Mackinac Bridge from afar before packing up.

I do love camping. It’s such a Michigan thing to do, and how nice to jump right back in after a summer abroad.


September 6-9, 2008

What I remember most about Istanbul were the countless domes and minarets of mosques. As we drove through the city they seemed to sprout up from every direction, each one larger and more impressive than the last. We kept looking for the most famous, the Hagia Sophia, finally thinking we’d spotted it only to be met with yet another glorious dome.

We flew into Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which unbeknownst to us is situated in the Asian part of Turkey and is over an hour outside of Istanbul. As our transport relentlessly chugged along I began to seriously wonder if we’d gotten on the wrong bus and were instead heading deep into Asia Minor. That would have been an interesting adventure, but at last we reached the city . . . only to be rather dismayed by the rough areas our bus passed through.

Our hostel, however, was located in a beautiful part of town very close to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Of course it was lovely because it was the touristy area; is it very bad that sometimes I prefer the glossy surface presented to foreigners instead of stark realism? I love traveling but not at the expense of safety or all comfort.

The Golden Horn inlet, with an ancient Jewish tower in the background

I think in Istanbul we got a good mix of both realism and tourism. For one, no matter what area of the city you’re in Turkish men call out and come on to women incessantly. It very much reminded me of my visit to Mexico four years before, though with more actual attempts at conversation and less whistling. Amusingly, and to our continual bafflement, the question Megan and I received most frequently was “Are you twins? No? Sisters?” We may have essentially the same haircut but otherwise we look nothing alike. And yet we heard this from multiple different men every day. After about the 8th time it just became hilarious.

Our trip in September also coincided with the month of Ramadan, which gave the whole visit a unique spin. During the day the neighborhood was fairly quiet except for tourists, but the instant darkness fell masses of Turkish families appeared to socialize and picnic on the grounds between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. And the first two nights we were startled awake about 4 a.m. by a man wandering the streets banging a drum. The first time as I fuzzily tried to comprehend what was happening – “Wait, there’s a guy down there? And he’s really banging a drum??” I figured it had to be a drunk reveler. But after the second time, we realized he was acting as a town crier: drumming the townspeople awake an hour before sunrise so they would have time to eat. Wild! Talk about a literal wake-up call that one is in a predominantly Muslim country.

The view from the roof of our hostel

Our hostel offered free breakfast every morning, fabulous Turkish breakfasts of olives, feta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, fresh bread with jam, watermelon, and sweet coffee. They served it on the roof overlooking the Straits of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, the inlet that further divides Istanbul. I loved sitting on that dazzlingly sunny terrace, savoring watermelon and feta along with the incredible view.

The Blue Mosque

With all the major landmarks within easy walking distance of course we spent most of our time sight-seeing. The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were just as breathtaking as could be expected. They’re so huge and so very ancient, far, far older than any famous structure I’d ever seen before. Walking through them brought back vivid memories of my Roman History professor raving about his many trips to Istanbul and what incredible pieces of history the mosques are. When I was dutifully taking notes in Lecture Hall C I little imagined that I would be traversing the same ground as my professor only three years later.

The Hagia Sophia

The famous Deësis Mosaic within the Hagia Sophia, dating from 1261

I think Megan and I are agreed that our favorite bit of exploration was the Basilica Cistern. You walk down, down, down stone steps that become ever more polished and slippery, into the dank, humid air of a huge cavern supported by dozens of stone pillars. Nearly the only sources of illumination were the lamps shining up through the water at the base of each pillar; it was a dark, shadowy, secretive place, with dim echoes and watery reflections shimmering off the walls. Two special pillars each had a massive carved head of Medusa at the base, green with centuries of algae.

Topkapi Palace didn’t disappoint, either. The grounds and outbuildings are lovely but the real gem is the old Harem Quarters. The rich detail present throughout the entire complex of twisting halls and salons and courtyards – gold filigree, tiled mosaics, wood inlay, stained glass, swirling Arabic script – was gorgeous beyond belief. There was just so much to see. I took photo after photo but I don’t think I came close to capturing the beautiful essence of the place.

Overlooking the Bosphorus Strait from Topkapi Park

During the evenings we enjoyed eating outdoors at the many lovely little restaurants around the decorative streets, and afterward repairing to the bright cushions and carpets of a café that offered crisp mint shisha. On our last night I sprang for raki, essentially the official drink of Turkey. I was unaware that raki is flavored with anise. I couldn’t get past the first sip of the cloudy pale-blue beverage. It was like drinking liquefied black licorice; the taste was absolutely overpowering. I have no idea how Turkish men and women happily gulp it down – but I am very much impressed.