Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

A view of Piraeus (Athens' port) from my ferry to Santorini.

I spent a lot of my time in Santorini thinking about the weather, or more precisely, trying to reconcile myself with it. I decided that the best way to describe the weather there was “rude.” The low temperatures and lack of sunshine were tolerable, but I found the constant wind offensive. Whenever I left my room, it felt like someone was pushing against me.

I stayed at Santorini Breeze Studios in Perissa, a small town on the island. Frankly, Perissa isn’t very charming. Most of its buildings are stand-alone stucco hostels haphazardly built along winding, often unpaved roads. Many of the buildings are not finished, showing exposed concrete and steel wires. There’s a small main street with a few bakeries and supermarkets and ATV rental stores.

I arrived in Santorini near the end of the off season, so there was almost no one around. Perissa seemed like a ghost town, especially with the wind, which created a constant background noise of rustling leaves and banging doors. For most of my stay, I was one of only three guests at my hostel, and I was the only guest on the last night. However, I would rather be in Santorini during this time than during the on season, when, from what I’ve heard, the island is packed with American tourists taking excursions from their cruise ships.

I still enjoyed my time in Santorini, thanks to another positive hostel experience. The hostel was run by Mike, an American who moved from Detroit to Santorini to run it right before the 2004 Olympics. I’d say he made a smart move. Mike was your typical easygoing island guy, like Jimmy Buffett. His hostel usually isn’t open this time of year, but he forgot to mark it as closed on, so when he started getting reservations he figured he might as well keep it open.

My first two nights on the island, I shared a room with two Australian guys named Daniel and Nick. They were supposed to leave for Crete the day I arrived, but the winds were so strong that no ferries could leave the island. They spent the rest of their stay watching BBC News, and one day they bought a steak and cooked it. On their last night, we got really excited because one of them saw an advertisement for Braveheart on the local channel. The ad was in Greek, but he thought it said that Braveheart was showing at 9 that night. The idea of watching an entertaining movie in English while laying in our beds seemed a magnificent luxury to us, but when 9 came around Braveheart did not air. Instead, the channel showed a city council meaning. We were horribly disappointed.

Ancient Thera

On my first day, I hiked up a mountain to see the ruins of the ancient city of Thera, struggling against winds that sometimes seemed about to topple me over. I was impressed by the ruins; other than those of Pompeii, they were the most intact ruins of an ancient town I’ve seen. They were especially impressive because of their high altitude. With the wind stinging my face, I kept thinking, “how could people live up here?” But if I visited the ruins in better weather I would probably have been thinking “what a beautiful place for a town.”

The next day, Mike drove me to Fira, a pretty town that sits on the edge of a cliff. According to Mike, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a house there after it served as the location for a scene in one of the Tomb Raider movies. The sun courteously decided to shine that afternoon, complementing the town’s blue and white color scheme. I hiked to a rock outcropping to take some pictures, and a few stray dogs followed me.


I flew back to Athens the next evening, but before I left I made sure to drink a few Mythos beers on the black volcanic beaches in Perissa while listening to the new Kanye West album.

It felt great returning to the Pagration Youth Hostel in Athens and seeing familiar faces there. Although I managed to have a decent time in Santorini, I wished I had stayed with the gang at the hostel. I spent one more full day there, which I mostly spent figuring out a way to get to Patras in time for my ferry to Italy. I found the time to visit the National Archeological Museum, however, which displays lots of prehistoric artifacts and Mycenean pottery and art, as well as a large collection of ancient Greek sculpture. Their collection includes the famous Mask of Agamemnon.

To my surprise, the museum had an entire room devoted to art and pottery from ancient Thera, which was founded as part of the Minoan civilization that originated on Crete. Entire wall paintings remain intact from an ancient palace there. The paintings, usually of nature scenes, are colorful and abstract, reminding me of the paintings of Henri Rousseau.

A Theran wall painting.

I also found time to have a few final Mythoses and conversations with my friends at the hostel. When I left on Saturday morning, I felt depressed. I had spent so much time in Athens that I sort of had a life there. I tried to alleviate my sadness by turning it into a hope that I would have similarly happy experiences in the cities to come.

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

On the bus ride from the airport to downtown Athens, I admired the bright Greek countryside, which reminded me of west Texas. Then we entered Athens and the landscape changed to that of a dense, chaotic city. Now that I’ve been here a week, it’s hard for me to believe that such a calm environment is only a few miles away.

A typical street in Athens.

Athens makes Istanbul look like a tranquil Midwestern suburb. Apart from the Acropolis and a few parks scattered here and there, the city is packed with three-to-seven-story apartment buildings. There are no gaps in the buildings to see landmarks through, so it’s easy to get lost. The sidewalks are so thin that you often have to walk on the edge of the street to avoid people. Cars are parked bumper-to-bumper along the curb, sometimes in two layers, and usually blocking crosswalks. The traffic is merciless; on my first day, I witnessed a car accident, and I was almost hit while crossing the street yesterday, though I was obeying the walk signal. Speaking of walk signals, there’s no flashing transition between “walk” and “don’t walk”, which has caused me a lot of consternation. Yet, despite these annoyances, or maybe because of them, Athens comes off as a happy, pleasant city.

The ubiquitous apartment buildings obviously weren’t designed with much concern for their appearance, but I think they help give Athens its happy vibe. They are usually covered in stucco painted eggshell white or a light pastel color, which makes Athens bright and glimmering in the sunshine. There are balconies on every floor that are overflowing with plants and often have clothes drying in them. I like how the presence of so many people has turned these bland, utilitarian structures into ones that are visually buzzing with human life.

While traveling from Istanbul to Athens, I became worried, wondering, “what if Istanbul was an unusually good experience? What if there happened to be people I got along with in my hostel there, but now I’ll be with people I don’t jive with?” However, I liked my hostel in Athens more than the one in Istanbul, and I became better friends with my fellow guests. I stayed at the Pagration Youth Hostel in the Pagrati district, about a half hour walk from the Acropolis.

I was friendly with some people I met in Istanbul, having lots of interesting conversations, but I never truly became friends with them. In Athens, I developed close friendships with most of the guys who shared my six-bed dorm room – friendships of the inside-joke, get-acquainted-with-each-others’-foibles, fill-a-certain-role-in-the-group variety.

The first guy I met was Chris, and 18-year-old from Bath, England, who is traveling around Europe and the Middle East before starting college, or uni as he calls it. He left for Egypt yesterday. Also in the room was Tery, nicknamed Tery the Lion. Tery is a balding, middle-aged Greek who is rather funny. Halfway through the week, I was looking at a bulletin board in the TV room with old pictures of former guests hanging out in the hostel, and I noticed that Tery was in many of the pictures, even though they appeared to be many years old. It reminded me of the end of the Shining, when the camera zooms in on a picture of a party from a hundred years ago with Jack Nicholson in it and you realize his character was a ghost that haunted the hotel. However, the explanation for Tery’s presence in the photos was more prosaic. He travels around Greece all year for his job, which involves distributing pamphlets or something, and he always stays at the Pagration hostel while in Athens, so he has been there many times over the years.

I shared a bunk with an Austrian dude named Clarence who is riding a motorcycle from his hometown to India, traveling through Saudi Arabia to get there. He left for Turkey in the middle of the week. There was also Paul, a former Navy man. In a series of debates we had over my stay, Paul gradually revealed his bizarre belief system. Despite being American, he labels himself a Monarchist. He has a fanatic love for the British monarchy, especially Henry VIII. If you say anything bad about a British monarch, he stares intensely into your eyes and tells you you’re committing treason. Last night we all went to a bar and Paul bought everyone Ouzo, a vile form of alcohol that tastes like black licorice and is responsible for the hangover I’m nursing right now.

The Pagration hostel is much nicer than the one I stayed in in Istanbul; if I rewrote my post about Istanbul now, I would probably give a harsher opinion of that hostel. The management at Pagration would never force me into a worse room than I reserved, like they did at my hostel in Istanbul. There are noise restrictions that make sleeping more pleasant. Like Athens itself, the hostel has a dense human presence. There are pictures, posters, and handmade signs everywhere. It is a tradition for guests to write their favorite quotes on masking tape (such as “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans – John Lennon”) and stick it to the wall of the kitchen.

However, the hostel doesn’t offer free breakfast, there’s no computer, and you have to pay fifty cents for hot water in the shower, which particularly irks me. The hot water only lasts seven minutes – not quite long enough for a comfortable shower, in my opinion. Trust me, you do not want the hot water to stop unexpectedly. I didn’t have a fifty cent coin when I arrived, so I used the cold water for the first shower. The water was so cold that I could only bring myself to wash my hair and my armpits with it, and it gave me brain freeze.

A few days into my stay, I learned that you can buy a delicious gyro – juicy chunks of chicken or pork in a pita, with tomatoes, lettuce, french fries, onions, and whatever the gyro sauce is – for only 1.5-2 euros. I’ve been eating at least one gyro a day ever since. It sure feels good to have one of those gyros in your stomach.

The Parthenon on the acropolis.

The first sight I visited was the acropolis. Despite all the abuse the Parthenon has endured over the years from neglect and invading Turks, it is still awesome in the original sense of the word. Most of it has collapsed, but it still appears firm due to its thick, bulging columns. Unfortunately, the acropolis was crowded with tourists, although I went on a weekday. It was impossible to walk a few yards without walking into someone’s picture. I tried to sit on the outskirts so I could contemplate what I was seeing, but someone came up to ask if I could take their picture. So instead I contemplated the fact that people take too many pictures. It seemed to me that many of the people at the acropolis that day saw it mostly on their cameras’ digital screens. I noticed lots of people filming videos of the buildings, zooming in on details. What is the point of doing this? You can find detailed pictures of those buildings on the internet.

The next day I went to the recently opened Acropolis Museum, which is in a beautiful, sleek modern building. Inside, there was a great collection of ancient Greek pottery and sculpture from prehistoric days to the late Roman empire, including many that were formerly in the Parthenon. The museum was cleverly designed to offer views of the nearby acropolis, so that you could glance at it while reading about it. I would recommend going to this museum before the acropolis, because it gives you a good understanding of its history and the purposes of the buildings.

The view from the hill of Lycabettus.

Yesterday, I was walking around the city when I decided to see if it was possible to climb a steep hill a half mile away from the acropolis. Indeed, there was a trail going to the top, and when I arrived there I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen of a city. Athens sprawls for miles in every direction, stopped only by the sea and the mountains, and it seems to consist of the same dense white apartment buildings all the way to the end. Yet, the acropolis still occupies a prominent place in the midst of all the modern buildings.

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul


Fishermen on a bridge over the Bosphorus.

On Monday the 7th I arrived in Istanbul, the first destination of the four-and-a-half-month European backpacking trip I’d been planning for the better part of a year. I was exhausted, having slept for only a few ten-minute stretches on the flights from Columbus to Detroit to Amsterdam to Istanbul, but not so much to prevent me from being excited to start my trip.

I took a train from the airport to Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historical city center, where my hostel, the Best Island Hostel, was located. I had reserved a bed there on because it was the cheapest hostel in Istanbul that had decent reviews.

When I checked in, the receptionist told me that they couldn’t put me in the six-person dorm room I had reservations for because a group had taken it. But, she said, they had a bed available in a sixteen-person room and were willing to reduce the price. We negotiated a new price of 100 Turkish lira ($63) for my week-long stay, down from 120 lira. Although I was annoyed that they reneged on my reservation, I was so tired and so glad to finally be at the hostel that I didn’t care much. Plus, I was happy to save a little money.

Despite the bad start, I enjoyed my stay at Best Island Hostel, and I would recommend it to those willing to put up with lots of inconveniences to experience Istanbul on the cheap.

The best part of the hostel was the people I met there. Indeed, after the unfortunate incident with my reservation, a Georgian woman who works there rolled a cigarette for me, free of charge, and gave me a free beer.

After getting settled, I befriended two American girls in my room who had just spent a year teaching English in Thailand. They were looking for teaching jobs in Istanbul because they didn’t like Thailand, in large part because the Western men there didn’t show them much attention due to the hordes of admiring Thai girls available. This led to many conversations ın whıch I defended the nature of men. They found a job and an apartment on my third day there.

I usually ate breakfast with a middle-aged Tunisian man who was staying at the hostel while he visited a friend in town. He was happy with the results of the uprising there, which he did not see coming. We agreed that any form of American intervention in Libya would be a bad idea. He told me a lot about his experience growing up in Tunisia, his travels, and his Muslim faith.

Also in my room was a French couple and their three toddlers, who were in the middle of a biking trip from Switzerland to Vietnam. They were probably the most multicultural family I’ve met – the father was half-German, half-Malaysian, and the mother was half-Madagascaran, half-French, if I recall correctly. I was a little pissed when I saw that three toddlers were stayıng in my room, but they were pretty well-behaved, and they made up for any misbehavior by adding some life to the room. When the family left halfway through my stay, the hostel felt uncomfortably quiet.

The view of the Hagia Sofia from the hostel's balcony.

Other than the people, the best part of the hostel was the location. It is within a short walk of most of Istanbul’s most famous historical sights, which may be why the street it’s on seems to be Istanbul’s Cheap Hostel District. There is a terrace on the top floor that faces the Hagia Sophia, which is about a block away. When I stepped onto the terrace soon after arriving, I immediately wondered why some millionaire doesn’t buy the building and turn it into his house, since it has a breathtaking view of one of the greatest buildings in the world.

Nothing else about the hostel was particularly pleasant. Every morning, they provided a breakfast that I would rate as Acceptable. It consisted of two slices of cucumber, two half-slices of tomato, a thin square of cheese, a hard-boiled egg, a little container of butter, a little container of jelly, an unlimited supply of table bread, and an unlimited supply of tea.

The bathrooms were Slightly Unacceptable, as I expected. The ratio of bathrooms to people in the hostel was about 1:12, so they were usually crowded (each bathroom had one shower). They weren’t quite dirty, but certainly not clean. The worst part about them was that the showerheads weren’t mounted on the walls, and there were no curtains around the bathtubs, which made taking a shower a challenge.

My room in the Best Island hostel.

It was difficult staying in a room with fifteen other people with fifteen unique sleeping schedules. I didn’t an uninterrupted night’s sleep my entire time there. This is unavoidable in a room with so many people in it, however; everyone was always considerate. Unfortunately, the room was below the hostel’s bar, and one night there was a party that went into the early hours of the morning, playing loud Euro dance pop that kept me awake.

One of the reasons I decided to start my trip in Istanbul was to enjoy some relatively warm weather after a harsh winter in Ohio. Winter followed me there, however. The highs were in the mid-30s – almost twenty degrees lower than the 52-degree average high I was looking forward to. It was often snowing or raining sleet during this time, and it was windy, as it usually is when unseasonable weather comes around. I rather liked seeing Istanbul under such unusual conditions, but not so much that I wasn’t happy when it got warm and sunny later in the week, allowing me to enjoy a few days of gentle spring weather.

The first historical sight I ventured to was the Valens Aqueduct, which was built by the Roman Emperor Valens in the 4th century AD. Now, instead of carrying water, it serves as one of the few reminders of the period when Istanbul was the capital of the Roman Empire. It was called Constantinople then, after the emperor Constantine, who turned the city into the capital, but few know that “Istanbul” was just the way the Ottomans said “Constantinople.”

Another one of the few remaining Roman structures is the Roman circus. All that remains of it are the two Egyptian obelisks that served as turning points for the chariot racers. Today, it is a public square, much like the former Roman circuses in Italy. Although it is a peaceful place to take a walk now, it was the location of one of the most violent events in Istanbul’s history: the Nika riots, a confrontation between the fans of two teams of chariot racers that turned into a political riot that nearly overthrew the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Despite that unfortunate event in his reign, Justinian was perhaps the most accomplished of the Byzantine emperors. He attempted to take back the former Western Roman Empire from the barbarians and almost did so before it was lost again. He also left his mark on Istanbul, building my two favorite historical sights there: the Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern.

The Hagia Sofia, or Aya Sofia as the Turks call it.

The Hagia Sophia was the sight I was most excited to see in Istanbul, and I was not disappointed. Like the Parthenon in Athens, it dominates Istanbul’s skyline as a reminder of the city’s contribution to world heritage. I always felt a shock when I turned a corner and saw the foggy image of the massive building in the distance. Seeing snow resting on it gave me a strange feeling, somehow reminding me of the unfathomable amount of time the building has been there.

Justinian commissioned the Hagia Sophia as a Christian church in 532 A.D. after the church that was there before was burned down in the Nika riots. It was an ambitious architectural project, maybe too ambitious, because the original dome collapsed and had to be rebuilt. It was the principal church of the Byzantine empire and the site of Byzantine imperial ceremonies for almost a millenium, until Istanbul was taken over by the Ottomans, who converted it into a mosque. Since then, it has served as a model for mosques around the world.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia is full of Byzantine mosaics that spent centuries plastered over after the building was converted into a mosque, before being uncovered in the 20th century. I like Byzantine art, although it is rigid and contains lots of obvious imperfections. The imperfections make it seem more earnest and charming than the realistic sculptures of the classical period. The art gives the impression that it was produced by a civilization in decline, which appeals to me in some way.

Medusa's head used as a column base in the Basilica Cistern.

Almost directly under the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, which was the location of a scene from From Russia with Love. The cistern was built by Justinian as a reservoir for the city, and it struck me as a last gasp of the brilliance of Roman engineering. Two of the pillars in the cistern rest on giant stone Medusa heads taken from defunct classical temples – an expression of the Christian Byzantine empire’s attitude towards its pagan heritage.

The most prominent of Istanbul’s many mosques, the Blue Mosque, is about a hundred yards away from the Hagia

Some of the ornate decorations on the ceiling of the Blue Mosque.

Sophia. The ınterior walls of the mosque are covered with intricate patterns that convey a sense of divine brilliance even to an infidel like me. The amount of work that must have gone into these flawless designs – especially those on the uppermost ceilings – show how devoted the society that created them was to its religion. Their mathematical precision expresses the complexity of God’s universe. I came out of the mosque with an appreciation for the beauty its builders saw in their religion.

On the other side of the Bosphorus river from my neighborhood is the Galata district, where European foreign officials settled in the 19th century. As a result, the neighborhood features great European architecture with an Eastern tinge. I stumbled upon a mosque in the neighborhood that seemed to be in the Art Nouveau style.

Despite the fact that Istanbul’s skyline is dominated by dozens of mosques, it does not have an Islamist culture. The first billboard ad I saw on the train from the airport was for lingerie, and the people dress stylishly in tight jeans and button-down shirts. The men put a lot of gel in their hair and the women seem to wear more makeup than in the U.S.A. I heard a lot of Western music – the only time I took a cab, the driver was playing 50 Cent, and I went to a bar where they were playing AC/DC and Metallica. Very few of the women wear headscarves, and when the call for prayer is announced (which woke me up when I first got here, but doesn’t anymore), it doesn’t affect the bustle of the street crowds.

Turkey is a democracy that many see as a model for a new democratic Egypt. Indeed, the Turkish people seem happy and free, harboring none of the discontentment that has fueled the revolutions in other Muslim countries. I’ve noticed that there is a large police presence in Istanbul, however, with little police kiosks every few blocks occupied by surly-looking policemen. Outside of important buildings, policemen stand with their hands resting on the tops of their rifles.

The film Midnight Express caused a furor here because of its portrayal of Turks as coldhearted weasels, and although I think that would be an incorrect portrayal of any people anywhere in the world, now that I’ve spent a week here I can firmly say that the Turkish people are completely unlike their representation in that movie. Every Turk I’ve met has been kind to me. I’ve been hassled very little, for an American tourist. As far as I can tell, I’ve even been getting fair prices everywhere. I will leave Istanbul tomorrow with nothing bad to say about the Turkish people, apart from their aggressive driving style.

The Toilet Paper Towel-Off At The Hotel Kabul

It was the summer of 1980.  My college graduation present from Mom and Dad was round-trip airfare to Europe on Laker Airlines, which was the low-cost carrier of that day.  I saved up enough money for a Eurail pass, borrowed a shoulder bag from Mom, and set off for the broadening experience of foreign travel.

My first stop on the continent was Amsterdam.  After a day of visiting the museums and the Dam I decided I needed to secure lodging for the night.  A travel guide had said the Hotel Kabul was the cheapest night’s stay in Amsterdam, and I was more interested in saving money than anything else.  When I arrived at the Hotel Kabul, however, I began to question the wisdom of that approach.  The hostel was in a run-down part of town a few blocks from the red-light district.  It was dark and dingy inside.  But it was inexpensive.  I paid for the cheapest sleeping accommodations, which turned out to be the bottom half of a bunk bed in a barracks room filled with perhaps 20 bunk beds and a number of scruffy looking miscreants.  The bedding was marginally clean.  That night I slept — fitfully — in my clothing, trucker’s wallet pushed deep into my pants pocket, using the shoulder bag as a kind of pillow.

As the first gray light of morning filtered into the dim sleeping area I groggily decided I really needed a shower.  I took my stuff to the bathroom, secured a shower stall, and rinsed off in a tepid stream.  I emerged from the shower . . .  and looked in vain for a towel.  Being a complete rube, I hadn’t realized that hostel users either brought a towel or rented one at the front desk.  I had done neither.  So there I was, dripping wet and feeling like a complete imbecile, in a grim bathroom in the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam.  What to do?

The options were few.  I could try to wipe myself off with some of my other clothing and then cart the wet clothes around as I did my day’s touring.  I could sit around until evaporation worked its magic.  Or, I could resort to the toilet paper towel-off — and that is the option I chose.  After first congratulating myself on the solution, I quickly came to realize that this was not the greatest idea, either.  The Hotel Kabul’s toilet paper was — not surprisingly — ridiculously cheap.  It somehow combined a pulpy scratchiness with gossamer thinness.  As I tried to swab myself dry I realized that I was instead being coated with a flaky crust of toilet paper dust and tiny nubbings that stuck to my skin like glue. I tried to remove all traces of my resort to the bathroom tissue option, but you don’t really want to spend a lot of time in a strange communal bathroom picking objects that look like lice off your skin.  I know I was unsuccessful in ridding myself of all of the toilet paper trappings.  So, I skulked out of the lobby, keeping as far away from the front desk as possible, and relied upon the good manners of the friendly Dutch to refrain from telling me that my skin was streaked with a weird white residue and I was leaving a trail of toilet paper pellets as I walked on.

My European tour was underway.  From that point on, I gladly paid to rent a towel at the other hostels I visited.