A Weekend in Israel

Just over a month ago I took a trip to Israel to visit my friend from McGill, Berina. She is currently studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. The whole trip was pretty last minute; I booked about a week in advance after somehow finding a cheap flight. It was an amazing weekend, and I wish I had been able to spend more time there.

I left downtown Istanbul around 17:00 on a Thursday evening in order to take a bus to the farther of Istanbul’s two airports, Sabiha Gökçen. An hour into the bus ride I started to worry I wouldn’t make it on time; Istanbul’s rush hour traffic is truly unbelievable sometimes. Just as I was starting to give up hope that I would arrive in time to board my flight, the road opened up and I made it – nearly two hours after departing. I don’t care how bad DC rush hour is; in two hours you can almost make it to Pennsylvania. But in two hours all I had managed to do was go from one place in Istanbul to another.

Luckily the airport was pretty empty and I managed to get to my gate with some extra time – only to find that the flight had been delayed almost an hour, forcing me to buy some absurdly over-priced airport food. The flight finally took off and we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International around midnight. As I am sure you know, Israel takes security very seriously. I actually arrived with the expectation that on the way back through I would be extensively scrutinized. I did not expect to have issues on the way in, however. I approached the passport control officer, she asked me the usual questions (how long is your stay, who are you staying with, etc.) and then she saw my Turkish student visa. She asked me a few questions about it and everything seemed fine. Until she picked up the phone. I couldn’t understand what she was saying because I don’t speak Hebrew, but I did hear a variant of “Turkey.” Another officer appeared behind me, and I was told to follow him. I reached for my passport in before doing so, but she informed me that they would be holding onto it.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in this position, but losing contact with your passport is an unpleasant experience. Especially in Israel. The thing is, if they stamp your passport, you are barred from every Arab country but Jordan. For someone who studies the Middle East this is a serious concern. The only way to undo it is to apply for a new passport once back in your home country. But what else could I do? I waited nervously (but trying not to appear as such) with a few other unlucky travellers. After 20 minutes, a third person emerged with my passport and said I was clear to go. I thanked them and started to walk towards the exit while simultaneously flipping through my passport to see if I had been given a stamp. Thankfully I got the standard detached visa slip.

Because of the delayed flight and issues at passport control, I had to wait another hour and a half for the next train to downtown Tel Aviv. When I stepped out of the station, I was taken aback by the multitude of Israeli soldiers. Every IDF soldier carries their firearm, an assault rifle, with them whether on or off duty. From there I took a taxi to Tel Aviv University, where I stayed for a night before heading out the next morning to meet Berina in Jerusalem.

As I had been warned, getting onto the bus was a trying experience. If you don’t push to the front, you simply won’t get on. I learned this the hard way and had to wait 10 minutes for a second bus after being squeezed from the first one. It worked out though: I started talking to a girl who didn’t seem to be Israeli only to find out that she was a student at McGill also currently on exchange. It was really nice having someone to talk to on the bus, which took about an hour. Israel is such a small country that you can hop on a bus or train and get almost anywhere pretty quickly.

After meeting up with Berina and dropping our stuff off at her friend’s apartment, we got lunch at an adorable cafe and explored the city a bit before everything started closing for Shabbat. We walked through the Shuk (market) and admired the architecture, tried marzipan (absolutely wonderful), and picked up some challah and other items for Shabbat dinner. But what would Shabbat be without going to synagogue? Berina did some research on where to go, and decided to take me to a synagogue that operates in a bomb shelter nestled in one of the neighborhoods. Because men and women sit separately, I was on my own. I sat towards the back and just tried to take everything in. But before too long an American who had lived abroad for a large part of his life took me under his wing. He went to the library to get me a bilingual prayer book (an interesting read given the fact that English reads left to right and Hebrew reads right to left) and made me get up and dance with everyone. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to experience it.

The Shuk amidst the pre-Shabbat rush
The Shuk amidst the pre-Shabbat rush
The Shuk after shutting down for Shabbat
The Shuk after shutting down for Shabbat

The next day we went to the Old City with the aim of experiencing the Arab and Christian quarters while the rest of the city was shut down for the holiday. We hit several of the major sites, including Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Damascus Gate before having delicious shawarma in an Arab neighborhood just outside of the Old City

At the Western Wall on Shabbat
At the Western Wall on Shabbat
My tour guide and me just outside the Old City at the Damascus Gate
My tour guide and me just outside the Old City at the Damascus Gate

From there we hiked to Hebrew University for a fantastic view of the city, after which we did some shopping (including poor haggling) and getting knafeh (cheese pastry soaked in syrup).

The view of Jerusalem from Hebrew U
The view of Jerusalem from Hebrew U

That evening we stopped for some falafel before departing Jerusalem for Be’er Sheva, the tech capital of Israel and home to Ben-Gurion University. The next day, Berina graciously took me around her city despite having probably toured it several times before. We went to the monument built in remembrance of those Israeli soldiers who died in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Then we headed to the Old City for lunch. The ride in was interesting; relatively new immigrants, including many Ethiopian Jews, living in poor conditions. Their integration has been fraught, as the events of this past week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demonstrate.

Monument to the Negev Brigade on a hill overlooking Be'er Sheva
Monument to the Negev Brigade on a hill overlooking Be’er Sheva
At the Monument
At the Monument

That afternoon I took a train from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv for the last part of my journey. The trip afforded me a view of the stunningly beautiful countryside. Upon arrival I checked into my AirBnB and then headed to the beach to grab a beer and watch the sunset. After the sun went down I walked to Old Jaffa for dinner along the water.

Sunset in Tel Aviv
Sunset in Tel Aviv

I got up early the following day in order to see as much as possible before my flight back to Istanbul. I started in Dizengoff Square and from there headed to the Carmel Market to get some breakfast – more marzipan, a croissant, and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

The fountain in Dizengoff Square
The fountain in Dizengoff Square

Then I walked to the Great Synagogue only to find it closed. But the neighborhood around it is one of the nicest in the city, with a promenade that is great for people watching. After that I headed south to Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighborhood to be settled outside walled Jaffa. The buildings are adorable and the neighborhood is very up-and-coming after going through a revitalization period about 10 years ago.

Some of the buildings of Neve Tzedek
Some of the buildings of Neve Tzedek

My final stop was for lunch, back in the neighborhood in which I stayed, but not before walking along the beach with a short-sleeved t-shirt and no shoes. It was by far the warmest day I had experienced at that point in the semester: 79 degrees Fahrenheit. That combined with sitting outside for lunch actually gave me a sunburn.

The final chapter in this story is the airport security on the way out. Everyone I talked to beforehand underscored the importance of getting to the Tel Aviv airport at least 3 hours before departure. I did just that, arriving at 1:30 for a 4:30 flight. The first round of security takes place before you even check in at the counter. In my case, two different agents questioned me. After you get your boarding pass you make your way to the traditional security line. I was directed to the wrong line at first and then had to be escorted to the correct one where I was asked to take certain items out of my bag. I went through a metal detector, then was instructed to empty both of my bags. The security officer went over every single item and every corner of each bag with a bomb residue detection wand, asking me questions at the same time. It was at this point that they took two of my toiletry items. I actually protested because I knew for a fact they were the correct size (100 mL) but the agent informed me that it had to be below 100 mL. Of course they did not take the 100 mL Dead Sea lotion I bought in Jerusalem… After my bags were searched I was told to have a seat to wait for the body scanner. Apparently I had a hot spot on the image because I was directed to a small private room in which I had to remove my shirt. The agent had his hands down my pants before he decided I wasn’t actually harboring a bomb. This process took over 2 hours, hence the necessity of getting to the airport early. And, of course, I did not have my passport for the entire bag and body search. I finally made it to my gate only to find that, yet again, my flight was delayed… A not so fantastic end to an otherwise amazing weekend.

February backtrack: Classes, bureaucracy, and more beautiful Istanbul

I should start this post off by saying sorry for being so bad at blogging. It’s been over a month since I wrote, and it’s not for lack of material, but for lack of time. Without further ado, here is a review of what I’ve been up to since early February.

First and foremost, classes started the second week of February. I had to wait another week and a half after that to finalize my schedule, but I did finally get into all the classes I wanted: Turkish Foreign Policy; Politics of Latin America; a seminar on digital media and politics; and my two electives, French language and American Studies. Most of them have been quite good, especially the seminar on media and the American Studies course, in which the American professor draws interesting comparisons between the American and Turkish systems. It has taken me some time to get used to how little work I have to do here in comparison to how swamped I always am at McGill. Most of that is the fact that I don’t need to do as well here; my GPA stays frozen while I am abroad. But part of it is just a different style of learning. While McGill courses demand that you read nearly everything assigned, here it just isn’t necessary. Going back to McGill and having to write my thesis and complete a 500-level poli sci seminar will be interesting, to say the least.

The other major thing that happened was my continued navigation of the Turkish bureaucracy. I mentioned a bit about this in my last post, but the process of obtaining health insurance and applying for my residence permit is worthy of it’s own story. Basically, all foreigners who want to stay in Turkey for more than the tourist visa allowance of 90 days must apply for a residence permit within that period. For me and other students, this means being trapped in the country because our student visas (which we had to get before departure from our home country) are single-entry. Imagine, then, how thrilled we were to learn that obtaining student permits could take anywhere between 1 and 3 months.

Several things are needed for the residence permit appointment, which is about one and half hours from campus: four passport photos, payment of a fee, an application form, and proof of health insurance. Easy, right? If only. As of last April, the Turkish government requires pretty comprehensive coverage of all foreigners. Neither my Canadian nor my American health insurance was even close to being adequate. Therefore, I had to take a trip downtown to a General Health Insurance office to apply. Only the first step could be completed, though, because I didn’t yet have my residence permit. Yes, I know: you need insurance for the permit, but you need a permit for the insurance. It’s all very sensible. Anyway, the single piece of paper with a stamp given to me by the insurance office was (miraculously) enough to successfully submit my permit application. The best part? I am not actually insured until the permit is ready, at which time I must go back to the insurance office to pay the fee and submit, yes you guessed it, more passport photos! So I am currently woefully under-insured. Thankfully, almost everything is over the counter here. There was a nasty bug going around last week, and I got unlucky. While I was shuttling around to various government offices with my suite mate, we stopped to admire some of Istanbul’s famous rainbow steps, found in just one area of the city. Originally painted by a retiree in 2013, the neighborhood quickly fell in love with them. When the government painted over them a few months later, there was an uproar that spread to nearby areas, with residents painting their own stairs in protest. The government finally caved, and residents gathered to repaint. There is great collection of photos at the Huffington Post. Today, newlyweds and tourists alike flock to the stairs. Of course I had to join them:

Rainbow Stairs in Fındıklı

While the weather continues to be extremely variable here, the warm and sunny days are truly breathtaking. On one such day in early February, we had a leisurely brunch along the Bosphorus, down the hill from campus. It was warm enough to take your jacket off while walking, and the view across the water was fantastic.

The view across the Bosphorus from the promenade in Bebek
The view across the Bosphorus from the promenade in Bebek

On a much colder day, we took a ferry to the Asian side, specifically to an area called Kadıköy. Rainy cold aside, it was an interesting place. Soon after debarking from the ferry, we happened upon a massive opposition protest. Various factions were present, including feminist and student groups. Parliamentary elections are coming up in June, and a lot is at stake, including the very structure of the Turkish system. We also had kumpir for the first time, which is a massive baked potato stuffed with toppings of your choice. For those from Canada, mine was basically the equivalent of “all-dressed”: cheese, sausage, corn, peppers, onions.

Protest march in Kadıköy

A few weeks ago we took another ferry trip, this time to the biggest of what are called the Princes’ Islands. The views from the island were spectacular, although the island itself was a bit disappointing. It is made for tourists, and we were accosted by restaurant employees trying to get us into their establishment during the off-season. Once we got away from the main square, it was a more enjoyable experience. The architecture is very different from what you see on the mainland; it almost reminds me of Cape May, with nearly all wooden structures with Victorian-inspired styles. The walk along the water was nice, too, although the government seems to have stopped right in the middle of constructing what would be a great promenade.

The view from the promenade at Büyükada
The view from the promenade at Büyükada

A couple of weeks later a few of us took a short trip north from campus to one of Istanbul’s green spaces, Emirgan. It is a meticulously cared for park that overlooks the Bosphorus. When we visited, the tulip bulbs were beginning to poke out of the ground. I can only imagine what the park looks like when they are in bloom in a month or so. We enjoyed seeing the various water features, including a pond with a black swan and a huge climbing structure, which we obviously climbed.

One of the several ponds at Emirgan, surrounded by tulip beds
One of the several ponds at Emirgan, surrounded by tulip beds

Just last week I was thrilled to show Elise, my brother’s fiancée, around the city. We visited some of the well-known sites, including one I had not been to before, the Basilica Cistern. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it provided water for the imperial palace as well as one of the Ottoman palaces into modern times. There are two statues of Medusa’s head, one of which is mysteriously upside down while the other is sideways. But the thing we found most interesting is the presence of fish, some of which are quite large, in the remaining water in the cistern.

Just a few of the hundreds of columns in the cistern
Just a few of the hundreds of columns in the cistern
Fish are everywhere in the cistern pool
Fish are everywhere in the cistern pool

A lot is happening in the next few weeks. I will traveling to Israel in a few days, followed by Cappadocia (in Turkey) the following weekend.

Until then,

Ryan

Settling In and Exploring Istanbul

Two quick things before I start: one, the name of my university (Boğaziçi) is pronounced “BWAH-zee-chee” because the Turkish “ğ” is silent; and two, I have linked my Instagram feed to this blog, so in addition to the photos I post directly to this page you can now see the last few photos I have posted on Instagram.

It’s crazy to think that I’ve only been here about a week, but just eight days ago I somehow made it to what has become my new home. I’ll try not to ramble on, but instead share the highlights.

I was never really worried about making friends here; I’m a pretty outgoing person. But I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. I have met many people from around the world, and I’ve found a good group of friends. It’s a nice change from traveling through Switzerland and northern Italy by myself.

My new friends and I took a walk through the main campus on our first full day in an attempt to get a feel for where we will be taking classes for the next four months. The grounds are beautiful; well-maintained and very lush, a huge change from McGill. One can’t help but notice right away the stray cats and dogs that roam the campus, as is the case around the city. By some estimates the city has some 150,000 strays. The government takes good care of them for the most part though, and Boğaziçi does the same, putting out food and water as well as providing shelters. They are very friendly and appreciate when people pay attention to them. We even saw someone enjoying an espresso outside with a cat on his lap.

Hanging out with just a few of the many cats on campus
Hanging out with just a few of the many cats on campus

We decided to throw ourselves head-first into Istanbul on the second day. The day started slow; we had to turn in required documents and passport photos (needed for literally everything remotely official here) in order to receive our student numbers. In the afternoon we took our proof of enrollment letters to the government office along the Bosphorus to get our student transportation cards so we can use the city’s extensive and modern network at a reduced fare level. A one way bus fare comes out to less than 30 US cents! Afterwards we visited a mosque (New Mosque or Yeni Camii in Turkish) and decided to have some street food for a late lunch: fish sandwiches and pickled cabbage followed by some delicious donut-like pastries, all for about 10 TL per person (less than 5 USD!). We knew we were risking getting sick because our systems were still in adjustment mode, but luckily all turned out well.

The view from the bridge at Karaköy, next to which several stalls serve fresh fish sandwiches
The view from the bridge at Karaköy, next to which several stalls serve fresh fish sandwiches

At this point I want to take a moment to be a bit more serious and reflective. One thing you can’t miss in the city proper is the prevalence of begging. We saw several women and children, some just infants, looking for spare change from passersby. Unfortunately this has become more common as the Syrian conflict continues to rage next door, perpetuating a terrible refugee crisis. It’s difficult to walk past a three-year old girl on the streets without shoes, and it’s a sobering reminder that I am so incredibly lucky to live in the circumstances I do.

We reserved the next day for seeing two of Istanbul’s most famous sites, the Sultanahmet mosque and the adjacent Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia to many). Sultanahmet is a working mosque while Ayasofya – built as a Greek Orthodox basilica in 537, converted into a Roman Catholic church for a while under the remains of the Byzantine Empire, and converted into a mosque under the Ottomans – is now a museum. To say these two buildings are impressive is a massive understatement. We started with the Sultanahmet, which meant the two women in our group had to cover their heads and we all had to take off our shoes before entering. Inside the main prayer area is reserved for men, while women are relegated to praying behind a screen in the back. At Ayasofya, we wandered around for a while and even met the resident cat, who has been pet by thousands of people before us, including President Obama. The interior of the building is unique given its history. You can still see mosaics of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist alongside Arabic characters depicting Allah and the Prophet Muhammad.

The beautiful Sultanahmet mosque
The beautiful Sultanahmet mosque
The altar of the Ayasofya, with a mosaic of Mary and Jesus as a baby flanked by Arabic characters
The altar of the Ayasofya, with a mosaic of Mary and Jesus as a baby flanked by Arabic characters

A few days ago we had orientation, which included a tour of the campus and information about registration, which opened this week. It’s been quite the process. At Boğaziçi students routinely have to “request consent” from professors in order to be allowed to register for a class. The professor can accept or reject your request for any reason, with no explanation. As of now I am still waiting to hear back from two professors so that I can (hopefully) finalize my schedule for the start of classes next week.

Yesterday most of the exchange students took a trip to Dolmabahçe Palace, located along the Bosphorus. It served as home of the sultan and seat of the Ottoman Empire until the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and consequent abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. The first president of Turkey and founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, used the Palace as his summer residence and died there in 1938. Because Atatürk died at 9:05 AM, the clock in his former bedroom is always set to 9:05. The building is sprawling and the grounds are reminiscent of royal European gardens. The water of the Bosphorus is close, and was even splashing up onto the paths because we visited on a windy day. After the Palace, we spent a few hours at a hookah bar and smoked some shisha (flavored tobacco). I’m pretty sure we looked absurd to the locals there, but it was a good time and it was even warm enough to sit outside with the shawls they provided. The best part was the price; we paid about 10 TL per person for two flavors, just a fraction of what one would pay in North America.

Dolmabahçe Palace, seat of the former Ottoman Empire and death place of the father of modern Turkey
Dolmabahçe Palace, seat of the former Ottoman Empire and death place of the father of modern Turkey

That brings us to today. We had wanted to visit the Grand Bazaar last week, but ran out of time. It’s definitely something you set aside a day for; one of the largest markets in the world, it has some 3,000 shops. We spent a few hours looking at jewelry, scarves of all kinds, clothing, impressive imitation designer bags, dried fruit and nuts.

Just a few of thousands of shops at the Grand Bazaar
Just a few of thousands of shops at the Grand Bazaar

This week is the last week before classes start, so hopefully I’ll be able to fit in a few more adventures.

Until then,

Ryan

Milan and First Moments in Istanbul

Milan's Duomo
Milan’s Duomo

I have officially arrived in Istanbul, Turkey. In the few hours since my flight landed at the gigantic complex that is Atatürk Airport, I have managed to move in despite not having the two passport photos requested (that’s what happens when you send a reminder email to people coming from across the world two days before move-in starts), have a couple of things in my room fixed (namely a leaky faucet and a toilet that did not flush), purchase linens for my bed (excluding a duvet, which will come later) but forget to buy a set of towels (oops), and meet only a few people. I think it’s because today is the first scheduled move-in day but it feels like I’m one of just a few people living here. Both of my roommates are here though, and I tagged along with him and his two friends from his school back in the States for dinner close to campus.

Before I write about Milan, here’s the rundown on the trip to this massive city. I woke up this morning in Milan at 4:00 AM in order to catch the 5:25 AM train to the airport from Milano Centrale (the big – and I mean really big – train station in Milan). Unfortunately I didn’t quite make it on time. I was at the ticket machine 3 minutes before it was scheduled to depart, and the thing about trains in Europe is they almost never leave late, even by a minute. Realizing that getting myself up two floors to the platform in less than 3 minutes wasn’t going to happen, I opted for the next listed time, 5:43. Perfect, right? Wrong. That train didn’t actually exist according to the departures board, so I had to wait until the next airport train at 6:25, which was the train that I specifically wanted to avoid because it was scheduled to arrive at Malpensa less than 10 minutes before the check-in counter was to close for my flight. But I literally didn’t have any other options, so I sat in the cold station for an hour stressing. Luckily the trains are indeed prompt, and it arrived at the airport right on time. I literally made it to the check-in counter 2 minutes before the 60-minute cut-off. Talk about cutting it close.

The flight was great though; just three hours and we got a full meal, plus I had an empty seat next to me. Turkish Airlines blows Icelandair out of the water. We arrived in Istanbul around 12:00 noon local time (having crossed into the next time zone, making me seven hours ahead of EST now), quickly made it through customs (they seem to be as cavalier as the EU border officers; he was talking on his mobile while stamping the passport of the guy in front of me), and then made a beeline for the Starbucks (yes, they are truly everywhere) to buy a coffee in order to use their wifi because the airport doesn’t have free wifi (you should have seen the look on my face when I realized). Alas, Starbucks’s wifi didn’t work but another patron somehow got ahold of the adjacent Turkish Airlines lounge’s password. At this point I should tell you that I didn’t go to all this effort just to check my Facebook. I realized I needed the exact address for my residence if I was going to get there remotely efficiently (pro-tip: travel with addresses of destinations!). Once that was taken care of, I withdrew 100 TL (I’ll be using this abbreviation for the local currency, Turkish Lira, from now on in this blog), which at the time of writing is just under $43 USD. My taxi ride, which took a solid 40 minutes (the traffic at 1:00 in the afternoon here is akin to our rush hour traffic in the Baltimore/Washington metro area), cost me only $26! The one issue: I couldn’t for the life of me find a buckle for the seat belt (cue disapproval from parents).

My residence is pretty much what you’d expect for a university dorm. It’s ironic that in my penultimate semester of undergrad I am staying in the smallest room to date. Like I mentioned, I have managed to make my bed sleep-able for tonight with a quick walk up the road to a home furnishings store. The area in between the two campuses, which are separated by less than 10 minutes walking), has sort of a classic college town feel, just the Turkish equivalent I guess. We are definitely not in downtown Istanbul, but are instead along the water on the European side of the Bosphorus. There are plenty of restaurants, and at least a couple pharmacies and we passed one grocery store in the taxi. I actually recognized the name as one that also exists in Switzerland. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that the Swiss corporation founded the Turkish off-shoot, and that they seem to only exist in those two countries, both of which I have been to in the last 5 days (weird, eh?).

Sforza Castle
Sforza Castle with road work visible in the foreground

But I digress. Milan is a great city, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone trying to decide where to go in Europe. It is Italy’s second-largest city, but actually out-ranks Rome when including their respective surrounding suburbs. The first day I took the metro to the centrally-located metro station for the Duomo, and then picked a direction and walked. I explored several churches, each of which was unique. I eventually made my way to the Giardini Pubblici (public gardens), which were built originally for Milan’s upperclass. I spent some time in the park’s Museum of Natural History, then wandered through the park before stopping for lunch at a “cafeteria,” which basically is a bar that has pre-made food for lunch. But the food is actually good! After lunch I decided to hit Milan’s other large park, Parco Sempione. This one was actually parade grounds for the city’s medieval castle, which went through a tumultuous history, including being bombed in WWII by the Allies and then rebuilt and turned into a series of museum and exhibits. The park is now open to all, and on the side opposite the castle is Milan’s iteration of the Arc de Triomphe, built by Napoleon when he conquered the city.

Milan's "Peace Arch," one of several of Napoleon's attempts to make Milan more French during his brief tenure as leader of the city
Milan’s “Peace Arch,” one of several of Napoleon’s attempts to make Milan more French during his brief tenure as leader of the city

The second day I explored the Milan branch of the Italian national art gallery, and then went on a 4-hour guided tour in the afternoon, which included the Duomo, the famous Galleria (where all the designer flagships stores are), and admission to see da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The sheer size of it is impressive; he painted it on the interior of the back of a small church, using the “wrong” technique. Instead of using the fresco method where the artist paints on fresh plaster, da Vinci opted to use dry plaster so that he could take his time and make changes to the colors as necessary. This resulted in an extremely fragile painting – it started to decay even while da Vinci was still alive – and some of the restoration work over the years has actually made it worse. Nevertheless, it is still a striking piece of art that is worth the trouble of getting a ticket (in the summer it is often necessary to book over a month in advance due to the limited number of people who can view it at one time out of concerns over changing the room’s temperature and humidity levels too much).

On my final day I went back to the castle and explored the museums before going up on the roof of the Duomo, where you can see the intricate sculpture work up close. Each spire – and there are so many – is stopped with a religious figure. The roof also affords you a fantastic view of Milan, including the Alps in the distance. Unfortunately they were completing restoration work on the back of the church, so that part of the roof was closed. Construction projects are taking place everywhere in Milan right now as they prepare to host the next world exposition beginning in May. The tour guide said the pace of work is rapidly becoming frantic so that everything can be ready in time.

The next week or so will be pretty busy for me. On Wednesday we receive our Boğaziçi student numbers, and then we have orientation events and such. It’s kind of like being a new undergrad again, which is strange.

Until next time,

Ryan

Switzerland: Geneva and Montreux

Château de Chillon near Montreux, Switzerland
Château de Chillon near Montreux, Switzerland

When I said the apartment in Geneva was lovely, I hadn’t seen the apartment in Milan in person yet. It is beautiful, and so close to the train station; even after starting to walk the wrong way the walk only took me 10 minutes. I will be spending the next four nights in Milan, but here’s what I did in Switzerland.

The first day I began a bit later than I had wanted to, but I just could not force myself to get ready any faster. After a late breakfast (petit déjeuner, nothing like what you’d get in the States of course), I took a tram to the part of town that is home to many NGOs and international organizations, most notably the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). Being me I of course took a tour of the UNOG complex, which was actually quite interesting. The campus includes two massive buildings, one of which is the Palais des Nations, originally the world headquarters for the short-lived predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations. As the tour was in English (they do them in French too, but my French is nowhere near good enough for that), there were several Americans and also quite a few Brits. After the tour I took a walk through the nearby botanical gardens and conservatory, which is free as it is completely maintained by the city of Geneva. I also walked quite a ways to a former château that now houses the Museum of Swiss Abroad (I don’t even know what that would include), only to find that it, like every other museum in the city, was closed on Mondays. I returned downtown for lunch, but not before happening upon the massive US Mission to the UN. I stopped to take a picture, and a security guard ran out and told me that I could only take a photo from a specific corner at the end of the driveway. I’m not sure what that accomplishes, but I wasn’t looking to start an international incident on my first day in Switzerland.

After lunch I walked along the river and stopped in an Anglican Church that does all of its services in English. It was raining and quite windy at this point, so by late afternoon I headed back to the apartment to take a break and do some research on where to eat dinner. Knowing that I wanted an authentic Swiss place, I finally settled on a little restaurant not far from the train station famous for its fondue. I opted for the original cheese version, but they had all kinds of variations, like one with chili pepper. Continuing with the theme of not being able to escape Anglophones, there was a group of Americans eating at a table near me, and one of the women came over to talk to me at some point. When she found out I would be in Istanbul and what I was studying, she gave me her email address so that she could forward my information to a friend she has in Istanbul who works in my field. Who would have thought I would be doing networking with an American in a small Swiss city after having consumed a horrifying amount of melted cheese and about 2 loaves of bread?

I set aside the second day for activities I couldn’t do on Monday, so I started with the Old City, where most of the museums are. After getting lost I finally made it to the massive Museum of Art and History, only to be disappointed when I discovered they had run out of English guidebooks. As an alternative they offered a free audioguide via a smartphone app, which seemed like a great solution. But the city of Geneva makes it quite difficult to obtain free wifi; you need a working phone number that can receive a text message with your activation code. Given that Switzerland is a small country, and I’m sure compounded by the fact that Geneva is literally surrounded by incredibly tall mountains, I couldn’t even manage to get roaming service so receiving a text message was out of the question. So much for that museum. I had better luck after that; I visited the famous Cathédrale St-Pierre (Saint Peter’s if you prefer), and climbed the tower to get a spectacular view of the entirety of Geneva. Then I went underground and explored the extensive archeological exhibit that details the development of the site from the third century to the 12th, in which the current cathedral was constructed. Geneva (and to an extent Switzerland in general) is interesting because, unlike its neighbors France and Italy, it is predominately Protestant.

The third day was probably my favorite, and I spent most of it outside of Geneva. I decided to book a day trip to Montreux, about an hour away, to explore a more traditional Swiss town and to visit a nearby castle that dates back to the 11th century, Château de Chillon. Honestly the best part of the day was approaching Montreux and seeing sun for the first time in 3 days. I could barely see the Alps from Geneva, so it was nice to finally get the classic Swiss landscape. It never got sunny in Geneva that day, so I’m glad I decided to take a break from the city. The walk to the castle was stunning. It’s along the narrowest part of Lake Geneva, so the mountains are incredibly close. No snow on the ground in town, but as if a line had been drawn two-thirds of the way up the slope, the tops were white with snow. The castle was even more beautiful in person. It literally sits on an island of rock in the lake, and was an important tax-collecting and defensive location first for the Savoys, and later for the Bernese. The last Duke of Savoy literally fled on a boat across the lake at the last second after finally realizing that his time as ruler of the region was up. I spent a solid two hours touring it, and was rewarded with a panorama view of the entire area from the highest tower. After returning to Geneva I had dinner at a place popular with locals because it is one of the few places you can get a good, authentic Swiss-French meal for less than 30 francs per person (did I mention Geneva is really expensive?)

In a few days I will be able to post about what I end up doing in Milan. Until then!

Ryan

Departure

It is only fitting that I begin this blog with the actual move abroad. As I write this post I am sitting in a lovely little apartment in Geneva in which I am renting a room for four nights. But let’s rewind a bit…

After spending a last day with the family, I flew out of Dulles the evening of 17 January (local time) and arrived in Reykjavík, Iceland some 5 hours later to catch a connecting flight to Paris. The trip went quite smoothly; security at Dulles took no more than 10 minutes, I arrived at the gate at that perfect time when boarding begins. The flight itself was okay; it wasn’t an enormous plane and it wasn’t super new, but it was as comfortable as economy class transatlantic flights can be. The only problem? They didn’t serve any food. I don’t mean they didn’t give us a meal (although, shouldn’t they have?), I mean they literally did not even give us peasants in economy a bag of pretzels for the transatlantic voyage. I guess because Iceland is in between North American and Europe they get away with that nonsense. Needless to say, I was happy the family and I ate dinner before they saw me off.

I arrived in Reykjavík at around 6:30 AM local time, and had a quick breakfast before catching my connection. Customs literally took 5 minutes; and that’s the last time I’ll do customs until I arrive in Istanbul, because once you’re in Europe, you’re in. I don’t think I’ve been in a more unique airport; if you’ve ever been to Iceland, you’ll know what I mean when I say the airport fits the country perfectly. Very Nordic-ski-lodge and very environmentally friendly, and so many chunky sweaters to be bought (I restrained myself).

The flight to Paris was equally uneventful, and we also received absolutely nothing. This time we didn’t even get complimentary soft drinks, juice, or water. I guess I know why Icelandair was the cheapest flight on this route. Charles de Gaulle is an interesting airport; absolutely massive, with various terminals that are connected, at quite a distance, by a tram, which I took to the airport’s TGV (French high speed rail). From there I took the train to Geneva, Switzerland, stopping at various small towns along the way and changing trains in Lyon.

Geneva’s train station is quite large given the size of the city (less than 200,000), and it took me a while to find the correct bus station so that I could make my way to the apartment. I finally arrived around 7:30 PM local time (six hours ahead of EST). There is another Airbnb renter here, from Australia, who is looking for a long-term lease so she can start her internship at the UN, which has its second-largest global presence (after New York) here in Geneva. I would be lying if I said I was not jealous. I will certainly be visiting the UN complex while I’m here.

The only other thing I can think to mention is jet lag. Surprisingly I feel pretty good, all things considered. After not being able to sleep well on either flight I was worried, but I forgot how easy it is to sleep on trains in Europe. They are so much smoother and quieter (and faster) than Amtrak in the States. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow, though. Sometimes the full force doesn’t hit you right away.

I suppose that’s all for now. Watch this space for more on Geneva, then Milan, and finally Istanbul when I arrive there on 26 January.

Ryan