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Stories from Month 13

Santorini, Greece

Greek Wedding

timMichelle and I just attended the fabulous wedding of two good friends. Events like these are the stuff romantic movies are made of. As Bill is an aspiring actor and screenwriter, maybe it will see the silver screen someday. If so, the wedding would go a little like this...


Plot Summary A Greek American visits his ancestral homeland for the first time, where he marries his American fiance. Beautiful scenery surrounds the action that culminates in a huge wedding feast and party with 38 friends and family members from home.

Location The town of Fira, on the Greek isle of Santorini. This charming cliff side town overlooks a 3000-year-old volcano caldera, now flooded with the waters of the Aegean Sea. Old white buildings, luxury hotels, and beautiful churches climb from the waterside to the top of the precipice.

The Players Groom: Bill is a handsome New York actor and writer in his early thirties who grew up in a small Greek community in Ohio. In addition to learning Greek from his parents at an early age, he is an accomplished Greek dancer.

Bride: Cecilia is a stunning blonde New York advertising executive with an effervescent personality and a love of life. Though not of Greek descent, she has an interest in learning the Greek language and culture.

Kumbada: The Kumbada plays an important part in a Greek wedding by directing the ceremony and symbolically creating the matrimonial bond between husband and wife. Played by Bill's middle brother, Steve, whose affable personality and steadfast character are important in this role.

The Best Man: Bill's youngest brother, Mo, is a bulky New York personal trainer and student. He sports a mean goatee, short cropped hair, and cool black suit. Back at home, he could pass as a Mafia hit man.

The Plot Act 1: The Wedding The scene starts late afternoon with guests waiting in front of the Metropoli Church of the Blessed Mary, a large Greek Orthodox cathedral overlooking the sea. Music rising from a balcony below draws the wedding guests to the cliff side overlook. Led by musicians, the wedding party makes their grand entrance into the pedestrian plaza.

Enter the cathedral. Byzantine frescos along the inner walls and upper dome depict scores of hallowed saints and the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. A vessel by the door holds thin burning prayer candles. The wedding party approaches the bushy bearded Greek Orthodox priest, who stands aside the altar wearing his traditional black robe and hat.

The priest and cantor start the service in a duet of hymns. After a short gospel reading in Greek, the bride and groom reverently kiss the gospel and the priest's hand. The priest then blesses the rings, which are lying on a silver tray surrounded by chocolate covered almonds (koufeta). The Kumbada places a garland of lace and flowers upon the heads of Bill and Cecilia. This crown, the stefana, is connected by a ribbon and symbolizes a noble marriage and the beginning of a dynasty between the new couple. The Kumbada switches the stefana from head to head three times by crossing arms.

The couple drinks from a goblet of blessed wine, then take their marriage vows together in both Greek and English. Newly married, they symbolize their travels in life together by circling the altar three times while the guests throw rice and cheer them on. Lastly, they signify their everlasting relationship by switching rings three times.

Act 2: The Toast The wedding guests follow Bill and Cecilia down a cobblestone path to a reception patio. In a symbol of fertility, the guests eat bites of chewy honey-almond dessert as they pass through the threshold. Champagne is passed around and by the light of a Santorini sunset, the best man gives a toast to the newlyweds and then husband and wife cut the wedding cake.

Act 3: The Party A hired bus whisks the wedding guests off to the beachside town of Perivolous and the party starts in earnest - with the screech of brakes and several loud explosions from the restaurateur's powerful homemade gunpowder and sea salt explosives. Guests periodically throw these to the ground throughout the night, no doubt causing fear among those with poor hearts.

A feisty five piece Greek band strikes up and appetizers fill the table - bread, tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip), fava beans, fried feta cheese, cold feta cheese, Greek salads, cherry tomatoes, fried eggplant and zucchini, and little sausages. The guests laugh, drink, and eat so much that a palette cleansing dance session is ordered. Bill and Cecilia start the first dance with the accompaniment of an accordion, guitar, singer, violin, and tambourine. The families join in for a Greek circle dance, with each dancer clasping hands on their neighbor's shoulder, kicking and stepping collectively to the beat.

Appetites return in time for the fish course - crispy kalamari, little red fish, succulent white fish, and delicious lobster. More circle dancing follows.

Dinner continues with homemade liver sausage and lamb. In the third round of dancing that follows, the circle of dancers soon overgrows the restaurant and spills out into the street. The tempo of the music gradually quickens until the band is playing at a furious pace. Guests struggle to keep their feet moving to the beat. Faster and faster, their feet are in a frenzy of motion. The restaurateur and other guests celebrate outside with blasts from the 12-gauge shotgun he brought out from the back. The roar is deafening, but the noise no longer fazes the guests.

The movie ends with a party on wheels, as 38 people return to Fira on a crazy 2 AM bus ride, dancing in the aisles.


So maybe this won't make it to Hollywood, but I still wish Bill and Cecilia all the best anyway. Congratulations!

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A weathered doorway in Ia, a picturesque town located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A pink, white, and blue church in Ia, a town in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. Sun sets behind a windmill on the picturesque town of Ia, located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A yellow, white, and blue church in Ia, a town in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. The sun sets beyond a chuch on the picturesque town of Ia, located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A fresco of Jesus adorns the Metropolitan Church of the Blessed Mary, a beautiful cathedral in Fira that overlooks a 550-year-old volcanic caldera.

Naxos, Greece

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

Two octopi dry on a line on the island of Naxos, Greek Cyclades.

Samos, Greece

Night Ferry Ride

michelleOur ferry left Naxos at midnight, headed to Samos, an island only 3km from Turkey. Greek ferries are large and spacious vessels offering carpeted floors, snack bars, lounges, and comfortable chairs. But when we boarded the ferry the niceness of it was hidden by sleeping bodies strewn on chairs and the floor. Passengers who had boarded six hours earlier in Athens had marked their territory with luggage, belongings, and their own bodies. Entering the lobby we stepped over an overweight woman who had made the space near the doorway her bed. Out cold, she was oblivious to the traffic milling around her head. On the floor, bare feet shot out from under rows of seats and I morbidly thought they looked like dead corpses being stored with the luggage.

It took us a while to find a seat. Every time we found unoccupied seats and sat down we would be shooed away minutes later by people claiming the seats were saved. After a couple of repeat occurrences I felt like I was playing a sick game of musical chairs and found my patience tested. Finally, Tim and I split up to fend for ourselves and I found an empty seat wedged between two snoring, sunburned tourists.

I knew sleep would not be an option -the lights blared overhead and music seeped from a nearby television. Every once in a while a senior citizens group in the lounge would burst into song. The hours ticked by slowly and I tried to keep a positive attitude despite my losing battle to inner grumbles. I realize long rides, sleepless nights, and unpredictable events are part of the adventure of travel. The good thing is I usually forget the pain and inconveniences once I arrive at a destination and only remember the excitement of it all.

Our ferry arrived in the Samos main port at 7 a.m. and we were welcomed by the quiet of a Sunday morning, except for the ringing of church bells. The port town, Vathy, reflected everything I thought a Mediterranean town should be - Venetian designed stately buildings topped in terracotta tiled roofs, a walkway lined with swaying palm trees, plenty of cafes to drink coffee, blue water, and bright sun. I was glad to leave the ferry and recover from the long night in such a place. top

Greek Passion

michelleNo one could ever accuse Greeks of being a meek and timid people. They are more like little firecrackers, ready to explode with opinions, greetings, laughter, or insults at any moment. I had to adjust to their way of communicating after coming from Southeast Asia, where showing strong emotion is equivalent to losing face.

The elderly are the most interesting to watch. The white haired women are short and stocky with large drooping bosoms, round buttocks, and their wrinkled faces clearly express it would be a mistake to get on their bad side. Their presence, whether standing on a balcony calling to neighbors below, watching grandchildren play in the park, or returning from the market carrying local produce, makes any stroll in Greece more interesting. They exude a quiet confidence, filling me with a sort of reverence as I watch them pass on the street, big hips swaying to their slow steady steps.

The old men can be seen socializing together on benches in the village square, their conversations growing loud and animated and then fading to contemplative silence, almost in a rhythmic pattern. The men also hang in kafeneia, Greek cafes serving only men. I peek in the windows of the smoke-filled rooms as I walk past and see men playing cards together, reading the paper, or participating in animated discussions.

When the Greeks are unhappy they are not shy about expressing their anger. I met a couple from Florida who had this tale to tell: Walking in Plaka, the old city of Athens, a kind, grandmotherly-type shop owner ushered the couple into her store with a smile. They had read in their guidebook it was appropriate to bargain and, after browsing, picked an item and asked for a reduced price. They must have bargained too low for the woman's demeanor changed instantly and she began yelling, hurling insults, and chasing them from the store. They ran down the street as people stared and felt like they had just been caught shoplifting instead of trying to make a business transaction.

We were on a public bus in Athens and the driver stopped too quickly, sending an elderly woman to the floor with a thud. She rose unscathed, and united with all the other women aboard, they proceeded to ream the driver with a cacophony of verbal insults. The driver just watched stone-faced through his rear view mirror with an air of unconcern, as if this was an every day occurrence.

Another time we were on a train, waiting at the station to leave when a young couple boarded and sat at the far end of the carriage. An irate old man followed û I presume the girl's father û yelling and screaming. All the passengers' necks stretched to get a better view of the red-faced man shouting and projecting spittle inches from the couple's faces. It was too much stress for the young man who escaped to the train's toilet until the tirade was over, leaving the girl to fend for herself. She sat staring out the window and puffing on her cigarette, indifferent as the bus driver had been when his passenger was flung to the bus floor due to his bad driving.

The old man was putting on an impressive show involving his whole body: feet stamping, finger wagging, arms waving, eyes bulging, and repeatedly pointing to his heart. Since all the screaming was in Greek I made up my own story about the conflict û the girl was running away with the young man to Athens and the father didn't approve. He was screaming for her to return home and she was breaking his heart with her disobedience. It was a stirring story of family loyalty and romance, but of course, for all I knew, he could have been yelling at her for cooking a lousy breakfast and giving him heartburn. When the train whistle blew signaling departure, he stopped screaming, straightened his collar, and calmly departed. The young man didn't emerge from the toilet until the train was moving and the coast was clear.

I don't think these emotional explosions are uncommon among the Greeks. We have witnessed many as we travel through the country and I am impressed by the energy that goes into an argument û shaking fingers, shrugging shoulders, waving arms, and fists pounding chests. It has the same intensity as a maestro conducting an orchestra with concentration and passion.

Where the Greeks can be passionate in their anger, I find they can be equally passionate in their kindness. A Greek couple we met on the plane from Nepal spent hours with us, giving us advice and tips for our time in Greece. Old women squeeze my arms in affection as I pass; old men holler the Greek hello, "Yasas!" A hotel owner brought freshly baked cake to our room, still steaming from the oven. After a wonderful meal, a restaurant owner brought wine and a plate of fruit to the table, on the house. These are only a few examples of the kindness shown to us while touring Greece.

With a history of strong tradition, mythic gods battling in the heavens, festive dancing, great wine, and the birthplace of democracy, it is no wonder Greece is a land of passionate people. The enthusiasm and zeal they show in expressing themselves is an art form in itself. top

An old beaten up couch sits outside of a home on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey. A typical start to dinner in a Greek restaurant - a paper tablecloth, a carafe of inexpensive red wine, a load of bread, and a view of the sea. Poppies grow on a hillside near the village of Manolates, Samos. Red pillars adorn the rooftop of a colorful building on the Greek island of Samos. A weathered window on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey. A weathered window on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey.

Chios, Greece

Family Reunion

michelleChios is our last destination in Greece. The island has a turbulent history riddled with invasions by pirates, Romans, Venitians, and Turks, as well as destructive earthquakes. It is a fascinating island with medieval towns, huge mansions from wealthy merchants and seafarers, beaches, and unique architecture. We plan to explore and tour the major attractions but this is not our main purpose in visiting.

Our main purpose is to join Bill Kotsatos' family (the groom) as they travel here after the wedding. Bill's father grew up in Chios but left at the age of sixteen for the United States. Forty-five years later he is returning with the company of his three sons, his wife, and his new daughter-in-law to reunite with friends and family and introduce his family to their heritage. We are just tagging along, honored to witness the reunion! top

Chatty Encounter

michelleOur hotel lies one block from the Chios main port and I decided to spend the final moments of evening light by the water. I found an empty bench on the walkway lining the harbor's edge. The water's surface was calm, still, and looked soft like velvet. Boats floated by, lights reflected off the water's surface, and local residents were out for an evening stroll. Parents pushed babies in strollers, lovers held hands, and friends conversed. People seemed to have no particular destination or time restraints - they were out to just enjoy the evening together. It gave me a wonderful feeling of community and that all was well in Chios.

Behind me cars and motorcycles zipped by on the street and a long row of cafes did a brisk business serving beer and coffee to customers at the outdoor tables. I watched as an old woman started to cross the busy street, hobbling with a cane. Her large plump body was easy to spot and the traffic stopped quickly, leaving plenty of space for her to cross. I chuckled when she paused in the middle of the street to shout a few cross words, wave her cane in the air, and wag her finger at the vehicles, as if to reprimand and warn them not to approach any closer. The growing long line of cars just waited patiently until she had hoisted her large body safely on to the curb before resuming their activity.

She turned my direction and when she approached, it was as if we had been good friends for a long time. Her entire face lit up and, despite all the empty space on the bench, she plopped down so close to me our hips touched. She grabbed my arm, squeezed it with affection, and began to rapidly speak in Greek. Not wanting to embarrass her, I meekly told her I only spoke English, hoping she understood. She paused to look at me carefully, studying my face and then with a comprehending nod responded, "Ah, English!" I smiled in relief thinking I was saved from an awkward situation.

But then she went right on speaking Greek! I tried to listen as words gushed from her mouth but I understood nothing - after all, it was all Greek to me. Eventually I just relaxed, watched her gestures and got the gist of her words. She pointed to passing boats, giving what sounded like a discourse on each one. She discussed the passers-by and grew particularly animated when babies passed. At one point, she paused long enough to fish in her large handbag and produce a piece of gum for me. I chewed happily with minty breathe as she continued to talk and explain an injury, pointing to her wrapped ankle and silver-tipped cane. Through it all I nodded frequently, content to be a listening ear.

After a while she gave my arm another affectionate squeeze, stood, and slowly began her next journey - to the next bench over. The sun had set by now and I headed back to my hotel in twilight, thankful for the chatty encounter. top

A Moment

bothWe traveled today with Bill (or Vasili as he is known in Greece) and his family to the village of his father's childhood. Rather than write about this ourselves, Bill was kind enough to write this excellent entry for us:


I stood watching from the shore beneath the afternoon sun, thinking how they must feel. Much time had passed since they said their good-byes. And a lot had taken place. Like two energetic kids without a care in the world, the men splashed and swam about the warm Northern Aegean water as I sat on one of the large black stones that blanketed the beach.

"Swim on out here, you chicken!" Stamatie exclaimed to my dad from the shore's far reaches.

"You better hope I don't" he replied. "If I get my hands on you, you're going under!" he said before cracking into laughter.

It was the first time I heard my dad called a chicken. And I was thrilled.

My dad told me countless childhood stories of he and his best friend, Stamatie, swimming in this very spot. The two grew up together in the rural Greek Island village that sat 1,000 meters above our heads, carved out from the rugged mountain side.

"The water is crystal clear which you can see to the bottom – even from the village" he would tell me as I lay in bed.

Stamatie then focused his attention to me, still on the rock, as I watched this momentous occasion unfold.

"Yasou Vasili!" he bellowed in a deep rich tone. "Get out here!" he added, cupping his mouth while staying afloat.

I made my way to the water. The black stones were smooth, pill-shaped and large enough to stand on. I couldn't stay on any particular rock for more than a few seconds as they retained the sun's heat quite well, scorching the bottoms of my feet. Each rock served as a springboard to the next, which led me to the refreshing placid water that had been calling my name for years.

"I was home" I thought to myself after diving beneath the surface and watching a school of fish swim by.

I came up gasping for air and saw dad and mom, now in the water's depths with Stamatie. Then I looked for my wife. I turned back towards shore and saw her, my unparalleled inspiration, swimming with Tim, another inspiration. A dear friend and cohort of inebriated mayhem of years past; Tim was an ever-evolving individual in search of his next adventure. His girlfriend Michelle, I learned, was cut from the same cloth.

Tim and Michelle were traveling the world. They quit their jobs, left all behind and would go on to inspire anyone who would ever read their exotic and captivating stories posted on their web site. Starting in Panama and continuing through the hidden worlds of Asia, they made their way to Greece joining Cecilia and I along with thirty-six other family members and friends from the States, for our wedding. The site of Cecilia and Tim swimming together, back dropped on the opal beach humbled me in the same manner as did the site of my dad and Stamatie picking up where they had left off forty-six years earlier.

Earlier that day I had rented a Jeep, which gave me a sense of security for what lay ahead. Tim secured the magnificently compact Fiat Panda, whose tires were as wide as a ten-speed bicycle. We left the town center and followed signs to the village, and started by climbing a series of treterous switchbacks that propelled us high over the town center, giving us a breathtaking view of the port and neighboring Turkey. The road had no guardrails to keep us from plummeting over its narrow path. The steep road kept us at a constant incline while our seats bore the brunt of our weight. With every hair pinned turn I met, I could feel my heart pound in sync with the revving engine. In the Jeep, we sat perched even higher from the road's surface. But I remained cool and toggled between first and second gears with a smooth clutch action allowing for a sweet symphony to emanate from the transmission below. I felt pretty good.

"You know, Vasili failed the maneuverability portion of his driver's test" mom said.

Silence fell on us all as she laughed out loud in a hearty tone, breaking the tension that she just had supplied.

The only person in the Jeep with me who didn't feel any fear was dad. On this very road which was once a dirt and stone path, he and his uncle would make the 10-hour trek to the town center by donkey to sell their harvests of olives, plumbs and lemons. Now things were in perspective and with one eye on the road and the other focused on the Panda in my rear view mirror, we continued up the mountainside to the village.

A lifetime of questions and events ran through my mind as we passed olive, fig, lime, and almond groves. I thought back to my childhood in a small Ohio, steel mill town. Most of Egrigoros' inhabitants immigrated there in the 1950's, after learning of the plethora of unskilled and highly paid steel-mill jobs. My great uncle Modestos led the wave. He first arrived, scouted the land, and sent back word for the rest to follow. It was a prosperous time filled with unheard possibilities for those who came from the village's dirt floor homes. In America they were able to buy land, fertile, unlike the rocky mountainside to which they were accustomed. They built homes with indoor plumbing, and garaged black topped driveways, which they filled with automobiles. This, along with every other hair-raising notion of what America offered, called them in droves.

When the recession of the 1980's hit, the small town felt its impact. The treat of Japanese steel crept into our sleepy hollow, forcing riotous union meetings, wildcat strikes and crippling work stoppages. All feared for the worst. Husbands were laid-off and wives sought work cleaning homes and ironing clothes. Slowly, the steel mills began to grind to a debilitating halt, which transcended to every immigrant's kitchen table.

"Times were tough," I thought to myself, but we somehow managed.

As we neared the village, we were greeted by kilometers of Sparta bushes lining the road. They were small bright yellow flowers whose intoxicating fragrance wanted to put me to sleep. They filled the air, setting the tone for that June afternoon. With Cecilia as my navigator, ever glued to a map, we passed a sign that read "Egrigoros, 2km."

"I never thought I'd ever see that," I said to my passengers, recalling my dream of visiting the place of my father's birth.

After our hour-and-a-half long vertical climb, we arrived in the village. Egrigoros was comprised of fifty or so small huddled homes, all of which were hand built of stone and mortar with terracotta and slate roofs. Some homes were built into the mountain itself. Others stood freely, tethered to poles by telephone, electrical, and clotheslines. There were no streets in the village, only cemented walking paths, which intimately wrapped around the houses connecting the families as one. We learned that less than six families live in the village year round. Each family, whose roots were planted in Egrigoros, still kept a home here. Most were in great condition as they served as summer retreats. Others still, were neglected and overgrown with fig trees, Sparta, and wild brush.

At the top of the village sat the olive oil factory, which I later learned was built by another uncle of mine who had operated it for the past 35-years. As we drove down the village's dirt road entrance and parked our cars, I saw a lone man standing at the far end.

He seemed tall and strong, and was lit by the descending sun. A coifed thick white cloud of hair hung over his stark black eyebrows. Then I saw his eyes, sheer blue in color, radiating warmth as they introduced themselves.

"Stamatie" I whispered to myself.

"Yasou Modestos!" he enthusiastically yelled out which seemed to have echoed throughout Egrigoros and on to the neighboring village.

"Yasou Stamatie!" dad replied, matching his excitement.

The men greeted one another like brothers. Their hands met for a much overdue handshake, which pulled them into each other's arms, laughing like the kids they were.

Everything at that moment seemed to move in a slow and subtle manner. I turned to Cecilia who could only smile watching the moment. My brothers were taken aback by Stamatie, as was I, who looked just as he did in the only photograph we had of him. It was taken the day dad left the village. Both teenagers were proudly dressed in suites, standing with arms on the other's shoulders. Much hadn't changed. Mom ran to Stamatie and embraced him with a loving hug. I then turned to Tim and Michelle who simply watched as the villagers came running out, welcoming us all to their home. top

A man shoulders a bag through the medieval village of Mesta, southwest Chios. The streets of this well-preserved historic village were purposefully built in a mazelike manner to confuse invaders, which makes a casual stroll as a tourist all the more interesting. The owner of a café in the medieval village of Mesta, southwest Chios, poses for a photo. We were not really that hungry when we arrived at the village, but his overwhelming hospitality convinced us to stay and eat lunch. Afterwards he gave us each a shot of a locally made liqueur produced from mastic, a chief product of the island. I can't say I warmed up to the taste - which was somewhere between pine and turpentine - but I was happy to try it.

Cesme, Turkey

Turkish Arrival

timFinding a Turkish guidebook in the Greek islands proved impossible. In the long-standing feud between these two countries, perhaps no self-respecting Greek would dare to cross the line into Turkey. But for whatever reason, we ferried from Greece to Turkey with little clue as to what lay ahead.

Our 45 minute ferry ride from Chios landed us in Çesme, a surprisingly upscale resort town, where we spent the afternoon strolling through the boutique lined cobblestone streets and a cafe covered beach front. In the late afternoon, sun lit the 700-year old Çesme Castle with a warm golden glow. We ate our first Turkish meal in the castle's tower while looking down at an ice cream vendor doing brisk business in the pedestrian plaza below. Our rice stuffed peppers, calamari, eggplant salad, and green beans were served with bread and a cold Efes beer. I think I'm going to like it here. top

Izmir, Turkey

Cityscape

timI'm amazed at modern Turkey's bus system. In our short 1 1/2 hour journey from Çesme to Izmir (in a brand new Mercedes bus), a conscientious attendant offered us no less than hand disinfectant, bottled water, and hot coffee, tea, or soda. The service rivaled any airline, yet the price, at about $2.50 was as low as a city subway ticket.

Once in Izmir's southern bus station, we hired a cab to the city center. Kilometers of blocky 7-10 story apartments rolled by my window like a rolling stage backdrop. A typical uninspiring cityscape - endless grey buildings encircled by balconies and digital satellite dishes, with banks, cafes, mom & pop grocers, and clothing stores on the street level.

Surely a 5000-6000-year old city had more to offer? We checked into an ""otel"" and joined the city's leisurely Sunday strollers to find out for ourselves.

We walked first to Izmir's 100-year old Ottoman clock tower and watched the pedestrians in the busy Konak Square pass by. Several stopped at the wash basins surrounding the base of the monument to splash around in the water and quash the midday heat. A shoeshine boy plucked down next to us on a makeshift tin can seat. He jokingly asked if my beat up sandals needed a shine, then pursued Michelle's suede hiking boots with a brush despite her repeated ""no's"". We left him behind in the plaza a few moments later, still requesting money that we were not about to give him.

The nearby Izmir bazaar buzzed with weekend browsers and eager shopkeepers trying to turn our heads with, ""Where are you from?"" and other pre-sale pleasantries. I was neither in the mood to buy nor carry in my backpack any of their leather works, shoes, Turkish carpets, cell phones, watches, or other goods, so I declined every advance. The only person who tempted me was a street vendor filling the bazaar with the aroma of fried fish. Customers circled around him, eating his fish on paper plates with a wedge of lemon.

We walked north of the bazaar and through the gates of the Kültürpark. This large city park offers its city residents a zoo, amusement park, roller skating rink, and restaurants in addition to greenery and gardens. We drank a cup of thick Turkish coffee in an open cafe, between couples sharing tea from wood burning semavers (samovars) and men smoking tobacco from giant hookahs.

In the evening, the air cooled down to the perfect silky temperature between warm and cold. We found a pleasant harbor-side park overlooking the Aegean Sea and watched the last vestiges of daylight fade from red to purple. The rest of Izmir seemed out to join us, as even at 9 PM the park benches and jogging trails were full of couples and families enjoying the last few hours of their weekend.

We ate a Turkish pudding and watched a vibrant city at play. top

Ephesus, Turkey

Exploring the Early Church

michelleAlthough I have been a Christian most of my life I am embarrassed to admit I've remained quite ignorant of early church history. So I was surprised to learn Turkey, although 99% Muslim, overflows in early Christian history.

Selcuk, a town a couple kilometers off the west coast, is a wonderful place to begin to rectify my ignorance. St. John, an apostle and writer of the Holy Bible, retired and died here. It is also believed he brought the Virgin Mary here after the death of Christ, where she too spent her final days. Nearby is Ephesus, home of the Church of Ephesus, one of the seven Asian churches in Revelations and a city where St. Paul preached, spreading Christianity.

We arrived in Selcuk by bus in the morning, leaving a whole day to roam its streets. We visited its museum, ate lunch in an outdoor cafe and then wandered up a hill to the St. John Church, a 6th-century basilica built over St. John's tomb. Although mostly a crumbling ruin, it was fun to walk among the large stones strewn about, lone columns standing that once supported huge domes, and up stairways that led no where, the second floor long gone.

If the church was fully restored it would be the 7th largest cathedral in the world. Its surviving foundation clearly showed its immense size. St. John's tomb lay at the top of the cruciform shaped church surrounded by the remains of cracked marble floor and beautiful mosaic tiles, now exposed to wind, rain, and sun under the open sky.

I walked to the edge of the hill and looked out to the vast plain below, stretching to the horizon with miles and miles of farmland. I imagined John sitting as an old man under the willow trees, writing his Gospel while gazing at the same view. I wonder if he had any idea this new religion he was promoting would change the world forever. top

Looking up at the Library of Celsus, a monument and library erected in 114 AD by the Roman leader Tiberius Julius Aquila in honor of his deceased father, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. At its peak, this library held up to 12,000 scrolls. Two Turkish women cook a stuffed pancake-like dish in a wood stove. My feta and spinach order was very similar to a quesadilla or papusa. Looking up at the Library of Celsus, a monument and library erected in 114 AD by the Roman leader Tiberius Julius Aquila in honor of his deceased father, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. At its peak, this library held up to 12,000 scrolls.

Pamukkale, Turkey

The Nature of Time

michelleTurkey is full of ancient ruins and they pop up in unexpected places - an ancient theater sits beside a city street, a Byzantine aqueduct stands along a road, 1000-year old tombs carved into cliffs overlook a town.

Walking through a field full of large rocks and tall grass, we came across the upper part of a stone doorframe rising out of the ground. It was then I realized we were walking on top of an ancient city covered with centuries of earth. I stooped down and picked up one of the many pieces of brick covering the ground, fragments of old roof tiles probably over a 1000-years old. It blows my mind away to stand on top of what was once a prosperous community of markets, public baths, theaters, and houses, and now, due to invasions, earthquakes, and natural erosion, is a pile of rock and earth I am climbing over and exploring.

Buried under me was probably clay jars for holding water and wine, coins, jewelry and hair clips, and other household items from long ago. And I think of thousands of years from now into the future when others are walking over the ruins of our great cities - maybe New York, LA, or London and finding the remains of a civilization - a comb, a car tire, a plastic cup. Like these once thriving kingdoms, ours too will some day fade and be replaced. It is the nature of time. top

Turkish Countryside

michelleRiding on long bus rides can be hot, uncomfortable, and cramped but I find these rides offer a glimpse into local life I otherwise might not see. The steady rumble of a bus usually has a way of coaxing me into a drooling, sleepy stupor, but I was successful in fighting off sleep during the 5 hour journey and was rewarded with sights from the Turkish countryside and small towns. I have found the Turkish cities quite modern, abounding in ATMs, cell phones, and fast food restaurants. The countryside offers the opposite view - a timelessness of people making a living off the land, small town communities, and a simpler life.

The bus wound its way along fields rich in shimmering gold wheat rotated with rows of green vegetables. The effect was a giant natural quilt blanketing the land until it reached a mountain's edge. The shades of greens and yellows against the blue sky and the softness of the grass as the wind swept through it gave me the same sense of awe I get when gazing at a blazing sunset.

When we entered towns along the way, I soaked in the people and their way of life. An old woman sat on a donkey, her long white head covering flapping in the wind. A camel, piled high in Turkish rugs, looked like a small wool mountain strolling down the street. Old men, wearing dark hats, vests, and serious expressions, sat in small groups in the shade. School children in blue and white uniforms stopped at a community fountain and drank from a plastic cup attached to the fountain by a string. We passed many elderly couples getting around by horse and cart and farmers selling produce on the side of the road.

People continued to board and get off the bus as they reached their destinations. By late afternoon we were the only passengers left. The remaining part of the journey was through a rocky mountain pass with windy roads. I watched in fascination and disgusted amusement as the bus driver spent the entire final hour picking his nose with an intensity and concentration usually associated with brain surgery. Half his index finger would be lost in one nostril, swirled around, and then he would switch sides. After the first 20 minutes I was positive there could be no possible way anything could be left to pick. But his digging continued for another 40 minutes! A couple times I was alarmed he might drive off the road, as his attention was not on his driving.

I was relieved when we finally reached our destination, Fethiye, a seaside town with a large marina and nearby beaches. top

Just Say No

timI waited for our next bus on the curb a small station, watching people and killing time. I was particularly engrossed in the chatty conversation of some old Turkish women when a boy carrying a basket of goods approached me.

He waved four packages of facial tissues into the air and said something I didn't understand in Turkish. I tried to brush him off by shaking my head side to side and saying, "No thanks." But he persisted by waving the packages closer to my face. When I responded with a second nod and "No," he started making finger gestures for cost. This boy just doesn't take "no" for an answer I thought.

But then I recalled a fact about Turkish body language. Shaking the head from side to side as we do to indicate "no" actually indicates the expression "I don't understand" in Turkey. The boy continued bothering me not because he was doggedly persistent, but because he thought I didn't know what he wanted. (In other words, he thought I was an idiot, which in hindsight, I guess I was.)

With my realization, I laughed out loud in an enlightened yet slightly demented way that changed the boy's expression from helpful to cautious.

One says no in Turkish by raising one's eyebrows and tipping the head back. I attempted a poor freakish facsimile of the Turkish version and the boy swished away. top

Fethiye, Turkey

Boat Cruise

michelleWe left this morning on a four-day boat cruise. It's a six cabin boat and there are eleven passengers and three crew. Each cabin has its own bathroom, there are comfortable mats to lay on the deck, a hammock, and snorkeling equipment. The itinerary is to visit different stops along the way - a gorge with a waterfall, ancient ruins along the coast, small islands, seaside villages, and end the journey down the coast in Olympos. Bon voyage! top

Close to Perfection

michelleOur cabin room was hot and stuffy so I grabbed a blanket and slept on the deck under the stars. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat, to the sound of music and laughter coming from surrounding boats in the cove, and to the moon slowly rising over a mountain silhouette. I awoke at 5 am to the pink dawn, calm water, and precious silence.

At 6 am the boat engine roared to life and we set off into the open water. Over the next hour a couple people woke and joined me on the deck. We sat in silence, wrapped in blankets, each lost in the quiet of the morning as wind whipped through our hair and the waves rhythmically lifted the boat up and down. Suddenly, we were shaken from our meditative states by three dolphins jumping playfully at the front of the boat. They jumped through the waves and soon were swimming along side us. I leaned as far over the railing as I could and watched their sleek gray bodies swim gracefully below until they disappeared into the blue depths. The unexpected encounter filled me with wonder and excitement.

We spent the day doing what people do on lazy boat cruises: eating, swimming, snorkeling, sun bathing, relaxing, and docking for a couple hours to explore a small seaside village. In the evening we anchored off a deserted island covered with ancient ruins. We feasted on a dinner of grilled eggplant, peppers, onions, chicken, and potatoes, while sipping wine and enjoying each other's company. After dinner some people went ashore and sat around a blazing bonfire while the rest of us turned up the music and danced on the boat until after midnight.

I fell asleep on the deck under the stars; content I spent a day close to perfection. top

The ruins of a church in the abandoned Turkish city of Kayakoy, or Kaya. Two thousand homes here once hosted a thriving community of Greeks, but were abandoned when the majority of Greek people were expelled from Turkey in 1922 following the Turkish War of Independence.

Olympos, Turkey

Tree House

timWe ended our sailing cruise in the seaside town of Olympos, a 2000 year old city known simultaneously for its rich history and as a destination for cheap hippie backpackers.

Ironically, Turkey banned the use of concrete in Olympos to protect the old city's ancient ruins. Developers responded with a unique solution - they built tree houses for the tourists. And now, the tree houses lure the hordes more than the historic ruins.

Our tree house looks more like a primitive wooden house on six-foot stilts rather than a proper tree house. But many others in town live up to their name and keep me looking for a loincloth-clothed Tarzan to come swinging down to earth yodeling.

The area is bracketed by tall cliffs and a nearby beach. With the shady fruit trees that grow everywhere, the unhurried clientele who create an easy going atmosphere, and a $6 per night cost (per person/including breakfast and dinner), I think we can afford to spend a few days here. top

Chimaera Flames

michelleWe spent the day on the beach of Olympos with our new friends from the boat cruise. It was another lazy day. We sunned on the sand, every so often running to the sea to cool down. For lunch we bought pastries and soda from a man who carried his goods on a large circular tray balanced atop his head. He paced up and down the beach all day enticing our business by the sweet aromas of freshly baked bread.

In the late afternoon we headed back to our tree house abode, a couple shades darker. We showered, ate dinner, and by nine o'clock our stomachs were full and the moon shone brightly above. We boarded a mini bus with other tourists and set off to see the Chimaera, a group of flames that naturally blaze on the slope of Mt. Olympos. After a long drive in the darkness, the minibus stopped at the base of the mountain. With the aid of flashlights we hiked twenty minutes up a steep path until we reached a rocky clearing. Scores of yellow and blue flames burned in patches around rocks. Other tourists were already up there sitting quietly around the flames, observing the natural phenomenon. A resourceful man took advantage of the flames and tourists and set up a drink stall over to the side, tea pots perched on the flames.

It is said long ago sailors on the open sea used the flames as landmarks. It is unknown what causes the flames û except they believe it's gas escaping through holes in the rocks and when it comes into contact with air, bursts into flames. The whole sight was a bit surreal. top

Egirdir, Turkey

A Peaceful Lake Town

michelleEgirdir, a small picturesque town, sits on a peninsula jutting into Turkey's fourth largest lake. We had heard it was a quiet peaceful place with a hometown feel and decided to visit for a day or two. When the bus dropped us off in the center of town, we were greeted by Ibrahim, owner of Lale Pension. His broad smile and warm personality immediately made us feel welcome.

We walked through town towards the pension with Ibrahim leading the way. Thursday is market day in Egirdir but by our evening arrival the merchants were packing up their goods. We did stop at one of the few remaining stalls to buy fresh corn. Ibrahim kindly offered us the use of his stove and my mouth watered at the thought of eating some of my favorite food sopped in butter and sprinkled with salt. What a treat!

We passed under the gate of a castle, entering the old part of town. Ibrahim led us up a steep hill lined with old wooden houses warped with age. Arriving to the pension we were introduced to Ibrahim's pregnant wife and his father, welcomed with hot tea and a fantastic view of the lake, and were immediately made to feel at home.

After a wonderful feast of corn, we headed out to explore the town with contented stomachs. top

Call to Prayer

timNothing reminds visitors they are in a 99 percent Muslim country more than the call to prayer. Forget the fact that Turkey has a secular government and relaxed atmosphere. When the call is broadcast simultaneously from every mosque in a city at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk, or after dark, the haunting sounds echo from every direction and make the otherwise secular streets feel holy.

The family who runs the Lale Hostel here in Egirdir is a friendly bunch. The owner Ibrahim is a helpful guy and as Ibrahim proudly told us, his father is a muezzin with an excellent voice. When I asked Ibrahim about hearing his father sing, he didn't hesitate in sending me down to the mosque to watch the call to prayer. I jumped at the opportunity just a few minutes before his father was due in the service and found myself bounding through the darkened nighttime streets behind him, wondering what I was in store for. We arrived to a locked mosque at around 10 PM and waited for the Imam to arrive with the keys.

Our awkward conversation crawled along with language problems, as Ibrahim's father spoke to me in broken English and I spoke to him in the few Turkish words I knew. But I didn't need spoken language to realize he wore a genuine smile with his gentle personality.

The Imam arrived with a trickle of other followers who chatted amicably amongst each other. Once they established that I spoke no Turkish, I dissolved into the background and spent the time watching people ritually cleanse themselves in the ablution fountain nearby.

With the Imam's signal, Ibrahim's father enclosed himself into a phone booth sized recording booth below the minaret and sang the call to prayer. I heard his voice as an even mix, half muffled through the wooden door and half broadcast from the loudspeakers high above my head. But still, Ibrahim was right to be proud. His father's voice was enchanting.

The prayer ended three minutes later and as I readied to leave, Ibrahim's father surprised me with an invitation to watch the actual prayers inside the mosque. I wasn't sure what to expect, but removed my shoes and followed him in.

The Quran forbids displaying images of Muhammad and other religious leaders, so unlike Christians who decorate their churches with images of Christ, Muslims decorate their mosques with prayers rendered into flowing calligraphic paintings. These paintings hung on the walls alongside two loud clocks that broke the room's silence with steady ticking.

I knew virtually nothing about the ritualized Islamic prayer and felt naturally out of place. But I'd been invited in and none of the 9 people in the room seemed bothered by my presence. So I stood in the back and observed silently.

Ibrahim's father started the 20 minutes of prayers with his smooth voice. Participants then followed the Imam in prayers, standing, kneeling, and pressing their foreheads down to the red carpeted floor. The Imam's transformation amazed me. Ten minutes ago he looked like a normal everyday guy and now, he was a black robed holy man with a cylindrical turban. The Imam's deeper voice chanted in turns with the Muezzin in a mesmerizing duet that made me soon forget my doubts about coming.

The participants practiced other parts of the ritual, mouthing silent prayers, placing their hands up to the heavens, and fingering rosary beads. The Imam ended the session with a prayer and the participants exited silently.

I tried to express my sincere gratitude to Ibrahim's father when I walked back to the hostel with him. He offered me a real glimpse of Turkey that I will not soon forget.

Listen to the Turkish Call To Prayer and the Turkish Mosque recordings in the Sounds section. top

A Nomadic Village

timWe hiked the steep 7 km switchback road to the nomadic village of Alepinar in the late morning heat, arriving hot and thankful for the shade provided by a row of tall poplar trees. The old stonewall we sat on enclosed a field of wildflowers and provided a nice vantage point to survey the village - old homes, a mosque in the center of town, and a farmer driving his tractor around.

A group of women in flowery dresses and headscarves busied themselves around washtubs full of water and what looked like wheat. Our curiosity attracted theirs until one of them broke the silence, pointing to one of the large washtubs and exclaiming, "baklava." I wasn't sure how a large tub of vegetable matter could be a philo dough pastry, so I thumbed though a worn vocabulary book and jokingly shouted out food items made with wheat. She nodded and laughed with each one, finally confirming what was in the tubs when I found the Turkish word for wheat. Michelle offered them oatmeal cookies and they responded with homemade stuffed grape leaves.

Further down the road, two older women sat on a wall with a ten-year-old girl. Like with many children in modern Turkey, the girl's modern T-shirt-shirt and jeans posed a striking contrast between her two traditionally dressed elders. She welcomed us with a handful of freshly picked cherries and we pantomimed a conversation with the trio for a half an hour.

The overlook at the end of the road offered an exceptional view of Egirdir from above. A sweet old couple beckoned for us to sit around a few plastic tables and eat from their restaurant, which turned out to be a funky little shack nearby. Michelle entered the shack to watch the woman cook, while I sat outside enjoying the view and freezing my head with the coldest, most satisfying bottle of water that I've ever been served. top

Cappadocia, Turkey

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

A bird escapes through an opening of the roof of a Turkish caravanserai. This building was one of many built by the Turkish government every 40-45 km along the Silk Road from China as a resting place and fortress for caravans. Here travelers could buy replacement camels and horses, have their animals treated, and stay for up to three days without payment. The system was paid for by a 10% tax on goods levied upon all caravans as they entered the country. The unusual cave homes of Turkish Cappadocia, carved into the soft stone by residents since the early Christian times. The soft stone, called tuff, is made of volcanic ash from an eruption some 10 million years ago. The unusual cave homes of Turkish Cappadocia, carved into the soft stone by residents since the early Christian times. The soft stone, called tuff, is made of volcanic ash from an eruption some 10 million years ago. The unusual rock formations of Turkish Cappadocia, formed by differential erosion between a top layer of hard rock and a bottom layer of soft stone. The soft stone, called tuff, is made of volcanic ash from an eruption some 10 million years ago. The crescent moon and star, similar to the Turkish flag, hangs over the mountains of Cappadocia. A path through a cave in Cappadocia's Rose Valley. The area is known for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations made from tuff, a soft stone composed of volcanic ash. A path by a cave in Cappadocia's Rose Valley. The area is known for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations made from tuff, a soft stone composed of volcanic ash. A path through a cave in Cappadocia's Rose Valley. The area is known for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations made from tuff, a soft stone composed of volcanic ash. A room in Cappadocia's Church of Saint John, a primitive church carved from a soft stone called tuff (made from volcanic ash). A mule in Cappadocia's Rose Valley. The area is known for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations made from tuff, a soft stone composed of volcanic ash. A fairy chimney in the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, produced by differential erosion between the hard rock on top and the soft rock below. The exit of a cave home in Cappadocia's Rose Valley. The area is known for its cave dwellings and unusual rock formations made from tuff, a soft stone composed of volcanic ash.