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Dempsey is a Golden Retriever puppy who is in training to become a Helping Paws service dog for an individual with a physical disability. He lives with his parents Doreen and Paul, and Bailey the cat. None has ever trained a puppy before. These are their adventures. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the blog author. The contents of this blog have not been reviewed or approved by Helping Paws, Inc.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

First day in Istanbul

Doreen and I are staying in Sultanahmet, one of the oldest parts of Istanbul. You can walk to many of the major sights within a few minutes, so on our first day we stayed in the neighborhood.

Our first stop in the morning was Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. It's a fairly large complex of pavillions and courtyards, but all the guidebooks said the harem is a "must-see," so we went there first.

It's not quite the Playboy Mansion I had imagined. First of all, for the guys -- there are no guys. Except for the Sultan and his sons, every male who entered the harem had to be a eunuch. Ouch. For the girls, everyone except the Sultan's mother and daughters entered as a slave. Like the rest of Ottoman society, however, you could improve your social status through education and hard work, and some of the slave girls became queens.

One man. A thousand women. All competing to be the most popular. I imagine the cattiness would make Mean Girls look like Mayberry. A case in point is Sultana Roxelana. First, she arranged to have her rival, the senior consort Gulfem, exiled. Next, when the Sultan's grand vizier and childhood friend warned the Sultan about Roxelana, she arranged to have him executed. Finally, Roxelana convinced the Sultan that his own son was plotting to overthrow him. The Sultan executed his son by Gulfem, clearing the way for Roxelana's son to become heir to the throne. Not bad for a former slave from Ukraine.

Another highlight at Topkapi Palace is the treasury, which contains gifts of state and holy relics, such as the staff Moses allegedly used to part the Red Sea. Mostly, though, we just wandered the grounds, admiring the architecture and the view of the Bosphorus.

After lunch, our next stop was the Basillica Cisterns. Built using plundered columns during the Byzantine Empire, the Cisterns stored fresh water to be used in case of a city siege. Their existence was a secret for nearly a hundred years, until some residents found they could catch fish from their basements.

Finally, we stopped at Aya Sofia, one of the masterpieces of world architecture. Designed by Isodorus the Younger in 558, Aya Sofia was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. We didn't much care for the outside of the building, which looks a lot like a pile of blocks a child may have put together. The inside, however, is quite spectacular, with a huge central dome over 180 feet high.

It was getting cold and windy at this point, so we headed back to the hotel for a quick nap. We just missed a big storm, and we lost power for a couple of hours. By 10pm, the power was back, and I was hungry, so I went out in search of food. Unfortunately, everything seemed to be closed except for a popular Scottish restaurant.

As I was walking down the narrow streets looking for another food option, a car honked and pulled up beside me. The driver rolled down his window and yelled out the window.

"Gobbledygook, gobbeledygook, yadda, yadda -- oh, no Turkish? Sorry!"

He rolled up the window and took off. After going maybe fifty feet, he stopped the car, put it in reverse, and came back to me.

"Hello! Where from you are?" he asked.

"America."

"Ah, America! Obama!" He flashed a thumbs up. "You look Turkish at behind. I thought you were Turkish. I am sorry. Where you are originally? Japanese?"

"Yes, Japanese."

"Oh, but you live in America now?"

"Yes."

"Where to you go?"

"Hotel." I didn't want to say that I was heading back to McDonald's.

"It's cold and rainy! Please, come and let me give you a drive. Perhaps I can buy you a drink?"

I politely demurred.

"Thank you! Please enjoy my country!"

The Turks, I have to say, are some of the nicest people I've met in my travels. Earlier, I had been standing at a street corner, looking at a map, when a businessman came up to me and asked if he could help. I half expected him to open his briefcase and offer me some fine Rolexes, but he really just wanted to help. It's hard to put aside my American cynicism sometimes.

The Scottish restaurant, being the only establishment open after the power outage, was fairly crowded. All the Turks were ordering Big Macs, but being an American, I had to order the "McTurko." When I explained it was to go, the cashier put everything -- including the drink -- into its own paper bag, and then put all the individual paper bags into a large shopping bag, along with some packets of ket├žap and mayonez.

The McTurko, in case you're curious, is awful. It's a far inferior, yet more expensive, version of the food you can get next door. I suspect it's mostly stupid Americans (like me) who buy this crap. The Turks go to McDonald's for the Big Macs, and to the street vendors for real food. Next time I think I'll do like the locals do and get a Big Mac.