bir zamanlar

You’ve been clamoring for an update, as well you might. I’ve been remiss for over a month and the pessimists among you feared the worst. Let me put your worries aside, and assure you that I’ve been happily occupied with an influx of friends and two–no, three!–new avenues by which to put my teaching certificate to good use.

There’s been so much hubbub lately that for the sake of space I think I’d better resort to an itemized list:

  • We have had company non-stop from February 5th until this afternoon. The friends and family I’ve seen during that time include, but are not limited to, Ryan, Brent, Stephanie, Tasha, Spencer, Natalie, Julie, and their friends. Stefie had company come visit, additionally. We both agree that while it would have been nice to space out the visits just so we could have something to look forward to come November, having dear ones here was delightful, and makes this place feel like home more than anything else could have.
  • I’ve snagged two fun, fulfilling (and relatively lucrative) tutoring positions, with a part-time kindergarten class in the offing. 17-year-old Mahmud and 2-year-old Toprak keep me on my toes. My commutes are long, but the ferry chugs along in the shadow the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and last week there were pods of dolphins in the Bosphorus. I can think of worse things.
  • Getting a residency permit was a bureaucratic and financial nightmare, but had a happy ending. I’m legal here until Spring 2013, and I feel more well-rounded for having had a taste of what it must be like for refugees and immigrants to be raked over the coals.
  • At long last, the weather is SPECTACULAR.
  • Not all, however, has been roses. Stefie is home in Washington, DC indefinitely due to a family medical emergency. I hope to welcome her back some time in April, but nothing’s certain yet. Now that our guests are gone, I’m going to rattle around in this apartment an awful lot and be lonely.
  • This week, for the duration of Natalie, Caitlin and Andrea’s visit, I was sick in bed with the flopsies–a term my dad coined to describe a mystery illness I’ve had in the past, characterized by frequent fainting spells. This bout’s (only) blackout left me with three–count ’em!–THREE  chipped teeth. Hillbilly Hannah takes ‘Stanbul by storm.
  • We received our first gas bill this week, which was a whopping 600 Turkish Lira–more than rent costs for a month. It scratches my Spring Break plans, not to mention that if it wasn’t a fluke, the cost of living here is exponentially higher than I bargained for.
  • I’m also very homesick.

A dear friend with whom I Skyped recently put it neatly, when she heard of my latest joys and woes–she fretted (with her tongue in her cheek) that she was beginning to feel maladjusted in comparison with me and my blissfully seamless transition from one country and culture to another–and what a relief to find that I’m having problems, too, just like everybody else! She reminds me of an important point–while I am blessed and happy to have the opportunity to live somewhere that many others only dream of visiting, my dewy-eyed blog posts thus far haven’t reflected the truth that living in Turkey–and, I extrapolate, anywhere far from home–is hard. It’s been exhausting and difficult and (even with all the company) oftentimes very lonely. I’m learning that following a call, seeking out meaningful work, and being where you’re supposed to be isn’t necessarily cathartic, after all.

I entitled this post “Bir Zamanlar.” It’s a phrase I learned recently (thanks to the best hostess gift ever from Ryan: a Turkish copy of The Horse and His Boy) which is the equivalent of “Once upon a time…” Lately it helps me to remember that my time in Turkey is a season. It may be more of a trial by fire than I ever anticipated. It’s deeply unromantic and un-glamorous 95% of the time. But I think it may make for a beautiful story, if I let it–not despite, but because of, the plot twists.



“And he is—Oh, well! He is just himself, and I miss him, and miss him, and miss him. The whole world seems empty and aching. I hate the moonlight because it’s beautiful and he isn’t here to see it with me. But maybe you’ve loved somebody too, and you know? If you have, I don’t need to explain; if you haven’t, I can’t explain.”  —Jean Webster, DLL

fresh air.

“Oh, I’m developing a beautiful character! It droops a bit under cold and frost, but it does grow fast when the sun shines.” —Jean Webster, Daddy Long Legs

We’re happily settled in a little place of our own, in tumble-down-lovely Üsküdar, walking the boardwalk most afternoons and breathing in deep the smell of the sea.  For a few, glorious days, it seemed like spring had come early to İstanbul.

There is great promise of good things to come.

little ship

A gift from my dear Tasha:


Little ship, from the east

As you fly from the sun

Do you fear, in the least

For the race you’ve begun?


I can see, little ship

And quite well do I know

How your nose, with its tip,

Cuts the waves as you go.


Do not laugh, little ship,

Till your sides split in two;

For if they dropped apart

Then pray what could we do?


Who would help, little ship?

Would the waves? Or some elf?

Or if not, do you think,

I could fix you myself?


Little ship, from the east

When your voyage is done,

Do not doubt in the least

That your course was well run.



one month down.

It’s been four weeks already. Since last you heard from us, Stefie and I have become certified teachers (still currently unemployed) and have the keys to a flat of our own. Tonight’s our last night in Mine’s cozy little apartment and I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. This month has been a whirlwind and we’re still finding our feet in this city–but it’s also been a very sweet time. Take a look!

Meet the seven cats that use strong language right outside my window every night and morning. Two are not pictured.

I forget sometimes that winter is citrus season. Orange trees on our street, in the snow!

A little vignette from the day we got lost in İstanbul’s autobody district.


Forgive me if this is not appropriate for the world wide web. I felt I had to document the fact that, since no one in Turkey owns a clothes dryer, we’ve had to get creative. My favorite part about this method was that I found a previous houseguest’s underwear already tucked inside the radiator when I went to hang my own. Not a novel idea, it seems.

Although we’ll probably try this out instead once the weather gets warmer.

Slushy January days call for an umbrella and mittens just like these.

Our first lazy Saturday after the course was over, I walked to the bakery for simit and ate it with beyaz peynir and the perfect tomato and cucumber that Yaşar, our beloved neighborhood fruit vendor, sold us the night before. In my tulip glass is pomegranate juice. It’s what we’ll have for breakfast when you come.

Come soon.


Who would have thought that İstanbul, of all places, would be where I finally learned to get with the rhythm and salsa.

Thursday was the last big hurdle in my final week of student teaching, lesson planning and assessment, and by the end of it one of our teachers (bless her heart) figured we could use a drink. She organizes a weekly night out for İstanbul’s expats, and after our nearly 3-hour lesson on the phonetic alphabet, we were all more than happy to join her at the little bar she’d selected for this week’s get-together, just a little walk down toward the water from school.

The proprietor of Cubaneo is a small, lively, handsome native of Havana named William. He’s an excellent musician, who frequently appears on Turkish national television, we learned. He’s lived in Turkey for fourteen years, married a Turk, started a business, had kids–but I doubt he’s ever gotten a bartending license, as evidenced by the drinks he was concocting. “All my own recipes!” he crowed. “I am very proud of these ones. I think they may be aphrodisiacs.” He showed me what went into mine: equal parts Kahlua, Jack Daniels, lemon juice and kiwi grenadine (“Or you could have mint liqueur, if you like it better?”) After that, I stuck to beer.

We arrived unfashionably early and before too long, we’d run out of topics of conversation with the expats we’d been meant to hobnob with. It was a relief, then, when a stream of new arrivals joined us–expats as well, but not part of our group, it turned out. They were Cuban, Colombian, El Salvadorian and American of Latino descent, and came like they do every Thursday, for William’s “Spanish Table”–a time to relax into speaking their native language, listen to good live music, and if the fancy struck, dance a little.

And did we dance! Since a big group of gringos had unwittingly bumbled into their Spanish night, they opted to skip the conversation portion and instead, show us all a thing or two about salsa. Three floors up above the Kadıköy fish market, surrounded by a mélange of people who had found their way to İstanbul from all over the world, we swayed and laughed and clapped to a fantastic Latin soundtrack at a pulse-pounding volume.

And, amazingly, I did really well. I think I would have greatly surprised the patient few who have unavailingly tried to help me get it together in the past. I’ve become infamous for tripping over myself in my heroic but failed attempts to pick up whatever national dance Folklife is offering a workshop on–but there must be something in the water in Turkey. (Or in the Efes, or in William’s strange, strange cocktails.) Solo or with a partner, I sashayed in perfect time for perhaps the first time in my life. Our new friend Mauricio asked me to dance every time a Juanes song came on, and I didn’t step on his feet, not once! He did prefer to dance with Stefie, though: her style was “just so Brazilian.”

If you ever need to reach us on a Thursday, you know where to find us.


çok soğuk!

Turns out Saturday’s storm was just a warm-up.

(That’s our dear friend Özgür on the right.)

On our walk home from school tonight we watched it begin to stick to the heavy-laden orange trees, to the little water barges docked in the canal near our flat, to the minarets of our neighborhood mosque–a really beautiful sight I’d never even imagined before! The elementary school on our street let out right as we walked by and we narrowly avoided being swept up in a big happy snowball fight. It’s already çok soğuk (very cold!) Wonder what it takes to get a Turkish snow day?

A good night for lesson-planning over çay and Nutella. Let’s see how long it lasts.


I expected many things from my first visit to the famous Kapalıçarşı, or Grand Bazaar, but a district-wide power outage was not one of them. I’d already done my little share of (primarily unsuccessful) haggling and had emerged happy with my new nazar amulets and bracelet–Turkey’s ever-present blue glass charms for warding off the evil eye–when the snow, heavy, wet, and feather-like, came tumbling down and threw the bazaar’s already chaotic proceedings into deeper, darker confusion. Stefie and I were delighted when the shopkeepers, without missing a beat, produced stumpy taper candles and placed long wicks into the spouts of Aladdin’s lamps they’d been plying a moment before. Before long all 58 of the winding corridors brimful with copper, porcelain, leather and antiques blazed up in flickering candlelight, and the business day went on, virtually uninterrupted.

We made one sloppy, cold foray up to the outside world for lunch, and thawed a little over elma çay and dürüm döner (I hope, dear reader, you’re Googling these things, because I can’t figure out how to hyperlink, darn it) but as soon as the power went out in the restaurant, too, we dove back under to be cajoled once more with lines like, “Hello, angel! Hello, Spice Girls! Let me help you spend your money.” These Turks do have a way with words. A selection of our favorites from this afternoon include:

“Miss! Miss! You dropped something. …My heart.”

“Hey, I remember you from last night. You don’t remember? I met you in my dreams.”

“What are you looking for? A Turkish boyfriend? I can help you there!”

“For you, with eyes like those, everything in this shop is free.”

We made our escape before too long and were amused to hear variations of the same lines addressed to the next few foreign girls who wandered through behind us. Their English seemed to be of much the same caliber as the Hindi I pick up from Bollywood romantic comedies–grammatically perfect, but limited in scope.

Out again into the snow, umbrellas up! The power outage kept trams and lightrail trains from running, so after a few hours all the denizens of İstanbul seemed to be trying to pack onto about three buses as though they were clown cars. The buses would pull away from their stops, honking furiously, with people hanging perilously all over them, dangling from open doors. Opting out of this particular form of public transportation, and deciding we couldn’t get much colder and wetter, we proceeded to get royally lost on our walk back to our ferry terminal. (Who knew İstanbul even had an autobody and car parts district?)

Once in sight of home we rewarded ourselves for being such good sports with a big splurge on cookies at our local Komşufırın (it’s a fabulous franchise, which means “Neighbor’s Bakery”) and ate them for dinner, accompanied by nearly three hours of pirated episodes of Jersey Shore. You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes, you know.

It’s a drowsy kind of evening–even the cats in the tree outside my window are fighting less raucously than usual–so I’ll save the rest for another day. Pictures to come soon, I hope, along with little vignettes about my first Turkish pilsner, first candied kumquat, and first (but not last!) grilled lamb intenstine.

Love to you from my sleepy, snowy city.

like bread and water

Wow. What a day we had! After a little confusion at the ferry terminal and a few more encounters that confirmed that there is no one on earth as helpful as a Turk, we were deposited on the right boat and whisked off over the foamy Bosphorus. Twenty minutes later, we emerged, exhilarated, onto European soil at Eminönü, a bustling transport hub and marketplace that was once old walled Constantinople. For a lira (about 60 cents) we bought simit, a ubiquitous street food, something like a better bagel. We wandered through a covered bazaar to the “New Mosque” (17th century counts as “new” in this part of the world) to watch the bird ladies sell little platters of seeds to pedestrians to feed the endless flocks of pigeons that gathered around its entrances and near the little faucets and fountains at which the faithful perform their ablutions. We wandered through the mosque’s courtyards just as the muezzin began his haunting call to prayer from the pinnacle of the minaret.

(Just a taste to whet your appetite. Many, many more to come.)

From there we went by feel through narrow winding streets, past pomegranate merchants and shops that specialize in brass busts of Atatürk, to the main attraction–the district of Sultanahmet, famous for its Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, Ottoman palaces and much more. It was almost disconcerting to hear so much English spoken, after having adjusted to the rhythms of life in our far less tourist-y Asian neighborhood of Kadıköy (“which would be where the hipsters lived in İstanbul, if there were Turkish hipsters,” remarked Stephanie wisely.) We didn’t pay the fee to see inside the Hagia Sophia (Why bother? We live here!) but we marveled at the exquisite tilework and ethereal halos of lanterns hung from the massive domes of the Blue Mosque (which is free to visit.) On our way out we were met by a carpet merchant named Omar, who had better English than anyone we’ve met out and about thus far, who stopped us to compliment us on looking like “travelers”–not Turkish, not tourists. We’ve been called several other things the past few days: “teacher,” “baby” and “Spice Girls” among them, but this was by far most flattering.

Having offered to treat us to a glass of apple tea, Omar was interrupted by customers, and handed us off to his friend Selo, with whom we spent the rest of the day. What a fantastic friend to have. Yes, Mom and Dad, we were skeptical initially and on our guard throughout our tea date (which was his treat–Turkish hospitality is legendary) but we let our hair down a little after a half hour’s conversation and began to feel safe enough to depend on him entirely as our guide through overwhelming European İstanbul. He took us out for dinner at a wonderful hole-in-the-wall owned by Kurdish friends of his, helped us pick the menu and delicious wine from Cappadocia (which he doesn’t drink himself, being a strict Muslim) and told us about himself. He played soccer for Turkey’s Galatasaray until an injury caused him to set his sights on professional photography, and is going back to school at İstanbul University to study Ottoman history. He asked us about ourselves–whether we were related, how long we had know each other, what made us decide to come to Turkey together. Laughingly we explained we’d only met the day before yesterday, but that we were already fast friends–staving off the homesickness with little exploratory outings together, working on our homework at the kitchen table, encouraging and commiserating with each other about our respective long-distance relationships. Selo gave us a long look and said that in Turkey, people would say we were like bread and water–well-matched. “No bread without water, no water without bread.”

Which brings me to Stefie, my first and dearest friend in Turkey. Selo took our picture outside the New Mosque–looking as much like locals as we ever will.

Isn’t she so pretty? She’s every bit as fun and colorful and warm-hearted as she looks. I won the roommate lottery.

Though how we got away with looking “not like Turks, not like tourists” is a mystery to me–it’s hard not to be a shutterbug in this city.

And one more for good measure–our handsome Turkish tourguide friend. Next week, he’s taking us to a Galatasaray match. 🙂

(Speaking of lotteries, it seems as though almost all Turks have won the genetic one.)

These posts are becoming exponentially longer, but no fear, I’m done with this one–and it’s back to school tomorrow, which will keep me occupied for a bit. So, until then, iyi geceler (good night!) from Hannah and Stefie and the loveliest city on earth.

life lessons

I finally made it to the part of the world I’ve been dying to visit all of my life, and I’m just giddy about it. I want to see everything and do everything and eat everything and be instantly fluent in Turkish and make countless Turkish friends with whom I can travel the region by train and camel caravan. But I can’t say that to the customs officials. So, officially I’m in Turkey (this month, at least) to attend classes and get the internationally accredited CTEFL certificate that will allow me to find English-teaching jobs anywhere in the world. So far so good! It’s a very legitimate program, and very intensive, at least as far as homework and class hours go–but, lucky us–today we get a mid-week respite, and roommate Stephanie and I are off to take the ferry across the Bosphorus to the European side–the Blue Mosque! Hagia Sophia! Topkapi Palace! The Grand Bazaar! We’re beside ourselves. Photo documentation to come.

But this morning, I have a pressing task on my agenda–on our walk down to the wharf I HAVE to remember to buy slippers. Our landlady Mine (MEE-nah) who lives here in the apartment with us is as delightful as the day is long, but is HORRIFIED at my penchant for roaming the house barefoot. This morning was the third time she’s gasped and clucked her tongue and pointed to my little pink toes and taken my face between her hands and lectured me in stern, concerned Turkish. And I finally understand what it’s all about–she, like every good Turkish lady, believes that being barefoot causes infertility. She’s concerned for my well-being, and socks won’t cut it. So, before I wander the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in search of apricots and cumin and turquoise jewelry, I need to make a more humble purchase, for her sake and the sake of future generations.