Monday, January 01, 2007

A Long Weekend in Istanbul

On the Bosporus with the Blue Mosque Behind Me

The following is a summary of a 4-day trip that I took with my friend Keith Johnson to Istanbul, Turkey. We went with a German tour group, and the entire trip (airfare, hotels, and food) cost less than $500 each.

Day 1, Thursday, May 18, 2000 – We had booked our tour through a German tour agency. That is one of my favorite things about living in Germany – travel is extremely cheap. We could travel to Africa or Asia for 2 weeks with everything included for less than $1000. I had chosen Istanbul because I felt like it had a lot of interesting things to offer. It is a Muslim country, it offered a chance to set foot on the Asian continent (I had read that Istanbul is the only city in the world to be spread out over two continents), and we could see the city with a minimum investment of time and money. Turkey borders several countries, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, parts of the former Soviet Union, Albania, and Greece.

We flew with Istanbul Airlines. I really wasn't sure what to expect, but I couldn’t turn it down for the price. Loading up the plane was completely unorganized. We loaded up a bus and drove out to the plane, which was near the runway. Keith and I joked that they must not have wanted the plane to land near the terminal. They didn’t load us by rows; instead they just dumped the entire bus and unloaded us. So, it took a long time to load the plane. Someone was in our seat, and instead of asking him to move the stewardess had us sit somewhere else. After taking off, people all around us lit up and started smoking. This was certainly a new experience. I had never been on a plane where people were allowed to smoke. In fact, our boarding passes clearly said no smoking, so we didn’t know what the deal was.

We stopped unexpectedly in Frankfurt (we both thought it was a direct flight) and picked up more passengers. A man and his wife boarded, and had the seats assigned to them that Keith and I were sitting in. Keith told the guy that we had just been seated in any seat available, but the guy got the stewardess, who asked us to move to our original seats. There was a man sitting in one of the seats, and he argued long and loudly with the stewardess when she asked him to move. Continuing, we flew out of Germany, and then over Western Austria, and later Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. From the air, these countries were very uninteresting to look at. Almost all of the land was farmland. The patterns were unusual; the fields were very long and narrow, in brown, green, and yellow. I had expected us to fly over the Alps, but instead we bypassed them. The most direct route would have taken us over the former Yugoslavia, but I guess we flew around that due to military action still going on there.

The meal on the plane was very good. We had some sort of beef dish with eggplant. I had never had eggplant before, but it wasn’t bad. I guess this was a Turkish dish. We flew over the Black Sea, and then started to descend into Istanbul. From the air, Istanbul looked like the biggest city I had ever seen. As we descended, I could see hundreds of minarets surrounding mosques scattered around the city. Most of the passengers were Turkish, and they all clapped loudly when we landed. Keith and I joked about this. He said, “Usually I just take it for granted that my plane will land safely.”

When we arrived, we had to pay $45 for a visa to enter the country. Outside of passport control, we found a guy holding a sign for us. He told us that he was still waiting on people, so we had to wait about an hour. Keith exchanged some money – the exchange rate was $1 = 620,500 Turkish Lira. After everyone had arrived, we all went outside to wait for the bus. We met another American, Matt, who was living in Munich. His girlfriend worked for Texas Instruments in Munich, and he is a librarian at the international school there. She had to work and didn’t make the trip with him.

We loaded up in the bus, and were driven to our hotels. On the way, I got my first impressions of Istanbul. I saw lots of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Ford dealerships, and other American symbols. We also saw lots of hookers next to the road flagging cars down. These are not things you would normally associate with a Muslim country, but Turkey is not a typical Muslim country. Women are allowed to vote, hold office, and they aren’t required by law to wear the traditional head to toe Islamic dress.

We passed by many mosques. (Our tour guide later told us that there were over 3000 mosques in Istanbul). We saw some ancient mosques next door to skyscrapers. This reminded me of San Antonio, where the Alamo is surrounded by skyscrapers. It just seemed a little out of place. The city was pretty dirty; we saw places where the garbage was piled high in the streets. We saw people everywhere in the streets. It also started to get dark about 8:30; currently in Germany it is getting dark around 10 p.m.

We made it to our hotel, and checked in. The receptionist told me that I would be sharing a room with “Janice.” I told her that I would have to see Janice first. When she looked puzzled, I told her that I was just kidding, and that there had obviously been a mistake and that Keith and I were traveling together. We checked in and went to our rooms. We were staying in a 4 star hotel, but I was not impressed. We went down to the hotel restaurant to eat. The restaurant was advertised as a Mexican restaurant. The furnishings were Mexican, but none of the dishes were. They were playing Aerosmith songs in the bar. We ate, and then went to bed about midnight.

Day 2, Friday, May 19, 2000 – I woke up at 6:20. I studied the scene out the window. There was a pack of dogs in the street. Across the street, there was a gigantic Turkish flag hanging from a building. Next to it was a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was a war hero and the father of the country. He separated church and state, which got the Islamic religion out of state affairs. He is the reason that Turkey is not more like Iran or Iraq. Today was his birthday, and a national holiday.

I turned on the TV to see what was on. Supposedly, we got satellite, but there were only Turkish channels and one Arabic channel. The Turkish language is not Arabic; it sounds more like Russian. We went downstairs, had breakfast, and boarded our tour bus.

Our tour guide was very good. She was Turkish, but had dyed her hair bright red. She conducted the tours in German, but as long as I paid close attention I could understand most of what she said. We first went to a small café, where we had apple tea and the tour guide explained what we would be seeing over the next two days. After she was finished, we walked across the street and visited the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is considered to be the finest Ottoman mosque. The outside was very impressive. The minarets were very tall. Minarets, by the way, are tall towers surrounding mosques. Five times a day, a call to prayer is sent out from the minarets over loudspeakers. Keith thought the minarets looked like rockets. Outside, there was a cemetery containing the graves of Muslims from the 1200’s. I had never seen a Muslim grave. They were different from a Christian grave in that they had headstones and footstones. Entering the mosque, we had to remove our shoes. The inside was spectacular, with a huge dome. It had stained glass windows and an enormous chandelier. The tour guide told us the history, and then we were able to explore a little more on our own. I walked outside and put my shoes back on. A man offered to shine my tennis shoes. There were shoe shine stands all over the city. Then we got back on the tour bus and headed to another church, the Haghia Sophia.

On the way there, we saw crowds of people everywhere. I saw several people sleeping in the parks. We passed a lot of signs proudly proclaiming the location of a “Modern Toilet.” Our tour guide told us that the population of Istanbul was over 15 million people. Today was a national holiday, and all the kids were out of school. After about 30 minutes, we arrived at the Haghia Sophia. Dating back to the year 532, this church was the largest enclosed space in the world for a thousand years. Throughout the Middle Ages, the skyline of Istanbul (called Constantinople back then) was dominated by this church. It also contained the largest dome in the world, until St. Peter’s was built in Rome. It was ransacked by Catholic soldiers during the 4th crusade, and then was converted to a mosque after the Muslims conquered Constantinople.

Inside, we saw the oldest human mosaics in the world, dating back to the ninth century. But, overall the inside was in an advanced state of decay. There is a project underway to restore the church, and there was a lot of scaffolding up. There is a hole in one of the columns which legend says you should stick your finger in and make a wish. If your finger comes out damp, you will get your wish. Most of the others were doing it, but considering that probably 10,000 people a day did this, and I wasn’t really anxious to get a communicable disease, I passed. I talked to the other American (Matt) about this, and he told me that he has friends in Ireland near the Blarney Stone. When they went to see it, his friends told him not to kiss it like everyone else because kids sneak in there at night and pee on it.

From there, we left for lunch. I haggled briefly with a guy trying to sell books about Istanbul. I wasn’t really too serious, but he followed me for a few hundred yards anyway before giving up. Driving to lunch, I noticed how smoggy the city was. It remained that way the whole time we were there; a heavy haze surrounding the city. I also noticed that there were Turkish flags everywhere, as well as numerous oversized pictures of Ataturk. Once, when we were stopped at a light, I saw two Turkish college students carrying books to their classes and talking. I wondered what they were talking about, and whether their thoughts and concerns resembled mine in any way when I was walking to my classes in the U.S.

We had chicken for lunch at a traditional Turkish restaurant, and then we went to the Egyptian spice market. When we got off the bus, there was a huge mosque right beside the market, and they were doing the prayer call. All the mosques all over the city send out a call from the minarets over a loudspeaker. It is some sort of Arab chant, and it sounds really cool. If I had forgotten that I was in a foreign country, this would have definitely reminded me.

We went into the market and looked around. They had lots of unique things for sale. I saw some things for the kids, and some pottery that I knew my wife would like. I also found some copper vessels that had some really cool designs painted on the outside. I figured these would be safer for the trip back. But, I held off and didn’t buy anything. We would be going to a bigger market tomorrow. We went into a spice shop and looked around. Keith bought a couple of things. There actually merchants advertising the fact that they sold opium and Turkish Viagra.

After about an hour, we left the market. There was an ATM outside, and I decided to pull out some cash. They had been accepting German Marks and U.S. dollars everywhere, but I would have felt better with some Turkish Lira. However, none of my cards would work in the machine. Maybe it was the fact that I was trying to pull out a hundred million Lira ($160). But, what did I expect? We were no longer in Germany, which reminds me – we were also advised not to drink the water.

Before boarding the bus, I haggled with a guy and bought 4 T-shirts for $10. Five minutes later he was selling 6 for $10. Oh, well. I really didn’t even need 4, but he wouldn’t drop the price. He just kept offering more T-shirts for the $10.

We got back on the bus and drove over to the Blue Mosque. This was one of the things I wanted to see the most. From the outside, it looked enormous. It was constructed of gray stone beginning in 1609, and had six minarets (all of the others in the city had 2 or 4). It was built near the Haghia Sophia, and it was an attempt to build a more impressive building. It looks like these two buildings are staring each other down. Once again, we took off our shoes and went inside. Inside, the decorations, carpet, and stained glass windows were predominately blue – hence the name. Our tour guide talked for over an hour, but I wandered around. I spent most of my time watching the Muslims pray and interact with each other. That is one of the things I enjoy most when traveling. I think I like watching the people as much as seeing the sights.

I enjoyed the Blue Mosque a lot, but later all of the other mosques that we saw around the city failed to hold my attention. As an analogy, if you had never seen a church before, the first few might be great. And, there would always be some with really interesting features. But, after a while, the normal churches would no longer hold your attention. They would seem common.

Outside the Hippodrome

We left the building, and went outside into the Hippodrome. This was now a municipal park, but 1800 years ago there was a stadium on this sight where chariot races were conducted. There was a 3500-year old Egyptian Obelisk standing in the center of the park. The street vendors were everywhere. I haggled with one and bought a very nice looking, hand-carved, wooden flute for my son. I also bought a wooden top from a 6-year old boy for a quarter. When the other vendors saw that I was spending money, they swarmed around me trying to sell me things. I had to make a fast dash to the bus.

The next item on the agenda was a boat trip up the Bosphorus. This is the section of waterway dividing Europe and Asia, and connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, and ultimately, the Mediterranean. The importance of this waterway made Turkey the scene of many conflicts over the centuries, because whoever controlled it could control a lot of ship traffic. There were fortresses lining the European and Asian sides, which, at the narrowest point, were only separated by about 300 yards. I could practically hear the canons booming as I imagined what it was like to try to come up this waterway in ancient times.

On the boat, Keith sat down by two women who had previously told us that they were from Bochum, near Düsseldorf. They were about our age, and their names were Steffi and Doris. I sat and talked to Matt, or just wandered around the outside of the boat. Matt told me a little about the school he works at. It is an International school, just like the one my daughter attended. He said that Boris Becker's son attends the kindergarten there. I told him that there are no celebrities at my daughter’s school, but there are some kids whose parents are very wealthy. Two children at my daughter’s school, one of whom is the heir to a huge supermarket chain, attend school every day with body guards.

I asked Matt how he liked Germany, and he said that he was ready to go home. He said that in Munich, the people are a little rough. I asked what he meant, and he said that he has a puppy that he keeps in his backyard. If it makes too much noise, all of his neighbors rudely let him know about it. He also said that he wasn’t accustomed to how quickly the people in Munich would tell him when he was doing something wrong. I laughed and told him that it was not just like that in Munich, that was the case all over Germany.

Matt told me that he had been traveling a lot since coming over, and that he and his girlfriend had taken a trip to Kenya last year. He said that they stayed for two weeks, took a couple of safaris, and had a really good time. He said they saw lots of lions and other African animals in the bush. The total cost for the trip, including airfare, lodging, and meals was about $800 each for 2 weeks. What a deal! I had wanted to go there next year with my wife and the kids, but he said you have to get a lot of vaccinations and you have to take anti-malarial pills for 6 weeks. That is just a little too much stress for the kids. Maybe we will go to Russia instead.

We made our way toward the Black Sea. We passed under two long suspension bridges. It is amazing to me that a bridge that long can be built with no supports underneath. There must have been thousands of people fishing. Some were fishing off a bridge that we went under. I imagine that they occasionally hook a person. We got off near the Black Sea and went into a restaurant for dinner. I sat next to Keith, and across from a German man I did not know. His wife sat next to him. Across from Keith sat Doris, one of the women from Bochum. She was married and had two young kids at home. The other woman, Steffi, sat next to him. Matt sat to my right, and on the other side of him sat a younger German couple.

The fish that I had was O.K., but not great. Doris gave me half of her chicken, which wasn’t any better than my fish. There were some interesting conversations at dinner. The man who sat across from me, who was from Stuttgart, had been to America many times. He had worked on a merchant vessel, and had docked at America’s ports often. He said that once when they stopped, John F. Kennedy Jr. and his grade school class came on and toured their boat. This man was extremely nice.

The thought occurred to me that most of the Germans I have met traveling are a little bit nicer than Germans who don’t travel much. They seem to be a little more open-minded and tolerant. I was interrupted from this thought by the man’s wife, who started telling me what was wrong with America. She said that America was trying to take over the world with our economy. She said that our strong economy is making the German Mark very weak against the dollar. I responded in German, because she spoke no English at all. I told her that the reason that the Mark was weak was because the Germans had entered the European Economic Union, and had tied all currencies to the Euro. That meant that weak (at that time) economies like Italy and Portugal are dragging down the Mark. Her husband looked at her and said, “Er ist sehr intelligent” (He is very intelligent).

After dinner, we boarded our buses and headed back to the hotel. I noticed that our bus driver almost never stopped at a red light. People drove really crazy there. All of the cars were banged up. Once, I saw a taxi run into someone. It didn’t seem to hurt him, just knock him off his feet. I noticed that there were a lot more signs for Pepsi than other places I had been. The restaurants also served predominately Pepsi, which was unusual. All of the other places I have been, Coke has been king. We had to drive across the bridge into Asia to drop one couple off at their hotel. We did not get off the bus, though, because we were going back to Asia tomorrow.

Keith found a night club in his guidebook, and started trying to recruit people to go. He asked Steffi and Doris, and then four girls from Austria who were on the tour. I told him that I wasn’t going, and Matt said he was too tired. We didn’t think anyone was going to go, so we were in our hotel room about 10:15 relaxing and reading when the phone rang. It was Steffi and Doris in the lobby (they were staying at a different hotel and had taken a cab over), and they were ready to go dancing. Keith asked again if I would go, and I said no. So, they left, and I read for a little while and went to bed.

Day 3, Saturday, May 20, 2000 – I woke up at 2 a.m. when Keith came in and turned the light on. He mumbled something about being gouged by the taxi driver. When I woke up again at 6:30, Keith was too tired to go down to breakfast so I ate alone. Later, he told me what happened the night before. He said that they went to the club. The taxi ride was about $2.50. They stayed there until closing, at which point some Turks that they had met offered to take them to an after hours club. They went, which I would never have done. Istanbul is not the safest city in the world. He said that they were charged a high cover charge to get into the club, and things in general were more expensive. He told me that the Turkish men in the clubs were pawing at the women all night, until one finally had enough and told Keith she wanted to leave. Keith took a taxi ride back, and the same short ride he had taken earlier cost him $25. I had heard this about taxi drivers in Istanbul – sometimes they will gouge you on the price. Anyway, he said that this part of the night was pretty expensive for him.

The first thing we did today was go to a carpet shop. My wife wanted me to try and buy some carpets, so this was my chance. The place was very upscale. There were hard wood floors and men in suits working there. We were given an exhibition on the different carpets by a younger guy who grew up in New York. He told us he didn’t much like Istanbul, and he was only over there for a short time. He said he didn’t care for the lifestyle. He showed us how to spot a fake, and then showed us an 8x10 foot silk rug that cost $38,000. Most of their other rugs were very expensive too. My wife had looked on the Internet, and we knew about the right price to pay. We had read that we could get a 5x7 foot kilim, which is a flat-woven rug, for $250-$350. The man’s boss came in and asked what I wanted and how much I was prepared to spend. I told him, and he laughed. He said, “You can’t buy that for this price. Why don’t you just get a towel and lay it down as a floor covering? You want quality, and we have the best quality.” He was trying to embarrass me into buying. I just told him that we would look around and decide.

We had been given almost 2 hours to go look around, and the Grand Bazaar was only a couple of blocks away. We walked out of that upscale carpet shop and went to the bazaar. Right before we entered the bazaar, a man stepped out of a shop and asked if we were looking for carpets. We went into his shop and looked around. He had the same type of rugs for much less. They had the same certificates of authenticity that the other place had. But, these rugs were about 1/3 the price. They told us that only very stupid or very rich people buy carpets from places like the one down the street. The tour group takes tourists there, and often that is the only chance they have to buy a rug. So, they get gouged. Someone from our tour also told us that they have a friend who is a merchant in one of the stores that hosts tour groups. These places have to pay a kickback of 40%; 25% to the tour leader and 15% to the agency. I had heard this, but didn’t realize it was so much.

I found plenty of kilims in the $250 range, but I didn’t really like them. They also had nice wool rugs for around $500-$600. But, we didn’t have a lot of time, and we were going to have to ship any purchase. I finally decided against getting anything because I felt there was too great a chance of getting something that my wife wouldn’t like.

We left the shop and went into the bazaar. I bought my daughter a princess’ veil, like Jasmine wears in Disney’s Aladdin. I also bought her a colorful pair of shoes with curved up toes and a fuzzy ball on the end. The guy wouldn’t bargain at all, and actually let me walk away before I came back and bought them. I went into another shop and bought two of those decorative copper vases. This guy did bargain, but acted like he was insulted by how much I offered him. He said that the only reason he was selling it for that price was that I was his first customer and would bring him luck. He said, “Here, this is my gift to you. I gave him $25 and said, O.K., here is my gift to you.”

Leaving, we got lost in the bazaar. It was huge and a complex maze inside. A man stopped and asked us if we needed help. He said he was an English teacher and when we hesitated, he assured us that he didn’t want money. He directed us out of there. When we were leaving, I almost stepped on a legless beggar in the street. He was in the middle of the walkway, and there were people walking all around him. He was very hard to see. We stopped back in the cheap carpet shop on the way out and looked a little more. Keith almost bought a small silk rug to hang on the wall. The other place wanted $2,000 for one a little smaller, but they were offering this one for $850. He decided to think it over during lunch.

We got to the bus 7 minutes late. The tour guide let us know about it, and we told her we got lost. The truth was that Keith was trying to decide on that silk carpet. We went to a Greek restaurant and ate. The sign had the word restaurant in it, and it occurred to me that there are some words that seem to be the same in every language – restaurant, hotel, and taxi to name a few. We had a very spicy dish for lunch. Part of it was a char-grilled piece of meat which was just about too spicy for me.

After lunch, we visited Topkapi Palace, which was the political center of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. Construction of the palace was begun in 1459 by Mehmet the Conquerer, who conquered Istanbul in the name of the Muslims. There were a number of courtyards, which in previous times had held gazelles, peacocks, and lots of fountains. There was also a series of buildings which made up the harem complex, a treasury, and several mosques. In the treasury, we saw millions of dollars worth of gold and jewels. These included the Topkapi Dagger, which has a huge emerald handle, and the Spoonmaker's Diamond, the 5th largest diamond in the world. Some of the other rooms contained some hairs from Mohammed’s beard, one of his teeth, an imprint of is foot, and what they claimed was the Staff of Moses and the hand and arm bones of John the Baptist.

We went to tour the harem, but the line was too long. Keith and I were getting tired, so we just sat down in the shade and watched people. When we were leaving, I bought a little Arab prince’s hat for my son. We went to another place for jewelry shopping, but I just looked out the window and watched the city. The store was on a high floor of a building, and it had an outdoor terrace all the way around the building. I just watched the sights and sounds of the city while everyone else watched a display on jewelry making. When we went back to the bus, there was a man selling pretzels. He had a 2 foot tall stack of pretzels balanced on a tray on his head. He walked around and sold them while carrying this huge stack. He never put his hands up to the tray. I couldn’t believe he could keep the tray balanced like that.

We left there and started back across the bridge toward Asia. I could see the neighborhood underneath the bridge, and it was a real ghetto – extreme poverty. I wondered what the people’s lives were like who lived there. When we got to the Asian side, we drove down the waterfront and stopped. We got out and took some pictures, and again just watched people. There were more people with Asian features on this side. There were still not a lot, but there were some. I hadn’t seen any on the European side. When we were riding back on the bus, I watched families playing at parks, people out walking, and people shopping. I saw a man doing some sort of show with 2 white rabbits. One was a baby, and he had sunglasses on it. I was just thinking about how this could be a scene almost anywhere, except for the way people were dressed and the way they looked. Despite the fact that it is not required by law, many of the women still wore the traditional Muslim dress. But, just as I was having these thoughts, we passed a 16-year old kid who was guarding the entrance of a hotel with a machine gun. O.K., that you would not find most places.

We went back to the hotel and prepared for our evening entertainment. We were going to an evening show, where we would be entertained by belly dancers and singers while we ate. We all sat at a table together near the stage. There were a couple hundred people there. We found out that there were tables full of people from Albania, Greece, France, Holland, The Czech Republic, Turkey, and of course, “us Germans.”

For dinner, we had a very thin and tough steak. After dinner, things got interesting. Three belly dancers performed. One of the belly dancers pulled the man from Stuttgart up on the stage with her to teach him to belly dance. She pulled up his shirt, and his underwear, which were pulled up very high and had “Ralph Lauren” written prominently across the waistband. We were all rolling in the floor. His wife, the one who had been telling me what was wrong with America the night before, kept trying to get them to pull me up on the stage. I got up and moved a couple of times because I was afraid they were coming after me. Keith got up and moved down to talk to one of the girls from Austria. Once, when I got up, they grabbed Matt and pulled him up on the stage. He had been sitting directly across from me. They danced with him, and then 2 guys put a wooden board across his waist and threw knives at it with their teeth. They missed with the last one and it hit him in the leg. It wasn’t a heavy knife, though, so it didn’t stick into his leg. I took about 5 pictures of all of this, which I am planning on sending him.

Next, a guy came out and started singing. He sang “New York, New York” first. It was so odd to look around and see everyone in the room, over half a dozen different nationalities, singing the words to this song. He introduced his band. His bass player was from England, and his keyboard player looked just like a heavy Albert Einstein. After that, he sang songs from many different countries. He pulled people out of the audience to sing with him. I was thinking, “Those poor suckers. If he tried to pull me out of the audience, I would just run.” At one point, he had a Greek woman who was about 80-years old on stage dancing with him. He sang more English songs. The German woman who had been trying to get me on stage said, “I know you know this one.” It was an old song, and I didn’t actually know it.

Next, he sang “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The German woman looked at me, and I said, “Yes, I know this one.” So, she starts pointing at me for him to pull me up on the stage. I was shaking my head “No”, and I didn’t think the singer saw her. But then, after about 30 seconds, he came to our table, grabbed my arm, and started dragging me to the stage. I said, “No, I don’t know this song. I can’t sing!” The spotlight was on me, and he was saying, “I will sing with you.” Either way, I was going to be humiliated, but he still had a hold of my arm so I went with him. I was hoping for a swift and painless death at that moment.

I was counting on him heavily, because the only words I knew were, “Oh, when the saints, go marching in; oh, when the saints go marching in”. I didn’t know the part after that, which I now know is “Lord, how I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in .” So, I was up there with him, and we were both holding the microphone. The spotlights were on me and my face was red with embarrassment. He whispered to me and asked if I was German, because I was at the German table. Now I am usually pretty cautious about letting people know that I am an American. There is always the possibility of someone wanting to make a statement by attacking an American. But, I ran through the possibilities. German? No. Canadian? Keith and I had told several people at the bazaar that we were Canadian. But, I decided against it. So, I just took my chances and told him I was an American. He loved it. He said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, all the way from America to sing for us tonight!” The crowd roared. He then turned loose of the microphone and stepped away. I was horrified, but I stepped up into the spotlight, and started to sing in front of 200 foreigners.

Keith and Matt were laughing so hard. The entire German table was laughing hard. Matt was trying to take a picture with my camera, but couldn’t get the shutter open. I could hear my voice booming over the speakers. I wanted to run away. I got down to the part I didn’t know, and I turned to him and said, “I don’t know the rest.” He stepped back up and sang while I sort of mumbled. When we were finished, he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, a taste of America!”

I sat back down, while a different singer got up and sang Frank Sinatra songs. He had a very good voice, but was a little loose in the hips. My heart was still beating hard. I couldn’t wait for the night to be over so I could get out of there. Outside on the bus, everyone kidded me. It was midnight, and we headed back to the hotel. I could not believe the number of people still on the streets at that hour. There were still people everywhere. Back at the hotel, I got into bed at about 1 a.m., but my heart was still beating so fast that it was a while before I fell asleep.

Day 4, Sunday, May 21, 2000 – I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and took a shower. A bus was to take us to the airport at 5:30 a.m. Our flight was not until 8:40, but we had to pick people up at other hotels. We got to the airport and checked in, and then Keith and I ate at a Burger King in the airport. The two women from Bochum sat with us and ate. I talked to the woman with kids about some of the best places to go on vacation with kids. She recommended the southern coasts of both Turkey and Portugal. I told her that we were going to a resort in Egypt in October (we ultimately didn’t go), and she said that was also supposed to be very nice.

The flight back was uneventful. I had requested seats near the front of the plane, where people had not been smoking. We flew back over the Black Sea, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Austria. Romania and Bulgaria still looked very boring from the air. I expected to see mountains in Romania. After all, that is where Transylvania, the home of Dracula, is located. I could see the Austrian Alps in the distance. They were still snow-covered, and I could see a glacier far off. When we got back into Germany, it started to get cloudy. But, I could see a few of the villages and I noticed something. German villages and towns almost never encroach into the surrounding countryside. The cities are small and compact, and then there are usually no homes outside of them. The effect is cities with high population densities surrounded by huge tracts of open fields and forests.

As we got closer to Düsseldorf, it started to rain. Once again, the passengers clapped and shouted when we landed. Keith joked again, “I guess the landings on Istanbul Air are not always successful.” We got out of the airport, caught a quick train home, and then Keith checked his e-mail at my house while I passed out gifts. Then, I took a nap and tried to recover from almost no sleep the night before.

In summary, the trip was great. I didn’t get killed or get food poisoning, which were my main concerns. I experienced the most embarrassing moment of my life, but I saw and heard things that were completely foreign to me. The food was good, and I really enjoyed the mosques and Topkapi Palace. But, it would not have been a place that the kids would have enjoyed very much.

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