Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bulgaria and crazy French women and accordions, Oh my!

The trip to Sofia was pretty uneventful, but it was thrilling to finally be off, heading to uncharted territories, boldly going where no ma--okay, where I had never gone before! With the windows open and the night breeze rushing in, we said goodbye to the Bosphorus and left the twinkling lights of Istanbul behind.

Arriving in Sofia around 11 am, Dani and I bought tickets for Thessaloniki for that evening, also a night train, I left my bag with an attendant (no lockers here!), and we set out for a walk around the town.


Well Sofia is a charming little city; we stopped in at a couple of old churches, as well as the odd cafe or four, before hitting up a sidewalk vendor for some GREAT(and cheap!) pizza. Then we hung out at the park for a while, before going to *blush* an internet cafe WITHOUT WHICH I wouldn't have discovered a Bulgarian friend (Minna) from Madrid was living and working in Sofia, so we arranged to meet her 20 minutes later.

Minna took us to meet some of her friends, whereupon (isn't that a great word?) we went to a pub for dinner, which meant a local sausage done in one of those long coils ("multo bene!" or whatever it is one says on this sort of occasion). After that we headed back to the train station for the night train to Greece.

With Mina and friends in Sofia, Bulgaria

Another night train, a whole other experience! Firstly, we met a crazy but lovely French girl, Anne, who maybe was not crazy so much as eccentric; a few Spaniards, one of whom was crazy enough to be traveling without a passport; and many, many Bulgarian gypsies, one in possession of an accordion and not afraid to use it! I shared a carriage with several of them for part of the time, using Turkish to communicate with one of them, who translated for the others.

Location was a very fluid concept that night, reminded me of something I read once:
"All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour..." -- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Well Dani spent the night in relative comfort, having paid the extra 20 Euros for a sleeper car, while I settled for the cheap, seating only carriage. Although it was a memorable evening (at one point involving dancing in the passageway with said crazy French girl while the gypsy played a tune on his accordion), it was also uncomfortable and tiring, and I was glad when it was over and we arrived in Thessaloniki at last!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Road to Europe

Stunning view of the Bosporus at sunset in Istanbul (original photo from this site)

A memorable meal at Recepusta with Ian, Bedra and Audrey

So despite my best intentions, my plans for a regular blog during my year in Turkey were obviously somewhat of a failure. Still, I had a really great time, made some wonderful new friends, learned a new language, got to watch the sun set over the Bosporus on several occasions, took part in an Iranian New Year celebration in which we jumped over traditional Zoroastrian fires, and a lot more that would take far too long to recount. It's funny how little you may think you develop or learn in a year while it's happening, and how you really have to look at it in retrospect to even get an idea. Even so, it's still hard to sum up in any concrete statement or list of truths what I learned this year about life and about myself; sometimes it feels like relatively little, but at other times I get an impression of the bigger picture and it's really astonishing to think of all the ways I've progressed (or at least changed) during the year. Even on the superficial and practical level, I now have a CELTA certificate, a year's worth of work experience, and all the benefits--both personal and professional--that a new language and exposure to a new culture and people entail.

Overlooking a surreal Capadoccian valley during a scooter tour near Nevsehir with Audrey

A picnic on the ODTU campus with Ian and some of the Ankara Couchsurfing group

As I said though, it's over: I left Turkey this last Tuesday (July 15th), to embark on a European tour before starting the next stage of my adventures on the other side of the ocean.

My plan was to get a train (using an Interrail pass I had purchased, highly recommended for those eligible; the equivalent for non-Europeans is Eurail) from Istanbul to Athens via Salonica, but when, after having checked the TCDD (Turkey's national rail company), which said there were 3 trains a day between Istanbul and Salonica, I went to the train station on the morning of the 15th, they informed me that the next train to Greece was in 3 days, on Friday! So some quick thinking and 32 Turkish Lira later, I had booked a sleeper car for Sofia, Bulgaria instead, with the plan to spend a day there and get a night train down to Athens. While booking the ticket, I met a young Spanish guy, Dani, who seemed to have had the same plan and was therefore in the same predicament. We were stuck in Istanbul for the day (the train for Sofia left at 10 pm and it was 8 am), so we decided to make the most of it.

Both of us had seen the sights before though, so making the most of it involved stopping for some coffee before heading to Sultanahment for Turk kahvalti (a traditional, full Turkish breakfast). We then wandered down to Gulhane park, where we siesta-ed under the shade of a tall tree, before moseying back to the madding crowds for some internetery and tavla-ing in a cafe overlooking a street near the Aya Sofya. It was there that I heard via a text message that some of the ex-Bilkenters were also in Istanbul, so Dani and I headed out to meet them for dinner.

After that it was back to the train station where, after a worrying 15 minutes of realising I'd lost the ticket for the locker where I'd left my bag that morning and having to get a reluctant, grumbling station director to enter his PIN code to open it for me, I boarded the train for Sofia...