Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Petra, Part I

We rented a car in Amman mostly to go to Petra.

I was pretty much the only one brave enough to drive it.

Traffic in Amman is similar to, oh, say, Rome perhaps. Or Demolition Derby. It's nonstop, it's a free-for-all, it's every person for him/herself. And I loved it.

Aggressive driving is a trait that comes in handy if you live in Baltimore City, and it was a survival technique in Amman. There are very few stop lights and intersections through downtown Amman; it's all circles. Circles, circles, circles. Don't like circles? Don't drive in Amman. Or anywhere else in the world, really. Americans seem to be the only ones with such harsh aversions to circles. Having grown up in Annapolis, circles are simply part of the landscape. And, now that I'm back in Baltimore, I find myself with undue amounts of rage at the traffic light situation in this country. No wonder we have such horrible chockablock traffic - it's the damn lights! All that stop and go. Let us evolve to circles, dammit!

I digress.

Ah yes, Petra. 

So, we rented a car from the hotel. This was another exercise in understanding Middle Eastern business. 

US: We'd like to rent a car, please.


US: Well, today is Friday, so probably until Sunday.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Yes, that is fine.

US: What time would we need to return the car on Sunday?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Anytime is fine.

US: I mean, does it need to be back by a certain time? Or, what's the latest it can be dropped off? Because we might go down to the Dead Sea that day, and we're not sure when we'll be back.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: You can bring the car back any time.

US: Oh, ok. And if we decide to keep the car for another day?


US: Do we just call you, or tell someone or....what?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: No, you do not need to call. You can keep the car for as long as you need it.

US: just return the keys to the desk when we're done?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Yes, you can do that if you wish.

US: (confused chatter among ourselves)

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: While you are discussing, let me just make sure that we have a car available for you.

US: (stop talking, watch HELPFUL EMPLOYEE.)

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: (smiles at us)

US: (watching)


US: Um, do you need to call and confirm?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Oh yes, I will do that.

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: (still smiling, still not calling)

US: Should we...wait? While you call?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: No, no, you do not need to wait. Everything is taken care of.

US: So, do we have the car for tomorrow?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: I am sure there will be one available, I just need to call and confirm.

US: So...are you going


US: OK, so should we check back in with you later?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: If you would like to come by and see me, you may if you wish.

US: But don't we need to make sure it's confirmed?

HELPFUL EMPLOYEE: Oh no, everything is set, you will have a car, I'm sure.

US: (highly, highly, highly doubtful) Um, ok.

We leave.

The next morning: the front desk at the hotel calls our room at 9am.

"Your car is ready for you, whenever you can come to collect, the keys are at the front desk."

"OK, thank you," we said, and promptly continued the morning ritual of heading down to eat our weight at the breakfast buffet. 

An hour and a half later, after a very long leisurely breakfast, I said that I would go and grab the keys from the front desk while The Gentleman settled the bill. I sauntered out of the restaurant to the front desk, where a very tiny and distraught man in a suit was leaning on the counter and chattering away angrily in Arabic. I politely waited my turn, but the front desk employee waved away the man in the suit and motioned me forward.

"Yes, hi, I need to pick up the keys to our rental car?" (I've become astutely aware that in situations where I am uncertain, I turn declarative statements into questions. I'm irritated even with myself for doing this.)

The Tiny Distraught Man came rushing forward, waving a stack of papers.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: I have been here two hours! I wait for you! They call you, they say the car is ready, but you do not come down!

I was mortified. I had no idea the front desk had meant: "A tiny, distraught man is waiting for you to come and collect the car, please get down here immediately." Such is the way of hospitality and business. "Whenever you can come collect" means "Get here now."

I apologized profusely, which somehow had the effect of making the TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN terribly apologetic in response.

ME: I am so sorry, I had no idea, I misunderstood, I apologize that you had to wait-

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: Oh no, of course it is fine, I only need for you to sign the papers and I show you the car, OK? Come, I show you the car, I make sure it is ok, yes?

ME: Um...ok.

The TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN led me outside where he showed me the impressive Chevy POS that we were renting for 35JD a day (approximately $60. You get what you pay for.) and we looked over it to assess existing scrapes and bumper bruises. 

I apologized about six more times while signing the paperwork, and every time he put his hands up and shook his head.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: It is no problem. No problem. 

Finally, I asked him about the mysterious return policy of the automobile.

TINY DISTRAUGHT MAN: You keep for as long as you like. You just tell the front desk, they tell me, when you want to return it. I will come pick it up. You can just leave it out here, I will come collect.

More ambiguity. Ooooookay.

But we finally had the car, we loaded it up with our gear for a night in Petra (The Gentleman's parents generously booked a hotel for us all in Petra as a Christmas treat) and headed out on the road. 

Amman is a sprawling, monochromatic city. But as soon as you leave it, it's nothingness. Absolute nothingness. Miles upon miles of desert sky and sand, punctuated by tiny scraps of "towns" which are primarily a couple of roadside stops and some housing compounds.

Scenic route.
I drove for the first hour and a half, and we listened to Arabic Christmas carols on the tinny car radio (yes, Arabic Christmas carols exist, apparently), and then I got tired and handed the wheel off to The Gentleman's brother. Not five minutes into his leg of the trip, we got pulled over.

And by "pulled over," I mean an officer of the Jordanian law stepped out onto the highway with a hand-held STOP sign and waved us off to the side.

The officer approached the car, windows 

were rolled down, and The Gentleman's brother handed over his American license and passport. 

"You were speeding. 123 kilometers in a 110 zone."

This is the equivalency of going 71 in a 65. AKA - BULLSHIT.

Rest stop.
The officer made a great show of taking the identification back to his car, where he handed it off to what appeared to be two plainclothes officers sitting in the front and back seats. We watched as the officer pulled over a full 1970's VW wagon, and a new, sleek black BMW. The Volkswagen rumbled to a stop, handed over a license, and was on its merry way as the officer waved it on. The BMW started to pull over to the side, then thought better of it and sped away in a cloud of dust. The officer just shrugged. Why hadn't we tried that?

Sun setting over desert, Jordan.
One of the plainclothes officers (aka someone's bored cousin doing someone a favor) came back to the car and demanded a 20JD fine for speeding and offered a painstaking "receipt" in return. The receipt, when The Gentleman's brother translated it for us, informed the recipient that although s/he had been caught breaking the law, this transgression had been turned into a positive moment as the 20JD collected would go towards social services or arts projects as deemed by the king. Well, that's comforting.

We arrived in Petra under the cover of night, which was fortunate because had it been daytime, I would have crashed the Chevy POS off into a wadi (canyon) due to staring too much at the scenery. We checked into our hotel, got a dinner recommendation, and headed into town for an incredible meal of hummus, shawarma, baba ghanoush, roast chicken, and local wine. We visited the fancy schmancy hotel next door and had a drink in the fireplace lounge, and then headed back to our own hotel for a nightcap in the hotel bar. 

Hotel, Petra
The Gentleman's parents smartly retired to bed, but the kids (The Gentleman, his brother, and myself) decided to hang out awhile longer. After a bit, it became evident that we were the only patrons left in the bar, and the bartender politely explained that he needed to close up. We were given one more round and then paid out, and as he thanked us he said, "You all want to go somewhere and get some beers? I only need to finish a few things, then I can take you in my car."

Um, partying with the locals of Petra? Yes, please. 

We'll call him Zai'it, and he drove a sporty little car that he pulled around to the front of the hotel. We piled in, and he took off up and down the near-vertical drops and lifts of the wadi landscape. Driving down into the town, he pointed out various landmarks and asked us about our trip and how we liked Amman, his home town. He was living in Petra temporarily, making bank at the hotel as a bartender, and would eventually return to Amman in his little sports car with a fat savings account. "It is not a bad life!" he championed, and we agreed.

Watching Arabic-captioned "HIMYM" whilst chilling in the hotel bar = awesome.
Eventually, he pulled off down an alley into a clump of houses and told us to wait for a few moments while he "ran an errand." Zai'it disappeared into what appeared to be a garage of some kind, and came out with a tall fellow. They slapped one another on the back happily, and exchanged a black plastic bag. The tall fellow waved at us in the car. Perplexed, we waved back.

Zai'it came back into the car and I wondered what the hell was about to go down when he triumphantly produced tall Amstel cans from the black bag.

"Beer! It's good beer! You like?" We liked. He handed around the Amstels. Were we supposed to...ah yes, there goes Zai'it, motioning for us to open our beers. In the car. Like you do. We opened our Amstels, and Zai'it sped off into the night in his sports car.

Petra beer is for the hotel. Amstel is for the backseat of cars.
We spent the next hour or so whipping around hairpin turns up and down through the roads cut into the hills. Zai'it slowed down through the patches of town we passed through. At one, he stopped while a fat, white donkey ambled across the road. We watched in amazement as a fatter, darker donkey clopped up and nipped the white donkey on the neck. The two began a half-teasing, half-threatening dance in the middle of the road with ears laid back and tails swishing. Up ahead a block or so, another gray donkey had his head thrust into a trash bin and was rooting around for treats. A small herd of scruffy-looking dogs chased one another across driveways and front walkways. Animals were taking over.
Very terrible picture of donkeys fighting.

Vicious wild dog.
Caught dumpster-diving. Have you no class, donkey?
Zai'it kept pushing the car up and up a hill that was beginning to feel like a mountain, and finally pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the car. We looked at one another and followed suit. Zai'it walked to the edge of the blackness, the only sound the wind whining through the wadi below, and the faint ding ding ding of the car alerting us that keys were left in the ignition. Zai'it pointed up and, like some mystical movie moment, the sky revealed itself as a black sea studded with the brightest stars I've ever seen. So far away from any real city lights, these were stars as they're meant to be seen...the kind of sky where you can tell depth and dimension between the layers of stars, where you can see different sizes, shapes, and even colors of stars.  Our feet were on the edge of a crop of rock and below was black nothingness. The next day, I would discover that there was almost certainly a complete drop-off hundreds of feet to a rock bottom, but that night all I saw was darkness and all I felt was a cold wind pushing up from the canyon bottom.

The drive back to the hotel in Zai'it's car was not anticlimactic after that, but only because he cranked up some European house music and took the turns with race car-driver precision. He made another pit-stop, bringing back not beer this time, but bags of chips. 
Donkey in the wild.

"Snacks! You must eat!" he encouraged. We ate what tasted like cheeze puffs out of a bag with inexplicable Arabic on it. 

Zai'it dropped us safely back at the hotel around 1am. He flashed us his brilliant smile, and tore off in his sports car, and the three of us stumbled to the room where we all promptly passed out. The next morning at breakfast, we would explain our tired faces and our midnight adventure, but for the time being it seemed that not one part of that night had been scripted while at the same time playing out like a movie we all discovered we'd very much wanted to see.
This is what we would have seen had we arrived during daylight hours.

to be continued....

Monday, January 23, 2012

Eating My Way Through Baltimore

Ah, so, time's gotten away from me again. No sooner did I finally shake The Plague that my regularly-scheduled craziness resurfaced. Shocking.

To tide you over until my next post, which will be about the majesty that is Petra, por vous:

One of those two pictures features The Gentleman. I'll let you decide which one. Hint: he's super handsome and wearing light brown.

Post coming soon, I promise.

In other news: it's Restaurant Week here in Baltimore, that delicious time that comes twice a year (Summer and Winter). I've already hit up La Tasca, and will be dining at Ten Ten with Book Club and B&O Brasserie with The Gentleman & friends later this week. It's a good thing this Restaurant Week times perfectly with half-marathon training. Because I will be eating my face off. And loving it.

This coming weekend is a wine tour of Maryland vineyards to celebrate The Gentleman's birthday. Party bus, whaaaat?! We did this a few years ago for Catalano's birthday, and it was quite the success. I, for one, am psyched and have fingers crossed that it doesn't snow.

So in the meantime, it's work, trivia, running, more work, and eating. Lots of eating. January is not treating me particularly well so far in the sense that it seems once I finally started feeling better from being sick, I got struck with that gross lethargy that accompanies cold, dreary weather and short days with long nights. All I want to do, it seems, is be sick all the time. And by that, I mean lie in bed for hours on end watching reality television, never changing out of sweatpants, and subsisting on hot food items like Amy's organic soup and tea.  But, unfortunately, I had to get all healthy again, and then one has no excuse not to get out in the world and act like a productive human being. What a drag.

I will self-medicate with delicious Baltimore eats and a wine tour. I think that's just the thing.

And I promise I shall post pictures of Petra soon, along with a write-up. I mean, it's where Indiana Jones was filmed. Be excited.

Smooches, Glitteratis.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Thank Coffee.

The Lebanese/Canadian brought us back some Turkish coffee. And told me the method for preparing it. In secret. So, I'm essentially freebasing coffee. Whatever. I'll take it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Le Jordanian Bird Flu

So, apologies for the lack of posting going on around here, but I've spent the last four days lying in my bed watching so much Teen Mom, Intervention, and Taboo, I'm now convinced there are fewer sane people in the world than batshit crazy.

I kind of knew I would get sick after two weeks of crazy travel following two months of nonstop ridiculousness. I'd pretty much even banked on it, and given myself a nice little week-long cushion of no plans before January cranked back into gear.

What I didn't anticipate: standing in line at jury duty last week and feeling it. You know it. That sudden, sweaty exhaustion that hits you like a freight train. That moment where you realize, I need to lie down, right now, immediately. The kind of thing they design those signs for on subways: "If you are feeling ill, please contact a [socially-acceptable word for subway worker] immediately."

I fought it, though. Boy, did I ever. I took myself home, made myself some Immune Tea (a special blend of herbal tea, lemon, honey, and the apple cider vinegar with the alien "Mother" floating in it) and took it easy. But, two days later, it became apparent that whatever sickness it was, was not going to be fended off so easily.

I finally dragged myself out of bed one morning a couple of days later, realizing that after 10 hours of sleep I still felt bone-exhausted, and went to the doctor's. Diagnosis: sinus and double ear infections. They loaded me up with antibiotics (for the infection) and steroids (for the inflammation) and sent me home.

Note: I am not a fan of antibiotics and steroids. They are a last resort for me, when all of the homeopathic options have failed. Neti pots, vitamins, plenty of sleep, nutritious eating, and echinacea are excellent for prevention. But once that infection takes hold: I want drugs. Strong ones.

For the first time in years, it took until Day 4 of antibiotics until I felt human again. Usually 24 hours of the strong stuff in my system will turn me right around. No so, this time. I went to half-days of work, skipped trivia, and laid in bed for hours upon hours. The cats were overjoyed at my sudden over-presence whereas only a bit before, I'd been mysteriously missing for two weeks. (Which, to them, is like a month or something.)

I went through boxes of lotion-laced tissues, drank an entire box of Immune tea, nearly emptied a bottle of apple cider vinegar, and subsisted on soup and oatmeal. I was sick.

What turned it around, finally? Two things:
1. Good old-fashioned exercise. And by that, I mean I forced myself onto an elliptical for 45 minutes, sweated more than I did running the half marathon, and then stuck myself in the steam shower at the gym for 10 minutes to sweat and snot and get everything out of me. It was disgusting. And awesome.
2. Mucinex. The high-grade stuff they keep behind the counter. The kind you have to show ID for.

I finally woke up feeling somewhat human this morning, with only a lingering barking cough and feeling as though my head is only halfway dunked into a bucket of water as opposed to full submersion.

So, suffice to say, blogging shall commence once I have fumigated my room and put my life back together. I can't remember the last time I spent four days in bed. And while I got a lot done (if you consider reading chick lit and watching reality television productive), it's going to be slow progress back to my regular break-neck speed. My friend, Princess, says that sicknesses like these force you to stop, to slow down, and to get exactly what your body needs. Apparently what my body needed was to be flat-out on its back for four days. And drink a lot of tea. And eat a lot of Amy's Organic Soups. And have The Gentleman buy me gourmet chocolate bars with things like wasabi and chili peppers in them. He's the best.

Back on my feet. Sort of.

The most distressing thing: I am now two weeks behind in half marathon training. More than that, really, considering I couldn't get out more than 3 miles this morning without that awful chest-burning, hacking nonsense. Gonna be a long way back to recovery.

Ah, well. It was all worth it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


أكل - "eat"*

*Is this correct, The Canadian/Lebanese?

Herbs at a street market, downtown Amman

The food. Was. Exquisite.

Simple. Fresh. Flavorful.

The primary basis of our week-long food affair was hummus. And not like American hummus, which has a weak consistency too often jazzed up with oily canned vegetables like garlic and peppers. This hummus is thick, creamy, and intensely flavorful. There is an herb called zatar, which is sort of like an Arabic oregano, which gets sprinkled on the hummus with a drizzle of olive oil. Eat that shit with some fresh veggies or pita, and that's a meal in and of itself. I did not purchase any of the zatar while abroad because, well, it looks suspiciously like a certain illegal substance, but I lucked into a find at an international grocery in New York. I bought half a pound of it for three bucks, and I will still use it sparingly until I can locate a supply in Baltimore. (I also scored a bottle of white truffle olive oil there, but this is more a general jones of mine as opposed to anything Middle Eastern.)

Herbs at a street market, downtown Amman

Turkish coffee at a cafe on Rainbow Road
 And the coffee...Turkish coffee, rich and black, so strong that your spoon will stand straight up in it, anchored by the quarter inch of bean sludge at the bottom of the cup. Do not drink the bean sludge, by the way. Nobody has a good time.

Arabic coffee is strong too, but thinner, and spicier. The primary taste is of cardamom, which makes it unique to any other coffee in the world. You boil up a big pot of Arabic coffee, and let it stand for days, bringing it to a boil each time you reheat. I'm pretty sure we drank from the same pot of coffee on The Gentleman's brother's stove the entire week we were there, and it only got richer as the week went on.

Note: Jordanians; and, so I'm told, most Middle Easterners; like things sweet. We spent the week insisting we didn't want sugar in our coffee. If you consent to having sugar in your coffee, you're getting seven spoonfuls of the big-ass brown sugar crystals, and you will wind up with a sickly sweet concoction. Ask for no sugar. Add some yourself if it's too strong, but both Turkish and Arabic coffee are so flavorful by themselves, you really don't need any additions.

Melons, oranges, lettuce, and dried fruit at a produce market, downtown Amman
We made entire meals of hummus, veggies, and fruit. And it's completely filling. Sounds healthy, no? Not really - when you consider the amount of sugar in all of the dates and baklava we ate. Diabetes is a very real problem there. But antioxidants? Check. Vitamins? Check. Dizzying array of fresh colors and flavors? Check.

First snack time: hummus, peanut butter, apples, dates, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, pomegranate. And wine, naturally.

 Of course, one of the most interesting things about traveling abroad is the dizzying array of odd snack foods that one can find in another world's version of a 7-11. Europe is famed for its eclectic selection of crisp flavors, and that seems to have extended east as well.

Yogurt and herbs. Mmmm.

Anyone want some crack?

The candy bar for the most discerning of tastes.
The sassy, lady snack food. 
Because every wonder of the world needs it's own malt beverage with 10% alcohol.
Breakfast was, by far, my most favorite meal of the day. This is true in any country - I live for brunch in America just as much as I jones desperately for a full English. Because we spent the entire time staying in hotels, we were treated to astounding breakfast buffets every morning. Hummus, thick breads, breakfast cold cuts (German style!), dried fruits, fresh juices, and, of course, the best coffee in the world. I don't think I could recreate the effects even with the finest Whole Foods has to offer....

And let's not forget the tea...another delicacy that requires no addition of sugar, honey, or any sweetener. I particularly liked the sage tea they served in little stands along the trails in Petra.
Sage tea in Petra. Also, I want this mug.
 Some things, however, were not so good. The Arabic version of Red Bull (Bison) being one of them. Imagine a can of electrolytes, B vitamins, caffeine, ginseng, neon yellow coloring, and gasoline. Party time!
Bison. No.

We found this at the liquor store. The liquor store, located at the Christian end of one of the neighborhoods in Amman, was called "Babel" and apparently serves as the haven for all things forbidden by Muslim law. Specifically - Arbor Mist, Petra beer, and Pork Shoulder Picnic. All of which were on sale!
I got sick once. And while it was probably the result of a week of no sleep, jet lag, constant travel, and stupidly drinking tap water out of some potentially sketchy locations, my stomach still cringes at the thought of this:

Nothing says "pizza" like "mayonnaise."
This is Lebanese pizza. Deliciously light crust, flavorful mozzarella cheese, and a dumpfest of toppings including shaved ham, olives, jalapenos, hot sauce, and mayonnaise. I have an adventurous palate, and an iron stomach given all of the raw meat I eat on a regular basis, but something about this concoction did not sit right. The Gentleman proved himself again as Best Boyfriend in the World by running all over the hotel on Christmas morning in his sweatpants trying to locate anything resembling Pepto Bismol. Thankfully, the coup occurring in my innards lasted less than 24 hours, and I was alert and well enough for the rest of the trip, and for our Christmas night feast. Which I'll delve into in a moment. But first:  

 This also might have had something to do with my gastrointestinal distress. We made some delicious Christmas Eve sangria with this, to go with the Lebanese pizza, but once the sangria was gone we took to swigging this Produce of the Holy Land straight from the bottle. Possibly not a great idea.

The Christmas dinner, at an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Amman called Fakhir Ad-Din, was the meal to end all meals. It was a three-course prix fixe meal with cold appetizers, hot appetizers, and the meat course which included mansaf (lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt and served with rice - absolutely delicious). My favorites: hummus as light and rich as cream, lamb tartare served with sweet onions and a whipped garlicky butter, and the hot pitas that were brought over and over again by servers with baskets full of them, fresh from the oven.

Lamb tartare and hummus - two things I now cannot live without, and are thankfully both available, and just as delicious, at Lebanese Taverna in Baltimore.

Dessert was a platter of fresh fruit, and figs and apricots drowned in honey. And, naturally, Turkish coffee. 

I'm hungry.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Written Monday, Jan 2: I am finally home after two weeks of travel. We got back last night around midnight from our fantastic weekend in New York after ringing in the New Year in style, and spending all of New Years' Day drinking mimosas and playing Skee Ball at Ace. It was a perfect way to begin 2012, and the perfect end to the last two weeks of adventure.

In a fit of productivity today, I did four loads of laundry, cleaned my room, unpacked my suitcase(s), went grocery shopping, uploaded 400 photos, and will now begin the epic task of blogging our trip. Also, it's 7:15 and I'm ready for bed.

The Blue Mosque
We arrived in Istanbul around 10:30am, Eastern European Time (3:30am to our body clocks), and lucked into a near-empty airport. Both BWI and JFK had been nightmarish the day prior - we'd thought we were so clever to book flights out on that Tuesday afternoon, nearly a week before Christmas. Not so. It seems to me that nobody went to work at all that week. Instead, everyone else had the genius idea to get a jump start on holiday travel. We waited in a lot of lines.

But the primarily Muslim city of Istanbul was abuzz in its regular weekday flow, which left the airport pretty vacant. We paid our $20 apiece for 90-day visiting visas, and were rewarded with a comedian border patrolman who looked at my passport, looked gravely at me, shook his head and said, "WANTED," and then winked cheekily. But not before I felt a tightening in my chest that indicated the onset of a minor heart attack. Hilarious.

Welcome aboard Turkish airlines!
Deceptively empty metro car at one of the early stops.
We had already changed money at JFK, and so followed signs to the metro. Purchasing tokens was slightly complicated given that nothing was in English, and we couldn't figure out if purchasing double the amount meant tokens enough for two people. A kind man, fluent in both Turkish and English, came to the rescue, inserted our money for us, and handed us the tokens that came out the bottom of the machine. 

The metro was a cozy little ride; something akin to this

Halfway to downtown, we got caught in some nasty traffic due to an intense, albeit entirely peaceful, demonstration that involved hundreds upon hundreds of marchers with signs lining the streets, and an equal number of Turkish police in full riot gear. Having only been in Istanbul for approximately an hour and a half, my Arabic was not quite yet fluent and so I was unable to decipher the cries and signs. I'm pretty sure the demonstration was labor-related, although it could just as easily been a show of despair at the sanctity of marriage pissed upon by the Kardashian family. Either one of those seem to garner intense opinions.

After peeling ourselves from the metro car windows disembarking at Sirkeci, the last stop before the Galata Bridge, we heard the first of many, many muezzin that would form a soundtrack to our stay in the Middle East. The calls to prayer sound discordant at first, and even jarring. But after a careful listen, you can begin to hear the melodic flow and appreciate the precision of vocal control and the beauty of a faith that calls for reflection five times a day. Not all muezzins are created equal, however, and some are more aurally aesthetic than others. But the experience is the same, and it never failed to cause me to stop and listen in the week that we were abroad.

We lucked into an absolutely beautiful day in Istanbul that day - the weather had called for upper forties, rain, possibly thunder showers. Instead, we got mid- to upper-50s and completely clear skies. The weather beckoned us to the Galata Bridge where we wandered to find a spot outdoors for lunch.

Galata Bridge restaurants

Running along the underside span of the bridge is a row of restaurants, each with menus proudly displayed alongside maître d's who will beg you to sample their wares, look at how fresh their fish is, and bargain with them for a deal on some fish and vegetables. They will run alongside, pushing the menu at you, declaring their feasts to be the best. Eventually, you will tire of shaking your head, and you will select a restaurant not because the menu looks the best or the fish looks the freshest, but because a maître d' has worn you into submission and you're simply too tired and hungry to go on.

When I say that this fish is fresh, I am not kidding you. You will be invited to peruse their wooden crates of whatever was brought in that morning, and you will look at row after row of glassy-eyed fish and select one. You tell the chef how you'd like it prepared (sauteed, fried, filleted, whole, grilled, however you like! We make for you!), and you sit down and allow for a rush of hospitality so detailed, they might as well work your jaw for you to chew your food.

sauteed spinach, tuna mezze
Shepherd's salad

The Gentleman and I chose Shepherd's salad 
(fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and radishes in a light-as-air vinegar and oil dressing), fatty tuna with capers, a platter of fresh fruit, and bottled water to start. We selected three exquisite bluefish from a wooden crate filled with ice chips, and asked for them to be grilled and served whole. While eating our salad and appetizers and waiting for our meal, we basked in the warm sunshine and tried to fight off dizzying jet lag. Fishers on the bridge above lined the walkway with lines, cast out into the bright blue, churning Bosphorus River. I half-wondered if a fish drawn right in front of us would end up on our plates.

A young Turkish lad wearing pants like a Newsie and an Armani jacket strolled up with a wheelbarrow packed with shaved ice and fish. I shit you not. The maître d' came outside, and manhandled a few of the fish with a practiced eye, before shouting a stream of words that were either condemning the fish seller to hell or proclaiming these fish to be bigger than Justin Bieber. He motioned towards us.

"You want fish? Fresh? You want try? My chef cook for you, however you like. You pick the fish. We cook it." We looked at the dead fish nestled snugly in the wheelbarrow of ice and politely declined. We'd already done our selecting for the day.

Delectable. And kind of snarly.
And, let me tell you, the fish that was brought to us was a work of art. So simply cooked, without so much as salt and pepper, but delicately buttered and sprinkled with lemon, it fell right off the bone. The papery skin melted like puff pastry around the succulent meat. We shared three of the tiny fish and felt completed sated. 


We ordered baclava and Turkish coffee for dessert and were presented with a strange, grainy nut composition. My first Turkish coffee in Istanbul still sits in my memory as one of the best things I've ever tasted. We asked for no sugar, as coffee and tea in Turkey and the Middle East tend to come heavily sugared. This coffee needs no sugar, no milk. It is stark, rich, almost buttery, with only the slightest, enjoyable bitterness at the end. My jet lag was at bay after that coffee, and this began an unfortunate wanton lust for Turkish coffee that lasted throughout the trip to fight off fatigue. Coming back, I am now hooked on caffeine again after kicking my triple-latte-a-day habit, but nothing will satisfy this jones.

Coffee now is disappointing and stupid. My hands shake for the real deal.

Must. Have. More.
We walked off our delicious meal and made our way to the Blue Mosque. We were asked if we were German, British, or Californian. All might have been plausible - with our blonde hair and blue eyes, my boyfriend and I were frequently mistaken as various Nordic nationalities throughout the trip. (Also as brother and sister, but thankfully only when his parents and brother were with us, and they assumed the five white people had to be a family.)

The Blue Mosque was incredible, and disappointing only in that we happened to get there at prayer time, and were not allowed inside. But the courtyard was pretty breathtaking:

We made our way across the park area to the Hagia Sophia which was further awe-inducing. The Hagia Sophia is an ancient basilica-turned-mosque, and is a jaw-dropping montage of Islamic and Christian motifs, cradled together in towering domes.


We had to leave Istanbul after only a few hours to catch the flight to Amman. My sincerest wish to spend more time there came true - sort of - but I now have an ardent desire to spend a good week there. So much history in this beautiful city, where the Middle East, Europe, and Asia collide and influence and remain.

Next on the docket: A little spiel about Middle Eastern food, aka "Why Even Whole Foods Now Disappoints."