29 April 2007

The Flood of 07

I did notice that the little piece of wire holding the washing machine hose in the bath had come loose, and I had the thought that I should do something about it - soon. But I got distracted, and forgot all about it.

We were watching one of my favourite CSI programmes, and it had just got to the good part, but Peter suddenly had to go to the bathroom.

When I heard him yell, I suddenly remembered about the hose.

There is about a 1cm lip at the bathroom door, so naturally the whole bathroom was under water to that level. There is no floor drain in the bathroom.

Escaping from the bathroom, the water had first headed into the second toilet, the old-fashioned 'squat' toilet in the next room. Because of the smell that emanates from this fixture, we had taken the trouble of blocking it up with the top of a large plastic water bottle fitted into it like a plug ... and we had been using the little room as a store.

Having filled that room too, the water headed gleefully towards the lower end of the apartment. We had suspected that we were living in a leaning tower, and now we could see it for sure. I could almost hear it giggling as it slid down the hallway - a small tributary took off into the kitchen and straight under the fridge. As it chuckled it's way past the spare bedroom, another streamlet rushed in there to the far wall and under the spare mattress and chipboard bookshelf.

And then it caught sight of the main bedroom and - with me rushing up behind with all our spare towels - made it's way as fast as it bubbly stream would allow it towards the far wall, the lowest end of the apartment.

It won't happen again. The washing machine hose is securely strapped.

28 April 2007

World Cup Final

Saturdays are hard work ... but at the end of the day we get to sit around and watch the cricket on TV. (On our big TV).

Peter and Tony are in Oz heaven, of course.

Stephanie is getting stuck into the salsa and chips, and she's learning all about cricket. She has learnt to signal fours and sixes.

Tony and Shannon went out and bought pizza. Now we're all set for an evening of cricket.

26 April 2007

Back to Bazaaro

The Grand Bazaar is THE place to go to when you are in Istanbul - all of the guide books will tell you that.

And it's not like any other market or bazaar you may have been to, ever. Nothing like the markets in China - outdoors, with rows of little stalls.

Most of it is indoors, and it's like a maze. It's dazzling, and confusing, and a little overwhelming the first time.

And even the second time.

Next to the main part of the (indoors) bazaar, there is an (outside) street with clothes stalls.

This is where we met "Sock Man" - he has a plastic display sheet with several pairs of socks in pockets ... he really wanted us to buy his socks, and so he kept jumping in front of us with his annoying little display. I never quite worked out whether there was only one sock man or umpteen - and if there was only one did he have a fixation with us in particular. (did every visitor to the bazaar have their own annoying little sock man, or was he just really fast on his feet?)

But inside there is an amazing variety of brilliant things for tourists to buy. The sellers all speak some English, and will accept your hard-earned cash in pretty well any currency you care to offer.

Although when I visited the WC I had to pay half a (New Turkish) lira, and I saw one lady trying in vain to pay her way in with an English pound note.

We bought a small piece of jewellery for me, and the seller agreed to a small "discount" on the basis that we live in Istanbul and may return to his stall another day. We remarked that there was no way we would be able to find it again. And he told us confidently that it was easy as he is situated opposite the one and only restaurant in the bazaar.


He was wrong, there are several restaurants. And we were lost in the maze. We went round and round and back and forth - and gradually some parts began to look a little bit familiar. The same salesmen kept jumping out at us with the same lines: "There you are!You are the customer I have been looking for all week!" and the like.

We went down a side alley and found ourselves outside in one of the little courtyards that are embedded in the maze.

We sat down for a cup of çay (Turkish tea in a tulip-shaped glass) and persuaded the restaurateur to find us a map of the maze. After that it was easy. Well, a little easier.

I had been thinking about putting up some curtains in our bedroom, and noticing the material section of the bazaar on the map, we headed down there.

Some of these shoplets are deceptive. Once you enter that cave of fabric you discover more rooms and more shelves behind. We went into one of them, and were taken with a lot of typically Turkish rich velvet materials, all of them sparkly, and quite cheap.

We chose this one. Very velvet and very sparkly. We now hoave sparkly curtains in our bedroom.

And sparkle everywhere. It just trickles off the curtains onto everything - especially when I was sewing them!

The ubiquitous cats

Istanbul is full of cats - but we haven't seen a single rat. The courtyard behind our apartment is full of them - yowling and arguing over the territory.

These bazaar cats seem quite happy to share.

19 April 2007

Oh to be in Prague, now that Spring is here ...

I didn't even know where Prague was - I only just found out that it's in the Czech Republic. I have seen jobs on offer there, but dismissed them lightly because for some reason I always imagined it to be a grey place full of grim-faced over-worked people.

I was a bit wrong about that.

So, if anyone offers you the chance to visit Prague, grab it with both hands, and go there!

Cousin get-together

When I was a teenager in Devon, England, my three cousins would come and spend the summer with my family.

And then my family moved to Australia.

My cousin Max went to Spain, and then to Ireland.

I last saw Max 37 years ago. So this month he was taking his son and some other young boys to Prague for a basketball tournament, so we decided to meet up there.

Getting there, and staying somewhere

Max and the boys were booked into a cheapish hotel, some distance out of the city but with easy access to their sporting venue. As the main thing I wanted to see in Prague was Max, we asked him to get us booked into the same hotel.

Early morning hassles

We had to get up early in the morning. We found a taxi driver asleep in his taxi in the main street of Bakırköy, and arrived at the airport in good time. There were hardly any check-in desks operating, and our flight was one of those combination ones: Czech Airlines and Turkish airlines together. We couldn't see a Czech counter, but there was a Turkish "Common Check-in" ... with a queue a mile long. We joined the line, and shuffled our way up and then back and then up again in the lane. It took about 20 minutes to get to the counter.

The girl looked at our papers: "Are you going to Prague?" she asked. We nodded and smiled eagerly. "You're at the wrong counter, you need the Czech counter ..." she told us.

So we set off again. We tried asking one official-looking uniformed chap, but he backed away in fear when we said "Czech Airlines?" telling us he didn't speak English. By the time we found the right counter it was almost at the end of check-in time, and there was no queue at all. We zipped through, and then through the passport check to the departure gate. When we went on a domestic flight to Izmir, we had to go through three security checks, but here there was only the one.

We are used to answering endless questions and filling in declaration forms going to and from Australia. But here it was so much easier.

Flying over Czech Republic in the early morning, it was a beautiful sight. I hadn't realised it's so small. Only about 2 million people altogether, about a million in Prague itself. And the houses we looked down on mostly painted in pretty pastels with red pointy roofs with little windows in them ...

This has never happened to us before. Because we were so late checking in, our bags were the first two to appear on the baggage carousel! So, grabbed our bags and walked on out into the Prague sunshine.

Looking for the yellow desk

Max couldn't meet us, he had a basketball match to go to, but we had a piece of paper with the name of the hotel - Ceskamoravska - and some instructions to either catch a bus and a train from the airport, or to ask about a shuttle bus at a yellow shuttle bus desk ...

Couldn't find any yellow desk. (We found out later there are two or three terminals, and we just weren't at the same one that Max arrived in.) There were a couple of white shuttle buses hanging around, and when we mentioned the name of our hotel they agreed to a price and we climbed aboard. Simple enough, ay?

Finding the hotel.

Ceskamoravska is the name of a station on the Metro, so the bus driver knew where he was heading, and set off confidently across town. And we also had a number by way of an address to describe exactly where in that district the hotel was. But when we got there, it was not nearly so simple.

When we got to the right area he started driving around and around, unable to find the hotel. "Oh, look! There's an 'Auto Kelly's'", Peter said. Suddenly I remembered Max had said something about that in an email - "It's right behind Auto Kelly's". But even sitting there staring at Auto Kelly's, we couldn't see the hotel, and the driver was getting quite distressed.

I went through the email print-out again: "Hotel Ceskamoravska - Inturprag".

Then I noticed a pink building - just there behind the orange business centre - with "Hotel Inturprag" written on it.

No wonder we couldn't find it. It changed its name. Nowhere was the old name mentioned.

Still can't see it? Okay, let's come around a little further.

Easter in Prague

In Turkey, Easter in only celebrated by the (Christian) Armenian community - our colleague Alvin had taken Sunday off to celebrate with her family. But in Czech Republic, Easter is everywhere. We hadn't really thought about the fact that we were travelling on Easter Monday, which is a public holiday.

After we booked into the hotel, while we were waiting for Max to return from his match, we decided to come out and explore the Ceskamoravska area. There was a bus station, and a Metro station, just a few metres down the road from the hotel, so we headed across to that.

After the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, this was a bit of a shock! It was like a ghost town. Where were all the people.

Nope, none of them this way either.

Maybe there were celebrations going on somewhere else. Or maybe everyone else was having a sleep-in.

We were by now quite hungry, and there was one tiny kiosk open. Some pictures of fairly delicious-looking foods were displayed above the window, and so we both selected what looked like an almost-Australian-style hamburger with mustard, sauce and a heap of onions. But as the little lady in the booth leaned heavily on the mustard and sauce nozzles to spleurch! a dollop into each bun, and then heaped on the ... sauerkraut! I opened the bun in my hand and stared at the reddish patty wondering just what animal. It didn't bear thinking about, we were hungry and nothing else seemed to be open.

Willow Whips

A few people appeared in the bus station. Some of them - young and old - were carrying a plaited stick with coloured streamers on the end. They didn't seem to do anything with them, but Peter remembered reading about Willow Whips in a magazine on the plane. They have some connection with Easter, and there was a warning about watching out for young boys with Willow Whips playfully whacking people. (I have also since seen a news picture on the internet about women being whipped and doused with water as part of this Easter tradition.)

I saw these two young boys with their short whips. They were quite pleased to have their photo taken and to practise their two words of English.

Later when we went into the city centre and climbed the clock tower, we were looking down on the people milling about in the town square. We noticed an older guy walking around with a whip, apparently whacking people at random - mostly women. They were completely taken by surprise, and turned to face him - he then raised his whip again, and they walked away. Except for one woman, who struck out with her feet ... but didn't make contact.

In the town square(s) there were special market stalls, and there were decorations everywhere like the 'eggs' you can see in this tree.

There were also some giant eggs made of willow twigs, like this one.

And of course restaurants had special Easter table decorations.

How about that Czech food?

Our first taste of food in Prague was a bit sad. But it was all uphill after that.

The hotel provided breakfast, a simple buffet of cereals, breads, cold meat, cheeses, salad, creamy yoghurt, tea and coffee.

At the metro station there was the little kiosk and a couple of small restaurants.

Well, the words look tasty.

But just down the road a little way there is a restaurant called Cerreto. We went there every chance we got, because we wanted to taste all of their dishes. Italian food, served by a delightful young waitress with a stunning personality and good English.

Peter tried the scallopini, washed down with a big beer, Czech style.

I had a lasagne that was too big to finish, and the next time we went Peter had a pancetta pizza, and I had my favourite spaghetti bol - the best I've ever had.

Then we discovered the gnocchi part of the menu.

Our favourites were the smoked salmon with spinach gnocchi, and the gorgonzola and chicken with potato gnocchi and walnuts ... mmm mmm!

Czech out the Language

We didn't know any words in Czech, and our Turkish phrases were suddenly useless. There seem to be a lot of long words, and not nearly enough vowels.

However, we heard a lot of English around us -in the tourist areas there was probably more English than any other in the babble. And in every shop there seemed to be at least one person who could speak some English.

Some of the words we saw on signs were quite amusing to us, like this road sign.

There seemed to be a fondness for words ending in 'y', such as "banany" - can you guess what that is?

There were a lot of pictures to help, and I think that a plastic bag is a "sacky", and a shop is something like "obchody".

Saying 'thank you' sounds something like "dickwee".

And then, of course, some signs were actually in English. Apparently we had to stop before heading through this fence.

There was an ice skating arena next to the bus station.

Big place, looking very new, but totally deserted at this time.

Obviously sometimes the place is packed, and there are security issues. There was a huge sign to inform us in detail what we could not take into the arena.

To be more specific (in English):

What to see in Prague

Our hotel was well out of the city centre. There really wasn't anything to see around there.

But, thanks to the wonders of the Metro system, it took us 20 minutes to get from our hotel to the city centre.

To travel on the Metro you need a pass. You can buy one of these little slips of paper in many places, including at the hotel reception desk, and they are valid for various periods of time - the cheapest ones, I think, give you an hour and a half. You validate the ticket (put a time stamp on it) in a yellow machine as you enter the metro station or as you climb aboard a tram or bus.

You can also get a pass for a number of days - we had one for our whole five days, which made travelling around the city brilliantly easy. Theoretically there are inspectors on all the transport and you can expect to see one about once a week (with reasonable penalties for being caught without a valid pass) but we never saw one.

Entering the metro station was an exciting experience for us country bumpkins. As you walk past the validation machines the ground slopes downwards and then your feet are sliding onto the fastest, longest, steepest escalator you could imagine. (It reminded me of something I saw in a TV series we see here in Istanbul called "Surface"where there is a railway heading down into the centre of the earth ... ) The other weird thing about it is when you look at the other passengers on the escalator, it looks for all the world like they are all leaning right over - those going down are leaning back and those going up are leaning forward. You had to be there ...

There are three metro lines, 'A' (red), 'B'(yellow), and 'C' (green). We travelled into town on the yellow line from Ceskamoravska to Mustek, where the yellow and green cross. Mustek station is huge - all underground, with shops and everything - and there are walking tunnels connecting the two lines and the numerous exits up to the bright streets. No matter how many times we practised, we never seemed to emerge at the same place twice.

Wenceslas Square

All of the exits come out somewhere near Wenceslas Square. From there it's easy to get to all the city sights. Nothing is very far away, but there is so much to see that I just about walked my little legs off in our five days there.

I don't know what it's normally like, but at this time the square is full of bright little Easter stalls. Quite a few of them displayed this interesting Roly-Poly sign.

The first time we went there is was right on hungry time, and Max took us straight to one of these. They were wrapping some kind of light dough around a cylinder, sprinkling it with cinnamon and other spices, and then cooking it over a kind of fire.

Then they would peel it off and hand it to you in a piece of tissue. Delicious!

Most of the stalls were selling various Prague souvenirs and Eastery items. But there was also a blacksmith at work in the centre of things. This brawny beast was allowing young skinny chaps to have a bit of a go with his anvil and hammer.

The Old Town Square

From Wenceslas Square it's not far down the narrow cobbled streets to the Old Town Square - and we just had to follow the crowds of tourists to know which way to go.

All those people that we didn't see at Ceskamoravska - this is where we were. I'm not sure if there are always lots of tourists here, or if this is an Easter phenomenon. There were individuals, and families, and tour groups with their leader holding a (closed) umbrella above their heads. Along the road are endless shops full of souvenirs, gifts, jewellery, crystal and some restaurants.

In the town square everyone stops and stares up at the Astrological Clock. Ahhh!

Someone has told people that something happens every hour on the hour - it must be in all the guide books, because huge crowds gather, cameras ready. There's a little skeleton to the right of the clock - he rings his little bell - and the two windows above the clock open and some characters go past inside the windows ... they don't even come out like the clock in Perth!

Then everyone sighs and walks away.

Climb Every Tower

We soon found that all the towers are there to be climbed, if you can just find the door and pay the fee. We went up the clock tower - chose to climb rather than take the lift - and the views were magnificent.

We took dozens of photos, of course. This one is looking back to the little street we walked down from Wenceslas Square.

Every direction ... how do I choose which view to include?

The Bridge

From the Town Square the crowds surge through a series of narrow winding streets to the Bridge. Again, on the way there are souvenir shops and al fresco restaurants.

We stopped at one for a coffee and a taste of apple strudel. Nice little spot. A little expensive compared to our favourite restaurant near the hotel. But the food?

Yeah, pretty good, ay? and a little dob of ice cream served on that funny bent spoon.

Then you come to a narrow busy road to cross just before the bridge. The crowd bunches up to wait for the lights to change. One of the little red 'Don't Walk' men looked like Jesus on the cross, and another was a cripple with one leg and crutches. One tourist got so excited trying to lean out and photograph the little men he nearly got himself run over.

At the beginning of the bridge - another tower to climb. We chose not to.

On the Bridge

The bridge is the place to be.

Buskers, one-man-band, jazz band - all sorts.

And then there are all the little mobile stalls with original photographs, paintings and drawings - many will do a caricature or portrait for you while you wait, or from a photo.

And all along the sides of the bridge, the ubiquitous statues - free art to stare at.

The Cathedral

There are a lot of great buildings to see in and around Prague, and the Cathedral is a must. We set off early, caught the metro into the city, walked through the square and across the bridge, and then caught a tram up the hill. We weren't the only ones. The tram was fairly crowded, and there were crowds already waiting to get into the cathedral. In fact there was a very discouraging queue several hundred long ...

We wandered around outside, looking at the statues and admiring the gargoyles, wondering if it was really worth queuing to get inside.

Finally we went and asked in the tourist office about ticket prices, and were told that of course, being a church, this was free. We watched the queue for a while, and noticed that each time it did move it made excellent progress. So we joined the end, and were quite surprised how soon we were allowed in - there was a man at the church door letting in groups of maybe twenty or so about every ten minutes. Once inside we found the place was huge and not at all crowded.

I haven't seen a lot of cathedrals, really, so I'm definitely not an expert. But this one is magnificent. Even if you are not a stained-glass enthusiast, you have to be impressed by the numerous windows in this church.

There are statues and a massive organ, a great deal of beautiful artwork.

But we wanted to climb the tower. It took us a while to find the staircase, but as soon as we did we started up. After a few steps there was a sign:

Warning: 287 steps

Ah, well. How bad can it be? I set off up the stairs with Peter, Max and friend Richard behind me. The staircase was small and winding in a clockwise direction. Whenever we met people coming the other way we pressed ourselves against the wall, and they had to step down the tiny side of the steps.

I could hear one of the guys had started counting - I was determined not to. Just concentrate on steady step - step - step ... and breathe ...

It was a long way. When we must be nearly there I heard Richard call "That's a quarter of the way!" Ahhh! By the time Richard announced "Half way" the claustrophobia was closing in on me. Just concentrating on the steps, and the way out is up!

We got there. And it was worth it. We have hundreds of beautiful photos. Here's a couple of small ones.